Sunday, April 28, 2013

Processing and Learning Google

College is hard, and no college student will disagree with this statement.  From an early age parents and teachers are preparing each child for the academic and financial demands that college typically entails.  But with all of that preparation is college even made any easier? All college freshman transition into college life through difficult learning experiences, but after a few months, most students seem to adjust to college life fairly well, that is, if they entered college in their late teens or early twenties. 
In the Writing Lab at Cairn University we have a lot of older students come in for sessions; students who did not come directly to college after graduation high school.  From my experience, these students can be recognized by some very distinct traits: they are very talkative, eager to learn, receptive to feedback, a little technologically behind other students, willing to accept correction, and filled with questions.  The combination of these characteristics can sometimes be a little overwhelming in a session because these students will tend to dominate the session with their own verbal processing or detailed questions.  Sometimes, the questions they ask could easily be answered through a simple Google search.  I love their verbal processing and enthusiasm but, at times, it can be a hindrance to the productiveness of a session.  I have begin to question what the purpose of a session should be with these types of students; should I as the consultant show them how to use a Goggle search over helping them with an actual writing concern? Or does it depend on the student?
Richard Leahy, author of What the College Writing Center is and isn’t, writes about the purpose of a session.  He states the following reasons for a session: to collaborate on a single project, explore new strategies, to find encouragement and coaching, to allow processing to happen, and to develop greater writing skills.  According to this description, a student who explains an assignment for the full 30 min is simply using the session for processing.  A session can consist of a variety of different methods, and some sessions will look very different from others.  The central focus should be what the student needs the most, even if that be to simply talk about their assignment and ask how to italicize something in Microsoft word. 
Leahy, Richard. "What The College Writing Center Is--And Isn't." College Teaching 38.2 (1990): 43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Apr. 2013

Friday, April 26, 2013

Becoming Comfortable as a Tutor

Every appointment I have had in the writing center, I become less nervous. This week the writer showed up a few minutes early, so we just got started. She was a freshman in English 1001 and basically just wanted someone else to look over her paper. When I asked her what exactly she wanted to work on, she commented that she knew she was a bad writer and she wanted some help with the flow and the global concerns. I told her not to say she was a bad writer because that wasn’t a good way to think about herself and some people just don’t like to write, but that isn’t always a bad thing. When I read through her paper, I noticed right away that she had most of the technical writing skills down, but her paper jumped all over the place. She had one paragraph almost a page long where she introduced different arguments supporting her thesis, but provided no supporting evidence and jumped ahead to the next topic. We spent some time working to connect some of those with other areas in the paper where she mentioned the same topic. We also worked on ordering the paragraph arguments in order to make her thesis stronger, and organizing the sentences within the paragraph so that it flowed better. I also noticed that she only had two or three sources for her paper and the assignment required seven. We discussed several places she could look for more sources and ways that, now that she had some more specific arguments to support her thesis, she could search for articles on narrower topics. Over all I think it was a very productive session.

Putting Theories into Practice

Recently, I had my first tutoring session with a student who was not a native English speaker. I was somewhat nervous for this session because, even though our class has read several articles and essays about how to approach ESL students, I had never personally experienced it. It was somewhat difficult to really get her involved in the session. I tried to read the paper out loud so that we could both hear how the sentences sounded, but I realized part way through that she was not really listening or paying attention until I asked her a question about a sentence or some phrasing in the paragraph. It may have worked better if I had her read it out loud to me rather than being the one doing the reading. Also, I think I needed to directly tell her to write down some of the things she verbally told me when I asked for some explanation. I spent some time working to get her to clarify her meaning on several sentences, but she didn’t write down anything at first. I think this may have been because I never explicitly told her to do that. I told her that what she said was good and made sense or that she could say that, but I don’t think she understood that she might want to change what she had written to something like what she said. There were other times where we worked on some word choices and grammar, where she still didn’t write things unless I specifically told her to change something. It was somewhat challenging because I got the feeling that she wanted me to make changes for her instead of helping her make the changes and decide how to change the wording.  We were also on a time constraint because halfway through the session she became somewhat restless and was looking to see how much of the paper we had left. When I asked her if she needed to leave at a certain time, she said she’d like to finish as soon as possible. After that I kinda rushed through the paper and ended up giving her more corrections than I would have liked due to time. She tried to have me write things down for her, but I told her I wasn’t allowed to write on her paper. But I still tried to explain why the changes were made. Even though the session ended early, it was really encouraging when she started to catch on and fix some of the grammatical errors without my having to prompt her or feed her the answer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

PeerCentered Meet the Author Archive Now Available

This month's Meet the Author Discussions have been archived thanks to Andrew Davis and Alice Myatt of Ole Miss.  Andrew reports that the discussions will soon be closed captioned, as well.

