The Many Upsides of the Student Conference

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Megan Gianfagna

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Even for a small class, student conferences take a lot of time and energy. I often hold conferences to discuss a plan for revision of their essays. That means that 6 hours of conferences (15 minutes each x 23 students) usually follow long nights spent grading the essays that are the basis of our discussion. I’ve often left the campus coffee shop after I’ve met with half the class in and felt like I’ve been stuck on repeat—drained from keeping my enthusiasm up during so many different versions of the same basic conversation.

So if the conference process means extra time, extra logistics, and extra pressure to meet tight grading deadlines, why do I continue to do it, semester after semester? It’s not because every student turns out a comprehensive and polished revision of his/her essay as a result of our short meetings. It’s because those brief but focused sessions give me a chance to hear my students talk about their writing process and their experience with the project. For me, it gives the essay a backstory and helps me understand the thought processes behind some of their decisions. It builds a relationship that makes them more comfortable in the classroom and more invested in the work. I also think it makes them more likely to come to office hours or to visit the Undergraduate Writing Center about subsequent assignments. For students accustomed to professors in large lectures knowing them by EID rather than first name, seeing that the instructor is willing to invest the time in their work makes a big difference, at least to some.

I make the first conference of the semester mandatory and all subsequent conferences optional. Because I use the Learning Record as the evaluative framework, student effort and reflection on that effort gets captured and considered in the final grade for the course. As a result, I find that most students sign up for subsequent conference meetings of their own volition. In my current class, Rhetoric of Going Viral, I have mostly sophomores, juniors and seniors. With this group, I’m finding conferences especially productive and energizing. Because we use memes as the objects of our rhetorical inquiry, I get to learn a lot about my students’ personal interests and relationship with online information.

Though the primary purpose of the conference is talk through my comments on their essays and address any questions, I try to talk about something else first. For instance, I like to being by commenting on something I found interesting about a blog post or asking a question about something I noticed in one of their Learning Record observations. This signals to students that I’m there to engage them in conversation and not talk at them about the paper. I’ve found that students use the one-on-one opportunity to ask about how they might apply what they’re learning in class to the kind of writing they do in their majors, to ask about other assignments or class policies, or to tell me how they think I’m strange for letting them interrogate popular texts instead of writing research papers with scholarly sources. I’ll take it. Watching them think about writing in a more expansive way is, for me at least, one of many fulfilling conference benefits.

Even though I build these conferences into the course schedule in addition to peer review and revision workshops, revision can often be an afterthought for students. To help them leave the conference with a concrete plan of action, I like to have them do a brief activity ahead of time. I find it can really help focus our discussion. Some that I’ve used in the past include asking them to rank my comments in what they perceive as the order of importance or having them choose the top three things they think they should focus on in their revision and explain why. I’ve also asked them to write a brief outline of what they would do to the essay if they had more time (to be completed before I send them my comments).

Though not all students are always prepared and some seem like they are ready to basically sprint out the door the second we’ve finished our conversation, I’ve yet to feel like the process wasn’t worth it. I do wonder, though, if other instructors have a very different view of conferences or use more creative strategies to maximize the experience for both teacher and student. I wonder too what will happen when I have to teach more courses in a semester and have to adjust my approach. Individual conferences may not always feasible, so I think I’ll just enjoy the luxury while I have it.


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