On Silence

Writing fellow applications are due soon, and a few students have asked me questions about my experience as a fellow.  I have responded that being a fellow is the most rewarding job I have ever had.  I get paid to learn.

I will elaborate through an example (sufficiently vague for reasons of anonymity):

A student recently came into the writing center armed with some factual notes that answered a very vague prompt.  She did not know how to turn her facts into an argument and how to sustain that argument for ten pages.  Since I was unfamiliar with the material, I asked her questions about the bullet points she had made and wrote down her words verbatim.  She seemed hesitant about some choices she had made, so I asked her to explain the other options she was considering.  By verbalizing an answer to that question, she understood her own thought process and became more confident with the facts she had finally chosen.

Clearly, having a dialogue was benefiting my student because she was articulating her rationale and becoming increasingly impassioned by her own logic.  Passion fuels creativity.  She brainstormed a few angles with which to proceed, talked herself out of all but one, and then formulated a working thesis.  From her thesis, she looked over the bullet points she had made, commenting to me that reading over her notes had made her feel lost before but now that she had a direction it was all making sense.

Yet she was still struggling to shape her seedling argument into a structured outline.  Silence percolated through the room.  After setting up the conference with a series of questions, I decided to unleash silence.  When I can see a student’s writing process unfold before me, I take a backseat to the personal and solitary process and let her guide herself.  Silence makes people uncomfortable, and the fact that I had never met my student did not ease the tension.  As a result, she became increasingly more loquacious and left the conference with an outline and the two pages of notes I had scribbled.  She was excited to begin writing her draft.

It was an invigorating hour, and one in which I hardly spoke but learned a great deal about a subject I would otherwise be ignorant about.