The Royal We: How Pronouns Affect Collaboration

By August 8, 2013Peer Writing Tutoring

Sometimes when I’m writing my tutor logs, I need to remind myself that we didn’t read the paper aloud, the writer counting off “1 – 2 – 3!” so we start together. The writer read her paper, or I did. It’s cut and dry. But in writing center tutorials, this is rare: the writer and I are often negotiating our positions and our dynamic: sometimes the writer appeals to me as peer, and sometimes as expert, and sometimes as something in between the two. Sometimes I find that directive strategies will be most beneficial, sometimes minimalist strategies, and sometimes something in between. So when I ask the writer what “we’ll be working on,” this we reflects many meanings, the critical examination of which, Kate Pantelides and Mariaelena Bartesaghi argue in “So What Are We Working On: Pronouns as a Way of Re-Examining Composing,” is integral to understanding the dynamic and rosieinteractive work we tutors do.

In their article, Pantelides and Bartesaghi explore how collaboration in writing center tutorials is more asymmetrical, tensional, and complex than is currently presented on writing center websites and in the theoretical literature. But writing center interaction doesn’t have to be either authoritative or collaborative; in fact, it should be both. Tutors are actually “chameleons that change their colors dependent on the moment-by-moment discursive requirements of the consultation” (25). So basically, tutor and writer interaction vacillates between minimalist and directive depending on the writer, the assignment, the aspect of the paper we’re talking about, and a million other factors. Tutors’ and writers’ use of we, or I, or you in conversation reflects their negotiation of this complex process, their figuring out who has control when.

In a past life, before I started critically considering the effects of my pronoun choice, I used my pronouns haphazardly, flinging “you”s and “I”s about with abandon. Often the effects were implicit, subconsciously affecting how the writer and I perceived our dynamic so I was more expert than peer. I often paid lip service to minimalist tutoring with a “you mind if I write on this?” before proceeding to scribble my own ideas all over the writer’s paper. No one ever complained, but it made me uneasy. It felt too authoritative, even if I was asking for permission. Other times writers would frame me as expert with a “here’s what I want you to look at today.”

Soon enough I wizened up to the effects pronouns can have on tutor-writer dynamics, and when writers asked what I would do or let me know that I could read their paper silently, I began reframing our relationship by using the more collaborative we: “Let’s talk about some of the different choices you have and how they’ll affect your meaning” or “Let’s read through it out loud together so you can get a different perspective on the paper.” I now work to pull the writer into engaging in the feedback exchange, using we to emphasize the importance of the writer’s intentions and how his or her voice is not only valuable but integral to the appointment.

Pantelides and Bartesaghi emphasize that there can still be collaboration within directive tutoring. A tutor might, for example, compose a topic sentence for a writer—a practice that is unquestionably directive. But if the tutor and writer then discuss the elements of that topic sentence and the writer uses the tutor’s model to compose six additional topic sentences of her own, it’s collaborative. So directive does not always mean authoritative, and conversely minimalist does not always mean collaborative. The authors do warn against being too directive too early, because “a student must be motivationally ready … [for] tutors [to] be productively directive. If tutors are too directive too early, before students are motivated to be active participants, the conference is not likely to be successful (Thompson, qtd. in Pantelides & Bartesaghi, 27).

I made this mistake one time, and I’m sure I’ll never make it again. I began the tutorial by telling the writer what I felt needed to be changed—the hook wasn’t rich enough, the thesis not specific enough, the topic sentences not clear enough—and he balked, opposing every suggestion and explaining that he really only needed help with grammar. When I realized what was happening, I backed off and fell into a more minimalist, Socratic approach, and suddenly he was a different person. Rather than cutting me off and shaking his head, he was asking me questions about how to make his hook richer, his thesis more specific, his topic sentences clearer. He was pulling me into a more directive role as fast as I was pulling away from it. We ended up collaborating, discussing his questions and my feedback in a conversation that we both contributed to. By the end of the appointment, he was apologizing, explaining that he didn’t realize how much better his paper could become. True story.

At the end of the day, tutorials should intertwine directive moments with minimalist moments, and collaboration should be the undercurrent that drives the interaction.

Now, the question is: what do you  have to say about the topic we just addressed? 1 – 2 – 3!

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