Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

1 Comment

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.


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.


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




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.



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.


Leave a comment

“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.



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.


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.


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


Bruffee and North – What is a writing centre?

The following commentary is a response to two articles: The Idea of a Writing Centre” (Stephen North, 2001) and “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” (Kenneth Bruffee, 2001). At the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, tutors are assigned weekly readings and are required, as part of their training, to respond to the readings in a google doc. Tutors are then asked to respond to each others’ responses, and a conversation ensues. We’d like to extend this conversation to and with you, especially with other writing centre practitioners.


Mandy Lapointe, BA Hons, Religious Studies (SMU); MA candidate, Religious Studies (SMU)

First year writing tutor


“The Idea of a Writing Centre” Stephen M. North

Expressing his utter dissatisfaction with the overall image of “the idea” of a writing centre, North uses a number of different examples to illustrate his frustration with ignorance about what writing centres actually do, how they operate, and what they offer to the student writer. North highlights the misconception that writing centres are not for the well-rounded and average writer, but for those “others,” or “impossible” students, who pander to the “fix-it shop image” of the centre, where the main focus need be grammar and punctuation, rather than stylistic thought process. Speaking to what the idea of a writing centre should not be, North identifies two qualifying terms in which writing centres should be concerning themselves with: 1) writing is most usefully viewed as a process, and 2) writing curricula needs to be student-centreed. In this way, North is proclaiming very adamantly that writing centres define themselves in terms of the writer it serves, not the writing. The writing centre should seek to produce better writers, not better writing. Therefore, by motivating engagement of the student in the process of the writing, the tutor fosters organic growth and development of the writing skills, which will in turn permeate throughout the students overall skillset. As a writing tutor then, your responsibility is to act as a participant-observer, always changing depending on the student writer; not employing static rules derived from generalized models, but beginning with where the student is and moving with the student as they grow. As a new employee to the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, I feel this article presented me with a clear idea of what writing centres should be concerning themselves with – the student and the process of writing, rather than simply editing student’s work, and focusing on grammar and punctuation. In addition, it also stressed the importance of cooperation of the university professors with “the idea” of the writing centre, which I found refreshing and somewhat eye-opening. In order for the writing centre to be fully recognized and used to its full potential, it requires the understanding of all parties involved; the student, the tutor, and the faculty.

“Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’“ Kenneth A. Bruffee

Bruffee suggests that peer tutoring as a practice has the potential to challenge traditional classroom learning. Using Michael Oakeshott’s essay on literature in education, he argues that human conversation and reflective thought processes are intimately linked, where the conversation is the public source of learning, and the reflection is the private, creating a cyclical learning process. In doing so, Bruffee also points to the important implications this has on the writing process claiming, “if thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” (7) Therefore, as tutors, our task must involve engaging students in these conversations, as much as we require them to be involved in the writing process. We must ensure the learning conversations we are having are collaborative learning processes, and are similar to the ways in which we want students to write. In doing so, however, Bruffee claims it requires more than selecting “good students” as peer tutors, but having tutors well-trained in the course of study (13). In order to reap the full benefit of peer tutoring, it must be centred on collaborative academic learning, where both students receive genuine educational and personal development. One of the main reasons I wanted to take a position at the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre as a tutor was exactly this reason. As a tutor, I knew I would not only be able to help other students with the process of their thought and writing, but also supplement my own academic development. As a graduate student, the learning process still feels as it is just beginning, and throughout my academic career I hope to always maintain a level of collaborative learning. Therefore, I agree with Bruffee’s argument that peer tutoring has the ability to challenge the traditional learning of the classroom setting. I look forward to working in this type of setting, and I hope to learn a lot about myself and my writing in the process.


North, S.N. (2001). “The Idea of a Writing Centre” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA

Bruffee, K.A. (2001). “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind'” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA