Thursday, December 20, 2007

Figuring it out... maybe

As we wrap up the semester, or in my case, as the semester wraps me up, (clearly struggling with a loss of control here) it is interesting to think of how my perspective as a writer and consultant has changed. It’s interesting how, after all of the texts, the theories, the peer discussions that have led to my evolution as a consultant, that the first image of my pedagogy (weird that I legitimately have one now) leads me back to the original Stephen North article, “The Idea of a Writing Center.” Once more the opening paragraphs to his theory, later irreverently dismissed by what I can only perceive to be an increasing disillusionment (man I loathe that second article), illustrates an image of writing as a lonely and frustrating struggle. I realize now, that for many students, writing is a task done in solitude where no conversation, no negotiation occurs—where support lies mostly in an MLA handbook (if they have one). It is from this notion of writing of that I found my pedagogy. I feel that consulting in the writing center is my opportunity to support writers, to draw the writer out of the solitude of their process and engage in a negotiation.
I am reminded of Andrea Lunsford’s article, “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” Lunsford argues that a center (which can clearly apply on a more personal level as an individual consultant) should place “control, power, and authority not in the tutor or staff, not in the individual student, but in the negotiating group.” It has been interesting to see how imperative it is to understand the dynamics of group work, to be a consultant who is, as Lunsford suggests, “[…] building a theory of how groups work; not only in understanding and valuing collaboration but in confronting squarely the issues of control that successful collaboration inevitably raises; not only in reaching consensus but in valuing dissensus and diversity.” I am really trying, now, to be a consultant who is aware of the implications of my position as a tutor, and the potential control and authority that I can unconsciously mandate. With this awareness, I feel that I am best able to disengage from a position of authority and connect on a more intimate level with a student. Something this whole writing center business has really made we want to do.

Curing the Writing Disease

Of all the writing center theory we have read, the emphasis we have placed on confronting “fix-it” shop stigmas seem, to me, to be an important task for writing centers. I find myself, in my own pedagogy, addressing the issue and insisting on being a support for my peers, not an authoritative writing know-it-all. So it will be no surprise to you when I disclose my EXTREME frustration with the circumstances of a consultation that completely undermined this notion.

When two ESL students arrived for their appointment (they didn’t realize that they were supposed to make two separate appointments) I sat down with them and was given an overview of their assignment. With this overview, the frustration began.

Both students whipped out a piece of paper for me to look at and sign from their professor, Dr. I Can’t Believe You Are Allowed To Teach. It was a prescription. A writing prescription. A DOCTOR’S PRESCIRPTION. For what you may ask? A writing disease called word choice. Not only did Dr. I Can’t Believe You Are Allowed To Teach, play into the very “fix-it” shop stigma I have come to loath, she “prescribed” corrections to two ESL students without any consideration for the cultural boundaries that may inhibit them from understanding her clever little sheet. I have never seen two students more distraught over their writing, having no idea what to do with prescriptions in their hands.

Increasing my growing animosity for this professor, both writers asked nothing more of me than to explain the comments she had made on their papers. I went through the corrections they were most confused about, alternating from one student to the next, cringing with each inaccessible comment. I explained why I thought she had made specific suggestions, and did my best to boost their diminished confidence.

This kind of approach to teaching writing, to “helping” students, just proved to me how inhibiting prescriptions for the writing disease are. The need for a student to address word choice is not an “illness,” cured by a trip to the writing center. There is no genuine connection with a writer, no genuine help when we ignore the writer’s voice, and fold them into predetermined “grammar” boxes.

If Kolln could only see this, I am confident she would slap that professor with the backhand of grammatical CHOICE.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Merry Luda-crismas

Writing Center Randomness

To accurately reflect the caffeine-fueled, anxiety-riddled, psychedelic-Christmas light altered state that is the Writing Center during finals week, I thought I’d post a glimpse into the scattered images and thoughts bouncing off the walls here at Santa’s Workshop, er, I mean the Writing Center.

11:00a.m. My first consultation is going well…I explained what plagiarism is and I think (I thinnnk) I’ve figured out how to cite a Youtube video APA style. This could come in handy for my final paper for English 596.

11:34a.m. That peppermint mocha from Starbucks is hitting the bloodstream. Woooo! My mind is filled with rooty-toot-toots and rummy-tum-tums.

12:10 p.m. My next consultee is running late. Mike offers me a random ham sandwich. It comes in a brown paper sack, complete with an apple, a bag of potato chips, plus little packets of mayo and mustard, which are cuter than cute. I feast on the repast later, not knowing where it really came from. It is delicious.

12:50 p.m. I’m knee-deep in a great paper on Japanese Internment camps. Time is running out and I’m getting bummed because it’s really good and I don’t want to stop reading it. The transitions make me jealous they’re so good. I’ve got transition jealousy.

1:00 p.m. The phone rings and I answer it. The writer on the line is going to be a little late for her appointment. No worries, I say. Then, oops, it looks like she doesn’t really have an appointment. I solve this problem the best way I know how: I hand the phone off to Melissa. Problem solved!

1:30 p.m. Once again, ELL students prove they can school me at grammar any day of the week. Thank Buddha for Hacker. Oh yeah, I know all about tenses. Until I try to explain tenses. The present progressive in the passive voice is a real doozy. And I’m still figuring out modals. It’s enough to make you cry. I would cry, but I’ve been told that I better not pout and I better not cry, because there is an old bearded man who is watching me and evidently I will be subject to punitive actions if I engage in such activities. Wow, Christmas is weird.

