The limits of the Writing Center

I really enjoyed reading Cynthia Linville’s article this week – I found it to be idealistic in its goals, yet pragmatic in its approach. Linville’s focus on identifying patterns of errors in student writing is an extremely helpful tactic, and one that I realized while reading that I unwittingly already use. Over the course of the semester, I have begun to notice certain errors – whether grammatical, argumentative, or structural – pop up repeatedly in the writing of some of the ID1 students I work with. I’ve begun to look specifically for these patterns of difficulty and bring them up with the ID1 professor in meetings to track student progress in these areas. In this way, the pattern-based strategy that Linville outlines is one that I have found to be effective not just for ESL students, but for all students in general. It is truly a scalable approach, capable of being specific enough to encapsulate issues of usage alone for students less comfortable with English, yet also wide-ranging enough to notice and attempt to correct broader intellectual trends with which a student may be burdened.

The key to Linville’s approach is, I think, being sure that the student themselves is aware of their particular error patterns, so that they can keep an eye out for these missteps themselves after they leave the consultation. In this way, Linville is outlining a method for empowerment: giving the student the knowledge necessary to read their own writing as a tutor would, and to make corrections accordingly. If used to its utmost effectiveness, Linville’s tactic actually makes the tutor unnecessary, as the student has become well-equipped enough to critically read their writing completely on their own. In a weird way, I feel like the ultimate goal of the Writing Center – both as outlined in Linville and as reinforced through my own experience – is to render itself irrelevant.

Personality: the hidden key to consultations

Peter Carino’s article was so refreshing and validating to read. As a new Writing Partner, it is often hard for me to detect whether or not I am doing my job with the level of authority that is expected of me. I think I initially tried a much more hands-off approach to consultations, which ended up producing a lot of consultations like the “bad” tutorial for the play review that Carino writes about. I would ask students a lot of questions, but never really get to the point of what I thought they should do next. I quickly found that while this method of consulting worked for some cases, overall it was pretty unproductive, at least when it came to creating real improvement by the end of the consultation. What I’ve now adopted is something similar to Carino’s “sliding-scale” method: I use different amounts of directive and non-directive questioning depending on a number of variables that fluctuate from one consultation to another.

One thing that factors heavily into how I approach individual consultations is the personality of the student. I recently had a consultation with a student who I’ve had a class with before and know fairly well, and I was aware that this student is an opinionated, eloquent, and relatively long-winded person. I knew that the best approach for this consultation would be to ask a few introductory questions to get the student going and then just let them talk their way into what they wanted to write. I also knew that I could be more directive and even challenging in this consultation, as I trusted that the student would defend their own ideas if they felt it necessary. Other students I’ve worked with are a bit more hesitant, and I get the sense from them that if I advocated for my own ideas too strongly, I would quash their lines of thought. In these consultations, I try to take a step back, asking more followup questions and validating the student’s ideas. In this way, I think a big part of my job as a Writing Partner is being able to quickly assess a student’s personality and then adapt my consultation style accordingly.

Working as a Writing Partner has also made me reflect on my own personality and how it might affect my consultations. I know that I am a fairly assertive person, and in the past I have been criticized for talking over people and being too harsh in my critiques. I therefore make an effort to mitigate my inner critic as much as possible during consultations. And assertiveness is a good thing to have as a Writing Partner, but I’ve learned to be more aware of how not to cross the line between assertiveness and dominance. Overall, my experience at the Writing Center has mirrored a lot of what Carino writes about, with a particular emergence of personality as an important factor in consultations.

As I read “Framing Plagiarism” (Adler-Kassner et al.) and thought about its discussion of Turnitin.com, I remembered a troubling incident involving plagiarism at my high school. My school used Turnitin.com for almost every written assignment, and had a very strict academic honesty policy that outlined punishments up to and including suspension from school. The policy also stated that in cases where a student plagiarized from another student, both students would be given the same punishment. In senior year, a friend of mine spent hours typing up a response paper to a long and difficult reading that we’d been assigned over winter break. Her boyfriend, who was struggling with the reading, asked if he could see her paper. She obliged. The boyfriend then sent my friend’s paper to another student, who promptly uploaded the paper to Turnitin.com under his own name.

Turnitin.com being what it is, our teachers immediately noticed the blatant plagiarism, and both my friend and the student who uploaded her paper got in trouble. The boyfriend, meanwhile, faced no consequences and refused to own up to his role in the events that unfolded. I thought this situation was incredibly unfair when I heard about it. Why should my friend be punished for essentially trusting her boyfriend? He was the one that made the unwise decision to send the paper to another student without my friend’s knowledge, and that student was the one who made the unjustifiably stupid decision to plagiarize the paper. Normally I understood why my school had to have such stringent consequences for plagiarism – I had been taught over and over the importance of academic honesty – but here was one situation in which it seemed to me that the usual rules should not apply.

