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Monday, March 31, 2014

To The Parents of...


As a father, when I see mail with those words in the address block, I’m expecting one of my children’s names.  Since I’m also an undergrad student, though, Texas A&M occasionally still sends something to my house, addressed “to the parents of Phillip Garner.”  They’re usually advertisements for apartment complexes, or telling my concerned guardians how well the school is keeping me safe.  At 35, though, my mother and father haven’t received a piece of mail on my behalf in a long time. 
With my wife making jokes about mail tampering and “telling my mom,” I usually open and deal with the content myself; it’s not like I’m going to call up the school and complain, but those letters are indicative of a problem I deal with daily.  I am an anomaly in the university setting.  I am the infamous “nontraditional student,” something the university doesn't know quite how to deal with.
For traditional students, university life can fill quickly with opportunities to engage with peers.  There are student groups, roommates, sporting events, study sessions.  Professors even take time out of their lectures to train and guide young minds in the ways of the world.  I can’t speak for all big schools, but Aggieland excels at teaching the traditional, 18-22 year old undergraduate.  In all this circus of education, though, nontraditional students can feel like we’re not even sure if the school knows we exist.  While peer tutors can’t fix every problem on campus, it seems almost part of the writing center tradition to ask, “What can we do to fix that?”
            I think we can actually do quite a bit.  Think back with me, when was the last time you had an older student come in?   How did you handle the session? I've heard younger tutors suggest that they were leery about giving advice to older students, either because (1) they felt unqualified to teach someone more experienced, or because (2) they thought the student would not value their input, perhaps see the tutor as “just a kid.”  While I’m sure that happens sometimes, among those I know as a tutor or as a friend, those attitudes seem to be the exception, not the rule.
            First off, younger peer tutors are absolutely qualified to advise a nontraditional student  writing.  A peer tutor isn’t just more comfortable and competent than others in their own age.  I’d stack our peer tutors up against most anyone in the community at-large.  Age can sometimes teach us laziness, reinforce our bad habits, or simply find us left behind on education practices and norms.   When I restarted my college career a few years ago, I kept hearing professors use a particular term, and since everyone in the room seemed to know what it meant, I just went along.  One day, I heard my son, then a sophomore in high school, use the same term.  When I asked him about it, he screwed his face up in confusion and said “Dad, how did you make it into college, but you don’t know what a rubric is?”  The concept seems standard, almost a given, today, but wasn't something I was taught in Texas high school in the 90’s. 
            As for valuing a tutor’s input, keep in mind that for many older students, going back to school was and is a humbling experience.  One client actually told me, “What do I know about this? I haven’t written a term paper since Clinton was president!”  As adult learners, we entered the college arena because we realized, for whatever reason, and however late, the value of earning a college education.  If an older student comes to the writing center, not only are they willing to take advice, they might just be your most attentive client of the day. 
            This is the point where I’m supposed give you the magic three bullet points for handling nontraditional students, right?  Or is that just a leftover from my old habits, it’s hard to tell sometimes!  No bullet points, but think about it this way. We've all worked with that client writing a paper on “Unsteady Long Bearing Squeeze-film Dampers” (true story), in which the client is the topic expert, but maybe grammar is a weakness, or organization.  In the same way,  the nontraditional student comes in with experiences, worldviews you don’t have yet,  but you come to the table with fresh ideas and a greater exposure to the technicalities, and, more than likely, a love for writing that’s rare at any age. Those traits are exponentially valuable, as long as, like any consultation, we approach with an open mind and the goal of improving writers along with their writing.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Don't Tell Me How To Write, Teach Me


Endless tutoring sessions, the time consuming yet indispensable dictionary, the annoying translator that does not always make sense, and the frustration of not being able to convert your thoughts into words because of your lack of vocabulary. These are some of the problems we, writers who speak English as a second language, experience everyday. The desperation and lack of control we experience when we are writing in a different language is exhausting, but the feeling of helplessness you get when you get your first grade is the worst. Disappointment, frustration, anger, and sadness all pile up to tell you what you already know: that you are a complete failure. The red marker all over your paper pointing at commas, apostrophes, and grammatical errors is telling you that you failed.  That even though you used all of the resources available, you still failed, and that no matter how hard you try next time, you will probably still fail.
How can ESL writers be punished for breaking the rules when they don’t know the rules? ESL writers don’t need grammar police; what they need is a mentor. Someone who doesn’t just point out the errors, but who rather goes over them and explains how to correct them, so that they can actually improve their writing and grammatical skills.
Many professors and tutors believe that they have to be grammar experts in order to be able to help an ESL writer. This is not true. It is more about being patient and letting them know you understand their frustration. I believe that making them feel comfortable and showing them that you are willing to help them get through the language barrier is more valuable. ESL learners normally write better than they speak, sometimes all they need is a little push. It is our job to show them that writing a paper is not the end of the world, and that we are there to facilitate the process for them.
If we, the tutors, are patient with writers who are learning English and show ourselves positive about their work, they will change their attitude towards their assignments, and writing in general. Explaining to them why certain things are grammatically incorrect and teaching them ways to avoid those mistakes, will help them to adapt to the language little by little and to ultimately improve their writing skills. I know this because I went through this process, and even though I had a hard time in the beginning, I eventually understood that it is possible to succeed as an ESL writer, if one is provided with the right guidance, which is why I decided to become a writing tutor. I believe that helping ESL writers understand that writing is not a talent you are born with but rather something that takes practice, patience, and time, is more effective than just marking their papers. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Just Smile and Nod

