Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Your Written Voice Matters: Embracing Writing Language against the Standards of the Academy

In consultations as a tutor, I notice students struggle with their own written language based on the demands of the academy. Many students enter college feeling their writing is inadequate compared to the academic material they read for courses. This anxiety leads to students and clients adopting writing practices that causes them to lose their personal writing voice and to view any mistake they make as a personal failing instead of the process of writing. Worse, clients come in fearing to use their voice in assignments through overly citing materials, believing they cannot possibly offer anything analytically or mechanically to the academic discussion within their assignment. Fear of sounding unintelligent or demonstrating their incompetence shapes this tactic regardless of discipline and rank, instead of the generalization of student laziness. How do we, as writing consultants, address this issue of encouraging clients to value their learning and written voice while also guide them through acquiring the language of the university?

Student struggles with academic writing shapes how they complete written assignments. My own experiences as a first-generation college student that struggled in high school saw me question my ability to analyze subject material in writing. I fell into the trap of over citation or over quoting secondary sources when I wrote papers, afraid that my writing did not measure up to the standards of my professors or the academy. I see this issue during writing center consultations with clients, many who come in initially for the purpose of getting the paper “fixed” rather than learning the process of writing because they devalue their own voice and analysis through over citation.

When working with clients that have issues of over citation, instead of assuming they are lazy writers, I ask what they know about the subject they are writing about in their own words, giving them time to think and articulate that point. Once this is done, I suggest clients write down what they said to emphasize their own knowledge of the topic. Next, I use writing center resources to demonstrate how the client can use the source material they have consulted to build on their analysis instead of the sources dominating their prose. Through this interaction, I explain to the client that mistakes in a first draft are okay because the writer is figuring out how to process their voice and knowledge into a coherent point. During consultations centered on this issue I encourage clients, regardless of preconceived notions of their own writing competency, that they are demonstrating a grasp of writing by focusing on sections within the document that best illustrate their own written and learning language. My hope is that this type of interaction provides clients a tool for their own writing process and builds confidence in their ability to verbalize knowledge through writing and later revise to adhere to the assignment’s rubric without losing their learning or written language.

One strategy I suggest client try when they get home is using a timed writing exercise to get information on to the paper. I usually suggest they write down a topic sentence about the point they want to make, then set a timer for 10, 15, or 20 minutes with the goal of writing about that topic or point. With this exercise, the client recalls their knowledge and writes it out without leaning on the source material to say something better. After the time is over, they see how many words they wrote and start the revision process after taking a break. I learned this from writing advisors, who encouraged me to use this as a first step to embrace mistakes of the first draft but also demonstrate that I am knowledgeable about the subjects I write about. After that step, you work toward the dictates of the assignment (rhetorical analysis, historical research, reflection) with a starting point and boosted confidence.

Students enter universities under the belief that writing in their courses is high stakes to the point of creating anxiety over perceived inadequacies. The pressure for perfection in writing does not allow students the opportunity to create and learn from their writing mistakes, evident in many clients coming to writing centers just for a fix. If we can impress upon clients that their written perspective matters and that mistakes made in the initial creation of a document are part of the writing process instead of intellectual failings, consultants might be able to better mentor clients’ in the art of writing against the pressure of academic order.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"Dear me..."

I'd like to start a series of posts here on PeerCentered written by peer writing consultants who have recently graduated or will be graduating soon. The title of the project is "Dear me..." and conceptually, it is asking you, as a peer consultant, to write a letter to your past self when you began working as a peer writing consultant. So, in other words, it is experienced you, writing back in time to inexperienced you, letting you know what to expect, what is going to happen, what you learned, or how this work will change you.

The content of the letter is completely up to you, but just has to start with "Dear me..."

If you don't have a PeerCentered account, please contact me at and I'll add you to the blog.  There is no review process for PeerCentered, and you post all on your own.  I'm thinking this is a summer project, but if it extends beyond summer 2020, I think that is cool.

So, Dear me...

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Minimalist Theory: When and When not to Use it

