Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Freedom From Plagiarism: How Peer Collaboration Helps Students Master & Overcome Plagiarism

Fear and confusion combine in the minds of listeners who know all about plagiarism's negative repercussions, but are only dimly aware of its meaning. Even among scholars the topic is stressful to discuss; some time ago, as I talked with a professor about this topic, I sensed a tone of worry in his voice, as if just raising the idea of plagiarism was enough to summon shame. This fear of committing plagiarism is not a solution because it can either cause or worsen students' struggle with paraphrasing and citation, thus hurting their writing quality and their capacity to participate in our community's exchange of knowledge. Overcoming the fear of committing plagiarism principally requires understanding it through peer collaboration and acceptance—an atmosphere that, at present, are best provided by writing centers.

I mastered how to avoid committing plagiarism through practice and, most importantly, by making mistakes along the way. Despite first learning about plagiarism in school, I only understood it after practicing how to cite sources by writing entries in Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia was a great venue not only because my grade was not at stake, but also because it provided me with an opportunity to work in an open canvass with anonymity—which was important, in retrospect, because it allowed me to sweep away feelings of embarrassment that could have hindered my writing. My understanding of plagiarism was also shaped by peer-to-peer feedback. As a result, I acquired the self-confidence to fix my own errors, and learned how to properly summarize, paraphrase, and integrate different types of quotes into a written work.

Back in school, my peers struggled to find self-confidence, particularly because they had associated their work and the instructor with failure and criticism. Most of these students feared committing plagiarism and, in their frustration, focused their minds on earning a passing grade rather than on learning how to write using sources. Once in college, many of them continued having the same problem; moreover, at that point their fear extended to all forms of writing.

At Texas A&M University's Writing Center, I worked with students seeking to overcome plagiarism, and also learned techniques on how to collaborate with them as a peer tutor. One of my memorable appointments was with a student who had been admonished for plagiarizing. She came to the writing center with a paper marked with comments and point reductions. The student was confused on how to distinguish between common knowledge and information that required citation. Due to the confusion, she was unable to express her thoughts on paper. Thus, the session initially focused on brainstorming and providing her with the confidence that no one would penalize her mistakes. After the writing was finished, the rest of the session focused on us working together to understand areas where plagiarism had been committed. We also practiced the usage of paraphrases and summaries. Thanks to the writing center, the student left with a new-found trust in her writing.

All in all, peer collaboration has proven time and again to be an effective method to end students' fear of committing plagiarism. Students also need an environment where they can take command of their role as learners and write without fearing negative repercussions. Writing centers house all of these elements in addition to consultants who provide patience, confidence, and encouragement. Therefore, one of our roles as consultants is to help students regain their fundamental right, as writers, to be free from fearing plagiarism.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Writing Centers and Learning Styles

Nowadays, we all know many things affect academic achievement. One factor is learning style, a concept that has received scholarly attention more recently but has been around since the 1920s. Since the goal of the writing center is to improve the writer, part of role of the tutor becomes providing instruction in a manner that the student will comprehend. There are many different ways to offer this guidance, so I thought sharing some information on learning styles for writing tutors might be useful.

What is a learning style? Basically, a learning style is not an ability, but a preference for learning a certain way. These preferences include the things people do to learn things (e.g., making diagrams, re-reading, practice) as well as broader styles (step by step instructions, collaborative learning, etc.).
Research on learning styles shows that individuals differ in how they prefer to take in, process, and acquire new information, but much remains unknown. For instance, scholars and psychologists don’t know where learning styles come from. Are they associated with personality traits? Are they fixed ways of thinking? This research on learning styles impacts education: if it’s true that individuals learn in different ways, what should educators do about it? There are essentially two camps when it comes to addressing learning styles in the classroom. One feels that instructors should diagnose individuals, and then tailor instruction to meet each individual’s learning style. An entire business has sprung up because of these advocates; that is, commercial measurement devices (tests) to help teachers assess individuals are constantly being invented and sold. Unfortunately, most of these tests don’t produce concrete results and there is no concrete evidence to suggest that matching presentation of material to an individual learner makes a significant difference. The other camp sees this lack of evidence and claims that because teaching to individual styles does not work, we should instead focus on multi-dimensional teaching.  