          Let me begin by saying that I am an extremely awkward person. Not only do I trip over invisible things and fall over standing still, I have a really hard time making small talk with strangers and feel like I get lost in large groups where I don’t know anyone. As you might imagine, it was really difficult for me to transition into being a writing consultant, where my job requires me to confront my awkwardness head on and deal with strangers on a daily basis. With nearly two years of consulting under my belt, my confidence has definitely grown, and I find that I am better able to handle my awkwardness. Believe it or not, sometimes I can even use it to my advantage! My original fears have morphed into an assurance that I can handle any situation I’m thrown into, and recently I had a chance to test that theory.
            Allow me to back track a little, if you will. Last summer, our writing center started a special English conversation program, where international students looking to practice their English could come in and meet with the same consultant twice a week. The topics we talked about ranged from television shows to cooking to the reasons why profanity is generally avoided in classroom settings. These conversation appointments were very relaxed, and allowed me a unique opportunity to build a relationship with people I might not have met otherwise. Enter Lacey (name changed), a grad student from China. The two of us bonded early on over NCIS and our common disdain for certain parts of the American education system. (I’m only a junior and I already have senioritis—yikes!) We became friends, and we occasionally went out for coffee or chatted over Facebook, though both of those things dwindled once the semester was in full swing.
            Last week, I heard from Lacey for the first time in a while. She told me that her parents were going to be visiting from China, and invited me to meet them at a small, informal party at her apartment. I jumped at the chance, and accepted her invitation.
            I arrived at the party a little early, and I was the only native English speaker in the room. Granted, Lacey and her friend were there, and they both speak English really well, but I found myself in a whirlwind of Mandarin Chinese, where all I could do was smile and nod. Lacey tried to translate for me as much as possible, but sometimes there were things that were simply untranslatable, or the translation came so late that the funny moment had passed. So I found myself sitting there, wondering what in the world I was going to do. I had never felt more awkward in my life.
            Wasn’t my writing center training supposed to prepare me for situations like this? Sure, we’ve never actually talked about what to do when you don’t speak the same language as the people around you, but surely there was something from all of those staff meetings and classes that would help me figure out what to do.
            As it turns out, I did have the tools in my tool belt to handle the situation, I just had to put on my writing consultant hat and remind myself to be calm in the face of this uncertain situation.
First of all, being a writing consultant has taught me to be okay with silence. Before I became a consultant, I would try to fill silences with jokes or idle chatter, which ended up making the situation more awkward. So when we were sitting around Lacey’s table stuffing our faces with delicious (and authentic!) Chinese food and the conversation lapsed, I didn’t feel like I had to fill the gap. After all, half of the people in the room wouldn’t have been able to understand me anyway.
            Also, my writing center training made me more aware than ever of the body language of those around me, and I discovered that I could use that to my advantage. I may not have known what everyone was saying, but I could tell from the way they leaned toward each other that the conversation was good-natured and upbeat. My own body language became important, too, since I didn’t want to come across as standoffish or rude.
            In the end, though, it was something that I learned inherently through my work as a writing consultant that became the most important. I had to be flexible and adapt myself to the situation, much like I would in a writing consultation. In some writing consultations, I find that my normal consulting style doesn’t necessarily work well, and I have to come up with a new plan of action, all the while making sure that my client feels comfortable and is getting what he or she needs. The situation I found myself in was not necessarily the most uncomfortable one I’ve ever been in, but it did require me to step outside of my proverbial comfort zone and rethink the way I communicate with others.

