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Monday, July 31, 2017

Is it just me or has anyone else been accused of being racist?

Okay, to be fair, her feedback survey only mentioned that I was biased against the argument of her paper, black civil rights, and while I don’t think I am racist--and I’m definitely not opposed to addressing police brutality in African American communities--her comments made me stop and wonder: am I racist? As a white male, when I enter a consultation with a minority, say a woman of color, can what I do, how I present myself, and how I help be racist?
She wanted a grammar check, that infamous check for grammar, the insatiable wailing toddler in the backseat of consultations, the archnemesis to the tutor’s goodwill. I explained that I’d do my best to “help you become a better reviser of your own work” as I usually do, and then we got under way. As we grazed over the introduction and crossed into her claim, comma splices, standalone demonstrative articles, and FANBOYS felt like distractions to the ambiguity that was trying to be her thesis. In order to address the higher order concern, I suggested that she specify her claim, posing neutral questions like “how specifically do police treat African American communities differently?” and “in what ways is this a problem?” Without explicit permission, I trailed from her initial request to what I considered a more relevant prescription.
Even worse than straying from her initial request, my neutral questions were too specific. Nick, an admin at our writing center, later explained how oftentimes clients don’t distinguish themselves from their writing and take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves. My questions de-validated her argument, challenging the legitimacy of police brutality instead of prompting her to think critically about the development of her argument and specifying her thesis. Both my decision to address an unwanted higher order concern and how I posed my questions obstructed the flow: because she thought I disagreed with her, she may have assumed me less able to help and been more reluctant to receive it.
So, I have already conceded that my tutoring tactics failed me, but what if there’s more to the story? What if our subconscious recognition of the fact that I’m a white man and she’s a black woman further exacerbated the issue? We each bring identity constructions to the literal table; however as strangers, we both can only recognize those identities apparent to us. I failed to see beyond that which was apparent in her, that she’s female and black. She recognized that I’m a white male, but failed to see that I’m gay, liberal, Houstonian, etc--some of which are identities that, had she known, might have reduced the chances of her drawing the conclusion that I was biased against her topic.
    As tutors, we must be vigilant of identity constructions. We are members of a profession that demands we transgress into insecure spaces, especially when a client’s identity plays a role in the topic of their work. The questions I asked delegitimized her argument and its relation to her identity. In precarious consultations like this one, we should use our acknowledgement of the potential for misconstruction to ask questions that situate the client as the authority over content. More general statements like “what is it that you argue in this paragraph?” and “okay, so summarize that and include it in your thesis” keep the conversation grounded in the essay and remove potential interference from identity constructions.
The answer to my question is yes and no: I may not be racist for blundering as a tutor, but I offended my client’s identity, thereby disrupting our rapport, which in turn inhibited her learning process.
 
 

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Putty People

It's good to be a flexible consultant, but not too flexible.

Those that are flexible can change consulting styles from session to session or even within a session, depending on the situation. Yet, it’s still important to have that stiff backbone. A good consultant reminds me of those bendy rulers we all had in elementary school: they’re flexible and can be used for a multitude of other things, but when it comes down to doing their job, being a tool for measurement, they’re stick straight. On the other hand, I, the over-compliant, people-pleaser consultant, am like putty. For a time, putty can be molded into anything, but if enough time passes, it’ll morph back into the useless glob it used to be.

Okay, to compare myself to a “useless glob” seems a little harsh, but I think there is some insightful understanding in the analogy. Within a session, a people-pleaser consultant will let the client mold them in any way they see fit, often in a way that holds their writing style together. Maybe for a short while, long enough to turn in an assignment, that mold holds true. But now we wait. Soon, there’s another essay that needs to be written, and the client looks back in his toolbox for the handy dandy putty that worked so well for him last time, but it’s not that same anymore. It can’t be used like it was. Sure, it can be molded again, but it will never stick. If we focus too much on giving our clients what they want in the moment, if we are too flexible, we don’t end up giving them anything at all. They don’t learn.

