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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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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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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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