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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Process Writing OR Product Writing? by Muhammad Elhabibi

Muhammad Elhabibi, ESL Support, Saint Mary’s University

Hedge (2004) points out that the 1990s saw a dramatic departure from traditional approaches to teaching writing in the English language classroom. The advent of the Process Writing approach recognised that skillful writers did not take a linear approach. Nunan (1998) says that skilled writers are not afraid to make mistakes, and they understand that drafts will undergo many changes in terms of content, structure and ideas during the planning, drafting and redrafting stages, before a final draft emerges. The writer may not have a final product ‘shape’ in mind when they start, but this will emerge during the process. Central to the idea of Process Writing is that the writer has clearly in their mind the purpose of what they are writing and the audience it is intended for.

This is in contrast to the Product Writing approach which is more traditional, and formulaic. Model texts of different genres are analysed, and then organisational, grammatical, and lexical features are identified. Thornbury (2006) says that, “each of these features is then practiced in isolation. They are then recombined in tasks aimed at reproducing the original text and then at producing similar texts incorporating different content” (249). This approach encourages writers to aim for models of accuracy rather than to aim their writing at a real audience with a real purpose.

For the purposes of Academic Writing, Swales and Feak (2004) put forward a model for consideration.

 

Audience

Purpose

Organization

Style

Flow

Presentation

 

Fig.1 Considerations in academic writing (7)

 

This model recognises that in academic writing, the audience and purpose for writing are of prime importance with all other considerations needing to take these into account.

Personal Experience and Observation

In my position as an ESL Support, and previously as an IELTS trainer, with most students of Business Communication coming from China and Saudi Arabia, I believe I have some insight into the language preparation that many go through before coming to study at universities in Canada. Most take short IELTS preparation courses and, from experience, many courses offered in Saudi Arabia, China and in some language schools in Canada focus mainly on exam technique rather than improving actual language skills. Even the text books designed to provide practice on IELTS writing with answer keys adopt the same notion. For pragmatic reasons, writing preparation generally follows a strictly Product Approach. Sample answers are presented, organisational features analysed, key phrases memorised and then applied to practice questions. Being aware of the nature of those IELTS training sessions and the samples of students’ writing demonstrated in workshops, the formulaic answers I encountered while browsing the scripts became very recognisable. I got the impression that many had memorised answer templates which accounted for much of their word count, and they simply looked to add some content, depending on the question topic, to their exam responses. Given the marking criteria, it is very possible for a candidate to get a writing band 5.0 or 5.5 after undergoing such training, which is usually enough to secure a place on a university Bridging program course if they are not enrolled in university classes.

The negative backwash became apparent on those previous bridging programs I have worked on, as well as the assignments I currently assess. Since many students had been trained to write short answers under timed exam conditions, relying on large formulaic chunks to make up their word counts, they tend to struggle when asked to produce longer assignments based on independent research (A Saint Mary’s example would be assignment 4 for Comm 2239). As a result, initial writing assignments from these students seemed to be very poorly constructed and some heavily plagiarised.

Also, from my observations it seems the Chinese students have a very different approach to academic writing, and rather than directly address the core topic of an assignment, many tend to write in broad, general terms and then draw vague conclusions at the end. Charteris-Black (1997) points out that a learner’s educational cultural context determines the rhetorical and stylistic features of their writing, as well as their approach to the audience and purpose of writing. Furthermore, I am always surprised when Chinese speaking students tell me that they very rarely visit their university libraries as everything they need to know to pass exams or write assignments is contained in prescribed textbooks which largely need to be memorised.

Implications

As a result of the issues discussed above the following general considerations will need to be taken into account when teaching academic writing for pre-university program (ELL) students.

  • Presenting Writing as a Genre Different from Speaking
  • The emphasis of a Process Writing approach
  • Encouragement towards learner autonomy
  • Essay / Paragraph structure
  • Critical thinking
  • Guidance in acceptable referencing systems
  • Awareness of the seriousness of plagiarism

 

With regard to the above, appropriate methods of gauging the students’ needs and abilities will need to be devised. The results will be influential in deciding materials to be selected as well as an appropriate sequence in which classes will be organised.

