If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the latest episode of The Breakroom on the UCWbL’s youtube page. This video depicts and discusses the importance of building rapport with writers during conferences, a practice that can be easily overlooked when a tutor or fellow is eager to ‘set the agenda’ and get to the task at hand.
The quirky yet insightful trio of tutors returns in The Deflector, and this time Charlotte (Natalie D.) has a problem. She just finished a conference with Bradley (Tom S.), a raving sports fanatic who relentlessly derailed the session by talking—no—yelling about a recent baseball game.
Being a smart fellow, Charlotte vents to Dubs and Zorno as she is unsure how to help this writer stay on track. Fortunately, Charlotte receives some helpful advice from her friends, who encourage her to engage Bradley in a conversation about sports, no matter how difficult that might be. But wouldn’t it be counterproductive to spend time listening and responding to Bradley’s sports rants? As Zorno explains, “You want him to look at you as if you’re his coach, and not some ref throwing a penalty flag for a fifteen-yard semicolon infraction!” What Zorno is getting at here is a practice usually referred to as ‘building rapport.’
Building rapport is a necessary skill for any tutor that has been proven to make writer’s more invested in their projects and more receptive to peer feedback. Like any conversation, building rapport in the context of a writing center appointment requires listening skills. “Listening: To establish rapport, to comprehend students’ perceptions, to hear an essay, to check a student’s perceptions,” an article by Janet Fishbain from the University of Wisconsin-Madison explores the benefits of small-talk in writing center tutorials. Fishbain articulates “listening strategies” to help any tutor engage the writer in casual conversation and interpret his or her responses. She claims that “students and tutors bring to a conference the sum of their personalities, self-image, and backgrounds,” which means that “a working rapport is established only if and when the participants listen well.”
Both tutors and fellows interact with a variety of writers with different interests and skill levels. In my own experience, writers may walk into the center in a state of apprehension, particularly if this is their first appointment or if they lack confidence in their work. I have also encountered plenty of ‘veteran’ writers who regularly seek feedback from writing center tutors and are consequently very relaxed in a tutorial setting.
Either way, I feel it is necessary to spend at least a few minutes getting to know the writer. Even if you have worked with the writer before, it can be very helpful to get an update on his or her life—current classes, activities, degree progress, etc. Fishbain emphasizes the initial conversation as an opportunity to understand a writer’s concerns through both verbal and non-verbal language. A writer’s body language or tone of voice can be just as significant as his or her words and it is for this reason that an attentive tutor will be receptive to nonverbal communication as well.