2:00 p.m. My shift is over and I gravitate towards the candy dish, taking as many Almond Joys as my conscience will allow (which is quite a lot). Sleep well, Writing Center, sleep well.

end of the semester thoughts

it's been a long and, at times, daunting semester. To see how far i've come as a consultant in the past fifteen weeks, is a little bit surprising, and yet exciting as well. At the beginning of the semester i found myself overwhelmed with "the ideal session." We had read many essays all claiming to have the one and only way to conduct a proper session. However, with each article i read, i found that i never fully agreed with every word in it. There was always bits from this one or a snatch from that one or spackle a speck of wisdom from the one over there. But never did i find that one fully encompassed how to conduct the perfect consultation.
While conducting sessions, i constantly found myself worrying if i was breaking one of the rules that North had laid out. I was terrified i was dictating papers and not guiding them. I found myself questioning every word that came out of my mouth, in fear that i was going to be punished by the great Deity of the writing center (not the director, even higher up). But, with every consultation that passed, i found that time was the only thing that was going to make me more comfortable in my role as a tutor.
One reason that no one pedagogy is always correct, is that every session is so unique. Really, i never conducted two that were alike. ever. I mean, some of them were fairly similar...okay, many of them were fairly similar, but each writer came with a unique personality and a paper that was unique to him(or her)self. The one element i found that was always necessary for a good session, was the need for trust to be established between the writer and consultant. The most productive sessions i conducted, the ones where the writer left ambitious and excited, were always sessions that contained an open dialogue with opinions and views flowing freely between the writer and myself. And how does one form trust? the same way any relationship forms trust. through a certain level of intimacy. Now, i'm not claiming to have disclosed my lives darkest secrets; however, intimacy in the center need go no further than the context of the paper and the issues the student may bring up. by being compassionate and empathizing with the student, i found that a level of trust was always formed. Which, inherently lead, to a much smoother and more productive session.

Consultants as Chefs

You know, we have been discussing the similarities to brothels and writing centers for awhile now, and it seems that it has become quite the topic of argument. I personally enjoyed seeing the possible relationship that could be created, and got a kick out of trying to find things to either reinforce the relationship, or tear it down. For the sake of all those in grave disagreement with the prostitute and brothel analogy, I thought I would throw another option I have been thinking on a little out there.

Now, don’t kill me. I haven’t been thinking this through for long, so it may be extremely easy to shoot the relationship down, but it seemed like it might allow for some engaging thought. What other things could you relate the work we do as consultants to? I jumped on the idea as consultants being likened to chefs.

A consultant could be thought of as a chef because chefs are used in various instances. If you prefer the term “cook” to “chef,” fine, I believe the relationship to be the same though, in case there was cause for concern between the difference. A consultant is similar to a chef because a chef is used in multiple ways.

A chef can work for a restaurant you have never visited, but you have heard things about, similar to a consultant working for a writing center you have never visited but have definitely heard things about. Sometimes you hear great things about their cooking abilities, sometimes you hear they are terrible chefs, either way, similar things can be said about a consultant’s abilities.

A chef may be visited once in a restaurant, and the customer greatly dislikes their food, so they never return. The same could be related to the student who visits the Writing Center and does not enjoy the experience, thus choosing not to return. Similarly, a chef may be hired to cater a single event and their services are not cared for, thus they are never hired again.

A chef may be liked so much they are hired to personally cook for a family, a restaurant, a company, and are used on a very regular basis. The same could be said for a consultant who is very much liked by the student, and they return on a very regular basis.

A chef may be liked, but not needed regularly. Still, when needed, they are the first one called; the customer would never throw a party without this chef to cater. Certainly, a student may not have a need to visit the Writing Center on a regular basis, but whenever they are in need of a consultation, they immediately get an appointment with their favorite consultant.

A chef can cook a variety of things, so no eating experience is ever the same. They can cater to the wants of the customer; if the customer wants or needs a particular dish, the chef can accommodate to that. The same could be said for a consultant; a student is not going to have the exact same experience with every trip to the Writing Center, the consultation is going to change according to the needs of the writer and their writing.

Now, certainly, this analogy doesn’t have to stop here. I am very interested if people see other ways in which consultants and being a chef can be related, or in ways the analogy doesn’t work. Thanks.

Trusting Other Writers

I was also reasonably unwilling to visit the Writing Center, just as Sarah M., because, while I would have placed a great deal more trust in them than those in my classes during peer-editing sessions, I was always concerned that they would have their own agenda and not tend to the needs I wanted them to tend to. I also recognized that they were only human and may very possibly give me the wrong advise.

Working in the Writing Center, and with my peers in 303, has been very helpful for me. I am now more than willing to visit the Writing Center because I know how beneficial it really is. I also understand that while, yes, consultants are only human, so am I (funny how that works seeing as I personally fit in both categories.) The thing is, with work in the Writing Center, consultants can be trusted to have a certain amount of knowledge, and to also be willing to admit when they would prefer to hit the reference books. I think this is such an excellent thing. I think more than any proofreading that can occur in a consultation by a consultant, the willingness to sit with the student and look up references to double check concerns is an incredibly useful tool. Students may not be very motivated to check in reference books, or may feel uncomfortable with reference books, and by showing students the Writing Center's willingness and consultant's willingness (because students tend to place consultants on a more all-knowing pedestal than I personally am willing to sit on) to use them, it may help the student to understand the benefits.

