Friday, September 12, 2014

A Brief Consideration of Assistive Technology for Writers

If Professor Stephen Hawking rolled into your campus writing center asking for feedback on his latest manuscript, what would you do?

A conversation with a classmate after English 1810 today has me wondering about that. I'm curious to know what the relationship is between our college's Student Writing Center  (SWC) and its Disability Resource Center (DRC), and whether it needs to be strengthened.

Students who qualify under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act have a legal right to accommodations necessary for them to attend school and complete assignments. A student writer with dyslexia, for example, might need to use dictation software and might even have an accommodation allowing her to dictate her words to another person who would do the keyboarding or physical writing. In such a case, would a tutor in the SWC be given permission -- or even be legally obligated -- to do the typing for the student writer? Personally, I see nothing wrong with that, as long as the student writer presented proper documentation from the DRC confirming the student's approved accommodations. What do you think?

In the case of Professor Hawking or a student with a serious physical limitation, might the SWC tutor even make a house call? This is a job for the Mobile Tutoring Unit! And of course, the MTU would probably need extra training to learn the ins and outs of a variety of assistive technologies that writers might use, and to learn about any special issues a physically disabled or learning disabled writer might -- or might not -- have. You wouldn't want to be guilty of treating Professor Hawking as if he were intellectually impaired because he's unable to speak on his own, would you?

As assistive technologies continue to advance in quality and quantity, there is rich new territory for campus writing centers to investigate and adapt to.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Error Analysis

The year was 1965 and you young tykes may have missed out, but for us old fuddy-duddies, though, the robot in the TV series “Lost in Space” said it best, “This does not compute.” Things may have changed in the world of television sitcoms, but my guess is that writing now is still pretty much the same as writing then. Some of the best error messages of all time still seem appropriate to describe the error analysis process, at least for me.

The higher-order concerns are behind us and now and it’s time in the tutoring session to move on to the later-order concerns. It’s time to actually read the paper. This is when I imagine I turn into the Twitter fail whale. You know the error message that appears when the Twitter service is too overloaded to work. The whale appears and the little Twitter birds
carry him (her?) off into the distance. Something tells me they aren’t going to come to my rescue and I’ll need to determine if the writer has been careless, or if they don’t understand the rules of grammar and punctuation. Where are my Twitter birds when I need them? I’m terrified of the paper that’s so overloaded with problems I won’t know where to start.

At this point, my only purpose in life is to avoid system shutdown—my second greatest fear. Is there a 12-step program for that? How to fix tutor shutdown problems. Troubleshooting tutor shutdown glitches.  Breathe. Breathe. I
imagine checking the clock and seeing our appointment time is done. Alright, time to stop fantasizing (evading) and get to it. My saving grace will be the grammar handbook that I’m sure our writing center has available. It does, doesn’t it? I foresee becoming hard-and-fast friends with that handbook, since I can spot errors, but may not know how to explain them. I’m looking on the bright side, though, there’s no chance I’ll be mistaken for the grammar police. 

World Suicide Prevention Day

Death is never the answer, only the ending

When what should have happened a hand reached out in a way befriending

Think about if you or I were in this ugly spot

There was nobody there to put out the fire when things got too hot

No friends, no family and nowhere to go

This life can be miserable when the pain burns too slow

Life is a mix of whatever happens to be in the pot

When someone is down there needs to be someone to reach out their while theirs might naught

Nothing will stand in the way if your heart is determined to do the right thing

Into every life there needs to be joy and a reason to sing

This is where it goes to the friends and family

It is with we find in ourselves a reason to smile in our own simile

There is no one that knows our heart quite like the family tree

It is with them to share our hearts open and free

Even though, we hear about Robin Williams and celebrities that die every day

If there was something to prevent it from happening you know we'd find a way

But it is to the ones we know that have hit us with the greatest impact

It affects us in a way like a quarterback going for a touchdown only to find out he has just been sacked

Nothing seems quite so real as seeing the person every day and in a moment they're gone

What if it was your best friend that took his life a guy named Shawn

You spent all the time you had with him because the friendship meant everything

The pain he felt I had no idea, nothing can take away that kind of sting

To know now that he had a mental illness or disease and the pain that tore him apart

