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Thursday, November 29, 2007

No time!

Now that we have been at the writing center for a few months (new BSU consultants), we have more or less picked up a routine. I come in for an hour and a half on Tuesday and Wednesday, and others come in during their scheduled times. We meet with writers, discuss their writing or their thoughts, and then we move on to the next student. My question in this post has more to do with basic operation of the center and less to do with student-writer relationships. That is question is simple—how do the consultants that work long hours (I am thinking more than three) keep their wits about them?

I realize that some consultants may be used to reading paper after paper and discussing it with the students, but I find it very difficult at times to sit down, read a paper, discuss it, work with the rest of my appointments, and then go off to the rest of the day. Sometimes I get the same feeling from three half-hour consultations that I do from reading half a novel in one day. My eyes hurt, my head hurts, I’m sleepy, and the last thing I want to do is look at words on a paper. As I near the end of the first semester of consulting at BSU, the time comes to choose between working next semester as an intern again, or picking up more hours and working for pay.

So I ask you (all of you) for ideas or thoughts on how to get through hours and hours of consulting. It can be very draining work especially at the end of the semester; a time for everyone to squeeze out his or her projects. Also, the end of the semester for the students you work with means the end of the semester for you; you have your share of projects to complete and tests to study for.

Where do you all, as consultants and students/parents/employees/teachers, find the ability to sit through so many consultations and reserve the same amount of energy for each student you see? I think this is an important thing to think about, and I hope it will help anyone thinking the same thing as me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Writing Center as Home

I’m aware something as obvious as this post will get muted reaction, but I’ve been feeling the need, for sometime, to espouse some thoughts I’ve had since my first day of employment in the Writing Center.

Here is the first: I love the Writing Center. I do. And by this I mean I love the material presence of the Center (besides the obvious legitimate benefits of working in the space). I feel so comfortable among the pseudo-cubicles and bookshelves stacked with reference books. I appreciate fully the nuance of our floor lamps, softening the harsh buzz of the few fluorescent lights in the space.

The sofa, although sinking with wear in the middle, offers a snug sanctuary away from the bitterness of plastic computers and wooden desks. Although I have been indifferent to the stuffed parrot that sits atop the paint-peeling coat rack next to the sofa, I like knowing that little avian friend is there if I need him. The toys in the little cabinet to the side make me laugh, especially when someone places the orange rubber spider on the tiny die-cast Hulk motorcycle. Sitting on the coffee table are the Calvin and Hobbes books—always familiar—and a basket of candy that varies week to week.

With its high ceiling, the tiny backroom is a nice place to loudly blow one’s noise or even pass wind unobtrusively. Although there are coat racks in this room, I always throw my jacket onto the small desk; I have never seen anyone using this desk, and would be sort of miffed to barge in on someone eating their lunch or studying in this brightly lit cell. I’m sure people use the room for things other then the dispelling of snot and farts, though: the wrappers of various food items litter the desk area, the microwave always smells of something fresh, and books come and go from the little space.

I’m not sure I understand the metal black cabinet that stand near the main entrance to the Center; this does not negate my love for it. There is a coffee maker on top of the cabinet, but the coffee is never brewing when I come in; I am too lazy to make more. There is a tin of powdered cocoa, but this, too, is empty; I look hopefully inside more and more as the semester gets colder. It took me four weeks to learn that you must twist the right handle of the cabinet before the whole thing opens with a percussive shudder—before this I simply tugged at the handle. Inside, the dry sponge sits in the same mug green always, but I watch the tea bags slowly leave their boxes. I do not understand the bag of fluorescent-blue Miracle-Gro: does the one plant in the Center need it that much? It must be for our students.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Praxis CFP for Spring 2008

Here is the call for papers from Praxis:

CFP: Spring 2008 Issue of Praxis – Authority and Cooperation

Praxis: A Writing Center Journal welcomes submissions for its Spring 2008 issue. Although we welcome essays on a wide range of topics related to writing centers, we especially encourage submissions on this issue’s theme: Authority and Cooperation. Many writing centers try to create a collaborative space free from the hierarchies of knowledge and power that characterize the classroom and the university in general; yet difficult issues concerning authority and hierarchy inevitably develop in individual writing consultations and in the larger physical and institutional space of the writing center. We invite contributors to interpret the theme of Authority and Cooperation broadly; however, some possible applications include

¨ Directive/Non-directive approaches to consultations

¨ Undergraduates consulting undergraduates

¨ Using writing manuals/style guides as authoritative arbiters of writing style

¨ Issues of power, gender, class, race

¨ Overall writing center philosophies

¨ Navigating the professor’s authority

¨ Creating collaborative spaces within the writing center’s administrative hierarchies (and within larger institutional hierarchies)

Submission guidelines:

Recommended article length is 1000 to 2000 words. Articles should conform to MLA style. Send submissions as a Word document e-mail attachment to Jeremy Dean, James Jesson, and Patricia Burns at praxis@uwc.utexas.edu. Also include the writer’s name, e-mail address, phone number, and affiliation. Because Praxis is a Web-based journal, please do not send paper; we do not have the resources to transcribe printed manuscripts. Images should be formatted as jpeg files and sent as attachments.

