Entering the Conversation: Voices from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio

Tutorial Talk and Methods / Monday, February 16th, 2015

By John Bradley, Jane Hirtle, and RJ Boutelle

John Bradley is Assistant Director of the Writing Studio and Senior Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Before moving to Nashville, John served one year as the Interim Associate Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center after many years of experience as a tutor there.

Jane Hirtle is a PhD candidate in Vanderbilt’s Department of Psychology & Human Development and is serving her second year as the Writing Studio’s Peabody Writing Fellow (Peabody College of Education and Human Development).

RJ Boutelle is a PhD candidate in Vanderbilt’s Department of English and is currently serving as the Writing Studio’s English Writing Fellow for Spring 2015.

John Bradley
John Bradley

From the seat here at my desk, I only have to glance up to see the beautiful space featured in the photos spread throughout this post. More importantly, though, if I leave my office door cracked at any point during the week I am treated to the constant buzz of conversations happening just outside my door, conversations the variety of which would likely be familiar to anyone who has spent any amount of time talking and listening in a writing center. Those conversations certainly bear a strong resemblance to those I was party to during my countless, well-spent hours in the UW-Madison Writing Center, but now they’re happening here in Nashville, TN, at Vanderbilt University where I help direct the Vanderbilt Writing Studio.

That pleasant background noise is coming from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio’s mixed staff of 30-some undergraduate and graduate writing consultants (tutors, instructors) and their equally mixed clients, writers seeking out the opportunity to talk over everything from their first college essays to their dissertations. Invariably, at some point throughout my day, one of those conversations will pull me out of my office and into its orbit. While conversation is one of my favorite metaphors for the work of academia and scholarship, more broadly, I love that I work in close proximity to such vibrant conversations in a more concrete way, too. During the school year, of course, I also look forward every Monday to new posts on “Another Word” and the chance to get pulled back into dialogue with UW-Madison Writing Center and the connections it affords to the broader writing center world. That’s because it was at UW-Madison’s Writing Center where I first got introduced to these conversations on all levels–the one-on-one conversation of the writing tutorial as well as the possibility of a career that centers around those conversations about writing. In that spirit, then, when Brad invited me to contribute to “Another Word” again, I thought I’d try to return the favor and offer two of the graduate consultants I have the current good fortune to work alongside here in the Vanderbilt Writing Studio–Jane Hirtle and RJ Boutelle–a chance to share their perspective and join in the wider conversation represented by this blog.

I started by posing a fairly simple question to them, “What has your experience as a writing consultant offered you that you wouldn’t necessarily have experienced elsewhere in your graduate career?” Each comes to the Writing Studio from a different academic program–psychology and literary studies respectively–and each shares below some of where responding to that question took them. Thanks, Jane and RJ!


“Reading (and Writing) Aloud”

by Jane Hirtle

Jane Hirtle

“What did you think of this article?” I ask my client. It’s an afternoon session at the Vanderbilt University Writing Studio, and another undergraduate has come to me with her first psychology research paper. As one of a handful of social scientist consultants in our Studio, the only graduate-level psychologist, and the Graduate Writing Fellow for Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, this kind of student and paper are my specialty.

“I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it,” are students’ typical responses to this query. If pressed, a student might say she liked this study on infant cognition because she saw that piece on 60 Minutes about how babies know right from wrong, or another student might say he doesn’t like neuroscience articles, complaining that he’s drowning in an alphabet soup of CT, fMRI, PET, EEG, BOLD response, etc. In any case, the student is rarely surprised to be asked what they think, but often he doesn’t know what kind of thought to have about such an article.

When I first began consulting at the Writing Studio, this kind of response would have perplexed me. Two years later, I know what to do.

From the teacher’s perspective: Do you have something to talk about?

Before I began tutoring at the Writing Studio, I saw student writers almost exclusively from the teaching end. In my first forays as a graduate teaching assistant, I thought students’ greatest difficulty in writing about psychological research would be finding research to write about. This was the focus in most of the psychology courses I had been in as an undergrad: professors would offer lists of databases and websites, pass out handouts with instructions, even occasionally send the entire class to the library or have a librarian visit to walk through a keyword search on PsycINFO.