I came to realize this when I had a client come in for a required session. He told me he needed his paper edited, and as always, I let it slide. I didn’t have the intentions of editing his paper, but to keep everyone happy, there was no need to mention this foreign phenomenon of “collaboration”. But that was exactly what I ended up doing: editing his entire paper. I felt useless; he sat on his phone as I awkwardly vocalized the corrections I was making. It was the first time I hadn’t been satisfied with the help I had given, and it was obviously because I hadn’t asserted myself as a consultant. If I had, the session could have gone so many different ways and ended as a satisfying experience for both of us. It was hard place that I found myself in: the tug-of-war between loyalty to my peers and loyalty to the academic system. A lot of the time, I let myself be pulled toward my peers, but I found that if I could meet them with just enough resistance, I could create a perfect balance.   

So, to all my putty people out there, practice taking some authority. Assert yourself as a tutor, but conduct yourself as a peer.


Find your perfect balance. 😊

Friday, June 30, 2017

Surfer Dude

Stereotyping is a prominent word in our society. It is a word that people are scared to even utter, let alone be categorized by it. But, the truth of the matter is that everyone stereotypes; oftentimes it is subconscious. It has been proven on multiple occasions that even people who are from diverse cultures will have natural tendencies to categorize someone just because of the color of their skin or the way they dress. And I’m going to be honest with you. I catch myself falling into these stereotypical tendencies regularly.

As a writing consultant at a very diverse university, I encounter people from all walks of life on a regular basis. I’ve had clients that are everything from non-traditional students with PTSD to 17 year old prodigies applying to med-school; I feel like I’ve seen it all. In many instances, however, I find myself subconsciously categorizing clients before I’ve even said hello. I take a quick look at them and determine how the session will go, simply based on their looks. And it is in these cases that I am always proved wrong. Each one of these clients I stereotyped prove my expectations wrong, making me question my reasoning for stereotyping said client to begin with.

One client in particular has caused me to be more conscious of my stereotypical tendencies. This young man looked like he was straight off a beach in California. He had short, bleach-blonde hair that had been formed into short dreadlocks about an inch long. He was excessively tan and wore extremely bright colors. His entry survey was very limited and was grammatically “all over the place”. Because of his attire, I instantly assumed that his session would be as messy and scatter-brained as his entry survey was, as opposed to one an intelligent person who attends a Tier 1 university typically has.

I was wrong.

Not only was he an insanely intellectual person, he was working on something so human and so amazing that I cried. He was creating a scholarship for children who have a parent with the same terminal brain cancer his mom had to help with the financial burden of college. If that wasn’t already amazing, he didn’t come into our writing center with plans to put this together; he already had a lawyer to help with this and donors lined up. He was amazing. The way he presented himself had nothing to do with his intellectual ability.


This young man taught me how natural stereotyping is, and he taught me how to learn from it. I learned that you shouldn’t feel ashamed when you catch yourself stereotyping a client. Just the fact that you caught it shows it was unintentional. Furthermore, I learned how to apply this realization to my job as a writing consultant. We should practice ways of how to not let these stereotypes create expectations for our sessions because, by failing to address our natural tendencies, we are ultimately doing a disservice to our well-deserving clients.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lost in Translation




Have you ever tried to learn a language other than your own? Coming from someone who has gone through it, it can be daunting and humbling at the same time. You see, when someone is talking to you in a different language, you can kind of pick up a bit of what they’re saying, maybe not the whole phrase, but a word here or there, like in the visual above. You can put together some understanding of what the speaker was intending, but there are a lot of variations that can be considered. In the visual above you can use many combinations of words that completely change the meaning of the sentence. If you don’t know what the speaker intended to say, then you are completely lost. The feeling of being ‘lost in translation’ happens to many, including some of our ELL (English Language Learners) at the Texas A&M UWC.
As a consultant at the Texas A&M UWC, I find that many consultants can tell when a client doesn't quite understand what they are saying, whether they explicitly say so or otherwise. Whenever I had a client who wasn’t fluent in English, I would try and explain concepts or ideas using analogies. For me, that’s an excellent way to connect preexisting knowledge to new information; however, I found that this strategy isn’t as appropriate for non-native speakers. This became apparent when trying to explain something to an ELL by making a Toy Story reference. In my mind, this was something that everyone could relate to, even if they are from another country, because they have it dubbed in other languages, but it wasn’t effective. I then understood that people from other countries might not have the same preexisting knowledge, even if that knowledge is a part of mainstream media in the U.S., which meant I had to change my approach to working with ELLs.
When thinking through new methods, I found it hard to imagine myself learning English again, because as an expert in something, it is hard to realize what concepts are difficult for a new learner. I put myself in a non-native mindset and thought about when I learned Spanish. Pictures or visuals were the easiest way for me to learn, so I decided to implement this during my consultations. By using markers and a white board, toys, different colored pens, or even looking up pictures online, I find that my explanations are much more efficient. For instance, when explaining prepositions, it might be easier to draw out different scenarios. One could also describe varying sentence structure by highlighting with different colors or physically writing an example out. You could even go as far as, when describing definitive articles, to use props to describe specificity. By using visual clues, hints, or distinguishers, your client might better understand concepts and connect new vocab to what they already know. Visuals are universal, while languages aren’t, which is why they’re the most useful tool when working with an ELL.