It was refreshing, then, to read the work of Adler-Kassner et al., who argue that modern-day plagiarism education and prevention tactics have paradoxically worked against the goals of good writing to the extent that plagiarism is now all but inevitable in order to meet those goals. Moreover, they say that the current frame in which we view plagiarism fails to take into account the myriad contexts in which students of writing may be asked to produce work, and additionally leaves out the methods of information circulation that have arisen with the Internet. If a major goal of writing at my high school was to prevent plagiarism, it makes sense that the school would adopt a policy that equally punishes perpetrators and victims of plagiarism – this discourages students from sharing their work with each other and quells the chances of plagiarism being possible in the first place. But my school also claimed to foster community and collaboration among its students, and often assigned readings that were so complex it was extremely challenging for any one student to interpret them alone. Numerous Facebook groups and chats arose for people to discuss how they were going to tackle research papers or in-class essay exams, often with multiple students sharing ideas that were meant to be freely taken by others. These ideas could be said to be “intellectual property,” yet I’m almost positive that no student at my high school ever cited another student as their source for an idea when typing a final paper. In these cases, students were collaborating to produce the best possible interpretations of our primary sources and to help everyone achieve academic goals (i.e. a good grade) – yet all of this discussion could be defined as academic dishonesty under the policy of my high school and most colleges in the US.

So what’s the solution? Is it better to contribute to an intellectual collective and risk swiping a few ideas than to toe the line of academic policies and jealously guard one’s ideas? And moreover, which tactic are we encouraging with our current approaches to plagiarism?

Why we should write like 8-year-olds

Yesterday, as part of the internship I have with an education nonprofit, I accompanied a group of about 30 elementary and middle school students to the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Another volunteer and I were responsible for guiding a smaller group of four kids, all of whom were 7 or 8 years old, through the main gallery. We asked them questions about the artwork and took notes about their extremely imaginative responses in preparation for a writing workshop later that day.

After two hours of looking at art, fielding nonstop and often inexplicable questions (“Are you a girl or a boy? What’s your mom’s name? Do you like tomatoes?”), and reminding our students every two minutes not to touch the artwork, I was very ready to sit down and let the kids write on their own for a while. Unfortunately, one student was having trouble with a prompt asking him to write a story about one of the pieces we saw.

“I don’t wanna write anything,” he grumbled.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s too hard. I’m tired.”

You’re telling me, I thought. “Just write down to here,” I said, pointing to a spot about halfway down the page. “Then you can stop.”

Still, the student seemed reluctant. He closed his eyes and cradled his head in his hands, looking like he was about to doze off. But when I prompted him gently to start writing, he chastised me – he was thinking, and I was interrupting him.

I then had to help out a couple other students, and when I returned to the reluctant boy, he’d quietly begun his story.

“How do you spell ‘adventure’?” he asked.

Over the course of the next half hour, this student proceeded to write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, only stopping every now and then to ask me how to spell something or excitedly share a plot twist he was about to write. He filled up the entire page.

Was the story full of spelling and grammatical errors? Sure. But was it also well-structured, imaginative, and hilarious? Absolutely. And if I’d been watching over his shoulder as he wrote, correcting his spelling every other word, I doubt it ever would have been completed.

I thought of this student while reading Winalski’s and Sommers’ pieces earlier today. Winalski tells us how her inner grammaticist blocked her from writing anything of substance for years, and once she got to college, she had to figure out a way to muffle her own concerns in order to actually complete her work. As Winalski puts it, “writing…is perhaps an ongoing process that necessitates a persistent willingness to try, fail, and try” (307-308). There’s no way that process can take place if one’s time and energy is taken up with attention to detail rather than the creation of a whole piece.

This same dilemma is present when overly-detail-oriented critiques come from external sources rather than internal ones. Sommers shows how teachers’ and professors’ comments on student work can be detrimental in that they collapse all aspects of revision into the same level of importance. For rough drafts, Sommers argues, the main concern should not be the clarity and composition of the individual sentences themselves – it should instead be the essence of the ideas within the paper. At this early stage in the writing process, students need to worry about getting their thoughts together and onto the page as completely as possible. It would be counterproductive at that point to prioritize grammar and spelling.