Now that he's gone the only thing left inside me is a broken heart

To end it all over this it must been very extreme

I only wish I'd have known it then we could have worked together like a team

The world continues on it's way, but nothing will ever again be quite the same

Suicide is a desperate act that we need to master and tame

Today is another day and the sun is outside shining bright

Every one has a journey that travels through the tunnel, we need to find our way through and strive to reach the end with the light

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


    Today in class we were asked to think about our writing process. For example, what is the structure you use to get towards that ever precious final draft? I guess if you asked me, I'd be the sequential reviser and doing it as I go. I reread and read again when I write just to make sure it makes sense to me, and spoken out loud as well on paper. I always do a final revision as well, but generally I revise as I go because all too often if the ideas are coming to fast I'll forget words or once in a while entire phrases.
     I was thinking about how this might affect my own tutoring process? Hopefully, I could be someone open minded enough to let the writer do what they want to do and how they foresee their paper, while guiding along to make it even better than the person imagined.
     As a writer, I'll be the first to admit I have many weaknesses, the first being grammar. Just one reason I didn't really feel overwhelmed to work in the Student Writing Center, but instead opted for the Community Writing Center where I would be able to work with writers on their fiction and poetry as opposed to academic papers or essays. But for every weakness, I feel that their also strengths, to build a good interesting story that will leave the reader on the edge of their seats that takes real talent. I can barely get through a history book or an autobiography (or non-fiction for that matter) without finding out that I've just discovered the cure for the insomnia. I just want to be that guy that can tell the story and tell it a little better than the next guy.

Reflection: The Role of the Tutor

I think the most important role the tutor can play is to really listen to the student and try to understand where they’re coming from with their writing. If you assume a student is going one direction when really they’re trying to go in a different direction neither of you will get anything out of working together. But by listening and allowing the student to talk, you’re also giving them the opportunity to be heard which is usually what writing is all about. 
Another thing the tutor can do is ask questions that will help the student come to their own conclusions, while also sliding in subtle hints to improve the work without hijacking it. You have to remember this is their writing, not yours. It's easy to cross that line when you get caught up in the writing because you know the answer, but they will never learn anything if you just do it for them. They may need help coming up with the answers, but they should be the ones finding them. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Tutor’s Role: Avoid being Eulah-Beulah or the Village Voice

In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, Stephen King writes, “In many ways, Eulah-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors.” The Village Voice and Eulah-Beulah’s of the world are not models for good tutors. A tutor is not a babysitter or a critic, not an editor and chiefly not the writer.

Sometimes looking at what something is not, helps to clarify what it is. A tutor is a reader and needs to avoid becoming the writer. Writing is a form of thinking—on paper—and the tutor’s role is to help writers to think about their writing. It’s the physical evidence of critical thinking. Understanding how writers organize information and helping them to rethink that information and organization is part of the tutor’s job. One task needed to accomplish this is distinguishing higher-order from later-order issues and prioritizing higher-order issues first. Focus on the 3-4 most important aspects of the paper that could be problems. These issues might not be noticeable to writers and tutors will most likely need to bring them (skillfully) to their attention.

Once writers become aware of the issues in their papers, it’s up to them to devise solutions. Tutors must trust writers are able to do this and not do their work for them. By asking questions that help writers to revise and improve, a tutor guides them to think through their work and come up with better choices. At the same time, this tactic insures a tutor’s comments aren’t overly directive. Questions that are open, not closed, work best and allow writers to think more deeply about their topic.

Clarifying the big issues in a paper doesn’t involve proofreading, editing for grammar or word choice—a topic that writers often focus on. Leaving this later-order concern until last is smart tutoring. It avoids spending time on sentences that writers will eventually cut. Sentence structure, grammar and punctuation do have their place in the tutoring session, after dealing with the higher-order concerns. At this point, resist the temptation to become an editor. It’s best to note repeated errors, explain the rule, and correct one error as an example. Help the writer find and fix the additional errors. Writers won’t learn if tutors do all the correcting.