Meet the Author Discussions (April 2013)

Our next discussion in the series is April 25, 2013 at  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) in the PeerCentered TinyChat room.

Next week on April 29, 2013 we will wrap up the Meet the Author Discussions for the spring with Harry Denny and a discussion of Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to One Mentoring at  2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT).

If you have any suggestions for future PeerCentered Meet the Author Discussions, please post them in the comments below.

Monday, April 22, 2013

WCJ Research and Writing Retreat

This just in:

The incoming editors of WCJ (Michele Eodice, Kerri Jordan, and Steve Price) are excited to announce the first- annual WCJ Research and Writing Retreat, July 31-August 3rd, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The retreat will offer a seminar and writing workshop environment for participants working on writing center-related research and scholarship. For more information and an online application form, please visit our (temporary) Writing Center Journal website at

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Meet the Author Discussions

Tomorrow, April 18, 2013, we’ll be discussing I Hope to Join the Band with Frankie Condon at 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT).
 Next week we have three sessions!  On Monday, April 22, 2013, we’ll be talking with Neal Lerner about his book The Idea of a Writing Laboratory also at 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT).
 On Tuesday, April 23 again at 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT), Andrew Rihn will be leading a discussion with Mickey Harris.
 On Thursday, April 25, 2013, we’ll be talking to Karen Rowan and Laura Greenfield about _Writing Centers and the New Racism _ also at 2/1/12/11/19 (E/C/M/PDT/GMT). All discussion are held in the PeerCentered TinyChat space: Make sure you go to that URL.  We had some folks show up to the SLCC Student Writing Center’s TinyChat space.  They are most definitely not the same room.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Something about trenches, Xbox, and why I have too much to do. Also, a brief look at conversation in writing.

       There are many common difficulties that a writing consultant faces as he or she gains experience working at a writing center. Such commonalities creep their way into conversations among consultants, tales from the trenches that, when told, illicit knowing nods from all the veterans in the room. One such difficulty is that of the student who knows what she’s trying to say, but can’t for the life of her figure out how to say it on paper. It’s a strange concept for those of us who wield the pen like all of the men in my life wield Xbox 360 controllers. If you know what you’re trying to say, why don’t you just write it down? There is probably a very complex answer to this that a psychology major somewhere thought up while brewing an extra-pump soy chai tea latte, but I can give you the abridged version: They don’t just write it down because they don’t realize that they can.
      Those of us who are comfortable with writing (likely due to an awesome high school English teacher and an avid love of reading) see it as what it is, namely, an outlet for what we want to say. We therefore have no trouble translating our thoughts to paper. We are fluent when it comes to the art of the written word. Unfortunately, many of the students that we are trying to help suffered the majority of their pre-college education at the hands of incompetency. They have it in their heads that writing is this big, complicated, headache-inducing THING, and before they even start, they resign themselves to the idea that they are going to struggle with it. Writing is complicated, with rules, structures, formats, and its own college majors. There’s no way that what a student would normally just say to a friend would fly if submitted to a professor on paper, right?
      Our clients have this internal wall built up that somehow separates conversation and writing. So as writing consultants, what do we do to break down this wall? I’m sure many people could weigh in on this with their own ideas. We could start a lively discussion that would be infinitely more productive than anything the comment boards of YouTube have ever experienced. However, all I can do is simply present my own experience with this topic. To break down the wall, I simply show the student that it doesn’t actually exist. I push the paper away, and have her tell me, to my face, what she is trying to say. I then have her write down what she just said.  And 9 times out of 10, she is amazed that what she has just told me is OK to have in her paper. Surely it can’t be that easy?
      Now, let me just stop here to clarify that I am not encouraging grammatical and rhetorical anarchy (I can only imagine the time required of such an undertaking, and quite frankly, I’ve got enough on my plate.) After the student copies down what she just said, often revisions are needed to make it grammatically correct and give it the necessary level of formality. But the point is that this is something that should be done after the ideas are on the paper; worrying about it beforehand is what got the student stuck in the first place. Such details are what make writing scary. However, once the student actually has what she wants to say written down, these details can then be explored, with the consultant leading the way, of course.

