Monday, June 23, 2014

Gender in the Writing Center: Male and Female Consultant Techniques in OWLs

Piqued by a passing thought as to if our training in the writing center can overcome our impulses, I set out to study if gender played a role in how OWLs were answered at Texas A&M’s University Writing Center. In the field of linguistics, it has been argued that males are more apt to use directive speech and females more apt to use nondirectives; this is largely related to women’s propensity to more polite speech. But, here we have training that being directive is largely not our first instinct as tutors. How did this interact with gender impulses? 

I gathered 30 male and 30 female OWL responses submitted over a five-year period and constructed the following study to answer three research questions:

1.      Does gender affect the use of directives and nondirectives?
2.      Does gender affect the delivery technique of suggestions (politeness, evaluation, explanation, and options)?
3.      Do the strategies used in male and female speech also manifest in OWL responses, overriding writing center ideology despite similar consultant training?

I looked for non/directives and politeness in the OWLs, which were divided for study by the gender of the consultant. These are strategies that consultants use every day; for example, instead of saying “fix this,” a directive, you would say “how about adding more here,” a nondirective. For politeness, I examined both positive politeness—such as “This is a great passage!”—and negative politeness—such as “I know what you are getting at here, but…” Both strategies are often used to soften the sharpness of commands in OWLs where questions often do not work due to the one-sidedness of the conversation. 

My results were that the gender of the consultant could play a role in how OWLs are handled, despite training and experience. The socialization of gender impacts speech patterns, and the writing center is not a space immune to these realities. Male consultants tended to comment more frequently (more comments per word count of the submission), but female comments were lengthier, averaging 400 words per OWL with 27 words per comment, whereas men only commented 352 words on average with 23 words per comment. However, the study suggested that women were not offering more advice, just more words. Women offered direct requests or suggestions (as opposed to simple comments or observations) 42% of the time, and men offered them 40% of the time; nondirect requests were offered 31% of the time by men and 35% of the time by women. The extra words women were offering were revealed to be largely negative politeness techniques—talking around suggestions to soften them. This was consistent with female speech patterns in general.  

What is important to note here is that both the male and female consultants were getting the job done. They both offered relatively the same percentage of requests and mixed these with politeness strategies to promote rapport. More would have to be done here to see which approach was more effective for the client, but such studies have the tendencies to be reductive when gender is the only factor considered. The experience of the consultant, for example, could also impact technique. This, however, is a study for another time. The results of this study prove that we should be aware of the techniques we use and consider that our initial impulses may not be the best choice in every situation. There are times when negative politeness is really just talking around something instead of saying it, and its overuse can be just as grating as a consultant that delivers short orders in every comment. Awareness of a tendency is the first step toward deciding whether or not that tendency is an effective tool as a tutor or not.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Teaching Revision with Digital Collation Software

There’s this collation tool online called Juxta. It allows you to compare two documents, and it highlights the differences between them in at least two ways. First, it shows both documents side by side, highlighting differences and drawing diagonal lines showing how pieces of the text have shifted. Second, it creates a heat map on just a single document, showing by lighter and darker shades of highlighting how different this document is from the other(s).

Now, a tool like this is meant for scholars in literary and textual studies; for example, one who is interested in determining whether the edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass available through Google Books matches the copy in her local library. (Whitman was a compulsive reviser, and digital reproductions of pre-1900 texts are notoriously mismanaged. So this scholar could find some interesting results!)

But I propose another use for collation software like Juxta: it can be used to learn about revision. Instead of comparing two printings of the same book, why not compare two drafts of the same student paper? That kind of collation could be useful for writers who wish to reflect on their process and consultants who want to model revision for their clients.

Like Whitman with revising, I am a compulsive saver of drafts, so I had a few of my own on which I could test this idea. Let me show you what I found in visually comparing my own drafts, and then I’ll indicate how I think this tool could be used in a consultation.

By comparing drafts side by side, I could see my writing process unfolding. Between my first and second drafts, there were many large-scale changes. Sentences blossomed into paragraphs, and paragraphs traded places like musical chairs. I was still getting my ideas down and rearranging at that point. (See Figure 1.) Between my second and final drafts, the scale of revisions diminished, and I corrected smaller mistakes and rephrased just portions of sentences. (See Figure 2.)

 Figure 1: Comparing 1st and 2nd drafts.

Figure 2: Comparing 2nd and final drafts.

