Monday, May 16, 2011

Praxis publication and news

This just in from the editors of Praxis:

Praxis, the writing center journal at The University of Texas at Austin is happy to announce the publication of its Fall 2011 issue, From Triage to Outreach: Raising the Institutional Profile of Writing-Center Work. Please find our latest issue online at the Praxis website:

Beginning this spring, Praxis will be published as a peer-reviewed journal. Our Spring 2011 issue is the second in a series about the institutional profile of writing centers and writing center practice.
Please see our Call for Papers at

Our guidelines for submissions have changed. Those interested in submitting aritcles for peer review, column essays, and book or conference reviews can find our new guidelines for submission at The deadline for submissions is August 20, 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Electrical Tape Was Our Bond

Hey Friends~
My name is Angie, I'm a English Writing Major at Montana State University, where I also tutor in our Writing Center. I'm new to the tutoring community, but I've fallen in love with it already and am trying to get more familiar with writing center research, culture, jargon, conferences--ya know, everything! This blog has been really helpful for me just to hear the kinds of conversations peer tutors in other places are having. Thanks!

My last day of tutoring for the semester made me think about things I'm not sure I've thought this deeply about before. Like how easy it is to profile a writer by the appearance of their paper and how this can jade our opinions of the paper and the writer before we even read, causing us to miss out on powerful teaching/learning moments. And also how there are many ways we can connect with a writer; some of them so obvious that I, for one, didn't even see them until my interaction with this student opened my eyes. Like identification, for instance.

My last student didn't stand out in any particular way, until he got out his paper. It seemed to be held together by electrical tape. He embarrassingly hid it and pulled out a clean copy, but it was too late, "Is that electrical tape?" I asked with half a smile. He lowered his eyes, seeming for all the world to me like one who was expecting a chiding, and muttering something about how he had gotten to class, realized he'd forgotten to staple his paper but always carried electrical tape, so he used that. Though I'm not the chiding sort, I am conscious that many times the appearance of a paper says much about the amount of care that was put into it--or not. I usually flip through a paper's pages right away, just to get a feel for what levels a writer is at: interest-level, thinking-level and writing-ability. This helps me get a feel for where to start with them. With this particular paper, it would have been easy to shrug him off as unprepared and sloppy, and I might have, except for the fact that I come from a discourse community where carrying electrical tape means one is very prepared, and always ready to improvise; to my eyes, electrical tape symbolizes a thinker, not a slacker.

My writer seemed uneasy--still waiting for that lecture on stapling-not-taping. I needed to put him at ease: no matter what his paper held, some trust had to be built for the session to be beneficial, so I searched for something to say that would calm him. I hadn't read his paper yet so I couldn't speak to his writing abilities--I could only speak to his taping abilities. That's when I realized that he had no idea that his tape made me expect a thoughtful paper from him. Sitting there is my better-than-jeans-and-T-shirt-attire, a feminine woman in her 30's, it occurred to me that he had no way of knowing that I spent years as an aircraft technician in the U.S. Navy, where tape and safety wire in the hands of a youth with determination often worked more magic than manuals and expensive tools. I don't normally talk much about myself when I tutor--this time I ventured in that direction, knowing that to be comfortable, electrical-tape guy needed to know he was in the company of one who spoke his language (note the connection between discourse community and values here: our similar tech backgrounds cause us to both see something as simple as electrical tape as a symbol for skill, preparedness and thoughtfulness).

I smiled and motioned to his paper, and mentioned how I understood the need for tape, and wire, and pocket knives too, for that matter, due to my history of working on jets. I'm pretty sure the guy almost passed out from shock. When he recovered,  he smiled. And started talking freely; he was at ease.

We started reading and I wasn't at all disappointed: his was the best paper I had tutored all year--not because it was perfect by any means, but because it was thoughtful and showed he had actually learned something. It helped that he was taking a required writing class that is Writing-About-Writing based. The assignment asked him to take what he had learned over the semester and research how writing works in his field: Electrical Engineering. Throughout the year I see a lot of jargon thrown around in papers to make them sound smart--I've done it too. This wasn't that. It was a smart, thoughtful use of what the writer had been taught, used to investigate how writing works other places outside his classroom. He used the concepts and vocabulary from his class well, in ways that could only be transferred to such a different field by one who had some grasp of them. And he was invested and paid attention: he had two copies of his paper and while I read one aloud, he took notes on the other one--always noting where I stumbled with his wording, even if I re-read it and found the stumble to be my end-of-semester fog, not his writing.

Something else amazing happened too: because I had started out by admitting to being part of a discourse community that writes very differently from any college writing I've done, and because I saw this as a reason he trusted me, I was already expecting his writing to be along the lines of this tech experience we shared. I know that I understood his writing better because of this. His paper touched on the difference in title content between articles that he had researched for writing class vs. those he found when he looked up something in his field. He noted that the titles of articles for his field almost always said what information the paper contained: if it was a certain procedure he was looking for, he'd know had found the article he was looking for when he found it because it would be titled "How to_____________". Conversely, my tutee noted that when searching Writing/English-type journals, he never knew what might be in an article because the title didn't seem to reflect the content. I had never thought about that as being the reason I used to get so frustrated with research in my major, but he was right: I was accustomed to aircraft manuals having a procedure written into the title--something I hadn't often noted in my major's writings. This writer's paper was refreshingly thoughtful and smart--and I might have missed all of this had I judged him as sloppy or uncaring due to the electrical tape.