P.S. All that I’m implying with my exclusive use of “she” is that I dislike constantly writing out “he or she” because there is no gender neutral singular pronoun. I really think we need to get one of those. I would make one myself, but here I refer you back to my previous comment about already having enough on my plate.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ramblings of a Writing Tutor: Getting Excited About Writing

Recently, while perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble, I came across a journal. The journal had a beautiful floral cover with the quote by C.S. Lewis, "You can make anything by writing." As a read the quote, I got goose bumps. I was inspired. Here, in my hands was a blank book filled with endless possibilities. I could write anything I wanted on this journal's pages. The pages of the journal were just waiting to be filled with my thoughts, fears, prayers, hopes, dreams, and ideas. I obviously decided to purchase the journal. It is currently sitting on my desk in my dorm room, waiting patiently for me to finish filling up the pages of my current journal and fill up its pages with anything that I care to.
Every time that I read the quote on its cover, I stop and think about its implications. “You can make anything by writing.”  It is a pretty exciting idea if you really stop and think about it. Writing is not just for the purposes of completing college research papers for a grade; writing is a wonderful form of self-expression. Whether one is writing a personal journal entry, a prayer, a poem, or a college paper; writing is a way for any individual to communicate whatever it is that they are thinking about. When one takes their writing seriously, and intentionally tries to communicate their thoughts and ideas in clear and correct ways, the outcome is a piece of writing that they can be proud of and that can be shared with the broader community: whether it be the broader academic community or a group of close friends.
Recently, while writing a research paper for my Earth Science class, I found myself, for the first time in a while, really enjoying the writing process. I had taken the time to do research on my topic, and I had intentionally planned out what I wanted to say in each paragraph of my paper. As I was writing, I was realizing that I had learned a lot about a topic that I originally had known nothing about. This research paper was a way for me to not only explore a previously mysterious topic, but to process and communicate all that I had learned about it through the process of writing. I gained a new appreciation for the purpose of my assignment and found myself thankful for the late night of writing and revising to meet the assignment deadline.
Now, I do realize that sometimes I get overly enthusiastic about seemingly trivial things. However, I wonder if there is a way to bring this kind of excitement and enthusiasm about writing to students who perhaps have a fear of writing. I wonder, if students were able to in some small way appreciate writing as a form of communicating their thoughts and ideas, their aversion to it would decrease. I am not saying that all student-writers need to pull a Tom Cruise and start jumping up and down on a sofa in all their excitement about writing, but I am saying that there is a lot more to writing than just writing to complete an assignment or to receive a grade. The process of writing opens up a myriad of opportunities for communication, learning, and expression, and as writing tutors, we should probably seek to encourage our student-writers with all that the process of writing can offer them.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Math in the Writing Center? How Two "Incompatable" Disciplines Can Work Together

Currently, the writing center I work at is investigating ways that we can be of better service to each discipline. We are in the process of interviewing faculty from each school within our university - Liberal Arts and Sciences, Bible, Music, Education, Social Work, and Business - about the role of writing in their fields. The idea is to get a better understanding of what each field requires so that we consultants can better help the students involved. One area that most would assume does not use writing is math.

While it's true that most math classes will not require many papers, William L. Morris talks about how his writing center was able to help math students in his article "Math in the Writing Center." Morris had little background in math, but he was able to help a number of freshmen in a difficult math course improve through simple conversation. When the students came into his center, Morris would have them explain the problems they were working on to him in English. This was the key to improving their understanding: having them verbalize the problem helped the students understand the principles behind the equations. In addition, Morris had the opportunity to visit their classroom and work with the students as a group. He showed them how they can work with each other in a classroom setting so that everyone can learn more. Morris states that "The proprietary languages of math, science, art, English, foreign language, and history are useful to people who know the subjects but a mystery to those trying to learn the discipline" (Morris, 1). Basically, he says that jargon is useful to those already familiar with a subject, but but can inhibit the learning of novices. Having students explain their math problems in English in a sense counter-acted the effect jargon had on the students' learning.

