Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The importance of "improvising" in a writing consultation

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 12, 2019

Writing Politely: The Difficulties of Conveying Tone in Writing through Cultural Differences

The other day in our Writing Center staff meeting, we discussed methods of being polite in face-to-face and online sessions. Many of the consultants had used some of the “tips and tricks” in sessions before and shared their experiences with what did and did not work in different situations.

However, I noticed that while the politeness strategies were useful overall, they were very America-centered. Many other cultures have different ideas of politeness than we do, and it is important to take that into account when consulting with clients from other countries.

What is politeness?

Let’s start with a discussion on what politeness is. Generally, when we think of politeness, we think of respect. We use language to convey that we respect whoever we are talking to and are not trying to impose ourselves. For example, if I were lost and wanted to ask a stranger for directions, I would use the phrase “excuse me” to get a stranger’s attention. Saying “excuse me” tells the stranger that I might seem rude by asking a question out of the blue and that they are free to go if needed. I am not trying to impose.

Generally, we have an intuitive idea of how to be polite in our culture. Politeness is cultural and taught to us since we were young. But we must realize that people raised in other cultures have a different idea of what politeness entails.

Take Japanese, for example. In Japan, politeness is so engrained in the language it is its own grammatical structure. You conjugate verbs based on politeness, with levels including short form (for casual use among friends and family), polite form (for most situations), and business polite form (for talking to superiors or in business situations). Take the word for sleep, neru. Neru is the short form, nemasu is the polite, oyasumininaru is the business polite. 

But in English we do not have grammatical structures to denote our politeness, just tone and stock phrases. How are we supposed to explain how to be polite in this situation?

An Example: Polite Subject Matter

The other day, I had a client from Japan who wanted help with a scholarship essay. In Japan, it is polite to not discuss personal matters, especially personal problems, with strangers. She was worried about conveying her desire and need for the scholarship but did not want to speak badly of her family situation. How would you address this situation?

In this sort of situation, there are several tools you can employ. One way is to explain American conventions to the client, how Americans are usually direct and generally have few qualms discussing personal issues. However, it is important to remember that you should not impose your conventions if it makes the client uncomfortable! I ended up advising my client on how to discuss her need for the scholarship without going too much into the details that made her uncomfortable.

Remember: politeness is fluid – there are many ways to convey what you need to say without making the client or reader uncomfortable. You can help the client to navigate American politeness conventions without feeling uncomfortable.

Another example: Explaining tone

Another difficulty in politeness is tone. It is hard to convey tone in writing since you cannot control how the reader interprets your words. I am sure most of us have had issues when a text or email was read wrong, causing a conflict! It becomes even more difficult when navigating cultural barriers.

For example, I had a Korean client the other day who was taking a business writing class. She had an assignment to write an email to a coworker asking about a task that the coworker had not completed on time. The client used the phrase, “It was my understanding,” to describe the task that the coworker had volunteered to do. She thought she was polite, but the Professor told her that she was being passive aggressive.

What happened here was an example of tone differences. In Korea, she said, this phrase would be very polite, so she could not understand what was rude about it. I advised her to read her writing in an angry tone and see the difference. Read angry, “It was my understanding” came off as rude.

What can we do?

In the end, we can only advise the best we can.
·       Be aware that there may be cultural differences in the definition and formality of politeness that the client may not be aware of.
·       Explain American writing conventions as best we can, especially how Americans usually like direct language that may seem rude to other cultures.
·       Offer tips for how to soften language, like phrasing statements as questions, placing blame on yourself, using more words, or using indirect language like “I think.”
Politeness is hard in any language. We can help our clients navigate our country’s definition as best we can.

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...