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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wrap it up...

Alright. I have made it a habit to discuss conclusions with just about every one of the students that I see in the Center. The problem here is that I have no idea how to describe what a conclusion is. Usually it is hit or miss:

"Wrap it up, bring up the main topics, try not to introduce new points, etc." *student nods happily* (hit).

"You know...conclude the paper." *student looks blank* (miss).

Anyways, I find it so hard to describe what the heck a conclusion is. I know what it is in my mind (I write them all the time) but for the life of me I cannot describe what it is to a student.

I thought that I would consult my fellow consultants on consulting with students about conclusions. What do you think? How do YOU explain these exciting endings to the students you visit with?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Resistant Writer: Futile or Exhausting?

I may be biased, but I think the Writing Center is a pretty inviting place. It’s well-lit, there’s free sugar in a bowl (actual candy--not the Nina Simone song), and (most of the time) somebody is there to greet the writer as she or he walks in. If you added in a massage table and a nacho bar, that’d be my idea of heaven, my friend. Despite all the organized niceties, there are still writers who come in that don’t want to be there. You see it in their faces—the impatience in their eyes, the corners of their mouths threatening to curl downward. Their voices, through a veneer of controlled and forced politeness, betray everything from indifference to outright hostility. These are the writers who have come to the Writing Center against their will to fulfill a class requirement.

Please note that I am not saying that every student who comes in because it’s required by the professor is not open to the experience. Far from it. These students, I’ve found, are positive about making the most of it, despite the fact that it wasn’t their idea to come in. There are a select few who gnash their teeth at the prospect of coming in. (Well, not literally. I don’t think. Maybe, they do, I don’t know. I’m going for an image here.) Let me try again. Some writers want to go to the Writing Center about as much as Amy Winehouse wants to go to rehab. Hmmm, no, that’s not quite what I’m trying to say. Hmmm. Let’s move on.

I can only speculate, but my general feeling on this matter is that students who don’t like writing in general are the ones who don’t want to go to the Writing Center. (Ironically, I feel like those writers are the ones that could most benefit from a helping voice.) Or it may be the coercive methods involved to get them to make that appointment. (Being FORCED can cause resistance instead of acquiescence.)

I’ve had a couple of sessions with writers who didn’t care to spend a bit of their afternoon with me. I’ve found that if you don’t like to write, then talking about writing is a big bowl of not-fun as well. There is also that element of resistance. I’ve seen writers just dig in to their preconceived notions that the consultation is, much like a visit to the dentist, meant to be endured.

My first week back this semester I had two such writers; they came in back-to-back, like a tag-team, and let me know that they were only there because of a professor’s requirement. Neither one of them was overtly belligerent or mean—nothing like that—but it was clear that they were there to collect the slip of paper that proved they endured 30 minutes of writing-talk with me.

Strangely enough, both consultations ended up being quite positive. Here’s why: I figured out that people who don’t like writing don’t like writing because they have a mistaken notion of what writing is. Writing doesn’t serve them; it’s something educated people do to write these incomprehensible, esoteric texts that you can only understand if you are already educated. Writing is meant to confuse. Writing is a barrier between people—between gender, class, race, education levels, etc. Certainly, these ideas about writing have some validity. But they don’t represent the vast spectrum of light that emanates from the field of writing. My goal as a consultant is to let people know that writing belongs to them. Make no mistake: I’m not giving that to them. They already have it. I’m just issuing a friendly, little reminder.

One of the consultees had to write an essay on his own writing experiences. (Yeah, I’ve been there, done that—thanks a lot Mike!) He showed me a few paragraphs that he had written, and it seemed to talk about everything and anything but writing. (What he had for breakfast, etc.) So we talked. He told me how much he hated writing, how he only used it for writing e-mails, how his girlfriend was a great writer and it made him feel inferior, and how he hated, hated HATED to write at a desk or at home. He went on for a few more minutes. After he had his say, I said to him: “That sounds like a *great* paper. Those are your writing experiences…everything you told me was related to writing.” He was silent for a few seconds. He beamed at me: “I never thought about it that way.” He had never considered that communicating his hatred of writing was a perfectly acceptable (and interesting) way of examining his own style. “It’s fair game. This is all fair game,” I told him.

