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.

What’s so bad about correcting grammar anyway?

Reading Moussu’s piece made me think about how I would react if my Spanish professor tried to critique the content of something that I wrote without giving me suggestions to improve my grammar. I’m taking a Spanish class because I want to learn how to communicate in Spanish, not because I would like to learn how to structure an argument. Because what is the point of learning the latter if my argument is incomprehensible or unclear? At the end of the day, the biggest obstacle in the way of communicating in a language that one is not proficient in just might be something lower down on the writing center’s hierarchy.

Moussu speaks of “the ‘cultural’ gap that existed and still exists today between practices in ESL programs and those in writing centres.” I think this gap is important to point out because it indicates the audience, and therefore the priorities of that audience, that writing centers typically cater to. The hierarchy that places the depth of ideas above mechanics should not be taken as universal; it simply is the case that most non-ESL students who attend the writing center don’t have trouble communicating their ideas relatively effectively even if there are grammatical mistakes, so it makes sense to focus more on improving what the paper is actually saying. But many of these readings have spoken about a writing center “philosophy” that universalizes this hierarchy; this philosophy in fact rigidly centers the writing center around proficient English speakers and therefore dismisses the needs of ESL students as secondary.

At the end of the day, the classroom itself is where ideas should be developed and interrogated. The primary job of the writing center is to help students with writing, and though that may mean helping students with ideas (since, after all, what is writing if not the communication of ideas?), as far as I know there really is no other place that students can go if they need help with mechanical problems. Additionally, I am suspicious of objections by writing centers to heed to grammatical errors in student writing, especially concerning ESL students, because to me such objections appear to be grounded in an elitist conception of writing—”we’re too good for grammar”—where it is assumed that students are proficient enough in Standard Written English that it does not make sense for them to prioritize instruction in mechanics. It is important for writing centers to be equipped with the tools needed to aid all students of different abilities and backgrounds, which means undoing the universalization of writing center philosophies of prioritization.

Listen and Talk to Each Other

Based off of Diab et al.’s article, it is clear that before any sort of anti-racism pedagogy or oppression fighting can begin in Writing Centers, Writing Center Directors and College Administrators needs to have a talk. This talk should also include some stakeholders such as professors and student tutors and tutees. It is clear that the mission and philosophy of Writing Centers are ever changing as new research is published and as the demographics of people the Writing Center helps also changes. So too does the mission of college and universities across North America. Through these conversations, the purpose of the Writing Center will be known to administrators, professors, and students alike and will likely align better with the mission of the college/ university. There will be less confusion about what the writing center does, when to recommend a student to got to the writing center, and reasons to make an appointment with the Writing Center.
Once everyone is on the same page, then Writing Centers can focus on a multidimensional pedagogy for racial justice and teach tutors to fight oppression during one-on-one meetings with students. Only then can such pedagogy be “processual and reiterative, reflective and attentive, and embodied and engaged” as Diab et al. suggests (p.2). Then, students and professors will also have clear expectations for the Writing Centers and there will be less time wasted on behalf of all parties.
As for ESL students, I liked that Moussu acknowledged that ESL students come from different backgrounds. Some students learned English since grade school in their home country and passed a test, others came to America to learn English, and still others have been taught to speak English in American schools but speak a different language at home. Moussu goes further when she says, “Factors such as affective variables, first language, age, language practice, educational levels, motivation, and sociocultural variables also in influence students’ language-learning skills, experiences, strategies, and attitudes toward writing, as well as their learning styles,” when she speaks to the diversity among ESL students (p. 57). I truly appreciate that she acknowledges that a one size fits all approach to ESL students in Writing Centers will not work. Going back to a point that I made last week, it seems that a good approach to ESL students would involve flexibility, both on behalf of Writing Centers and its staff and professors.
After reading this week’s readings, I am left wondering how writing centers and, more specifically, Pomona’s Writing Center plans on tackling such big issues. Racial justices, fighting oppression, and adding teaching methods for ESL students, not to mention the other things writing centers must tackle based off previous weeks’ readings. What can students do to help?