            Lacey’s party ended up being a success for me in many ways. Not only did I learn how to make dumplings from scratch, but I left with a renewed sense of self-confidence, which I know will serve me well in the writing center and beyond. If there is a moral to this story—and I’m skeptical that there is—it would be this: no matter how far removed from the writing center you may feel, don’t underestimate your writing consultant superpowers. You never know when they may come in handy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

So You Think You Can Write, or How to Consult Confident Writers

           “Oh, you work at the writing center? I've never been there, because I don’t really need anyone to edit my papers, and I pretty much know how to write already.” We've all heard something along those lines, haven’t we? There seems to be this idea floating around everywhere that you only need the writing center if you don’t know how to write, which we all know isn't true. Nevertheless, this idea is the reason why we rarely see confident writers at the writing center.
            Okay, but what exactly is a confident writer? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define a confident writer as someone who is comfortable and familiar with the writing process, and who is capable of writing an essay, lab report, personal statement, or whatever without the aid of the writing center. These students are the ones who, because they’re happy with the grades they’re getting, don’t feel the need to come to the writing center for “help.”
Also, I think that we can separate these confident writers into two groups. The first group is those writers who only come in to the writing center because they have to, or their professor is offering extra credit for coming in. At our writing center, we see a lot of writers who fall into this group. Five minutes into their 45 minute consultation and they’ve already mentally checked out. The second group of confident writers has grown out of their original prejudice against the writing center. These students probably started out in the first group, but they’ve discovered that the writing center really has something to offer and they've turned into repeat customers.
            So this presents an interesting question. What can we, as writing consultants, do to make sure that confident writers benefit from their sessions at the writing center? First of all, we need to think about redefining our role within the consultation. More often than not, a confident writer isn’t looking for advice about grammar and mechanics, but rather higher-order concerns such as clear construction of an argument. This changes the dynamic within the consultation so that we need to view ourselves as readers or members of the audience rather than writing “experts.” In the nearly two years that have passed since I became a writing consultant, I've read writing from almost every discipline, and while I might not have any idea what a squeeze film damper does, I have a variety of reading experiences in my back pocket that can be invaluable to someone who’s writing about them.
            When you consult confident writers, think about the types of feedback that you might like to receive if you were in your client’s place, and go from there. For example, when I’m working with a confident writer, I can draw on the fact that I have a handle on grammar, so when I bring a paper in to the writing center I’m not looking for that kind of feedback. At the beginning of an appointment, once I’ve determined whether the student I’m working with is a confident writer, I ask what they’d like to talk about in our session. If they don’t mention grammar, I don’t mention grammar. If you’re busy discussing the merits of the Oxford comma when your client wants to talk about organization, then that student is probably not going to get much out of his or her appointment. And you probably won’t be seeing them again.
            Also, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Challenge the student’s understanding of what he or she is writing. If you notice a hole in their argument, don’t hesitate to point it out and ask if there’s a reason for the gap. If there’s not, you’ll not only help them broaden their understanding of the topic, you’ll have helped them fix their paper without ever giving them the type of advice that might make them feel patronized. When you find something that might need to be revised, use “I statements” to present your advice from the point of view of the reader. Instead of saying “You seem to need more textual evidence to support this point,” say “As a reader, I wasn't able to follow this part of the paper. Is there something from the text that you’re analyzing that would add more support here?”

            Finally, we need to help these students understand that there is not a pinnacle of perfection in writing, and there is always room for improvement. Do you use the writing center for your own assignments? If so, don’t be afraid to share that with your clients and use it to your advantage. Seeing writing consultants as students working to improve their writing will help confident writers get rid of the idea that the writing center is only for “bad” writers. It’s also important for these students to understand that they are expected to progress as writers as they progress in other aspects of college. The writing that they do should not simply be about “getting the grade,” but about going above and beyond to improve. Learning where they can improve and acting on that knowledge will have real-world implications for these students as they enter the workforce or pursue a higher degree. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What is our problem?

By nature, people are very cautious beings. We have a wide variety of preventative medicine, we practice behaviors we should exhibit in case of an emergency, have emergency supplies hidden away, hoard back-ups, and back-ups for our back-ups; basically we like being secure. But crazy enough, many students, and occasionally even tutors, push themselves to dangerous anxiety and stress levels when it comes to writing on a deadline. We will wait until the last moment to write extensive research papers, reports, and all kinds of writing. But, being a species that would much rather do things “cautiously and safely”, the act of procrastination is a phenomena that I would like to decipher.