The most important outcome from research into learning styles is awareness. Just being aware that students prefer to understand new information in different ways goes a long way for instructors. In fact, recent literature on learning styles suggests that both educators and the learners themselves should investigate their personal learning styles. This important concept of metacognition leads to the ability to teach to different styles and provides vocabulary for talking about learning styles, where the learner can express his or her individual needs or adapt accordingly. Teachers are encouraged to diversify their lessons, and learners are encouraged to use different learning strategies and move beyond their preferred method when necessary.

To help us think about the ways we learn and the ways we tutor in the writing center, I’m highlighting 5 basic cognitive styles that relate to learning style. What kind of learner are you? What kind of learner is your client? How do stages of the writing process fit into these cognitive styles, and can you think of ways to alter how you provide instruction to match each style?
1.     Field independent/ dependent. Field independent learners are internally motivated with self-directed goals, structure their own learning, and define their own study strategies. Field dependent learners, on the other hand, are externally motivated, respond better to clearly defined performance goals, need structured guidance from the instructor, and prefer to collaborate.

2.     Convergent-Divergent. Convergent style learners seek the one accepted correct answer from the available information, and divergent style learners tend to produce a number of potentially acceptable solutions to the problem.

3.     Leveler-sharpener. Similar to convergent/divergent styles in many ways, the leveler has a tendency to oversimplify and reduce the complexity of a task, but the sharpener introduces more complexity, treating each detail or event as a serious event.

4.     Holist-serialist. Although these are different cognitive processes, they can produce the same end result. Serialists operate on a step-by-step approach to learning, while holists will use significant amounts of information from the start, looking for patterns or trends to understand the data.

5.     Verbalizer-visualizer. Visualizers tend to learn best from pictorially-presented material, while verbalizers learn best from text-based materials. These styles are seen as incompatible with each other and are often cited as a problem when instruction doesn’t match.

Keeping these basic divisions in our tutor tool-belts might help us recognize how to best present materials to our clients, and practicing different ways to present that material will help us stay sharp (and maybe even save a session where something just doesn’t seem to be working!)

Cassidy, S. 2004. "Learning Styles: An Overview of Theories, Models, and Measures." Educational Psychology 24:419-44.

Coffield, F., D. Moseley, E. Hall, and K. Ecclestone. 2004. Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice. LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London.

Fan, J. and L. Zhang. 2013. "The Role of Learning Environments in Thinking Styles." Educational Psychology 34:252-68.

Hatami, S. 2012. “Learning Styles.” ELT Journal 67:488-490.

Pashler, H. M. McDaniel, D. Rohrer, and R. Bjork. 2008. "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence." Psychological Sciences in the Public Interest 9:105-19.

Rolfe, A. 2012. "Learning Styles." InnoAiT 5:176-81.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tutorers as Counselors

   I've just recently climbed aboard the writing tutoring train this past November and it has been great so far! "It's a piece of cake" was my mindset when applying for the position but it is much more...interesting than what I expected.
   I am a graduate student in Rehabilitation Counseling and as I started getting into the motion of tutoring, I realized that this environment was that of a one-on-one session from a counselor! Building rapport, empathizing, listening to their problems and solving them, the whole 9 yards. It brings me great joy to help people and little did I know, this job is perfect practice for someone who is fresh out of undergraduate level of schooling with little experience of counseling.
   Although, not many people that walk through that door are the happiest campers on campus. Procrastination gets the best of most students and of course, we as tutors are expected to help in any way possible for the sake of the assignment. However, students come in with the mindset that we have to fix their last-minute-written paper rather than improving their skills as a writer; if we don't, we endure the wrath of a stressed out student who tries to give all the reasons for extending a session. This is where it becomes challenging. But hey, I never worked in customer service and now, I feel I can conquer the world of sales!
   I initially thought that I could/will fix every student's paper that was placed on the table, the same thing I thought of when entering the counseling program. Tutoring and learning in school made me realize that not everyone that walks through that door gets help, and that's okay. We are here to improve the person's writing ability, not the paper they strive to get the A on. This has been an awesome experience so far, and I'm grateful to have a wonderful UWC staff that guides and supports us every step of the way.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Teaching Talking

“I want to learn how to talk like you.”

