Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beyond Pen and Paper

Writing. Writing what? For whom? In what context? Through what medium? What exactly does the word “writing” encompass? As a discipline, it implies much more than formal compositions or school assignments, and by no means is it limited to a specific context or audience. Whether we realize it or not, we write to communicate constantly. Any type of writing allows us to formulate our ideas, structure them, and express them in a way that is permanent.

Let’s expand our notion of writing even further. The final “product” of writing does not have to end with typed words and sentences. Writing can also be the backbone for audio and visual productions, as well as speeches and presentations. You could, for example, be writing a script that you’ll produce as a video. You could be organizing points that you want to highlight when presenting your research poster. You could be writing interview questions that you’ll use to create a podcast.

One of Texas A&M’s core-curriculum requirements states that students take two writing intensive courses, or W-courses, in their major field of study. The purpose of these courses is to teach students how to write appropriately in their discipline. Additionally, some departments have begun offering oral communications-focused courses, or C-courses, which may substitute for one of the W-courses. C-courses give students the option to produce videos, podcasts, webcasts, and/or give oral presentations. Personally, I eagerly support this change. The opportunity to create multi-media productions encourages creativity and stretches students to learn new communication technologies. (Talk about highly versatile skills that will be an asset in the workplace!) And furthermore, even though communications-focused courses no longer have “W” in their title, they still play an integral role in teaching students about writing.

So how do communications-related assignments impact us as writing consultants? The new challenge is guiding students, who are now coming into the writing center with their presentation slides, scripts, and posters, to write (and speak) in a way that is appropriate to the channel of communication they’re using. Initially this may cause a bit of apprehension. We may wonder whether we have the ability to help students in these areas, and question whether we need to invest our time into learning new communication software programs.

The answer to the first concern is a definite ”yes” – we’re more than equipped to handle consultations involving media and public speaking. As consultants, we’ve been trained to determine what constitutes good writing by a variety of contextual factors – audience, genre, academic field, and whether or not the content will be read or heard by the audience. We know that complex ideas have to be broken down and reiterated during an oral presentation. We know that the style of writing is more informal in a podcast than a formal composition. Yet we also know that the writing process itself applies just as readily to a bulleted list in a presentation slide as it does to an extended paragraph. We know the similarities and differences between “writing” and “writing for speaking”; we just need to explain these to students. In short, the large majority of our skills and approaches as writing consultants are easily transferable.

As far as whether or not we need to learn the technical skills of video-editing, podcasting, and webcasting, it is important to remember the balance between expanding our talents and sticking to the core of our work. If consultants can be involved in writing center media-productions such as promotional or training videos, then great! This provides an opportunity to learn about the nature of media publications while still providing a service to the Writing Center. It also encourages more consultant involvement and leadership. Yet I don’t think acquiring technical knowledge should necessarily be a priority for consultants. Our focus is on clients’ content – their actual writing. This writing may be in the context of a formal composition, business letter, or lab report, or it may be the precursor to a conference presentation or media production. As writing consultants, we’re more than equipped to handle any of these situations, even those that go beyond pen and paper.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Buenos Aires...and Writing

