Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

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A Response to “Tutors’ Column: Will You Trust Me” in WLN – A Journal of Writing Centre Scholarship, May/June 2017

A Response to “Tutors’ Column: Will You Trust Me”

Mandy MacArthur, Senior Writing Tutor, Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre and Academic Communications

 

Wang, By Qian. (May/June 2017). Tutors’ Column: Will You Trust Me. WLN – A Journal of Writing Centre Scholarship, 41(9)-10, p. 26-29.

In her entry, Tutors’ Column: Will You Trust Me, published in WLN, Qian Wang (2017) honestly reveals her struggle with the anxiety and fear related to her tutoring adequacy, or rather, her self-projected inadequacy. Wang (2017) writes of her paralyzing ‘imposter syndrome’ and self-doubt as a Chinese ESL writing tutor at Virginia Tech University. Wang (2017) describes her experiences with the assumptions being made by both peers, the tutor and student, in terms of what constitutes the tutor’s role. Ultimately, Wang (2017) argues that through honesty with oneself and the student, a tutor can gain trust that contributes to a successful and dynamic relationship between the two that is reciprocal in nature.

As a writing tutor with English as my native and only language, it was hard to necessarily connect with Wang’s uncertainty in terms of English competency. However, I did strongly relate to the feelings of anxiousness and self-doubt. Wang (2017) writes, “I was worried that I would not be good enough at writing” (p. 26). This was an all too familiar memory I had of starting as a tutor at the Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre four years ago. I was afraid I would say the wrong thing or appear to be out of my element. I was nervous and apprehensive, and this contributed to a tense environment for guided learning.

Wang (2017) continued by describing the importance of developing a rapport with varying students depending on the individual and tone of the session. After a particularly trying session, where she found her paralyzing anxiety in an attempt to ‘have all the right answers’ was hindering the tutoring process, she made the decision to take this uncomfortable experience and use it as a form of constructive development. As tutors, it is okay to not know everything. She writes, “I started to explain that although I was his tutor, I was not teaching him, but learning with him” (p. 28). This realization helped to change the tone of the session and boost her confidence as well. Personally, what I find most relevant here is making the role of the tutor clear to both parties. Once we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of being experts, we can offer a valuable partnership of collaborative learning.

Wang (2017) concludes with the insight of how clarifying this role helps to establish a sense of connectedness and trust between the tutor and student. She realized, “this trust could only develop when I allowed myself to show my weakness” (p. 29). However, this ‘weakness’ does not equate uselessness, and this honesty earns trust. Wang (2017) adds that in order to be an effective tutor, we must remain open-minded and engaged, and continue to educate ourselves, stating, “being humble and truthful is the key to earning the client’s trust” (p. 29). Based on my experiences as a tutor, I share this perspective with Wang. Every individual, writing assignment, and session will be different. What should remain the same is our passion for and focus on the collective partnership of the tutoring process. We must recognize the value in embracing this uncertainty together and growing our knowledge in a mutually shared way. Understanding this dynamic is the characterization of effective tutoring and has ultimately helped me to find my confidence as an educator as well.

 


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Response to “Educating and Recruiting Multilingual and Other Graduate Students for Writing Center Work” Writing Lab Newsletter, 42:1-2 (2017).

A response to “Educating and Recruiting Multilingual and Other Graduate Students for Writing Center Work”

Sheelagh Russell-Brown, Senior Tutor, Saint Mary’s Writing Centre and Academic Communications.

Lin, Hsing-Yin Cynthia and Katherine deLuca.  “Educating and Recruiting Multilingual and Other Graduate Students for Writing Center Work.”  WLN 42:1-2 (2017).

I came to this article with curiosity based on my experience over the past more than twenty years working with English language learners and my lifelong interest in linguistic issues.  I must admit that my own attitude to the use of native language in English language teaching has been somewhat conflicted because of the rules under which I have worked. This article has helped to reinforce in me the need for reflection, particularly on the usefulness/limitations of “English only” policies such as those in place in the European international school and Canadian language school where I have taught.