A tutor should be specific about what works well in the paper and what needs improvement. Thinking through ways to ask the right question is essential. What’s the author’s position? The writer's position? What other evidence might support this? Does this example support the writer's main idea? And always remember to give positive feedback. This is a good example! You really nailed the conclusion! Stephen King’s how-to book about writing warns us, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…”—that person shouldn’t be a writer's tutor.

Image Source:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Reflection: The role of tutoring

From what I have read in the class textbook and from experience, I agree with much of what is said in the book. I think that the tutor is more of a guideline for the student or writer. The writer knows his/her writing better than anyone else. I don't think that the tutor has the authority or knowledge to tell the tutor what is best, but the tutor does play a role in demonstrating to the writer what types of resources are available. In the process of writing a paper, no method is best for all. For certain writers, the process of brainstorming is effective, for others, the process of talking about an idea before writing is effective, but for others, neither of these processes work. I think it is important to make this known to the writer. The tutor should help the student articulate these ideas and ensure that the writer understands the assignment. I don't think a tutor should solely be an "editor," editing and justifying the use of certain words.


Friday, August 29, 2014

REFLECTION: The role of the tutor in helping with writing.

For me the role of a tutor is one who helps the student with what they are having trouble with. The student is coming to the tutor for help. The tutor should know more than the student, that’s why they are a tutor. The tutor should be able to recognize the problems within the problem, if it’s math, or in the case of English the tutor should be able to see where the piece needs work; whether its grammar errors, punctuation or they should just be able to answer the student’s questions. If the student feels that their piece is too wordy the tutor should give suggestion as to where the piece could use some cutting back.
The tutor can show the student what they might not be able to see. This can help the student learn about how they write. If they struggle with grammar errors the tutor can show them the errors and how to fix them. It should be a learning experience for the student and the tutor. It should not be more work for the tutor by the tutor doing it themselves. It can be easier to just take over but the student is not learning. Let me use myself as an example.
I have had good and bad experiences with tutors. I admit I am terrible at math. I am an English major for a reason. I was very happy when I found out that my school had a math lab with tutors. I spent most of my first semesters of college in the math lab. I was there so much I should have paid rent. I would have never gotten through those math classes without a tutor to help me. I didn’t want to be great at math; I just wanted to understand how the problems worked and how to do them on my own without a tutor.
The not so good experiences came from the tutors who ran through the problems assuming that I would just understand and “get it.” It didn’t happen for me. Part of the reason I am not so good at math is due to my dyslexia. I tend to see numbers backwards when they are written down (27 becomes 72) and when the tutor rushed through the steps of the problem I became more confused. I felt like some tutors were getting impatient with me when I didn’t understand it after they did it for me.  
I understood the problems and how to do them more when the tutor took the time to help me and walk me through it. They didn’t seem rushed to help another student and I felt better doing the work. I became very happy when one tutor got excited with me when I finally understood it. I still don’t understand a lot of math but due to some awesome tutors I have remembered what they helped me with and it has helped me pass a pre-requisite class and I am finally moving on in this subject.
As a tutor we should help the student feel the same way; that they are moving on in their writing. We should focus on the positive more than the negative. If a student brings in a piece of work and it looks like the most horrible thing the tutor has ever seen, they should give the positive first and the negative second AND they should end the meeting on a positive note. Have the student feel good about what they wrote and better about their writing style. In turn we as the tutor will feel better about what we were able to teach them and it will make us feel better about the work we are doing as the tutor. 

Image from The Far Side, Gary Larsen No copyright intended.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The role of the writing tutor in the student's learning process

This is exciting new territory for me, as I’ve spent my adult life as an editor, which is very different from being a tutor. As an editor, my work was not really in service of the writer, but in service of the publication that employed us both. As a tutor, my work will be entirely in service of the writer and his learning process (and my own learning process, too).

A tutor’s first role is to help the student writer feel at ease in the tutoring session and feel comfortable with the idea of writing and seeing herself as a writer. Next, the tutor can help the writer clarify her purpose and her audience. If the writer has an assignment with detailed instructions, the tutor can help the writer be sure she understands the instructions and knows how to meet the requirements of the assignment. If the writing assignment is less prescriptive, the tutor can chat with the writer about possibilities for topic, genre and tone. Either way, the tutor can ask friendly, open-ended questions to help the writer figure out how she connects with the writing assignment and what she finds most interesting about it. Before the writer sets pencil to paper or fingertip to keyboard, the tutor can help the writer gain a sense of confidence that she’ll be able to do a good job with the writing assignment and find it interesting and worthwhile.

