As part of my “New Directions in Writing Center Scholarship” inquiry group, which I shared with Joey and Priya for the Spring 2017 semester, I researched the method of applied Conversation Analysis (CA) and how it has been used to study “what goes on” in writing center sessions. As I read more about what can be learned from closely attending to the conversations that consultants have with students—whether or not those conversations directly relate to writing—I became interested in informally testing this method. I’d like to discuss one particular article here that takes up applied CA: Beth Godbee’s “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk about, around and for Writing.” Godbee’s engagement with applied CA as a method proved useful as I observed and reflected on one of my own sessions.
Godbee begins from the premise that talking is essential to the transformation that occurs in writing center sessions. But she wants to know: how does talk between a consultant and a student enact this transformation? How do conversational elements like facial expressions, body language, and the sharing of personal information lead to a verifiable (positive) change toward greater empowerment for both student and consultant? By studying recorded and filmed conversations using applied CA methods, Godbee aims to understand which specific moments in writing consultations led to transformation. She describes applied CA as “both a theory of language and a methodological approach for explaining the social, structural, and sequential nature of talk-in-interaction” (175). Her article focuses on the latter definition of the applied CA approach.
Godbee articulates three types of (empowering) transformation that occur in writing center sessions, which she found “suggested in the literature”:
- “raising critical consciousness”
- “building affiliative relationships”
- “redistributing power relationships” (177)
The second type of transformation, according to Godbee, allows the other two to occur. I was interested in this because I have experienced those exact shifts in my consultations but had never seen them spelled out so clearly.
Godbee also observes that writing center consultations are widely perceived in university contexts as “good” events; “because [this good] is often assumed, it is rarely explained,” she notes. This unexamined idea of “goodness” elides a whole host of problems (such as the realities of institutional racism that are alive and well in universities). She proposes that by studying how good consultations function (if indeed they are good), we might also begin to think about why they are good.
With the three types of transformation that Godbee lays out in mind, I was able to observe and reflect on a particular writing center session that I found empowering for both the writer and myself. This session happened toward the end of the semester, when many students were in a fevered rush. The writing center had a charged, urgent energy that day. A student—I’ll call her Rasha—came in to work on a PowerPoint presentation she was giving as a final project for her Communications class. Right away, I noticed elements of my conversation with Rasha—such as humor, “troubles telling,” and a willingness on her part to critique the power structures of our “university-sanctioned space”—that Godbee had analyzed in her article.
Rasha’s presentation was about the staggering number of suicides committed by farmers in India who have grown cotton seeds from Monsanto. The company claims the seeds are pest-resistant, but pests can only be prevented with costly pesticides, also sold by Monsanto. Rasha’s presentation described a vicious cycle wherein farmers’ crops fail as they accrue tremendous debt to the Monsanto corporation, and then commit suicide because they see no other way out of their predicament. Rasha identified herself as Indian-American; at the start of our conversation, she declared her personal investment in her presentation, as she has family in India affected by this issue. I shared my own passion for social, economic and ecological justice, and we bonded over an appreciation for Vandana Shiva, the activist and author. This initial exchange, which was not directly related to Rasha’s writing, established the “affiliative relationship” that Godbee identifies as the ground for empowering transformation.
As the session proceeded, its ostensible purpose proved to be straightforward: Rasha needed to edit her slides for grammatical correctness and narrative flow. I asked questions and offered suggestions about sentence mechanics. Because Rasha was much more of an authority on her topic, though, the power dynamic between us shifted constructively and beautifully: she explained to me how her research fit together, and she commented that explaining it to me was useful practice for her actual presentation. As we moved through her slides, we paused to discuss the differing voices present in her work (for example, Monsanto’s statement on their website, denying any responsibility for the over 300,000 suicides committed by farmers who were growing Monsanto crops). These elements of our conversation definitely constituted a raising of critical consciousness.
As we talked, I could sense a widening of our critical aperture, a mutual recognition that this conversation wasn’t just about a PowerPoint presentation, but about our own intellectual relationships to corporate power. This transformation would not have happened had we not departed from the script of solely working on writing.
I wholeheartedly agree with Godbee’s claim, quoting Stubbe et. al (358), that conversations not only refer to the world, but also constitute and construct it (Godbee 175). The “ethic of care”—citing Nel Noddings’ phrase (194)—that can play out in conversations with students, whether they be about comma usage or global capitalism, is an essential element of the transformative work we do as consultants.
Image: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Three Women Conversing (Unterhaltung von drei Frauen) (1907)
Godbee, Beth. “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk about, around, and for Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 47, Nov. 2012, pp. 171-197.
Noddings, Nel. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
Stubbe, Maria, C. Lane, J. Hilder, E. Vine, B. Vine, M. Marra, and A. Weatherall. “Multiple discourse analyses of a workplace interaction.” Discourse Studies, vol. 5, 2003, pp. 351-388.