I would like to know why. Why do we not always simply start earlier? We have to start sometime. Why do we not collect research earlier? Why do we wait until a feeling of panic encompasses us to actually get things done? I realize that not everyone procrastinates, but placed in the university setting that I am in, I can confidently say a majority of students do. We put ourselves in these modes of insanity, because earlier we chose to not get a simple assignment done, and most of the time for unjustifiable reasons. I know it may be a wide question, but when compared to other subjects, writing seems to be put off the most. Do we not know where to start? Do we have a problem with university writing assignments? Why is writing commonly procrastinated upon, when it would be extremely easier to simply start earlier?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

PeerCentered Meet the Author Discussion for Spring 2014

We will have four Meet the Author discussions during April.  All discussions will be held on the PeerCentered TinyChat discussion space at http://www.peercentered.org/p/peercentered-chat-room.html .

We have a wide variety of topics this time around…ranging from community writing centers to in-class peer response.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 3 pm Eastern Time
Tiffany Rousculp:  Rhetoric of Respect: Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center

For our first Meet the Author discussion of 2014, we'll be chatting with Tiffany Rousculp author of _Rhetoric of Respect: Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center_. Tiffany is associate professor of English at Salt Lake Community College where she teaches composition, linguistics, and sociolinguistics courses. She is the founding director of the SLCC Community Writing Center. "Drawing from her decade leading Salt Lake Community College's Community Writing Center (CWC), Tiffany...advocates cultivating relationships within a 'rhetoric of respect' that recognizes the abilities, contributions, and goals of all participants. Rousculp calls for understanding change not as a result or outcome, but as the potential for people to make choices regarding textual production within regulating environments."

Friday, April 4, 2014 at 1 pm Eastern Time
Steven Corbett, Michelle LaFrance, and Teagan Decker (and more!) :  Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom

Steven Corbett, Michelle LaFrance, and Teagan Decker will be dropping in for the PeerCentered Meet the Author Discussion on April 4, 2014. Steven, Michelle, and Teagan are editors (and authors of chapters in) the upcoming book _Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom_. Steven is a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University. Michelle is the Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program and assistant professor of English at George Mason University. Teagan is the director of the University Writing Center and associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. 

"Students are frequently asked to engage in peer review and response activities in writing classrooms across the curriculum. But how can, and why should, teachers make peer response a major part of their pedagogy that really works well for their students and themselves? Peer Pressure, Peer Power delivers original essays that engage tough pedagogical questions from authors who resist easy answers. This collection includes essays that examine the nature of peer response in theory and in practice from scholars representing composition-rhetoric, writing center, and WAC/WID programs across the country. The book provides new and experienced teaching assistants and instructors, WPAs, writing center personnel, WAC personnel, and service learning personnel with both a theoretical and practical resource for peer response in writing classrooms. But the authors in this collection go a pedagogical step or two further in the direction of peer tutoring: they map several interconnections between classroom and writing center and other peer tutoring theories and practices, showing the ways that a deeper understanding of peer response can help teachers and tutors provide better feedback to students' writing; they suggest the connections between peer response and designing effective writing assignments and rubrics, touching on how important student input really is in all phases of our pedagogy; they bring the value of teaching and learning with student texts to vivid life; and they illustrate specific ways that classrooms and one-to-one and small-group conferences can become highly interactive, synergistic sites for the teaching and learning of writing. "

Monday, April 7, 2014 at 3 pm Eastern Time
The Breakroom Crew

"The Breakroom—a scripted web-series produced by The University Center for Writing-based Learning at DePaul University—presents peer writing tutors confronting challenges in their work with writers and receiving research-based advice from fellow peer writing tutors on how to productively handle these challenges. Each episode ends with the peer writing tutor applying the advice successfully. Episodes in Seasons One and Two of The Breakroom focus on the challenges of working with quiet, over-confident, or unfocused writers and working with writers with different ideological beliefs."

Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 2 pm Eastern Time
Beth Godbee and Moira Ozias:  “Organizing for Antiracism in Writing Centers:  Principles for Enacting Social Change” in Writing Centers and the New Racism ed by Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan

From Beth and Moira:

'“Organizing for Antiracism in Writing Centers: Principles for Enacting Social Change” defines organizing and answers the question of whether we in writing centers should do this work by showing how we already are. We identify guiding principles consistent with the aims of antiracism as well as the collaborative and dialogic pedagogies of writing centers. Drawing on cross-disciplinary research, we articulate three frameworks for organizing: (1) direct action organizing (Bobo, Kendall, and Max, 2001); (2) a balance of strategies and tactics (Alinsky, 1945; Mathieu, 2005); and (3) a dialectic approach (Papa, Singhal, and Papa, 2006). We find the most potential in this third approach, one we see aligned with current research on both writing centers and community organizing and so we focus our discussion here. Finally, to put the principles into action, we analyze an extended case study of our efforts of organizing in professional associations and invite readers to participate in similar analyses on their own local organizing efforts. Here we add participatory action research (Fine and Torre, 2006; Greenwood and Levin, 2006; Sohng, 1995; Weis and Fine, 2004) as a method aligned with dialectic organizing to suggest a future direction for assessing our organizing efforts. Participatory action research (PAR), like dialectic organizing, promotes ongoing reflection, horizontal relationship-building, and democratic participation, thereby providing the means for antiracism work within one-with-one writing conferences and shared leadership of writing centers.