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?

Moussu and ESL Student Tutoring

I think Moussu’s article on ESL needs and writing center philosophy is interesting because of its attention to the struggles that ESL students face when being tutored. Specifically, in the beginning of his article, Moussu states that ESL students believe they are meant to be taught how to properly structure their writing, and how to use proper grammar. However, Moussu notes that this is inconsistent with the North’s axiom that commonly guides writing center mission; about how the writing center’s mission to make better writers, not better writing. But, as Moussu points out, this is not the main concern of ESL students: further, he recognizes how teachers place importance upon the mission to teach ESL students structure and grammar, of which is divergent from the compositional instruction they received beforehand. Moussu illustrates how many ESL students prefer this teaching through a style of “authoritative linguistic feedback” because they are used to this emphasis upon authority in education, which directly correlates to the instruction they wish to receive about grammar and structure during a consultation (58). However, this juxtaposes the mission of writing centers, which are supposed to give voice to the writer, and explore their ideas about their papers.

And, in my opinion, this is where Moussu gets interesting, because his article diverges away from any other text we’ve read thus far. Moussu acknowledges this emphasized importance that writing centers notice grammatical and structural inconsistencies in an ESL student’s papers, to then teach these students how to become more critically understand English writing standards.

“For example, basic grammar rules and terminology, as well as key principles of second-language acquisition can be taught and discussed with tutors so that they gain a better understanding of the language-learning process and the unique writing difficulties that ESL students face” (63).
It is important to note that by acknowledging this point, he also recognizes that to accomplish this endeavor, tutors must also be taught the “key principles of second-language acquisition”, because this will empathetically guide their processes whilst teaching ESL students.

However, if I’m not missing something from this article (and correct me if I’m wrong), does it not seem counter-intuitive to teach ESL students the things they most desire to learn in this seemingly described sympathetic manner? What mannerisms should be enacted in the tutoring session, considering most ESL students, as Moussu points out, desire an authoritarian teaching style? If not authoritarian mannerisms, how do you gain and retain credibility with an ESL students? I’m curious to hear some replies about experiences some tutors have had with ESL students, and whether or not they had to take more direct approaches to tutoring context and grammar, what they placed emphasis upon, and whether or not this had an effect on making this student a better writer vs. giving them better writing?

Editing Lin(e)ville by Lin(e)ville

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” — Native American or Chinese proverb

Fishing, in this case, is writing.

Linville aligns herself with the popular Writing Center philosophy that “teaching students to become effective self-editors is…vital” since it’s a formative and transferrable process that continues long after a student has walked out the doors of the classroom or tutoring space (117). In terms of the ESL framework that she later addresses, Linville takes takes this to mean that “tutors need strategies for spotting patterns of reoccuring errors, pointing those patterns out too the student, and providing rules about how to correct those errors” — which is easier said than done, given that “tutors will need resources beyond their native knowledge of English to carry out these tasks” (117). So… before we can teach someone to fish, we need to learn how to teach a someone to fish.

Linville’s paper is refreshing because she provides concrete examples of the most common and important errors as well as theoretical scenarios to which one may apply specific tutoring strategies.

As an ID1 intern, I’ve met with the same set of students over the course of several essay waves, so I’ve been fortunate to see their writing progress throughout the semester — which is equally the case for the one ESL student as it is for all the other native English speakers. Having read Linville’s paper on specific strategies that pinpoint grammar errors, however, I realized that I had focused just as little on the mechanics of writing with Lea (the “name” of our ESL student here) as I had with the native speakers. I saw them all as equals whose struggles on higher-order writing (ideas and higher structure) were more of a priority than their spelling and subject-verb agreement. So I thought recently… in trying to be fair to everyone, was I really being unfair to Lea?

That is not to say, of course, that I had never addressed mechanical, lower-level issues during my meetings. Quite the contrary, in fact.