The authors give an account of how the Writing Center at Ohio State University, recognizing the shift in demographics that has affected many North American universities towards a higher percentage of non-native English speaking students, made the move to recruit graduate students with other language abilities as well as the usual undergraduate tutors (or Writing Consultants as the OSU Writing Center calls them).

Some of the authors’ points caused me to recall moments in my own experience where knowledge of what they identify as “differences in writing process, language usage, and idea development” across cultures can be effective in addressing writing issues in English.  They also present situations where languages other than English can be used in the tutoring sessions.  I’ve found that sometimes just pointing out similarities and differences between an English word and a word in the student’s native language can inspire an interest in how the word can be used in speaking and in writing.  It can also encourage the student to try to teach me some features of his or her language–a sharing of interests that can open up different approaches to brainstorming and writing.

Another significant issue raised in the article is one that I found myself referring to in teaching just this week when trying to convey to a class the importance of using specific instead of vague language.  That is the fact that rather than there being a strict distinction between Lower Order Concerns, such as grammar and vocabulary, and Higher Order Concerns, such as content development and organization, they tend to “bleed” into each other.  In other words, without the ability to husband vocabulary and grammar in another language, it is difficult not only to develop a thesis and supporting content effectively, but also to even begin to “think” that content.  Although it is true that the ability to think in the new language without translating is a goal to which language learners aspire, I can see more and more, after reading this article, how valuable the permission to think in the native language is as a bridge to writing in English.

This is an article that I’m sure I will return as I see more of its applicability in my own work.

 


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Misrepresentation of Cultural Differences and the Necessity of Emphasis on Function

This week’s blog is, in part, a response to the documentary, Writing Across Borders (Wayne Robertson, 2005). It is also a commentary on approaches to writing tutoring and instruction.

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Misrepresentation of Cultural Differences and the Necessity of Emphasis on Function

Stephen Choi, Tutor

I want to address two issues: the problem of misrepresentation by international students of the style of writing in their own countries and the necessity of emphasizing function over style. They may seem unrelated, but my view is that one is the cause of the other.

I will begin with the problem (as any good argument should). It first came to my attention during the training session in the end of August. We viewed a documentary video, Writing Across Borders, where a number of international students speak about the differences in writing style between their home country and the United States. While they mention some interesting points, I had doubts about their ‘expert’ opinions. The problem is that they are not experts. They are presenting generalizations based on personal experience, without any evidence of justifiable knowledge or research. This bothered me not a little, but not being an expert myself, I refrained from commenting on the subject.

A few days ago, however, I did come across a tiny piece of evidence that proves that at least one of the students was guilty of misrepresentation. I do not mean to say that the student was lying or that she intentionally misrepresented her knowledge. She quite possibly believes everything she says and she may even have been educated to think so. I only wish to point out that she may not be in the position to speak for her entire country.

What she says in the video is that in Japan, her home country, the essay is structured in four parts: ki起 (introduction), shō承 (development), ten転 (turn), ketsu結 (conclusion). This was the main point that was unsettling for me because I have been studying Japanese for a long time and have actually studied the four part structure through books on fiction and script writing. The kishōtenketsu structure is presented in those books as a Japanese equivalent to the three-act system mainly used in Hollywood. I found it odd that the same structure would be used in essay writing, when the structure is clearly one devised for narrative.

I found the evidence to back up my intuition in a Japanese book (a very popular one) on writing. In the book, Writing that Communicates and Moves! (my translation) by Zoonie Yamada, it is stated very clearly that “If a novel, the dramatic leap in the ‘ten’ of ‘kishōtenketsu’ is considered enjoyable. However, in an essay for example, building up the thought process in a logical way, such as by ‘stating the problemanalyzing the causeconditions for solution. . .’ is fundamental” (my translation). Yamada is the editor of an educational magazine that focuses on teaching writing to high school students in Japan. The distinction that she makes between novel writing and essay writing is definitely the same as one that a North American writing teacher may make, and, quite possibly, one that writing teachers across all cultures may make.

