Observation Practicum

I feel like I’ve been cheating. As I laid out in parts One and Two of “So I Went to a Tutoring Session,” the circumstances of my practical applications were way too ideal for any real learning to take place. Not that the experiences weren’t good exercises to apply the theories of “student-centered learning” and “teaching the writer not the writing” that our course reading assignments advocate. It’s just that everyone involved were over-anticipating the outcomes.

We had all read the same essays on tutoring and teaching writing—the tutor followed their advice to the letter and the tutees (myself and my classmate) could predict nearly every correction and suggestion she made. We discovered a few tidbits about ourselves as writers along the way and were able to correct some previously overlooked mistakes, but the lack of challenge led to a lack of satisfaction. It felt as if we’d found out that our friends were throwing us a surprise birthday party, but we had to play it off like we didn’t know—we were lacking a little Wow Factor.

I didn’t get any “I’m actually seeing this new knowledge play out right in front of me” feeling. I didn’t get the “I just learned something!” factor that I was expecting.

That is, not until a spontaneous, unofficial tutoring opportunity fell into my lap.

–+–

In the first class of the semester, during a discussion about personal tutoring experiences, I brought up a story about helping my brother with his senior thesis. All my other tutoring and group writing sessions fell in line with the common tutoring experience: we focused on lower order concerns both because we were too afraid of stepping on the writer’s toes to point anything else out, and because we didn’t trust in our own revision skills. My experience went a bit differently.

My brother has difficulty bringing his arguments straight to the page; he’s great at debating with other people, but as soon as he has to sit down at a computer and type, everything seems to leak out of his brain.

So, in order to keep my mom from yelling at him about idle hands and the sin of laziness, I decided to help him out. I sat down at his computer with his document open and asked him to explain to me what he was trying to say. He talked, I typed, and we got through a couple paragraphs pretty smoothly. Without having read any of Kenneth Bruffee’s theory on social construction, Lisa Ede’s essay on collaboration, or Donald A. McAndrew’s guide to tutoring writing, I’d managed to pull off a student-centered tutoring experience.

Now, after having officially studied techniques of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I think the best approach to tutoring is spending extensive time in the development stage of a paper talking it out with another human being…before even sitting down to the isolated act of writing.

My personal experiences working and studying in the film industry add fuel to that belief. Producing professors can’t emphasize enough the importance of the development stage of a project. The Producer’s Business Handbook spends a whole chapter on the funding and planning and strategies of development, marking it as one of the most crucial aspects to creating a solid story and successful motion picture.

The writing process is no different. By spending time discussing ideas, writers have the chance to formulate, in their primary mode of communication, what their argument will be and what points are most vital. This development stage should happen without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; it should allow for social construction to better shape the writer’s ideas and method of persuasion.

I would go so far as to say tutors should employ dictation as an important teaching tool for tutees that struggle with bringing their ideas into written form.

Both of the writers who I’ve helped via the dictation method find that hearing their words better helps them craft their arguments and organize their thoughts in a cohesive structure. Working with them in this manner brought my mind back to our first ENG 481 reading assignment of the semester by Walter J. Ong, which stressed the inextricable connection between our primary use of oral language and our dependent written language. For these writers, building with the written word confused the flow of their primary language to the point where a fluency of ideas and argument was nearly impossible.

Understanding the importance of the development stages of any writing process wouldn’t have been such a Wow Factor Moment for me if professors gave as much weight to the process as they did to the product. As aspiring tutors and teachers (and maybe story developers in film and TV), it is imperative that we continue to give development the attention it deserves, because there’s no doubt that products come out of the writing process more complex and well-crafted when the writer remains patient and uses his voice throughout the entire journey.

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Creative Collaboration in Student Writing

In my last post update, I proposed my search for true collaborative writing between students at the university level. To be honest, my expectations were low prior to sitting in on my screenwriting roommate’s script workshop. But I am happy to report that I’ve found it! I’ve found students who are actually willing to, and capable of, sharing in all of the writing process: pre-writing, writing, and revising.

