Co-Teaching as Synthesis: Learning to Ask Questions

Outreach, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, October 10th, 2011
Stephanie and Rebekah leading Rebekah's Class
Rebekah Willett (left), Assistant Professor of Library and Information Studies, and Stephanie White (right), TA Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, leading Rebekah's class

The students in Professor Rebekah Willett’s first-year course on the Internet and Society are crouched over their desks and laptops, some scribbling, some typing, some doing so fervently, some reluctantly. All are working to formulate a couple of sentences that synthesize two paragraphs of text they have in front of them. I’ve just walked with them through the idea of putting texts into relationship with one another when writing a synthesis-driven assignment, and I’ve suggested thinking of this synthesis as giving a bird’s-eye view of the lay of the land, of describing how one text relates to the texts around it. I’ve explained that, with synthesis, we’re telling readers where multiple texts overlap, in what ways they connect, or how they are on completely opposite sides of the map. I’ve also emphasized the importance of using specific examples from the text to talk about these relationships. I’ve given the students these directions as a guest in their classroom, as an expert from the Writing Center come to bestow my great wisdom about writing upon them (if you’re skimming this post, please note the sarcasm in this sentence). Yet, as a number of students finish their sentences a little too quickly, their professor doesn’t hesitate to jump in.

Rebekah tells her students that, if they’ve finished writing their sentences, they should circle the words that show the relationship between the texts they’ve synthesized, and they should underline where they used a specific example from the paragraph. I’m thrilled by this addition to the exercise, since it will keep students engaged with the activity, and since it will also take them to the next level as they learn to write synthesis-driven assignments. While the students follow Rebekah’s instructions, I scribble her idea down in my notes to use with another class at another time.

The international sign for synthesis?
The international sign for synthesis?

In fact, I’ve kept careful notes about everything Rebekah and I have talked about during the two meetings we had to plan this co-teaching session for her class, mainly because the activities we’re doing and our approaches to them are rooted in her own ideas. Rebekah is the one who suggested that the students practice synthesizing these two paragraphs on a topic similar to the one for their assignment, she is the one who came up with the spontaneous addition to the activity, and she is also the one who suggested the concept of a bird’s-eye view as an analogy for thinking about synthesis.

You see, in our second planning meeting, Rebekah said she wanted the class session to focus on synthesis, and I asked her to tell me more about what she meant by that word. It seems to me that the tough work of teaching writing can begin when we start asking questions that get under the surface. In some cases, that means clarifying what we mean when we use the typical words for academic writing (think: summary, flow, organized, synthesis, etc.). Because I asked Rebekah to expand on what she meant by “synthesis,” and because of her thoughtful answer about a bird’s-eye view of how texts work in relation to one another, we discovered together an analogy that drove my plans for the class and for our activities. In other words, I am no expert from the Writing Center come to bestow my wisdom, but rather I’m a partner in this endeavour, working to both listen and share, both learn and teach, as the instructor and I share our expertise with one another.

My partnering with instructors is an exciting part of the work I’ve had a chance to do in my role as TA Assistant Director for our Writing Center’s program in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC). This co-teaching is an element of the Writing Center’s outreach program (to learn more, see Rik Hunter’s post about outreach), one where I have the opportunity to put what I’m learning about WAC into practice when I meet with faculty and TAs to consult about the writing in their courses or to plan sessions where we teach together about an element of writing or about a particular assignment. To plan co-teaching sessions, I’ve gone to instructors’ offices or they’ve come to mine, and we’ve talked around a particular idea, or a particular assignment, and gradually narrowed down the focus so that we have a manageable task to accomplish in a class session or two and an effective plan for accomplishing it.

Rebekah's student tries out our synthesis activity
Rebekah's student tries out our synthesis activity

What’s interesting here is that these planning meetings often echo the interplay of writing center sessions. As Brad Hughes, our Writing Center and WAC director, often says: “Everything I need to know about WAC I learned in the Writing Center.” This has proven true for me again and again. When meet with an instructor, I could come in with lots of ideas about how our class session should go, what we should accomplish, what I should share with a class (please note the “should”s), but I would realize quickly that I don’t really know much about the writing situation that this class presents. In that case, how could I claim to know what I and the instructor “should” do for the students? I must first ask a lot of questions, must understand the writing and teaching situations that are ongoing, before I can give any advice. This is the same in our writing center sessions when we ask questions about the assignment, the instructor, and the student’s writing.

I’m learning to ask these questions. They are various, of course, but they include questions that help me gauge the climate of writing, in a way—both in the sense of how the instructor approaches writing, and in the sense of how the class is thinking about and responding to writing assignments. In many ways, the same thing happens in one-to-one writing center sessions. We are working to see how a student feels and thinks about writing in general, and in addition we’re working to see how writing works in the class that the assignment is for.