It would seem, then, that the student in the video was misinformed about the writing conventions of her own country. This is most likely from no fault of her own. Yamada also makes the point in her book that the Japanese education system focuses too much on what she calls “abundant expressive force” (my translation). From elementary to high school, Japanese students are taught writing as a form of expression. This is only speculation on my part, but the student in the video may be an example of the weakness of such an education system. The differences that she perceived actually arose from her misunderstanding of what she was learning. It was not a difference of culture, although it was possibly the result of a different system of education.

Now I will move on to the second part of my argument: the cause. What causes the students to believe that culture is the reason for the disparity between the style of writing they are used to and the style they are taught in North American schools? Culture may be a part of it, but I am not too comfortable with accepting that culture is the only reason. They seem to be noticing cultural differences that are not really there. I think that the problem arises from misattribution. They are attributing differences in function to differences in culture. They do not understand that function is what decides style. In the case of the Japanese student, she could not discriminate between the function of a narrative (to entertain) and the function of an essay (to persuade). She was attributing the differences in style to differences in culture rather than function.

There are more examples of this misattribution in the video. One student comments on the directness of North American culture, saying that when he meets American students at school, they get right to the point without any kind of a lead-in. His opinion was that this is a rude way of communicating. Ignoring the fact that he is stereotyping, it is clear that he is basing his assumptions about writing in experiences of oral communication. While I do not deny that writing and speaking are related, they serve very different functions. If we all spoke in the same tone as the one we use to write essays, we would sound rude and arrogant indeed. The extent of his misunderstanding is evident in his anecdote about sending an email to his family back in his home country. He experimented with sending them a straight forward email without any greeting or inquiry as to how they were doing. Again, his verdict was that this was rude. I agree with him. The function of an email sent to family, whom the sender has not seen in a long time, requires that there be some sort of ‘catching up’ in the beginning. That is true of any culture. We do not write essays to the members of our family – not even in North America.

North America is not the only place where we emphasize structure in an essay. Clarity is important for communication in any language, and structure is ultimately a tool for clarity. It seems that students believe essay structure is a result of culture. I would have to disagree strongly with that. Culture may have a small part in it, but essays, in essence, must allow communication across cultures. That is what the structure we teach allows people to do.

I do not want to give the impression that I believe the students are at fault for giving such false analyses. I believe that the fault is on the side of our own method of education. The problem is in the way North American schools present the essay structure to its students. It is presented as a set of rules that the student must memorize and learn to use just as it was laid out to them. Because of the lack of explanation as to the logic behind the structure, students fabricate their own theory about the structure. If the students in Writing Across Borders are any indication, the probability of students formulating a faulty theory seems high. Writing education needs to focus first and foremost on function. That is the main argument that Yamada makes in her book, and I agree with her completely.


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“How” to tutor, three ways

This week, there are three readings, Gillespie and Lerner‘s “The tutoring process” (Allyn and Bacon guide to peer tutoring, 2004);  Ryan and Zimmerelli‘s “Inside the tutoring session” (The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, 2007); and Woodward-Kron and Jamieson’s “Tensions in the writing support consultation: Negotiating meanings in unfamiliar territory” (Language and languages:  Global and local tensions, 2007).

Stephen Choi, English, First year tutor

Allyn and Bacon:
I liked the more student based view of things. It seemed helpful that they put the process of tutoring into a logical order that focuses on higher-order concerns first. I completely agree that asking the right questions, especially at the beginning of the session, is key to a successful tutoring session, but ‘right’ questions are difficult to define when there are so many different students with different backgrounds and cultures visiting the centre. Perhaps there could have been some mention of adaptability on the part of the tutor. For example, what seems like a higher-order concern for the tutor may not be so important to the student, and perhaps with a good reason that the tutor never thought of. I also believe that there is more merit in straight explanation then many tutors (or writers who write about tutoring) seem to acknowledge. They do mention that something like the purpose of the assignment can be pointed out and explained to save time but there are probably a few more times when that is necessary.