The hardest, most agonizing part of writing for me is just getting started. Staring at a blank page or screen can fill me with dread, and I think that’s true for many writers, if not most, especially inexperienced writers. A tutor can save an anxious writer from having to face that intimidating blank canvas alone. For a writer who doesn’t know how to get started, a tutor can discuss options and help the writer identify what methods or actions might be most helpful for him to get his energy, ideas and words flowing. This year, I’ve discovered how helpful, even essential, it is for me to work with a mentor on de-cluttering and organizing all the stuff in my house. My mentor has even modeled putting me, the student, in charge by starting each session with the question, “What would you like to work on today?” I’ve made wonderful progress and have developed the motto: “Friends don’t let friends clean alone.” Just as my home-organizing mentor has helped me get over feelings of fear and inadequacy even to begin a task that’s difficult for me, a tutor can help a writer break out of isolation and anxiety about writing.

The presence of a tutor can help a writer stay aware that she’s writing for an audience and see the need to have her writing make sense to readers who haven’t been privy to the writer’s internal logic and thought processes. By asking a writer to paraphrase aloud the assignment, subject matter or main point, a tutor can help the writer clarify her thesis. Questions and comments such as, “What made you decide to put this sentence/paragraph after the previous one?” or, “Help me understand the connection between this sentence/paragraph and the next one,” can help a writer think more clearly about organization and how the writer is supporting her arguments.

At this point, after the “higher order” concerns have been addressed, my inner editor is tempted to take charge of the paper or the laptop and start cleaning up spelling, punctuation and grammar. But the budding tutor in me knows that what the writer really needs is for me to keep my hands to myself and offer the kind of non-threatening questions and comments that will help the writer become an effective reviewer and corrector of his own work. As an experienced editor and capable writer, though, I have to say that I still don’t always catch all my own goofs, and it’s incredibly valuable to have a second set of eyes on my writing. So maybe a writer would appreciate having a tutor – without actually touching or taking control of the writer's work – just point to overlooked errors.

Finally, a tutor can guide a writer away from the common tendency toward harsh self-criticism and help the writer recognize and appreciate the strengths of her writing and her writing process. So when, at the end of a project, a tutor asks, “What do you enjoy about what you’ve written and how you went about it?” the writer can answer, “Quite a lot! Thanks!”

