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Monday, March 30, 2015

Operating Within the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre’s Conceptual Space



        Our tutoring centre is a medium-sized room filled with round tables and sunlight, which pours in through four windows on the eastern-facing wall. On your average day, it is noisy— marked both by the chatter of math tutors working with groups and one-on-one conversations between writing tutor and tutee. I rather enjoy working in this space, but it serves as a reminder of the conceptual space in which I find myself— a space that bears a daunting truth.

         As a writing tutor at the University of Winnipeg, I am situated within contrasting forces. Our Canadian value of multiculturalism plays largely on my heart: I feel all should have equal say and opportunities whilst maintaining cultural roots. The university’s diverse student body may represent such multiculturalism, but the practices of the institution do not. And this is not to criticize my beloved university itself, but to point to a larger issue found across universities. The issue is ‘academic prose’- an authoritarian style of writing governed by unwritten rules which presents itself unequally to different cultures. It is the prose demanded by the university, but it does not square with my country’s value of multiculturalism nor my university’s emphasis on social justice. It contrasts even with the lessons we tutors learn before working at the centre: to encourage cultural difference as experienced through writing. How to negotiate these unique and opposing values has become quite a challenge. This entry is dedicated to communicating the solutions I’ve found, but to ask for help as well. I seek ideas for myself and for similar others who navigate such conceptual spaces as ours at the University of Winnipeg Tutoring Centre.

         First, I want to explain the term academic prose. I’m sure you know it in practice. It’s the type of writing students engage in everyday in hopes of obtaining high grades. It is marked by unwritten rules such as “use outside sources to support your ideas, elaborate on your ideas and explore their practical consequences, and use verb-style!” We at the university of Winnipeg have a class to teach these things, appropriately titled “Academic Writing.” We need a class to teach students how to write in a particular style because ultimately (for those in the arts, at least), it will largely determine their success in university.

         And university, as we know all too well, is where life paths are embarked upon. Students flunking out of university because their writing doesn’t match standard academic prose seek work elsewhere. As they walk out of the institution, unable to crack this academic language code, they are likely to take a salary cut of 50%.

         This is the greater challenge we face at the tutoring centre: how do we approach the oppressive practice of academic writing? We are here to help students improve their writing skills. We are here to help them understand how to write academically, whether we admit this or not. Integrative approaches are great in theory, but they are not practical. We cannot tell a student that his/her non-standard structuring of his/her essay adds flair when the only thing it adds for the student is a C minus onto his/her transcript. There is a breakdown between tutor and professor if tutors adhere to an integrative approach. As a tutor, if I hope for my tutee to succeed, I must help him/her develop his/her academic writing skills.

         For many people, this is no big deal. It comes as a given that students must learn the style of the academy. But do those people realize just how oppressive this practice is? It puts those who have culturally different writing styles at a significant disadvantage. Academic prose is an agent of discrimination, and by maintaining its use, we are complying with this discrimination.

         And I’m not saying that students whose prose stands in stark contrast with that of the academy cannot succeed. Indeed, they can. Yet, in training themselves to adopt the academy’s language, they may lose their own. 

         So for other tutors plagued like me, this is my proposed solution: we can help students develop an academic style of writing, whilst reminding them not to lose their own uniquely cultured voices. We must explain to them that this is the way of the institution, but it is not the only way. In deconstructing their prose, we must be mindful of its own value; therefore, we cannot treat it as poor writing discarded for better writing, but as valuable text substituted with another valuable text that is simply better suited to the academia. We may even explore with tutees the differences and advantages of each style. This style of tutoring is outlined by Paul Kei Matsuda and Michelle Cox as the “Accommodationist” style. It is the only solution I have for tutors like myself.

         This is difficult in practice. I’ve found that in my own tutoring sessions, I mentally label aspects of writing as “bad” without considering why that aspect might be there or what larger cultural value it may embody. One student writer failed to understand why the paragraph I labeled as the conclusion could not serve as the introduction. That was the way she wrote in Macau; and English academic prose did not make sense to her. This speaks to an underlying truth: there is no objective way to determine what is “better.” English academic prose is not inherently better than any other form of writing, only it has been ingrained in us to think so. “People who can’t write” are actually “people who can’t write academic prose.” Emma Teitel (the award-winning journalist for Maclean’s magazine) was told in university that she couldn’t write.

         I would hate to have been the person who told her that.

         So we must try to separate ourselves from this idea of academic-writing-as-better and recognize the merit in other styles and forms of writing. We must communicate to writers that their style is valuable, just not always academically appropriate.

         One question remains, and that is what to do about the inequality that stems from certain students being better prepared to adopt academic prose. If I were to encourage writers to maintain non-academic prose in the academy, I would be setting them up for failure. The question seems larger than tutoring centres themselves. It involves a change in attitude from administrators to professors alike. It may even involve a revolution in society wherein non-traditional ways of writing are not viewed as inferior but as well-suited for certain purposes. I found that my aforementioned tutee’s conclusion-as-introduction style works well for situations wherein one seeks practical implications of theories first; one can then read about the theory whilst making connections to the practical. I do not know how we might change attitudes within and outside the academia, but I believe it is a quest worth pursuing. For if we can change attitudes towards prose styles, we can give people equal opportunities to succeed, thereby doing our part in the fight against discrimination.

         As for my work in the University of Winnipeg Writing Centre, it seems still discriminatory but I take pride in our existence. Although we are guiding students towards a style of prose that distances themselves from their cultural roots, we are the bridge that enables them to cross into the academia. In this way, I feel synchronicity with the university and country’s larger values of equality. We can voice the academically voiceless so they can succeed at the university. However, I, and all who identify with this struggle, cannot be completely satisfied with this, our small part. We must ensure students know that their unique styles are valued even as we try to change them; and we must seek a solution to the discrimination inherent in the valuation of academic prose.

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