But when I compared my final draft with my prewriting document, into which I had just dumped the contents of my mind before even starting to organize, the value of visualization tools like Juxta jumped off the page (the screen) at me. One sentence had remained unchanged (so it's shown in white) from prewriting to final draft. (See Figure 3.) That was my thesis.

 Figure 3: Comparing prewriting and final draft.

The heat map feature was just as revealing. A heat map of my prewriting document (comparing this text with all three drafts) was mostly dark, dark blue, meaning that almost all of it had changed, and drastically. (See Figure 4.) The heat map of my final draft, on the other hand, showed a variety of shades; elements of that document came from each of the previous drafts. (See Figure 5.) What stood out to me here were the words that were the lightest blue. There were just a few words here and there that had escaped the chopping block from beginning to end. These were my key words, so to speak. These were the words that gave my ideas continuity.

 Figure 4: Prewriting Heat Map

Figure 5: Final Draft Heat Map

When I looked at these images in Juxta, I felt like I was looking at a portrait of my writing process. More than that, they helped me see the piece I was writing in a new way, and I learned about my thinking about that topic. (Woah, meta.)

This is a powerful tool for helping the writers we work with become more reflective and intentional in their process. I could imagine using Juxta in a consultation with a writer who feels stuck. Comparing recent drafts of her current project or visualizing the whole start-to-finish process of a past project can stimulate reflection on how her work has developed and spark new ideas for how to proceed. Identifying key words and sentences like I did could also show our clients the themes in what they’ve already written and help them refocus as they continue to write. Even screenshots like these, of someone else’s writing, can be used to model for our clients what the revision process might look like. We can broaden our reach (to embrace visual learners, for instance) and innovate our consulting by using digital visualization tools like Juxta.

Check out the online version,, to take a look at your own revision process! 

Friday, June 06, 2014

More Creative Writing Solutions

           As mentioned in my previous blog, I teamed up with a fellow creative writer and tutor to explore ways to help fellow tutors consult on creative writing. We began the project this spring and presented our training session to our fellow tutors in October. In this blog, I will detail our presentation and results.
In “Is There a Creative Writer in the House?” Wendy Bishop discusses the benefit of working with different types of writing. “By analyzing the styles of writing you encounter in the world you’ll become a more proficient brainstormer and adviser to your clients on the options available to them…. Then, put all these bits of advice in service of helping the writers you work with interrogate convention and experimentation as tandem parts of the writing process.” Essentially, we need all different types of writing and we can take many of the lessons we learn from one field to another.
Our presentation focused on one main idea to help consultants tackle creative writing sessions: you are all readers. In general, most creative writers hope to see their work published one day in one form or another. Therefore, their audience is always readers in general, anyone who might happen to pick up their piece. In general, all tutors are readers in one form or another. Writers want to know how their readers will respond to their piece.  If it sounds odd, unrealistic, or cliché, you will know. You do not need to be a creative writing expert to know if writing doesn’t work for you. Therefore, throw away any inhibitions about consulting on creative writing; focus on how the writing sounds and feels.

Based on this preparation, the presentation focused on three major points: what to expect from a creative writing session, tips for focusing your critique, and interactive participation through examples.  Expect a client who wants to talk, a longer piece (therefore focus on the big picture), and expect the unexpected.  For focusing your critique, there are many questions to ask the client (and yourself!) that will help the client.  Is the prose clear?  Are the images fresh and interesting?  Can you follow the content?  Is the writing showing or telling?  Are characters developed enough?  Is the dialogue (if any) believable?  Are there places where more exposition or action scenes are needed?  What really works (or not) in the piece?  What stands out the most to you?  Is there something you, as a reader, do not understand?  For mechanics, creative writing allows for multiple uses of grammar, including blasting it to a million pieces.  Also, writers may not want to focus on small, sentence level problems.  Therefore, use your consultant powers of intuition. If something is consistently off and inhibiting the story, point it out. 
Although I certainly would not say we have perfected our Writing Center’s treatment of creative writing sessions, I would say that we have made some valuable strides.  Our presentation produced positive feedback and we hope to implement the results for years to come. In conclusion, creative writing can be difficult to consult on, but if you focus on the big picture and simply give feedback as a reader, you should be able to give the creative writer some meaningful feedback that they can take away to help them revise their work. Many of these tips, such as clarity, big picture, and word choice, can also be applied to writing from different disciplines .