Simple conversation is an underestimated tool in the learning process. In Morris' case, it solved many issues that students were having with their math. Ironically, the best teacher was not a math expert but a writer. His ignorance about the subject turned out to be to his advantage because it enabled him to "see how students were attempting to solve [the problem]" (Morris, 1). Morris' article demonstrates a valid way Peer Writing Consultants can help math students: conversation that utilizes many of the same questions and principles as a tutoring session. The method is so effective because everything must be communicated through language; Language is our "only reliable problem solver" (Morris, 1).

The Writing Center becomes a place where these conversations can happen. Most English people are not math people, but every English person can hold a conversation. We know how to be inquisitive, how to ask questions, and, most importantly, how to listen. We can utilize the same techniques to help a math student that we use to help other students write research papers: "where they stumbled,
I asked why; where they skipped steps, I asked them to slow down and explain" (Morris, 1). Truthfully, I was shocked to discover a method so simple for helping math students. Morris claims - indeed, his own experience demonstrates - that there is no need to understand complicated mathematical principles. All we have to be able to do is talk and listen.  
Morris, William L. “Math in the Writing Center.” Clearing House 80.2 (2006) : 70-73.
            EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Monday, April 08, 2013

International Students, Instructors, and Audience

International students face a particular set of problems when coming to study in America. Beyond the commonly noted language barriers, I have learned this semester that the cultural and rhetorical frameworks of some instructors play a large role in shaping the positive or negative experiences had by these students.  As an optimist, I had never considered that the simplest choice made by a teacher could so drastically affect one of her students. And even more so, I hadn't really considered that unannounced teacher biases would be so visibly detectable to a student from another country. To both these issues, I will relate a couple of anecdotes:

I thought my writing center appointment with Yashvant would be like any other I’d had with a freshman composition student; we’d talk about the rhetorical triangle. We’d cover the basis of writing analytic essays. Maybe we’d go over some grammar concepts—All of this I was expecting and prepared for. Never would I have imagined that we would actually spend our 45 minutes discussing the workings of the American political system.

It turned out that Yashvant wasn't having trouble with the rhetorical analysis portion of his assignment. He knew precisely how to objectively analyze an object, and, for someone who hadn't been in the country for more than a couple of months, he had an amazing command of English. What had brought him to the writing center was his need to understand the context of his objects of analysis. Yashvant was told to choose a campaign as from the 2012 presidential election and analyze it, and therein laid the problem:  He didn't know who Mitt Romney or Barack Obama was. He didn't know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. He didn't know how American government was set up or how election systems functioned. And these gaps in knowledge made him feel that he couldn't write the paper. And this feeling of inability had taken him over. He told me that he felt he had been set up for failure because he didn't possess the same assumed knowledge that his classmates did. Even though many of them may have not been politics aficionados, they at least had some rudimentary knowledge of the governmental system; and this gave them the edge. In that moment it was clear to both of us: the assignment had been designed for an American student, and Yashvant was just supposed to deal with it.

Now, I do not believe that the professor who gave this assignment knowingly created it so that international students would struggle. But I also do not believe that the professor was thinking too clearly about the rhetorical context in which he/she teaches. I believe that to successfully appeal to the widest range of students, a clear audience analysis is in order. In this case, it seems that no such analysis was present and, unfortunately, it was to the detriment of a very bright, determined young man.

In thinking about the challenges confronted by international students, I must also relate the story of a friend I mentored in the writing center. Anna is a Korean-born graduate student in English literature and a very fine writer. The first time we met, I will never forget the tears that streaked her face as she explained that her grammar had to be flawless. Perfect. No exceptions. She explained that the inherent bias of her professors toward non-native English speakers dictated that her syntactical performance be of the highest standard. This was her only recourse to convincing her profs that she deserved to be here, studying in America. Again, the audience analysis deficit rears its ugly head. Anna’s professors had failed to consider the situation of one of their students and had caused the terrible grief of a fine, talented student.

Now, I know some might think it a strange assertion to recommend to instructors that they think of their students as their audience, but that’s just what they are. To successfully teach a student (or persuade them to follow you in their quest for higher knowledge), identification between the rhetor (teacher) and the audience (students) must take place. If instructors realize this and embrace it, a bright future will certainly lie ahead for all of their students, American and international alike. And specifically in the case of our international students, I hope teachers remember that instructor framework can make all the difference in a student’s reaction to her time in the States. To this I say, “Teachers, remember your audience. Remember your students.  Consider all of them.” If we can keep this mantra in mind, we’ll be able to better appreciate the truly great things our students can do.

