An ELL Allegory + Moussu

Before diving into the Moussu reading, I want to relate what I felt was a very symbolic recent encounter with an ELL student at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, one that struck me as super allegorical and symbolic of the ELL experience as a whole (or some of it, anyway – I can’t claim to know or even understand most of it).

A student came in to the CWPD with an assignment to write 6 pages on a certain topic. This student was an international student as well as an English Language Learner. He had written 4 pages, and felt that he had run out of things to say about the topic. As I read the paper, I came to the same conclusion. He had thoroughly answered the prompt, and I didn’t see what else there was for him to do. Should he diverge and start writing on things only tangential to the topic? As I pondered this question, I scrolled up and down the Word document on his computer screen. I noticed that the margins were awfully small, and reminded him that margins should typically be one inch wide. He responded that they already were. It was true that his computer had the margins listed as “1,” but they still looked much too small to me.

Finally, I had an epiphany. I asked if he had bought the computer in his home country. He responded that he had. I realized that the computer was measuring the margins in centimeters, not inches, because he had bought it in a country that used the metric system. When we converted the margins to actually be one inch wide, his four page paper turned into an eight page one.

I asked how long his computer settings had been this way, and if any professors or peer tutors had pointed out that his margins were too small. He said that he had been writing this way all semester (it was now November) and that no one had pointed it out. This was the part that struck me as allegorical – because he was from another country and an ELL student, he had literally been doing twice as much work (that is, writing twice as much because his margins were so small) as everyone else had been doing for the same assignments.

In his piece on ELL students and writing centers, Moussu asks some of the same questions that I (and everyone else in class) have been asking since the beginning of the semester. That is, what is the balance between giving students, specifically ELL students, what they want and what they need?

Moussu writes that, “In the writing centre, directors and tutors must seek and test how to respond constructively to students’ grammar-based expectations and knowledge with more grammar awareness and practice, while still acknowledging, explaining, and encouraging WC and composition theories and pedagogical practices (content-based feedback).” I think that Moussu offers many more concrete suggestions for helping ELL students than previous authors we’ve read have, but I still wasn’t satisfied.

I think we tend to forget that, though it may not always feel like it, we’re all adults here. That includes ELL students. I think it’s wrong to assume we know what’s best for other adults, especially those who may have had very different life experiences (such as those of Bielski). Why not, if you’ll excuse the phrase, be adults about things and give each ELL students what they ask for, whether it’s help with higher- or lower-order concerns? Who are we to determine what’s best for them?

In my tutoring praxis, I tend to give people what they’re asking for, and try not to assume I know what’s best for them. Obviously, If I see a major high-order error I’ll point it out, but I don’t always bring higher-order concerns into things.

Anyway, have any of you had allegorical experiences? What did you think of Moussu’s piece? Do you agree or disagree with my idea that we should just give people what they ask for? How was your break?

Brecht’s Balance

In “Basic Literacy: Mediating Between Power Constructs,” Mara Brecht writes about her experience with an Adult Basic Literacy Education student named Kathy. Brecht writes that “I chose to give Kathy comments about capital letters and periods because I thought it would be helpful. But I am left asking if this was a positive change for Kathy or for me. Did my suggestions help Kathy to write more easily and confidently about what she thought, or did my suggestions simply alter her text so it was more compatible with dominant writing styles, such as my own?” (299). This portion of the text really struck a chord with me. So often in my work at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, I’ve explained something to a student to the best of my ability, only to be met with an “oh, okay” that is belied by a glazed look of noncomprehension. In these situations, I wonder, have I taught them why they should do something? Or merely how? And, in a practical sense, is there much difference? Their writing, at least for that assignment (and, I hope, those in the future, though that may be too much to ask) will be improved and they will get a better grade than they would have received if they hadn’t come in to the CWPD and worked with me. Is that a good thing?

Brecht faces a similar question. Of her experience with Kathy, she writes that “I thought it was important not to tip the scale too drastically in either direction. I wanted Kathy to be truly confident in her writing, but I also wanted to give Kathy what she came to classes for – the ability to write in a ‘correct’ way, the skills to write complete sentences on a job application, and the know-how to use capital letters and exclamation marks on a birthday card” (299-300).

I want the students I work with to be confident in their writing, but what if their writing isn’t “correct” (without getting back into our lively discussion about the meaning of ‘correct English), that is to say, the dominant form of English. Is it better for a writer to be confident or to be “right”? How can we find the balance in between? Brecht writes that “In this situation, I negotiated between attention to form and attention to content, between my goals as a tutor and Kathy’s needs as a student, between Kathy’s confidence in writing and Kathy’s “rightness” in writing” (302). However, she doesn’t really explain how she did that. I suppose that’s the big mystery. How do we find the balance. Any thoughts?

