Monday, July 25, 2016

Whoops, there it is.

I make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, and I make them often. I make mistakes not only in my personal life or in my writing, but when I’m communicating with other people. In the past, I would go red, and do my absolute best to pretend that nothing had happened. I hadn’t totally just butchered the pronunciation of that foreign phrase. It was fine; it was cool; I wasn’t turning the color of a tomato at all. Nope, not me. Now that I’ve lived a couple more years, I find it funny just how silly I was acting. Everyone makes mistakes, and there was really no reason for me to so adamantly ignore what I’d done or said wrong. Instead, I should have tried to work through it.

However, I also work at a writing center. I know that a lot of clients come in expecting me, and my co-workers, to have all the answers and tell them exactly what to say, do, or fix. These students are dependent on me to help them identify and work through the mistakes they are making. It seems to a lot of clients that I have the best skills, the right training, and the knowledge to not make mistakes. As a tutor, I obviously don’t, and I definitely can’t, make mistakes.

That’s why one of the first things I do in a session with a client new to the writing center is acknowledge a mistake when I make it.

A lot of times this catches people off guard. They’re sent spinning for a second until I correct myself and laugh it off. “Oh! how silly of me, I miss pronounced that word!” “Oh yeah, you do need a comma there. I completely missed that, my bad. Great eye!” I’ve found that by admitting that I can miss punctuation details, or that I don’t know how to say a source’s name either, a client becomes a little more comfortable. I become less of a tutor, and more of a peer, someone that they can identify with. There’s that dramatic switch from ‘the tutor is never wrong, I’m just a bad writer’ mindset to the ‘oh, that’s an easy mistake to make, I’ll watch out for that’ mindset. The person that a school trusts to help others with writing is still human, and knows when they are wrong and works to fix their mistakes too.

This sense of similarity also helps boosts clients up. I know that I have lots of stories where I’ve completely goofed something up. By sharing how I handled a similar situation to one they’re facing, or what worked well for me to address a grammar mistake, the client knows that we all go through this sometimes-frustrating process of writing. They’re not doing anything wrong by forgetting a comma or forgetting to match tense. Instead, they’re doing the exact right thing by figuring out their mistake and learning how to address it in the future by working through it with someone who’s made that same mistake before. Even Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Mary Shelley edited and rewrote their great works. Making mistakes is a part of the writing process for clients, consultants, and professionals.

By just recognizing that we’re all human and sharing experiences and challenges with each other, we as consultants can not only build relationships with the students that come in but encourage them. It’s all right to make mistakes; you just have to find the tools to work through them. So yeah, I make a lot of mistakes, and I use them to help others with their own.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Vulnerability in Sessions: How Tutors Can Most Effectively Help Anxious Students

While some students who visit the Writing Center are confident and highly motivated, many other students often come in riddled with anxiety. I recently had a consultation at the Texas A&M University Writing Center where the client seemed very uninterested. He didn’t want to read aloud or talk much at all, and it seemed that the session was going to have no direction. As I tried to get him talking, he clued me in on why he was so quiet: it was his first time at the Writing Center, and he felt uncomfortable with the fact that another student was going to read his writing. He told me that he had negative experiences with peer reviews and was hesitant to even come. Thankfully, I was able to relate to him and use positivity to help him open up; it then became a highly successful session!

As a peer tutor, I can sometimes lose focus on the fact that students often come in their most vulnerable states. Letting someone read your writing and offer feedback can be scary and highly uncomfortable. Because writing, even academic writing, takes so much time and effort, it can be very hard for students to allow others to offer help. Many academic researchers like Patrick Bizzaro and Hope Toler have attributed much of this anxiety to both the high expectations of university-level work and poor writing experiences in the past. Both of these experiences can significantly affect the way that a student views writing in general and can often give them the impression that they are poor writers. Thus, it is imperative for us as peer tutors to encourage students in their writing abilities. We know that even the best writers need practice, and we can use personal experiences to relate back to our clients.

When I find myself in sessions similar to the one I mentioned above, I usually explain my own writing story. For the longest time, I viewed writing as an isolated act. I never wanted others to read my writing, and I was content with this. While I was never had many negative critiques about my writing, I also did not allow many others to even look at it. Most importantly, I never experienced any growth. In high school, I finally opened up and began letting other look at my writing, and I’ve never turned back. Now, I know that I grow and learn so much by sharing my writing with others. Having another perspective on what I’ve written helps me see things in a different light, and now I try to have many people read my papers before I turn them in! Telling this story to students often helps them relate to me as a tutor. I feel that many students view us peer consultants as the “writing experts,” which can definitely make the Writing Center a scary atmosphere, especially if the students have had negative experiences in the past with people like this. However, relating to them by telling your own story could help encourage them in their own writing journeys.

To build up confidence in our students, one of the first things that we as peer tutors can do is set initial expectations. This is especially important with first-time users of the Writing Center. By letting them know that we are here to help and genuinely want them to grow and succeed in their own personal writing skills, we can help them build up confidence in their abilities. This is vital in helping these students overcome their writing anxiety.

Another way we can help students overcome this anxiety involves our wording, especially in face-to-face sessions. One strategy that is effective in most consultations is to first point out the strengths of the paper and then focus in on areas that could use improvement. Additionally, doing this with positivity allows the student to feel reassured. Instead of saying, “You did this incorrectly. A relative pronoun should be here not an article,” we can say something like “I totally understand why you chose this word. Relative pronouns are tricky, and I still struggle with them. Using one here instead of an article could make this sentence even clearer…” Showing the student that you relate to their experiences can offer such hope to them.

