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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Writers, Tutors, and the Humanity That Exists Betweeen Them

           What do they need? Did I help? Did I give too much? Tutors often spin out with these questions and doubt themselves because there is much confusion on how to best help students or what qualities make a good tutor. Effective tutors possess empathy for tutees, focus on writers versus papers, model positive behaviors, and foster growth in students.

            In order to sense and understand what students need, tutors must first empathize with their tutees. By doing this, tutors can better understand what state of mind their tutees are in, and this allows assessment of what approach may be most beneficial. On a daily basis, anxiety, lack of confidence, and the complete shutdown of the overwhelmed brain enter our center. There are many reasons students that feel these ways. They may be experiencing problems outside of school. They may believe that they are bad writers because of the red pen culture that is so associated with education. Regardless of the reasons, tutors must first acknowledge these negative emotions and create an environment of comfort, which aids in neutralizing these. This can be as simple as using “I” statements, such as, “I hear you are frustrated,” or “I understand you are tired.” Once students are at ease, they may drop the fight and be more receptive to help.

            Tutors are humans who interact with other humans, not grammar machines who correct papers. So often, tutoring sessions are viewed as tasks to be completed instead of writers to be aided because the paper becomes the focus. Setting an intent to help the writer grow will change what is taught in the session. A worthwhile aspiration is to teach students that mistakes are a part of learning. Using examples such as Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers, who failed many times before success, frequently conveys this point, leaving students inspired.  Also, tutors should see content before mechanics because what students have to say is far more important than how they say it.

            Tutors must remember that they are modeling behaviors for their students. If tutors are anxious, focus on perfecting mechanics over content, or any of the plethora of negative writing habits that exist, then students are likely to learn these behaviors. Remaining calm and gracefully conducting sessions shows students that writing does not have to be stressful. Listening fully to paragraphs before jumping in with corrections teaches writers to complete their thoughts versus second guessing themselves to the point of paralysis. Students respect and admire educators; therefore, tutors must set good examples.

            Students are writers in the process of growth. Being flexible and willing to make changes is a vital lesson for tutees to learn. The most important misconception that tutors debunk is that writing is a linear process with a clear finish line. Instead, it is a cyclical procedure that visits and revisits steps such as prewriting, drafting, and revising. In sessions where deficits in this process are noticed, tutors can choose to teach students practical methods such as brainstorming, outlining, and allowing the paper to settle before revising. If the true desire of tutors is to help students become better writers, then they will teach them how to do this versus doing it for the tutees.

            Writing is often viewed as an innate talent that people either have or do not have. Because of this, many students believe that they are bad writers when they merely need practice and education. Tutors who empathize with their students, focus on tutees before their work, model positive behaviors, and foster growth in writers are essential to the education community. Tutors are given a precious gift; each day tutors have the opportunity to support students as they learn to navigate the twists and turns that ultimately lead to adventure in this beautiful, fascinating world, known as composition.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Confessions of an Antisocial Peer Tutor

I don’t particularly like people. Which is odd, considering I love my job as a writing consultant. I work with multiple strangers each day, cultivating and applying interpersonal skills with an agility that few other professions require. I can’t stand people, yet I love working with people on their writing. How does that even work?

This past semester, I worked eighteen hours a week at our writing center. However, I only consulted four of those hours and did administrative work the rest of the week. During this time, something happened that I never imagined possible.

I began to dread going to work.

After some introspection, I realized I sincerely missed working with people. Whatever it is that happens in those sessions, that was the reason I loved—and still love—coming to work. That, whatever that is, is why I do what I do. Although I may have a bit of an aversion to people in general (call me an introvert), I need that connection that comes from discussing, dissecting, reincarnating new ideas, old ideas, even emotions, all in that 45 minute session.

So what about peer tutoring makes it such a uniquely humanizing experience? And how can it be so powerful as to overcome the antisocial behavior of one as cynical as I? Sometimes I think grammar and mechanics monopolize our focus, and we lose sight of how extraordinary peer tutoring can be. It is, therefore, my hope that this catalyzes some introspection among my fellow tutors.