Now, not all of my consultations with resistant writers are success stories like this one. There are ones that leave happily because I know they are just happy to get out of there. But for the most part I’m beginning to warm up to the challenge that this poses.

Strange occurence the other day...

Sitting at the computer on a particularly slow day, just doing my MySpace thing, the phone rings. The caller is a female grad. student looking for a little help with citations on (something).
“Fine,” I say, “Great! Let’s get it done! I can make an appointment for you right now!” We go through the whole bureaucratic rigmarole and she asks my name for clarification purposes. “Dale,” I say. I say this because it’s my name.
Here, incredulity sets in on the writer’s part: “Not Dale…Eisinger?”
No big deal, I figure, as TONS of people have heard of me (cough). “Why yes of course! How many Dales do you know who don’t live in rustic shacks?”
“Dale,” she says “this is Ramona-Jo Pemberton [Names have been changed to protect the innocent.] Remember me? I used to baby sit you when your parents lived on the Mesa.”
Now, I have to interject in the tale, here, with an aside: I don’t really care what this woman knows about me. She probably has seen my privates in the changing of a diaper, has seen me fall of various tricycles, and knows of the displeasure I previously had in the presence of my brother (yeah, let’s say that). In fact, I remember one incident where this woman’s daughter and I put clothespins on each other’s noses and wailed bloody oblivion, unable to take them off. But, as always, WRITING IS PARAMOUNT! I’m totally down to help out dear old Ramona-Jo.
“Would it be weird if I came in to work with you?”
Here, I take on the affect of a British lord: “Not at all! We shall talk citations until the Celts clamber over the hills!”
She lets me make an appointment for her and I honestly can’t wait to see her. Back to MySpace. And then the phone again. To my pleasure, it is Ramona-Jo Pemberton, my dear old baby sitter!
“Dale,” she says, “I DON’T WANT TO DO A CONSULTATION WITH YOU.” She actually screams this (or so I remember). It’s all very upsetting.
“Well, do you want me to make another appointment for you?”
“No. I don’t. I really don’t.”
So there you have it, folks. I did something so psychologically damaging to this lady that she doesn’t want to come into the writing center at all. AT ALL. The mere possibility of my presence is enough for Ramona-Jo Pemberton’s citations to go un-reviewed. This is a tragedy, I say. A TRAGEDY! Have any of you had similar experiences? I mean, but a lot less surreal?

Friday, February 22, 2008

ELL Email Consultation

So, I don’t have a lot of experience with email consultations in general, but the other day, I had an ELL email consultation, which was a first for me. It was a lot more difficult. When dealing with ELL students, it’s a lot easier to talk to them, in person, about grammar and such. But how do you explain grammar in an email? Looking for trends in the paper is a good start, but what if there aren’t really very many? What if most of the errors are different?

Well, unfortunately, that was sort of the case with this email consultation. There weren’t many trends. Most of the grammatical errors were all different, and I didn’t really know how to address them all. So, I didn’t. I did the best I could to look for the ones that were most important and the ones that were “trends.” And then, I focused more on the paper as a whole, even though I don’t think it was exactly what the student asked for. I did suggest to the student, though, that if he/she (I can’t remember which) wanted to focus more on grammar, to set an appointment in-person would be best.

I guess the thing about e-mail consultations are that no matter what kind of consultation it is I always tend to wish it was an in-person one. I think that’s just inevitable—I’ll probably always think that, because I know how much more valuable it can be to have that two way instant communication. The next day (after the ELL email consultation), I got another email consultation and I wished the same thing: that the student had come in, in person. But, not everyone can always come into the center. Email consultations are better than no consultations.

Anyway, how would you guys handle an ELL email consultation? Have you had a lot of experience with those?

PeerCentered on facebook

If you are a facebooker, you might want to seek out the new PeerCentered facebook group. (Just search for PeerCentered and you should find it. If that doesn't work, just search for me, Clint Gardner--clint.gardner@slcc.edu and add me as a friend. You should then be able to find it from my list of groups.)