Entering the classroom, the typical noises of students hits me. I quietly take my corner seat, smiling inwardly at the high school flashbacks flooding my mind. The teacher walks in, greeting the class with a quick hello and asking each student about their winter vacation. This scene could take place anywhere, but for me it is the beginning of August in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where English is a foreign language.
This summer, I traveled to Buenos Aires, took a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, and taught/observed English classrooms in high schools and businesses. Buenos Aires has an obsession with learning English, which can be seen by advertisements posted along streets, slid under doors, and even found on the subte (subway) steps.
As a Writing Center consultant at Texas A&M University, I was excited about teaching this skill in a foreign setting. I quickly learned that my students did not share my sentiments. In the high school classroom, I could insist they complete the assignment or receive bad marks. In the business setting, when students were twice my age, it was harder to obtain their compliance if they did not feel like reaching the word count I generously assigned. Time after time, I was told that their primary goal was to sound more native-like when speaking. What they failed to realize was that their written efforts allowed me to assess their overall level and progress. It was much easier to notice trends in their language if I could reference a writing sample.
One perennially troublesome area with second-language grammar is the use of prepositions. I had classes where students would be conversing in a semi-fluent manner, and I would be intellectually engaged in the conversation. Then they would forget or misuse a preposition. Few errors of such tiny proportions so brutally disown a fairly competent foreign language speaker. What is especially disheartening is the manner in which prepositions have to be learned – rote memorization. Sometimes they make sense. For instance, being in or on the floor clearly sends a different image to your native English thinking brain. It was easy to tell students that “in the floor” means part of your body is literally in it. But how do you explain the idiomatic uses associated with transportation, such as in the car and on the bus? What image does this send: “Greg is on the car”? A native English speaker thinks he is on the physical, outside structure of the car. But Greg is on the bus, and by that I mean inside. Many times I simply had to say, it is just correct, as my students sighed in frustration.
I found that my students loved rules. Phrasal verbs were a difficulty with my business students. Again, the random assignment of prepositions to certain meanings made reviewing them a necessary evil. I gave contextual examples, and successful sentences seemed to involve something they might tell their children. For instance, one student was talking about how he “pointed about” a system malfunction. When correcting, I said he might “point out” to his kids the chores they have. I cannot emphasize enough the effectiveness of tailoring the lesson around a context purposeful for the student.
In another class, we reviewed writing complaint letters. I began with basic vocabulary and then read a poorly constructed complaint letter requesting a refund. It was informal, as well as digressed largely from the point. While the students easily recognized the unprofessional attitude, I had to lead them into the discussion about how certain information was not useful to the matter at hand. This reminded me of Robert Kaplan’s diagrams about different writing styles throughout cultures. He found that Spanish writing tends to digress from the main point in a way that sharply contrasts the direct, linear style of English.
To address this issue, I simply asked the students to define their purpose. This applies to all writers who struggle with sticking to their topic, and the process is quite simple. Does the information presented further the topic? clearly contribute to what the company needs to know? if so, how? When the student responds confidently to that question, I am satisfied that information being included supports the purpose. With that, I also had to explain the cultural differences in writing style. My students’ tendency towards digression was not incorrect, it was simply not correct in the context of English business writing.
Though I was equipped with a TEFL certificate, the act of teaching really provided the most accurate instruction. This deeper understanding of how culture affects students’ needs translates directly to Writing Center work. Many unspoken norms constitute “correct” writing, and my understanding of these will help me to explain these differences to students during consultations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tutoring is a Two-Way Street

I think all of us can agree that one of the most agonizing things to happen to a writer is to NOT be able to write. Whether we can't get our thoughts out on paper, or we can't them in order, or we just don't have any thoughts to write about; the feeling can be compared to a fish out of water. We gasp for breath. We flop around helplessly. Our one desire is to return to that which sustains us.
Late last month, my father passed away. He was relatively young (59) and we were not very close. But being the one who had to settle his estate, I found myself putting everything else in my life on the back burner. In the week I was handling the arrangements, my skills seemed to have left me. I wanted to write but my head was so clouded I couldn't get anything out. For the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was like to be a first-year student, struggling with a writing assignment. Suddenly, I found myself in need of the writing center. I needed to know how to formulate ideas, organize them and put them on paper. I think sometimes we, as tutors, forget what it's like to be on the other side of the table.
When I finally returned to the writing center, I found myself feeling anxious about having to help a student. I wasn't sure I could help, everything I knew was a jumbled mess in my brain. My first session back, was with a frequent and sometimes troubling student. I found myself unable to get my act together with this student. I got frustrated and at the end of the session, I felt like I had wasted my time as well as the student's.
I forced myself to take on more students than I was scheduled to that week. I knew the only way I was going to get back in the "WC race" again was to get back on the horse. I took each subsequent session as a time to reinvent myself as a tutor and to re-sharpen my own skills. I found myself trying different techniques in my sessions. I took on students that needed a variety of levels of help. By getting them to drive their own session and identify their own writing issues, I found that they were tutoring me! Over the last couple of weeks, I think I have learned just as much as they did.
I think it is important for each of us to remember, that we are not the be all and end all of writing. There is still much for all of us to learn. Who among us are professional or experienced enough to list ourselves among Longfellow, Hemingway or even Shakespeare? Is it any wonder so many writers turn into alcoholics?
Tutoring is a two way street. The students come in to the Writing Center for help. They feel like they are drowning. They feel like they cannot write. They feel like that goldfish who fell out of his bowl. They want to learn from us and unlock the mysteries of writing. But if the mysteries were the same for everyone, we would all write the same way! BORESVILLE!
My ultimate message here is simple: when you are tutoring your students, don't forget to tutor yourself and don't be afraid to learn something from the student. The fool is the teacher that believes he can learn nothing from the student.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When terminology escapes you

Hello everyone,

One of my recent tutoring sessions gave me some insight into a broader issue that we have been experiencing at our writing center. When tutoring very subject-specific lab reports or scientific papers, tutors often face the challenge of helping writers with papers whose subject matter is specialized and unfamiliar.

