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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

"Collecting Tutor Stories Project:" UW Bothell Writing Center Series

Hello PeerCentered Readers,

My name is Cora Thomas. I have been a Peer Writing Consultant for the Writing and Communication Center at the University of Washington Bothell for about two years. I began in September 2011 as I pursued a Master's Degree from the Cultural Studies Graduate Program. The Assistant Director permits a wide range of creative freedom for staff to suggest ideas and initiate projects that would improve the learning and teaching of both students and tutors. In Summer 2012, after I had a significant encounter with a student I was inspired to create a project entitled, “Collecting Tutor Stories Project.” With support from our Assistant Director and Director this project evolved into an anthology that will be published (print) for our writing center this summer.

These samples from the anthology below are comprised of a collection of voices from Peer Writing Consultants at UW Bothell Writing and Communication Center. This idea for a Tutor Story Anthology arose from my own encounter with a distraught student that strongly challenged me to question my role as a tutor. I asked myself, “Am I more than just a writing tutor and does this job involve an aspect of mentorship?” After this encounter, I asked my fellow co-workers to reflect upon a significant instance with a student or what they have realized about themselves through working at the Center. The following prompt I wrote for the staff:

Describe an experience you had as a Peer Writing Consultant here at UW Bothell that had a true impact on you (in terms of your interaction with students). Think of an encounter with a student that was profound, a moment that lingered in your mind after your work day. These experiences can either be positive or difficult situations. Describe how you dealt with it and how it made you feel in the moment and afterwards. Examples include but not limited to: teaching/learning moments for yourself and the student; realization of your job extending beyond helping students with writing; connecting with a student on a personal or mentoring level. Also, feel free to write about how your training here and the “culture” of the Writing and Communication Center (mutual mentorship between staff) has enhanced your professional growth and helped you in other areas of your life.

The purpose of this project was to unveil what we do at the Writing and Communication Center from the tutor’s point of view so others can understand how we have created meaning from our experiences. This was an opportunity to explore how our encounters and relationships with students have profound effects on our personal and professional growth.

Beyond this anthology the stories will be used internally for training purposes; some will be published on outside blogs (such as PeerCentered) and websites to be shared with other Writing Centers and tutors. Additionally, portions of these stories will be shared with the UW Bothell community.

It’s imperative to share these untold stories so we can begin learning from these remarkable experiences. As Writing Consultants continue developing their tutoring practice and read through these anthology samples perhaps these stories will intersect or diverge from your own tutoring philosophies.  We hope that you enjoy reading these narratives from our Peer Writing  Consultants. 

Sincerely,
Cora Thomas,   corat@uw.edu
Collecting Tutor Stories Project 2012-13, Founder
Master of Arts in Cultural Studies, UW Bothell

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More stories may be posted in the future but let's begin with these four:

Challenging My Role as a Peer Writing Consultant   
By Cora Thomas

As I was chatting with tutors about the busy day in the main area of the UW Bothell Writing and Communication Center I heard the door open. I instinctively turned and walked down the hall decorated with staff biographies and quotes of famous writers. At the door I greeted a young student and a professor from my graduate program. With a wide smile I said, “Hi, how can I help you?” I turned to the professor and said, “It’s great to see you.” The professor smiled back at me with raised eye brows, surprised to see me. She said, “Cora, one of my students is unfamiliar with the Writing Center and needs help getting started on an assignment in my class. Can you show her around?” Before I could answer she turned to the student and said, “This is Cora, my dear friend, and she would be more than happy to help.” With raised eyebrows myself at the kind comment ‘dear friend’ I said, “Yes, it’s nice to meet you.” I offered my hand for an introduction, the student shook it unenthused. “Of course I can help you make an appointment and explain what we do here in the Writing Center.” The professor smiled at the student reassuringly and then turned to me, “Goodbye it’s good to see you, Cora.” “Goodbye,” I replied.

As the professor left I noticed that the student was visibly distraught, almost in tears. I was about to ask her details of her course when she began to cry. Feeling terrible I said, “Why don’t you come in here for a second and I can get you a tissue.” She followed me into the front conference room of the Writing Center, an open room with two computers, a round table with purple chairs, and a large window facing the trees. Outside it was pouring rain, reflecting the student’s mood. I found a Kleenex box and offered her one. As she wiped away tears, I said, “Your teacher truly cares about you because she personally brought you into the Writing Center, you know that, right?” The student nodded, seeming to understand. “What is bothering you?” Through her anxiety she explained, “I’m stressed about being a new student and I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. This class is really difficult. I don’t even know how to begin on this paper.” I said, “You’re not alone. When I was in your situation I felt the same. Being a first year student everything and everyone is unfamiliar. It is really disorienting to become comfortable to the surroundings and the expectations of university level course work. But, your professor supports you and the staff here at the Writing Center is here for you, too.” I gave her a few moments to calm down before I began to explain how the Writing Center operates. After I finished describing our services, I showed her how to make an appointment online from the computer by the front door. After our discussion standing side by side in the lobby of the Writing Center, she looked at me and said, “I feel better about things, thank you.” I nodded and said, “Of course, you’re welcome, I’m glad you came in today. I’m happy I was here to help. Come back and chat with me if you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to about your concerns as a new student.” The student seemed calmer and even smiled as we said our goodbyes.