This facebook thing is just another iteration of the PeerCentered concept to reach peer tutors who are horribly addicted to the online social networking platform from hell. ;-) In other words, the blog and podcast will still be around for our mutual edification.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Removing the Sludge

Well, I did it. I finally wrote my one page Sociology response--it's due at midnight and I just, five blissful minutes ago, hit send. Writing it was like scooping-up sludge; I literally put it off till the last minute, and I usually despise doing that. I avoid doing that at all costs, but this assignment...geesh! I swear that single page was the most difficult assignment of the semester, so far. Weird, I can dish-out a 12 page personal narrative in a single day, but a one page Sociology response, that I had a whole week to complete, almost defeated me. It's moments--or weeks--like this one that really make me sympathize with the writers that I talk with.

Can you imagine what it'd feel like to scoop-up sludge every single time you sat down to compose something? I feel fortunate that it only happens to me once in a while and that I am able to get through it relatively unscathed. As I was sitting here thanking my (extremely late) sociology muses and trying to figure out how I was going to organize this post, a writer that I met with last week walked through my thoughts. This writer was a walk-in, and we only met for maybe five minutes--tops, but apparently he's left a lasting impression on me.

I was actually in another consultation when this writer walked into the center. The consultation that I was currently in was running over the allotted time, and so, thankfully, another consultant let me know that I had an appointment waiting, and that consultant helped to wrap-up my previous appointment. I turned the corner of the cubicle and there the walk-in writer was--out of breath and a tad red in the cheeks.

I'll have to say, he looked quite panicked. He was looking straight at me too, as if he'd been waiting a century to meet with a consultant--any consultant. I took his folder and we sat down at a table. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a very large biology book that was overflowing--and I mean overflowing--with loose-leaf paper.

"I have my lab paper introduction due in two hours," he said to me, still out of breath.

He pulled out a single piece of paper with the assignment printed on it. He then pulled out three more papers that had the assignments for the actual lab and the results section that he was to write on later in the semester. Then, he pulled out all of his notes, his research, and his findings--then, more notes, more research, and more findings.

I asked him which assignment was due for today...he responded, "The introduction." He showed me what he had written for the actual intro. It was pretty much an entire sketch of the whole lab--he'd already completed it, and was unsure how to fit everything into the introduction. We read through the instructions for the intro, and they stated that he was to state what was going to be used in the lab and what his hypothesis for the results was. As I finished reading the instructions, he smiled. He realized that all he needed to do for the current assignment was to put into his own words what he thought was going to happen and what was going to be used.

We talked very, very briefly about length and possible structures, but I didn't do anything at all for him. I read the instructions for him--period. He left as quickly as he'd come in, but he left breathing normally. That was an odd consultation, but it was oddly satisfying, too. It felt good to just be there for someone when they needed--well, someone...anyone.

Perhaps it was just the act of writing that freaked him out so bad? Maybe it was that he was a returning student, and was really unsure of protocol? Who knows? I think back on the situation, and I wish that I would have let him know that even writing consultants have freaky writing experiences--sometimes we just need someone to help us, too. Maybe if I had one of you sit down and go over the instructions for my sociology response with me, I wouldn't have had such a difficult time doing it?

Now, if only I could find a way to remove sludge from algebra...

free ticket to copyediting town

Hi Peers. After my last session, I have come to the startling realization that I profile students by the writing they bring to the center. I claim to be all for assisting in making better writers, not better writing. But when a student brings in any sort of application, statement of purpose, or CV-like document to work on, I accidentally throw all of my consultant theory out of the window. I transform into a busy-bodied stage mother, trying to make them as presentable as possible without really embracing the larger idea. These students are going to be applying to things for the rest of their lives, and just as I want to help them learn to strongly revise their papers themselves, I should want them to strongly build their own applications. In reality, I am probably (hopefully) exaggerating my issue of control and favoring product over process in consultations focused on applications. But it is an issue that I just realized could be a problem in my tutoring style--if I'm here to help the student, and the student wants to make his paper adhere to standards that would allow his admittance into a program, and we only have thirty minutes...might the consultation seem more product-based?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Saturday Morning Opposites

Hello, All-

I had two polar opposite consultations this Saturday morning: my first was with a young, male student who had absolutely no desire to be at the Writing Center (WC), and my second was with an older, female returning student who was very eager to be at the WC. We'll call the first student John and the second student Jane.

