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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.

Friday, March 13, 2015

During the year of working as a Writing Consultant at the American University of Kuwait, almost all of our training sessions consisted of questions along the lines of "What are some of the problems or challenges that you face during sessions?" or "How do you deal with different personalities or characters during sessions?"

Well, the most problematic situation that I personally faced was holding sessions with unresponsive, passive and inactive students. At first, it was extremely difficult to lure them in the session and make them realise that their participation is needed, but later on, as a writing consultant, I soon realised the necessary techniques to get the student engaged in the session. Ask them to read. Ask them to write and take notes. Ask them to suggest synonyms.

Not only is this helpful, but I noticed that the consultant's body language is very vital in a session. The readings that our staff assigned us helped me recognise its true importance. Sitting across your student should not be the case. Alexandria Janney emphasised on the significance on sitting along-side the student during a session. I personally loved her article, because it made absolute sense to me. Sitting next to your student during a session abolishes any intimidation in the air. You make your student feel welcomed and you deliver the message that you are spending the allocated time with them to help them with their paper.

Many students who visit the WRC for the first time believe that we, as peer consultants, are dominants of the session, and whatever we say must be applied. In fact, the opposite is true. I always tell my students that what I tell them to do is mere advice. Sometimes when the student asks me about something, I tell them "Oh I'm not sure about that, let's find out together" just to show them that I am learning from this session almost as much as they are. These aspects within the session should really just calm new visitors down, since as Jennifer Arnold writes in her article that new students don't really know what to expect at the WRC so that can really make them feel uncomfortable and nervous.
Our job is not only to aid students with their writing, but to make them feel that they are welcome at the WRC and that they can visit us at any time whenever they need help, without feeling nervous or intimidated.

All in all, the writing center truly made me understand how to deal with different characters. Sit next to your student, get them to talk about their paper and issues and make sure that they are not hesitant about another visit.


Maryam Mofied

Monday, March 09, 2015

From Tutee to Tutor: The Tricky Syntax of Body Language

I began working at the American University of Kuwait's Writing Centre (WRC) in my junior year. However, I had been well acquainted with the WRC's work for far longer since I had frequently scheduled appointments to have my own written work reviewed. As a student consultant, this understanding of being on the other side of the table-- for lack of a better phrase-- has been extremely useful as I constantly try to ensure that students gain the most out of my sessions, particularly when it comes to body language.

Just as a dialogue necessarily works both ways, body language is also a two-way street. As a consultant, there can’t be a worse start to a session than one in which the student lazily drags themselves in, slops onto the chair, slides his or her paper carelessly across the table and then proceeds to fidget with their cellphone. As a student, you know things aren’t going to go very well as soon as the tutor forgets to greet you, grabs your paper and begins dismantling it with either a militaristic frown or a sleepy and annoyed grimace. It’s an obvious indicator of a rather futile and vexing session ahead.

The onus to ensure the quality of the session, of course, lies with the consultant. The two articles by Alexandria Janney and Jennifer Arnold, suggested by AUK WRC staff as training material, discussed precisely how simply monitoring one’s body language can make a consultant twice as effective as otherwise. And while I frequently follow the strategies they suggest, my experience and the way in which I use these techniques have in some respects been different due to the fact that I have oculocutaneous albinism.

Firstly, I usually need to commandeer the copy of the essay so as to be able to read it. I believe this sometimes leaves the student thinking that it’s my job to fix it, an impression I try to quickly fix by handing the paper back to the student as soon as I come across something that needs to be discussed and asking him or her to mark it out. The only times I refrain from doing this is when the student is quite obviously not interested in the session. In such cases, I ask the student to read at least the first few lines so that they know that it’s a joint operation, before I continue reading aloud myself. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found it much more useful to politely and directly tell the tutee that they need to pay more attention than in vain spending the session trying to maintain a calm and eager manner. Arnold recounts the example of a tutor futilely attempting to elicit a positive response from the tutee through persistent positive body language of her own. I’ve done this too but am now beginning to see that it serves little purpose.

Secondly, depending on the light in the room, I sometimes miss the puzzled or even annoyed expressions on my tutees’ faces. To make up for this, I try to make the session as much of a conversation as possible so I can at least pick up on the intonation of their voice. I’ve also noticed this often makes them much more open to discussing their concerns and brainstorming ideas with me, as opposed to when I simply point out errors as we read the over the paper.

Moreover, and this has nothing to do with my eyesight, I’ve also observed that in some sessions, my normally engaging and confident manner can be intimidating to the student. I’m not sure how I should fix this though, as I would appear mellow if I toned it down any further. Sometimes, as Janney points out in relation to different cultures, I try limiting the amount of eye contact I make. I remember this once made an older and apparently conservative male student much more comfortable with the session but that was an exception.

Lastly, talking about male students, one thing to keep in mind if you’re a woman consultant at the WRC in Kuwait is that the distance they choose to maintain isn’t always an effective indicator of how enthusiastic they are. I’ve had several very fruitful sessions consulting young men who quite consciously chose to sit across the table and not next to me. It’s just a matter of cultural etiquette.