Deadline for Spring issue: February 1, 2008

Praxis: A Writing Center Journal (http://projects.uwc.utexas.edu/praxis) is a biannual electronic publication sponsored by the University of Texas Undergraduate Writing Center, a component of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. It is a forum for writing center practitioners everywhere.

We welcome articles from writing center consultants and administrators related to training, consulting, labor issues, administration, and writing center news, initiatives, and scholarship. For further information about submitting an article or suggesting an idea, please contact the editors at praxis@uwc.utexas.edu.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tutoring Session Recording & Reflecting

I'm in my first semester as a grad student, tutoring at both an on-campus Writing Center and a more general learning center at Long Island University in New York. One of the classes in which I am enrolled is Individual and Small Group Writing Instruction, in which we read various texts pertaining to tutoring, discuss different pedagogies and accepted practices, and discuss tutoring. One of the big projects for the semester has been to record a tutoring session (which I finally managed to do this past Thursday after trying for nearly a month!), transcribing the session (my project for yesterday), and then to write a reflective piece about it - all in the name of becoming a better tutor, of course. I was very lucky insofar that I spent three years as a writing center tutor as an undergrad; my then-director was a bit advocate of self-reflection, and I found it easy to implement.

However, this is my first in-depth self-reflective analytical study. Admittedly, at this point, I have only a very brief mental sketch, but I do have an idea of the types of issues to address - using especially Gillespie & Lerner's The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring as a guide - but I"m curious if anyone else has done a more extensive self-reflective study, and if so, if there were any texts or series of questions you used to help you. I'm interested, for myself as much as anything, what tutors do to reflect and how they question themselves.

Friday, November 16, 2007

ESL student's need more time...

I just finished Jane Cogie's "ESL Studend Participation in Writing Center Sessions" form the Writing Center Journal and something she wrote really struck me. She made a point that ESL student's need more time to process infomation in order to learn. That tutors need to be patient with ESL students so that they can actively participate in their learning. I completely agree with this - the problem is that with 30 min or 1 hour sessions we often have barely enough time to cover one issue they want to discuss. Last week an ESL student came in who had worked with another tutor a day or so before. The tutor had only had enough time to go through a little more than one page of the students assignment. The student asked me in our session to help her find areas to expand her paper. We spent the entire hour working on this and then when we were just about out of time, she asked about the grammar issues. Of course, we didn't have enough time to work anything else so I felt really bad that I wasn't able to help her. Luckily, she had another appt already set up with another tutor.

I often feel frustrated after a session with an ESL student because of the time contstraints. Most ESL students seem to want help with grammar, and rightly so as this is a learning process for them; but, the time needed to really go over some of these concepts is not available in most tutoring sessions. I wonder if we should be automatically asking ESL students if they want to make another appointment. I have seen several ESL students who continually work with the same tutor week after week and I think that is ideal, but too often this does not happen.

I tend to have this need to fix everything, my mother calls it the "Mother Hen" syndrome. I just think that we could be doing more for ESL students. Maybe we just need to get the word out that an hour appt is better than a half hour when there are language issues. Of course, how do you do that without it coming across in a negative light?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Gentleman Experience

Well, I had an experience today that’s been botherin’ me a bit—in fact, it’s nearly one in the morning, and I’m up because I realized that my feelers are hurt and, consequently, my mind’s run amuck on me. Today a gentleman (I’m using the term very loosely here) came into the Center looking for his paper. He spoke with a light accent, and it was apparent to me that he’s an ELL student. I was sitting at the front computer, and he walked up to me and said, "I’m here to pick up my paper." This statement struck me as a bit strange, because students don’t generally drop-off their papers—my mind instantly registered "email consultation." When I asked him if he’d sent in his paper via email, he looked a bit perturbed and again stated, "I’m here to pick up my paper." I thought that maybe he’d forgotten it at the Center or something, so I asked him if he’d already worked with a consultant on the paper. This question must have really irritated him, because he took a step closer to me and said, "Do you speak English? I want my paper." Yeah, I know—my feelers withered right there. I was actually pretty shocked at the bluntness of the comment and at the tone of his voice when he said it, and, being the sweet smart-@$$ that I am, replied very kindly, "Yes, I do speak English. Just one moment, and I’ll ask Mike if he knows the whereabouts of your paper." As I rounded the desk, he snatched up today’s email consultations and began rummaging through them, looking for his own paper.

