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Consultations About Ideas

Getting Started, Finding a Focus

Many students come in wanting to talk about their topics because they cannot get started, cannot find anything to say, or they are drowning in a flood of ideas. These cases require close listening by the Fellow; you need to report to the student what she cannot see or hear herself: insights, sparks of excitement, curiosity, points of connection and coherency, emerging trains of thought, or the bones of an argument.

You may be able to draw out a student’s ideas on a given topic by asking her what she found interesting in the readings or the assignment, what bores her, confuses her, or in any way stands out. It is not unusual for a student who believes she has nothing to say to reply to these questions in a glum or cranky manner; however, once she begins to feel that her responses are legitimate, that she does have a way into the topic or reading, ideas are likely to come spilling out. As a sounding board, you need to point out interesting ideas that the student articulates and any patterns the ideas begin to form. Questions you put to her can lead the student to sift out and focus what will eventually become the essay’s main ideas.

You may encounter students who simply feel that they lack the authority or credibility on the subject of the assignment to talk about it in a meaningful manner. In cases like this, it is even more important to encourage the student to speak about the topic rather than giving suggestions of your own: more often than not, simply explaining the assignment and the paper to you will make the student more confident with her subject matter and give her the encouragement she needs. Asking leading questions, trying to get the student to explain the assignment or her ideas in her own words, and generally allowing the student to bounce ideas off you can both help you understand the topic of the paper and encourage the student. It is also important when the student is coming in for a consultation regarding an ID1 paper. They were placed into their course and may not be interested in the subject. Demonstrating an interest in what they have to say would be most beneficial.

As with all kinds of consultations, your strategies should vary based on the student with whom you are working. Some students may come to you with an assignment hopelessly, not sure what to do next. Others might come to you with some understanding of the topic and a few ideas about what to do next, but might just need someone to talk to about their ideas. These situations obviously call for different strategies, with the first requiring more encouragement and support and the second perhaps requiring more discussion and engagement with the ideas from you.

During consultations where students talk through their ideas, you may want to stop every few minutes and prompt them to take notes. Sometimes it will be easier and more productive for you to take some notes, either to get started or to supplement what the student writes down, but, as much as possible, keep the student in charge of generating and recording the discoveries of the session. If you are in the position of taking notes, use the student’s vocabulary to describe what they are telling you. It is then easier for them to look at the notes you have taken and see what they were saying. It also gives them an opportunity to see how clear they are about their topic.

It may be, however, that a student is so anxious about having nothing to say that she needs to do more than just talk to generate ideas. There are a number of techniques for getting started that you can suggest she try right there with you: “mapping,” “brainstorming,” and various forms of “free-writing.” Exercises like these can help a student discover what interests her by bypassing final draft mode and generating rough ideas that can then be shaped. (These same techniques can also help a student develop her ideas once the paper is underway or a draft is written.)

Such exercises can also help the student who has too many ideas eliminate some and focus and refine others. Written exercises like mapping, for instance, provide the student a picture or diagram of the points she is most interested in and those that lead away from or interfere with what she really wants to say. Such exercises help a student explore relationships between ideas, point to ways of ordering an argument or analysis, and show the student writer what she has not yet said or accounted for.

In talking with students about essay or paper ideas before they have begun to write, you are helping them recognize what they may only intuit, work out hunches, trace interesting leads, rearrange what they do know, and raise chains of questions to answer. Fellows often find such sessions exhilarating, but they can also be a bit bewildering. Sometimes a student experiences the “light bulb effect” and leaves the Writing Center clearly feeling confident and ready to write; other times, especially with more reticent students, the session may seem to have accomplished relatively little, perhaps only a trickle of ideas. Though less dramatic, this achievement can be as important as the “light bulb effect,” because the student leaves feeling at last enabled to write, and may have learned something valuable about the early stages of her writing process. Unless that student returns to work with you again, however, it is difficult for the Fellow to know the quality of the final paper or essay.