Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bring it Back

Return to Prewriting

By Ashley Freeman

“Welcome to the studio! You’re still working on the research project, right? What can I help you with today?”
“I don’t really know. I just feel like I have too much to do and no time to do it. Can you look at what I have so far?”
           “I can, but I’d rather you tell me what’s making you uncomfortable about the assignment first.”
           “But, I don’t know what it is.”
           What is one to do when a session begins this way? How do you handle it? Do you silently agree and take a look at the student’s paper, or are you persistent in getting some sort of answer out of them? When is it time to stop asking and turn to something else? Do you really want to read and judge their paper without setting some sort of goal for the session? These all seem like unanswerable questions, even though all of my fellow tutors reading them are silently answering them in their heads yet avoiding the “comment” button.
           Some of us may treat this student the way we would treat an unresponsive writer. Being told the student doesn’t know what he/she wants to do is almost as nerve-racking as no response at all sometimes. If this is how you decide to perceive the situation, Muriel Harris suggests that you try empathizing with the writer, or ask him/her engaging questions, or even ask him/her if he wants to reschedule for a better time. While rescheduling may help with reluctant, unresponsive writers, does rescheduling work for an unsure writer who is seeking out help, but doesn’t know how to express his concerns? I don’t think so.
           I believe positive engagement is the best starting point for every session. In my experience, an unsure writer can turn into an all-out boisterous idea machine if you only smile and ask questions. I pretend that any subject is a subject I’ve heard nothing about before and that I want to know more. Rescheduling makes me sound uninterested and I don’t think students will come back to see me or feel helped if I seem uninterested. So, I break the ice, instead.
           “Well, tell me about your research project again. I’ve always found biology interesting, but I don’t understand it very well. Would you mind explaining the biology part of your paper to me?”
           … “Wow. I didn’t know that! What have you learned about it since beginning your research?”
           … “That’s interesting, too. Where did you write about that?”
Once I start asking questions, I notice the writer usually becomes increasingly confident in his/her project. When I talk to the writers like this, I understand the information they’re trying to present and I can help them find where they’re uncomfortable, or they discover it themselves when I ask a question they don’t know the answer to. I often choose this method because it’s a way of starting from the prewriting stage, but with increased knowledge and confidence.
According to Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli (2010), “the interaction between tutor and writer as questions, answers, and ideas… largely determines the content and direction of any tutoring session”. I agree wholeheartedly. When I don’t know what direction to take, I talk and talk and talk. Questions receive answers, and answers formulate ideas. Taking things back to the prewriting stage when things are directionless is something every tutor should try. But, maybe you should discover your own pre-writing methods. My favorite way to help students pre-write is by asking them to talk to me as a friend, not a tutor.
“Tell me about your paper as if you were talking to your best friend. What important parts are you going to tell her? What’s most important here?”
My experiences have taught me to innovate and make myself comfortable with the student and the student comfortable with me. Atmosphere is everything. Step away from the computer. Step away from the pencil. And communicate. You can always open a document or find a piece of paper, after you know what you want to say.

Reference: Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. "The Writers You Tutor." The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print.
Refer to The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors for more recommendations on tutoring styles and tips.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Does anyone actually hate writing?

“I hate writing.”

Usually that’s the opening phrase used during sessions with difficult students. Right away, they mention their dislike for writing, as though the simple statement will get them out of having to go through with the session. They don’t realize that they can say they hate writing all they want, but that doesn't change the fact that they’re still scheduled for a session which means regardless of their feelings, the session will continue. Difficult students may come in with that attitude in place, but there are ways to change that attitude. It’s good to remember to not let that comment get in the way of the session, especially if it’s their opening line. I take that information in and let them know that they don’t have to love it, but it’s not as bad as they think it is.
One of the strategies I've used with these students is to avoid going straight into having them write. We still talk about their paper and any questions or comments they had about the assignment. However, they don’t feel like they have to write throughout the session, which is what a lot of students think sessions are going to be like the first time they come in. When students feel like writing is required or forced on them, they back away from it and have that negative attitude toward it.