This student was much more cordial with Mike, and luckily Mike was able to figure-out where his paper was. It turns out that he’d left the paper with Zach, and it was finished and waiting in Zach’s cubby for pick up by the student. The situation wasn’t complicated, and all the student would have needed to tell me was that he’d consulted with Zach previously, and he’d left the paper at the Center for pick up later. I’m sure that Zach’s cubby would’ve been the first place that I’d have checked for it. What I couldn’t figure out was why he’d completely shut down communication with me; it was like he was Unwilling to give me the information that I really needed in order to help him locate his paper. Of course, the first thing that ran through my head was the way I spoke to him. He’s an ELL student, so I was afraid that maybe I inadvertently spoke to him differently than I would have to a native speaker. I’ve rewound and paused my actions, my words, and my overall attitude with him, and I don’t believe that I talked to him any differently than I would have a native speaker.

The student spoke English very well, and so there was no language barrier there; never once did I struggle with the accent or the syntax of his words. Even as I listened to him talk with Mike, there was no struggle on my end to understand what was being said. This got me thinking—maybe the communication blockade was do to my questions….

I worked at a hospital for a little over a year, and, in that time I worked with hundreds of folks learning to speak English—sometimes a non-native English speaking patient or family member would come to the wrong department looking for assistance. There were many patients that spoke very little English and/or were completely unfamiliar with how the departments work pretty independently from one another. Therefore, I’d have to ask many different questions in order to get them to where they needed to be. Most of the people that I assisted were friendly and just wanted to get to there destination quickly, but every once in a while I’d get someone at my desk who had a slip of paper with a doctor’s or a patient’s name on it. They’d simply hand me the paper and want me to point them in the right direction (hospitals so don't work that way). They’d get frustrated when I’d have to ask multiple questions in order to figure their situation out. From behind that desk, I'd done the ‘question around the situation dance’ so often that I knew why these ELL patients would get frustrated with me; sometimes I’d have to ask the same thirty questions to the same patient twice in one day, for two totally different problems . I’d certainly get tired of it—I’d assume that they would, too.

Anyway, maybe that’s what happened today with that gentleman. Maybe he assumed that "picking up his paper" was something that I should be really familiar with. Maybe he misinterpreted my questions, and considered them offensive because I should know what he’s talking about. Maybe he thought I asked the questions only because he was a non-native speaker. OR Maybe he really just bonked his head while getting out of his car on the way in and was in bad mood. Or, maybe he just dislikes short women—who knows? Nevertheless, today’s experience is going to have me thinking twice about the amount of questions, and the way in which I phrase those questions to writers (ELL or not). All right, I’ve typed enough, and I do feel a bit better. I’m going to bed now.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Stinky Center

I would like to address something we are bound to rarely come across in the literature: In what manner is a consultant to deal with a student’s halitosis? What about an impermeable membrane of body odor? Is it, at any time, appropriate to say to a student, “excuse me, but I believe you may have stepped in dog dung”? And if the answer comes back, “no, I haven’t,” how does one recover form such an offensive misstep?

All joking aside, this is something we don’t discuss. This offensive matter cannot be relegated to the realm of “take a deep breath and start again” (this strategy will invariably make the situation worse). A student’s “aura” so to speak is far beyond the topic of misappropriation, far from the context of colonialism, feminism, or any ism within the center.

Some will accuse me of insensitivity. But it is the oversensitivity of my olfactory that helps bring this issue to smell. Who among you hasn’t pondered a similar topic? Have you not had a consultation with the football team’s lineman who hurried from practice in order to make the consultation on time? What about the culinary arts student who has not yet learned of their overuse of garlic?

Now be advised: I am no theorist. But I have devised a couple short-term strategies that you may find helpful. To avoid overt discomfort, mix and match the techniques so as to appear most natural.

1). A common non-verbal sign of analytic thought is the “stroking of the beard or mustache.” This ancient gesticulation indicating wisdom is simple, and you needn’t even have a beard. It follows as such: at a particularly engaging moment in the text, raise a hand and, with brow furrowed, stroke the area around the mouth (yours, not the student’s). To use this movement to blockade a stench, use the hand to rub the area directly below the nose. Some variations include a slight humming sound to indicate deep thought. This works well for extended periods of silence.