As an ID1 intern, I also have the special privilege of reading and scribbling comments on students’ papers prior to meeting with them. I understand that, like all the other writing tutors, I’m no copy-editor; however, if I come across small bits to fix, then I do so and sometimes add a quick comment explaining the grammatical reasoning if it’s a recurring error. But in the actual meeting with the student, I direct the conversation almost exclusively to higher-level thinking and writing — in the spirit of our Writing Center’s philosophy, of course! For Lea’s papers, there are of course more areas to fix grammatically. However, I simply apply the same process to her paper as I would for any other, and we talk mainly about content or structure rather than style or mechanical form during our meetings — once again, as I would for any other student. At this point, it’d be easy to conclude that I should simply fine-tune my feedback in a way that hones in on grammar more, but this puts me in another pickle. You see, we only have so much time…

The question is this: when working with ESL students in particular, how do we want to distribute the “type” of writing help we give (that is, form — in a grammatical sense — versus content) within the span of a single meeting? Drilling Lea with error-spotting and error-fixing practice would of course improve her grammar and spelling, but it would take away precious moments of potential idea-bouncing or thesis-tightening or higher order essay organization.

Maybe that’s why I’ve seen the ID1 students’ writing improve in terms of higher-level thinking and content — including Lea’s — yet, in truth, her writing on a mechanical level has remained relatively the same as it had been at the beginning of the semester. But on the flip side, focusing on grammar at least to an effective point — AKA teaching the student how to find the right bait — would risk turning the focus away from, well, teaching the student how to actually fish.

Luckily, Linville suggests, not just as a last resort but as a resort or resource in general, that writing tutors could “bring out the ESL referral sheet and point the student toward a class or lab that can help her learn the skills she needs” (122). This saves time, of course, but it also feels like a scapegoat for some reason. Maybe it’s an effective scapegoat, or maybe not, but it nevertheless feels like one. Reading the above sentence in Linville’s article also made me realize that Pomona doesn’t really have said “class or lab” geared toward ESL students. Hm…

My question, then, is this:

What are we doing now in our Writing Center to make space for ESL-directed tutoring pedagogy among Writing Partners/Interns and among students? And what is there more to do?

And, when we only have so much time during a meeting… what is the best way to guage, well, what to compromise? What’s the right ratio?

What really constitutes “domination” in a tutoring session?

“Instead of having her decide what to work on, I used my authority as a tutor to choose what we worked on,” Mara Brecht writes (305). According to her, this was a mistake that “left Kathy out of the process” (305) and simply imposed her own dominant ways of thinking. I found it interesting that, despite this self-critique, there was not a solution offered. The way it is written, the implied conclusion seems to be that, rather than deciding themselves, tutors should ask their students what they would like to work on.

But that solution would pose a problem as well. After all, Brecht did not reach the conclusion that she focused incorrectly on punctuation and capitalization because of something that Kathy said; she did so after witnessing Kathy’s progress, noticing that there were more pressing issues that hadn’t yet been addressed, and self-reflecting about how she picked capitalization and punctuation because it was easier than other issues that would have been more challenging to address. Furthermore, Brecht writes herself that she asked Kathy what she wanted to work on, and did not receive an answer. Kathy may not have known what needed improvement in her writing, so it wouldn’t have necessarily made sense for the direction of the session to have come from her.

In my view, Brecht deciding what elements of writing Kathy should work on is not “domination” (or, for the sake of avoiding being challenged over semantics, if it is “domination” then domination is itself not the problem). At the end of the day even if Kathy were forced to make a decision about what to work on, she would have had to consult information external to her that she had previously encountered about what is most important about writing (and as we all know, nine times out of ten someone in Kathy’s position will have said “grammar”), and as such the idea of an authentic, student-led direction is a mere illusion.