I've found that most of the time after the session goes on for a few minutes, the student feels the need to write down some ideas we have discussed, different ways to approach one of their points, or whatever it is we talk about. This doesn't feel like “writing” to them, and typically when they do this, they are excited about their paper and want to go into it more. I've done this numerous times when I had difficult students, and normally it works.Their attitude switches from negative to a more positive one. Allowing them to write when they want gets away from that “forced” feeling, which might be what caused them to have the aversion to writing in the first place.

Throughout my experiences with difficult students, sometimes the reasoning behind their defensiveness and why they hate writing is because there’s a fear that by coming in here, someone will rip apart their paper that they spend so much time on. They use that line as a way of protecting themselves from the blow they feel is coming once the person reads their essay. It’s more about their insecurities as a writer than it is about actually hating writing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Working with ESL Students

I am relatively new to being a writing tutor and have found some things more challenging than others.  One of these includes working with English as a Second Language students. Just last week, I had an ESL student come in saying, "I'm just stopping by before my class to get help with my grammar. I know it’s bad, and I also want to make sure my thesis is good." He proceeded to explain the paper and thesis to me. I was immediately able to tell that his thesis did not appropriately encompass the essay, but he was very unreceptive to this feedback and insisted that the paper be read so I could better understand.  

After he worked through his eight page paper, I still felt the same about the thesis and my attention was brought to some other higher order issues such as the organization and focus.  At this point, with the limited time we had left, his response to my prior advice, and his original requests, I began to question how I should proceed with the appointment. If you ever find yourself stuck in this or a similar situation, here are some suggestions to help you through.

Although higher order concerns often take precedence in tutoring sessions, when working with ESL students you may decide to focus on lower order concerns.  You have to take the student's wishes into consideration; if they want to focus mostly on grammar, you cannot simply ignore that for higher order concerns.  Although this appointment may seem like somewhat of a lost cause, with no solution that makes everyone happy, there are some ways to approach this session that can leave everyone feeling better by the end.   

The first thing you should do is make a plan for the appointment. William J. Macauley, Jr. explains this by comparing planning your session to planning a road trip on a map in his article "Setting the Agenda for the Next Thirty Minutes." There are going to be certain areas you want to focus on during your session, and the end goal is to touch on all of them. Planning out the session should be a collaborative effort; you do not want to overlook the student’s wishes but they shouldn’t make all the choices if they are unaware of some important issues. Using my previous example, a plan for a 30 minute session could look something like:

  1. 10 minutes: higher order concerns
  2. 10 minutes: thesis
  3. 10 minutes: major lower order concerns

The road map does not have to dictate exactly how your session will go but it might help you stay on track with such a short amount of time.    

After you have your road map for the session you can begin moving through it.  Higher order concerns are normally the same when dealing with ESL students or the standard student so you can approach this the same with all students.  For lower order concerns, Cynthia Linville’s "Editing Line by Line" states six major grammar mistakes made by ESL students. They include subject-verb agreement, verb tense, verb form, singular and plural form, word form, and sentence structure.  Work with the student to decide which errors they need to work on the most.  It is a good idea to show them an example of an error in their paper and then explain why it’s wrong and the correct form.

Depending on the length of your session you can work through more or less some of these issues and have the student engage more, as well.  You can ask the student to scan a paragraph, point out a similar error, and explain why it is an error.  This will help the student not only correct the current paper, but it will also help them to understand English grammar better so they do not make the same errors in the future. At the end of the session the student should leave with new insight and examples of what they need to fix in their paper and writing in general.  

When working with ESL students, it is especially important to remember the bigger picture. This includes working with them to improve their writing as a whole and not just one paper.  The more tools you supply these students with, the quicker and smoother they will become accustomed to English grammar and writing.  Their writing should grow immensely with lots of practice and learning how to self edit.  Make sure to invite the student back for more tips and further practice!

