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Silence in the center

June 4, 2021

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As DBA faculty and Writing Center director, I spend much of my time talking about — and writing about — writing. This summer, as I prepare to train a new cohort of peer tutors on the Winona Campus, I have been reflecting on the intersections between tutoring pedagogy and the Lasallian Virtues. While the virtues are most often applied to a classroom setting, most are also relevant to writing center practice, particularly the one-on-one conversations about writing that are a mainstay of writing center theory and practice.

Historically, writing centers have been spaces for real-time, face-to-face conversations about writing, although many now function at least partly over email through asynchronous consultations. While one usually writes in silence, writing centers are, perhaps paradoxically, a place of conversation and even lively noise. A foundational text in writing center theory, and one assigned in most tutor training courses, is Kenneth Bruffee’s “Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind.” Drawing from the work of Vygotsky and others, Bruffee discusses how reflective thought originates in conversation with others. One’s ability to write, Bruffee explains, is dependent upon the ability to talk through an issue, not only with oneself but also with others. At their core, writing centers are based on Bruffee’s thesis, so it follows that tutors are trained primarily to talk with writers: to ask good questions and respond to those of the student, to collaboratively set an agenda, and to provide constructive feedback and suggestions using a supportive tone.

Talking also has its shortcomings. When a tutor talks more than the student/client, they might be developing more of the ideas than the writer, leading to what is often termed “appropriation” of the student text. Talking can signal expertise, so tutors — perhaps especially peer tutors — may want to fill the silence to show they have the answer and can provide words. Continuous conversation is often comfortable and may feel deceivingly productive; silence, on the other hand, may be unsettling, even awkward.

Even as conversation is a necessary precursor to thought, so is silence. As in the classroom, pauses in a tutoring session provide needed space for reflection and learning, both individual and collaborative. Silence is also a crucial part of the writing process. It’s when we brainstorm, rethink, and take a break that we often make great gains. Within a writing center session, more specifically, an openness to silence offers tutors the space, even the freedom, to not have the answer. And when tutors don’t have the answer, they can more easily engage in a peer-to-peer dialogue in which answers are arrived at collaboratively. There are times when silence should be avoided. (I won’t sit in silence while you struggle with grammar, knowing that the convention in question is new to you). In fact, a non-directive approach to tutoring that relies on silence has increasingly been critiqued for its potentially exclusionary implications.

The focus here has been on the tutor’s silence, but there are many ways a tutor can encourage silence as an integral part of the writing process. For example, by asking the writer to reread their work in silence or engage in other quiet activities such as underlining topic sentences or circling a specific type of grammar error. Effective writing tutors understand there are occasions for both silence and talk, and in employing both appropriately, they honor the writer’s ideas and experiences as well as their own expertise as a writing tutor.