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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do Theory and Practice Overlap?

Like Rachel and Rob, I’m also a newbie in the Boise State Writing Center, and I’m also concurrently enrolled in BSU’s English 303 class, Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing. For these first four or five weeks of class, we’ve been inculcated with the theory, as first formulated and articulated by the venerable Stephen North, that writing centers are not fix-it shops or skills centers, but are instead places where tutors or consultants dialogue with students about the students’ writing and thereby help the students to become better writers. To reinforce the Northian ideal, we English 303-ers have also been inundated with essays by scholars such as Lisa Ede and Kenneth Bruffee, all of which elaborate on North by describing the act of writing as a collaborative process and theorizing on the ways in which talking about things like sentence structure, organization, transitions, and revision actually help students to become better writers. While I have observed many writing-center consultations where the tutors have indeed put such theory into practice and have steered students into a productive dialogue about their papers, I’ve also observed situations where the students tried to push the consultants into merely “fixing up” the punctuation and grammar in their papers. And sometimes the consultants acquiesced! At first, I was a bit dismayed by this apparent disparity between theory and practice. Even though I was assured by our center’s director and by veteran consultants that it’s sometimes okay to focus on grammar and punctuation issues, especially if those are the issues affecting the quality of a given student’s writing, I was still suffering anxiety over the thought of putting Northian theory on the back burner, digging out the proverbial red pen, and circling misused semicolons and correcting dangling modifiers during a writing-center consultation.

If there are other newbies out there struggling with this same issue, I’d like to share something that I’ve observed in BSU’s writing center that has helped me overcome my anxiety over this apparent disparity between writing-center theory and practice. Now, I’ve made it a point to observe the methods of as many veterans in our center as I possibly can, and most of those I’ve observed do a pretty good job in steering students away from the repair-shop mentality. But one veteran consultant in particular has a very cool way of adapting theory to practice, especially when a student clearly wants nothing more than to get the grammar and punctuation “fixed.” When this veteran agrees to do some “red-pen” error correction, he talks to the student as the corrections are made, and he explains why a given faux pas creates a problem for the reader and why the correction he makes clears up that problem. So while he is, in effect, doing a bit of fix-it work on the student’s paper, he is also engaging in a Northian-type dialogue with the student about that student’s writing. In other words, this consultant is not abandoning theory, but he is instead molding it to fit a situation he regularly faces in practice. Some of his fix-it sessions have been the most productive consultations that I’ve observed, as I could almost see the light bulb blink on in the students’ heads when the consultant explained what he was doing and why, and there was no doubt that the students walked away from the session knowing a little more about grammar and punctuation than they had when they’d walked in. Isn’t this in keeping with North’s statement that the goal of a writing center is “to make better writers, not necessarily—or immediately—better texts”? I think it is. So when I’m finally conducting consultations on my own, this is the example I plan to follow when a student pushes for the quick fix. I’ll correct some of the student’s errors, true, but he or she will talk to me about what’s being done and why, and that student will definitely learn something about writing before the session is over.

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