“Like me? How exactly do you mean?”

“Like that! You know, how you Americans do… the dah-di-dah-di-dah…” 

And so began my conversation appointment at the Texas A&M University Writing Center.  As usual, I had started off by asking my client what he would like to gain from the meeting. When explaining his goals for our time together, he used his hands to mimic what he had discerned to be my up-and-down pattern of speech. A second year graduate student from China, his concern was that his own speech pattern was coming across as monotonous, and that this was affecting his ability to communicate ideas in both academic and social settings.

This appointment was the first session in a series of five that I had with my client who had just enrolled in our PLACE Program (The Practice Listening and Conversational English Program). His concerns were valid and are often shared by many of the international students who come to the writing center to practice English. As a graduate student myself, I could empathize. I also struggled to communicate my research effectively in a way that clearly explained my thoughts and held the attention of my audience. I could only imagine how this concern would be compounded by trying to present my research in a second language.

The problem being relevant and a widely-felt concern, the question then became how to address the needs of such students in a 45 minute consultation? Before I had the chance to really research strategies, I tried to think of ways just to get the ball rolling and conversation started. My first idea was to watch popular TV clips and discuss the speech patterns that we observed. We began with Friends, noting the elevated pitches and rapid patterns of speech often used by characters when they were excited. We also observed how certain sentences were punctuated with pauses to provide emphasis, and how very often, characters would use hand gestures in paralleling intonation.

This strategy seemed to be useful in helping both of us think about what was actually happening with our voices and how this looked to someone looking and listening in from the outside. Not only did my client seem to be having fun with activity, he also became more assertive in our conversations. I realized that the goal of the conversation appointment should not be to teach English. Instead, a focus on increasing confidence and motivation could help to make consultations more productive and focused. As most students who visit a writing center of their own accord already possess a personal motivation for improvement of certain skills, the real challenge is in promoting confidence. 

It dawned on me that the PLACE program would be an excellent venue for such an activity. If in the first of the five sessions, students were asked to create a short narrative that would be repeated over the course of the following appointments, the consultant would then be able to provide constructive criticism and feedback over improvements in intonation. This strategy could also be helpful in a group environment, where group members could make observations and offer advice to one another at each of the storytelling sessions. 

In summary, I determined that regardless of the tactics I used, I needed to make sure my client understood that my goal was not to teach him how to “talk like me,” but to help him discover the nuances already present in his own dialogue that would make his personalized style of speech an effective tool for communication. Instead of teaching talking, I focused on promoting confidence, and the fact that my student decided to re-enroll in the PLACE program after the conclusion of our appointments, was testament to the fact that he at least in part, found the sessions useful.

Works Consulted
Chiu, Chien-Hsiung (Scott). "Negotiating Linguistic Certainty for ESL Writers at the Writing Center." Order No. 3444496 Michigan State University, 2011. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Golanka, Ewa M., Anita R. Bowles, and Victor M. Frank. “Technologies for Foreign Language Learning: a Review of Technology Types and Their Effectiveness.” Computer Assisted Language Learning 27.1 (2014) 70-105. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Jungmin Ko, Diane L. Schallert and Keith Walters. “Rethinking Scaffolding: Examining Negotiation of Meaning in an ESL Storytelling Task.” TESOL Quarterly 37.2 (2003): 303-324. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Quenqua, Douglas. "They're, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve." Geolinguistics 37 (2011): 103-05. Proquest. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Murray, Neil. “Ten ‘Good Practice Principles’… ten key questions: considerations in addressing the English language needs of higher education students.” Higher Education Research & Development 31.2 (2011) 233-246.  Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Reciprocal Effort