-Zoe Greim

Linville, Cynthia. “Editing Line by Line.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Eds. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2009. 116-131. Print.
Macauley, William J. Jr. “Setting the Agenda for the Next Thirty Minutes.”  A Tutor’s Guide: Helping Writers One to One. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publisher’s, Inc., 2005. 1-7. Print.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Tutor positioning: Another brief thought

Looking through the previous posts, and based on my training I know that sitting side-by-side with my client provides important nonverbal information about our relationship. We are peers and I am not an authority figure. While this is true, there is another reason why side-by-side works, and it is purely a practical one. While people are often capable of reading upside-down, it is more difficult and less comfortable. I think tutors would be more apt to miss important corrections from this position, but turning the paper so that it faces away from its author implies that the tutor has taken total control of the work, which of course is the opposite of what we want.

So how do we convince our clients that side-by-side is necessary? Most times students will choose the across the table position and look askance at a tutor who comes alongside. Well, we could explain all the reasons why side-by-side is better – it implies equality, the tutor is not in control of the paper, etc., but that would take time and is probably not necessary. Instead, there’s a simple, sensible and honest explanation. All the tutor needs to say is, “It’s easier if we both look at this from the same angle.” Problem solved.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Operating Within the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre’s Conceptual Space

        Our tutoring centre is a medium-sized room filled with round tables and sunlight, which pours in through four windows on the eastern-facing wall. On your average day, it is noisy— marked both by the chatter of math tutors working with groups and one-on-one conversations between writing tutor and tutee. I rather enjoy working in this space, but it serves as a reminder of the conceptual space in which I find myself— a space that bears a daunting truth.

         As a writing tutor at the University of Winnipeg, I am situated within contrasting forces. Our Canadian value of multiculturalism plays largely on my heart: I feel all should have equal say and opportunities whilst maintaining cultural roots. The university’s diverse student body may represent such multiculturalism, but the practices of the institution do not. And this is not to criticize my beloved university itself, but to point to a larger issue found across universities. The issue is ‘academic prose’- an authoritarian style of writing governed by unwritten rules which presents itself unequally to different cultures. It is the prose demanded by the university, but it does not square with my country’s value of multiculturalism nor my university’s emphasis on social justice. It contrasts even with the lessons we tutors learn before working at the centre: to encourage cultural difference as experienced through writing. How to negotiate these unique and opposing values has become quite a challenge. This entry is dedicated to communicating the solutions I’ve found, but to ask for help as well. I seek ideas for myself and for similar others who navigate such conceptual spaces as ours at the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre.

         First, I want to explain the term academic prose. I’m sure you know it in practice. It’s the type of writing students engage in everyday in hopes of obtaining high grades. It is marked by unwritten rules such as “use outside sources to support your ideas, elaborate on your ideas and explore their practical consequences, and use verb-style!” We at the university of Winnipeg have a class to teach these things, appropriately titled “Academic Writing.” We need a class to teach students how to write in a particular style because ultimately (for those in the arts, at least), it will largely determine their success in university.

         And university, as we know all too well, is where life paths are embarked upon. Students flunking out of university because their writing doesn’t match standard academic prose seek work elsewhere. As they walk out of the institution, unable to crack this academic language code, they are likely to take a salary cut of 50%.

         This is the greater challenge we face at the tutoring centre: how do we approach the oppressive practice of academic writing? We are here to help students improve their writing skills. We are here to help them understand how to write academically, whether we admit this or not. Integrative approaches are great in theory, but they are not practical. We cannot tell a student that his/her non-standard structuring of his/her essay adds flair when the only thing it adds for the student is a C minus onto his/her transcript. There is a breakdown between tutor and professor if tutors adhere to an integrative approach. As a tutor, if I hope for my tutee to succeed, I must help him/her develop his/her academic writing skills.

         For many people, this is no big deal. It comes as a given that students must learn the style of the academy. But do those people realize just how oppressive this practice is? It puts those who have culturally different writing styles at a significant disadvantage. Academic prose is an agent of discrimination, and by maintaining its use, we are complying with this discrimination.

