Saturday, September 08, 2007

Trial Run

My first attempt at being a writing tutor was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I had it in my mind that I would have the opportunity to shadow a session or two before I was thrown to the wolves, in a sense. However, that just wasn’t in the cards. My first day on the job, I was given two ESL students who had small assignments due the next morning. I tried to remember every little tip that Dr. Rogers, Claire and the other leaders at the training session had taught us over the last two and a half weeks; and yet, I still felt like there were some things that I was neglecting. I asked them their names, where they were from, how school was going and any other little chit-chat I could think of as I got them logged into the computer, hoping that they weren’t aware of my nervousness of the situation. I quickly discovered how difficult it truly is to know something and try to explain it to somebody else in a way that they could easily understand. As I quickly scanned their papers, first at the introduction and then to the conclusion, I realized that they seemed to grasp the concepts of what a good introduction and conclusion were supposed to be. It also seemed to me that they understood the concept of a well defined paragraph and I did my best to let them know that I had noticed those things and that they had done them well.
However, some of the simple grammatical and punctuation rules that I have been taking for granted for years were throwing them off and I couldn’t for the life of me explain to them why it was wrong and try to teach them how to do it correctly. My thoughts returned to that little game we played in our training session called, “deep but not profound” and how very frustrated I got when I couldn’t figure out how the game was supposed to be played. I tried very hard to help them see their mistake and help them to learn without actually giving them the answer. I soon found out how very easy that is to say and yet how very hard that is to do.
The most common mistake that I’ve seen so far was the use of the semicolon. Both students that I worked with had used the semicolon exhaustively. Sometimes, their use of the semicolon was correct and sometimes, it was wrong. After talking with Chris Bentley, one of our seasoned veterans, I realized that ESL students love to use the punctuation marks that they have just studied in class. So, I wondered if that was why I was seeing so many semicolons throughout their work. I noticed that I had forgotten to keep the paper and the pen in their hands, though. I had automatically taken control of the session and while I think I helped the students learn about grammatical rules and I helped them improve their papers, I had accidentally stepped over “the line”. I knew from the beginning that I was going to struggle with that and I had proven myself to be correct. I am going to have to make a mental “check list” and put that at the top of my list. I think that this area will only get better for me as I do it more. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”.

Friday, September 07, 2007

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

A Wednesday night, to be exact. In retrospect, it really wasn’t stormy, and daylight would last for at least another hour. Cameron and I were faithfully sentrying the writing center, and although the first hour was quiet, we jumped at every electric hiccup in the lights.

“So, you wanna take the first one?”

I was impressed by my co-sentry’s foresight. For some reason, the thought of actually tutoring someone hadn’t occurred to me.

“Sure. My last shift was pretty slow. No one came in, and we spent half the time talking about koalas.”


“You’d have to be there to understand.”

Time continued to drain, hiccup by hiccup, tick by tock. By the time the next hour had passed, Cameron and I had already discussed metaphysics, aesthetics, apologetics, ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, and several other disciplines canonized by contemporary scholars of philosophy. We still disagreed as to whether C-C-V was a legitimate phonotactics paradigm, but with fifty-eight minutes to nine o’clock, we had great hopes in reaching a resolution.

But then the light was blocked. Someone was in the doorway.

A tutee?

Spinning wildly on our computer chairs, we saw that the mysterious door-shadow was Claire, the writing center coordinator. She was making a friendly visit to ensure that we hadn’t lit anything on fire, and seeing that the writing center still had four walls and a ceiling, she soon left to take care of some other obligations.

Yet, twenty minutes later, the light was blocked again.

“Umm. Hi, is this the writing center?”

Great Strunk and White’s ghost! A real tutee! Bidding her welcome, scanning her wildcard, taking her information, I joined her at a table. My first session, I realized in excited horror, was about to begin.

“We certainly appreciate you dropping by. Could you tell me a little about your assignment?”

She produced her syllabus, and we read the professor’s expectations.

What happened next was a blur. When I returned to full consciousness, Cameron, Claire, and another SSC employee were staring at me, asking me to shut down my computer so they could go home. Yet, over the past couple days, I’ve had time to reflect on those forty minutes—which, I know, is double a normal session—and like an amnesia victim, attempt to reconstruct what happened.