I am reminded of one session in particular. For forty tedious minutes, I had been working on grammar with yet another ESL engineering grad student. Abruptly, he asked if we could work on something else. Warily, I agreed. From his backpack, he produced a handwritten paragraph, scrawled on the back of scrap paper. I was expecting more fragmented sentences and absent articles; instead, I was staring at a copy of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. “Could we talk about this?” he asked. A little stunned, I agreed.

At the end of our consultation, my curiosity got the better of me. I hesitantly asked how he had come across the poem. Despite having known me for a total of 45 minutes, he genuinely replied, “My friend showed me. It made us think how different our lives would have been if we’d stayed in China; most of our friends did.”

Just like that, I was reminded that next to me sat not another engineer, or grad student drone, or even ESL student, but a human being. He, like all of us, was simply trying to find meaning in this multifarious phenomenon called life. I think what astounds me the most is these students’ willingness to open up to us—tutors, essentially complete strangers. During these consultations, I don’t feel like a tutor. I feel like a confidant, a peer, sometimes even a friend. Once we remember that there is a human being on the other side of that paper, that those ideas are coming not from somewhere but someone, then the true peer consulting begins.

James Hillman wrote that words are “independent carriers of soul between people” (Re-visioning Psychology). Stop and think about that. Words are independent carriers of soul between people. 

We tutors work with words, more specifically with other people’s words. In a very metaphysical sense, Hillman might argue that, on a day-to-day basis, we work with souls—both others’ and our own—and not words. In every consultation, there is an essence of collaboration. Our ideas (Hillman: our souls) come together with and apart from our client’s ideas. Perhaps this is why consultations give us the opportunity for a human connection that is not normally available to us. While not every consultation is like this, I find that many are.

 Perhaps these transfers of soul and intimate conversations with complete strangers are what make tutoring writing such a unique and fulfilling experience. It has nothing to do with liking people; it has everything to do with connecting to a fellow human being, appreciating where each of us has stood, now stands, and will stand. Tutoring writing is a window through which we can conceive the human condition. And we do all this in a 45 minute session.

WRITING LABS: The Expanded Edition!

            Writing Lab?
Writing: the process of putting one’s thought on a page, or, in an academic context, making content as boring as possible
Lab: a place where people with white coats conduct dangerous experiments

            Seriously, though, what is a writing lab? Stigmatized as a resource for struggling writers, or a as a place where a messy paper is magically put through a grammar machine and comes out perfectly spotless and consequently boring, writing labs are often viewed from a skewed perspective. This skewed perspective can often be negative or limited.
            Yes, writing labs can help struggling writers, but they can also help extremely skilled writers who might mistakenly believe that a writing lab would have nothing to offer them. Yes, writing labs provide help with grammar, but realistically, not all grammar errors can be fixed in the span of 30 minutes. Nor should they all be fixed in 30 minutes, because student writers need time to learn about grammar and become independent of a magical grammar-fixing machine.
            So, a writing lab helps writers of all levels and trains them to be independent and unique. But perhaps writing labs should not stop there, when they have the potential to do so much more.
            In an interview with Elizabeth Threadgill, Murriel Harris—founder of Purdue Writing Center—named a couple of extensions to writing lab goals and functions, including working with not only written communication but also with visual, oral, or other types of communication and  presentation (Threadgill 2010). I know that personally, I have worked with power point, presentations, and perhaps other methods of communication in the writing lab besides strictly writing, a fact that excites me and makes me wonder how far writing labs can go in fostering all types of effective and creative communication. The potential of writing labs does not stop there, however. In the interview, Harris also describes a variety of ways in which writing labs can take advantage of the internet as a tool for supporting and encouraging students in writing (Threadgill 2010). For example, he mentions online conferencing, iChats, and email as possible modes of online tutoring, and he suggests using YouTube videos to provide training for professors in teaching writing (Threadgill 2010). Therefore, writing labs can provide support not only for student writers but also for writing teachers.
            Harris also supports the idea that college writing labs can build into their community by working with high school writing centers and providing tutoring services to the community in general (Threadgill 2010). Harris is not the only one advocating for more connections between college writing labs and high school writing labs. For example, Littleton (2010) names many benefits from connections like this, such as preparing high school students for college writing expectations and assignments, preparing high school Writing Lab Consultants to become college Writing Lab Consultants, preparing college writing labs to receive high school writers, and allowing high school and college writing labs to share ideas and challenges.
            Therefore, writing labs need not be limited to a skewed perspective of their assigned functions, conforming to the image of stiff, white-coated grammar police performing unintelligible experiments on students’ papers until they are as boring as possible. Instead, writing labs should welcome students of all levels, working on every aspect of writing, and extending their influence and services to include an ever-growing range of issues and populations.


