Monday, April 23, 2012

Ideas and Insights—Not Commas and Conjunctions



The consultation was not out of the ordinary. The client was a frustrated freshman in the throes of struggling through completing another English 104 assignment. She explained to me that she didn’t really understand the prompt and was concerned that the current draft of her paper was not “on the right track.”
I suggested that we look over her prompt together. While we were discussing what exactly the assignment was asking her to do, she put down her pencil for a moment and sighed.
“I don’t know why my professor is having us do this,” she said. “It seems pretty pointless.”
I know that these feelings and frustrations are, to say the least, not uncommon among college students. I have experienced students with similar points of view numerous times in consultations and in my work as a writing assistant in writing-intensive courses. Many seem to view writing as a type of “busy work” assigned by professors to have enough grades to average at the end of the course. Working with the students who attend the writing-intensive class I assist has provided several examples of another type of misplaced view of writing.  When students come to my office hours for advice, they are often extremely concerned about mechanics (where to put the comma, whether to capitalize the word), but are far less receptive to discussing the content and ideas in their papers.
While writing does involve grammar and does serve the purpose of grades in universities, it is a major part of our job as consultants to help students understand that writing is much, much more than that. As Bruffee notes in Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind, “Writing always has its roots deep in the acquired ability to carry on the social symbolic exchange we call conversation.” (91). Conversation is the contribution of messages, ideas, and thoughts to a discourse community, a community that shares a way of communicating. It is important to help students grasp the fact that they will be conversing in discourse communities their entire lives, for those communities can be a family, a fraternity, a band, a business, a doctor’s office, a devoted group of celebrity followers on Twitter, or yes, the learning environment of their classroom. The ability to clearly communicate within and contribute to a discourse community is necessary to succeed in life, no matter what path we choose to take. We need to provide students with examples of how the ability to understand and operate within specialized discourse communities will affect their lives. Professional and graduate schools, the business world, and truly any kind of specialized job all require a proficiency at understanding how their community communicates.
The exchange of thoughts and information that reading others’ written ideas and writing out our own ideas creates is the point of education itself. We learn by ingesting information and then reacting to it by generating our own responses to that information. Writing is both the generation of new ideas and the response to existing ones, and because of that, it is integral to learning.
Writing is important because it is a basic form of communication, and there is nothing students will do in life that does not involve communication. As peer consultants, writing assistants, and writing centers as a whole, our goal should be to help writers understand that the purpose of writing is to be able to clearly and effectively communicate ideas to a particular audience. All of the higher and lower order concerns that we teach are simply skills that aid the ability to effectively share thoughts and arguments with one or many discourse communities. It is about the ideas and insights; it is not about the commas and conjunctions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Time for a Check-Up

