Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Reflection: The role of tutoring

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


Friday, August 29, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing Tutors as Car Salesmen

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

Monday, June 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Teaching Revision with Digital Collation Software

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

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

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

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

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

 Figure 1: Comparing 1st and 2nd drafts.

Figure 2: Comparing 2nd and final drafts.

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

 Figure 3: Comparing prewriting and final draft.

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

 Figure 4: Prewriting Heat Map

Figure 5: Final Draft Heat Map

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

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

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

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.