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Friday, April 29, 2005

Ah Technology

It has been beautiful and sunny this week here at WWU, making it hard to stay inside to do homework. Days like this make me realize how much our academic lives, both in and out of the Writing Center, are tied to these darn computers! After all, I can take my book outside with me to read if I like, but when it comes time to write that five page paper I wind up back at my desk staring at my little screen. Even this blog requires me to be in front of the computer in order to read or contribute to this community.

So why then, with all this emphasis on computers and technology, do Writing Centers still struggle with our computers? It seems as though we tolerate them as a necessary evil - a tool for creating legible drafts and a requirement for quality final drafts - rather than embracing the opportunities they give us both as tutors and as writers ourselves.

It seems that by far the most common discussion related to technology in Writing Centers surrounds the issue of Online Writing Labs (OWLs) and whether or not a face-to-face pedagogy is translatable to the online setting. I'm not sure this is the right question to ask, because like it or not, the computers are not going anywhere. Online drafts are the wave of the future and being prepared to meet that demand (as well as the challenges that go along with it) seems vital to the continued success of Writing Centers.

Unfortunately, Writing Centers' dislike of computers does not stop at OWLing. The majority of training for tutors in my Writing Center focuses on hands-on, verbal, or otherwise very low tech strategies for working with writers. Personally, I am thrilled by this practice because it means I don't have to think of my writing as being tied to a keyboard and desk! And yet, we have all these beautiful computers in our Center, all equipped with software that could take some of the pencil and paper strategies and give them a whole new dimension of usefulness, that are just sitting idle for most of the day.

Perhaps one motive behind our discomfort is that maybe we don't all know how to use the computers as well as we think we should. I have discovered that many of the questions related to footnoting that come into our Writing Center also require an explanation of how to physically create a footnote in a document, but when I asked other tutors if they know how to do it themselves the majority had to admit that they do not. And I know that I don't make use of some of the editing and brainstorming software in our Center because I don't know how to use it well enough to teach someone else. Is it possible that even growing up with technology has not prepared us to use it effectively in this setting? How much work would it take to make the computers as useful a tool as the highlighters and scratch paper we have all come to know and love?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

STRATA in the Center

I’m stealing my idea for my blog from a fellow Learning Assistant(LA) in my writing center because she raised an interesting discussion that has been on my mind all week (thanks Shelly!). She posted an online blurb about STRATA students, a term I’d never heard before yesterday. STRATA is one of those lovely acronyms that stands for STudents Returning After Time Away (from school). These are nontraditional students who are returning to school after being away for five or more years. Often these students are still working part time, may have families, and going to school. Whew! That seems to be a lot of pressure and juggling to me.

My experience so far with STRATA students has been very positive. Often when I begin conferencing with these students I’m initially intimidated (since they’re older than me- I wonder if I really can give them valid feedback). It’s just the notion that wisdom is in age and it somehow intimidates me in the beginning. Most of the students are eager to get back into school but are often apprehensive about getting back into writing. Particularly, most STRATA students come in with grammar fears, citing woes and are worried about meeting the expectations of their professors. Like one LA pointed out, sometimes a session with a STRATA student can feel more like a “therapy session” once you’re through. Often with these students once we get through talking about their LOC’s they are more than ready to dive into talking about ideas in their paper. I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations with these types of students, and sometimes the conversations are more geared towards being back in school, dealing with life pressures and having a balance than about their paper. It is because of those added pressures that STRATA students have, that I wonder what writing centers can do to help them outside of conferencing (or holding therapy) with them.