Littleton, C. (2006). Creating Connections between Secondary and College Writing Centers. Clearing House80(2), 77-78.
Threadgill, E. (2010). Writing Center Work Bridging Boundaries: An Interview with Muriel Harris. Journal Of Developmental Education, 34(2), 20-25.

Transcending Beyond


A paper with wonderful content may actually be a really bad paper.  So many college students are taught to present a well supported argument, and these well supported arguments are considered to be all that matters in an A grade paper. But what happens when a student, a student with profound thoughts and interesting points, has difficulty presenting his or her ideas clearly and concisely?
As a peer writing consultant, I have often encountered students who could be described as deep thinkers who care about their writing, but their sentences are just too confusing to fully understand their argument.  To the writing tutor it seems like a simple argument to solve; simply identify the subject and predicate of each sentence and eliminate all unnecessary words and phrases.  However, is it really just that easy? It is easy to say it should happen that way, but I have found that intelligent students often care a lot about their writing, and therefore spend a lot of time on every sentence before they bring their paper in to the writing lab. Then, when we are working on revisions, it is impossible for the student to change what they have already written because they spent so much time on each individual sentence.  When students are having a hard time revising their own papers what is the tutor to do? One should not be so direct as to rephrase each sentence for the student.
Joseph M Williams, author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, says that to develop clear and concise writing one must move outside of their writing and understand the deeper meaning that isn’t tied down to the exact words on the page (Williams 34). So what is the writing tutor to do to help students transcend out of the words on the page and write clearly, giving their well planned arguments the explanation they deserve.
Resources: Williams, Joseph M., and Gregory G. Colomb. Style Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.

Experiences with ESL Students

This is my first semester as an ESL tutor, which has been really challenging for me. As a bilingual person, I can attest that learning English as a Second Language is not an easy task to achieve. First, the most important thing to learn is language rules and vocabulary. When ESL writers can understand the grammar rules, and they have a broad knowledge of words, theirs ideas come out more fluently when they write a paper. Second, once students learn grammar and vocabulary, they learn how to build sentences. Then, they work on cohesion, clarity, coherence, and diction. At the writing center, I have been exploring different techniques to simplify the learning process for ESL students, which takes time and hard work. In addition, I have been facing criticism from some ESL students; some of whom have the wrong impression that because of my accent I am not able to help them with accuracy. Nevertheless, the hopes to become a good ESL tutor are still strong, and definitely I am not going to give up.   

           Each student has a different learning process. Some students learn easier with illustrations, while others understand everything much easier through explanations, and some learn by connecting previous knowledge with an actual situation. It has been really useful for students practicing grammar exercises online because it is a fun way to learn, feeling the process learning as a game instead as a pain. However, my goal with students is helping them to improve and to make English enjoyable. I know this is not easy at all, but I am trying to use my knowledge to achieve these goals. Even though some students feel frustrated because they cannot get an "A" in Writing or Grammar class, I just tell them, "This is a process of practice and more practice." Honestly, I can explain and give them the tools to improve, but I cannot study for them. Learning a language requires endless effort, much commitment, and continued motivation on the part of the students to master it.