My roommate has collaborated with directors before—this was not her first rodeo. From all the stories of her previous partnership, I cobbled together a prejudice about writer-director relationships: the director takes the reigns on much of the storyline construction and characterization and the screenwriting takes control of the physical act of writing. In this setup, directors act as pre-writing supervisors, revisers, and editors, with the screenwriter doing the detailed legwork and maintaining a feeling of authorship. It seems like a decent enough division of labor on paper—the director directs the “vision,” as we like to call it, and the screenwriter writes. Duh.

But there is a problem. The title of screenwriter holds less power and importance in this relationship, because much of the creative brainchild comes from the director while the mechanics are left up to the writer, unless the writer actively pushes for greater involvement and unless their personal relationship allows for the writer to have a say. The problem then sleeps quiet until the issue of copyright and on-screen credit rears its ugly head.

The screenplay was a collaborative effort, yes, but not an equal one. Both parties don’t deserve co-writing credits, so the director often adopts a “story by” or “created by” credit and leaves the “written by” credit for the screenwriter, again keeping the more respected (and better paid) credit for her- or himself while the writer gets shafted.

So when I entered the room last weekend to sit in on my first writer-director workshop, I was primed for disappointment and disapproval. Instead, I discovered the magical unicorn of collaborative relationships.

This was the third meeting in their writing process; they had a shared understanding of the tone, plot points, characters, and message and the director had written the first draft of the script. My roommate, the writer, read the draft and the notes written by the director’s classmates in his thesis workshop course and gave her opinion about their opinions. Then they discussed elements of the draft that they liked, disliked, were unsure of, and so forth. Before breaking, they laid out the rules of the universe and cemented character backstories so they could ensure their story would be rooted in some sort of credibly constructed context. My roommate then prepared to take the draft and write her own, incorporating the best elements, notes, and ideas discussed in their meeting.

Let me repeat: the director wrote a draft, handed it over to the writer, and asked her to write her own version. Upon reconvening the next week, they would have a new script with new notes from the workshop course and be able to continue developing the best possible script version.

I have never in my life met a director so willing to allow his brainchild and his creative writing to be totally gutted by someone else. I have never seen a director at Dodge trust another screenwriter at Dodge and be so open to critique and advice.

Maybe I’ve been missing out on a whole new world of wonderful writing relationships that fly under the radar here at Chapman. Or maybe I just happened to stumble upon something rare and unique. Or…maybe most people don’t collaborate in this way because it’s impossible and the end result will devolve into a confused mish-mash of two different brainchildren.

Stay tuned for more updates, because this phenomenon is worth keeping track of.

The Elusive Collaborative Student Writing

In Collaboration Is Not Collaboration Is Not Collaboration: Writing Center Tutorials vs. Peer Response Groups, essayist Murial Harris raises a point that seems so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t been aware of it before: we talk about knowledge being socially constructed and therefore all our work and writing is a sort of collaboration between peer groups, but I can’t think of any experience I’ve had where that theory is applied. Certainly not in the sphere of academic writing. The peer review groups that high school teachers and sometimes college professors seem so fond of often fall into the category of “editorial work” focusing on lower order concerns that I’ve been railing against in previous posts (Harris 372).

My mission then became a search for natural practical application of collaborative writing at the university level. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t find it my GE courses or the English department, these are places where the author is still seen as the isolated genius sitting at a desk whipping words into perfection. (Or their places where indifferent students slap sentences onto the page for a mediocre grade.) So I turned to the creative writing circles, primarily those that I’m familiar with: writing rooms at the film school. Collaborations between directors and writers, or producers and directors, or producers and writers are fairly common during the development stage of thesis films–or, they’re supposed to be. Luckily, I’m a producer living with one of the screenwriters who involves herself in the production department.

I endeavored to sit in on one of her writer-director script workshops to see just how collaborative the process was…will the director construct the storyline and leave the physical act of writing to the screenwriter? How much say will she have in the plot structure? How involved with the director be in word-crafting? I fully expect these writing workshops to be different depending on the participants, but, having never been present for one myself, I want to see the collaborative magic happen before my eyes. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally catch a glimpse of true collaborative writing face-to-face.

 

Stayed tuned for the results.