However, I quickly found that most students had little or no trouble finding empirical research articles. The real struggle began when it came time to write about an article. In my office hour consultations with students or (heaven forbid) while grading, I saw essays that simply summarized research articles to whatever extent they were understood with little analysis. The introduction or discussion sections were largely ignored, while the methods and results were generally presented exhaustively and nearly verbatim. To some extent, I suppose this was to be expected. In undergraduate psychology courses, students are regularly required to know content and perform processes, but less often invited into the controversies and discussions that take place between scientists behind the scenes. The work of noticing or describing past and current altercations in the field is generally left to professors, and as a consequence students gain little understanding of how new knowledge is produced, debated, and updated in research. For me, it was the intense discussions and collaborative writing inherent in graduate school that awakened me to all the frenetic interactions I had overlooked as an undergraduate.

Blinded by my 20/20 hindsight vision, I was puzzled. In an essay for an English course, students wouldn’t feel obligated to report the number of characters in The Great Gatsby – so why did students bother to state the exact number of female participants in every psychological study? In a history course, students would conscientiously acknowledge the events that led to the French Revolution before trying to understand the events of the Revolution itself, and yet no one in my psych. course bothered to mention any of the experiments that preceded this one. What was going on?

From the tutor’s perspective: Do you have something to say?

Welcome to the Vanderbilt Writing Studio in beautifully renovated Alumni Hall! (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)
Welcome to the Vanderbilt Writing Studio in beautifully renovated Alumni Hall! (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

As a writing tutor, I finally had the chance to look behind the scenes at students’ real experiences trying to write about research. There were some recurring patterns, some of which were brought to my attention in the course of my training as a writing consultant, and others that became clear just through the process of consulting. In our tutor training, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing is one of our favorite texts for alerting students to the reality of academic conversations and giving them entrée to participate in those conversations as writers. While my consultations with students on English essays were often troubled by failing to see the trees for the forest (i.e., focusing too heavily on plot summary rather than close reading), a common issue I had been prepared to deal with based on my training, I often encountered different issues with science students. In my experience, a student working on a scientific essay more often struggled to see the forest for the trees (i.e., focusing on methodological details rather than the overall argument or interpretation of the results).

While the writing alone indicating little or no awareness of a scientific conversation, talking to the student could reveal much more. A developmental psychology student might blandly state that she “liked the article,” but then go on to enthusiastically relate an experience she had personally had with young children that flouted the behavioral trends discussed in the study. These conflicting ideas struck me as bizarre at first, but then I remembered of my own knee-jerk reactions to research articles as an undergraduate. Then, I thought of science as “Science,” the way it is talked about on television: “Science tells us…” As if Science is a single person with a single voice, or perhaps even some mystic oracle that never acknowledges doubt or paradox. If asked to critique science, I would have had no idea where to begin except for the basic points covered in any introductory statistics class. I finally had my explanation for this preoccupation with sample size.

Now tell me what you think about this article.

In my consultations with students, I have found myself in the privileged position of challenging this idea of “Science.” In consultations, we talk about the writer of a scientific article as being much like the writer of a novel. She has chosen to talk about certain things, and not about others. She is not a liar, but there are things she may miss or interpret differently than you would. There may even be things she has never seen or forgotten existed that you know a lot about. As a reader, you can decide which of these inclusions, omissions, and interpretations seem important to you and which don’t. Then in your writing, you can decide which points are worth your time to bring up, and which are not. Number of participants may be worth it if you want to focus on generalizing these results to a broader population, but if the real issue here is whether these results indicate that infants understand morality, then sample size might not enter into it.

Consultations in progress at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)
Consultations in progress at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

Going through this process with students in the writing center has awakened me to new goals as a teacher. Before students can begin this process of examining and questioning the writer, they have to understand the content of an article and discover how it fits into the larger body of literature. Now when we assign research articles to the students in our lab, I focus on increasing awareness of the roles of reader and writer. The writer has a story they are trying to tell in a research article, but as readers we can decide the moral of the story for ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, to be critical of an article is not to discount it out of hand – it is to see it from your perspective as a reader and their perspective as a writer simultaneously. When you’re ready to talk about both together, you’re ready to write.

Of course, these ideas come largely from my own experience and my own niche of science. I would be very curious to hear what other writing consultants, particularly those who come from other social science disciplines, STEM research, and the humanities have to say on this topic. What approaches do you use or recommend for eliciting deeper analysis of research or science writing more generally? How have your experiences in your field influenced your strategies in the classroom or the writing center?