What in my opinion is important insofar as how the power dynamic between tutor and student is shaped is the input of purpose from the student. For some students the purpose may be to get a good grade, and as such the tutor’s job is to examine the teacher’s criteria and give the student suggestions in order to meet the teacher’s expectations. For other students it may be to become a more versatile writer, for example to be able to write in an unfamiliar field. Some students may decide that their purpose is to fit better into academic discourses by developing their ideas and shifting their use of language. Some students (like myself when I decided to take this class) may just wish to “become better writers”, in other words to be able to better communicate their ideas in different contexts. After determining the student’s purpose, however, the tutor will generally have a much better idea of what the student should do to improve their writing for the sake of that purpose.

“I realize more and more that there is no neutral zone,” Mara Brecht writes (306). There is no neutrality and if the tutor wants to help the student as much as possible then they shouldn’t be weary of taking authority in some respects, but should also give authority to the student when it comes to determining the purpose of the session.

Double Contact

“Yet another of the benefits of tutoring,” Fitzgerald and Ianetta point out, “is learning how to build…relationships across the differences that result when we do not share identities” (137). This sentence reminded me of something I recently learned about in my Intro Psych class: the “contact hypothesis.” The contact hypothesis posits that when conflicting groups are forced to collaborate in the pursuit of common goals, each group’s attitude toward the other improves. In 1940, Gordon Allport suggested that the contact hypothesis could be used to minimize prejudice, especially if institutional support was provided and the contact was “of a sort that leads to the perception of common interest and common humanity between members of the two groups.”

In my Psychology class, the contact hypothesis was presented as a potential solution for racial discrimination. One study found that discrimination didn’t cease after schools were desegregated; it was reduced only when students were were forced to collaborate. After reading Fitzgerald and Ianetta, I realized that the contact hypothesis applies to all relationships between groups who “do not share identities.” These relationships may not be fraught, but implicit prejudice or stereotyping often remain, whether because of differences in race, gender, nationality, or ability. The writing center is special in that it serves not only as a “contact zone” in which “student and tutor [can] meet and clash; a space in which to try on language and form without the fear of failure” (137, quoting Baker), but as a site of “contact” in the sense of the contact hypothesis, where members of two groups can work together in the pursuit of a common goal.

Of course, the idea of acculturation complicates this vision of the writing center in certain cases. I don’t know how I feel about the idea of “faking” academic discourse (as mentioned by Baker on page 281); although I grudgingly agree with Bartholomae that student writing is largely an act of appropriation, something about explicitly encouraging students to “fake it” makes me uncomfortable. I think instead we should focus on the idea of multilingualism. Fitzgerald and Ianetta bring up multilingualism in the context of ESL students; I would argue we should think of academic discourse as another language, like English or Spanish or American Sign Language, to be mastered alongside the other languages each student speaks. Multilingualism is tricky, as anyone who has studied another language knows. That’s why the contact zone and the respite it provides from fear of failure are so important. So perhaps what I’m advocating for is a writing center characterized by “double contact”: both that of the contact zone and that of the contact hypothesis.

Where do they find all of these student authors?!?!

I apologize for this post as it is nothing more that a barely coherent (or perhaps that is too generous of a description) rant about Baker (ft. a throwback to Nelson). But as I hobble towards the finish line that is the end of the semester (or I suppose it is more accurately a water break… I am still far from graduation, if that even is the “finish line” of this metaphor anyways), I can’t help but express my shock and confusion about the tutoring program at University of Michigan—Flint that Baker describes.

WHY DO THEY HAVE THEIR TUTORS WORK WITH THE SAME STUDENTS FOR FOUR HOURS A WEEK AND GRADE THOSE STUDENTS PORTFOLIOS?!?! That is, from my perspective, an alarming amount of authority to give students. As English 109 tutors, they have more scheduled contact with the students than the teacher does. Moreover, by requiring tutors to grade student papers, UMich Flint is further giving the tutor the role of the professor. Even with more extensive tutor training I would still feel very unqualified to tutor in this way—being a professor requires AT LEAST an undergraduate degree and maybe a few years of experience! It seems completely inappropriate that the university would put students (regardless of how long they’ve been at UMich) in such a position.