While we read and interacted around his paper, we laughed a lot. We talked much, from personal experience, about how writing differs between our two majors. I caught on to tiny things in his paper that I wouldn't have, had I not made the technician connection, and when I needed to explain anything to him, all I had to do was put it in terms he was familiar with, and he not only grasped them, but got excited about their clarity. At one point when we had stopped laughing over something writing-related that was particularly unique to our shared techy exoeriences, he looked at me and said with sincerity in his voice, "I would have never, ever guessed you would get the electrical tape thing. This [that we're doing] is the way working with writing is supposed to be." I had to agree. We were able to think together from at least two different writing backgrounds (discourse communities), and it made the tutoring experience rich with learning for both of us.

But what would have happened if I hadn't used my own experiences to identify myself with him and so seek his trust? He might have never trusted me with the concepts that made the experience great, because he would have assumed that I would never understand them, just like someone else might have assumed the taped paper  meant he didn't care about his paper. You just never know what thoughtfulness might be disguised within the ordinary--unless of course, an electrical-taped paper gives you the first clue. In a tutoring session we have so many points at which to choose to identify with a writer or not; I'd venture that a great many of these pass us by completely unnoticed, especially when we assume things that experience has more often than not "proved" to us.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Crossing the Age Gap with Adult Learners

Working with adults returning to school for either their bachelor’s or graduate degrees has helped me develop my skills as a consultant and peer tutor. Consultations with adult students have a different atmosphere about them than do traditional, young students; they are usually able to better articulate their problems and explain their concerns. When the age difference is significant enough, challenges can inhibit the client gaining trust in the tutor. To overcome them, we have to look at different ways of thinking about what being a peer tutor means.

The broadest definition of “peer” is someone who belongs in the same group as you, and most commonly this refers to age. Peers can just as easily be people with similar abilities, qualifications, and other statuses, but age is the first impression. Most of the consultants at our Writing Center and the students who come in are undergraduates and graduate students within the same age range. Before any words are exchanged, this automatically establishes some common ground between them upon which trust builds. Students immediately see that they will be working with someone similar to them, someone in the same boat.

Adult learners, though, do not have this instant connection with younger consultants, so we have to rely on different approaches to being a peer tutor. It may seem too obvious, but we have to show that we share common goals in addressing concerns and improving the paper as well as the writer. We do this while keeping in mind that adult learners tend to have specific concerns about their work and focus more on higher-order issues like content and synthesis of ideas. By acknowledging how adult learners approach discourse about their work, tutors can rely on the different meanings of “peer” to go beyond the age gap.

Of course, every consultation is unique, and each poses different challenges for both tutor and client. However, from a number of encounters with adult students I have had, they tended to bring in more personal works, such as reflection papers and autobiographies, and often their subject matter revolves around their families or hardships from growing up and other sensitive, intimate content. As an undergraduate, I realize they have more life experience than I have, which can contribute to them feeling uncomfortable working with a younger peer tutor, even to the point that they feel they are not working with a peer at all. Certainly, the age difference comes into play, so we show empathy and genuine interest in their concerns and work to establish common ground and trust to overcome the gap.

I had a consultation with an adult student who came in to work on her response paper to a guest speaker who came to her Psychology of Women class to talk about gender discrimination in the workplace. She had written about how the guest speaker’s perspective was more privileged than other women’s, and my student was concerned with expressing ideas concisely. She had already written pages and pages of material that included many personal experiences as examples, but her assignment could only be two pages long. Recognizing the need to find some common ground because of the age difference, I mentioned that, as a psychology major, I had taken that class a few semesters prior. She slightly raised an eyebrow and said, “Really? Okay.” While this seemed to actually backfire a bit, it encouraged me more to help her build trust in me, so before we began reading through her paper we discussed her own opinions on the speaker’s lecture. The subject matter was personal, naturally, especially when she gave examples of how she herself faced gender discrimination as an adult in the workplace before coming back to university. After this, we were able to identify her major points and figure out how to express them in her paper within the requirements. Even if I had not taken the same class before, our discussion still would have been very possible and just as helpful. The open discourse between us about her opinions helped fill the age gap and establish trust between her and me as a peer tutor in the sense that we shared concern about her ideas and worked toward a common goal.

It would be unjust to limit “peer” as someone in the same age group, especially in the context of a peer tutor. However, we must account for age being the most widely accepted connotation for it, and address this concern when working with adult learners. Trust is more readily established between students and consultants of the same peer group, whereas we must go beyond superficial similarities and look for common ground to share. Genuine, open discussion about the student’s concerns and writing help to establish that trust and alleviate reservations previously held, and commit to the consultation. Then, the consultant and adult student can transcend the age rift and collaborate as academic equals, as peers sharing the same goals.

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 ...