Discovering a World of Words

    During the course of a session last week, an ELL student asked me what strategies I recommended for improving vocabulary. She wanted to be able to understand and use more words, but didn’t know how to go about it. While I have certainly seen the results of ramshackle vocabularies, I had never been asked that particular question before, so I didn’t have a ready, thoughtful answer for her. I told the student what I personally have done to help my vocabulary (look up unfamiliar words that I encounter and keep a list with their definitions), but was left wondering what other or better strategies are available, what principles should be kept in mind, and how I can help students use more meaningful words.
    In Larry Bate’s “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words,”  he begins by discussing the type of vocabulary words that are actually useful to students. In general, high-frequency words of a middling difficulty are much more worthwhile than words that are impressive but obscure. Not only that, but “…research indicates that word knowledge is sequential,” so it is important to fully comprehend very basic words before even attempting to build a versatile vocabulary. (70) Nonetheless, these principles are not usually reflected in standardized vocabulary lists, which Bate’s says appear to have been selected “using a blindfold and a dartboard.” (69) So for the student who is looking to improve their writing and comprehension, a more organic method will likely prove helpful.
    The primary principle to keep in mind is that a word will be easier to learn and implement if there is at least one familiar element to it. At its simplest, this applies to words that have a root, prefix, or other component that the student understands already. But it also applies to words that the student has read or seen frequently, words that can be thematically associated with other words, and for ELL students, words that are akin to words in their native tongue.
    Because of the aid that familiarity gives to learning, the best place to find new vocabulary is not the dictionary, but in students’ individual contexts. What words are their teachers using? What about their peers? What vocabulary is in the books they are reading? If you and they know where to look for helpful acquisitions, the first step is taken care of. The second step is to make those discoveries usable. In “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths,” Amy Hardwick-Ivey suggests a number of strategies for learning and remembering words by building associations. Two of them particularly struck my fancy. First, drawing a picture or illustration of a word can help make that word memorable by giving a non-verbal aid, and can even help someone process what it means. Similarly, creating a short rhyme or poem that uses the word can both help to solidify an understanding of the word and make it easier to recall.
    I may never have a chance to use this information in a session. For that matter, I may never have someone ask me about vocabulary again. Nonetheless, I think that vocabulary is a critical component of writing, and that pointing students towards the world of words that is at their fingertips and helping them know how to understand it better can ultimately foster greater comprehension, better writing, and increased confidence.

Amy R. Hardwick-Ivey. “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 56-61 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Article. Web. 6 March 2013.

Larry Bates. “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 68-76 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 6 March 2013.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

PeerCentered Discussion of Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center with Rebecca Day Babcock

To kick off the PeerCentered discussions with authors, we will be talking with Rebecca Day Babcock about her book Tell Me How It Reads:  Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center on April 8, 2013 at 2p/1p/12p/11a/19 (EDT/CDT/MDT/PDT/GMT).  While I will be leading the discussion, these sessions really are drive by you, the participants.   You don’t have to have read the book to participate, but I encourage you to do so.  The discussions will be held in PeerCentered’s TinyChat space at   Please let any peer writing tutors you know about this opportunity.

Here is a blurb about Tell Me How It Reads and Rebecca:

"Deaf students are attending mainstream postsecondary institutions in increasing numbers, raising the stakes for the complicated and multifaceted task of tutoring deaf students at these schools. Common tutoring practices used with hearing students do not necessarily work for deaf people. Rebecca Day Babcock researched and wrote Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center to supply writing instructors an effective set of methods for teaching Deaf and other students how to be better writers.
 Babcock’s book is based on the resulting study of tutoring writing in the college context with both deaf and hearing students and their tutors. She describes sessions in detail between deaf students, hearing tutors, and the interpreters that help them communicate, using a variety of English or contact signing rather than ASL in the tutorials. These experiences illustrate the key differences between deaf-hearing and hearing-hearing tutorials and suggest ways to modify tutoring and tutor-training practices accordingly. Although this study describes methods for tutoring deaf students, its focus on students who learn differently can apply to teaching writing to learning disabled students, ESL students, and other students with different learning styles. Ultimately, the grounded theory analysis within Tell Me How It Reads provides a complete paradigm for tutoring in all writing centers. Rebecca Day Babcock is Associate Professor of English, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa, TX.  (From Gallaudet University Press.)