I feel like this system is unethical on the university’s behalf: they identify students who are “basic writers” (Also what does that even mean?! I’m not really ok with that description…) and then leave them even farther behind by not providing adequate help. The students who need the most help in writing should probably be helped by the most qualified professors… not peer tutors who haven’t even graduated themselves. Just a thought.

And while I’m ranting, I figured I might as well throw some frustration towards Nelson. Because I am still not over the amount of time she was able to dedicate to a single paper. Who is this woman? Does she have a time turner? If so, where can I get one? I am certainly jealous of the time that she is able to spend writing—I would feel so much more satisfied with my college experience if I could actually realize my envisioned papers without the restrictive pressure of time. But beyond my jealousy, I am moderately resentful towards Nelson because of how un-relatable her experience is. As they are both writing as students, she and Baker should in theory write very relatable content. However, because their experiences of college writing are so different from mine, their similar position as college students just makes them feel even more unrealistic and un-relatable to me.

Sorry for the rant—I just felt especially disconnected from this reading because her representation of tutoring is just so far from my reality. I am still mildly in shock… Where do they find these people?!

Racial Justice and the Writing Center

This week’s readings really hit on a lot of insecurities I have as a Writing Partner.

First, to begin with Diab et. al, I really resonated with the example of the Writing Partner who has to help a student with a paper on outlawing bilingual schools. At the beginning of the semester, I had to help a student with a paper arguing against safe spaces on campus. My experience was a little different than the example given, because the student himself identified as a racial minority, and he had talked about his argument with his professor a lot, and nuanced it a lot. It was a thoughtfully constructed argument, but to me it was based in a premise that I just simply didn’t agree with. I also admit that I think it did influence my consultation with the student, in that I was simply less-engaged. It was my first consultation with someone who had different ideological beliefs than me, and I think that since then I have grown as a Writing Partner and am better equipped to deal with such a consultation. But that consultation was a learning curve for me, and I will admit that it made me uncomfortable.

At the same time, I don’t know if it would have been my place to say to the student that I didn’t agree with his idea and therefore he should change it. He had discussed it in-depth with his professor and had obviously put a lot of work into the idea. I’m unsure about exactly how much Diab’s article advocates for Writing Partners to actually work to change their student’s minds. Specifically about the example the authors give about the student who is advocating for outlawing bilingual schools, Diab et al writes 4 points that the tutor can ask the student to evaluate: “(1) the warrants that inform the argument; (2) the implications of the causal chain he constructs among immigration, English, school dropout rates, and criminal activity; (3) the subsequent image of the Mexican immigrant his argument constructs; and (4) the impact–intended and unintended—on Latino/as in his class, in the writing center, and in other locations as well” (Diab et al 5). I think a lot of these questions are very pointed, and while perhaps useful in a debate about bilingual schools, is the Writing Center really the place for this?? I don’t know.

Obviously, I want to make our campus a safe place for everyone, but I’ll admit that I DO prioritize minority viewpoints because of historical and (let’s be honest) current-day discrimination and alienation. BUT I also am unsure whether the Writing Center is the place for this kind of ideological questioning. The fact is, as a woman of color I am TIRED of educating people about these kinds of things. It’s so important but I really can’t, for my own mental health, do this kind of educating ON TOP of my regular work in the Writing Center. If someone comes in with an essay, I’m going to work on improving that essay and not on changing their ideological beliefs. Yes, I will be critical of all their ideas whether they line up with my own or not, but solely with the intent to help improve the arguments and ideas in the paper.

I think Diab et al are asking too much of student Writing Partners, and too much of one consultation. I would not have felt comfortable asking that student writing against safe spaces to change his mind, because I think he was constructing a thoughtful argument rather than a racist raving. I think the greatest issue with Diab et al’s argument is that they do not make this distinction. It is ok to question someone’s argument if it simply is one-sided and has not been thought-through. But if this is not the case, then what is our role??