Thus, what constitutes good body language during a session is a combination of certain golden rules, such as not folding your arms and not frowning, and a number of other factors that are unique to the individual student and session. One can create a mental checklist of all the absolute “must-do” s but only experience teaches us how to quickly adapt to new and different students each time.


Why I Sit Next To My Consultees

A problem we encounter too often as writing consultants comes up whenever we find ourselves trying to get passive students to become more engaged during our sessions. I am sure we are all familiar with the reclusive kind of students, the kind that would, once greeted into a session, promptly slide a draft across the table, hand you a pen, and give you full rein to go buck wild on their paper while they wait for you to finish, sometimes with a phone in their hands. Not only does students being unengaged during sessions make it difficult for us to gauge the problems they are facing in their papers so that we can quickly address them, but it also discourages them from learning how to independently address these problems in the future, without having to rely on the Writing Center as a form of a pit stop.


There are many techniques that can be utilized to prevent this, and the best ones usually involve body and oral communication. Exemplary peer tutor Alexandria Janney discusses some of the most effective techniques of this kind in her article, and while the benefits of many of them seem obvious when you think about it (leaning in to communicate interest, refraining from glancing at clocks so that students do not feel unwelcome, etc), one highly peculiar method that grabbed my interest is something that I had always taken for granted. It may be something many of you already know, but in case you don’t, allow yourself to be indulged in a little exercise during your next consulting sessions.


When you greet your next student, make sure (for the sake of this exercise only) that you are seated before they are, and that there are multiple chairs surrounding the table for the student to choose from. Take note on where the student decides to sit down. More often than not, you will realize that they will, be it consciously or unconsciously, opt for the chair that is right across from yours, rather than the ones right next to it. This interesting pattern could be the result of these students having gone through 10+ years of academia, where staff, teachers, principals, nurses, and advisors had always sat at the opposite side of the desk. So why, in their minds, should tutors and consultants be considered any differently in order for these students to break away from this habit? There is very likely a plethora of other, more miniscule, factors that all play a role in whatever it is that causes this behaviour, and I can talk about them at great lengths like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would talk about his favourite spot on his couch, but what is truly important here is not the cause of this behaviour, but the significant effect it has on consulting sessions.


As Janney eloquently puts it, to those students, you are seen as an authoritarian figure, and are expected to always take over and carry the entire session without any form of input from the student. Sometimes, they can even feel too intimidated or too embarrassed to explain what their issues are. Put yourself in their shoes. Sitting right across from you is a master of the written english language, scrutinizing a draft that you have clumsily written only a few days prior, and holding you in tremorous anticipation before they pass their judgement. I exaggerate, but you probably see my point.


Having realised this, I have taken upon myself a few weeks ago to practice sitting next to my consultees rather than directly opposite them, indirectly showing them that I am literally on their side, and that I am here to help, not to judge. To my complete surprise, this has produced some remarkable results.


Ever since I began to apply this method to my consulting sessions, students have all of a sudden become more engaged. From my observations, students immediately communicate their problems on the get-go, openly discuss their ideas, from the sensible to the absurd, on how they wish to change parts of their paper, and challenge (with good spirits) criticism, eager to learn the whys, rather than the whats. In one extreme case, I have had a student who has become so relaxed during a session that they had casually admitted to having heavily plagiarised their paper, right before talking at great lengths about the many different places they've copied their paragraphs from and the many techniques they've used. It was apparent that they were not completely aware of the general repercussions of plagiarism, but some guilt was still evident in their confession, the kind of guilt that would have never come through had they been talking to someone they were intimidated by. Who knows what they would have went through if that had been the case.

It is truly fascinating how such a tiny, easily applicable gesture can enforce such a large paradigm shift within my students. Ever since I’ve begun to employ this method, I started to realize that the reason they become more eager to engage themselves in productive rapport, and the reason that they open themselves more quickly to me (realizing that I am what my job title literally entails: a consultant), is that they become relaxed in the empathy that I outwardly exert towards them, and that I am there to first and foremost understand their problems and help them better themselves as writers. They understand all this purely, and simply, from observing where I choose to sit.
Hello fellow consultants and tutors!

Having been a Writing Centre student consultant for 3 years at AUK, it surprises me that there are many techniques and skills that I can still learn in order to become a better consultant. Having read the material provided to student consultants by the Writing Centre staff members as part of our training, I chose to highlight upon the importance of nonverbal communication. Jennifer Arnold's piece of writing enabled me to stop and think about my body language during appointments with students. Arnold mentions the negative message that crossing arms communicates to the student by stating that crossing arms "is a defensive gesture...feeling defensive is extremely unpleasant." I realized that I often sit with my arms crossed when the students I am consulting are doing the talking or reading their work. Although it is tempting to cross my arms since they are left unoccupied while I am not talking, it communicates the wrong message to the student. I may not only seem defensive, but I may look also look bored and disinterested.I conducted a small experiment by deliberately crossing my arms during one half of a session then uncrossing them for the other half. I immediately realized that the student became more engaged while my arms were not crossed. Therefore, this concludes that if the consultant looks bored, the student too will be bored. If the consultant looks interested, the student too will be interested in the session.

I hope this insight helps all those who want to master the art of consultancy!

Best,

Maria Bedrossian