         And I’m not saying that students whose prose stands in stark contrast with that of the academy cannot succeed. Indeed, they can. Yet, in training themselves to adopt the academy’s language, they may lose their own. 

         So for other tutors plagued like me, this is my proposed solution: we can help students develop an academic style of writing, whilst reminding them not to lose their own uniquely cultured voices. We must explain to them that this is the way of the institution, but it is not the only way. In deconstructing their prose, we must be mindful of its own value; therefore, we cannot treat it as poor writing discarded for better writing, but as valuable text substituted with another valuable text that is simply better suited to the academia. We may even explore with tutees the differences and advantages of each style. This style of tutoring is outlined by Paul Kei Matsuda and Michelle Cox as the “Accommodationist” style. It is the only solution I have for tutors like myself.

         This is difficult in practice. I’ve found that in my own tutoring sessions, I mentally label aspects of writing as “bad” without considering why that aspect might be there or what larger cultural value it may embody. One student writer failed to understand why the paragraph I labeled as the conclusion could not serve as the introduction. That was the way she wrote in Macau; and English academic prose did not make sense to her. This speaks to an underlying truth: there is no objective way to determine what is “better.” English academic prose is not inherently better than any other form of writing, only it has been ingrained in us to think so. “People who can’t write” are actually “people who can’t write academic prose.” Emma Teitel (the award-winning journalist for Maclean’s magazine) was told in university that she couldn’t write.

         I would hate to have been the person who told her that.

         So we must try to separate ourselves from this idea of academic-writing-as-better and recognize the merit in other styles and forms of writing. We must communicate to writers that their style is valuable, just not always academically appropriate.

         One question remains, and that is what to do about the inequality that stems from certain students being better prepared to adopt academic prose. If I were to encourage writers to maintain non-academic prose in the academy, I would be setting them up for failure. The question seems larger than tutoring centres themselves. It involves a change in attitude from administrators to professors alike. It may even involve a revolution in society wherein non-traditional ways of writing are not viewed as inferior but as well-suited for certain purposes. I found that my aforementioned tutee’s conclusion-as-introduction style works well for situations wherein one seeks practical implications of theories first; one can then read about the theory whilst making connections to the practical. I do not know how we might change attitudes within and outside the academia, but I believe it is a quest worth pursuing. For if we can change attitudes towards prose styles, we can give people equal opportunities to succeed, thereby doing our part in the fight against discrimination.

         As for my work in the University of Winnipeg Writing Centre, it seems still discriminatory but I take pride in our existence. Although we are guiding students towards a style of prose that distances themselves from their cultural roots, we are the bridge that enables them to cross into the academia. In this way, I feel synchronicity with the university and country’s larger values of equality. We can voice the academically voiceless so they can succeed at the university. However, I, and all who identify with this struggle, cannot be completely satisfied with this, our small part. We must ensure students know that their unique styles are valued even as we try to change them; and we must seek a solution to the discrimination inherent in the valuation of academic prose.

Friday, March 13, 2015

During the year of working as a Writing Consultant at the American University of Kuwait, almost all of our training sessions consisted of questions along the lines of "What are some of the problems or challenges that you face during sessions?" or "How do you deal with different personalities or characters during sessions?"

Well, the most problematic situation that I personally faced was holding sessions with unresponsive, passive and inactive students. At first, it was extremely difficult to lure them in the session and make them realise that their participation is needed, but later on, as a writing consultant, I soon realised the necessary techniques to get the student engaged in the session. Ask them to read. Ask them to write and take notes. Ask them to suggest synonyms.

Not only is this helpful, but I noticed that the consultant's body language is very vital in a session. The readings that our staff assigned us helped me recognise its true importance. Sitting across your student should not be the case. Alexandria Janney emphasised on the significance on sitting along-side the student during a session. I personally loved her article, because it made absolute sense to me. Sitting next to your student during a session abolishes any intimidation in the air. You make your student feel welcomed and you deliver the message that you are spending the allocated time with them to help them with their paper.