I think the session began surprisingly well; a smile and a corny joke broke the ice, and the tutee seemed comfortable talking about her writing concerns. However, I think my biggest struggle was prioritizing. In our textbook, Macauley made planning for a session seem relatively simple, but considering how fast those minutes trickle away, prioritizing is, in reality, wickedly difficult. Setting a hierarchy of importance is only part of the challenge; even more difficult is deciding how much time to spend on each writing concern.

Perhaps the solutions to such quandaries will come only with experience. As Wingate says, every session is different, so tutors must learn how to adapt themselves quickly to circumstances. That ability to adapt, I suppose, will likewise come only with experience.

At the end of our time together, I asked the tutee what had helped her the most during the session. “Reading the syllabus,” she said. “I was really confused about this paper, but reading the syllabus actually answered most of my questions.”

I slapped my forehead. Hopefully, something in the other thirty-nine minutes had been helpful as well. In the dark and stormy nights to come, I am left to wonder how many writing concerns will be resolved by helping a tutee understand the assignment itself.

*bangs head on desk*

I would have to say that being a tutor was harder than I thought. I guess that gung-ho, dive in head-first thing wasn’t perhaps the best idea, but then again, when is it? I got to tutor three tutees so far, though I suppose it would technically be more 2.5 since Claire helped me with one of them. I seem to have the invariable joy of experiencing the best and the worst of many things.

One of the things I’m immediately aware of is how difficult it is to explain things grammatically. I don’t suppose I should be too surprised, all things considered, but it’s still hard to deal with. For some of the ESL students, I was trying to copy Sam and explain why I’m correcting things, but more often than not I found myself saying “I’m changing this because, well, that’s just how we do it,” and all the variations of that. I guess I still have a lot to learn about being a Writing Center tutor.

Another thing that I’ve found myself doing, especially today during English 3840, is that I scan the paper and I finish quickly, but by the end I come to the chilling realization I don’t remember anything that I just read. I don’t know whether it’s lack of sleep, or zoning out, or some rare mental disease I have, but I guess I’m just skimming the paper and not really digesting any of it, in the interests of saving time. As a result, I keep worrying that I’m not actually helping the tutee, just saying a bunch of encouraging words but keeping all their organization and overall things completely untouched simply because I can’t recall any of it.

I also seem to be talking too much, and I keep wondering whether I’m overtaking the session. I seem to draw a blank whenever I try to give an example or alternate, and just give one (which is eagerly snapped up by the tutee). Sometimes I also seem to be searching for words that would be more succinct or direct than what the tutee wrote, and I correct myself a bit too, making me wonder if the tutee is thinking: “WTF is he doing?” I keep wondering if I’m trying to be too nice, so I never give the tutee the help he/she actually needs, just acting like a cheerleader.

But at least, according to Claire, I’m keeping my cool and calm (while flailing around mentally not knowing what I’m doing AT ALL), so I guess I can hide my complete and utter lack of any confidence with an unperturbed smile. So at least I’m maintaining my professionalism, and hopefully my underdeveloped cheek muscles are making my mouth look more like a smile than a grimace.

I keep wondering whether I’m over thinking this, and doing reasonably well (for a new tutor) or even better. I’d like to say that I’m saying new stuff and panicking over things previous tutors have never done, but I have this lurking suspicion that’s not the case.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Ignore The Time-Stamp On This

It looks like the first round of tutoring sessions are starting to take place and that some of you are starting to get your feet wet. Gina's post about her first sessions got me thinking that maybe it might be interesting to hear from you about how your sessions are going so far. I don't want to be too touchy-feely, but I like the idea of hearing a bit of reflection about those sessions.

More specifically, I imagine that you're all a bit hyper-aware of yourselves in those sessions (Am I taking over? Am I talking too much? I have no idea how to explain this little bit of grammar!), and with that in mind, here's your next blog-prompt:

What do you think is going well about how you tutor? What do you think you need to work on? Was it easier than you thought? Harder? Were the papers what you expected?