2). It is not uncommon for college students to rest their elbows on table-tops and in turn rest their chins on the propped, closed fists or happen hands connected to said elbows. This position alleviates strain on the neck by supporting the student’s head. But, with a little tweaking of this common form of informal posture, you can block a student’s odor without offending them at all. Simply turn the open hand outward so that the fingertips are directed at the ear and rest the mouth in the palm of the hand. If placed correctly, the far side of the hand will rest directly below the nose; the smell will be blocked. Your head is also supported in a comfortable way.

I’m sure there are many more techniques out there. I would love to read your thoughts on this topic. If you have yet to encounter a smelly consultation, be ever alert—they come as quite a surprise.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

No, I thank you...

I haven't posted for a while, so I thought that I'd better contribute. Actually, what inspired this particular post was my youngest son; he's an eight year old third grader (he's cute as heck, too). He came home from school today with a short informative story about the Tewa Tribe called "Dancing Rainbows," and his assignment calls for him to read this story and then create a short summary of it, so he can share it with the rest of his reading group this up-coming Friday. Sounds like a simple task right? Umm, no...reading has always been difficult for my son, and stories full of words like "Pueblo," "San Juan," "Comanche," and "ancestors" really, really. really frustrate him. Anyway, we did make it through the story, and, as I was wringing the last of his tears from its pages, I realized that reading that story was the easiest part. Actually, writing the summary will, no doubt, prove even more difficult for him. In lieu of this, I decided to let him have the rest of the night off, and I told him that he could begin the summary tomorrow evening.

Anyway, onto the point I perhaps was trying to steer towards. After my son had exited the kitchen, and calmed down significantly, I checked my Broncomail and ran across an email that I'd received last Friday. This email was from a student that I had a consultation with a few weeks ago--I'd call him Bob, but we have a Bob, so I'll call him Roberto (just for kicks). Roberto had originally come in for help on a critical summary that he was required to do for a class--in fact, the one that he'd brought to me was his second summary that he'd been required to do, and there was still 4 or so left to compose in the semester. He told me that the reason that he'd come to the Center for help was that he'd "bombed" the first summary, and he didn't really know why.

He then showed me the first summary that he'd written for this class; it was plastered with ink and very, very negative comments from the teacher. He'd actually received a 34% on that particular summary, and I instantly felt for him--I also admired his courage. I'm not a quitter, generally, but those comments and that grade might have convinced me to drop the class and never, ever, pick-up a pencil again. It also took courage for him to show someone else, whom he didn't even know, those comments and then ask for help in writing, yet another summary. I could see that he was getting upset, all over again, reading through those comments, so I turned that summary over and we talked about how to approach creating a 1-2 page critical summary.

Much of his first summary contained personal experience, used the first person, and attempted to address many different issues from the book. We talked about choosing a specific point to focus on, and omitting (an obvious) first person point-of-view. I then pulled out my handy dandy Boise State Writing Center collection of critical essay summaries, and I went over mine with him. Anyway, I felt like the consultation went well, but I felt like we didn't get to everything. He said he'd like to come back and meet with me again the following week, but I was booked-up, and so I made him an appointment with Sarah M.

Sarah's consultation with him must have been successful as well, because the email that I received on Friday said that he'd gotten a 5 ranking on his most recent summary (on a scale of 1-5) and that he wanted to let me know that. He also asked me to extend his thanks to Sarah (which I meant to do today in class, but I forgot to), and he attached a couple of pictures (he's a nature photographer) that he'd like us both to have. This made me feel good, and I'm sure that it'll make Sarah feel really good, too--I'll bring the hard copy and the pictures in for you on Thurs., Sarah.

Perhaps the point that I was trying to make in sharing my "oh, so fun" experience about my youngest, is that we always don't get to see how frustrating writing can be for students, and we don't always get to see the negativity that can surround it for others. I was fortunate that Roberto shared his teacher's extremely negative comments with me, and I am fortunate that I can help my youngest through his struggles with his own assignments, too. They see writing differently than I do, and, at most times, find nothing exciting or thrilling about it. They may not want to write, but they do it because they have to. As I write this, this seems like a "no duh" conclusion, but I think there's a bit more to it, as well. Roberto came into the Center a despondent, pissed-off student and walked out a stronger writer. There's something so very powerful in that; I wish that for my son, too.