Too Much Authority

I really enjoyed this week’s readings on peer tutoring and the writing center, but I didn’t find them entirely reflective of my experience as a (peer) writing consultant myself. In Peter Carino’s “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring,” he mostly explores how peer tutors can establish authority. I admit that there have been some times when students who come into the Center for Writing and Public Discourse have trouble seeing me as an authority, but, for me, this has been far from the majority of cases.

The students who don’t want to recognize me as an authority tend to be those who were forced to come into the writing center, rather than those who came in of their own volition. They tend to not believe that I, a Literature major, can help them with their history or psychology (or whatever non-literature topic) paper. These consultations are definitely tough, I admit. But they’re also the minority of consultations.

My main problem is with students who see me as too much of an authority. Often (but certainly not always) they are first years, feeling scared and unprepared to write a college-level paper. They write down everything I say, do everything I suggest. I try not to be too suggestive with these students, but they still take every word I say as law. And here’s the problem: my word isn’t law. I know how to do a lot in peer tutoring, but at the end of the day, I’m not the professor or the one who’s grading the paper. Also, students shouldn’t take every single one of my suggestions because it will dilute their own voice.

Has anyone else had this problem? Does anyone have any suggested solutions?

Solving the Plagiarism Problem (with bonus rant)

I was very interested in this week’s readings on plagiarism, especially “Framing Plagiarism.”

To be honest, plagiarism isn’t a topic I think much about. I usually skip over reading that section in the syllabus, which, if I’m being totally honest, I tend to assume is plagiarized itself. I’ve never had a problem with plagiarism. It’s just not something that’s ever attracted me in a malicious way (though I admit to occasionally using Shmoop or something similar to get a summary of a reading I didn’t do, I would never actually try to pass off those ideas as my own), and I know enough about citations to be able to avoid doing it accidentally.

Still, plagiarism is a big problem. As the three authors of “Framing Plagiarism” pointed out, web search results for plagiarism news and tips (both how to prevent it and how to get away with it) number in the millions. As we saw in the New York Times article on Senator John Walsh, it’s even a problem among those who we would like to think (though this is growing increasingly difficult — but that’s a completely different story) are problem-free — our government representatives.

So what can a school or a teacher or professor do? I have a few thoughts.

  1. How to prevent plagiarism: To prevent accidental plagiarism, TEACH CITATIONS! This is the #1 question we get at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, especially from international students, many of whom come from countries where knowledge is thought of as more universal (or less commodified, if you’re jaded, like I am) than it is here.* Teach when to cite and how to cite. It’s that simple. To prevent purposeful plagiarism, give original assignments that engage with the class discussions and with students’ opinions (no one-right-answer questions here), rather using than boilerplate essay questions where the answers can be found online (what does the green light in The Great Gatsby represent? Let me just give that a quick Google search…). Ask students to compare texts or use certain lenses to make your questions more unique (and therefore more interesting and also harder to find answers for on the web or in books). In short, make your questions interesting, original, and multi-answerable. Also, be accommodating with helping students and giving extensions. In my experience, the number one reason why my peers plagiarize is because they are pressed for time or don’t have any idea what to write about. If teachers help students through the writing process more, like meeting with students or looking over drafts or outlines, this would be less of a problem. People plagiarize because they don’t get the material and they’re worried they’ll have nothing to turn in, not because they’re malicious academic thieves who want to cheat innocent scholars of their credit.
  1. How to catch plagiarism: In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have plagiarism. In a semi-perfect world, we wouldn’t need sites like turnitin.com because professors and teachers would be able to catch plagiarism themselves. No, not because they have a search-engine brain (though that would be cool, too), but because they’re familiar with each student and their level of writing skill and engagement with the material. Ideally, professors should be able to notice when something seems out of place or like it came from a source other than the student’s own thoughts. I know that not all schools have small enough classes for this to be practical, but it’s an ideal solution. I’m not sure how this would work in larger class settings, but hopefully the solutions in number 1 would make plagiarism less common in the first place.

*By the way, I think the way schools deal with plagiarism and international students is totally bogus. First of all, international students are often ELL students. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, knowledge and academic materials are handled differently in different cultures. This means that students from some countries don’t think of the need to cite, because it isn’t part of their culture. They’re not trying to plagiarize, they’re just doing what they learned throughout their early academic careers.

Also, The punishment for plagiarism is often expulsion, and for international students, that can mean having one’s student visa revoked. Just try getting another U.S. visa after having one revoked. Expulsion for plagiarism is a quick way to ruin an international student’s life.

 

ANYWAY, does anyone have any thoughts on my tips for preventing and catching plagiarism? I’d love to hear them!

Sound and Fury

Through my work at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, I’ve read an awful lot of papers from students in different years, disciplines, stages of writing, and levels of writing-related knowledge. And while I certainly don’t think any of these students are “idiots,” some of their papers have reminded me of the famous line from Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In other words, I’ve read many pretty and well-written papers that, at the end of the day, just didn’t have all that much to say.

