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! 

Friday, June 06, 2014

More Creative Writing Solutions

           As mentioned in my previous blog, I teamed up with a fellow creative writer and tutor to explore ways to help fellow tutors consult on creative writing. We began the project this spring and presented our training session to our fellow tutors in October. In this blog, I will detail our presentation and results.
In “Is There a Creative Writer in the House?” Wendy Bishop discusses the benefit of working with different types of writing. “By analyzing the styles of writing you encounter in the world you’ll become a more proficient brainstormer and adviser to your clients on the options available to them…. Then, put all these bits of advice in service of helping the writers you work with interrogate convention and experimentation as tandem parts of the writing process.” Essentially, we need all different types of writing and we can take many of the lessons we learn from one field to another.
Our presentation focused on one main idea to help consultants tackle creative writing sessions: you are all readers. In general, most creative writers hope to see their work published one day in one form or another. Therefore, their audience is always readers in general, anyone who might happen to pick up their piece. In general, all tutors are readers in one form or another. Writers want to know how their readers will respond to their piece.  If it sounds odd, unrealistic, or cliché, you will know. You do not need to be a creative writing expert to know if writing doesn’t work for you. Therefore, throw away any inhibitions about consulting on creative writing; focus on how the writing sounds and feels.

Based on this preparation, the presentation focused on three major points: what to expect from a creative writing session, tips for focusing your critique, and interactive participation through examples.  Expect a client who wants to talk, a longer piece (therefore focus on the big picture), and expect the unexpected.  For focusing your critique, there are many questions to ask the client (and yourself!) that will help the client.  Is the prose clear?  Are the images fresh and interesting?  Can you follow the content?  Is the writing showing or telling?  Are characters developed enough?  Is the dialogue (if any) believable?  Are there places where more exposition or action scenes are needed?  What really works (or not) in the piece?  What stands out the most to you?  Is there something you, as a reader, do not understand?  For mechanics, creative writing allows for multiple uses of grammar, including blasting it to a million pieces.  Also, writers may not want to focus on small, sentence level problems.  Therefore, use your consultant powers of intuition. If something is consistently off and inhibiting the story, point it out. 
Although I certainly would not say we have perfected our Writing Center’s treatment of creative writing sessions, I would say that we have made some valuable strides.  Our presentation produced positive feedback and we hope to implement the results for years to come. In conclusion, creative writing can be difficult to consult on, but if you focus on the big picture and simply give feedback as a reader, you should be able to give the creative writer some meaningful feedback that they can take away to help them revise their work. Many of these tips, such as clarity, big picture, and word choice, can also be applied to writing from different disciplines .

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Creative Solutions to Creative Writing in Writing Centers

Writing Centers strive to excel at consulting with every type of writing from business and scientific writing to English papers. However, many writing tutors struggle with consulting on creative writing. Many fear the creative writers and have dozens of questions and worries about a creative session. “How can I critique a piece like this?” “This has no rules or standard templates to work from. How can I give advice on what’s right or wrong?” “This isn’t my field and I have no knowledge of literary devices or how to critique creative writing.” “My fallback is always grammar and obviously the creative writer doesn’t need help with that area because they write all the time. They know this stuff.” “Who am I to judge their piece?”
Hans Ostrom discusses the uneasiness with creative writing in his article “Tutoring Creative Writers: Working One-to-One on Prose and Poetry.” He discusses how peer tutors are not alone in this uneasiness. He says, “… there are all sorts of literary experts in our midst who claim to be unable to respond to creative writing; they can make this claim with a straight face only because they are proceeding from the premise that creative writing is somehow not writing; if creative writing were in fact, writing, then, as literary experts, they would not seriously claim to be unable to say anything about creative writing.”  He proposes that tutors must banish this idea of creative writing as not writing. They must focus on doing what they are trained to do: stay professional, focus on the writing (the draft), and throw the adjective “creative” out the window.
As creative writers ourselves, a fellow consultant and I decided to team up this past spring to help ensure that creative writers had another place to receive critique on their writing. We knew creative writers come in to our writing center occasionally, but certainly not on a regular basis. Through some informal research with some fellow creative writers, I found that many felt unsatisfied with their writing center experience when dealing with creative work. Many had failed to give the Writing Center another chance and those who did often found disappointment yet again. We quickly realized that to increase the number of creative writers and creative writing pieces coming into the Writing Center, we needed to help consultants feel more comfortable with creative writing sessions. We went to work on creating presentation consisting of tips for consulting on creative writing sessions.
We employed a number of tactics to prepare for the presentation including asking our creative writing friends for input on what change they wanted to see in the Writing Center. We also requested these friends to send in some of their work for consultation or come in for a face-to-face appointment to test the waters.  We wanted to see how consultants reacted to the sessions.  Did they enjoy them?  Did they feel out of their element?  How did they feel the session went? We also asked the clients to give us feedback on the session.  Did they feel like the consultant addressed all of their concerns effectively?  Did the consultant offer valuable feedback?  Did the consultant feel like they made any progress from the session?  From these two points, we were able to structure the presentation in a way that would allow us to easily teach the points that creative writers wanted out of creative writing sessions at the Writing Center. The results of this presentation will be discussed in a later blog.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Thoughts while doing a research project

If there is something to be careful about when handling a research project, it is to be wary of assumptions. I have found that during the course of my project, whereby I am studying why students procrastinate on writing assignments, there are many different factors and opinions that come into play. While unifying these different factors and looking for commonalities, I feel like even with all the background literature I have read, a lot of the conclusions and inferences I have been drawing, may be considered subjective in some light. I fear that if someone with a completely different mindset were to be exposed to all the literature I have been exposed to, and all the gathered raw data I have gathered, they might come to a different conclusion than I for the same question I am asking. I am trying to be extremely careful as to include all possibilities in my conclusions and to gear towards what is most likely, but there is just this overhanging fear that unless I actually test my data and proposed conclusions, I will not ever be perfectly content that I have truly identified as to why students procrastinate in their writing assignments.