Often, by using a reference book, you can rest easy knowing you have used methods correctly in your paper, and you will often remember what it is you looked up, therefore benefitting yourself in the future.

I enjoy working with students in consultations, but it is definitely a different feeling in the consulting chair than in the student chair. I am glad we were forced to enter the student chair a few times this semester, to see what it felt like if we didn’t know already. I was able to understand just how beneficial it truly is, though I don’t know if it would be any different not entering a consultation with some understanding of the position of the consultant.

Discussing my papers with other consultants is now something I find very useful. I found that the workshopping we engaged in during class was great. I really had a good experience and a lot of great ideas were thrown back and forth. While I think that I have a very biased opinion because of my personal involvement in the Writing Center, and because I now understand what it is like to come from the consulting side, not just the student side, I am pleased to say that I no longer fear working with other people on my writing. In fact, I seek it.

Who's in Control?

This semester, I took a linguistics course called the Politics of Language. On the last day of class, the instructor split us into small groups and prompted us to think about how language is political. The overlying idea of my group was that the political-ness of language lies in the idea of power. As our discussion progressed, we began talking about writing, and the strict parameters set forth by high school instructors. I found myself tying the conversation to the Writing Center, because my last consultation for the semester ended with a conversation between me and the student I was working with about this very thing. She expressed the difficulty she had in college writing because those strict guidelines were not there. So, going back to the linguistics conversation, this came into play. But that was where it turned interesting.
One of the other students in my group asked an interesting question. He said something along the lines of, "Isn't the Writing Center essentially reinforcing those guidelines? I mean, isn't the Writing Center based around the idea of getting students to write better? And if they are there to get students to write better, doesn't that mean that there is a standard of writing that they work from? I found myself instantly on the defensive. I did not want my precious Writing Center to be looked at as institutional. By this, I mean that I didn't want to have my work in the center looked at as some sort of control over the way students write. But, in a sense, even the most organic of centers, even the ones that revolve around the idea of being student led, are in some ways institutional.
As the semester draws to a close, I have been thinking a lot about agency in writing. I have felt throughout my college career that I have a fair amount of agency in the writing I do, but to my disappointment, I have come to a sad realization. The writing I have done, though mine to a degree, is really the product of a system. It belongs not only to me, but to a host of other people and ideas as well. The most obvious is the fact that academic writing is based on a set of guidelines set forth by the instructor, so of course it would follow that the instructor has claim to an extent. But it goes further. Language itself is a system, and there are rules that govern its use. Though we can manipulate them to a small extent, the rules that are involved in the use of language have to play a part in the creation of written works, so that means that language itself has some ownership. As well, we can look at semiotics. For each word, there is a meaning that goes along with it. Even though each person may have a slight deviation of the meanings, there is a basic idea that is universal. So, there goes another chunk of the pie. I think you all get the point here.
I realize this may sound a bit ridiculous to you, but it begs the question, how much of our own writing do we own? This has been an incredibly tough concept for me to grapple with, and I figured maybe some of you would have some insight that would help.

My First Time as a Consultee

I have a confession to make. I used to be afraid to visit the writing center. In fact, until I became a consultant, I'd never been. I was pretty sure that consultants used some sort of mind tricks or something, and that there were indeed "right" answers to the questions asked . . . though I'd have to guess at them.

I was afraid that the paper they'd tell me to write wouldn't be the paper I wanted to write. I think I was still trying to find my voice then, over-protective of my writing and too easily influenced by outside sources.

Which I guess tells me that, as a consultant, I shouldn't play mind tricks by being vague, yet I should refrain from telling people what to do.

On to my experience--I was having a hard time getting a paper written, so I made an appointment. My trepidation over the paper overrode my fear of being a consultee. I found myself babbling anxiously, and asking "Does this make sense?" (Although I certainly didn't bother to ask, "Is it good?") I was asked some tough-but-useful questions and I went home contemplative, with a to-do list as a strategy for how I was going to proceed.

Then I also emailed my final paper to a friend for some more consultation (and proofreading). It might still stink, but it is better for having been consulted over. And I'll no longer fear the writing center as a consultee.

Thanks to my consultant!

Do the rest of you make use of the writing center yourselves? Did you begin your experience with the writing center as a consultee?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unexpected ESL

I’ve come to appreciate ESL students on a rather selfish level. Yes, I recognize that the nonnative speaker undergoes significant hardship in learning the language and academic norms. But I have latched onto something in ESL tutorial sessions that makes my job as a consultant not only more fun, but also more challenging.

You see, in my experience, ESL students know more about the mechanics of English grammar than do native speakers. This undoubtedly comes from studying the complicated language on such a small scale, whereas native speakers take their grammar for granted.

Anyway, to get to the point, the very last consultation I had this semester was with an older lady who was from somewhere in the Ukraine. I found this out quickly because her paper was an ethnography on the Bolshevik republics before and after the dissolution of the Soviet union. It was such a complicated topic and the paper was nearly 20 pages long. The sentence structure in the paper was incredibly complicated, despite the fact that the writer and I could barely converse one-to-one. The most amazing thing about this essay, however, were the tiny grammar mistakes (most of them were problems with articles and singular/plural agreement with verbs etc.)