Most writing centers pedagogies strive to be all inclusive and diverse- but what about the diversity of ages? Do we take time in our writing center classes and training to discuss how to work with writers of differing ages? I wonder if STRATA students could benefit from more specific resources tailored to their needs. One LA is collecting data about this but I wondered if this topic has been addressed at other schools and if there are any tactics to dealing with STRATA students or resources. It all comes down to the fact that, STRATA, ESL, ELL, LD, any student, or LA at the conference table- we’re all just people trying to better our writing but I’m curious to see if there’s been any research done about STRATA students and about making their transition easier back into school through the writing center. If you have any ideas or experiences- please share!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Waxing Academic

After attending a few writing center conferences (both at the national and regional level), I see a startling trend. It seems writing centers have abandoned our pedagogy. Let me explain.
Think for a moment of the cornerstone values of writing centers: peer to peer interaction, discussion based learning, lots of probing questions, etc. Now, recall how many writing center conference sessions are run: lecture. Case in point: at the last conference I attended, three of the five the sessions I attended we lecture (one of them even consisted of the presented just reading from her work). If 60 percent of the sessions I attended we lecture, that means half the sessions had NO interactive learning in them. Clearly, these sessions are a stark departure from writing center pedagogy. Just imagine if we worked with students the same way we work with each other at conferences, never letting the writer speak and dictating all the answers!

I would think that our pedagogy ought to be reflected in how we run our conferences, which means I believe writing center conferences should be highly interactive: work shops, small group discussions, chances to challenge the ideas shared. One thing that struck me about the last conference I attended was how quite it was, which means no one was talking. If anything, writing center conferences, if they are displaying writing center pedagogy, should be one of the loudest places in town due to all the conversation!

So why do writing centers abandon our pedagogy when we get together at conferences? A good friend of mine thinks it is because writing centers, traditionally marginalized by academia, are attempting to appear more “scholarly” in the eyes of the university, and thus adopt academic rhetoric in the form of lectures. I offer a challenge to writing centers; instead of waxing academic, I propose we stick to our pedagogical guns. Studies consistently show lectures are one of the least effective learning environments; why not run our conferences in a way that best fosters learning – in interactive sessions?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Gender in the Center

Although it says that my name is Peter, this is actually Jo from the Western Washington University writing center.

To echo Jen in the last post, I too have recently participated in a writing center conference. Unlike Jen, however, who is a seasoned veteran at leading conference sessions, I was a newbie. I was working with two fellow writing assistants (tutors), and our conference was on gendered communication in the writing center.

I must admit that to me, gender dynamics, like Hamlet, are everywhere in our lives. Not everyone agrees with me, however. Many people participating in our conference thought that gender had absolutely no effect on their practice as members of the writing center community. Most people pre-conference felt that both their own gender and the gender of the person they were working with didn't really matter when it came to writing and tutoring.

At the Western Washington University writing center, however, we found some pretty interesting numbers involving our own staff and the demographic of people who use our writing center. Although our campus is 55% female and 45% male (pretty standard around the nation), we found that 72% of writers using the center were female. Interestingly, almost 70% of our staff is female as well, and on a larger scale, national writing center Directors are 80% female.

Why do we experience this disparity? Is it because writing center pedagody is geared towards a type of communication that is more stereotypically associated with women? Are women more willing to ask for help on their writing? Is it that writing centers in general are targeted for the humanities rather than the sciences, where women typically make up the majority? What other factors play in here?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Recent conference experiences

I don’t know about you, but each time I prepare for a conference, I’m initially excited, then apprehensive about even attending. Of course, I never tell anyone else at my writing center (now the word’s out!), but typically I just want to disappear the day before. I mean, don’t conferences sound stuffy and formal? Yet as soon as I arrive, I see all the tutors and directors chatting and eating, and I’m excited for the day.

While I certainly gain tremendously from all the sessions I attend, I find myself blown away by how much facilitating teaches me. With the recent conference being the third under my belt, I have come to learn what works for me, and what I really need to improve upon. At my first conference, I had already spent a year practicing giving directions as a student coordinator, and found I could do this fairly well in my session. But I had difficulty drawing the participants’ attention and dealing with unexpected comments. An issue of presence, I came to think of it, and have since worked on how to develop my skills as one presence more energetic than the group! I took these lessons to the national conference, where I presented the same workshop, and found huge improvements.

At this year’ regional conference, I facilitated a workshop with two other writing assistants (our name for tutors). Because our session was on using play at the conference table, we wore extravagant hats and goofy accessories to lighten the mood. And it worked on many levels: the audience felt encouraged to play, and I felt my presence take on a fun spirit rather than remaining forced and stunted. For me, learning how to create a presence as leader in a group is crucial because I want to teach. And when trying to facilitate a class, nothing works better than a professor with an engaging presence.