I imagine that these students write these papers in the same way that Winalski wrote her high school (and even some college) essays. They may mean well (not that Winalski didn’t, though she’s pretty up front about her attempts to game the system in high school) but they’re choosing form over function, sound and fury over significance. In Winalski’s words, “The student’s ability to communicate effectively (and not to effectively communicate) had precedence over the raw quality of the ideas.”

So how can I, as a writing consultant, use my feedback to intervene? As we know from Sommer’s “Responding to Student Writing,” not all feedback (especially vague feedback) is helpful. “These different signals given to students, to edit and develop, to condense and elaborate, represent also the failure of teachers’ comments to direct genuine revision of the text as a whole.” There’s also the matter of authority to consider: this time not establishing it, but making sure that students don’t change their whole argument or thesis just because I suggested something. Sommers illustrates the worst case scenario here: “We have all heard our perplexed students say to us…: ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’” In the beginning of the process there was the writer, her words, and her desire to communicate her ideas. But after the comments of the teacher are imposed on the first or second draft, the student’s attention dramatically shifts from ‘This is what I want to say,’ to ‘This is what you the teacher are asking me to do.’”

I didn’t find that Sommers or Winalski provided adequate answers to the question of what to do. How does one give feedback that’s not too vague but not too directive? At what point in the writing process is feedback most valuable? Should feedback comment more on style or content?

I do my best at my job at the CWPD, but sometimes these readings really make me question if I’m doing it right. I think, no I know, that I’m an effective tutor, but these readings are giving me a crisis of faith. Can I get a little feedback?

 

Young’s Essay and Experiences with ELL Students

Through my work at CMC’s Center for Writing and Public Discourse, I’ve spent a lot of time working with English-Language Learner (ELL) students, both at CMC and at Pomona High School, where we help students with their college applications.

Officially, the Center’s policy is not to correct (and we could get into a whole debate about the meaning of the word “correct” here, but I’ll try to avoid doing that for now) students’ grammar or spelling unless they specifically ask for it. Even then, we might refer them to a grammar guide so that they can learn the “correct” way themselves, rather than our just doing it for them. But I often wonder  — am I doing these writers a disservice by not “correcting” their English?

In an ideal world, writing (and, in a larger sense, academia) would function as Young envisions them in “Shouldn’t Writers Use They Own English?” There would be room for everyone’s style of language, and code meshing would abound. I agree with Young — code meshing is the new wave. I also believe that a lot of English language rules are outdated, outmoded, and out of touch.

For example, most sentences are perfectly intelligible without articles, which are one of the hardest concepts for many ELL writers to grasp. If this is the case, then what is the function of articles other than to act as an “accent” and show whether or not someone is an ELL writer or speaker? If this is the case, then is insisting that someone use articles “correctly” in their speech or writing discriminatory? Is resisting using article radical or revolutionary? I’m not saying getting rid of articles would be the great equalizer (if there was one great equalizer, we would hopefully be using it by now), but wouldn’t it be better to do away with them if they’re discriminatory?

But here’s the thing: code meshing and allowing everyone to use their own English are not (yet) the way academia works. So if I don’t correct a student’s English or tell them to do something the so-called proper way, the professor might end up grading them down for having too many grammatical or spelling “errors.” What is my ethical obligation in this case? Do I encourage students to speak with their own voices (something I believe in strongly)? Or do I help them achieve the best grade possible?

Being a Novice is No Vice (or is it?)

I have to admit it. I’m the type of student who Sommers and Saltz depict as resisting novicehood. In high school, I thought I knew it all. So when I got to college, I didn’t feel like starting over. I plunged onward with my 5 paragraph essays. And you know what? I did poorly at first. I remember getting a bad (for me) grade on my first FHS (freshman humanities seminar) paper and being completely shocked. Why hadn’t I done as well as I was used to doing?

The answer, I suppose, is that I wasn’t thinking in the terms of giving and getting back. I was looking for the secret to getting a good grade, which I believed lay in an introduction, a conclusion, and three body paragraphs with transitional first sentences.

While I enjoyed the Sommers and Saltz reading, one thing that frustrated me was the ending, where they wrote that while being a novice is key to first-year writing, in becomes a hindrance in later years.They write that, “While being a novice first year is vital for writing development, being a perpetual novice is detrimental. To move forward with their writing, students need to shed the role of novice that was at one time the key to their success” (146). In this section, I feel that they neglected to lay out exactly how one transitions away from being a novice. They write that those who don’t lose interest in writing tend to learn to ask questions that are interesting to both themselves AND others: “If students are only writing to understand their personal experiences, if their expertise comes only from their personal connection with the material, of if they see the personal and academic as opposites, their writing remains a form of self-expression, and they generally lose interest in academic writing beyond junior year.

But what, I ask, is so bad about writing about material solely based on personal interest? If one person finds it interesting, surely another will as well. And if the personal is political, why can’t it be academic as well? I just don’t see what’s wrong with writing as a form of self-expression. Aren’t we all about cultivating writers’ own voices? I’m not sure Elbow and his free-writes would agree with Sommers and Saltz on this one.