Stephanie explains the bird's-eye view analogy
Stephanie explains the bird's-eye view analogy

As I meet with these instructors, I try to gauge first their own attitudes towards writing. The instructors I work with have heard about our outreach program and approached the Writing Center to join their classes for a session, not vice versa, so there’s an understanding that the instructor values the work of the Writing Center. But there are nuances to this climate that I work to be aware of. So I ask questions like “What do you hope I can help your students with?” and then I probe the answer further to gauge what the instructor sees as her role in helping students with writing. Or I ask questions about the assignment itself, about the instructor’s goals for his students, about how he plans to give feedback and grade the assignment. I also ask about what kind of talk has already occurred in the classroom about writing. All of this helps me to know how the instructor is approaching the writing in a course, and to encourage or challenge these approaches as we talk.

But I also need to learn about the climate of writing from the side of the students, and particularly how things stand in relation to the particular assignment I’m planning to help with. So I ask about how the students are doing with writing so far in the course, what their struggles seem to be, what students have struggled with in the past when doing this assignment, and how the instructor wants to mitigate these and other issues.

Naturally, there is much overlap with these two sides of co-teaching (and writing center) meetings. And I certainly don’t want to run down a list of questions and assume that my list covers all the bases. Rather, as with writing center sessions, my goal in planning meetings for co-teaching is an organic conversation that gets at these nuances and, most importantly, that promotes the fact that the instructor is an expert when it comes to this assignment, to this writing genre, and to this discipline. So, in both our planning meetings and in the class sessions themselves, my goal is to authentically, actually co-teach with the instructor. This is vital to the class’s success, because it matters that the students recognize that the writing they are doing is situated in that particular context, that I can’t simply come in from the Writing Center and teach them eternal truths about all writing across the world. What I can do is learn to ask the questions that lead to places where learning and teaching can happen together, where I and the instructor can share our expertise with one another and come away with reciprocal learning about writing.

Rebekah's student loving the lesson on synthesis (or at least the camera's loving him)
Rebekah's student loving the lesson on synthesis (or at least the camera's loving him)

With writing center sessions, the advice the writer ultimately walks away with is ideally not only from the tutor, but also grew out of the writer’s opportunity to think through options and situations for this writing assignment. In the same way, in my co-teaching planning meetings, it is the instructor who ultimately decides what her students need, or how we can best teach the students a particular aspect of a writing assignment. In other words, I don’t get to call the shots, I just get to ask the questions.

This is where Writing Across the Curriculum work gets the trickiest and the most rewarding: the times when the instructor and I synthesize what we both bring to the table. As with writing center sessions, if I can learn to ask the questions that probe further thinking, raise the issues that demand new approaches, offer advice from my own experience, but then turn it back to the instructor (or writer) to synthesize this information with her own expertise, then we both come away having learned something. And, by valuing the expertise of these instructors who are doing the tough work of writing in their own fields, I hope to open conversations that will continue long after the class session has passed.

19 Replies to “Co-Teaching as Synthesis: Learning to Ask Questions”

  1. Stephanie’s questions helped me think more clearly about what I was asking students to do in their writing assignments. Her work in helping students examine an assignment description and then work on one specific skill was extremely helpful for the students. It was great to pause with the content of the course and really focus on what we expect students to do with that content.

  2. I enjoyed this blog post very much, thank you, Stephanie! It is so important to remember that writing center professionals have to co-work rather than to proselytize. Synthesizing is a good metaphor for this: finding overlaps and connections and maybe also opposite sides. And just as students need specific examples when they write syntheses, we need to talk about specific meanings when we use words that seem to overlap. I’ll keep that in mind!

  3. Stephanie, I love your emphasis on the importance of asking questions. That is definitely something that I’m constantly trying to keep in mind, because often giving a stock answer is easier than taking the time to figure out where students are coming from when they ask a question. What a great reminder of the importance of thinking about being a partner (both with students and with other instructors) rather than being an “expert” – thanks!

  4. It’s really impressive to see a whole non-writing class devoted to the notion of synthesis. I feel as though that is a task that students are constantly asked to do but that has lost meaning for them. I might borrow some of that terminology.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Stephanie! The moment where you mention talking with Rebekah about what she meant by “synthesis” is quite revealing, as her description of the “bird’s eye” view isn’t quite the way I normally think about synthesis when I teach writing or in my own work. Although there may be some common ground, those slight differences and valences, whether it be discipline to discipline or class to class, are incredibly important to think about, not only for those who craft writing assignments, but also for students. Next time I teach “synthesis” in class, I’m going to ask all my students to spend two or three minutes defining what that means for them, and then compare the responses — thanks for your post!

