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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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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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.