Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS


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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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When and How Should Your Students Use the Writing Center?

Originally posted on The Writing Campus

Alisa Russell, George Mason University

Whenever we assign writing assignments in our classrooms, we often peripherally acknowledge that the Writing Center is a viable option for our students to work with a tutor toward improvement. However, students may not fully understand the extensive options that the Writing Center provides for them. After scrambling for an appointment or not making one at all, the student may bring in a near-final draft for a quick check mere hours before the due date, which fosters little learning and room for growth. Instead, as the instructor and grader of your students’ work, you can steer your students toward when and how they should be using the Writing Center even more convincingly than our website or bulletin boards. Teaching your students when and how to use the Writing Center will not only provide more opportunities for your students to engage in transferable learning, but it will also lead to more fully developed and reviewed writing assignments.

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So what did you expect? Confessions of a confused tutor

Roberto Montiel, Saint Mary’s University

Expectations, so many of them, everywhere—and we, tutors, aren’t immune. It is good to have them, we might think, for they are like compasses to our actions. Yes. Yet, while initially invigorating, these expectations often prove a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may inspire us as tutors to walk the extra mile so as to excel at our job. On the other, they can be a constant source of disappointment, particularly when we discover that our expectations fail to match the reality of our sessions. As John Trimbur suggests, those tutors who find their expectations shattered within the first weeks of tutoring tend to turn their hopes into feelings of despondent self-doubt, flagrant cynicism or overwhelming guilt (21-22). These feelings are likely to emerge when the tutor’s expectations are set by the tutor their self. The more personal the expectation gets, the more unrealistic it tends to be, and the more likely the originally excited tutor will end up a disappointed fellow. Yes, this might be why so many of the current debates about peer tutoring consider the relationship between the tutor’s expectations and the tutor’s performance as an integral part of what it means to be a tutor (Corbett; Galbraith & Winterbottom; Leung; Moussu).

Unrealistic expectations, nonetheless, are very common in peer tutoring for the simple reason that this kind of expectations abound in young people (Arnett 1-7). Unrealistic expectations are the matter of which youth is made. Some tutors, for instance, may find the urge to do something meaningful not only for their tutees but also for the English written language itself (Trimbur 21). Although a very noble expectation, this is way beyond the powers of a tutor and, it could be said, of any writing centre—maybe even beyond the powers of higher education. Continue reading


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“Bad” Writers? Worse Consultations: Confidence and Writing Center Pedagogy

Originally posted in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal

James Garner

“So what brings you into the writing center today?”

“Well, I’m not a very good writer…”

Of the first exchanges I have with students visiting the writing center, some version of the above is what I hear perhaps most frequently. Often, before we’ve ever discussed an assignment prompt or looked at a single line of prose, the student tells me what might be a personal confession about their self-perception as a writer, and in my experience, I’ve found that if that statement goes unaddressed, the session as a whole just doesn’t go well. Helping students who express this concern build their confidence, I think, is one of the most important unspoken jobs that we have as writing consultants not only for the students but, also, for our pedagogy and for the productivity of the consultation.

Aside from the obvious compassionate angle to instilling confidence, this trepidation and negative self-perception has some crucial implications for our pedagogy as consultants. It’s frustrating to think of yourself as a poor writer, to feel that no matter how hard you try to articulate yourself, what you want to say comes out all wrong—and then you’re given a grade on top of that. Continue reading


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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.