Body Language Learning: Non-verbal Communication in the Writing Center Tutorial

By October 23, 2011Peer Writing Tutoring

Think of all the choices you make between your handshake with a new peer and your first glance at his/her work. First of all, do you shake hands at all? Then, do you grab a cup of coffee to maintain your focus, or do you restrain yourself to avoid Starbucksbreath and/or an awkward trip to the bathroom? Do you sit next to, or across from your peer? Once you have sat down, do you fold your hands in your lap, rest them on the table, or cross your arms in disdain? 

If every tutor at the UCWbL spent more than a split-second contemplating these big questions, the writing center office would cease to be a dynamic space for discussion and would instead resound with the awkward silence between indecisive student employees and their confused, uncomfortable peers.

I myself never put much thought into these seemingly trivial decisions. During my appointments so far, I have been concerned primarily with gathering resources in advance, providing useful and encouraging comments, and managing time effectively. However I came across an article on the Writing Lab Newsletter website this past week that made me more conscious of my body language as a tutor. In “Flexing Nonverbal Muscles: The Role of Body Language in the Writing Center,” Alexandria Janney of California State University, Stanislaus recounts some of her own experiences as a peer tutor which underscore the importance of attention to body language during any appointment.

As a new writing center tutor, Janney always sat across from her peers. She began to notice similar reactions to her questions among the students that she worked with. It seemed that something about Janney’s approach was preventing the students from understanding her “equal role” as a peer tutor, no matter how often she reminded them.

Surprisingly, Janney’s problem had a quick and easy solution.

“Once I began to sit next to students, I found that my role as a peer tutor became clearer to them,” Janney says.

Though this adjustment seems inconsequential, it perpetuated Janney’s minimalist tutoring approach, allowing her to lead the peer’s into more dynamic, two-way conversations.

Since making this adjustment, Janney remarks that “I have found students more willing to provide their input, rather than becoming silent and expecting me to take over.”

Janney’s testimony should make tutors conscious of their body language and how it affects a student’s perception of the tutorial. It is also important to note that body language refers to a wide range of factors beyond positioning. For example, Janney points out how foot-tapping is a subtle indicator of one’s desire to be somewhere else—certainly not the message anyone wants to send to their peer.

Emphasis on body language in writing center tutorials has helped tutors to refine their individual approaches and prompted reevaluation of how tutorials are documented for future reference.

In “Talking Heads and Other Body Parts: Documenting Writing Center Interactions,” Mary Rosner and Regan Wann from the University of Louisville Writing Center argue that standard methods of tutorial transcription tend to rely on the idea that “words speak for themselves,” and thus fall short of capturing body language as an aspect of tutor-peer interaction.

At the University of Louisville Writing Center, tutors are videotaping their appointments in order to observe all facets of their work as well as analyzing music videos, commercials, TV shows, and other video clips to practice their perception and interpretation of body language.

“Acknowledging partiality in a transcription of a Kiki Dee/Elton John video is a step toward acknowledging partiality in any transcriptions of any writing center work,” Rosner and Wann claim.

These researchers have also noticed that when Louisville Writing Center tutors make transcripts of their appointments and analyze sections of them, “their self-conscious examinations of these texts teach them about their practices and their limits.”

Perhaps awareness of body language is an aspect of tutoring that deserves more attention in the UCWbL. I’m sure there would be questions of confidentiality involved in videotaping our own tutorials, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t steer clear of authoritarian positions and tapping feet.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • David S. says:

    This is a fascinating topic for me! I’d like to suggest some additional subtle communications techniques.

    1. Smile, especially when you greet your client, but periodically throughout the appointment.

    2. Call the client by name.

    3. If you have a tendency to speak very quickly, slow down and soften your voice quality (not necessarily your volume, unless it is a concern also)

    4. Make eye contact when you ask questions.

    5. Show the client that you are tuning out any outside distractions. Move to a quiet part of the room if necessary.

    6. Angle your body toward the client in a subtle way.

    I’m sure there a lot more techniques!