Monday, February 06, 2017

On Writing as a STEM major

At the small Waynesburg University Writing Center, I happen to be the only Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) major without an English minor, and this can sometimes pose unique challenges for me. When I was selected by the director last year to work at the center, she mentioned that her staff was lacking in science majors, which is something she wanted to improve upon. While I was obviously flattered, I also wasn't aware of the problems and distresses that would accompany it.

Let me preface by saying that I absolutely love working at Waynesburg's Writing Center. It is my favorite job that I've held so far, and I look forward to all of my appointments and the time I get to work there. Despite this sentiment, there are many instances where I feel uncomfortable among all the wonderful English majors who know every last participle, tense, and citation style. The field of literature can be overwhelming to an outsider, or even one experienced in it who doesn't practice regularly. Admittedly, my favorite sessions are those involving lab reports or students from athletic and exercise science courses, as the material comes easy to me and I am comfortable with it.

Due to the demand of the engineering curriculum, I rarely get the chance to take literature courses or other writing-intensive classes. I certainly count this as a loss, as I have found writing in the past few years to be an incredibly powerful medium for voicing sentiments and ideas, as well as a creative outlet. With this lapse in a writing curriculum, I have had to rely on working at the Writing Center to keep my own skills proficient, but have still noticed the effects of the change. While I have managed to get a bit of a change this semester, my courses are still largely focused elsewhere. Getting back into writing was a bit of initial struggle, and I found that I had lost a lot of the initial confidence about my work that I had previously worked for. While the grades have been indicative that I still maintain a strong writing brain, I often feel as though it is not so.

This really brings us to the crux of the struggle. Despite being overwhelmingly welcomed by tutors, I still feel as though my major is holding me back from full writing potential. And don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my major. I simply wish there were more ways in which to express my love for writing in it, and prove my competence. I certainly realize I'm not the norm when it comes to writing tutors, and I wanted to encourage others like me to continue to find outlets to express yourself, even if writing has been delegated to a hobby for you.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Everyone Loves a Slinky

Recently at the TAMU UWC, we incorporated a new resource into our sessions: toys. In every writing carrel, there is a small box of knick-knacks that are to be used as a sort of visual aid to both the client and consultant. However, their purpose has so far seemed ambiguous, at best. Yes, we had discussed their potential uses in various meetings, but even that was limited to fairly obvious and uninventive approaches.

I personally had no idea what could be done with these tchotchkes, and typically only took one out to fiddle with if I had an extremely simple or independent session. Then one day, quite by accident, I resolved a client’s primary issue with the simple stretch of a slinky.

He was working on a very complex case study, and only had a set amount of pages. Of course, the process he had to detail had a plethora of separate causes and effects, which ended up taking about two pages to describe. He knew this was too much, but was still unsure of how the information should be presented. I wanted to suggest that he compile the individual articles into general subjects, and then expand more specifically on each of those to summarize what he wanted to convey. Unfortunately, he would repeatedly misinterpret what I was trying to get across, as English was still not familiar to him.  While I was readdressing the idea in a new approach, I happened to reach for the toy chest as a creative outlet to expand my thought process, gave a slinky a stretch, and somehow inspired his comprehension.