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Jill Stagg, Senior tutor
“Inside the tutoring session,” Ryan and Zimmerelli

The three main topics discussed in the following article are:
– active listening
– facilitating by responding as a reader
– silence and wait time, to allow a writer time to think
In regards to “active listening”, Ryan discusses forms of listening that are best demonstrated by means of paraphrasing, elaboration, and body language. In the act of paraphrasing, the tutor is able to mirror what the speaker is saying during the session, establishing the fact that they not only heard them, but are also hearing what they think the student is trying to say as well. This allows students the ability to repeat certain sentences to see if they would change any of it.

By incorporating the process of elaboration, this gives the speaker room to grow by beginning with one thought, and developing the ideas further. As a tutor, to ensure this process, it is important to address the tutee with more open-ended questions. This will also bring more of their voice into the discussion than your own. Body language in another listening process that lets the student know the tutor is interested and engaged in the discussion. Similar to paraphrasing, in mirroring the student’s body language and understanding their difficulties on a peer level, the student may become more comfortable and inclined to remedy their situation. Another way the tutor can maximize student comfort through facilitation. It is best to describe your reaction as a reader, instead of making judgments about the student’s draft. In the position of reader, this will invite clarification and exploration into the student’s ideas and main focus. It is important to work on getting yourself on the student’s level.
Silence and wait time is a critical and sometimes missed step in the tutoring process, and it is imperative to avoid jumping in too soon. When you allow for silence and wait time, it lets the student learn by giving them the space required to develop their ideas and questions. As stated in the article, 5 seconds can feel much longer than it is, so it is important to feel comfortable giving the student all the time and silence they need.

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Gilbert McInnis, Senior tutor

In “Tensions in the Writing Support Consultation,” Woodward-Kron & Jamieson (WK&J) research and document the tensions between tutors and foreign students. The data of their study is based on audio recordings of 9 postgraduate “Non-English Speaking Backgrounds” (NESB) students. There are three basic “dimension” of the writing process investigated: the unfamiliar territory in the writing consultation (of the tutor), the student’s possible unfamiliarity with the writing requirements, and the unfamiliar territory in the writing consultation (at the centre) involving NESB issues.

There are two central dilemmas for the tutors (and perhaps for the students as well); first, each tutor has to face the NESB issue (an issue of form), which is essentially an ESL writing issue. Second, the “foreign topics” that these students import in their writings raise the issue of to what extent should a tutor know the fields of study of their clients. Here WK&J emphasize the tension of the professors’ insistence that tutors must not deal with content, but only with form. In the 9 case examples, tutors were mostly “unfamiliar” with the content of each student’s research. However, WK&J state that this worked out as an advantage, because it compelled the tutors to focus more on the writing process, rather than on issues involving content, thus satisfying the demand of the professors in question. Lastly, an important issue raised in this study is the importance of tutors’ backgrounds and how diversity might strengthen or weaken the tensions between the form and content issues raised.

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Gillespie, P. & Lerner, N. (2004). The tutoring process.  In P. Gillespie, & N. Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon guide to peer tutoring. New York, NY:  Pearson Education, 25-45

Ryan, L. & Zimmerelli, L. (2010).  Chapter 3:  Inside the tutoring session. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 17-32.

Woodward-Kron, R. & Jamieson, H. (2007).  Tensions in the writing support consultation: Negotiating meanings in unfamiliar territory. In C. Gitsaki (Ed.) Language and languages:  Global and local tensions. Newcastle, UK:  Cambridge Scholars Press, 40-60