So my main plug is to encourage any tutors out there, undergraduates especially, to try out facilitating a conference session. Just going to a conference is fabulous, but I realize now that allowing tutors a venue to facilitate is one of the greatest opportunities a conference can offer.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Mi Familia, Mi Futuro

Along with others, the University of Kansas Writing Center is participating in a program to encourage the Western Kansas latino population to consider higher eduction:

"Those offices include the Academic Achievement and Access Center, the office of the dean of students, the department of student housing, the Freshman-Sophomore Advising Center and the KU Writing Center. Others include the Office of Admissions and Scholarships, the Office of Student Financial Aid, the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, and the KU Career Center.

'The objectives are to educate the Latino population in western Kansas of the importance of college, encourage students to consider the University of Kansas as a transfer student, and answer questions in Spanish regarding higher education, with a family perspective in mind,' Pena said." (DodgeCity.com: Dodge Globe: Local News: Stories)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

And now a few scenes from next week's PeerCentered!

Next week the folks at Western Washington University Writing Center (WWUWC) will be guest blogging here on PeerCentered. Roberta Kjesrud, WWUWC describes tells me that
Three of the five have just returned from presenting at the PNWCA [Pacific Northwest Writing Center Association] conference last weekend. Four of the five are currently student coordinators or will be next year.... They are all really fabulous tutors and human beings!
Looks like it will be a great week! Join in, by commenting. If you or your writing center compatriots want to guest blog, let me know.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Peer Tutoring used to Teach Jamaican Troubled Teens

In St. Ann, Jamaica the Positive Behaviour Support Centre is using peer tutoring for kids who have dropped out of highschool:
"'We encourage peer tutoring - studies with people of the same age group, sitting down together and saying, 'let me show you how to do this', and so on,' [Clifford] Senior explained" (Support for St Ann youth - JAMAICAOBSERVER.COM, 11).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Craig Crist-Evans

The Detroit News has a fine obituary for poet Craig Crist-Evans who passed away last week at the young age of 51. Crist-Evans was a great friend of many writing center folks, and he directed a writing center of his own at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Linda Wright, president of the literacy program Breakfast Serials which Crist-Evans was an ardent contributer notes:

"It's a tremendous loss -- Craig had a wonderful voice...president of Breakfast Serials, a literacy-boosting program whose original, serialized stories are delivered to young readers through the nation's newspapers. "He took on difficult subjects and his poetry was able to cut right through everything to the reality of what he was writing about. The public really responded with deep emotion." (link 4)


IWCA President Jon Olson recalls a happy meeting with Crist-Evans at last November's NCTE:

Consider the inscription Craig wrote when I bought a copy of his book.... What he wrote is a toast to writing centers, to all of us who work in them as he did. In memory of Craig, please join me in raising a glass, literally if you have one by your screen as you read this or figuratively. This is from Craig: "Here's to all the words and all the fun we have in Writing Centers!" (personal correspondence)

Monday, April 11, 2005

ESL and weather

Two ideas here: ESL and weather. (Not related other than by the fact that they’re on my mind today.)

I had a brilliant moment in one of my tutorials today. Too bad it didn’t come from me. A master’s student came in to discuss part of her thesis and she seemed nervous from the very beginning. She explained to me that English is her second language and that her paper seemed so great to her before she came into the Writing Center, but as soon as she sat down with a tutor she started realizing all the mistakes she had made. She is a regular here, and the way she was talking made it seem like coming in for a tutorial was a form of self-flagellation. I did all I could to assure her that many tutees (ESL or not) have that realization when they come in for tutorial, that we were here to help her improve rather than criticize her writing, and that everyone (even me! even tutors!) makes mistakes in their writing. She laughed a bit, but I wasn’t sure she believed me, and I continued to try to make her at ease and make the tutorial enjoyable.