John arrived about 20 minutes late (he slept in). We sat down, and, noting that he had been to the WC before, I somewhat expected him to know the basic routine--he did not (or at least he didn't seem to). I asked him what he would like to get out of the consultation and if there was anything specific he would like to focus on. To which he replied "umm, I don't know. Not really." I tried to liven up the mood by joking with him about being at the WC on a Saturday morning--it didn't work. John didn't care what we discussed because he didn't even care to be at the WC in the first place; his professor requires students to come into the WC. If the student fails to complete a consultation at the WC, then the student fails that unit. Anyway, we doggedly read through his paper (I read it out loud) and discussed local errors along the way. I had to stop several times because many of his sentences didn't make sense. When I tried to walk through these difficult sentences with him, he would say, "Well, it's true" or "I don't know what I was saying. I wrote it at 3 in the morning." He just wanted to move on, but I didn't know if his sentence was true or not because I didn't even know what it was saying. After reading the paper and discussing many of the local errors, I asked John again, "What else would you like to look at?" John said, "Well, do you think it's good?" What he meant was, "Can I go now?" After 30 energy-zapping minutes, I just wanted to say, "Yes, it's good. Go home." Instead, I suggested we take a look at topic sentences and make sure each paragraph was moving his argument forward. I felt like I was torturing myself. I wanted to help John, to teach him something valuable, but he was as good as back in his dorm in bed. After a brief lecture (it wasn't a discussion because that would mean he was talking too) on topic sentences and argumentative statements, I sent John on his way. While I think he appreciated the time spent on his paper, I don't think he actually learned anything. I failed at just about every attempt to get him involved in the revision process. I tried to bring some energy into the conversation at every opportunity--John just didn't want to participate. I am left wondering, did I do my job? I mean, I guess you can't win em all, but this was still a sadly, dissapointing consultation.

Fortunatly my day ended on a much more positive note. Jane came in full of energy and eager to work together. She had lots of ideas (quotes and brainstorming webs), but she wasn't sure how to organize an 'A' history paper. She did most of the talking and I was a sounding board. I listened to her ideas and took notes on what stood out. Together we created an outline, discussed ways to transition, looked at a possible attention getter, and crafted a thesis. Her ideas were large, all over the place, and together we narrowed her focus. She left relieved and with a clear sense of direction. She left me reenergized and with a confirmation that I am good at what I do.

John was forced to come in (if he wanted to pass the unit), and I imagine the teacher's goal is to help students be better writers. The WC is a great resource for students and I think all teachers should encourage it. I don't think John learned anything today though. He sat there unresponsive with his head in his hands. I would be amazed if anything I said sunk in at all. Jane came in purely by choice (motivated by the desire to get a good grade). I do think she walked away with a better grasp on the basic format of an essay,with a clearer sense of how to organize ideas, and with a focus for her paper. This leaves me to wonder whether or not teacher's should force their students to come to the WC. Advertise us, yes; offer extra credit, great. Have their grade depend on it? I don't know.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Writing Center Tutor or Writing Tutor?

What does it mean to be a writing center peer tutor? Does that meaning differ from being a peer writing tutor? I ask because our writing center peer tutors could very well become peer writing tutors in a learning center in the near future. I'd like to be able to ask the tutors how they see their work here, but the change of space and reporting structure has their emotions in overdrive, and I fear their responses would be purely from emotion.

Do you think there's a difference in the work? A difference in how you would approach the work? How do you think or do you think the name change is just that -- a name change? Is there something more to being called a writing center tutor than there is to being called a writing tutor in a learning center?

Do you think there's a difference in what it means to be part of the community of writing centers? Aren't writing tutors in a learning center still part of the larger wc community?

If we say that what's most important are the students we serve, does that mean we don't pay attention to the students who work as peer tutors? Does a name change affect the students who are peer tutors?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Go That Way...Maybe

Hello PeerCentered...