My session was actually with a good friend of mine, Liz, who scheduled an appointment with me to work on a paper for her advanced medical technology class. It was a research paper riddled with anatomy and medical terms, so in trying to help Liz make sure her sentences had clarity and effectively explained their purpose, I felt stumped.

Because the terminology was so unknown to me, I was limited to two tutoring strategies. The first one, zooming in on the details and fixing sentence-level grammar and syntax issues, seemed a frivolous approach to this seven-page paper. The second, zooming out and asking about the paper’s organization and structure, seemed more appropriate.

So I asked questions like “How does this paragraph contribute to the purpose of the ‘Discussion of Results’ section?” and “How does the reader know what the information in this table means?” I didn’t bother to ask what the information actually meant; I just tried to help her put the smaller pieces of the report together cohesively. But there were only so many of these bigger-picture questions that I could ask before our tutoring session, again, hit the wall of me not understanding the scientific terminology.

I imagine that this problem is present in most writing centers, and its solution is up for speculation. How can you tutor someone who has several years of collegiate education in a specialized field more than you do? I have a couple of ideas for resources that tutors could use in this kind of predicament, but I would love to get some feedback and advice from other tutors.

For one thing, using lab report rubrics that describe the requirements for each subheading (Introduction, Procedure, Discussion, etc) are a valuable resource for making sure the writer’s paper fulfills the assignment. This resource might be improved if a set of example questions for each subheading of a lab report were provided to tutors. I have provided some examples below.


Are all of the key terms used in this report defined, with background information given?

Is your initial hypothesis included in this section?

Is your hypothesis a testable prediction?


Is every step in the procedure listed?

Is the procedure, as written, able to be repeated?


Are all data tables and graphs appropriately labeled and provided with a description?

Are the trends in the data obvious?


What did you deduce from the trends in the data? Is this consistent with your initial hypothesis?

Do you have enough data to establish a conclusion?


Have you summarized all the data that is necessary to make your conclusion?

Do you accept or reject your hypothesis based on your conclusion?

Is there a real-world application of this experiment?

As I said, this set of questions might prove to be a useful guide to some tutors facing the problem I did, but I would appreciate any feedback or ideas for more questions like these- go ahead and post them in a comment!


Friday, November 13, 2009

Hello Fellow Writing Center Staff

Hello Everyone:

My name is Nikki Gillespie and I am a Graduate Writing Consultant for the writing center at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. My colleagues, Steve Uhler, Corey Smallwood, and I, are doing a project on technology in the writing center. We are asking anyone who participates on this site, to please fill out this brief survey on technology, as it pertains to your writing center. The survey should take you no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, and your time would be greatly appreciated, as this information will be used for statistical purposes within one of our major projects for this semester.

Here is the link to the survey:
Click Here to take survey

If you have any questions, please feel free to pose them in the comments portion of this post.

Thank you again for your time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Pure " Tutoring?

There seems to be a need for robust conversations around directive versus purely collaborative tutoring, not only in the realm of tutoring nonnative speakers, but across the spectrum. Shamoon and Burns, in “A Critique of Pure Tutoring”, from The Saint Martin’s Sourcebook, provide both data driven and anecdotal support for deconstructing the orthodoxy of pure, non-directive tutoring in writing centers. There is a disconnection between the views of social constructionists and practices applied in writing centers – practice not matching theory.

To paraphrase what I understand to be our mission: we aim to improve the writer, not necessarily the paper. Shamoon and Burns note that “…students at different stages in their education, from beginning to advanced, are developing different skills and accumulating different kinds of information, thus making them receptive to different kinds of instruction and tutoring” (178). This comment, reinforced with research in acquisition of cognitive skills, seem common-sensical. If our goal is to improve writers, and more directive approaches benefit students at various stages, why would we not utilize more directive models?

I believe that we are constricted by both the connotations and denotations of the term “appropriation”. It is an important issue; we do not want to be “ghost-writers” for students, resulting in plagiarism. However, that seems to be slippery-slope argumentation. Is it not possible to employ alternative practices in the tutoring of writing, as these scholars have demonstrated work well in other disciplines? I don’t see writing as so very different from music and art. If pedagogies have proven beneficial, is it not incumbent upon us, as writers striving for excellence in both writing and tutoring, to explore more directive models deployed in other disciplines?