The point of the writing prompt at the museum was not to get students to produce a clean, finely crafted piece. It was to start them off in the process of writing, to help them engage creatively with the artwork we just saw, and ultimately to encourage them to write something at all. I think this is a good mindset for writers of all ages to adopt, especially when just starting out on a piece of writing. Here our focus should be on ideas, questions, arguments – intellectual content over writerly form. Following the rules of grammar and spelling, while crucial for clear writing, plays almost no role in the generation of written work itself.

5 Theses: Before and After

  1. Music critics have different criteria for judgment than fans do. / Modern music critics engage in the ritual devaluation of certain kinds of music to grant their subjective opinions more credence and achieve their market-based goals.
  2. Both the colonizer and the colonized use silence as a strategy in many ways. / Silence as an anticolonial strategy should be used with caution, as more often than not it results in death.
  3. Something weird is happening in this scene from Othello. / In Othello, the identities of characters and the relationships those characters have with each other is intrinsically tied to names of characters rather than the characters themselves.
  4. Something weird is happening in this scene from Romeo and Juliet. / Juliet’s command for Tybalt to “stay” expresses her desire for a specific degree of fear, a fear that motivates her ingestion of poison.
  5. Something weird is happening in Sonnet 7. / In Sonnet 7, Shakespeare presents a model of life and death in which dying “unlooked on” is the worst fate possible, and the only way to prevent this is by continually producing a lineage of sons.

I’m posting these theses as a way of showing that a thesis statement can and should over the course of writing an essay. All of the above theses are taken from pieces of writing I did last year, and as you can read, all of them went through major revision by the time I had finished writing. Reading Berggren’s piece made me wonder what was even the point of having a preliminary thesis, as the Before versions of each one of these is rudimentary at best and nothing more than a vague sense of questioning at worst. Especially with essays that require close reading or extensive research, it can be not just difficult to immediately formulate a concrete thesis, but also nonsensical. How can anyone know what they are going to say before they have done the work of thinking and writing through their primary sources? I hope the above examples help to drive home Berggren’s point that the thesis is not always the first step in good writing, and in fact in many cases it may hinder good writing entirely.

Plain language and the academy

I’m gonna be honest with all of you: I did not enjoy this week’s (non-They Say/I Say) readings. Not because I disagreed with what they were saying – I thought Ede, Lunsford, and Bartholomae all had important and thought-provoking things to say about audience(s), academic discourse, and a writer’s role in their own process. I’m not opposed to these texts for purely ideological reasons. Rather, I disliked them because I found them to be incredibly dense and difficult to understand, while ultimately providing very little intellectual payoff.

As I see it, the points that Ede, Lunsford, and Bartholomae make are fairly simple. Ede and Lunsford argue that a writer’s audience changes depending on the context. Bartholomae argues that students learn to write by mimicking the conventions of academic discourse, which may at first result in clunky writing but will hopefully lead to mastery. I find neither of these arguments to be particularly controversial or complex, yet I’m profoundly confused by the fact that it took these authors 15 and 28 pages, respectively, to outline them at all. This points to one of the most persistent problems I have noticed within academia: an opposition to – or perhaps an inability to produce – plain, easy-to-read language.

Bartholomae in particular is doing some egregious work here. He writes that a distinguishing feature of amateur writing is its tendency to “[move] quickly into a specialized language ([an] approximation of our jargon)” (137). Here, his use of “our” betrays the fact that Bartholomae believes academics – the group to which “our” ostensibly refers – have and use a specific “jargon” that remains inaccessible to outsiders, at least at first. Bartholomae then goes on to spend a large portion of his essay laying out the gap between the kind of thinking and writing that amateurs do and the kind of thinking and writing that academics do, a gap that he argues has to do with the roles that writers imagine for both themselves and their audience. Yet Bartholomae seemingly spends no time examining how academic writing itself widens this gap by descending into needless complexity, even when concerned with what should be simple ideas. A student struggling to attain a voice of expertise can’t hope to succeed when expertise is, in this case, tied to highly complex language that may not be accessible to the student themselves. To put it another way – how can a writer “invent” an audience that understands the conventions of the discourse community they are attempting to join when that very writer cannot understand these conventions?

None of this is to say that I am against complexity in writing. I think that sophisticated, nuanced language can be a joy to read and write, and it’s useful in many contexts – some academic, some not. Highly technical, field-specific language can be found everywhere from sociology papers to microwave instruction manuals, and without such specificity audiences would not be able to pick up on the fine connections that they are asked to make. What I’m against is complexity for its own sake. I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished a reading for a college course, sat back, mulled it over for a moment, and thought to myself, “Was that all they were trying to say?”