And here, finally, is my point. I was forced to explain the trouble with her sentences in a completely scientific way. There wasn’t any room for ambiguous language because it seemed as if the writer had read Rhetorical Grammar 14-15 times, she was just a little forgetful on the subject. So together we completely rehashed the scientific lingo behind the grammar. It was really nice to be able to work with a student who was very receptive and knowledgeable. But the situation put me in check, having to remember every little detail and defining characteristic of the writer’s sentences.

Has anyone here encountered something similar, where someone who you generally don’t expect to challenge your knowledge ends up bolstering it? It really caused me to rethink my role as not specifically a tutor, but someone to just bounce ideas off of. The student had all the knowledge she needed, but just wanted someone like me (or you, perhaps) to say it aloud with her, to reconfirm her notions. Maybe this, as tutors, is all we’re searching for, too.

Improvisation: Students Driving the Consultation

It is interesting what a schedule does to me. How seeing time slots next to my name colored grey instills a kind of confidence boost (whether it occurs out of hope or optimism I am still too confused to differentiate). The difference, to a greater extent, however, is having actual consultations with peers. Even the dynamics of class has changed because of it with the addition of personal experience to our learning process. It is always an interesting step to move from the 2-D world of helpful manuals and essays to “real life,” moving from discussing the possibilities of improvisation to a place that demands it for survival.

I think now of a consultation I had a few days ago (how weird to say that!). A writer came in with a Health Science assignment, an opinion piece about whether health care is a commodity or a right. When I initially asked him what it was that we were going to work on, he made a statement I have come to recognize, “Editing and stuff.” I asked if there was anything specific he was concerned about, any parts of the paper he wanted to focus on, but he said he didn’t. As we read the paper together, I began to notice more issues with content, getting across to the reader what he really wanted to say, than with surface-level errors. Honestly, in my own mind, I was prioritizing what we discussed yesterday in class, those “global” issues as I read further through the paper. I felt this the perfect moment for a little improv, steering from our original agenda towards a more content-based concern. When we finished reading the essay, I approached the writer with my idea. I let him know about the things I was experiencing as a reader with some of the content and word choice. It was then that my improv went mildly astray as he delicately replied, “Well, it’s due tomorrow and really just want to make sure my grammar is right.” Although I felt grammar didn’t matter as much as what the writer was actually saying, the writer had shut the door to any other suggestions.

I was tempted at the end of the session to think the collaboration unsuccessful, but the writer left the consultation with exactly what he wanted, surface-level errors addressed. He was happy.

Our consultations, becoming even clearer to me now, are student led, they drive what we do for them. They don’t have to follow our suggestions or change preconceived notions about what constitutes a successful paper. For the writer, grammar was what was most important to him, so that’s where we were driven to focus. This certainly has not discouraged me from improvising or attempting to change course in the process of collaboration, but has made me more aware of the need to adjust my own expectations and priorities in light of the writer I am working with.

Event More Deep Thoughts From Cassie

Today, I did my first e-mail consultation in the writing center. It was a little bit tougher than I thought. I remember doing one in the writing center class, but I guess that was easier, because I could take it home, think it over, and then write a response. But in the center, I only had 1 hour blocked off to read the paper, think about it, and then write a response. It took me longer than an hour. I’m not saying an hour is not long enough; I’m saying that I’m slow, probably because it was my first, real e-mail consultation. But it got me thinking about e-mail consultations, and how different they are from the other work I do at the writing center.

At first, when e-mail consultations were introduced to me, I kind of liked them more than other consultations, because I could sit down, and write a really thoughtful response, and then the student could actually have something to take home with them, instead of going off a few notes or off of memory. But, then, after doing a real e-mail consultation, I realized that it’s so one-sided. The awesome thing about face-to-face consultations is that they aren’t one-sided. A real conversation with the writer takes place, and as a consultant, I get more of a feel of where they are in the writing process, instead of just assuming where they are by only reading their work.

Writing the writer a response feels more like English Workshop classes—where your job is to practically criticize the work, instead of help the writer. Of course, constructive criticism can be good, but I don’t think it’s what most writers come to the writing center for. They want to be helped, not critiqued. I just hope my e-mail consultations sound positive and helpful, and not like criticism.

It’s hard enough for me to write an e-mail, limiting myself to only so much space, causing me to pick out only so much, to help the writer—but then I also have to make sure my words sound positive and helpful, too. Luckily, e-mail consultations are edited before they get sent out. J

I don’t mean to rant about doing e-mail consultations, because I honestly don’t mind doing them. It’s actually kind of nice to sit for an hour in the center, and read and write and think. It’s nice to not have to think on my toes, all the time. So, e-mail consultations do have their perks, but overall, I think it’s great that the majority of the work I do at the center, is with face-to-face consultations. It’s just so much nicer to have that in-person communication.

More Deep Thoughts From Cassie

Today I had a pretty cool consultation, because I helped someone that didn’t get the right kind of help the last time she was in the writing center. Of course, that’s unfortunate that she didn’t get help the last time she was in the center—and I’m not blaming any consultants for that; consultations really are a two-way-road. Consultants can help as much as they can, but writers need to know what they need help with, and then take something out of the consultations. The first time she came in, I don’t think it sounded like she knew what she needed help with—hence, her coming back. But, anyway, it felt awesome to really help someone and know it.

She came to get help revising some movie reviews she’d written. It was kind of a unique consultation for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t get to help people with reviews very often. Two, this consultation didn’t go in the same “routine” as most of my other consultations do.