 

Charteris-Black, J. (1997). Practice and preferences in second language writing instruction: A contrastive perspective ( Fulcher, G. Ed.). Hemel Hempsted, England: Prentice Hall Europe

Hedge, T. (2004). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. UK: Oxford University Press

Nunan, D. (1999). Syllabus Design. UK: Oxford University Press

Swales, J & Feak, C. (2009).  Academic Writing for Graduate Students. USA: University of Michigan Press

Thornbury,S. (2006). An a-z of elt. UK: Macmillan


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Silence as a tutoring tool

Brian Hotson, Director, Saint Mary’s Writing Centre

 

“Silence is argument carried out by other means.” — Che Guevara

 

Working recently with a student, I found us both staring in silence at a page of the student’s handwriting. Five second… 10 seconds… 15 seconds…

Student: “What if the paper is about the universality of addiction and intervention?”

More silence.

“Universality…that’s a word, right?”

Tutoring is an intimate experience and silence creates an intimate space. Silence democratizes the writing and learning processes in general, which “can lead to a sense of teaching-based group intimacy that, ultimately, can enhance the discovery of knowledge” (Lees, 2013). I’ve found that in silence, more answers seem to come up than when the tutoring space is filled with words. The work of silence as a writing tool is similar to that of putting aside work for a time; it allows the brain to re-focus, breakdown, and re-form into something changed or new. When tutoring students from learning cultures of China and Japan, as well as Scandinavia, “appreciating the pedagogical uses of silence can be particularly helpful… where silence plays a significant cultural role and is valued” (Lees, 2013). Used at the right moments, silence allows the student a chance to commandeer the tutoring process, while encouraging his or her own strengths in the knowledge-making process.

Beginning a tutoring session with silence in mind will help mitigate apprehension of silence. In the case of this recent student, he thought that he had no idea of how to tackle his paper when we began, though he knew his topic, addiction and Wind in the Willows and had done a significant amount of research and prewriting. He had time constraints. Using a script of “Let’s think about…” followed by silence at the beginning of the session set a process of talking and pondering at the outset. In this case, the student just didn’t know what he already knew. Silence helped this knowledge come to the surface.

Source

Lees, H. (2013). Silence as a pedagogical tool: Using silence effectively in the university classroom has pedagogical benefits, asserts Helen Lees. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/silence-as-a-pedagogical-tool/2006621.article


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Children’s science author L.E. Carmichael on her writing process

 Here’s our own Dr. Lindsey Carmichael, writing tutor and published author of science-focused children’s books, talking about her writing process!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

There are a lot of brilliant science books out there for kids, but I think one thing that makes my work different is my background as a scientist. I think it gives me a slightly different perspective than that of authors who love science, but never studied it at the level I have. Because I work part time at a university, I also have access to a lot of research materials that other writers might not be able to find or afford (most professional journals charge pricey subscription and licensing fees). My own research experiences, and those of my scientist friends, also help me identify little-known, but utterly awesome, stories to share with kids.

Why do I write what I do?

I started out writing fiction, but fiction is highly competitive and I wasn’t making much headway with publishers.

Sources I used while writing Gene Therapy

Then, in 2010, it occurred to me that by switching to nonfiction, I could leverage my academic credentials and break into the biz. That sounds mercenary of me, but I quickly realized that nonfiction is a lot more fun to write than most people think it is, and I absolutely love the research process (so much so that I often have to remind myself to stop chasing facts and start writing already!)

In terms of subject matter, I choose projects that I’m fascinated by or subjects I want to learn more about. And I dream about the day someone will come up to me and tell me that my books are the reason they love science.

How does my writing process work?

I love the word “process” – it sounds so organized!

I usually start with exploratory research. I get my hands on some good books about my topic and troll through them with a wide net, looking for anything that sparks my “oh wow” response. This continues until the book starts to take shape in my head – until I’ve figured out roughly what I want to cover and what order it goes in. Then I write a draft of the whole book. This reveals every hole in my research, from the tiny and specific to the huge and the gaping.

My second round of research is designed to plug those gaps – now I’m looking for answers to specific questions. I start using journal articles and reputable websites and contacting experts until I’m satisfied (or my deadline starts to loom). I go back to my draft, add the new material, and polish the whole thing until it shines. This takes anywhere from three to six rounds of revision.

At last I submit, reward myself with chocolate, and wait for the inevitable request for revision, at which point the cycle starts again!