After the door closed behind the student I walked back into the front conference room and stood there for a moment, processing what just happened. I looked outside to see the rain subsiding. A bold thought popped into my head: is my job more than just a writing tutor? My eyes scanned the room and rested on the table with writing pads and pens. I had a strong urge to immediately write down this experience. I walked over to the table and reached for a blank pad and with pen in hand started writing:  I just had an encounter with a freshman that came into the Writing Center distraught over a difficult assignment……….
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Reflection:

This experience made me question my role as a Writing Tutor. I realized that the Writing and Communication Center’s staff may not only exist solely to tutor students on writing, but also to provide peer support for students. Sometimes tutors might need to be a guide, a comfort, an encourager, a praiser, maybe even a mentor. But, in this situation my role transformed into a consoler. At their core, I believe tutors are mentors. We even include a mentoring component for training our new staff.

Although, I didn’t see that student again, I hope she returned to the Writing and Communication Center for help. I was happy to lend comfort to this student that was clearly upset. Calming her down was crucial and only then was it appropriate to proceed with describing our services. I had great empathy and compassion for what she was feeling. I also experienced anxiety when I was a first year college student. Because of support I found through my peers, professors, and academic advisors I became more confident as a new college student.

This encounter lingered in my mind long after the student and her professor walked into the Writing Center that day. This experience dramatically challenged my understanding of the purpose of a Peer Writing Tutor and the mission of our Center. This experience also reaches beyond the Writing Center and speaks to a possible unmet need on this campus that perhaps a formal peer mentorship program can address.


July 2013-- I piloted a small peer mentorship program with eight undergraduates on the UW Bothell’s campus for my graduate capstone research project. Working as a peer tutor has encouraged me to research and work within the field of peer mentorship in higher education settings.  
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By Mahala Lettvin
MA Cultural Studies Candidate, UW Bothell

When I first began training for my job as a consultant at the Writing and Communication Center, I hoped to find some formulaic method for my tutoring role. Initially, my understanding was that I was to help students become more aware of their own writing styles; implementing a non-directive approach by asking questions to prompt self-reflection and self-correction. The focus, I reminded myself repeatedly, was to allow students to take ownership of their work. The over-simplistic motto we make better writers, not better papers and the accompanying philosophy unfortunately, in my mind, tends to discount the complex experience of both the writing consultant and the student. An encounter I had with a student who has now come back to see me numerous times changed the way I internalize this motto, and has given me new insight into my approach to tutoring.

“Mary” invaded my life ridiculously early one morning during the depressing first weeks of winter quarter. Her annoyingly chipper personality and glowing appearance were in sharp contrast and interrupted the gloomy drudgery that I had found solace in. It was her first time visiting the center, so after I attempted a semi-coherent introduction of the writing center’s mission and practices, I asked her about her assignment. Pulling the assignment guidelines from a binder labeled, color-coded, and extraordinarily organized, she explained that her assignment involved narrating her personal experiences and reflecting on academic articles assigned in class. She asked me to read the paper aloud so she could mark her paper and catch any mistakes.

“Is that okay with you?” She asked timidly, as if she was doing something wrong or somehow offending me.

Of course it was okay. It had to be absolutely, positively okay. As a tutor, I was to ensure she was as comfortable as possible. And despite my aversion to reading aloud, her assignment actually intrigued me.

“Yes, that’s fine!” I responded, fumbling with a pen I had planned on handing her but awkwardly left dangling in the air between us after realizing she had a dozen lined up and ready to go.

But, it turns out I lied to her. It wasn’t fine. Nothing about her writing was fine. Nothing about me reading aloud was fine. Her introduction was everything we as consultants dream introductions to be. The remainder of the paper followed the assignment guidelines impeccably. The words were beautifully constructed: strung together artistically, creatively, and professionally. The transitions from academic to personal language were smooth. The vocabulary was impressive without being condescending. The ideas flowed logically from one to the next. All those elements that were categorized under higher order concerns during my training, were not concerns at all. So I looked for the lower order concerns: grammatical mishaps, spelling errors, run-on sentences. I looked for margin inconsistencies, for anything - at least she could have written it in Comic Sans so I could school her on appropriate font selection. I searched the pages for something. Anything. There was nothing.