Burning the Fondue

My fears are of course that I will look totally stupid the the tutee. I actually had my first two tutoring sessions today…big day for me. I hope their papers get better. How upset would they be if they made the changes I suggested and received a worse grade. That reminds me of a time where (and my mother will officially hate me for this) my mother basically wrote a paper for my little brother when he was in seventh grade and when Brandon brought it back home he was livid because the teacher gave him a D. That was the day the whole family became convinced that the teacher wasn’t even reading the paper. Brandon was a slacker, but he deserved a teacher who was willimg to read what he wrote and grade accordingly and not jus tassume he didn't try. I don’t know. Maybe the teacher knew mom had written it and was trying to be funny, but it didn’t seem like it.
One of the students I helped came in with a research paper and the writing was already a pretty decent writer, even for a rough draft, so it was interesting trying to improve the paper. Actually, and this is embarrassing, the student made the same mistakes that I tend to make. I suggested he turn his over use of questions into statements and defining the “its” of the papers in hopes that it will ground his research in the paper. Thank you Dr. Rogers, those were all tips you gave to me. At first I was nervous, but I sort of just fell into it. One thing I will say is that I know I did way too much talking. How to engage them without giving them all the answers is a tough question. Because just telling the student what to fix is easy. The best thing it seems is to give the student some main pointers and hope they carry that into other papers. I was looking at some citing today and I didn’t know if it was correct or not. Note: look at my Writer’s Manual. I was actually kind of proud of myself. I didn’t have some panicked moment full of um…um…ums. And thank god. I just want to at the very least seem like I know what I’m saying…just some validity to what I am trying to fix. My very first student was an ESL and I found myself, as I thought I would, fixing grammatical errors that I could not explain. “The word “by” just needs to be there, okay?” I did wing one pretty well when the student asked why college wasn’t plural in the sentence “They went to college.” And I related it to school and how school isn’t plural even though there might be more than one student because there is no specific number of schools, but instead school is more of a general idea.
My fears are still a concern, but less of one now that I’ve gotten two session under my belt. Now I’m just waiting for someone with fifty pages to walk in wanting a brief look over. I did get a little advice about how to deal with those which is to look at the first and last paragraph and if there is time look at the first sentence of each paragraph to make sure the paper flows. I remember trying to apply the papers we have read so far. Not crossing boundaries, but keeping the student comfortable and trying not to talk too much and overwhelm them. I think this goes double for ESL students and if they have particularly good wording let them know. I think they get excited when it is noted that they are grasping the language well. And English really is a brutal language.

Okay and real quick because it is totally unrelated, but I’m watching the first season of Extras, Ricky Gervais’ new show (creator of The Office) and it is brilliant!


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

So a pen and a paper walk into a bar…

Or at least it’s what the title should have been for the collaborative book in my Creative Writing class, Senior Year of high school. Instead it was, “Black on White.” To avenge the title-that-would-have-been, I took out a pink pen (being my enemy-color, it felt like double-vendetta) and scribbled over said-lame-title, dubbing it, “Pink on Toast.”

What are we supposed to talk about? I took a course in Japanese last fall, and I hated it! Alphabet, sentence structure; it’s about as polar-English as you get. The instance I learned that I actually had no interest in memorizing the all the sounds in the language written in hiragana was the instance I learned something else. I love English, with an admittable over-fondness for the anal details of structure and a passion for the unlimited word choice… etc. (God bless you, etc!) I am ready to embrace my language-bias and practice an almost supremacist intolerance for the other ones. Let the long and fruitful reign of English totalitarianism begin in the world of Rachel.

That said; the point is…I forgot, and whatever it was should probably be my biggest fear. You find that being good at writing and teaching good writing is completely different. I’m afraid I let my ego get the better of me in this respect, and did not even consider the more pivotal role of teaching when applying as a tutor. Everything in tutoring, if one considers intuition being the key and catalyst, is scary. I hope I’ll make a good fit.

I know! I just use really big, four-syllable words, and everyone will be impressed! Ambidextrous…wow…Haiku artists in other countries would go nuts if they only knew how big our words can get all by themselves. If anyone agrees that the National Enquirer is a reliable source of information, raise their hand. If you didn’t, I can only say I’m disappointed. While other medias in America only lie half the time, at least you know the Enquirer is lying all the time, and that’s reliable!

Okay, that wraps it up. What are the key points of this essay?

  • Hate lame titles
  • Love English with an almost-scary attitude
  • Biggest fear: inadequacy
  • National Enquirer rocks

As a tutor I would say there’s definitely…something in this essay, but that something needs work. Class dismissed.

"Oh, Seaweed set me free!" ('Hairspray' songs stuck in my head yet again)

I’ve decided that my goal for this semester is to reply to the question first every week. Not for the “win” of it, but because if I were to wait, like I have done with this blog, I’ll have to read everyone else’s brilliant thoughts and have that nervous feeling of sounding redundant or dumb. I’d like to make it a point, however, in saying that I’m officially hooked on Michael’s script! I’m pulling for Meta-Michael!

Yet, unlike Meta-Michael, I’m nervous AND fearful about tutoring… and about how I am going to fill out the next 500 words!