[See original @ http://www.lecarmichael.ca/tag-youre-it-my-writing-process-blog-tour/ ]


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Second language writers: Rethinking and reimagining

This post is a response to “Tutoring and Revision: Second Language Writers in the Writing Centre” – Jessica Williams

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Jodi-Anne Walker, First year tutor, Environmental Science

This article addresses the need for WC tutors to be more practical in approaching students who speak and write English as a Second Language. There is no manual to instruct tutors on how to address the needs of ESL (L2, or International) students. Instead, the suggestions made by Williams are realistic with attainable goals that will assist in helping to produce better writers. I discovered in the latter part of the article that the author isn’t implying that L2 students aren’t being pragmatic in their approach to their papers; they’re just having issues making the transition from their own language to the requirements of English in academic writing. As a tutor, I often require that students respond to questions about their paper; and as the author suggested, these responses provide an insight on the level of understanding the students have acquired from their own work and the questions that have arisen from the paper. It is true that active participants make more substantial and productive changes to their written pieces than non-responsive writers (189). Actively participating gives the writer a chance to contribute to his/her own learning through revision and practise. This enables them to remember how to apply some rules they have learned about the writing process. This is of utmost importance, as they will surely have encounters with English in academic writing again in the future.

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Williams, J. (2004).  Tutoring and revision:  Second language writers in the writing center,  Journal of Second Language Writing, 173-201


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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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Questions as writing tools: tutoring and the art of asking questions

Two articles again this week, Johnson’s 1993 piece, Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool and Newkirk’s “The first five minutes: Setting the agenda in a writing conference” (2001).

 

Dawson McKay, Senior tutor

Responding to “Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool.”

Johnson argues that questions are unhelpful in tutoring sessions. She prefers statements, particularly imperative statements. She says that questions often short-circuit student thought processes and that, if questions are asked, students should be the ones asking them.

I could criticize Johnson’s research methods. Is recording what happens with questions in tutoring sessions enough evidence to support his conclusion that tutors asking questions is almost always a bad idea? Instead of questioning her methods though, I would say that, in my personal experience as a tutor, questions are very helpful. I agree with Johnson’s paragraph on the benefits of long pauses after asking questions, and find that when I combine questions with pauses, no problems arise from asking questions. Also, on a more personal level, I do not understand how a tutor is supposed to establish rapport with a student, find out about their assignment, know what that student is feeling, without ever asking one question. I take Johnson’s point about the ability of wrongfully-placed questions to overburden students’ thinking, but she goes too far by not admitting that questions can be very helpful if used properly

 

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Paromtia Trask, Senior tutor

Responding to “Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool.”

The art of asking questions is a creative process in my view.  Asking too many questions can be an obstacle because it may cause distractions, waste time, and shift away from the true goals of a tutoring session.  Receptiveness on the part of the student may depend on the approachability of the tutor, the ability to relate to the student and the dynamics between the student and tutor.  I think that some may be better than others at asking questions.  Asking questions can show the tutor if the student is paying attention and give the student opportunities to speak if he or she is quiet or distracted.  When giving a work shop about thesis statements, I first asked the student what they believe a thesis statement is.  This helped me meet the student where they are at, rather than treat the session like a generic workshop where information is simply stated as fact from a worksheet.

Writing tools are more effective when they are understood well. I believe asking a student about their idea of what a thesis statement is, is a good way to start talking about thesis statements. At first they may be embarrassed that they have no idea, but they have to get over the fear of not knowing and understand that their academic journey is going to involve processes such as this, so that they do develop good writing skills.  If the tutor has no idea about the student’s prior understanding it will be difficult to know if the session is productive.  The tutor could constantly presume the student already knows something when they do not, or waste time on something the student already understands well.

Overall, I think asking some questions can be productive, however, I would not ask too many and I would not want the student to feel that each question is a stupidity test, because they would probably feel negative about the experience.  This article has some good points, however, perhaps questions could still be positive if the student is also encouraged to ask questions, the questions are in context with the session’s main topics of discussion, the tutor gives ample time for the student to actually answer the question, and finally, the tutor should be positive and provide constructive comments, not criticizing ones. I agree that students should have questions, but I also think it is okay for tutors to have a few too.

 

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Johnson, J. B. (1993). Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool. Dynamics of the Writing Conference:  Social and Cognitive Interaction. T. Flynn & M.King, Eds.  Urbana:  NCTE, 34-40.  

Newkirk, T. (2001). The first five minutes: Setting the agenda in a writing conference. Writing Centre Theory and Practice. R. W. Barnett & J. S. Blumner, Eds. Toronto: Allyn & Bacon, 302-315.