Minimalist theory is one of the most valuable tools a consultant has when helping a student improve as a writer. It allows writers to come to their own conclusions and thus helps them improve their future writing. However, minimalist theory is sometimes hailed as gospel and enforced as the only way to consult. While minimalist theory is certainly valuable, it defiantly isn’t the only way to consult nor is it the only way to have a student improve as a writer. It is important as a consultant to be able to distinguish when and when not to use minimalist theory. 
Minimalist theory is, in its basic form, a type of consulting that allows the consultant to let the writer come to their own conclusions about their writing. It is more hands off and guiding rather than straight up telling the writer what they should do to improve their writing. It may include asking the writer questions or asking them to practice their skills. Take this exchange between a consultant and a Junior writing an informative essay: 
Writer: I just can’t figure out how to make my essay flow the way I want it too. It’s so confusing! 
Consultant: Well, let’s take this part of your essay and see if we can rework it. How do you think you might be able to improve the flow of this sentence?  
Writer: Well, I could try some different word choice, or I could rearrange the sentence. 
Consultant: Ok, and how exactly might we do that? 
Writer: Possibly, instead of saying “The general said that it would be no good” I could say “The general stated that the plan would not work” or “The general expressed concern about the plan.” 
In this exchange, the consultant didn’t tell the writer how to fix their essay, but rather asked questions and guided them towards their own conclusion about how to fix the flow of their writing. This allows not only the writing to improve, but also the writer themselves, as well as encouraging problem-solving skills. 
Minimalist theory is a valuable tool for the reason that it helps the writer themselves improve. It can be used effectively with more experienced writers, such as Juniors and Seniors, because these students are already strong in their writing and will be more receptive to a minimalist style of consulting. Minimalist theory is also effective in improving the skills of a writer who struggles consistently in a particular area. The minimalist style gives these writers more practice with honing a skill that they struggle with, and thus improves them as a writer. If used effectively, minimalist theory can provide writers with valuable skills that they can use to improve not only their current piece of writing, but future writing projects. 
While minimalist theory is a fantastic tool, it should not be hailed as the only way to effectively consult or improve the skills of a writer. Minimalist theory can sometimes be less effective with younger writers who do not have as many writing skills and thus may need extra help. These writers can also be unresponsive to consulting tactics and might require a more direct style to get them to engage with the consultation. As well as this, there may be a situation where a writer is genuinely completely lost. In this situation, a minimalist style of consulting could be frustrating or confusing. Additionally, every writer is different, and thus requires a different style of consulting to get the most out of a consultation. While some will respond to and learn well with minimalist theory, others will get much more out of a more direct style of consulting. Ultimately, it is up to the consultant to decide where on the spectrum from minimalist to direct the consultation needs to be in order for the writer grow in their writing.  

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Memorandum on Ibidem

I used to write in the Chicago format. Footnote ideas from which I’d learned. Contextualized references in informative endnotes. Annotated bibliographies from broken spine archives. Chicago is a language I still speak fluently and I’ve taken to heart the abandon of Ibid. Ibidem served as both a present plug to the language of our history, and the bridge between individuality and community. Yet, my favorite thing about Chicago has always been teaching my peers about it. Helping them to see the format in a new light, something with which to engage their writing skills, something of which to not be afraid. But still, my own engagement with students on the intimate details of paper writing lack...confidence. The kind of confidence which comes with increased, unique training for knowing when to let go and when to direct. Knowing when and how to say “I can’t.”

Even in my enduring love for tutoring, I don’t always have good days. I’ve had a few hard years. I’ve been broken apart. I’ve been absolutely shattered, beaten by academic burden and personal challenge. About four years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It comes in uneasy waves, varying in strength and frequency. This year, it makes it hard for me to stand up. I’m forced to admit to myself that my brain can only do so much. And it is so hard to swallow all that humanness in me, put on my staff lanyard, and break down a citations page. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have four sessions in a day, to work word-by-word reconstructing areas with a writer. I can count on comma placement, and the importance of a semicolon. And still, I’m 22-years-old. I have my own mechanisms and processes for my feelings. My old staff lanyard could only provide me with so much added buoyancy, and my new GA office in my Mater’s program can only offer so much life preservation. What do I do then, when the waters of personhood rise and flood the bridge between professional and private?

I love my job. I love my job. I say it twice to really settle into that thought: that coming to work every day makes every day better. Still, there’s that nagging human element. I’m not the perfect tutor; there is so much I don’t know, so many questions I’m not confident answering and so many students I feel leave our sessions only a bit better off than before they came in. Thomas Aquinas said, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off,” and my job so provides me with the opportunity to keep and love learning. Which makes it particularly difficult to come into work with my baggage. I experience cognitive dissonance whenever these days pop up; the days when I feel irretrievable in the depth of my depression, but my lanyard is on, and I’m supposed to love wearing it.

Where does the writing center end? Where is the edge, the one I’m not supposed to go past in giving of myself for this the job I so, so enjoy? I’m incredibly tired. I’m starting the process of adulthood and forming myself into a definable individual. My staff lanyard has helped me to become more solid in both of those determiners, but it has also blurred some lines into ambiguity. I’m allowed to be tired. I’m supposed to be nervous. I’m always a little bit anxious. Being a tutor doesn’t negate these validities, but sometimes it feels like my personhood is second to the grammar edits needed to be made to a writer’s paper.