I did some tutoring in high school. So, I shouldn’t be nervous, right? I’ve done this before! But I am nervous. I’m afraid that someone will hand me a paper and it’ll be so brilliant that my mind can’t simply wrap around it’s brilliantness (I’ve just decided that was a word :)). I may not understand the paper’s meaning, but is that because it’s brilliant or because I’m not intellectual enough to grasp the writer’s meaning?

Then there’s the ever present worry of grammar. The only 7-lettered 4-letter word I know. As mentioned in class, if I see something wrong, I’ll be able to tell the writer “Ok, this doesn’t sound right, but this will help...” but I won’t be able to say why. This could either help me because I won’t confuse the tutee with words they don’t understand either, or it could make me seem like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Lindsey said my feelings best when she said “I am afraid of ruining a session”. I want to help the tutee, but what if I end up making them more confused? What if I tick the tutee off with my suggestions? How do I know when I’ve over-stepped my boundary? How do I know when I under-step it? What if I mistake the tutee’s body language? What if they really want me to keep helping them, but I think they really want me to back off? Or vice-versa? What if I ask for help so many times, Claire and Dr. Rogers will take me aside and say “I’m sorry, but you really need to be a tutee rather than a tutor.”?

Other than the feeling of being inadequate, I’m completely psyched about being a tutor! I’m an avid reader and I’m looking forward to seeing people’s thoughts on the same books I read in previous classes. I’m excited to read about experiences the writer’s had. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to help someone become a better writer, and thus enjoy English more. A far-fetched hope, I know, but a hope I have all the same.

I’m hoping I’ll have a corny, 50’s TV show ending to this semester. You know how in “I Love Lucy” or “Leave it to Beaver”, they come out saying “Ah, gee whiz, I should’ve thought more clearly about ---. But now I know now, I’ll never do it again!” Who knows, I may leave with a smile on my face, saying “Oh golly! I was so worried about grammar and not knowing what I’d say! Now I know that if I just take one step at a time, everything will turn out wonderful!” and with a smile and a wave, I’ll leave for my happily ever after.

Who knows, I did end up going over the 500 words. :)

Monday, September 03, 2007


I am afraid of ruining a session. My biggest fear is that I will totally ruin my first session, and no one will want me to tutor. I know that I am being dramatic, but I really do fear that I will completely go wrong with my first sessions. I do not want to mislead anyone. I might not know the correct answers, (and I know it is okay to ask someone) but I might think information is correct but what if I am wrong? I do not know all the different grammar rules, but if a writer asks, I do not want to teach something completely wrong. I also know that grammar should not be my main concern, but if a writer asks, I cannot ignore the request. I am also afraid that I will not understand what the writer is trying to accomplish. I will ask the writer what his or her goals are, what are some of the problems etc., but what if I do not know how to reach the goals or fix the mistakes myself? I do not want to misinterpret the writer, set off in a wrong direction, and confuse the writer. Along with that, I am afraid that I will not be able to express myself. Sometimes I have a really hard time with words, and I am afraid that I will not be able to state clearly what I mean. On paper, expressing myself is different because I can take my time and review what I wrote, but I only have twenty minutes with each writer. I do not want to spend half of that time trying to express a single concept. I think that is my biggest concern. Sometimes my friends will understand what I am saying, but people I barely know will not get what I am trying to teach them. I also have not taken many college English classes, so I might not know what to do with certain papers. I do not know the different rules for different papers, so I am scared I will not be able to help the writer at all. I especially do not know what to do with scientific papers. I do not know if they follow an English format or if they need a thesis. I have no clue what to look for. And, there are so many different ideas about resumes I do not know how to treat a resume. Different papers like that intimidate me. I am also unsure about organization. I had a very hard time with how to organize my English papers last year. My professor had to walk me through each paper. How am I supposed to help with a big topic like organization, if I cannot do it myself? Lastly, I am afraid that I will not be able to identify where the boundaries are. I want to be aware of where the different lines are, but I have a feeling that in an actual session, I will not be as concerned with the lines. But, that means that I may more easily cross them and overwhelm a writer. I may sound like I am a nervous wreck, but I really am not. These are just the different concerns I have. I will be a little scared in my first shift, but I think I will be okay. And, once I get working more, I think I will be more comfortable. Plus, my tutoring class will help me, and teach me a lot. I think the biggest reason for all of these fears is that I do not know what to expect. However, I am excited to find out what a tutoring session is like.