My voice shaking, I struggled with reading her words in my voice. As a woman, mother, wife, and student, her acknowledgment of her position in society – both as invisible and privileged – were extremely painful to read. Her words represented my loneliness, my frustration, and my own struggles as a woman, mother, and student. Not only was I envious of how awake Mary was at 8 in the morning, I was also envious of her beauty, the way she did her hair, her makeup, her outfit. I was envious of her academic achievements and her neatly organized binders. And most of all I was envious of her courage in writing words that represented my own struggles that I, for too long, avoided even acknowledging. And I hated her for asking me to use my voice to read her words.

We were approaching the final page of her paper as I fumbled on one word – the only word throughout the pages that made me pause. In truth I was delighted I had found something.

“What did you mean here, when you wrote that your husband ‘stalls’ you?”

“Oh, well, like, he, you know, he doesn’t want me to- he doesn’t want me to be myself I guess.”

“Oh? Hmm... can you tell me a bit more? I am just curious about why you chose the word ‘stall’?”

She proceeded to tell me stories of her husband’s demands on her to keep quiet in social settings. The stories went on as she discussed parenting concerns, to struggles in going back to school. The message she internalized from her husband – and from others - was to be more invisible than she already was.

The conversation that followed may as well have been decorated with martinis and Virginia slims, heels up on the table, filing our nails. The words coming out of our mouths were so stereotypically Hollywood, likely mirroring a scene from some reality TV show on the real housewives, the desperate housewives. “He said what?” - “I would have slapped him!” – “When did we ever decide it was a good idea to get married?”- comments of that nature. You know, language academics and tutors aren’t often allowed to say. But language that women, wives, mothers, and sisters are stereotyped with saying all too often.

Turns out, regardless of how unprofessional this conversation was, it was in fact highly productive – not just personally, but in becoming better writers. We delved back into the paper with a keener sense of “self” – a self that represented not just the lonely struggles of a mother attempting to finish her paper, but the collective self. I read her words more confidently, and she listened more intently perhaps realizing they represented more than just her words. She began scratching out words like “maybe” and “possibly” and replacing them with definitive, bold statements about her identity, her position she has claimed, as well as the one she has been violently or otherwise placed in by her husband, her professors, her son, and society.

I realize my role as a tutor isn’t reduced to a simple motto, we make better writers not better papers. I am sure, without a doubt, that the meeting made two better writers, and perhaps made two better women, two better friends, two better students, activists, wives… the list goes on. Our bitching seemed to foster a confidence that may have been too lonely for either one of us to embody before. She left with intentions of rereading her paper and “fixing” the areas that were not assertive enough. She also expressed her intention in confronting her husband on matters discussed during the meeting. And I went home that night and began writing an autobiography I had been avoiding for far too long. Reading her words aloud was the push I needed to write– the push I needed to analyze my own memories, my own experiences, and my own identity.
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Writers Alone Together in the Center 
By John Boucher
MFA Creative Writing Candidate, UW Bothell

It’s Tuesday morning in the Writing and Communications Center. I am a Peer Writing Consultant. My first appointment awaits.

I greet Jude, my first student of the day. We settle in to a conference space. She reveals papers from her bag while I grab a pen and take a pull off of my hot latte.

I ask her what she’s working on. She says that her assignment is to develop a research question and a thesis statement about a social issue. She chose sexual assault and LGBTQ youth. She must use at least four sources, two of them academic, and document them in an annotated bibliography. The academic resources are giving her fits. She can’t find any.

I ask her what research she has done thus far. She says that she worked with the university librarians. They were able to find materials about bullying, but not much on sexual assault. Now she’s stuck. What to do next?

We talk a while about her subject and how she might incorporate the research she does have into her paper. I ask her if she could reference some of the bullying-related material, maybe find correlations in the ways institutions respond to or prevent bullying and sexual assault. We brainstorm. She is empty of everything but tears. She weeps. I put on some tea.

“There there,” I say, “Everything will be okay.”

She didn’t weep. Not really. But the storm clouds are gathering. I feel powerless. All is despair. She asks if there is somewhere else she can go for writing help, where more time can be spent, where she won’t need an appointment.

We sit in silence, her face long as a Wednesday.

I talk about next steps. I suggest that she skim her extant research and pull out passages that seem particularly interesting. I say, “Make a collection of quotations that spark something within you, that pique your interest. Once you have that collection, you can begin free-writing your first draft. As you pour words onto the page, keep your quotation collection open in another window on your screen. Refer to it often. Eventually you will find opportunities to include some of your research material.”