Because students often come into the Writing Center with overwhelming anxiety, it is important for us as peer tutors to respond appropriately and positively. We, too, know the vulnerability that arises when we let others view our writing, so encouraging our clients through personal experiences and positivity can help build up their confidence in writing.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Error 404: Focus Not Found

Sitting idle in that chair that’s comfortable in that sort of ‘office-comfortable, taupe is soothing’ kind of way, in a wash of overhead and computer fluorescence can certainly induce torpidity. It’s more than easy to slip into a “you need a comma here” type tutoring. So, how do we avoid this debilitating complacency during an online-session-heavy workday? Forcing yourself to be more deliberate with your explanations and questions can definitely help avoid falling into that sentence-level-editing rut, because it will also make you more self-aware of what you are doing in the session. Explain to your client how you read their paper, what you were looking for, and why you said what you said. If you don’t explain this, the client may have many still unanswered questions. If you can’t explain this, you don’t understand what you are doing yourself, and are obviously not fully engaged.

Personally, I find online sessions to be my most successful sessions, precisely for their allowance of close-reading and calculated comments. But this luxury requires a good deal of discipline to avoid abusing the added distance. One must keep in mind that the client cannot speak up during an online session if their goals are not being met, or if they do not understand a consultant’s suggestion. Therefore, though it’s certainly important in traditional consultations as well, it’s crucial to carefully consider the client’s preliminary requests and create a strategy for how to stay on track in meeting those expectations, keeping in mind that such vaguenesses as “grammar,” or “wording” may be indicative of concerns more fundamental than their denotation may suggest, such as clarity of ideas. In thinking of your strategy for meeting the client’s goals, be sure to actually read the paper in a way that will serve those goals. Will it need to be worked through line-by-line? Or is a skim-over to create a general mental outline more appropriate? Is the trouble with the initial argument or thesis? Or is it with the way the thesis is argued or supported?

            As you begin to leave comments and questions, remember that, unless you tell them explicitly, your client does not know how you read through the paper, what you are focusing on, or what your intent is. If, for example, a client writes “Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is in contrast with utilitarianism. It is much better morally,” and you leave the comment, “You might want to clarify this,” it can be read in many different ways. The client might simply think “oh, I wrote ‘it’ and I should probably be more specific since I have both ‘Categorical Imperative’ and ‘utilitarianism’ in the previous sentence. I’ll change it to ‘The Categorical Imperative is better morally.’” Alternatively, they may think “in philosophy, the term ‘ethics’ refers to the consideration of right and wrong, so I should use ‘ethically’ instead of ‘morally.’” In actuality, you probably meant neither of these, but rather something like “you’ll need to explain why or how the Categorical Imperative is better than utilitarianism morally.” Specificity is key!

            Although there is no secret formula for online sessions, there are ways to maintain that level of engagement. Challenge yourself with the questions you ask and the way you read, and you may find an all new appreciation for the fickle online appointment.
Clayton Hensley
Texas A&M University

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Power of Questions

In life, we all ask questions. Two-year-olds ask the notorious “why” in response to every answer presented to them. You have to eat. Why? You need to clean your toys. Why? The sky is blue. Why? So, looking back, I wonder why I never thought of utilizing a basic question when I was confounded by a client’s paper. Toddlers learn through questions, so why can’t we as writing consultants?

There are two main types of questions: clarifying and probing. Clarifying questions are questions that the student can answer with a simple, quick response (Ekey). They allow for the foundation to be built so that the consultant can understand the basics, which can be very helpful in complicated papers. If the consultant does not understand how a horse responds to pressure, then how can they be critical of the content of the paper? Clarifying questions allow the consultant to see if the confusion stems from a grammatical error or a simple lack of knowledge. 

Clarifying questions tend to be my favorite type of question when reading, especially when confronted with scientific dissertations. One evening, while working with a client, I noticed a sentence that read “we compared the total materials, oxygen and nitrogen, to the base model.” I was a bit confused because before oxygen and nitrogen were not mentioned in the materials used for his experiment. 

So, I asked, “Are the total materials oxygen and nitrogen or are all three things different items?”
He responded with, “No, the total materials are this items in this diagram, and the oxygen and nitrogen were measured to see if our treatment worked or not.”
After he replied with this, I was able to explain to him that since he had not used the Oxford comma, I was unaware that the total materials were not, in fact, oxygen and nitrogen. He seemed astonished that this was an issue for the reader, and he was grateful that I pointed out this error. Using a clarifying question allowed me to determine what he really meant, which turned out to be different from what he actually wrote. 

Clarifying questions can also be used to increase the confidence in the student. If the consultant asks a simple question that the student can answer, they gain some authority in the appointment (Graesser and Person). As consultants, we can set students up for success by giving them authority and confidence. How many of these students have come in to a Writing Center or turned in a paper just to receive it back with numerous red marks? How many of these students feel as if the Writing Center is remedial? Allowing the students to feel successful and confident, changes their attitude and will allow them to be more open. 

The other type of question is a probing question, which are more thought-provoking questions. Probing questions also give the student more authority and confidence. When a student can make connections of their own, they gain confidence because they are able to do so. When a probing question is asked, the student is forced to think about what they do or do not know. If they do not know the material, then the paper is probably lacking connections. After responding to probing questions, the student can see if they have a knowledge deficient so that they can fix it.

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...