In the course of our tutorial, another regular came in to peruse our bookshelves for instructions on how to write a letter to the editor. He was reading close by, and when he stood up to leave, he leaned in to our area to tell my tutee that he struggled with the same writing issues that she did. While their cultural backgrounds are rather different—he is Puerto Rican, she is Korean—both of them seemed visibly relieved to realize that there was someone else out there struggling much the same way. They chatted for a few minutes, he went on his merry way, and she turned her attention back to our tutorial—with a much more relaxed attitude and increased comfort as we discussed her paper. It dawned on me that neither of them seemed to realize that tons of students walk through our door every day with the same problems with articles, progressives, and translating from their first language—even though we tutors are certainly aware of that fact. The experience got me thinking about how to ensure that all of our students—ESL, ELL, EFL, 1.5s, native speakers, learning disabled, etc. etc.–are aware that they are certainly not alone and don’t need to get down on themselves. In particular, I want to make sure that the power hierarchy between tutor and tutee is disrupted in these situations. Have any of you out there had luck with group tutoring for ESL students? Or does anyone have further insight about non-native tutors? I realize that there are not simple answers to my questions or concern (as discussed in other blogs, some students self-identify, others don’t, some like my student appreciated the chance to talk with another ESL, others would want to distance themselves from other ESLs), but I am open to ideas about making tutoring a positive experience for everyone involved.

Another topic on my mind is weather. It’s somewhat of a joke around here, but weather has a large—and sometimes just plain shocking—impact on the number of students who show up for tutorials. If it’s snowing or raining, we have tons of cancellations and no-shows. If it’s sunny and warm (especially after a mid-west-esque cold spell), we have tons of cancellations and no-shows. This might seem like an issue of far less gravity than some of the others brought up by my colleagues, but having people miss their appointments means that we are simply not able to do our job. Does anyone out there have similar problems? What are the cancellation/no-show policies for other tutoring centers? Is anyone having any luck with theirs?
--Elizabeth Zimmerman

Sunday, April 10, 2005

How to tutor rich media projects?

I’ve recently returned to the writing center after an extended absence during which I taught a lot of composition, literature, and worked as a staff member at Ohio State’s DMP. My experiences at the DMP as well as the on-going work there to push the boundaries of what it means to teach composition by introducing rich media projects has gotten me thinking. Specifically I’m wondering how do writing centers and tutors that have extensive experience with print texts cope with rich media texts. What happens if a student comes in with an audio or video project? Or a Macromedia Flash or even a web site-based project? Another thing to think about is the question of resources. That is, does the writing center have the technological resources to allow the tutor and client to even access the client’s text? While in the short term the instructors assigning these rich media composition projects might be the best resource for their students, we can’t presume that every student in every class will comfortable getting feedback and advice from their instructors. Or they may even want a second or third opinion. Writing centers and tutors would be well-advised to start thinking about how to approach rich media projects and work with instructors to develop a set of best-practices.

In some preliminary conversations I’ve had with folks here at Ohio State we’ve come to the very tentative conclusion that early intervention in rich media projects is essential. This is primarily because the technological learning curve is so steep and the investment in terms of time is so great that traditional revision practices are to some degree not possible. That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done in helping clients winnow down hours of audio records, interviews, or video footage into a compelling project. It is at this level that tutors can the most help.

Scott Banville

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Reflections of an assistant director/tutor

Maren here. Along with Cat, I serve as the Assistant Coordinator of the OSU Writing Center. Although I majored in English and psychology as an undergraduate, I am currently a nurse studying at OSU for my master’s degree in women’s health. I’m one of those people that tend to enjoy almost everything, and don’t like the idea of settling down on one course. I enjoy biking, hiking, long walks in the park . . . oh wait, this is a blog, not a personals ad. I’m new to this. Sorry.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes I wonder how, with my current course of study, I ended up getting this job (besides being the only one to apply for it), and what I actually bring to the WC. Regardless of how I ended up here, I know that I’m excited about my position and look forward to coming into work more days than not. I like the different hats I get to wear around the WC– tutor, friend, mini-manager, etc., and I think this position has allowed me to think about some of the larger WC issues in addition to the day-to-day operations.

Something that’s been on my mind recently is this ultra-American idea that “bigger is better.” In the business world, it seems that you have been growing to be considered successful and productive. But does that notion necessarily hold true for writing centers? Should we be striving to “supersize” writing centers? What do we have to gain? To lose?