I am brand-spanking-new to tutoring and the conversations around writing center pedagogy; I can make no claim to expertise. That said, I am not new to life and professional endeavors and have participated in process improvement groups, led small projects, and trained new employees. In reflecting on that work, I discover I’ve typically used a combination of modeling, collaboration and directive teaching to obtain the best results.

I would love to hear from other tutors who may be exploring, or have experience with, tailoring pedagogies to students.

Monday, November 09, 2009

High School Update

Hi everyone,

I know it's been a while since my last post, but things are developing well at our high school satellite writing center. Since we started the satellite, we've had more students come for help on various types of writings. Students have grown accustomed to seeing us there and have responded positively to the experience.

For the National Day on Writing, 15 students from Pace came to STU and spent time in the UWC celebrating with us. After the event, they created a thank you card of how much they enjoyed themselves. Some of their comments were:

"I had lots of fun and learned new things. The small activities were great!"

"Thanks for letting us see the importance of writing and how much fun we can have."

"My first college experience! The best was getting to read my paper out loud.”

Last week we helped a student with her college admissions essay. She was very happy and told her friends about it. On Friday, she came back with a sheet of paper for us. She was so thankful, she had decided to create a sign for us letting students know about the services we had on their campus. Although we had signs, it was touching to see that she wanted to help us improve the signs that we did have so that more students could receive help like the one she did.

I'll keep you all informed on the progress we make.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


... and I am not just talking about sentences.

This last week, we read the story of a consultant's dealings with a student she was tutoring in the article "Whispers of Coming and Going": Lessons from Fannie" by Anne DiPardo. Although the essay had many different themes; preparedness for tutoring, technique, minorities, self-reflection, and more, I found something more. People are fragmented.

The student in this story had come from a Navajo reservation, and had been shuffled from one school to the next while growing up. She became separated from not only her family, but from her culture. Now in college, her goal is to go back and teach on the reservation. But her writing skills as well as her communication skills, are lacking drastically, and she is forced to go to the Writing Center to try to strengthen her abilities.

Throughout the essay, we see Morgan, Fannie's tutor, struggle to get the student to progress in her writing. At the end of the essay we see what the author's view was on this situation. "At semester's end, she (Morgan) still didn't know that Fannie was a non-native speaker of English; she didn't know the dimensions of Fannie's inexperience with academic writing, nor did she know the reasons behind Fannie's formidable block." Basically, if Morgan had got Fannie to open up by asking her questions about her background beyond what was on the assignment, she would have seen more of what was causing Fannie's struggles in writing.

But I saw more within this story than that. Fannie was forced to leave the only world she knew at a very young age, and then forced not to speak in her native tongue or embrace the parts of her culture that she loved and missed. When she returned home her family was proud of her, but did not know about the world she was immersed. She became fragmented.

Fannie's dream is to come back to the reservation to teach clearly came from the place in her that yearned to have been able to do the same as a youngster. She knows that she needs to get through college to be able to do this. But her resentment is obvious, and it shows up in the form of resistance, frustration, withdrawal, and self-doubt. All of which Morgan, the tutor, is not aware of, because she does not know Fannie's past.

Most people are fragmented in some way. Abuse, learning disabilities, hardships, disappointments, and tragedies break and shape who we are at each moment. Especially with ESL students we have no idea the background they come from, why they are here, and the feelings they have about the situation they are in. As tutors, we need to understand that this becomes a part of what we deal with in our little cubicles for thirty minutes, not just the written words on the paper. Writing is putting yourself on the paper our there for all to see.

Tutoring obviously is not a therapy session, I realize this. And with our time being so limited, even with returning students, there is not a lot that we can do to get to the exact problems of each person. But when I hear sessions that deal expertly with the technical problems of a paper, but make no personal connection, it makes me sad. What if this is the exact thing this student needs? Even a few words of encouragement, or feeling that the person who is helping them in an area that they are overwhelmed cares about more than grammar and form.

I will strive to remember the story of Fannie during my tutoring sessions. Hopefully I can help each student find their way to a better paper, but I will also strive to make a connection. Both are important, because like I said, fragments aren't only in sentences.

Dear me...

Dear me, It's not about you, but it will affect you, this work. Expect that. Learn to embrace that--the fact that your writing voice ...