When coding the personal tutoring philosophy I wrote one year ago, programing the document into a word cloud to identify the most prevalent language, the word love appears the largest. I say it the most often, of any word I could’ve chosen. I feel deeply, always doing my best to not shrink from the responsibility inherent to experiencing life this way. Here, Chicago calls out to me again; Ibidem is Latin for “in the same place” which I think is a fitting idea for the writing center. Love, fear, learning, confidence, insecurity...humanness, all happening in the same place.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Two-Way Learning

When I first started working in the writing lab as a writing lab consultant, my expectations for the position were very different from the experiences I have been through.  I envisioned myself sitting at a desk next to an apprehensive freshman, guiding them through the ins and outs of topic sentences and thesis statements.  Don’t get me wrong, I have gone through this scenario dozens of times, but I now realize the opportunity for learning is so much greater than I had originally thought.  In the past two semesters, I have found that my original assessment of writing lab practice was a bit skewed.  I have since come to the conclusion that tutoring is truly a two-way street of learning, rather than the one-way flow of information I had previously envisioned.  I have had so many sessions where both the student and I have come away with valuable knowledge gained through discussion in the writing booth.  This should come as no surprise, as there are countless ways in which students and teachers can learn from one another in any academic setting. 

             Most students who seek assistance from the writing lab assume a one-way stream of instruction from the consultant to the student, which often is what occurs.  The student might need help with a topic sentence or connecting their thesis to the rest of their essay.  These are everyday occurrences in the writing lab.  Even more common, though, is the request for a “second set of eyes” to go over a writing assignment and make sure it “sounds okay”.  Over the past two semesters, these requests have become second nature to me as a consultant.  Another thing students come looking for is ideas. Brainstorming can be one of the most difficult things in writing, so it often helps students to talk to another person who has likely gone through a similar process to try and get the ideas flowing.  In a sense, this signifies you as the consultant breaking down a barrier to help the student let the ideas flow back at you.  Thus, you have obtained a two-way flow of information and ideas.

            You might be asking, how do I truly reach the point where the student and I are benefiting through combined learning?  The answer is in your mindset.  If you go into each session with the attitude that you are the expert on every subject related to writing, then there is a good chance you won’t get much out of the session in terms of gaining new knowledge.  On the flip side, if you go into a session with the mindset that there is always something new to discover, you will be much more receptive to learning from your student.  For instance, I had the privilege to work with an ESL, non-traditional student over the past semester.  This student was highly experienced in writing fiction and poetry in multiple languages, so initially I was feeling under qualified to discuss anything with them.  But as the sessions wore on and we became better acquainted, I realized this was a golden opportunity for both of us.  We were confronted with the chance to learn from each other and gain the knowledge that each of us had to offer.  This experience also dispelled the notion that the writing lab consultant is the unquestioned expert when it comes to writing.  Thus, the predisposed barriers were broken, leaving nothing but endless possibilities.  It was in this moment that I realized two-way learning is actually achievable.

            The best part about two-way collaboration between consultant and student is that it is obtainable in any session.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or the fortieth session, both you and the student will always have something to offer. With the right mindset, any session in the writing lab can go from ordinary to extraordinary in the blink of an eye. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The importance of "improvising" in a writing consultation

Improv comedy is a spontaneous performance without any scripts preparated beforehand. The first rule of improv is to AGREE i.e. to say "yes" to whatever happens. If someone says "There is a train coming towards us" and I say, without thinking much, "What train? I don't see a train", then the only options remaining are to either end the scene or to argue about whether there is a train or not; neither of these options is entertaining for the audience to watch. The issue with my response was that it was not saying "yes" to what was said. If I had instead said "The train will hit us if we don't move", then I have not only said "yes" but also built on top of what was said. This idea of accepting what has been said and then building on it with new information is a key idea in improvisation called the "Yes-And" principle.

Improvisation is needed in a peer-tutoring session since it is not possible to plan out all of the details about the session in advance. The client may not even be sure of what they want to focus on, and the tutor must be able to adapt to the changing needs of their client. Further, since peer-tutoring essentially involves making arguments for what we think the client should do. For the client to accept these suggestions, we need to be able to collaborate with them. The "Yes-And" principle can help us build such a collaboration. In peer-tutoring, this involves observing the reality that is being set by the client and making sure that the provided suggestions are "agreeing" with the set reality.

There are several opportunities for "yes-and"ing the client. The first step would be to check what the client is asking for and focusing on these during the session. We could also check how the client is responding to our suggestions. If they look confused, we could provide more explanation. If they get defensive, it might be a good idea to try an alternate approach or even just move on to the next topic. If the client says that they are focusing on the content and have a rough draft ready, it might not be a good idea to focus on the grammar aspects of the paper.

