Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On Socratic Conferences

On Socratic Conferences:
The questions we ask so that they may learn

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

I could say a great many things about Socrates. However, I have a distinct feeling that many of those things would risk me getting fired, since I would feel obligated to curse occasionally in order to properly express my thoughts on the matter. I do have a respect for Socrates—especially after reading Plato’s account of his trial. I just recognize that, if asked to list a given number of Socrates’ personality traits, some variant of the word arrogance—or at the very least one with similar implications—would need to be included to properly characterize him.
But he was also brilliant. Not necessarily right, but brilliant nonetheless. According to him, he didn’t believe that to be true—even though one of his friends had gone to the Oracle at Delphi and been told that Socrates was the smartest man alive. Socrates then insisted on proving this by traveling around Athens and asking those who were revered as highly intelligent questions in order to prove that they knew something he did not. All he ended up finding was that he, at the very least, knew that he did not know anything.
And thus the Socratic Method was born.
Of course, the purpose is significantly different when the Socratic Method is applied to the Writing Center. The point is not to demonstrate to the writer that they are idiots. There are advantages to showing writers that their perceptions of their writing do not match their actual writing abilities, but there are more amiable ways to do that than making them look like idiots. Rather, the purpose of the Socratic Method is to force individuals to think critically about what they are writing by asking them questions about it. They will develop their ideas further, be challenged and asked to explain what they know, and in doing so will clarify for themselves the topic of discussion. And, for writers who are scared and frustrated by writing and intimidated by the blank screen in front of them, expressing their ideas verbally overcomes any issues they have in putting their ideas into writing. People tend to be far more accustomed to speaking than writing, and therefore they waste fewer mental processes in using that form of communication—though there are occasionally strange individuals like myself who go through points where they are better able to communicate ideas through writing than speech for the same reason.
The Socratic Method, as applicable to the Writing Center, does possess several other modifications from Socrates’ application. Most prominently, the Socratic Method does not require one to bear certain resemblances to the nether regions of donkeys in order to be utilized—or at least so I’m told. I cannot make definitive statements about that, as through my application of the Socratic Method I have been told by several individuals—by one in particular on multiple occasions—that I can be very frustrating at times because I keep asking questions they can’t answer. They then later insist that their paper improved and that, aggravating as I may have been during a conference, I helped them significantly. I hope that they were not trying to spare my feelings in that.
However, the Socratic Method is almost an inescapable part of being a consultant because it is devoted to asking questions. “Why” happens to be a good staple, but repeatedly asking that makes one sound like an inquisitive child, who very quickly becomes frustrating because they don’t grasp the concept that no one exactly knows why everything happens. It’s a good mental exercise of course, but eventually it just starts to make your brain hurt, and consultants need to avoid frightening off writers. Admittedly, the Socratic Method is not always the best at preventing writers from becoming frustrated. While it can help build confidence if the writers are able to answer the questions effectively and develop their ideas, enough questions which they cannot answer to their own satisfaction leads to aggravation. Thus, a large degree of its success relies on proper application.
The Socratic Method does, however, have numerous advantages. Foremost, it does not require knowledge of the subject matter in order to be effective. Knowledge of that subject matter is still advantageous, but that’s a topic for a different post. This does not mean that one can know nothing and still apply the Socratic Method. One simply needs to know how to ask the right questions and be able to follow the logical train of thought the writer possesses so that, through inquiry, the consultant can challenge the writer’s understanding of their subject matter and force them to defend and develop their own ideas. Thankfully, that is a very specific skillset that is easier to practice and apply than individual knowledge of the writer’s topic—especially since the writer is the one who needs to be the authority on the subject matter, not the consultant.
Yet, I would be doing a disservice if I did not point out the greatest flaw in this method of conferencing: in its pure form, one cannot make definitive statements about whether something is right, wrong, intelligent, stupid, or apply any other sort of value judgment directly to the process. There is something to be said for not making value judgments—the intention of the Writing Center is to have peers rather than authorities and above all it helps prevent consultants from making mistakes—and I know there are several notable members of our writing center who would insist that is a good thing. I am not one of them. Once again though, that is a topic for another time.

-Patrick Johnson

Friday, October 12, 2012

Weekly Wisdom

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” – Aristotle

As a musician, criticism is something I am bound to face, although it is something I still have not mastered accepting. You are constantly being criticized for the purpose of becoming a better musician. The criticism may be for the best, but it still hurt me every time. My tempo could be rushed, my sound shaky, no expression of dynamics, or playing the wring notes. These things were little in the big picture, but in my mind these issues were perceived as great imperfections. Although it was often hard, I just had to think of my mom’s reminder of the essence of what Aristotle said: that the criticism is meant to be constructive, that I should learn from it and not to be discouraged.