It seems to me that having more members of the university community come to the WC does have a positive connotation – more people interested in their writing, exploring the writing process, working through their thoughts and improving their ability to communicate with others. But there’s also a flip side. In only the two years I’ve worked here, there have been some subtle, but significant, changes. For starters, we are happily growing. The number of tutors working at the WC has increased, we now serve clients online as well as face-to-face, and we have an online system of scheduling appointments and logging employees’ tutoring hours. While all of this is commendable, I do think growth, if not properly planned for and accommodated, can lead to a more sterile and business-like environment, which is something I’ve always found refuge from at the WC.

Right now I’m working through some of these ideas and don’t have any clear answers or even suggestions. I know that I look forward to our weekly staff meetings where all of the tutors get to sit around and chat about their experiences and thoughts. We’ve also started having WC potlucks and meeting out for dinner and drinks after work sometimes. That helps, but I’m wondering if there is more I can do with the daily operations of the WC to help us maintain some of the comfortable, laid-back, open feel that I believe is an integral part of the WC environment. For now, that’s my larger focus. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Generation 1.5 students in the writing center

I recently conducted a study on Generation 1.5 students in the writing center. “Generation 1.5” refers to immigrant students who have permanent resident/citizenship status and have completed a significant amount of time (typically, at least high school) American schools before entering an American university/college. One of my guiding research questions was whether or not tutors seek to identify a student’s socio-cultural background in typical tutorials and how does this knowledge (or lack of) help shape the tutorials. Interestingly, none of the tutors in my study considered this socio-cultural background important to their tutorials, although the participating student population was quite unique and diverse, and thus, did not broach the topic with their students. Without critizing my colleagues, this does seem to imply that writing center tutorials have little to no elements of Socioliterate pedagogy. Are the students we work with then being under-serviced, or is it not possible for writing centers take a socioliterate perspective (that is, is it not possible or appropriate for tutors to engage in socioliterate practices)? It seems the writing centers often give explicit instruction on certain genres of writing. If we are practicing this, don’t we owe it to the students to step out of our comfort zones and discuss socio-cultural backgrounds as a means of further helping students?
-Eve R. (tutor and master's student)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

One Tutor's Thoughts on Group Tutoring

Last year our Writing Center took on the task of placing several tutors for one hour per week in each “remedial” writing classroom. The program was terminated last quarter, for various reasons, but as a tutor in these classes I became interested in the dynamics of tutoring in a group.
Group tutoring is fundamentally different, I think, than a doctoral (or master’s) writing group. With such a “workshopping” model, each member is considered equal, and there tend to be fairly specific do’s and don’t’s designed to protect this equality. However, the tutor in a writing classroom (remedial or otherwise) is automatically imbued with a sense of authority, whether or not it is desired. The tutor is positioned (culturally, phenomenologically) as a sort of “sub-” or “pseudo-” instructor – that is, as “between” the instructor, who has the ability to evaluate (i.e. “grade”), and the students. The tutor is considered a writing “expert,” with the knowledge to advise and, in fact, influence the student (and his/her writing).
This is, of course, not much different than many of the situations we find ourselves in when tutoring one-on-one. Much of our time thinking about the writing center is spent considering the ways to “de-politicize” (even “de-colonize”) the tutor/tutee relationship – to eliminate the power dynamics inherent in “teaching” (at least the Western conception of it). In a group tutoring environment like the one our tutors found themselves in, this proved to be nearly impossible (at least for me): the roles and expectations had already been established and the students seemed unwilling to take control, or even participate. Indeed, the primary complaint among the tutors, at least anecdotally, was that the students “don’t do anything. They don’t seem to care.”
I believe there are real benefits to utilizing these predetermined power dynamics and adopting at specific times a moderately directive philosophy. It can be advantageous, first of all, for the tutor to use his/her authority to get the students involved. The tutor can do this by outlining an agenda, exercising control of the group discussion (by selecting a topic or merely guiding the conversation through direct questioning), or by assigning specific writing tasks to complete within the tutoring time. Tutors can also rely on “talking,” instead of merely asking. Talking, I think, can take two forms, both important. Tutors can provide tools students can use and general information about writing (generally how do writers research or deal with theses, transitions, or organization); tutors can also serve as a model for good peer input. The tutor does not merely model good discussion, but also “how to do school,” immensely important in the remedial writing classroom.
It is important to not concede to the extreme. The group tutor must also use the group – that is, discussion should not be one-one-one. The tutor can counter this by posing questions to the group as a whole, or, when one student has a problem, turn to the group for solutions. In general, tutors should ask open-ended questions. I found it best when I asked questions that I didn’t necessarily have an answer for; this allowed me to become one of the group, instead of a teacher searching for “the” correct answer.
Interestingly enough, I found that this combination modeling good peer participation and non-directive but “powerful” (recognizing and using, when appropriate or useful, your inherent authority) tutoring can actually inspire students to take control of the group. After a few sessions with a pre-arranged agenda, the students and I together began to prepare for the next session at the end of the hour. Although they still at times turned to me, more and more often they answered each others’ questions. As they become more involved, and more familiarized to the college environment and its expectations, the students took control of their writing, and of their participation in the writing group. Unexpectedly, I had moved to the periphery of the group.
--Taylor Nelms