I just worked with a student who had some questions on revision for his papers. He sat down and pulled out three 40-page Political Science reports and wanted my feedback on them. I could just feel the excitement in the air. By the time he finished explaining that he was new to APA formatting, and that his professor wanted his papers (novels) formatted in APA, I was more or less a broken human being. I had a half hour to fit his expectations, read through his papers, and teach him APA (and teach myself, ha!)...

I decided to remedy the situation by pulling out a few APA books and showing him what the title page is, what the abstract is, and how to go about formatting the paper. Even better, I showed him our website (Boise State) and the "resources" page on it where he could find information about formatting APA. Thankfully he was very excited about the fact that he can go home, learn APA, and go from there. I also suggested speaking to his professors about the specifics of APA and what he/she required.

He was very respectful of the half-hour he had signed up for and said his goodbyes (and I said mine to those reports).

Now for the learning experience/search for suggestions: I have to wonder whether or not simply showing a student where to go for information is the best thing. In this case, my student was VERY pleased with it. I quickly walked him through the very basics of APA, but I feel as though I should have done more. I talked to another consultant about it, and he said that someone willing to bring in 120 pages of pure political fun for a half-hour should be motivated enough to go out and learn APA on his/her own.

Thoughts? Is pointing the student in a direction and letting him/her go better than sitting them down and teaching it to them? Should it depend on the student (the direction I am leaning in and an approach that I usually endorse)? What do YOU think?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Response to Greg's post

I would like to respond to Greg's post below. I am currently working on a paper regarding a lot of the issues you brought up in your post (in fact, I may refer to your blog post in my paper, if that is okay). I agree with your assessment that when working with ELL students who are fairly proficient in English it is easier to focus on the bigger picture when it comes to their writing, but you asked what about those ELL students who do not have as easy a time with the language.

I think the key to this issue is offering choices and learning to be a good listener. For instance, if you don't understand what someone is writing, just ask questions. Sometimes an ELL student will use a word that doesn't quite make sense to our native ears. If we ask them questions about what they are trying to write/say then we can offer them several choices for a more appropriate word choice. But in order to ask the right questions (or at least questions that will get you from point A to point B, you have to listen carefully to what the student is saying.

I think a lot of us, as native speakers, tend to assume what ELL students are trying to say in their writing (or verbally) and we need to step back and really pay attention to the student and try to uncover their meaning. We can't assume what they are trying to say. Often times, if we ask questions, we can help them discover the language they need to express their meaning. And if they don't have the proper vocabulary, we can offer them choices to find the right words.

I really don't think that working with ELL students is that much different than working with native speakers of English. For the most part, we could take a lot of the suggestions offered for working with ELLs and apply those to our tutoring sessions with native speakers as well. Thanks for providing me with a prompt Greg!

Ongoing sessions with ELL students

In the Boise State writing center over the past year and a half, I have worked closely with a number of non-native English Writers/Speakers in weekly sessions. For example, I worked with an engineering professor from China, a graduate engineering student from India, and a Brazilian student in the early stages of her business degree. The professor wanted help editing, proofreading, and making minor revisions to a rough draft of a book about Wireless Networks. The student from India sought help in understanding the conventions for plagiarism in US academia and ways to synthesize large amounts of research into her own words and organizational pattern. The business student sought help with resumes, business memos, and short essays. In all cases, these people had high levels of proficiency in spoken English, so verbal communication was not a problem.

However, all three of them were not familiar with certain word patterns and grammatical structures that affected the cohesiveness and clarity of their writing. Since there is no "right" way to go about finding the most effective way to help writers, I had to take varying approaches to talking about writing with them. The most obvious thing I noticed through working with these three was that the sessions became became more effective when I started thinking of them as writers as opposed to non-native English writers. While I believe it is important to be sensitive to cultural and linguistic issues that may arise in sessions such as these, I believe it is not good to be overly sensitive to these issues, especially clients who are highly proficient in spoken English but who may not have a "native ear" for their writing.