    When I first began my work at Nova Southeastern’s Writing Fellows Program, I immediately felt close to most of my students, and they have felt close to me. This has made me more eager to help them, and made them more eager to learn while they’re in class or in the studio. Productive sessions are the most rewarding part of my job, especially when students come back again and tell me how well they did and then they immediately want to begin working on their next assignment. Their intention of doing well is inspiring, and I can’t help but take this inspiration outside of the studio into my everyday life.
Being close with students can also mean that their troubling sessions stay with me outside of the studio as well. When I have a troubling session with a student, where ideas don’t come smoothly, or the student is overwhelmed and shut down, I feel that I am inadequate and I also take this feeling into my everyday life, the same way I do during a productive session. I’ve been fortunate enough for this to only happen twice, but it still affected me as deeply as some of my inspirational sessions.  
    A valuable lesson I’ve learned is that in each thirty minute session, there is only so much a writing tutor can do. If the student and the writing tutor give equal efforts, the session is productive. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that not all students come to the studio prepared and not all students think the same way as me . During sessions when a student’s efforts are lacking, I’ve always made up whatever they were missing, so that the lack of work did not reflect my own work ethic. The lesson learned is this: I am not responsible for their shortcomings . There’s a difference between inspiring ideas and inspiring dependence. Once you give a student their missing efforts, you develop poor work habits within them. I’ve noticed that future sessions with the same student result in me doing more than them, and I’m at fault for this. The work I do here is not completely mine, and I’ve had to learn and understand that to get better at my job and to develop positive writing attributes within students.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Getting from Point to Point During Times of High Traffic

Whenever I go into a tutoring session, I like to open up the thirty minute slot that I give students with a friendly introduction and a brief preface  of how tutoring at the writing center works. I’ll usually follow this up with asking them their purpose for being at the writing center. I am fortunate enough to never really have monotony in answers, as the students that I work with have a wide spectrum of concerns in their assignments, even if I happen to work with nothing but students from a single class for an entire shift at work.
However, I notice that students aren’t always exactly clear with how they want me to help them, especially when we, as tutors, get into the busier parts of the semester. For the most part, days at the writing center don’t often get crowded, and the student to tutor ratio isn’t overwhelming. When times at the workplace are as such, it’s not as stressful, and you can often get a full and enriching experience with students. Lately, the front lobby where students wait to be seated has been filling up faster than usual, and being understaffed at our university’s writing center (from nearly twenty employees a year ago, to eight at the present moment) has been as easy as trying to understand why  the meme “none pizza with left beef” exists.
The issue of students knowing what they need to work on, exactly, is one that presents itself more obviously in busier times, and those busier times… well, have been now, for the writing center tutors at the University of Texas Pan-American, soon to be known as UTRGV (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley).. Going from working with, about five, people on average on a weekday, to ten, creates a different, and more hectic, environment for tutors and students, as well as faculty, as our school readies itself for the arrival of the merger with Brownsville. Last Friday, for instance, there were only three tutors on the floor, as opposed to the six that worked the same shift earlier in the semester. Reasons for fewer employees on the work floor include: people finding new jobs, changing their shifts due to school, and, well, life just happening. Finding quality time to give each student that we worked with wasn’t as much of an issue as trying to make sure we got to everybody in time, but that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, you’ll find yourself wanting to go in-depth throughout a student’s paper, and when conflicts arise that get in the way of a full, high-quality session, you have to cut down on the content that you can elaborate on. In my own sessions, I like to cover a little bit of everything, but due to the aforementioned lack of tutors and higher student density at the writing center, I’ve had to put central focus on fewer issues than I usually do. When this occurs, I tend to frame the direction of the session around questions like “What is the primary thing that you’d like for me to work on with you today in your paper?” If a student can give me a straight answer, I’ll put all my effort into working on that specific problem with them. However, if I see another issue, I’ll identify it with the student, and recommend a follow-up session in which I, or another tutor, can help them out with their writing issues. If I’m not able to readily get a single answer from a student, I’ll try to put more of my focus on the introduction, some body sections, and conclusion, and see if I can help with those.
Sometimes, you have to trust your gut instinct and your experiences as a tutor to truly find how to get through condensed sessions on days that are full of traffic, though, and it’s up to you to decide, ultimately, what is best.

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.