Many students who visit the WRC for the first time believe that we, as peer consultants, are dominants of the session, and whatever we say must be applied. In fact, the opposite is true. I always tell my students that what I tell them to do is mere advice. Sometimes when the student asks me about something, I tell them "Oh I'm not sure about that, let's find out together" just to show them that I am learning from this session almost as much as they are. These aspects within the session should really just calm new visitors down, since as Jennifer Arnold writes in her article that new students don't really know what to expect at the WRC so that can really make them feel uncomfortable and nervous.
Our job is not only to aid students with their writing, but to make them feel that they are welcome at the WRC and that they can visit us at any time whenever they need help, without feeling nervous or intimidated.

All in all, the writing center truly made me understand how to deal with different characters. Sit next to your student, get them to talk about their paper and issues and make sure that they are not hesitant about another visit.

Maryam Mofied

Monday, March 09, 2015

From Tutee to Tutor: The Tricky Syntax of Body Language

I began working at the American University of Kuwait's Writing Centre (WRC) in my junior year. However, I had been well acquainted with the WRC's work for far longer since I had frequently scheduled appointments to have my own written work reviewed. As a student consultant, this understanding of being on the other side of the table-- for lack of a better phrase-- has been extremely useful as I constantly try to ensure that students gain the most out of my sessions, particularly when it comes to body language.

Just as a dialogue necessarily works both ways, body language is also a two-way street. As a consultant, there can’t be a worse start to a session than one in which the student lazily drags themselves in, slops onto the chair, slides his or her paper carelessly across the table and then proceeds to fidget with their cellphone. As a student, you know things aren’t going to go very well as soon as the tutor forgets to greet you, grabs your paper and begins dismantling it with either a militaristic frown or a sleepy and annoyed grimace. It’s an obvious indicator of a rather futile and vexing session ahead.

The onus to ensure the quality of the session, of course, lies with the consultant. The two articles by Alexandria Janney and Jennifer Arnold, suggested by AUK WRC staff as training material, discussed precisely how simply monitoring one’s body language can make a consultant twice as effective as otherwise. And while I frequently follow the strategies they suggest, my experience and the way in which I use these techniques have in some respects been different due to the fact that I have oculocutaneous albinism.

Firstly, I usually need to commandeer the copy of the essay so as to be able to read it. I believe this sometimes leaves the student thinking that it’s my job to fix it, an impression I try to quickly fix by handing the paper back to the student as soon as I come across something that needs to be discussed and asking him or her to mark it out. The only times I refrain from doing this is when the student is quite obviously not interested in the session. In such cases, I ask the student to read at least the first few lines so that they know that it’s a joint operation, before I continue reading aloud myself. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found it much more useful to politely and directly tell the tutee that they need to pay more attention than in vain spending the session trying to maintain a calm and eager manner. Arnold recounts the example of a tutor futilely attempting to elicit a positive response from the tutee through persistent positive body language of her own. I’ve done this too but am now beginning to see that it serves little purpose.

Secondly, depending on the light in the room, I sometimes miss the puzzled or even annoyed expressions on my tutees’ faces. To make up for this, I try to make the session as much of a conversation as possible so I can at least pick up on the intonation of their voice. I’ve also noticed this often makes them much more open to discussing their concerns and brainstorming ideas with me, as opposed to when I simply point out errors as we read the over the paper.

Moreover, and this has nothing to do with my eyesight, I’ve also observed that in some sessions, my normally engaging and confident manner can be intimidating to the student. I’m not sure how I should fix this though, as I would appear mellow if I toned it down any further. Sometimes, as Janney points out in relation to different cultures, I try limiting the amount of eye contact I make. I remember this once made an older and apparently conservative male student much more comfortable with the session but that was an exception.

Lastly, talking about male students, one thing to keep in mind if you’re a woman consultant at the WRC in Kuwait is that the distance they choose to maintain isn’t always an effective indicator of how enthusiastic they are. I’ve had several very fruitful sessions consulting young men who quite consciously chose to sit across the table and not next to me. It’s just a matter of cultural etiquette.