Simply put, in most cases, these clients needed exactly the same help with ideas, organization, introductions, conclusions, etc. as native-English speakers. Because I have substantial experience teaching ESL classes in the Washington State Penitentiary and in Barcelona, Spain, I have a bank of strategies for dealing with issues that come up for people trying to learn English. At the beginning of my stint here at the BSU writing center, I was still in that mode of teaching, pretty fresh off the plane from Barcelona. While I think some things I did were helpful to students (I'll borrow a term from Gail Shuck and call them "grammar gifts"), I tended to get bogged down in trying to explain the difference between "a" and "the" instead of looking at the piece of writing as a whole. In the 101 classes I teach, we do not focus extensively on grammar and sentence structure, so it seems logical that in the writing center we should focus more on higher level issues such as organization first and treat highly proficient ELL writers in much the same way as clients who are native speakers and writers of English. As consultants, we have to find that balance between what the writer wants and what the writer, perhaps, needs.

And while I would like to accommodate all clients in everything, this simply cannot be done in half-hour and hour-long sessions. Through the previously mentioned experiences, I have found that it is much more fruitful to focus on a few items (for example, parallel structure) in order to give the writer a tool to work with when s/he revises on his/her own time. While the writer may be temporarily dissatisfied that the consultant did not "correct" the paper, it is better than bombarding him/her with too many ideas. As I result, when I have writers come in to the center who are not native English speakers and they are seeking help with grammar, I strongly encourage them to set up ongoing, weekly appointments at the center in order to tackle more questions they have about writing. That way, it becomes easier to blend sentence level issues with global issues. I actively offer repeat sessions as a possibility, and I show them how to book a weekly appointment. Because while one session will not be enough to address all questions, weekly appointments can allow the writer to get the repeated exposure and practice necessary for picking up some extra tools for boosting their writing skills. Also, because of the duration of time spent working one-on-one over the course of the semester, both the consultant and the client can see visible improvement in the writer's skills.

Here's a question I have: What can we do as consultants to work with ELL students who may not have the high level of spoken English that the three writers I mentioned have?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

2nd week of school

So, this week wasn't so busy...at least not on Monday or Tuesday. But Wednesday, I actually had 3 appointments (thanks, Jenny!) But it was nice--that feeling of business, and feeling like you really helped someone. I took a walk in Wednesday, and I had 2 scheduled appointments. It was a nice change from the deadness in the center, on Tuesday--I was there 9-11am, and then 6-7pm, with no appointments. Granted, it's the 2nd week of school.

So, on Wednesday, I had kind of an unusual appointment with more of a non-traditional student...she was coming back to school, after not having been in years, and she came in for a brainstorming session. She was to write a 2000-word essay, summarizing a course description. Instead of wanting ideas for content, however, she wanted to know how you're supposed to write an essay. You'd think such a simple question would be really easy to answer. But I really didn't know what to say. At this point, for me, essay writing is an automatic thing I just do, without thinking much about it--at least, not until revisions. But, she wanted to know how to get started, and how to write an introduction.

Of course, I explained to her how to introduce the topic, with the main point generalized in the introduction, then adding details and descriptions and such in the body paragraph, and then wrapping everything up in the conclusion. But just explaining wasn't really enough. So, I picked up that awesome MLA/APA style guide and we took a look at some of the sample essays. That seemed to have helped a little bit more, even if the essays weren't really the same kind she'd be writing. And then, when she got a better idea, we started really brainstorming. I suggested breaking down the huge course description (it was about 5 pages long--no wonder the summary was supposed to be so long), into pieces, and looking at all the key points, and figuring out what each section meant to her.

By the end of the session, I really felt that I'd helped, and she promised to come back to the writing center for another paper she had to do (which we also discussed briefly). I loved the way the consultation really turned around though. It was as though both of us were confused. I wasn't sure how I could help her at first, and she was didn't know where to start. Then, we came to an understanding...and then, the consultation ended with a good feeling, as though I actually helped. I like the contrast between thinking "How can I help? I don't know..." and then the promise that she'd be back to the center, and she now knew what to do.

It seems that a lot of my consultations go through that pattern...but I think it's been a learning experience...for both me and the writers.