For this discussion, we hope to discuss the dialectic tensions inherent in organizing and how these play out in writing centers. We’d like to hear from participants how this chapter—or other work on organizing—has influenced your work on and off campuses, in local writing centers, in professional associations, and across other contexts. And we’d like to dig into the racial/ized dynamics of access and involvement in organizing in higher education. Toward this end, we imagine posing and taking up “wicked questions” that help us reflect on and intervene into everyday ways of being and doing.'

Beth Godbee is Assistant Professor at Marquette University, where she studies how collaborative writing talk (and the relationship-building, writing, revision, and rethinking involved in that talk) brings about social change, or more equitable relations, for individuals and members of their social networks. 

Moira Ozias is the Associate Director of the OU Writing Center at the University of Oklahoma, where she is also working on a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Her research interests include peer learning and collaboration, community literacies, community-university partnerships, and the intersections of critical race and writing center studies.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

International Student Workshops: The Theory Behind the Magic



International Student Workshops: The Theory Behind the Magic

     This blog post is meant to be an accompaniment to my previous post on international student workshops. In the first post, I discussed how the workshop works. Now, it’s important to look at the theory behind these programs to truly understand why they can be used effectively.

     The literature analyzing international student learning often fails to encompass the potential that lies in the learning environment of a workshop. A workshop provides its attendees with basic guidance and instruction while they perform the exercises of the program. The workshop participants receive two types of interactions: instructor guidance and peer support. With regards to the international student workshops, a small workshop allows students to personally communicate with their English-speaking instructor, an essential step to learning English that can usually only be attained in one-on-one sessions. This allows students a judgment-free environment where they can be sure that any advice they receive comes from a reputable source. Further, these students tend to be more open as they become more comfortable with their instructor; there is no replacement for the confidence that consistency builds. Without taking away from the benefits of a one-on-one session, workshops also incorporate other students into the fold. In workshops, instructors create a new dynamic that cannot be attained in specific sessions just with each individual student. The international students attending a workshop actively choose to be there because they are looking to improve their language skills, a goal they all share. By creating the potential for interactions between these similarly-driven learners, instructors allow students to learn from each other as well. The workshops give students direction in their studies and the opportunity to help their fellow English language learners along the way. Both instructor guidance and peer support will benefit them tremendously on their path to becoming comfortable English speakers, showing the undeniable advantages of a workshop setting.

     With all their benefits, legitimate criticisms about group learning need to be addressed when planning international student workshops. One concern with workshop learning is the risk for some students to disappear. The group learning environment appeals to the extroverts, but some of the more introverted students run the risk of not being heard. It’s important, then, when planning ELL student workshops, to understand how critical it is to encourage all students to participate. This may mean pairing a quieter student up with a more vocal one or simply asking the audience a question and having them write their answers down to compare with their neighbor’s. This can also be done by ensuring a strong ratio of consultant to student. Four consultants currently lead Texas A&M’s workshops so that every ten students has a consultant to help them through the process. Another concern with workshops is the establishment of a classroom feel. Many international students, when placed in a room with their peers trying to learn the same thing, will see these workshops as they would a university level course. This will result in unnecessary stresses and will detract from the forum-feel that a workshop should evoke. A good way to avoid this is to be aware of consultant appearance. Have consultants dress professionally, but not to the point where they are intimidatingly well-dressed. Also, instruct consultants to speak to the students as friends instead of students to show that they are not English professors, but native speaking peers who are there to help. Something as simple as sitting casually on a table while talking will dispel the classroom image some students may form. By directly addressing the main concerns associated with a workshop-style learning environment, consultants can utilize this great medium to its fullest.

     Clearly, the workshop setup will not work for all students. Some may simply prefer individual attention, while others may feel the instruction is not formal enough for their liking. Despite this, a groups setting offers many ways for consultants to pass their knowledge on to a large number of students at once. The concept requires some refining before a replicable standard can be achieved and applied to writing centers across the country. However, all students who attend an international student workshop leave with at least this knowledge: they are not alone.