Monday, July 31, 2017

Is it just me or has anyone else been accused of being racist?

Okay, to be fair, her feedback survey only mentioned that I was biased against the argument of her paper, black civil rights, and while I don’t think I am racist--and I’m definitely not opposed to addressing police brutality in African American communities--her comments made me stop and wonder: am I racist? As a white male, when I enter a consultation with a minority, say a woman of color, can what I do, how I present myself, and how I help be racist?
She wanted a grammar check, that infamous check for grammar, the insatiable wailing toddler in the backseat of consultations, the archnemesis to the tutor’s goodwill. I explained that I’d do my best to “help you become a better reviser of your own work” as I usually do, and then we got under way. As we grazed over the introduction and crossed into her claim, comma splices, standalone demonstrative articles, and FANBOYS felt like distractions to the ambiguity that was trying to be her thesis. In order to address the higher order concern, I suggested that she specify her claim, posing neutral questions like “how specifically do police treat African American communities differently?” and “in what ways is this a problem?” Without explicit permission, I trailed from her initial request to what I considered a more relevant prescription.
Even worse than straying from her initial request, my neutral questions were too specific. Nick, an admin at our writing center, later explained how oftentimes clients don’t distinguish themselves from their writing and take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves. My questions de-validated her argument, challenging the legitimacy of police brutality instead of prompting her to think critically about the development of her argument and specifying her thesis. Both my decision to address an unwanted higher order concern and how I posed my questions obstructed the flow: because she thought I disagreed with her, she may have assumed me less able to help and been more reluctant to receive it.
So, I have already conceded that my tutoring tactics failed me, but what if there’s more to the story? What if our subconscious recognition of the fact that I’m a white man and she’s a black woman further exacerbated the issue? We each bring identity constructions to the literal table; however as strangers, we both can only recognize those identities apparent to us. I failed to see beyond that which was apparent in her, that she’s female and black. She recognized that I’m a white male, but failed to see that I’m gay, liberal, Houstonian, etc--some of which are identities that, had she known, might have reduced the chances of her drawing the conclusion that I was biased against her topic.
    As tutors, we must be vigilant of identity constructions. We are members of a profession that demands we transgress into insecure spaces, especially when a client’s identity plays a role in the topic of their work. The questions I asked delegitimized her argument and its relation to her identity. In precarious consultations like this one, we should use our acknowledgement of the potential for misconstruction to ask questions that situate the client as the authority over content. More general statements like “what is it that you argue in this paragraph?” and “okay, so summarize that and include it in your thesis” keep the conversation grounded in the essay and remove potential interference from identity constructions.
The answer to my question is yes and no: I may not be racist for blundering as a tutor, but I offended my client’s identity, thereby disrupting our rapport, which in turn inhibited her learning process.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Putty People

It's good to be a flexible consultant, but not too flexible.

Those that are flexible can change consulting styles from session to session or even within a session, depending on the situation. Yet, it’s still important to have that stiff backbone. A good consultant reminds me of those bendy rulers we all had in elementary school: they’re flexible and can be used for a multitude of other things, but when it comes down to doing their job, being a tool for measurement, they’re stick straight. On the other hand, I, the over-compliant, people-pleaser consultant, am like putty. For a time, putty can be molded into anything, but if enough time passes, it’ll morph back into the useless glob it used to be.

Okay, to compare myself to a “useless glob” seems a little harsh, but I think there is some insightful understanding in the analogy. Within a session, a people-pleaser consultant will let the client mold them in any way they see fit, often in a way that holds their writing style together. Maybe for a short while, long enough to turn in an assignment, that mold holds true. But now we wait. Soon, there’s another essay that needs to be written, and the client looks back in his toolbox for the handy dandy putty that worked so well for him last time, but it’s not that same anymore. It can’t be used like it was. Sure, it can be molded again, but it will never stick. If we focus too much on giving our clients what they want in the moment, if we are too flexible, we don’t end up giving them anything at all. They don’t learn.

I came to realize this when I had a client come in for a required session. He told me he needed his paper edited, and as always, I let it slide. I didn’t have the intentions of editing his paper, but to keep everyone happy, there was no need to mention this foreign phenomenon of “collaboration”. But that was exactly what I ended up doing: editing his entire paper. I felt useless; he sat on his phone as I awkwardly vocalized the corrections I was making. It was the first time I hadn’t been satisfied with the help I had given, and it was obviously because I hadn’t asserted myself as a consultant. If I had, the session could have gone so many different ways and ended as a satisfying experience for both of us. It was hard place that I found myself in: the tug-of-war between loyalty to my peers and loyalty to the academic system. A lot of the time, I let myself be pulled toward my peers, but I found that if I could meet them with just enough resistance, I could create a perfect balance.   

So, to all my putty people out there, practice taking some authority. Assert yourself as a tutor, but conduct yourself as a peer.

Find your perfect balance. 😊

Friday, June 30, 2017

Surfer Dude

Stereotyping is a prominent word in our society. It is a word that people are scared to even utter, let alone be categorized by it. But, the truth of the matter is that everyone stereotypes; oftentimes it is subconscious. It has been proven on multiple occasions that even people who are from diverse cultures will have natural tendencies to categorize someone just because of the color of their skin or the way they dress. And I’m going to be honest with you. I catch myself falling into these stereotypical tendencies regularly.

As a writing consultant at a very diverse university, I encounter people from all walks of life on a regular basis. I’ve had clients that are everything from non-traditional students with PTSD to 17 year old prodigies applying to med-school; I feel like I’ve seen it all. In many instances, however, I find myself subconsciously categorizing clients before I’ve even said hello. I take a quick look at them and determine how the session will go, simply based on their looks. And it is in these cases that I am always proved wrong. Each one of these clients I stereotyped prove my expectations wrong, making me question my reasoning for stereotyping said client to begin with.