             I completed English for Academic Purpose courses just last semester and earned excellent grades. Of course, I still have my accent which is quite natural for any adult having acquired the language after secondary development. Naturally, I have been feeling frustrated because some students have the wrong idea that I cannot help them because of my accent. These students do not realize that they too have an accent. They sometimes prefer a native speaker for tutoring rather than accepting my help. For Americans, English comes naturally because they have learned the language as a small child.  Sometimes, not all native tutors are suited to help foreign speakers, for they do not always have tolerance and patience for students of other languages.  Besides, they do not understand the frustrations of second-language learners, and the obstacles they have to go through.  As a bilingual person, I share the same frustrations, fears, insecurities, and worries that most second-language students had to go through one time or another. Thus, I can understand their needs and sacrifices because most of them are facing a new language and a different culture, which is difficult for some students to adapt. I am just trying to say "I too had been learning a new language only a short while ago while I also had to assimilate in the American culture like you, in order to succeed as an active member of this society.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tutoring Maiden Voyage


            After four attempts to tutor in the writing center, the moment of truth finally arrived midday on a Thursday. I must say, I had already accepted that no student would come into drop-in hours while I was there, since my timeframe was coming to a close. In the remaining time I had, two students entered my cubicle with a peculiar request. Two relatives of theirs had died unexpectedly a few weeks ago- an aunt and her daughter. The aunt had written into her will a quote that she wanted on her tombstone many years before, but the family had decided to bury the mother and daughter under a single tombstone. The two students requested that I help them rephrase the quote so that it included the daughter. This particular situation was complex because other family members felt very strongly about it, as I was shown many emails with various suggestions for the quote. The students’ main priorities were to remove any grammatical errors and “make sure it made sense” within the context. In the session we discussed “who and whom” rules as well as comma use. I put a particular emphasis on the sentence being theirs to make the final decision because it was such a personal situation. Additionally, I requested the input of the tutor supervising my session. The two students seemed to be satisfied with the end results and thanked me profusely. After telling them they could come back at any time, I felt satisfied and confident at the end of the session. I even saw them later on at my job at Yogurt Vi! I would like to work on grammar rules for future sessions so I do not have to spend time looking them up during a session.  

A Different Set of Eyes


Upon walking into the Writing Center I was met with several good impressions. I explained the purpose of my visit to the lady sitting at the front desk and was directed to take a seat until the student arrived for her appointment. The five minutes I sat in the chair by the door was spent taking in the details of my surroundings. The bulletin board to my right was full of humorous anecdotes in relation to the English language and common grammatical errors. I was immediately impressed by the fact that the posters listing common mistakes not only corrected the mistakes, but provided several examples of proper sentence structure and ways to remember the corrections. I began to draw parallels between the instruction on the board and I what I suspected would occur in a typical tutoring session.  My suspicions were proved correct after only a few minutes of verbal exchange between the tutor and the student. The tutor was meeting with a returning Second Language Learning student to go over the conclusion of the essay and answer final questions. Some positive things I noticed regarding the session were that the tutor read the conclusions aloud as she reviewed it. When she happened upon an issue she asked the student, “What are you trying to say here?” and after collaboratively reviewing the statement, the tutor was able to provide several options for correct phrasing. They both took time for the student to make additions to the essay in the session. They seemed to have easy communication and kept the session light with laughter and conversation between revisions. The student even corrected the tutor at one point, which showed that she had internalized the rule that was explained to her earlier in the session. The tutor expressed what the student did well in addition to reiterating rules-particularly with citations. I especially appreciated that even though the tutor came up with several plans of action, the seemed to be working as a team. My first observation reinforced how essential collaborative learning is to the Writing Center and what the staff does there.  

PeerCentered Meet the Author Discussions

PeerCentered is now sponsoring a series of discussion groups with various authors of recent (well mostly recent) writing-center-related texts. The discussions listed below will be held in PeerCentered’s TinyChat space. TinyChat allows audio and video but you can also participate via text chat.