            But all in all, I guess that is the nature of research: to bring forth a baby step to the solution, in hopes one day the solution is reached. Maybe my project is just a small step towards continuing projects that’s should be conducted to truly see how to halt the trend of procrastination. It is truly an endeavor to begin a research project on anything, because if you do not commit to furthering the next project your original project has brought on, you are haunted by the questions you do not know the answers to.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Working With Student-Athletes

I have heard several writing assistants complain about working with student athletes. The main complaints are basically that student-athletes come to the tutoring center unprepared, with mediocre and incomplete assignments, and with a care-less attitude. Many tutors feel frustrated working with student-athletes because tutors feel like student-athletes are not interested in learning and actually improving their writing skills. And if the student-athletes themselves don’t care about their grade, why should we, the tutors, care?
Many tutors feel unenthusiastic about working with student athletes because of the belief that the session will be tedious and that they will be basically talking to a wall for 30 minutes. However, this is a misconception, and tutors should give student-athletes a chance before stereotyping them as poor writers. Athletes, in fact, are extremely smart. They have leadership skills, strong teamwork values, and they enjoy challenges and competition. Additionally, athletes really care about their grades. They have to maintain a certain GPA to be eligible to compete, and they have to complete their degrees and graduate in four years, because they are only eligible to compete with the NCAA for four years.
The main issue with student athletes is their time management. They have to comply with their obligations as an athlete just as much as they have to comply with their academic ones. They have a lot less room for procrastination than a normal student, and having to cleverly organize their time every single day is not an easy task. The idea of student athletes not caring is entirely a misconception. If they come to a session unprepared, it is not because they do not care, it is because they didn’t organize their time wisely enough to be on top of the assignment. If they are having a hard time focusing it is because they probably are physically taxed because of practices and competitions, which affects their mental energy and ability to concentrate.
We often make the mistake of judging student-athletes before even working with them. We should give athletes a chance, because in fact, they require more help than ordinary students. We need to be more patient with them, and if they adopt a negative attitude, instead of us adopting the same attitude, we should help them to change it in order to create a proactive environment.  

Breaking tradition

When I said I wanted to write something about being a nontraditional student, a fellow tutor asked, insightfully, what the term actually meant.  So I looked it up.
According to our school’s website:
A non-traditional student [includes] any of the following: over age 25, married or partnered, having children, a veteran of a branch of the Armed Services, a student who works full-time, or a student who is enrolled part-time.” 
Most nontraditional students started reading this like a checklist, not an “or” statement.  25, check.  Married, check. Veteran, check plus.  It’s almost a game of  “do I fit more categories than you?”  I probably do, by the way.  I fit all except the last two, which usually come as a set, so I think they should be one item. 
Think about that, though.  When the school goes to offer services to groups of students, “nontraditionals” tend to count as one lump category, but a 22 year old mother, working full time, taking night classes has a completely different set of needs from the 30 year old single Marine veteran. 
Of course, the writing center is in a unique position to meet even this diverse group one-on-one, as individuals.  That’s powerful, in ways you may not realize.   In a major university, the nontraditionals can get lost in the shuffle, their unique offerings undervalued.  When they come to the writing center, though, they are exactly represented. 
I don’t know what yours is like, but our writing center teaches us to treat each consultation separately, avoid getting into “paper mill” mode.  You know what I mean, where the paper hits the desk and you’re on it immediately, looking for things to improve.  At the end of the session, you know all about the paper, but have to double check the person’s name.  We shouldn’t do that to anyone, but it can be doubly dangerous with nontraditionals.  Odds are the nontraditional student is coming in for more than just term paper revisions.  They already struggle with feeling like an inadequate member of the school.  If  the writing center looks like other programs on campus, where they’re technically allowed, but where they don’t actually fit, they probably won’t come back.  If we can make nontraditionals feel like they’re the friend we’ve been hoping to meet all semester, I’d put money on them becoming a regular visitor.
The best part; this couldn’t be any easier.  Start a conversation.  Find a connection.  Get to know everyone you tutor as much as reasonable.  While you’re asking them about that essay prompt, ask where they’re from.  In between talking about organization plans, talk about weekend plans.  Using my examples from earlier, getting a mom to talk about her kids isn’t exactly pulling teeth, and that Marine veteran wants to tell you why Japan was the best country he ever visited.  Chances are they’ll even have some hint of it in their work they bring in.    
Remember, too, to embrace the differences that pop up. You won’t understand every obscure Bill Clinton sex joke, and they might have no idea what a vine video is (I just learned that one last semester).  That’s ok.   In fact, my point is that we make a place for these differences TO be ok. 
So basically, when we see someone come in who doesn’t fit the usual mold, let’s make a real effort to make “them” feel like part of “us.”  I know the writing center is up to the task, because it worked for this married thirty-something Veteran dad.