A typical “routine” would be reading the whole paper, correcting grammar along the way, and then discussing where the writer could expand, or what needs clarification. This was not the case. We worked on a paper without reading it—because she wanted to start over. But it wasn’t much like a brainstorming session, either. Together, w tried to de-code exactly what the teacher really wanted. Once we figure out what type of review the professor wanted, we tried to figure out how to go about doing that in the only way we could think of: looking it up online.

So, we went online and read other professionally-written reviews, to get a sense of the style. I’d never done that in a consultation before, but it was extremely fun, and it seemed to have really helped her. But it also seemed to have helped me. There’s just something about discovering new things and learning new things with the writer. It took me out of that “authoritative” tutor role, and it made me feel more like a peer, trying to learn with her, as though I had the same assignment. Together, we brainstormed all the criteria that go into a review. It was done in a way that I felt like I was teaching her, but yet, I was learning, too.

I don’t think I want to be a teacher, but if I do ever considerate it in the future, I feel like I learned a really cool teaching technique—and if I were to teach, I would definitely use it.

Deep Thoughts From Cassie

From Cassie.

So, this is my first entry in my blog. I’m getting a late start, but better late than never, right? So far, this semester has been a real adventure in the writing center. I remember my first day—I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was scared of consultations (even if I was just sitting in, of course). But I quickly got used to consultations, and threw away my shy-and-scared set of mind.

The one thing I did feel confident about when I started was a consultation with an ELL student, but I didn’t get one right away. In fact, I just had my first a little over a month ago. I think the only reason I felt so confident was because I’ve had experience working with ELL students at the International Programs Office on campus (where I work), but at the office, I never worked with their writing with them. It was more difficult than I thought.

The first appointment I had with an ELL student was very grammar-and-punctuation oriented. I tried my best to explain each rule, and he seemed to understand everything I was saying—but that’s the problem with grammar and punctuation. What if the student doesn’t really understand why, but just pretends to, for fear of feeling stupid otherwise? What if, when I say, “Does that make sense?” they don’t get it, but say “yes,” anyway? And that goes for all students, not just ELL students.

Whenever I’d offer other suggestions for his paper, he seemed to lack the confidence, in writing them into the paper, himself. I think he was smarter than he gave himself credit for, and he felt self-conscience about his writing. Honestly, I don’t think I was nearly as helpful as I could’ve been. But I also think that he only wanted help with grammar and punctuation, and nothing else. I’ve noticed that when a writer only wants help with something in particular, it’s best to focus on that thing; often times, they won’t want to focus on anything else.

So, maybe my first consultation with an ELL student wasn’t the best, but after that, I knew what to look for. I stopped thinking of them as “ELL students,” and started thinking of them as “students,” because there really isn’t much of a difference. The second time I had an ELL student, I did the best I could to help her out with some revisions she was doing. Two weeks later, she came back to the writing center, and set another appointment with me. She remembered me and told me that I had really helped her last time. It felt really awesome to hear that, because sometimes I wonder if I’m as helpful as I think I am.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Enough with the Prosti----- already

While I admit I was once intrigued by the prostitute-consultant analogy, not by what Scott Russell had to say about it but by some of the ideas we threw around in class the other day, I can honestly say, now, that I am beginning to move away from the metaphor. While I once connected prostitution and the writing center through their brief meetings and levels of intimacy, I now question the nature of those meetings and the levels of intimacy available, and like David said in class, I agree that the comparison is a stretch.
Here’s where I struggle with a connection between meeting a stranger, a prostitute, for sex, and meeting a consultant at the writing center. Although the ‘client,’ ‘student,’ or whatever, meets with a stranger for a limited period time to meet a specific desire, the level of intimacy between sex with a prostitute and a writing consultation differs. It is my experience that consultations between peers can be genuinely intimate as one discusses personal thoughts—there is room for real connection here. But sex with a prostitute does not necessarily imply that any kind of intimacy is reached at all. There can be sex without connection, especially—not that I know from experience, but from the Russell article—sex with prostitutes. I think that the kind of relationships consultants can have with writers goes far beyond the prostitution analogy. In fact, connecting the two in many ways inhibits my view of the role consultants and the place of the writing center.
But there is a correlation between prostitution and consulting that I can’t seem to get rid of. There is a secrecy that exists within the relationship that, when taken out of it’s element, after the “deed” is done that is, those who seek a prostitute or consultant inevitably experience. When I see a student that I have worked with in the center outside in the “real world”, (going with writing center as oasis here) it is almost guaranteed that they will ignore me. The relationship is intimate for a 30-minute appointment, but ceases to exist outside of the center. I assume the same is true for the client of a prostitute, who in many cases I am sure, wishes to hide their relationship (I can’t see many running up to the prostitute they’ve been with at a grocery store to reintroduce themselves). But, at the same time, when I see students I have worked with, I never go out of my way to acknowledge them either—I don’t know if that’s because I sense they are uncomfortable or if I too wish to deny a student’s presence outside of the center.
Now that I have said that, I can’t help but wonder why this is—it almost doesn’t make any sense.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Us (as consultants)/Them (as consultants)

I think it’s funny how often we say “us/we (as consultants)” or “me (as a consultant)” in writing about writing center work.