In short, "yes-and"ing the client involves listening to what the client is saying and observing their responses to decide our approach. The success of an improv performance depends on how well the actors build off of each other's responses. The same is true in case of a writing session as well; a successful consultation is one where the client is finding value in our suggestions and enthusiastically participating in the discussion.

A peer-tutoring session is a lot like an improv performance, so it is important to accept the reality set by the client and make suggestions to build on it. This makes the session more engaging, which is essential for a successful consultation.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Learning Alongside Our Clients: the Mutual Learning Environment at Writing Centers

Walking into my first day as a peer tutor at my campus writing center, I worried about encountering scenarios where I would lack the appropriate advice to offer clients. Although peer tutoring interactions routinely place consultants in new waters, I quickly discovered that the uncertainties and accompanying out-of-my-depth feeling are necessary components of collaborative tutoring. This collaboration, in turn, enables mutual learning during sessions in even the most veteran writing tutors. I would like to pause and explore this idea of tutors learning alongside clients in the uniquely collaborative, peer tutoring space. I can testify from personal experience that the most meaningful learning I underwent in the peer tutoring environment was distinct from the process of accumulating technical writing expertise. Certainly, my knowledge of academic writing and the mechanics of the English language increased, but the major area of growth for me occurred in less formulaic ways. Not long after starting out as a tutor, I gave a thorough and engaging explanation of parallelism to a client, only be told afterward that she did not quite “get everything that I was saying” because she “liked seeing things written down.” My client’s bewilderment alerted me to the need to improve my ability to read someone else’s learning needs and strategize a plan to effectively meet those needs within a very short space of time.

Over and over, I have seen consultations prompt tutors to improvise communication strategies, particularly through the experience of learning to effectively communicate to clients with diverse writing backgrounds, learning preferences, and emotional circumstances. No two clients’ writing and educational backgrounds are alike, and tutors begin developing a sense of their client’s likely proficiencies as soon as discussion begins. While attempting to gauge a client’s current level of expertise can be a slippery slope toward pre-judging, assessing his or her existing knowledge and assumptions about writing is unavoidable. The clearer the tutor’s ability to perceive the borders of the client’s knowledge on an issue relevant to the consultation, the better equipped the tutor becomes to implement effective scaffolding techniques during the session. I quickly learned to rely on questions like “What do you think would be important for thesis development?” or “Why did you identify this paragraph as the weakest part of the paper?” not only to prompt client engagement and ownership over the process, but also to help me assess his/her existing knowledge. As my tutoring experiences broadened, I became better at devising questions to ferret out the ratio of a client’s intuitive writing capabilities to the writing knowledge that he/she had acquired from past educational experiences. If I perceived a client’s innate writing instinct as strong, I often adapted my strategies to be less hands-on and allow for greater self-discovery on the part of the client. Thus, as tutors increase their abilities to assess existing proficiency levels, they also increase their ability to strategize communication methods that match clients’ unique learning abilities and styles. I used to dread students who would tell me “I’m a visual learner,” because of my personal lack of creativity. However, as my tutoring experiences increased, my fellow consultants and writing center staff have helped me start a lexicon of visual aids so that I can adapt my teaching styles to individual client needs.

Finally, peer tutoring teaches tutors to appreciate how the individuality of clients’ circumstances impacts consultations, often necessitating the adjustment of sessions to accommodate clients’ unique emotional needs. Clearly, writing tutors are not—and, given our lack of pertinent training, should not—see themselves as therapists. Nonetheless, tutors undoubtably perform a psychological service for clients, even if it is a biproduct of attempting to understand what the client needs from the session. I have lost count of the consultations that I have started with reassurances about the possibility of improvement or by helping clients plan a schedule for finishing assignments. Under rare scenarios, I have felt compelled to adapt to a more explicit therapist role (again, informally of course!) for highly stressed clients. Some tutors may have experienced consultations with ESL clients who benefit profoundly from sharing the unique adjustment struggles they face. Simply learning to provide gentle emotional support and a listening ear can be an invaluable skill for tutors to develop. It also requires the ability to intuit which tangential conversations should be curtailed and which are too important to interrupt. This intuitive sense of the value of reassurances becomes another skill set that tutors develop as their experiences expand.

The multifaceted nature of tutor development, particularly the sharpening of their ability to intuit clients’ needs and effectively impart knowledge to clients with diverse backgrounds, learning styles, and emotional situations, underscores the dynamism of peer tutoring. The unpredictability of consultations and the scramble to discern the most effective and personalized strategy for meeting client needs remains—at least for me—one of the most challenging but beneficial growth experiences found in peer tutoring.


Your Written Voice Matters: Embracing Writing Language against the Standards of the Academy

In consultations as a tutor, I notice students struggle with their own written language based on the demands of the academy. Many students e...