Although we probably would have eventually come to the resolution, I still feel that that spring’s image was able to quantify a personal answer at a pace I couldn’t match with words alone. This was an especially valuable commodity, as time is the ever-lacking resource for any type of session, and this form of explanation might have a more resonating effect on clients who frequently require a basic recap of a specific rhetorical subject.

When it comes to researching toys and “play” in education, there are plenty of sources detailing the developmental importance in children and adolescents, but the data involving matured adults are few and far between.  Most of the time, they are merely filling the role of actor, supervising or pacifying children at play. However, it stands to reason that such an unfamiliar subject could hold potential insights to a variety of professional inquiries, should it be examined in the right way.

A number of separate stimuli could be introduced to an audience in an expository manner of common issues in general writing, and the applications would range in their subtlety. For instance, stretching a slinky as you detail your client’s method of expansion could add a nice visual effect to the critique, which in turn may influence their future recollection; separately, a more direct approach might involve a simple stack of blocks. Each block would symbolize a component of a paper, and then be arranged until a tower formed. If the consultant in question used more macro focuses for a foundation, it might serve a purpose to remove a keystone of the structure and watch it topple to indicate something’s value to the integrity of a work.

Regardless of the methods and tools studied, data from this observation could prove vital for determining a way to catalyze client reception of both obscure and foundational knowledge. While it is currently in its test stages, it has the potential and the simplicity to be quickly performed across a wide range of settings to gain further insight. Should this be the case, many grad students may end up having their theses saved by Rock‘Em Sock‘Em Robots.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Whoops, there it is.

I make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, and I make them often. I make mistakes not only in my personal life or in my writing, but when I’m communicating with other people. In the past, I would go red, and do my absolute best to pretend that nothing had happened. I hadn’t totally just butchered the pronunciation of that foreign phrase. It was fine; it was cool; I wasn’t turning the color of a tomato at all. Nope, not me. Now that I’ve lived a couple more years, I find it funny just how silly I was acting. Everyone makes mistakes, and there was really no reason for me to so adamantly ignore what I’d done or said wrong. Instead, I should have tried to work through it.

However, I also work at a writing center. I know that a lot of clients come in expecting me, and my co-workers, to have all the answers and tell them exactly what to say, do, or fix. These students are dependent on me to help them identify and work through the mistakes they are making. It seems to a lot of clients that I have the best skills, the right training, and the knowledge to not make mistakes. As a tutor, I obviously don’t, and I definitely can’t, make mistakes.

That’s why one of the first things I do in a session with a client new to the writing center is acknowledge a mistake when I make it.

A lot of times this catches people off guard. They’re sent spinning for a second until I correct myself and laugh it off. “Oh! how silly of me, I miss pronounced that word!” “Oh yeah, you do need a comma there. I completely missed that, my bad. Great eye!” I’ve found that by admitting that I can miss punctuation details, or that I don’t know how to say a source’s name either, a client becomes a little more comfortable. I become less of a tutor, and more of a peer, someone that they can identify with. There’s that dramatic switch from ‘the tutor is never wrong, I’m just a bad writer’ mindset to the ‘oh, that’s an easy mistake to make, I’ll watch out for that’ mindset. The person that a school trusts to help others with writing is still human, and knows when they are wrong and works to fix their mistakes too.

This sense of similarity also helps boosts clients up. I know that I have lots of stories where I’ve completely goofed something up. By sharing how I handled a similar situation to one they’re facing, or what worked well for me to address a grammar mistake, the client knows that we all go through this sometimes-frustrating process of writing. They’re not doing anything wrong by forgetting a comma or forgetting to match tense. Instead, they’re doing the exact right thing by figuring out their mistake and learning how to address it in the future by working through it with someone who’s made that same mistake before. Even Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Mary Shelley edited and rewrote their great works. Making mistakes is a part of the writing process for clients, consultants, and professionals.