“On Feedback”

by RJ Boutelle

RJ Boutelle

We all remember the pithy adage that Thumper learns from his mother in Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Although I worked as a peer tutor at the UMass—Amherst Writing Center for three years as an undergraduate, I’ve found myself reflecting on different methods for delivering feedback as the English Fellow at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio. After five semesters of teaching, I’ve been struck how much the genre of the “end comment” on student essays has influenced my practices in the Writing Studio. If you think about it, the one-on-one consultation and the end comment share specific goals and attempt to summarize the same crucial information (i.e. what’s working, what’s not working, and how to improve the draft). But where the individual consultation can assume any number of forms, the shape of which often depends on interpersonal dynamics, I advisedly refer to the end comment as a genre because it almost always seems to assume the same form: the “sandwich approach” in which you begin with a compliment, add something critical, and then conclude with another compliment. The ethics of the sandwich approach are invested in balance, maintaining the confidence of the person whose work is under review, and ameliorating the potential discomfort of criticizing someone’s performance. With writing, in particular, I think it’s something we’re so strongly drawn to because of the inherent vulnerability involved in sharing our writing and asking others to review it. I think the face-to-face aspect of Writing Studio consultations makes the sandwich approach all the more appealing. If we can mitigate critical feedback in order to protect the ego of the writer, why wouldn’t we do it?

But I can recall instances where a student reads a paragraph out loud and I notice that the topic sentence is at the end of the paragraph, the quotes are under-analyzed, and I’m not sure how the paragraph relates to the thesis. But instead of cutting right to these more pressing issues, I’m scrambling for the bready compliment to introduce these remarks. The compliment, in cases like these, is frequently something unhelpful, tangential, or worse, vacuous. And here’s where I want to return to Thumper and his insightful double negative: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Sandwiching occasionally asks you to say nothing – a compliment without content or opaque praise – and to pass it off as something nice. The problem with the sandwich approach, then, isn’t that it’s necessarily ineffective – it’s that it’s disingenuous. Not only does this method potentially mislead a writer as to the nature of our feedback or offer less than sincere praise, but it relies on the problematic assumption that the superficial sandwich structure is invisible to the recipient of that feedback. Simply put, it can be patronizing.

Rethinking the Sandwich Approach

In a 2013 article from the Harvard Business Review, Roger Schwarz revisits the age-old sandwich approach, arguing that this strategy not only undermines the integrity and efficacy of your feedback, but that it also compromises the trust that the reviewer has worked to established with the reviewee. He offers a thought experiment to demonstrate this point:

“Imagine telling the people your strategy. You would say something like, ‘Alex and Stacey, I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office. How does that work for you?’”

Schwarz then asks us to imagine our reaction –“This exercise would be preposterous! No one in his/her right mind would respond well to such a proposition!” we sing out in chorus. He then persuasively posits an alternative approach:

“Alex and Stacey, I want to talk with you because I have some concerns. The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I’d like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what, if anything, we need to do going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing things or that I contributed the concerns I’m raising. How does that work for you?”

A view toward the back room of the Vanderbilt Studio (which includes a meeting room and more private consultation spaces) (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)
A view toward the back room of the Vanderbilt Studio (which includes a meeting room and more private consultation spaces) (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

Despite our general (and often justified) distrust of business models in humanities and the Academy more broadly, I think Schwarz is onto something. While the ameliorative ethics of the sandwich approach are admirable, there are less circuitous ways to accomplish these ends. One basic but wonderfully effective strategy, in my experience, is to use passive constructions or assign subjectivity to the writing itself. There’s a nuanced difference between saying “You haven’t articulated your thesis clearly in the introduction” and saying “Your thesis isn’t coming through clearly in the introduction.” While the former construction foregrounds something that the writer has not done well, the latter feedback focuses on the essay itself and turns the writer into an agent of change who can alter what the writing is struggling to make visible.

The Clear Case for Transparency

I want to suggest, instead, that we think about feedback like writing itself, and that we think about feedback as inherently thesis-driven. Maybe there are complimentary (and complementary) things to say, but if the main thrust of our feedback is that disorganized paragraphs and poorly formulated topic sentences are obscuring good ideas and analysis, then why not lead with this? If one of our writers buried this “thesis” after some laudatory but ancillary remarks, we would most certainly recommend that the writer cut straight to the thesis, right? This kind of transparency and candor, I would argue, offer more tangible, more specific, and more productive feedback.