We hope that attendees will have read the books and come prepare with questions to ask or topics to discuss. A moderator will coordinate the discussion and kick us off with some questions, but the driving force behind the discussion will be you.

The purpose of PeerCentered is to promote and foster peer tutoring, so please invite any peer tutors you know to attend.

Schedule

  • April 8, 2013 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT: Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center with Rebecca Day Babcock (Moderator: Clint Gardner)
  • April 15, 2013 4/3/2/1/23 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): Researching the Writing Center authors Rebecca Day Babcock & Terese Thonus (Moderator: Clint Gardner) 
  • April 18, 2013 2/1/12/11 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): I Hope to Join the Band with Frankie Condon (Moderator: Clint Gardner) 
  • April 22, 2013 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): The Idea of a Writing Laboratory with author Neal Lerner (Moderator: Clint Gardner) 
  • April 23, 2013 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): WLN editor Mickey Harris (Moderator: Andrew Rihn) 
  • April 25, 2013 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): Writing Centers and the New Racism with editors Karen Rowan and Laura Greenfield (Moderator: Clint Gardner) 
  • April 29, 2013 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT): Facing the Center with Harry Denny (Moderator: Andrew Rihn)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"I'M SIGNIFICANT! ... screamed the dust speck." : A Look at the Marginalization and Feminization of Writing Centers



“I’M SIGNIFICANT! … screamed the dust speck.”
A Look at the Marginalization and Feminization of Writing Centers

            Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite comic strip. In one memorable episode, the main character, Calvin, stands beneath a starry sky and says, “I’M SIGNIFICANT! … screamed the dust speck.” He saw that his one person out of everything in the universe was about as miraculous and special as he would consider a speck of dust.
            How often do workers in writing centers end up feeling like dust specks? In my experience, which, granted, is small, I have not met a fellow student who understood and appreciated the work that is done in the writing center. Most students walk by our center with a skeptical look in their eye, as if they are not sure why we are here. Friends ask questions like, “Does anyone even visit the Writing Lab?” or “What do you do at work?” After my detailed explanation and defense of the Lab’s mission, they respond with a half-hearted, “Oh, that’s nice.” While the students who regularly come to our lab are grateful for the help they receive, the rest of our university is somewhat indifferent to our existence.
            In her search for a position as a writing center director, Melissa Nicolas observed the lack of respect and the excess of incredulity she received from her interviewers. Her article “Where the Women are: Writing Centers and the Academic Hierarchy” talks about how writing centers are not high on “the ladder of institutional respect.” None of her potential employers believed her first job choice was the director of the writing center. This is evidence of the insignificant role writing centers play in the minds of the administration: The writing center is so unimportant to them that they do not understand why someone would want to be in charge of it. (I would like to mention that I do not think this is the case at every university. Some writing centers are integral to their school’s academics. In addition, the students can also be the ones who consider the center unimportant.)
            Nicolas goes on to say that she believes this opinion of writing centers is caused, in part, by the “feminization of the writing center narrative.” She asserts that the “nurturing, service-oriented” nature of the center causes people to think of it as “women’s work,” which bears the connotation of busy-work tasks. Imagine other tasks that might be called “women’s work:” laundry, cleaning, keeping house. While these tasks are essential, no one really wants to do them. That is the kind of attitude that Nicolas says is being attached to the idea of the writing center. The large number of women employed in writing centers does not help this image: Nicolas observes that “women make up a majority of the writing center community.” At my university, seven out of seven consultants, including the director, are women.
            So, what do we do? How do we break free from our current dust speck status? Administrations and students do not see the writing center as important. Perhaps the answer lies in the cause of our marginalization. Though I do not agree with Nicolas’ overtly feminist view, finding the cause for our invisibility may be the best way to overcome it. If it is not the feminization of the center that brings on disrespect, what does? In regards to the large presence of women, how do we encourage men to become a part of writing centers? These are questions I personally cannot answer, but I believe the answers will help lead us to a more visible, and more respected, writing center. One day I would like to see more students coming into the writing center than walking past it. I would like to see writing centers become at least a planet instead of remaining a dust speck.

