Student Engagement

Implementing Mutuality in the Composition Classroom

Kerri Flinchbaugh, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center at East Carolina University, applies the concept of mutuality to three wiriting activities.

May 5, 2011

It is tempting. Every time I sit face-to-face with a student who seems desperate to please, a momentary urge comes over me to take the pen out of her hand and write for her. Then I remember I want what is best for her and resist. If I grab the pen, I will be the one writing, talking, and creating as the student sits idle. But if students are allowed room to discuss their writing, explore their process, make thoughtful decisions about their revisions, and explain their choices, the students are the ones creating and learning. And when I take a step back to look at the big picture, all we are is two writers sitting face-to-face, thinking and talking about writing.

In an attempt to accomplish these types of mutual writing conferences, Wallace and Ewald's (2000) ideas on mutuality in the composition classroom inform the way I conduct writing conferences with students. The theory of mutuality suggests that teachers and students create and adopt shared goals, subject positions, and ways of communication as they negotiate meaning. It stresses that knowledge is created when we converse using accepted academic discourse. This theory also allows both teachers and students to talk and listen, challenge and accept, teach and learn. I emphasize three concepts from mutuality when conferencing with students: the importance of equal and interactive discourse among writers, that knowledge is a result of discourse, and that writers gain agency and voice by negotiating a "middle space" between their own experience and the expectations of the discourse community.

Writing conferences are socially complex exchanges, but learning to interact within them is integral to learning. They provide a space where students can practice their academic voices and possibly come to the realization that writing is not an isolated process; it is a social interaction and part of a larger conversation in an academic community.

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Hierarchy of Concerns

As an instructor, I learn more than expected from these academic conversations. After a writing conference last week, a relatively shy student who is also an English language learner said, "You know, I like writing conferences with you more than other instructors." I was curious for her explanation. "We don't just talk about commas and periods," she said. "We talk about ideas. I think [the ideas] make my papers better, but I feel like I gain something too." I couldn't help but point out that she had shown me a new perspective on immigrating to America when we talked about her own experiences during our conference. "I learn from you too," I said, smiling.

We don't just jump into these mutual exchanges. After introducing the idea and purposes of a writing conference, the whole class goes through a long-term process to help facilitate our writing conferences and set up a space where we will be comfortable, but still productive.

Before we even have our first writing conference, we examine some methods of running them, usually discussing a hierarchy of concerns for revision and the types of common errors in student writing. Early conferences focus on the assignment, organization, clarity, and evidence of critical thinking. Later in the process, we get to nitty-gritty sentence level issues, modeling revision techniques and working with students to identify their own errors by discussing the three types asserted by Bartholomae (1980): accidental, dialect related, and idiosyncratic. Students can usually correct accidental errors on their own as we read the paper aloud during conferences as I follow along. Dialect-related errors can be negotiated by framing their writing in an academic context, asking questions like, "How do you think you textbook would say this?" Idiosyncratic errors are those patterns of error that almost leave a footprint through papers. After reading a page or two, it helps to identify one or two of those patterns and take the time to discuss the rules of Standard American English. We practice correcting one error type at a time, identifying a few and letting the students correct them, and then encouraging them to identify and correct them on their own. These conferences are opportunities to improve one specific paper and the writer's overall skills, discuss writing as a recursive process, and discuss the power and control that accompanies different parts of the process.

I also facilitate the following activities throughout the semester in order to support our writing processes and enhance conferences.

Activity 1: Create a List of Expectations

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Credit: Kerri Flinchbaugh

Together, the class creates a list of expectations for our conferences on the chalkboard using a think-pair-share activity. We all have two minutes to brainstorm ideas for rules. We then pair up with another member of the class, myself included, to discuss our ideas for two minutes. Each pair is given a piece of chalk and has a turn to either add an idea on the chalkboard or alter an idea already on the list. With each idea or adaptation, the pair must explain their decision. How will it benefit our writing conference? Every item is up for debate, but I do maintain veto power. If we hit a roadblock in ideas, we think-pair-share again and repeat until we feel our list is complete. I encourage questions the teacher asks during our conferences to be authentic, ones that I don't already know the answer to and ones that have multiple possibilities for answers. In contrast to short answers, authentic questions encourage more elaborate and richer conversations.

Activity 2: Examine Individual Processes

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Credit: Kerri Flinchbaugh

In the next activity, students are invited to examine their individual composing processes. First, I ask students to think of their last formal writing project. It could be an assignment from this class, a research paper, a blog revised multiple times before publication, or an article for the school newspaper. However, genres like emails or lists are too informal for this activity. Next, they determine the steps that went into writing the finished product. The process may be linear, recursive, or something completely original.

Students use a piece of legal-sized paper and the art materials from our class to draw their writing processes. They can use multiple visual metaphors - a timeline, a road, an image, a cycle, whatever makes sense - along with pictures, images, shapes, and words to help convey the details of their process. I encourage them to pay attention to detail and ask, "Why is this part of your process a red triangle while another step is a purple circle?" They can use pictures, words, and any other materials that will help convey the details of their process.

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Credit: Kerri Flinchbaugh

The resulting products reveal much about students' cognitive processes, contribute to my knowledge of them as learners, and help inform my attempts to individualize instruction. This fun activity also shows students how others individually conceptualize composing.

Activity 3: Practice

To support comprehension of specific rhetorical terms - purpose, voice, format, topic, context, etc.- and develop a common language, we can practice while conferencing, the class creates general, but tentative, definitions of each. Later, we apply these terms to texts read in or created by the class, eventually agreeing on definitions that echo the students' voices but still reflect accurate definitions.

Conferencing and More Conferencing

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Credit: Kerri Flinchbaugh

After we know what we expect of each other from a writing conference, it can be fun to model "good" and "bad" conferences in a fishbowl, having students practice with each other and, sometimes, assign roles ("responder" and "student") or even characters (didactic responder and mutuality-driven writer).

Before conferences, I remind students to avoid simple yes/no questions in favor of questions that will encourage students to evaluate and talk about personal experiences. When appropriate, I share anecdotes and discoveries about my own writing process and encourage students to do the same. In these exchanges, I try to listen as much as I talk. During or after each step and each conference, we write or talk about the process. These reflections are fertile ground for discoveries about ourselves as writers.

Writing conferences informed by mutuality may seem a little different, but I do dare you to try. In my own reflections I have found they engage students as knowledge makers, invites writers to clarify and develop their own ideas and actively construct knowledge, and offers an opportunity for fruitful conversations.


Bartholomae, D. (1980). The study of error. College Composition and Communication, 31(3), 254-269.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Wallace, D. L. & Ewald, H. R. (2000). Mutuality in the rhetoric and composition classroom. Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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