Giving this kind of critical feedback relies on a degree of trust between the writer and the respondent, of course. In a classroom or in extended mentor-mentee relationships, there’s plenty of time to establish trust. My syllabus overview on the first day of the semester, for example, begins a conversation with my students about how I value process over product, how my grading rubrics reward taking chances in revision, and how I hope to help them develop portable rhetorical skills that will serve them in the future. Similarly, the insightful and incisive feedback from my dissertation committee frequently takes the form of no-nonsense remarks regarding clarity, style, or argumentation. This critical feedback has become easier to swallow because I’ve seen it translate directly to better writing over time and I’ve come to trust in the process.

But how do we develop enough trust to be direct with critical feedback in a mere 50-minute consultation at the Writing Studio? Witty banter, while certainly a favorite strategy of mine, can only go so far. In a literature review of recent studies on the pedagogical effectiveness of feedback, John Hattie and Helen Timperley, suggest three successful ways for feedback to help close the gap between current and desired understandings of a topic: increasing student effort, developing error detection skills, and discovering better strategies for task completion. The last two of these – error detection and developing better strategies – fall squarely within the purview of the Writing Studio. I want to suggest that being transparent about the goals of a particular session and about the specific links between feedback and goal-completion, we can more successful warm our clients to the possibility of criticism. Again, if we think about feedback as a thesis-driven form of communication, we should not only be describing our main argument, but also make a case for the stakes and pay-off of our argument – the elusive answer to the perennial “so what?” question. The onus is on the writing consultant to articulate the relationship between clarifying a passage or rewriting a thesis statement and a more effective argument; the onus is on the writing consultant to prove to the writer that this criticism has a point and serves the goal of producing more effective writing (and a more effective writer).

View of Vanderbilt's Kirkland Hall bell tower from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)
View of Vanderbilt’s Kirkland Hall bell tower from the Writing Studio. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

This is not to suggest that praise has no place in feedback – it is, indeed, an important part of a writer’s growth. But in order for complimentary feedback to be effective, it needs to reinforce something specific and it needs to be sincere. Praise, in this sense, needs to be as rigorous and thesis-driven as criticism. “Your topic sentence in this paragraph is extremely effective. You transition smoothly into a new idea, introduce the main point of the paragraph, and concisely relate this point back to your overall argument. These kinds of topic sentences do tremendous work toward orienting your reader and allowing him/her to follow your essay.” This kind of praise is substantive, instructive, and articulates the connection between strong topic sentences and effective essays. And substantive praise often works exceptionally well in a sandwich: “You’ve chosen a really strong quote here, but you haven’t really analyzed it. If you could explain to your reader why you chose this quote and how it relates to your main claim, then it would much more effectively support your argument.” By more clearly communicating how our specific feedback provides a means to an end, both praise and criticism can model strategies that will help students learn to improve their own approaches to composition.

Getting Good Feedback

So, in the end, what does good feedback look like? Here’s the perhaps platitudinous conclusion that I’ve arrived at: good feedback is transparent about its ethics, precise in its critiques/compliments, and begins a conversation about how to improve. Within these guidelines, however, there’s a lot of latitude. Good feedback can be directive, inquisitive, austere, ornate, blunt, or probing – it can assume the form of a sandwich or any other food product. What’s important is that both the provider and recipient of feedback understand the style of commentary and how that style ultimately helps to achieve the goal of improving writing. Just don’t say nothing.

In the spirit of this reflection it seems only fitting to solicit feedback. What strategies for giving or receiving feedback have you found most successful? How do you balance praise and criticism? What kinds of classroom or grading practices for doling out feedback have you seen work well in other forums?

15 Replies to “Entering the Conversation: Voices from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio”

  1. As a first-year consultant at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio, I often find it hard to offer feedback that is not directive. As a TA, it was my job to “fix” papers, while at the Writing Studio, we are more facilitators than instructors. The best sessions for me are those when I talk less.

  2. Jane,
    This is such a helpful piece! I think all psych professors and even psych students could benefit from reading this. You really hit the nail on the head in describing students’ difficulty in digesting scientific articles. I giggled when you mentioned students’ “preoccupation with sample sizes.” So accurate! I’ve tried to deal with this dilemma by asking the student to come up with the main questions the article is trying to address to move them toward looking at the bigger picture. Thanks for helping bring light to this issue and for sharing your experience!

  3. Great post, Jane!! I’m constantly referring students to the writing studio. Amazing work being done there. Really interesting points made here!

  4. What a great post! It was so wonderful to read such interesting perspectives from the awesome folks at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. As a psychology student, I found the post “Reading (and Writing) Aloud” especially helpful. I was actually working on a thought paper for class and it was a helpful reminder about how I should approach the task.
    I can’t wait for my next trip to the Vanderbilt Writing Studio 🙂 It is such a helpful resource!