Thus, what constitutes good body language during a session is a combination of certain golden rules, such as not folding your arms and not frowning, and a number of other factors that are unique to the individual student and session. One can create a mental checklist of all the absolute “must-do” s but only experience teaches us how to quickly adapt to new and different students each time.

Why I Sit Next To My Consultees

A problem we encounter too often as writing consultants comes up whenever we find ourselves trying to get passive students to become more engaged during our sessions. I am sure we are all familiar with the reclusive kind of students, the kind that would, once greeted into a session, promptly slide a draft across the table, hand you a pen, and give you full rein to go buck wild on their paper while they wait for you to finish, sometimes with a phone in their hands. Not only does students being unengaged during sessions make it difficult for us to gauge the problems they are facing in their papers so that we can quickly address them, but it also discourages them from learning how to independently address these problems in the future, without having to rely on the Writing Center as a form of a pit stop.

There are many techniques that can be utilized to prevent this, and the best ones usually involve body and oral communication. Exemplary peer tutor Alexandria Janney discusses some of the most effective techniques of this kind in her article, and while the benefits of many of them seem obvious when you think about it (leaning in to communicate interest, refraining from glancing at clocks so that students do not feel unwelcome, etc), one highly peculiar method that grabbed my interest is something that I had always taken for granted. It may be something many of you already know, but in case you don’t, allow yourself to be indulged in a little exercise during your next consulting sessions.

When you greet your next student, make sure (for the sake of this exercise only) that you are seated before they are, and that there are multiple chairs surrounding the table for the student to choose from. Take note on where the student decides to sit down. More often than not, you will realize that they will, be it consciously or unconsciously, opt for the chair that is right across from yours, rather than the ones right next to it. This interesting pattern could be the result of these students having gone through 10+ years of academia, where staff, teachers, principals, nurses, and advisors had always sat at the opposite side of the desk. So why, in their minds, should tutors and consultants be considered any differently in order for these students to break away from this habit? There is very likely a plethora of other, more miniscule, factors that all play a role in whatever it is that causes this behaviour, and I can talk about them at great lengths like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would talk about his favourite spot on his couch, but what is truly important here is not the cause of this behaviour, but the significant effect it has on consulting sessions.

As Janney eloquently puts it, to those students, you are seen as an authoritarian figure, and are expected to always take over and carry the entire session without any form of input from the student. Sometimes, they can even feel too intimidated or too embarrassed to explain what their issues are. Put yourself in their shoes. Sitting right across from you is a master of the written english language, scrutinizing a draft that you have clumsily written only a few days prior, and holding you in tremorous anticipation before they pass their judgement. I exaggerate, but you probably see my point.

Having realised this, I have taken upon myself a few weeks ago to practice sitting next to my consultees rather than directly opposite them, indirectly showing them that I am literally on their side, and that I am here to help, not to judge. To my complete surprise, this has produced some remarkable results.

Ever since I began to apply this method to my consulting sessions, students have all of a sudden become more engaged. From my observations, students immediately communicate their problems on the get-go, openly discuss their ideas, from the sensible to the absurd, on how they wish to change parts of their paper, and challenge (with good spirits) criticism, eager to learn the whys, rather than the whats. In one extreme case, I have had a student who has become so relaxed during a session that they had casually admitted to having heavily plagiarised their paper, right before talking at great lengths about the many different places they've copied their paragraphs from and the many techniques they've used. It was apparent that they were not completely aware of the general repercussions of plagiarism, but some guilt was still evident in their confession, the kind of guilt that would have never come through had they been talking to someone they were intimidated by. Who knows what they would have went through if that had been the case.

It is truly fascinating how such a tiny, easily applicable gesture can enforce such a large paradigm shift within my students. Ever since I’ve begun to employ this method, I started to realize that the reason they become more eager to engage themselves in productive rapport, and the reason that they open themselves more quickly to me (realizing that I am what my job title literally entails: a consultant), is that they become relaxed in the empathy that I outwardly exert towards them, and that I am there to first and foremost understand their problems and help them better themselves as writers. They understand all this purely, and simply, from observing where I choose to sit.