One client in particular has caused me to be more conscious of my stereotypical tendencies. This young man looked like he was straight off a beach in California. He had short, bleach-blonde hair that had been formed into short dreadlocks about an inch long. He was excessively tan and wore extremely bright colors. His entry survey was very limited and was grammatically “all over the place”. Because of his attire, I instantly assumed that his session would be as messy and scatter-brained as his entry survey was, as opposed to one an intelligent person who attends a Tier 1 university typically has.

I was wrong.

Not only was he an insanely intellectual person, he was working on something so human and so amazing that I cried. He was creating a scholarship for children who have a parent with the same terminal brain cancer his mom had to help with the financial burden of college. If that wasn’t already amazing, he didn’t come into our writing center with plans to put this together; he already had a lawyer to help with this and donors lined up. He was amazing. The way he presented himself had nothing to do with his intellectual ability.

This young man taught me how natural stereotyping is, and he taught me how to learn from it. I learned that you shouldn’t feel ashamed when you catch yourself stereotyping a client. Just the fact that you caught it shows it was unintentional. Furthermore, I learned how to apply this realization to my job as a writing consultant. We should practice ways of how to not let these stereotypes create expectations for our sessions because, by failing to address our natural tendencies, we are ultimately doing a disservice to our well-deserving clients.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lost in Translation

Have you ever tried to learn a language other than your own? Coming from someone who has gone through it, it can be daunting and humbling at the same time. You see, when someone is talking to you in a different language, you can kind of pick up a bit of what they’re saying, maybe not the whole phrase, but a word here or there, like in the visual above. You can put together some understanding of what the speaker was intending, but there are a lot of variations that can be considered. In the visual above you can use many combinations of words that completely change the meaning of the sentence. If you don’t know what the speaker intended to say, then you are completely lost. The feeling of being ‘lost in translation’ happens to many, including some of our ELL (English Language Learners) at the Texas A&M UWC.
As a consultant at the Texas A&M UWC, I find that many consultants can tell when a client doesn't quite understand what they are saying, whether they explicitly say so or otherwise. Whenever I had a client who wasn’t fluent in English, I would try and explain concepts or ideas using analogies. For me, that’s an excellent way to connect preexisting knowledge to new information; however, I found that this strategy isn’t as appropriate for non-native speakers. This became apparent when trying to explain something to an ELL by making a Toy Story reference. In my mind, this was something that everyone could relate to, even if they are from another country, because they have it dubbed in other languages, but it wasn’t effective. I then understood that people from other countries might not have the same preexisting knowledge, even if that knowledge is a part of mainstream media in the U.S., which meant I had to change my approach to working with ELLs.
When thinking through new methods, I found it hard to imagine myself learning English again, because as an expert in something, it is hard to realize what concepts are difficult for a new learner. I put myself in a non-native mindset and thought about when I learned Spanish. Pictures or visuals were the easiest way for me to learn, so I decided to implement this during my consultations. By using markers and a white board, toys, different colored pens, or even looking up pictures online, I find that my explanations are much more efficient. For instance, when explaining prepositions, it might be easier to draw out different scenarios. One could also describe varying sentence structure by highlighting with different colors or physically writing an example out. You could even go as far as, when describing definitive articles, to use props to describe specificity. By using visual clues, hints, or distinguishers, your client might better understand concepts and connect new vocab to what they already know. Visuals are universal, while languages aren’t, which is why they’re the most useful tool when working with an ELL.

Monday, February 06, 2017

On Writing as a STEM major

At the small Waynesburg University Writing Center, I happen to be the only Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) major without an English minor, and this can sometimes pose unique challenges for me. When I was selected by the director last year to work at the center, she mentioned that her staff was lacking in science majors, which is something she wanted to improve upon. While I was obviously flattered, I also wasn't aware of the problems and distresses that would accompany it.

Let me preface by saying that I absolutely love working at Waynesburg's Writing Center. It is my favorite job that I've held so far, and I look forward to all of my appointments and the time I get to work there. Despite this sentiment, there are many instances where I feel uncomfortable among all the wonderful English majors who know every last participle, tense, and citation style. The field of literature can be overwhelming to an outsider, or even one experienced in it who doesn't practice regularly. Admittedly, my favorite sessions are those involving lab reports or students from athletic and exercise science courses, as the material comes easy to me and I am comfortable with it.

Due to the demand of the engineering curriculum, I rarely get the chance to take literature courses or other writing-intensive classes. I certainly count this as a loss, as I have found writing in the past few years to be an incredibly powerful medium for voicing sentiments and ideas, as well as a creative outlet. With this lapse in a writing curriculum, I have had to rely on working at the Writing Center to keep my own skills proficient, but have still noticed the effects of the change. While I have managed to get a bit of a change this semester, my courses are still largely focused elsewhere. Getting back into writing was a bit of initial struggle, and I found that I had lost a lot of the initial confidence about my work that I had previously worked for. While the grades have been indicative that I still maintain a strong writing brain, I often feel as though it is not so.

This really brings us to the crux of the struggle. Despite being overwhelmingly welcomed by tutors, I still feel as though my major is holding me back from full writing potential. And don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my major. I simply wish there were more ways in which to express my love for writing in it, and prove my competence. I certainly realize I'm not the norm when it comes to writing tutors, and I wanted to encourage others like me to continue to find outlets to express yourself, even if writing has been delegated to a hobby for you.