  5. Thank you Jane for your thoughts on introducing undergraduates to scientific debates! As a community psychologist, our work tends to situate in broad conceptual debates related to the relative influence between individual, contextual, and the relationship individual and their context on outcomes of interest. Given this conceptual breadth, core philosophical questions that range from the relative influence of nature vs. nurture within developmental frameworks to agency vs. structure in socio-political frameworks are relevant. I find that that orienting students to these broader debates and then reflecting on how an author positions their work within these broader questions to be particularly helpful. Supplying them with narrative review can be helpful for this task. However, I’ve noticed some resistance to this approach and I’m wondering if I’m missing the key piece you are speaking about… namely, “Science” is really “science” and that there is a very human side to articles… and crucially, undergrads have valuable voices to contribute to the debate! Thanks for this thoughtful piece!

  6. Ms. Hirtle, thank you for your thoughtful post! As a Social Science TA, I have had a difficult time asking students to both be consumers of “facts” from “science” and then to evaluate the scientific process itself. Giving undergraduates “entree to participate in this conversation” is exactly what I hope I can do for them. Thank you!

  7. “Perhaps most importantly, to be critical of an article is not to discount it out of hand – it is to see it from your perspective as a reader and their perspective as a writer simultaneously. When you’re ready to talk about both together, you’re ready to write.” This quote resonated with me, because seeing things through new perspectives is at the essence of reading and writing in any field. “Science” is not excluded. Thank you so much for your insight!

  8. This post brings up a really good questions in my mind, how many of us (TA’s) have forgotten how difficult it is to understand scientific writing? Comprehending an article as part of a bigger concept is not an easy task, but teaching students how seems to be no easier. I really think this is a great read for new students who are TAing for the first time. Thanks!

  9. Thanks for the discussion, RJ! In the past semester at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio, I too have been rethinking how to balance praise and criticism. I think that students are often accustomed to getting broad positive feedback and more specific negative feedback– “this is a pretty good essay but the logic in this paragraph needs to be cleaned up.” I’ve found that when I give positive feedback at the level of specificity that I give negative feedback, students tend to be less disheartened and more receptive.

  10. The writing studio at Vandy is truly a fabulous resource for undergraduates and graduate students alike, particularly in thanks to its knowledgeable and passionate staff members. Thank you for sharing these helpful insights! I especially appreciated Jane’s advice re: encouraging students to engage deeply with a scientific article — given that I have frequently seen students falter on both sides of “critiquing” (some hesitant to be critical, others overly focused on relatively minor limitations), I loved the sentiment: “Perhaps most importantly, to be critical of an article is not to discount it out of hand – it is to see it from your perspective as a reader and their perspective as a writer simultaneously. When you’re ready to talk about both together, you’re ready to write.” Beautifully written and incredibly helpful!

  11. Rj, your points about feedback really resonate with something I have been working on in my own teaching: shifting away from the “sandwich” model toward a commenting style that organizes feedback according to main priorities/secondary priorities, and being more specific about compliments. What you’re saying here also making me think of *Whistling Vivaldi* by Claude Steele, which explores stereotype threat in learning. One study he conducts and discusses relates to this topic in particular: he finds that minority students in particular were prone to rejecting empty praise in comments, in part because they were more primed to recognize and internalize it. It’s another dimension to this issue worth exploring, I think!

  12. What a thoughtful post! I really appreciated the article discussed from both the professor and student perspective! It is always important to take these different viewpoints into account! Though I consider myself a seasoned paper-writer it is always important to refresh on what a particular assignment is asking, or what a particular article is arguing. You brought up some great points which I will certainly utilize in future assignments!

  13. Jane, I really liked the way you compared authors of psychological studies to authors of novels. Literary studies is my specialty, and asking the client’s intuitions about the text has been something I’ve found very helpful, especially when I walk the client through a close reading. The way I now explain reading poetry or literature closely is that it’s like reading a text message from your crush and analyzing it to pieces. Relating tough pieces of material, whether it’s a scientific study or a lengthy novel, to the client’s opinions and previous know-how is a great way to help them engage in academic conversation, which is what the writing studio is all about!

  14. I really like this, RJ. I’ve largely abandoned the sandwich approach to feedback too but couldn’t articulate why as well as you have here. I haven’t had students complain about hurt feelings either since taking a blunter approach to comments, and after reading this I think I understand why–they recognize the sandwich structure too and aren’t fooled by the vacuous compliments.

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