By just recognizing that we’re all human and sharing experiences and challenges with each other, we as consultants can not only build relationships with the students that come in but encourage them. It’s all right to make mistakes; you just have to find the tools to work through them. So yeah, I make a lot of mistakes, and I use them to help others with their own.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Vulnerability in Sessions: How Tutors Can Most Effectively Help Anxious Students

While some students who visit the Writing Center are confident and highly motivated, many other students often come in riddled with anxiety. I recently had a consultation at the Texas A&M University Writing Center where the client seemed very uninterested. He didn’t want to read aloud or talk much at all, and it seemed that the session was going to have no direction. As I tried to get him talking, he clued me in on why he was so quiet: it was his first time at the Writing Center, and he felt uncomfortable with the fact that another student was going to read his writing. He told me that he had negative experiences with peer reviews and was hesitant to even come. Thankfully, I was able to relate to him and use positivity to help him open up; it then became a highly successful session!

As a peer tutor, I can sometimes lose focus on the fact that students often come in their most vulnerable states. Letting someone read your writing and offer feedback can be scary and highly uncomfortable. Because writing, even academic writing, takes so much time and effort, it can be very hard for students to allow others to offer help. Many academic researchers like Patrick Bizzaro and Hope Toler have attributed much of this anxiety to both the high expectations of university-level work and poor writing experiences in the past. Both of these experiences can significantly affect the way that a student views writing in general and can often give them the impression that they are poor writers. Thus, it is imperative for us as peer tutors to encourage students in their writing abilities. We know that even the best writers need practice, and we can use personal experiences to relate back to our clients.

When I find myself in sessions similar to the one I mentioned above, I usually explain my own writing story. For the longest time, I viewed writing as an isolated act. I never wanted others to read my writing, and I was content with this. While I was never had many negative critiques about my writing, I also did not allow many others to even look at it. Most importantly, I never experienced any growth. In high school, I finally opened up and began letting other look at my writing, and I’ve never turned back. Now, I know that I grow and learn so much by sharing my writing with others. Having another perspective on what I’ve written helps me see things in a different light, and now I try to have many people read my papers before I turn them in! Telling this story to students often helps them relate to me as a tutor. I feel that many students view us peer consultants as the “writing experts,” which can definitely make the Writing Center a scary atmosphere, especially if the students have had negative experiences in the past with people like this. However, relating to them by telling your own story could help encourage them in their own writing journeys.

To build up confidence in our students, one of the first things that we as peer tutors can do is set initial expectations. This is especially important with first-time users of the Writing Center. By letting them know that we are here to help and genuinely want them to grow and succeed in their own personal writing skills, we can help them build up confidence in their abilities. This is vital in helping these students overcome their writing anxiety.

Another way we can help students overcome this anxiety involves our wording, especially in face-to-face sessions. One strategy that is effective in most consultations is to first point out the strengths of the paper and then focus in on areas that could use improvement. Additionally, doing this with positivity allows the student to feel reassured. Instead of saying, “You did this incorrectly. A relative pronoun should be here not an article,” we can say something like “I totally understand why you chose this word. Relative pronouns are tricky, and I still struggle with them. Using one here instead of an article could make this sentence even clearer…” Showing the student that you relate to their experiences can offer such hope to them.

Because students often come into the Writing Center with overwhelming anxiety, it is important for us as peer tutors to respond appropriately and positively. We, too, know the vulnerability that arises when we let others view our writing, so encouraging our clients through personal experiences and positivity can help build up their confidence in writing.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Error 404: Focus Not Found


Sitting idle in that chair that’s comfortable in that sort of ‘office-comfortable, taupe is soothing’ kind of way, in a wash of overhead and computer fluorescence can certainly induce torpidity. It’s more than easy to slip into a “you need a comma here” type tutoring. So, how do we avoid this debilitating complacency during an online-session-heavy workday? Forcing yourself to be more deliberate with your explanations and questions can definitely help avoid falling into that sentence-level-editing rut, because it will also make you more self-aware of what you are doing in the session. Explain to your client how you read their paper, what you were looking for, and why you said what you said. If you don’t explain this, the client may have many still unanswered questions. If you can’t explain this, you don’t understand what you are doing yourself, and are obviously not fully engaged.