Nicolas, Melissa. “Where the Women are: Writing Centers and the Academic Hierarchy.” FPO:
            IP Research and Communities (2004) : n. page. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Perception and Tutoring

    This is my first semester as a peer tutor. I've learned a lot about my job and about myself in the last seven weeks. One thing that I've learned is that our perceptions color our reactions. A week or two ago a began my day with an unexpected obstacle; a young man with suggestively violent facial tattoos entered the writing center. I suspect that the tattoos were designed to intimidate, and they performed that function rather well in my opinion. 
      I'm going to admit that these thoughts ran through my head: What is this person doing in college? What job does he hope to get with those tattoos?
      I surprised myself there. I generally try to reserve judgement on people until after I've at least spoken with them. As a tutor, I realized then, I was doing this human being a disservice. I knew that my perception of this student would affect how I dealt with him during our session. I did not want to let this tutee down, so I checked my first reaction, put a smile on my face, and shook his hand. "Hi, my name is___, " I said.
     The tutee said nothing. I wasn't expecting that. I was determined to give him a beneficial session, but I knew his non-responsiveness would make our session very difficult. What I did not do then was ask myself why was this person behaving in this manner. In retrospect, I had not considered the possibility that he was not the sort of person who found themselves in a position of needing help. It takes courage. Perhaps he was as intimidated as I was, or more so.
      I brought him over to a table, sat down, and asked, "What can I do for you today?"
      He slid a printout across the table toward me. It was his assignment sheet. He still hadn't said a word to me. I looked over it. His assignment was to write an essay about the beginning of the American involvement in World War Two. At my writing center, we have our tutors fill out a little card with some of the student's class info. I asked him for that information, and he hesitantly gave it to me.
      By the way, it has occurred to me that some of you might be thinking "What if he is mute?"
      Well, he wasn't; I saw him speaking with our front desk personnel when he asked to see a writing tutor.
      I then asked the tutee why he thought the United States entered the war. He replied by saying, "The Great Depression."
      "Alright," said I, "That is a good start. What about The Great Depression caused us to enter the war?"
      I let him mull it over for a little while. Eventually he looked at me pleadingly and shrugged.
      "Lets look at it from a different angle, when we entered the war what happened to us?"
      "We... had to build factories."
      "Exactly! And people had to work in those factories, right?" He nodded. "So do you think that helped the economy?" He nodded again. "And who worked in those factories?" He hesitated here, and looked to me again for help.
      "Well, if most of the men were fighting in the war..."
      "The women worked in the factories," he said, finishing the thought.
      "That's right. Now, do you think there might have been other reasons to get involved in the war," I asked.
      I gave the tutee some time to think it over, eventually he said, "Because we were attacked?"
      "Well, I'm not an expert on history, but I think you are on the right track here. Who attacked us?"
      "Like... Pearl Harbor right," he tried.
      "Well, what country attacked Pearl Harbor," I asked.
      "I don't know," he replied.
      "Ok, I'm going to help you out, we did get into the war because we were attacked, but it was before Pearl Harbor. It sounds to me like you might need to do some research to find the answers to these questions. After we do research, it becomes much easier to write about historical events, because we will understand the reasons behind the events. Have you done much research yet?"
      "No."
      "Alright, then that should be your next step. Do you know how to search for information online," he nodded. "Okay, good."
      My initial perception of this student could have completely ruined our session. I forced myself to give him a fair chance, but in my heart I know that I based my expectations for that session largely on outward appearance. That student may have been the best writer I've ever read; whether or not he has facial tattoos is irrelevant to his ability as a writer. I began to suspect that the student was looking to me for the answers to his essay question, but of course, I could not and would not do that for him. In the end, I showed him basic essay structure and talked about how to conduct research on our school's online database. As human beings, we have limited control of our reactions; we react to what we perceive.  If instead of focusing on his appearance I had focused on his body language, I might have gone into this sessions better prepared to help this student.