Anyways, I (as a consultant) have discovered something that we (as consultants) may not focus on in our routine of working with writers. As I continue to work with students from all over the University, I feel as though the identity of the actual consultant becomes more and more blurred. Am I consulting or is the student consulting? Of course, in traditional terms, I am the consultant. I am the professional who studied in a theory course to sit with a student and…well…consult. But, to risk sounding cliché, what defines a consultant? Is it the theory course? The good looks? The awesome nametag?
According to the dictionary (did you ever notice that it is always “the dictionary,” and never “a dictionary?” I just realized that. I digress…) a consultant is considered a professional offering expert advice. I think the word “advice” is why we chose to call ourselves consultants—we give advice; we do not tutor (which a dictionary defines as the action of teaching). Despite dictionary definitions, I have come to realize that students consult with me just as much as I consult with them. Maybe the student gives advice to me inadvertently: I learn from my actions with the student during our consultation; the way that students respond to my methods has done much to mold my personal pedagogy. Or maybe the student gives me advice intentionally: I am referring to those times when we pronounce things embarrassingly wrong and the student corrects us; or maybe the student tells us about some of the facts in his or her paper that we never knew.
What I have gained from my consulting experiences is that the knowledge I hold and give is only a small part of human knowledge and advice being held and given. Each time I sit with a writer, discuss things, give advice, and take advice I learn that we (as consultants) are only part of the process of sharing, gaining, giving, and receiving. What defines the consultant? In the Center, it is, of course, those with impeccably good looks, awesome nametags, and boundless amounts of knowledge in writing center theory. But what happens when we need advice or help on math or science and end up getting it from the student with the literature paper that had a question on flow and organization yesterday? The roles reverse, just as they occasionally do in our consultations.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Disinterest vs. The Tutor Who Cares

I’m working on developing my pedagogy for the final portfolio and have stalled. There is a certain notion I have about the tutor/writing relationship that runs contrary to the consensus of most other tutors: I think a tutor must distance himself from the writer. In workshop, I heard many classmates say that intrinsic to their pedagogy is developing a relationship with the writer. Scott Russell, in his essay “Clients Who Frequent Madame Barnett’s Emporium,” writes that “Tutors learn to distance themselves from emotional elements of the work” and that defenses we develop are “blanking out, retaining physical boundaries, keeping time down, hiding the self,” etc. Russell sees these maneuvers as negative qualities since it inhibits the tutor and prevents any sort of relationship from developing.

I can understand that sentiments behind wanting to develop a trusting relationship with a writer. Writing is, by its nature, an intimate and personal activity that few people wish to share with others. To discuss writing demands a level of trust to exist between the writer and tutor. It also demands that the writer feels equal to the tutor so that he is not embarrassed to share his thoughts. Such trust and equality, I have found, leads to the most successful consultations.

But I think the relationship should end there; it should end when the writer is comfortable engaging with the tutor about his writing. It should not develop into a deep, personal trust in which the tutor finds himself emotionally connected to the piece. I’m sure there are buckets full of critical theory arguing about the proper relationship between an audience and a work. But I am set in my critical approach and am only uncertain about how it applies to the writing center.

It seems that by involving himself emotionally with a piece of writing the tutor is divorcing himself from judiciousness. This can happen when he reads a personal narrative about a death in someone’s family; it can happen when he reads an argumentative essay that agrees with his opinions; it can even happen when he reads an argument opposed to his essay. Any time a tutor invests emotion into a piece he is necessarily affecting his ability as a disinterested critic. And a critic he must be if the writer is to be helped. If the tutor is sympathetic he will allow certain errors to pass; if he is livid he will be extraordinarily and irrationally harsh to the point of detriment to the writer.

I am wondering if it is possible to be emotionally withdrawn from a piece and, if not, if it is necessarily detrimental to the writer and his piece of writing.

Good ol'-fashioned medical metaphor

The Writing Center is a real, tangible place (or so I hear), and yet the temptation to examine it in terms of metaphors—its metaphorical space, if you will—is darn near irresistible. One such descriptive metaphor that has fascinated (and irked) many is the idea of the Writing Center as a “lab.” This particular metaphor has found itself in the crosshairs of those who bristle at the thought of the Writing Center as a space in which diagnoses are made and problems are fixed. Certainly there is something distinctly unpleasant about the “fix-it” association, but I am convinced that the medical metaphor did not emerge from the labeling of the Writing Center as a lab. Oh, no. The medical metaphor was created (and is still reinforced) by the actions of the Writing Center consultants that occur in the first two minutes of when a consultee enters the room. Before the session begins, two important questions are asked the writer: 1. “Do you have an appointment?” and 2. “Have you been in before?” This is followed up with: “I have some paperwork for you.” After the consultant sits down with the writer, the next questions inevitably are: “What seems to be the problem?” and “Could you turn and cough?” Okay, those last two questions were made up and are not standard operating practice for the Writing Center.

The point, however, is that the Writing Center actively maintains a deliberate, professional personality of its own construction. This professionalism is necessary, even as it suggests a subtle form of authority. Even though the goal is to have every session be collaborative-oriented, the role of the consultant, by default, has to direct the session in some way. Someone has to hand out paperwork. Someone has to manage appointment times (and sometimes give the bad news that there are no times for a particular hour or day.) This administrative aspect probably does color the Writing Center experience for the writer coming in. The consultant does have the ability to offset this by openly collaborating with the writer on their work. I have to wonder though if the necessary administrative functions in some ways sets up a different expectation on behalf of the writer (like, say, the dreaded “fix-it shop” mentality.)
By having this conversation, I hope that we can be more aware of how the writer views us as they come in. Maybe there are ways in which we can make the administrative duties less informal? (We could wear funny hats, fer’ instance.) At any rate, I expect there are things that we can do to work against the medical metaphor. Or, I don’t know, maybe we could embrace it.