She brightens a little. At that moment, at least, her sense of defeat fades. She thanks me repeatedly. Thank you. Thank you, again thank you. She packs her paperwork into her bag. Thank you, and she’s gone. I call after her: Courage! as the door shuts behind her.

Then the post-conference haze hits me. I slump into a chair at one of the computer stations and take a pull off of my lukewarm latte. What just happened? Faced with Jude’s utter hopelessness, I had reached into my bag of tricks and found a technique that she connected with. But did I help her? I don’t know. Can we ever help anyone? Or are we ultimately alone in our writerly anguish, adrift in a heartless, chaotic cosmos with nowhere to turn?

It’s Tuesday morning in the Writing and Communication Center. I am a Peer Writing Consultant. My next appointment awaits.
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By William Jonsson

Before I started working at the Writing and Communication Center, I had helped many students with their writing assignments; however, outside of class peer-reviews, most of my experience was with helping my international student friends with their papers. I had helped them with their writing by reviewing their papers for grammatical errors, correcting them and explaining their proper usage with examples. While they were always glad for the corrections, their writing did improve over time, so long as they kept practicing and listened to my longwinded explanations, this is no longer how I would handle this type of situation. I find that now, both in my in-class peer-reviews and my out-of-class help for friends, my technique has drastically changed. I no longer go through these kinds of papers hunting down every mistake—proofreading. I now look for impactful errors that alter the meaning, and for one or two consistent grammatical errors that might relate to a misunderstanding of proper usage. This alteration in my reviewing technique was recently brought to my attention.

An old friend of mine, who had already returned to her home country, sent me a letter she intended to submit with her application for a job. Initially she asked me to write it for her—which was well beyond anything I’d ever done before and wasn’t comfortable with—but I coaxed her into writing it herself and to send it to me to review. This was especially important because it was asking for details about why she specifically wanted the job, why she thought she’d be a good fit for the position, and how her life experiences had prepared her to work in the international field. Even if I felt apathetic toward ghost writing her response, propagating plagiarism, I couldn’t possibly answer those questions as she would. After briefly explaining why I wasn’t comfortable writing it for her, I said I’d be happy to review what she wrote herself and to coach her though her English.

The first draft she sent me was littered with all the challenges one expects from someone that hasn’t spoken English in over a year. While I noticed that conversationally, over the phone and video chat, her English was still very good, her skills of expressing herself on paper had atrophied. It wasn’t quite as severe as running a paper through Google Translate—but almost. I combed through her paper selecting sentences and asking questions about what she meant in one place or another. In a few places I directly changed a word; in others I suggested a few options for how to adjust her sentence. Her biggest obstacle was the difference in connotation between using a word in Japanese (her native language) and its counterpart in English. An example of how that related is that in Japanese it is proper and appropriate to be extremely apologetic and to under-sell yourself, whereas in English it is more appropriate to up-sell yourself in a cover letter. Overall, it was clear she was passionate about getting the job, but needed help expressing that desire in the language the potential employer needed.

This particular event was significant to me because it was a glaring reflection of how my tutoring style evolved since I came to the Writing and Communication Center. While I believe my old methods generated better papers, they didn’t necessarily generate better writers. If I had handled my friend’s essay as I would have before coming to the Writing and Communication Center, I would have simply proofread her writing, made all the corrections, and sent back her paper with a brief explanation of what I’d changed—but doing so would have meant interjecting my writing voice. Now I prefer to work with the students, to help draw out and emphasize their writing voice.
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By Disko Praphanchith

My experiences as a Writing Consultant have extended far outside the confines of the Writing and Communication Center at UW Bothell. These experiences, along with the added pleasures of having worked with students from all over the world, have benefited me with a greater appreciation for writing.

I remember one particular moment where my encounter with a student helped change my understanding of being a Writing Consultant. This student had come in with a personal statement wishing to enter medical school and apply for a scholarship for the University of Washington Seattle Campus. As I read his paper, I was quite touched by the honesty revealed in his words. Moreover, I was moved by his family’s history. In his paper, this student revealed how his responsibilities as a son extended to not only providing for his mother and family, but also, to properly raising his younger brother. His hope was that by obtaining a scholarship to enter medical school, a heavy financial burden would be lifted from his family’s shoulders that would later enable his younger brother to attend school. I’ve read many personal statements before, as well as many scholarships applications; however, I’ve never read one paper where such selflessness was evident.

While I did my best to help him, it’s unknown whether or not the student achieved his goals. However, with this being said, I realized that my responsibilities as a Writing Consultant extended beyond just merely tutoring random individuals. I realized from my encounter with this student that my input could very well influence lives. From this then, I’ve become more sensitive to students’ needs, as well as more willing to understand their goals. I understand now that better writers are not only produced at the Writing and Communication Center, but also, the potentiality for dreams.