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Why I Value Conferences So Much

posted: 12.4.14 by Andrea Lunsford

A recent discussion on the WPA listserv about conferences—the pros and the cons—caught my attention. I read with great interest, particularly as Bob Yagelski described the writing program at SUNY Albany and the important role that conferences played in it. Bob’s comments reminded me of one of the great lessons we learned during the five-year longitudinal Stanford Study of Writing. In interviews during these five years, and in conversations since, students told us over and over that what helped them improve most in their writing was what research team member Paul Rogers dubbed “dialogic interaction.” Students spoke of such moments with near reverence, describing times when they were in conversation with an instructor—or a friend or family member—about their writing and suddenly a light bulb came on, they saw ways to change and grow and improve, seemingly all of a sudden.

Our study convinced us that such insights are nurtured through careful, often intense, conversation.  This is an example of a cognitive leap in writing ability that is stimulated by talk. As a result we emphasized purposeful working conferences even more in our curriculum (Stanford writing instructors meet with students at least three times in conference every term).

Of course many teachers have such large classes that frequent conferences aren’t possible. But instructors are coming up with ways to use technology to help in such situations—from holding online “office hours” to software programs that allow for real-time conversation. In writing about conferences at SUNY Albany, Yagelski referred to New Hampshire’s inimitable Donald Murray, who argued that he did the best (and really all) of his teaching of writing in conference. There are legions of former students out there who would support Murray’s claim. But such conferences need to be carefully prepared for by the student, who comes in with questions and ready to talk about a particular draft. The instructor too needs to turn on the rhetorical listening advocated by Krista Ratcliffe and be “on” throughout the conference, so as not to miss an opportunity for a moment of insight.

I came across the picture below just the other day, and it took me back several years to a series of conferences I had with a graduate student studying Shakespeare in China. This student, for whom English was a third or fourth language, was struggling with some very complex concepts, and we spent hours talking about them, with me doing a lot of hard listening and questioning—and the student trying out answer after answer, draft after draft. Very recently, I ran into a mention of this student and was thrilled to find that he is now a tenured professor.  I don’t know what he would say about the power of conferences, but I expect he is now using them in his own teaching!

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Categories: Andrea Lunsford, Teaching Advice
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