I was walking past the BSU health clinic the other day. Only they don’t call themselves a clinic. On the building in silver letters are the words “Health and Wellness Center.” Hm.

invasion of privacy?

Hi, everyone!  I had a weird consulting experience yesterday that left me with questions pertaining to the invasiveness of the work we do.  I had a consultation with a writer yesterday who was working on revising an essay.  He was very quiet and seemed somewhat lost, without any goals of what he hoped to accomplish.  (Signs that perhaps he had been forced into the center, I suppose).  We read through parts of his essay, and decided to work on issues of sentence structure.  I slid a pencil and notepad his way, so we could try out some choices for his sentences specifically.  He hid the notepad from my view and started writing furiously.  After about two minutes he looked back up, but he still seemed to be actively hiding the notepad.  

Was he embarrassed about the notes he had taken?  Had he been writing something that didn't pertain to our conversation at all?  Would either of these things have been any of my business?  I didn't ask him what he wrote and he didn't tell me: we continued our conversation on the sentence.  This secret writing break occurred three more times during our consultation.  Each time I debated whether or not to ask him what he was writing.  I'm hyper-aware of being too teacher-authoritative in the center, so I didn't want to say something that would sound like "ahem, Can you share it with class, please?"  I wanted our session to be productive, but I also didn't want to invade his privacy.  He has the right to write, after all.  But was his writing in the interest of the session?  Is it my job to find out and mediate?  Would you have confronted the issue?  How and when? 

Monday, December 10, 2007

Prewriting Research

I have some questions that (if you respond) may help me with an I-Search paper I am writing for a writing consultancy class. Do respond.

What do you do before writing?
What types of prewriting do you use after you have written drafts?
Have you ever visited a writing center?
If you had to help someone with prewriting, how would you go about it?
What are some good research areas for prewriting?
What are some good web sites on prewriting?


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Establishing Rapport

How do you initially build rapport in your sessions? For my final paper, I wish to explore this question and would appreciate any input.

For writers, areas of weakness can be difficult to expose. We have only a brief time to work with a writer, and often delve into some sensitive areas or deep topics during these sessions. How do we create a comfortable environment for our writers and establish rapport with them (through our language and behavior)?

In "Asking the Right Questions: A Heuristic for Tutors" The Writing Center Journal. [9.1 (1988): 28-35], Evelyn Ashton-Jones asks: "What are the students actions telling me about his or her attitude? . . . How is the student perceiving me? What kinds of messages am I unconsciously sending? . . . How can I put the student at ease? Establish rapport? Set the stage for this session?"

What are some answers to these questions?

Some ways I think we build rapport:
By greeting writers immediately when they enter our center.
By using the writer's name.
By following the writer's lead--sometimes through unconscious echoing or imitating.
Adopting an attitude of listening (tilting head, etc.).
Recognizing regulars by remembering details from previous sessions.

Can you think of others? Perhaps this is a bit customer-service oriented?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

They Work Hard for the Money

For some reason--don’t ask me why--we were in our Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing class and the topic of prostitution came up. Yeah. I know. Well, our professor Mike, in his pedagogical awesomeness, found an essay in The Writing Center Journal on how writing center tutors were analogous to prostitutes. Yeah. I know. The essay, by Scott Russell, titled “Clients Who Frequent Madam Barnett’s Emporium,” actually managed to be a lot more thought-provoking than the actual jokey metaphor suggested. Sure, there are some obvious problems with this comparison. Both professions have their differences. One involves working with students to facilitate better writing. One involves sexual intercourse. I’m just sayin’.

Probably the most interesting (and most disturbing) aspect of this essay is the section that organizes different types of “clients” (we call them writers over here) into categories that are reminiscent of certain client types that might pay for sex. I’m a little uncomfortable with this idea of categorizing writers into types (and admittedly, so is the writer), not to mention that I’m sure the writers that come in would be less-than-thrilled at the whole paying-for-sex comparison. On the other hand, to Russell’s credit, the categories are pretty funny and I can see some truth in it. I suppose it’s all done somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It’s hard to read about “the Punctuation Fetishist” with a straight face, for example.

Still, he earns his comparison honestly, working quite hard to draw the connection between the struggle for writing centers to gain legitimacy within the university and the struggle for prostitution to overcome the degradations associated with criminality. There’s also a nice observation that some tutors will hide their tutoring identity from their peers in order to maintain a distinction between their student life and their tutoring life that works quite slyly with the prostitute metaphor.

I have to wonder: what is the benefit of making this problematic comparison? Russell sums up by saying that “it is important that we reconsider…the human mechanics that allow for real connections in a tutorial…” (72). This is the final point and while it is a good one, it requires some extra thought on how this is to be achieved. Is categorizing clients something that, as Russell suggests, that tutors learn to do to survive? (72). Do we reject this categorization to instead embrace the “human mechanics that allow for real connections”? If anything, Russell has made me aware of the dangers of categorizing (and yes, I cop to it) and for that I am grateful.