I have been a Writing Center consultant for a little under a year and a half now. I like to think that I’ve grown from the jittery, unsure, and shy consultant I started out as. I had a definite grasp of comma rules, the use of semi-colons, and what complete sentences looked like. I could sort of tell when a sentence sounded awkward or when a paper didn’t really follow its thesis. But the bigger picture of writing great papers flew completely over my head.
After that first semester, though, I knew how to look for verb tense continuity and general flow of ideas. I was better at assisting clients in their brainstorming stages, and I learned more of how and why each grammar rule worked the way it did. I was definitely becoming a better writer, but I didn’t honestly take a lot of time to look back and see whether or not I was helping the clients become better writers.
In retrospect, I know I was scared to look past what I knew to be true and certain. I didn’t want to tell someone something fundamental about the structure of a paper and have it be wrong. I didn’t want to feel like I’d failed the client when they sought my help and advice. But, ironically, by focusing on the lower-order concerns, I definitely failed more than a few of my peers. I gave them the mechanics that they needed to edit their paper, but if the meat of that paper was rotten, then I was still doing them a disservice. No matter how primp and pretty it looks, bad meat is bad meat.
So I had to evaluate myself. I needed to look at what kinds of issues I focused on when looking at someone else’s paper. I knew that I tended to be a comma freak, so I would always point out comma errors. If I didn’t understand something technical or fundamental in the paper, I would ask the client about it, but I wouldn’t always necessarily prompt him or her to elaborate more on those topics within the paper itself. I caught myself giving global praise about sentences or paragraphs, and I wouldn’t try to instigate any sort of conversation about the paper. So I had a general idea of where I needed to improve.
A lot of my process is laid out in Jay Simmons’ (2003) article “Responders are Taught, Not Born.” I recognized the different patterns of my advice, similar to Simmons’ “global praise,” “sentence edits,” “word edits,” and a little bit of “reader’s needs,” which all focuses on nit-picky edits as well as vague feedback on sentences or paragraphs (686). But I wanted to work on a strategy that was similar to both Simmons’ “text playback,” which looks at the overall organization and flow of the different parts of the paper, and “writer’s strategies,” which analyzed the effectiveness of the different methods to utilize in writing. So I paid more attention in my consultations. I tried to focus more on the bigger picture of the paper. Were the ideas solid? Was there enough evidence to support their claims? Was the tone appropriate for the audience they were writing to? Did their paragraphs support their thesis?
Once I started practicing these strategies, I became more aware of the clients’ papers. It was like that optical illusion with the old woman/young lady portrait. Once I looked hard enough a few times, I couldn’t stop seeing the higher order concerns. I was still able to look at glaring mechanical issues, but I felt better as a consultant. I knew I was giving my peers the best advice I could give them. I felt like was encouraging them to critically think about different aspects within their papers, causing them to grow as writers.
I feel like every now and again I do need to re-check myself and make sure that I’m not slipping in to my old habits. But now that I know what to look for, I feel so much more confident as a consultant than I was a year ago.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

"I Hate Writing"


No no no—not me. Me I love writing. And reading too. My apologies for the title if it offended you, because normally I refrain from using the H-word, specially next to one of my favorite words (others, in case you were wondering, are food, baseball, farmer, and leader). So what’s the deal with such a blasphemous title? I know, as a Texas A&M University writing consultant I should never say such a thing—and I never do.

But my clients do.

Before arriving in Aggieland—Whoop!—I consulted in the University Writing and Rhetoric Center at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). Director Dawn Janke asked that we consultants in the first five minutes ask clients how they felt about writing. You know the answer we got over 90% of the time, so I don’t need to say it: [see blog title].

Now, such spiteful language about my Beloved aint just a Californian thing. I know this because I ask my Texan clients how they feel about writing. I do this outta habit, and I care about hearing the answer every time. For some reason the last client who told me she H-word writing has stuck with me. Can’t shake the moment that she enunciated the final –ing. @writingconsultants: been three days and the #session is still trending in my cerebral feed. Hence, this conversation we’re having about writers’ frustration with writing.

I truly care about how developing writers view the writing process. It’s as if the writing process and I share a heart, and when someone talks bad about it, I get all hot and sweaty and clutch my left shoulder. A client should never say the H-word in the same sentence as writing. Never. I understand why it happens, and when it does I don’t let the client know that, when they do say the H-word, my heart skips ten beats and for a moment I black out and shake hands with God. 

After the darkness has passed, I ask the client for details: Please tell me what it is about writing that makes you H-word it so? And always the client gives these two reasons: 1) they are no good at writing, or 2) they believe they’re no good at it.

That I’m a writing consultant means I enjoy people and am on a mission to create better writers—not better writing: Thank you Stephen North. What’s cool, though, about bearing the brunt of the H-word, is I can relate. You see—I H-word math because 1) I suck at it, and 2) I know I suck at it.

To lighten the mood, after we settle in and are ‘bout ready to work, I tell the client one of my shortcomings and hope he or she finds it comforting to know that I, too, H-word something. I notice if I quickly change the subject then the carrel becomes calm, devoid of that awkward silence. Sports, music, weather—all excellent topics to divert attention and rid the room of negativity that H-word carries.

But by far my favorite thing to do is tell them a story about how I’d a never been a pro baseball player had I never practiced fielding, running, throwing, and hitting. Practice, practice, practice. In fact I practiced so much that when I awoke in the morning I was covered in dirt, grass stains, tobacco spit, and held a Louisville Slugger. I practiced how I wanted to play—and so it goes for writing: write, read, write, read. Practice!