Personally, I find online sessions to be my most successful sessions, precisely for their allowance of close-reading and calculated comments. But this luxury requires a good deal of discipline to avoid abusing the added distance. One must keep in mind that the client cannot speak up during an online session if their goals are not being met, or if they do not understand a consultant’s suggestion. Therefore, though it’s certainly important in traditional consultations as well, it’s crucial to carefully consider the client’s preliminary requests and create a strategy for how to stay on track in meeting those expectations, keeping in mind that such vaguenesses as “grammar,” or “wording” may be indicative of concerns more fundamental than their denotation may suggest, such as clarity of ideas. In thinking of your strategy for meeting the client’s goals, be sure to actually read the paper in a way that will serve those goals. Will it need to be worked through line-by-line? Or is a skim-over to create a general mental outline more appropriate? Is the trouble with the initial argument or thesis? Or is it with the way the thesis is argued or supported?

            As you begin to leave comments and questions, remember that, unless you tell them explicitly, your client does not know how you read through the paper, what you are focusing on, or what your intent is. If, for example, a client writes “Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is in contrast with utilitarianism. It is much better morally,” and you leave the comment, “You might want to clarify this,” it can be read in many different ways. The client might simply think “oh, I wrote ‘it’ and I should probably be more specific since I have both ‘Categorical Imperative’ and ‘utilitarianism’ in the previous sentence. I’ll change it to ‘The Categorical Imperative is better morally.’” Alternatively, they may think “in philosophy, the term ‘ethics’ refers to the consideration of right and wrong, so I should use ‘ethically’ instead of ‘morally.’” In actuality, you probably meant neither of these, but rather something like “you’ll need to explain why or how the Categorical Imperative is better than utilitarianism morally.” Specificity is key!

            Although there is no secret formula for online sessions, there are ways to maintain that level of engagement. Challenge yourself with the questions you ask and the way you read, and you may find an all new appreciation for the fickle online appointment.
 
Clayton Hensley
Texas A&M University

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Power of Questions



In life, we all ask questions. Two-year-olds ask the notorious “why” in response to every answer presented to them. You have to eat. Why? You need to clean your toys. Why? The sky is blue. Why? So, looking back, I wonder why I never thought of utilizing a basic question when I was confounded by a client’s paper. Toddlers learn through questions, so why can’t we as writing consultants?

There are two main types of questions: clarifying and probing. Clarifying questions are questions that the student can answer with a simple, quick response (Ekey). They allow for the foundation to be built so that the consultant can understand the basics, which can be very helpful in complicated papers. If the consultant does not understand how a horse responds to pressure, then how can they be critical of the content of the paper? Clarifying questions allow the consultant to see if the confusion stems from a grammatical error or a simple lack of knowledge. 

Clarifying questions tend to be my favorite type of question when reading, especially when confronted with scientific dissertations. One evening, while working with a client, I noticed a sentence that read “we compared the total materials, oxygen and nitrogen, to the base model.” I was a bit confused because before oxygen and nitrogen were not mentioned in the materials used for his experiment. 

So, I asked, “Are the total materials oxygen and nitrogen or are all three things different items?”
He responded with, “No, the total materials are this items in this diagram, and the oxygen and nitrogen were measured to see if our treatment worked or not.”
After he replied with this, I was able to explain to him that since he had not used the Oxford comma, I was unaware that the total materials were not, in fact, oxygen and nitrogen. He seemed astonished that this was an issue for the reader, and he was grateful that I pointed out this error. Using a clarifying question allowed me to determine what he really meant, which turned out to be different from what he actually wrote. 

Clarifying questions can also be used to increase the confidence in the student. If the consultant asks a simple question that the student can answer, they gain some authority in the appointment (Graesser and Person). As consultants, we can set students up for success by giving them authority and confidence. How many of these students have come in to a Writing Center or turned in a paper just to receive it back with numerous red marks? How many of these students feel as if the Writing Center is remedial? Allowing the students to feel successful and confident, changes their attitude and will allow them to be more open. 

The other type of question is a probing question, which are more thought-provoking questions. Probing questions also give the student more authority and confidence. When a student can make connections of their own, they gain confidence because they are able to do so. When a probing question is asked, the student is forced to think about what they do or do not know. If they do not know the material, then the paper is probably lacking connections. After responding to probing questions, the student can see if they have a knowledge deficient so that they can fix it.