Background Noise

I was looking back through “Noise from the Writing Center,” one of the first books that we read this semester. I found myself drawn in once again to the amusing (amusing because it didn’t happen to me) story about how Dr. Boquet received a note from a colleague complaining about the rather distracting noise coming from the writing center on a Sunday night. The colleague’s point of contention was that it was discourteous for the people in the writing center to produce such a “racket.” Dr. Boquet eloquently (and defiantly) responds, making the point (among others) that the noise was a productive noise, and not the noise of party-goers. Reading along, I found myself completely sympathetic to the plight of Dr. Boquet. Once again, creative types—the writers—were being picked on by the oppressive forces of the powerful academic elite. I considered pumping my fist in solidarity at Boquet’s righteous retort. Of course, when I read this book, I had clocked in, oh, about ZERO hours in our Writing Center. My perspective now…well, read on…

I’ve recently started doing e-mail consultations, which are really fun. There’s something great about diving into a piece of writing, wading through the words and phrases, looking to catch a writer’s wave and just ride, baby, ride until the end. There’s one drawback though, and it’s kind of a biggie. I’m given an hour to read my e-mail and respond—not an unreasonable request. The Writing Center, however, is all about growth. And as we know, growth is pain. My particular lesson that I’ve learned about my own e-mail consultation style is that noise and interruptions set me back 5 minutes. Picture this: I’m typing away—clackity-clack-clack—and really getting into the groove. I’m getting into the writer’s work and I’m making what I think are some decent points and then---BRIIING-BRIIING! The phone rings. And my brain shifts from 4th to 1st gear. Don’t get me wrong. I actually kind of like talking on the phone and making appointments for people. (Yes, my boss is reading this.) The minute I’m off the phone, however, I have to get back into the e-mail and I can’t just shift from 1st to 4th—I have to do it the hard way, going from gear to gear.

This is just one example of the various kinds of noise in the writing center. There are also the other face-to-face consultations happening in the Center. There are the folks who come in looking for another office. Then there are the monkeys. (Not really.)

So, with that in mind, I reread Boquet’s book and I immediately felt chagrined. It had taken me just a couple of months to going from solidarity with Boquet to siding with her oppressor who demanded peace and quiet. And yet, I have to admit that there is a transformation taking place. I’ve only done three e-mail consultations so far, and each one has their own share of distractions to derail the feedback process, but I’m finding that I’m starting to be able shift back into 4th gear a little bit quicker. Maybe “noise” is simply sounds we aren’t used to—stimulation which can provide a different context for learning and being challenged. I know that I definitely wouldn’t want the writers coming into the center to have to whisper and be quiet or observe specific phone call times. (Don’t call when I’m clackity-clacking!) No, it’s all part of the beautiful process and it’s about opening yourself up to the experience.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Your thoughts on ESL students

I was wondering if I could get some feedback for my final project/paper. I am writing about ESL students and the ideas of authority and appropriation and something very interesting was brought to my attention by Gail Schuck. As we all know, most ESL students come into the Center asking for help with grammar, and as the dutiful consultants we are in wanting to help the student with their request we focus our limited time on grammar issues; however, a problem arises because often times grammar is not the overlying problem. These students that come in asking for help with "grammar" are using this term as an overview for other things they would like to work on, in particular conciseness of ideas, clarity, and working the paper into "American" conventions.

What I would like to know (and this kind of goes along with Dale's post) are the following things: If you as a tutor follow the collaborative guidelines and do as the student asks and focus only on grammar or do you ignore their request and focus on other issues that you see in the paper? Do you think that a half hour or an hour appointment is enough time to address all of most of issues in ESL writers papers? Do you think it would be beneficial to establish a working relationship with one ESL student and one tutor over the course of the semester or do you think it is better to have one ESL student meet with many tutors?

Thanks for your help!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Me as Reflexive Pronoun

I had a student come in the other day and ask specifically for grammar help. He even made it a point to say, “I am really happy with the organization of my paper. I just want to work on grammar issues.” He seemed to know the center’s MO before we began, and wanted nothing to do with it.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s fine.” Grammar isn’t my favorite thing to do in the center, for reasons I’m sure many of you are aware of. I find it not only tedious, but also not in the student’s best interest. Focusing on a paper through the “grammar lens” leaves many things that I find more important up in the air.

So anyway, there we are looking at only grammar in his paper. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this particular student had a problem with comma splices and run-on sentences. Actually, it was pretty bad. Every-other sentence would be a paragraph long. I explained to the student just what a comma splice was, and how easy it is usually to correct. This was after reading just two of the paper’s ten pages.

He was reading the paper aloud, and I started to notice that he was becoming more aware of his comma splices. He would stop just a second after reading one and correct it appropriately. I thought to myself, “wow, have I done my job here!” At this point, I sat back for the ride, offering encouragement and advice where necessary.

BUT THEN MY GLORIOUS UNIVERSE WAS TORN ASUNDER! I realized I was offering the student non-verbal cues every time we reached a troublesome sentence; he would read something objectionable, I would barely flick my pencil in response. He somehow came to notice this and corrected the problem. At this point, I felt terrible. Although I had explained to the student in great, pained detail what a comma splice was, it probably never registered with him. The whole process had been subverted by my nervous, uncanny reflexes.

Oh did I just feel like crud for a little while after this consultation. Has anyone had a consultation similar to this? Maybe another instance when you thought you did one thing, in reality doing something completely different? How did you cheer up afterwards?


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...