After the story I ask, Do you read books, newspapers, magazine, backs of cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, ingredients of kitty litter? Then I suggest to them, To become a better writer, a better communicator, it’s very very important not only to write every day, and to read twice as much, but to do these voraciously and with purpose. But don’t just read to read, and don’t just write to write, I add. Read for fun, yes, but also make it a point to learn something new about yourself, not Kim Kardashian or Ryan Gosling. Dig deep and unlock a door that’s been covered in dust since birth. So many exotic places exist in your brain, and it’s time to find them. Time to travel the world and beyond. I act this way because, who knows?, maybe I'm the only one that knows the secret—that writing and reading secure you a first class seat to anywhere. (I hope others know the secret!)

Consultants . . . We must eliminate the H-word from our clients’ vocabulary. If we never ask clients how they feel about writing, about reading—and not writing and reading for school or work—then we do a disservice to them, to ourselves, but more importantly to our writing centers.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Rhetorical Confidence: What Happens When We Anticipate Student Expertise

Today, April 4, 2012, Tiffany Rousculp delivered the 2012 Salt Lake Community College Distinguished Faculty Lecture, "Rhetorical Confidence: What Happens When We Anticipate Student Expertise." Tiffany, former director of Salt Lake Community College's Community Writing Center, talked about her experience at the Community Writing Center with, for want of better terms, shared governance and how issues of authority and expertise played out there. She went on to connect that experience with the traditional classroom in an English 2010 course at SLCC.  Specifically, Tiffany explored how "specific uses of rhetorical priciples in teaching can empower students to become more engaged readers and writers, and thus improve their ability to succeed in their educational goals."  Tiffany shows how we can apply writing center theory and practice to other educational moralities.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Comfy Tutors

Any type of writing can be a significantly intimidating thing for any person to undertake. Writing can be personal, and some might even view it as a reflections of themselves. So, naturally, clients might be either a little intimidated or uncomfortable with letting another person read their paper even before they schedule an appointment at a writing center or with a tutor. Just think, how many times did you feel completely at ease while another person read your unfinished or unpolished work? So, in order to keep the client from accepting everything their consultant or tutor says, staying quiet when asked questions about their paper, or shutting themselves off from the session itself out of fear or discomfort, we need to create a friendly environment in order to achieve the most effective consultation for these clients’ benefits.
But comfort isn’t the client’s main priority. He or she came to us in order to improve a paper. It is our duty to make a client more open to receive criticism in a possibly uncomfortable situation. In a special issue of the Harvard Writing Project Bulletin, Cristin Hodgins explained her opinions on teacher comments. She talked about how more pointed questions influencing her critical thinking and analysis of her own writing benefitted her the most. I think that writing center consultants and tutors can take away a valuable lesson from her experience. I’ve caught myself telling a more nervous client that this or her paragraph looked “good” because I didn’t want to be offensive or discouraging. I know I have even let a few errors slip by because I didn’t feel like the client was up for a discussion about word choice or the flow of ideas. I wasn’t helping my clients at all, and they were left with the short end of the stick and no real foundation for where they needed to go in order to take their paper to the next level.
From time to time, especially if I know that my upcoming client has never been to the Writing Center before, I try to start the conversation off on something completely unrelated to the paper. I ask how his or her day is going, or I’ll compliment an article of clothing that he or she is wearing. Anything to remind the client that I’m a human and a student too. I can relate to them. Sometimes it works to where the client opens up and relaxes once we get down to the issues of the paper itself. 
This also tends to help me let my own guard down (because I know I definitely can feel just as intimidated critiquing someone else’s writing, especially in a tense environment) and look at the paper differently. I feel like I can give more solid and relevant advice when I feel like I am on the same level as the client. It’s easier to work up a conversation about the content, organization, and flow of the paper, rather than immersing the consultation in lower-order concerns, like proofreading. Sure, grammar can make its appearance in the discussion, but I feel more inspired to ask the client leading questions in order to stimulate critical thinking and analysis when I believe that he or she is more open to talk about it.
Writing is hard. It’s personal. But we’re all human. We’re proud of what we accomplish. Yet we are all human. We tend to make mistakes. If we can open ourselves up to constructive criticism of our papers (or open ourselves up to constructively criticize the papers of our peers), then I think we can grow as tutors, consultants, and writers in general.