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing Tutors as Car Salesmen

            “Grammar.”  The classic response to the question we ask every writer who comes to the Writing Center:  “So what would you like to work on today?”  Sure, grammar may be a perfectly acceptable response, but how often is it really what the student needs to work on?  Do they even know what they need to work on?  Would they still say grammar if they did?  Such is the dilemma faced by writing tutors, as frequently the issues identified by students are not what they need to work on to improve their writing, and are only what they think they need.  Consequently, how can we as writing tutors be of good service and focus on what the student wants, while actually doing our job of focusing on what the student needs?  Easy – just practice what I consider to be the ‘car salesmen’ approach:  allow the student to tell you what they want to buy, and then convince them to happily buy something else.      
            I believe that our effectiveness as writing tutors can be measured with how well we can balance our obligations versus our duties.  On the one hand, we do a student no service if we respond only to their requests for sentence-level help if their thesis and arguments don’t exist.  Sure, we send them on their way happy that their draft of nothingness is now grammatically correct – but in so doing we fail to do our job in stressing the idea that clarity means nothing without content.  On the other hand, we ruin a student’s mood and erode their confidence in writing centers if we similarly laugh at their requests for grammatical help, saying “well let me tell you what you really need to work on,” and allow them to turn in a perfectly constructed argument seemingly written in a foreign language.  Both scenarios will result in the student receiving a poor grade (their short-term concern) and no overall improvement in their writing (our long-term concern). 
             Writing tutors are trained – and appropriately so – to focus on the higher order of concerns.  These concerns should always remain our paramount focus in a session, but in no way suggest ignoring the lower order of concerns, for as my scenarios suggest, both are intertwined and complimentary.  Our plan of attack thus needs to focus on understanding the student’s typically lower order of concerns and addressing them in the context of the higher order of concerns.  We can say “I’m having trouble understanding what you want to say here.  I don’t think your argument really comes through.  How can we reword this to better say what you want?”  Tackling a rewriting issue allows you not only to focus your attention on what was insufficient with the original sentence, but also to observe how they write and construct new sentences.  You can then explain how you have noticed a tendency to misplace commas, or how they write too conversationally, expanding these ideas from a solitary instance in need of correction, to a recurring theme in need of instruction.  The student will not only appreciate the tip, for you have obliged them by giving them what they want, but will forever have improved their writing, for you have done your job and given them what they need. 
            Of course the strategies of being a car salesman vary, but another technique I find helpful involves taking advantage of the very first seconds after reading a student’s draft.  These moments are critical for the tutor because they are when the student voluntarily hands you control and expects you to do the talking.  Consequently, you must decide:  “do I start this session with what they wanted to work on, or with what they need to work on?”  The car salesman approach says that you can work on both:  “I see what you mean about commas, and I can definitely help you out with those.  One other thing I’m seeing is that some of your paragraphs contain a lot of information in such a short space, and aren’t directly connecting back to your thesis.  What was the main point you were trying to get across with this paragraph?”  In this example, you have recognized the student’s stated concerns, but subtly shifted the topic of conversation toward the issue you recognize as more important.  This approach does not trivialize the student’s initial request for help by suggesting that only organization and content are important, or that you as the tutor are going to control what is talked about and when.  The language you use is entirely your choice, but taking advantage of the first few seconds after reading the student’s paper allows you to address the higher order of concerns first, while fully implying that you will address their lower order concerns later in the session.      
            Balancing the two roles of tutoring writing is rarely easy, but neither role is mutually exclusive.  By addressing “grammar” in the context of unclear ideas or weak arguments, you can effectively turn it into a higher order of concern.  So the next time a student comes in and asks for help with “grammar,” allow them to ask for the station wagon, because all they want is the car to take them from point A to point B.  But don’t let them walk out of the writing center without buying the sports car – it still takes them from point A to point B, but allows them to do it in style. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Gender in the Writing Center: Male and Female Consultant Techniques in OWLs

Piqued by a passing thought as to if our training in the writing center can overcome our impulses, I set out to study if gender played a role in how OWLs were answered at Texas A&M’s University Writing Center. In the field of linguistics, it has been argued that males are more apt to use directive speech and females more apt to use nondirectives; this is largely related to women’s propensity to more polite speech. But, here we have training that being directive is largely not our first instinct as tutors. How did this interact with gender impulses? 

I gathered 30 male and 30 female OWL responses submitted over a five-year period and constructed the following study to answer three research questions:

1.      Does gender affect the use of directives and nondirectives?
2.      Does gender affect the delivery technique of suggestions (politeness, evaluation, explanation, and options)?
3.      Do the strategies used in male and female speech also manifest in OWL responses, overriding writing center ideology despite similar consultant training?

I looked for non/directives and politeness in the OWLs, which were divided for study by the gender of the consultant. These are strategies that consultants use every day; for example, instead of saying “fix this,” a directive, you would say “how about adding more here,” a nondirective. For politeness, I examined both positive politeness—such as “This is a great passage!”—and negative politeness—such as “I know what you are getting at here, but…” Both strategies are often used to soften the sharpness of commands in OWLs where questions often do not work due to the one-sidedness of the conversation. 

My results were that the gender of the consultant could play a role in how OWLs are handled, despite training and experience. The socialization of gender impacts speech patterns, and the writing center is not a space immune to these realities. Male consultants tended to comment more frequently (more comments per word count of the submission), but female comments were lengthier, averaging 400 words per OWL with 27 words per comment, whereas men only commented 352 words on average with 23 words per comment. However, the study suggested that women were not offering more advice, just more words. Women offered direct requests or suggestions (as opposed to simple comments or observations) 42% of the time, and men offered them 40% of the time; nondirect requests were offered 31% of the time by men and 35% of the time by women. The extra words women were offering were revealed to be largely negative politeness techniques—talking around suggestions to soften them. This was consistent with female speech patterns in general.  