Monday, April 04, 2005

First Post From Ohio State

Hello,
The Ohio State University Writing Center will be Guest Blogging for this week. My name is Doug Dangler and I run the Online Writing Center at OSU (www.cstw.org). I tutor online via a synchronous system a few hours a week, and more during the weeks before midterms and finals. I’m always fascinated by the theorietical aspects of writing center communications and how the work done there gets interpreted in a variety of ways. (For example, online writing center issues frequently surface on the writing center listserv, wcenter: http://listserv.tamu.edu/cgi/wa?SUBED1=wcenter-l&A=1). Last Friday, I was part of an East Central Writing Center Association (ECWCA: http://www.sienahts.edu/~eng/ecwca/ecwca.htm) panel discussing online tutoring and the influence of the language used to describe it, especially metaphors. Tom Savas, a graduate tutor at OSU, talked about the impact that electronic technologies have had on Andrea Lunsford’s metaphors of the Garret, the Storehouse, and the Burkean Parlor. For my at bat, I talked about why I’d like to see the OWL acronym altered to something more descriptive of online writing center work. And the final presenter, Kay Halasek, the Writing Center Faculty Coordinator at OSU, discussed administrative issues associated with online writing centers. All in all, provocative ideas were presented and a good discussion followed, demonstrating once again that conferences can be great places to question long-held assumptions and practices.

Guest blogging this week on PeerCentered

The staff from Ohio State Univeristy Writing Cetner will be taking over PeerCentered this week in the first of our series guest bloggers. Welcome, OSU folks!

Friday, April 01, 2005

Student Work and the Writing Center

Lisa Schultz of the Notre Dame Observer writes of the efficacy of student work on campus and how students snap up any open position: "'As soon as we post a new position [on the board], it's gone,' [Joyce Yates, the assistant student employment coordinator for the Office of Student Employment] said" (link 2). Rather than attributing the rush for jobs to endemic student poverty, Schultz sides with the optomists and ascribes it to students' desire for work:
Students at Notre Dame are known for their hard work and dedication in the classroom. However, the University also recognizes them as hard workers outside of class - in on-campus jobs ranging from secretary to sandwich artist. (1)

Writing Center tutor Curtis Leighton states that
"I have one of the best jobs on campus.... Flexible hours, human interaction and good pay' are all positives for working at the Writing Center..." (17).
As a person who worked in a writing center as a student, and as a Writing Center Director I would tend to agree with Leighton. While working in the Writing Center as a student I found myself actively engaged in the job not only as a tutor, but as a learner. I come to look on those days as a crucial time in my life when I decided really what I wanted to do. I kept that writing center job as long as I could (and you might say since I have always directed a writing center that I never really left it.) As a director I have seen student peer tutors/consultants do the same thing. Writing center work seems to keep people around. I think the shortest period that someone worked for a writing center I have been involved with was 2 weeks and that was simply because the person had to move out of state. Most of the folks stick around for at least two years (I am at a community college) if not for three or four.