We all know that criticism is a good thing. However more times than not, at least for me, we try to avoid criticism at all cost. Deep down we know that better things can come from criticism, but in those moments we also want to appear strong and perfect. Self-consciousness is one thing that I have always struggled with in life, and maybe you have as well. Feeling that you need to live up to a certain image and that if someone gives you criticism you will be seen as less than you should. It is often form criticisms that insecurities develop.

 In part, that is why I chose this particular quote. We are all being criticized (by our test grades, paper comments, performances, interactions, etc.); the only thing different between individuals is how we take the criticism. You can choose to take it and change, take it and ignore, disregard anything was ever said, be hurt by it and change, be hurt by it and not change, and be hurt and be incredibly self-conscious about how that person views you. Obviously multiple of these solutions could result in the best decision for you, but my encouragement this week is to consider the outcome before you react. As a last note I will say that we all want to be someone (college isn’t for nothing) so we need to embrace the criticisms, great and small, head on. Speak up. React. Be something. 

-Margaret Gruhler

Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Conferences

On Conferences
In search for a topic suitable for a Writing Center blog, it occurred to me that the main point of the Writing Center revolves around conferencing, and that would probably make a good topic for discourse. So: what is involved in a Writing Center conference?
In short: far, far too many things for me to detail here. I get the distinct feeling that it’s a bit of a copout to say that, but it’s true nonetheless. There really isn’t a specific conference style within the Writing Center. There is a certain style that is encouraged very heavily—mostly based around a Socratic methodology—but consultants are largely able to run a conference as they please.
There are, however, some notable exceptions to this; rules that all consultants must abide by while within a conference. Some of the key ones include:
·       Never write on the paper
o   The writing must remain the writer’s, not the consultant’s. Writing Centers exist to help people to improve and develop their ideas, not present or craft the ideas for them.
·       Do not assign a grade to the paper and avoid making quality assessments
o   It is important that the consultants not give the writers the wrong impression about a paper. Consultants are not the professors; they do not grade the papers. They just try and help the writer to improve them.
·       Do not criticize faculty
o   The Writing Center works to help supplement the education system organized by the professors. It is not the place of consultants to ruin the relationship between writers and faculty—it is their duty to try and ensure that the writers and faculty can work towards a common goal of learning.
·       We exist for writers, not papers
o   Sometimes, writers just want to work out the kinks in their paper and turn it in so they can get a decent grade. That’s fine. However, it is not what the Writing Center is meant for. The Writing Center is meant to improve the capabilities of the writers and get them invested in what they write. It doesn’t always happen—I doubt even half of my conferences had writers who deeply cared about the paper solely for the sake of the paper. However, it is a consultant’s job to try and help the writer get invested in what they write. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the attempt is always made to get the writer to care about their work.
So, how do we conduct conferences? Glad you asked. I’ll have a detailing of my methodology next week.
-Patrick Johnson

Monday, October 1, 2012

Weekly Wisdom

“Discipline is remembering what you want.” - David Campbell

                Discipline is something that I have really struggled with this past week, so I found it fitting to post David Campbell’s quote. We are all disciplined about something—some in more things than others. I, for instance am disciplined about going to bed before 11:00 every night and waking up before 7:30 every morning. Being disciplined in this way makes my life more balanced and less stressful. Other ways of being disciplined include how much time you dedicate to practice (this can be homework, sports, music, etc.), brushing your teeth every night, or it could even be keeping in contact with friend who moved away.

                There are two things you should have noticed with all the things mentioned above. For one they all involve some form of time. My sleep schedule is the same time every day. Practice involves the time you dedicate to it or could even be when you dedicate your time to it. Brushing your teeth happens every day.  Keeping in contact with a friend involved taking the time and effort to actually contact them. This captures the essence of the word discipline. At dictionary.com the words systematic and method is used in the definition. This shows that there is a schedule, which usually involves time. Making the time a habit is what makes you dedicated.

                The other thing I hope you noticed was that each of the disciplined actions is for an outcome. I am disciplined about my sleeping schedule so I am not as stressed-out the next day. The time you spend practicing is so you can succeed in terms of the grade you get, winning the game, or mastering a piece. You would brush your teeth every night so you don’t get a cavity. This is another essential key to being dedicated and what this quote refers to. You have to have the goal in mind in order to carry out your dedication. I am not going to be disciplined about my sleep schedule every night if I have no desire to lower my stress levels, and in the same way one is not going to want to practice if they have no desire to succeed. You must know why you are dedicated.

                As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with dedication this week. Up to this last week I was dedicated with reading the material for my classes. Last week however, I failed to read even one word. The reading wasn’t mandatory, but it has always better helped me understand the lectures. I had a lack of vision for the outcome. That being said, I have a challenge for you this week. Think of something that you want to accomplish that has been a struggle in the past and find a way to dedicate time to it. It doesn’t have to be big, but see if you can do it. If you can, maybe you will realize that you can more easily become dedicated to any larger goals in life.

-Margaret Gruhler