Language is inherently linked to ideas, and in order to have complex ideas one must be able to access complex language. But Bartholomae, Ede and Lunsford would do well to remember that not every idea produced within academia is complex by virtue of being academic – and the language used to mediate an idea for an audience does not always have to leap for such complexity.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a dangerous lie

Mark Gaipa! This week’s reading by him was the first academic article I’ve ever read that includes cartoons. They do a great job of relaying the visual metaphor Gaipa sets forth: academic discourse as a huge ballroom in which students have a number of options for engaging with commentators and critics. I appreciate Gaipa’s clarity regarding the methods by which students can enter the conversation – like the templates in They Say/I Say, Gaipa proves that the imposition of standard writing practices can often lead to genuinely creative and interesting work. However, Gaipa’s good points are undermined by the troubling implications of his basic premises, particularly his goal of making clear to students “the reality of competition in the marketplace of ideas” (421).

I have to admit I rolled my eyes when I read this phrase. It feels like the intentional application of the logic of capitalism to the world of thought and writing. Here Gaipa is implying that all new academic ideas are necessarily in competition with each other, and that only the freshest, most innovative ideas will rise to the top of the marketplace. I do recognize that academia is a capitalist field, and that academics compete with each other for jobs, grants, awards, spots in publications, and numerous other accolades and resources. I also recognize that being challenged by the ideas of other scholars is a good thing, as it forces academics to reflect on and sharpen their own work. But what concerns me about Gaipa’s view of ideas is that he fails to recognize that this capitalist logic is constructed rather than inherent, and more importantly, that it is currently ruining the American higher education system.

Gaipa appears to buy wholeheartedly into the image of “the marketplace of ideas,” and he spends the rest of his article setting forth ways for students to “win” in this marketplace, which he sees as a question of developing the most original ideas. But intellectual newness for its own sake should not be the goal of academic discourse. If the development of academic ideas is seen as a competition, students will be led to place value on their ideas in terms of the originality of these ideas and not their actual intellectual content. By following Gaipa’s advice, students may very well end up believing they should throw their efforts only into those ideas that have never been proposed before – even if those ideas are flimsy, harmful, or irrelevant. This creates an academic environment in which setting oneself apart becomes more urgent that taking the time to reflect on the real significance of one’s work.

Gaipa’s invocation of “the marketplace” also implies that ideas are commodities, and that some of these commodities inherently have higher value than their competitors. As stated earlier, Gaipa’s understanding of an idea’s value seems to be linked to its originality, which, while important, should not be the main arbiter of whether or not an idea is worth pursuing. Beyond this, however, the commodity-based view of ideas is dangerous in that it suggests a relationship of ownership over specific ideas. This seems to contradict even Gaipa’s understanding of academic discourse, which he frames as necessarily a conversation among a group of scholars all invested in exploring a particular topic. No single idea in academia has arisen from the work of just one person, yet Gaipa seems to believe that scholars can somehow stake a claim to a particular idea as long as they are the first person to publish something about it. Gaipa’s ballroom is not a place of conversation, but an auction house, crowded with academics all trying to out-think each other and win intellectual prestige for themselves alone.

It is this shallow, hyper-competitive, results-focused attitude towards scholarship that Gaipa tacitly endorses with his article, and to the detriment of academia today, it is also this attitude that is gaining influence over academic culture and practice. The phrase “publish or perish” has become ubiquitous in the world of scientific research, reflecting the pressure that many professors face to publish anything at all, even if its actual scientific significance is extremely limited. This has led to the huge proliferation of for-profit scientific journals that will publish any and all submitted articles for a fee, often with not even a pretense of peer review. Given the rise of pop science and clickbait journalism, researchers are also pressed to generate big, flashy results that can be summed up in a catchy headline – the kind of results that usually only emerge after decades of minuscule findings in a highly specific area of focus. While these phenomena are mostly limited to science, all areas of academia are affected by the increasingly more popular commodity-based view of education. Many higher education administrators now see their students as customers to whom they must sell a compelling product, which forces professors to sideline their own research interests in order to respond to the demands of “the marketplace.” As for students, we end up being taught that innovation should be prized above all else, and that doing work that can be monetized is more important than doing work that is challenging, gradual, and socially aware.

This model of academia is unhealthy, anti-intellectual, and ultimately unsustainable. Even Gaipa admits that “this vision of scholarship—as a competition for original ideas—seems ruthless” (422), yet offers no foray into how that ruthlessness arose in the first place or how it is affecting academia today. I believe that probing this conspicuous gap in Gaipa’s argument can not only expose the deep problems in our current capitalist understanding of scholarship, but also lead us towards a different vision of it altogether, one that may require more effort to attain but that will result in widespread benefit beyond the walls of the academy.