  6. Stephanie, thanks for this engaging post. As a former Outreach Staff member, I could have used your post, which should now be required reading for all future Outreach Staff. I particularly appreciated the discussion on synthesis and how it so nicely mirrors what we do when we come together to participate in this “organic” process of writing with others. It’s such an important concept, and your blog makes me glad to be your office-next-door neighbor.

  7. Your work is so exciting, Steph! I love that you’re willing to listen and to meet the needs of the professor and students with whom you’re working. Much like our WC sessions, every classroom context is incredibly different, and it’s great to hear about how you and a given professor accomplish those teaching goals together.

  8. Really interesting post, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing this. I’m intrigued by the connection between what you’ve learned as a writing tutor/consultant in the Writing Center and the outreach work you’re doing in classes. Your advice about asking questions is a good reminder for all of us as writing instructors and consultants!

  9. Thanks, Stephanie, both for your thoughts on collaborative writing teaching, and for the synthesis lesson ideas -which will hopefully be as useful for my literature students as my writing ones (and thanks, too, to Prof. Willett).

    As a staff member new to the Outreach team this semester, your words about the “trickiest and most rewarding” part of of WAC definitely ring true. I, too, have found that my collaborations with instructors from other departments really HAVE mirrored my writing center appointments in the way that they often take the form of mutual interrogation, especially as we begin to plan my classroom visits. However, though some of the questions I, as an instructor, need to ask of my partner instructor sound particularly familiar (“How can I help?” “What would you like this lesson to achieve?”), I’m finding it sometimes challenging to know what this conversation should look like. Becoming an Outreach instructor working with those afield of my home department highlights for me the ways in which I am still a _student_ of writing. I’d look forward to hearing more about your process of learning to “ask the questions that probe further thinking,” etc.

  10. Thanks for a fantastic post Stephanie!I really liked how you reflected on the importance of partnering. One of the things I love the most about teaching at the writing center is collaborating with students to solve writing dilemmas.

  11. To piggyback on a point @Sarah and @Leigh made in different ways above, it’s helpful to be reminded that sometimes our expertise as WC instructors can come from being willing and able students, not dispensers of “eternal truths” about writing. (Which is not to say that we don’t have the patented Secrets of Great Writing tucked away in our WC vault.)

  12. Thanks for posting this, Stephanie. It’s always fascinating (and fun!) to see how the “eternal truths” of writing actually grow out of and depend upon dynamic, responsive interactions among students and instructors (and instructors-as-students, and students-as-instructors).

  13. Thanks, Stephanie. I’d like to hear more about the “trickiness” of WAC work . . . and about when it might be appropriate, whether with instructors or with students, to demonstrate or assert your expertise in more directive ways (e.g., through statements rather than questions).

  14. I appreciate your taking the time to write this thoughtful post, Stephanie, and meditating so persistently and energetically about teaching writing. I guess part of me does hold out the hope that there are certain eternal truths that characterize really good writing. I don’t know any of them, but I sense they’re out there.

  15. Thanks, Stephanie, for your post on co-teaching. My favorite part of WAC work was so often the relationship-building through collaborations like these. And now that I’m co-teaching a writing center course with Rebecca Nowacek (another former WAC Assistant Director from UW-Madison), I find that WAC co-teaching prepared me well for this semester-long collaboration, negotiation, and relationship-building. What a wonderful opportunity!

  16. This post was really interesting, Stephanie. It made me appreciate anew how important relationships outside of the main WC are in ensuring that students and faculty across campus be able to express their own ideas for what constitutes “good” writing and how to accomplish the goals specific to their fields and criteria. It also made me appreciate how important it is that we continue to do this kind of work in writing centers. The added element of collaborating so closely with faculty to produce effective writing classes is difficult but obviously rewarding, and it’s interesting to see how you go about developing and fostering those relationships. Thanks for posting!

  17. Thanks so much, Stephanie, for writing up such a thoughtful post about the process of planning an outreach visit! I do quite a lot of outreach visits, including multiple visits to some upper-level classes, and I’m always looking for ways to make them more interactive and less lecture-y. Thanks for the reminder that “the tough work of teaching writing can begin when we start asking questions that get under the surface,” and in particular for the synthesis exercise, which will be a great addition to my toolbox (and a great precursor to the organization exercises I sometimes use).

  18. […] Co-teaches, like the session I co-planned with the Sociology faculty member, illustrate the spirit of collaboration that is so integral to Outreach.  But other kinds of class visits also seek to create strong partnerships.  Before making a simple ten minute introduction to a class, for example, the Outreach staff member matched with the course will need to dialogue with the course instructor.  Learning even a little about the course and students can help our instructor explain how we can work with the specific group of students in the class, on each stage of their current projects. […]

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