What is important to note here is that both the male and female consultants were getting the job done. They both offered relatively the same percentage of requests and mixed these with politeness strategies to promote rapport. More would have to be done here to see which approach was more effective for the client, but such studies have the tendencies to be reductive when gender is the only factor considered. The experience of the consultant, for example, could also impact technique. This, however, is a study for another time. The results of this study prove that we should be aware of the techniques we use and consider that our initial impulses may not be the best choice in every situation. There are times when negative politeness is really just talking around something instead of saying it, and its overuse can be just as grating as a consultant that delivers short orders in every comment. Awareness of a tendency is the first step toward deciding whether or not that tendency is an effective tool as a tutor or not.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Teaching Revision with Digital Collation Software

There’s this collation tool online called Juxta. It allows you to compare two documents, and it highlights the differences between them in at least two ways. First, it shows both documents side by side, highlighting differences and drawing diagonal lines showing how pieces of the text have shifted. Second, it creates a heat map on just a single document, showing by lighter and darker shades of highlighting how different this document is from the other(s).

Now, a tool like this is meant for scholars in literary and textual studies; for example, one who is interested in determining whether the edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass available through Google Books matches the copy in her local library. (Whitman was a compulsive reviser, and digital reproductions of pre-1900 texts are notoriously mismanaged. So this scholar could find some interesting results!)

But I propose another use for collation software like Juxta: it can be used to learn about revision. Instead of comparing two printings of the same book, why not compare two drafts of the same student paper? That kind of collation could be useful for writers who wish to reflect on their process and consultants who want to model revision for their clients.

Like Whitman with revising, I am a compulsive saver of drafts, so I had a few of my own on which I could test this idea. Let me show you what I found in visually comparing my own drafts, and then I’ll indicate how I think this tool could be used in a consultation.

By comparing drafts side by side, I could see my writing process unfolding. Between my first and second drafts, there were many large-scale changes. Sentences blossomed into paragraphs, and paragraphs traded places like musical chairs. I was still getting my ideas down and rearranging at that point. (See Figure 1.) Between my second and final drafts, the scale of revisions diminished, and I corrected smaller mistakes and rephrased just portions of sentences. (See Figure 2.)

 Figure 1: Comparing 1st and 2nd drafts.

Figure 2: Comparing 2nd and final drafts.

But when I compared my final draft with my prewriting document, into which I had just dumped the contents of my mind before even starting to organize, the value of visualization tools like Juxta jumped off the page (the screen) at me. One sentence had remained unchanged (so it's shown in white) from prewriting to final draft. (See Figure 3.) That was my thesis.

 Figure 3: Comparing prewriting and final draft.

The heat map feature was just as revealing. A heat map of my prewriting document (comparing this text with all three drafts) was mostly dark, dark blue, meaning that almost all of it had changed, and drastically. (See Figure 4.) The heat map of my final draft, on the other hand, showed a variety of shades; elements of that document came from each of the previous drafts. (See Figure 5.) What stood out to me here were the words that were the lightest blue. There were just a few words here and there that had escaped the chopping block from beginning to end. These were my key words, so to speak. These were the words that gave my ideas continuity.

 Figure 4: Prewriting Heat Map

Figure 5: Final Draft Heat Map

When I looked at these images in Juxta, I felt like I was looking at a portrait of my writing process. More than that, they helped me see the piece I was writing in a new way, and I learned about my thinking about that topic. (Woah, meta.)

This is a powerful tool for helping the writers we work with become more reflective and intentional in their process. I could imagine using Juxta in a consultation with a writer who feels stuck. Comparing recent drafts of her current project or visualizing the whole start-to-finish process of a past project can stimulate reflection on how her work has developed and spark new ideas for how to proceed. Identifying key words and sentences like I did could also show our clients the themes in what they’ve already written and help them refocus as they continue to write. Even screenshots like these, of someone else’s writing, can be used to model for our clients what the revision process might look like. We can broaden our reach (to embrace visual learners, for instance) and innovate our consulting by using digital visualization tools like Juxta.

Check out the online version,, to take a look at your own revision process!