Saturday, November 15, 2008

More than subjects I've not known anything about, I've had writers in forms I was unfamiliar with. The most recent was a business proposal. Students in the business program must put together hypothetical business proposals. This is an indepth, well-researched proposal for a fictional business the writer would be interested in starting. The form is highly technical, area specific, with a great deal of convention involved in every aspect of the proposal. Specific headings, sub-headings, graphs, charts, citations, etc. I don't know anything about business proposals or the genre of the business proposal as a piece of writing. I can't tell a good one from a bad one. My approach is first of all to concentrate on the writing. Aside from the format, is the writing good? Is it cohesive? Is there anything that seems muddled or is otherwise unclear? Is this lack of clarity the result of poor syntax, etc, is it the result of unclear writing, or is the idea behind the sentence what is confusing? As far as the format is concerned, I look for anomolies and refer to the writer. Here you use bullet-points. Are you supposed to use bullet points? Is this a convention of the business proposal. Here you use contractions. Is this acceptable, or should the business proposal meant to be more formal in tone. Here is your research. How did you go about collecting this data? Was the source reliable? This method of citation is unfamiliar to me. Did the instructor tell you to cite materials this way? More often than not, in my experience, the writer knows the answers to these questions. What the writer needs is a fresh set of eyes from a person who hasn't been staring at the business proposal for the last three weeks. I see my job as catching potential errors and bringing them to the writer's attention. Whether the writer decides to change or preserve the paper is the writer's perogative. I'm just trying to catch potential problem spots and bring them to the writer's attention. I'm helping the writer correct his/her own mistakes. This is the best I can do, since I have no idea if these are mistakes or not, but I know consistancy is important to good writing and without understanding the mode, I can still find instances within the project where the project is not consistant with itself. Whether this matters or not, I have no idea. But I can bring it to the writer's attention and let the writer be the judge.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Recently we have had a rush at the writing center of bio-med students. Professor Hutchins assigned his/her entire class to take their papers into the writing center and have them looked over. I had the opportunity this week of tutoring a variety of students from his/her class who wrote on many different topics that I did not know anything about. The advantage to tutoring many of them is that after a couple I don't really need to wonder what the assignment is.

What I attempted to do was to focus on helping them with their writing. There was one instance in which one of the girls I tutored asked me questions about the subject matter. I told her that I was not the person to ask and referred her to her professor. She said that was probably a good idea and that she would talk to him.

The first time I got somebody who wrote on an unfamiliar subject I just tried to focus on mechanics. His paper was way too long for the assignment that he was given, and he wondered what he should cut out. I had no idea. He asked me at one point if I thought one of his paragraphs was really necessary. I bluffed and said something like, "If you don't think it is, then it probably isn't." I later told him that, "What you've gotta ask yourself, is what does the reader really need to know." I think this frustrated him more than it helped. He was mad because he came into the writing center to get help with shortening his paper, and the tutor that attempted to help him did not know enough about the subject matter to tell him what he could cut out. Wearing his shoes, I would have been upset. He must have thought that writing center tutors are omniscient, or really close to it. I am pretty close, but I don't know the specifics on the many different ways to download music.

I had another student this week from a nutrition class; a subject that I feel I know pretty well. We talked about what he wanted out of the tutoring session before starting. He told me that he didn't expect me to know anything about nutrition, but he wanted some help with his writing. If only all the students had that expectation. As a writing center tutor I think my main job is helping people to improve their ability to write. I do not think that we should be expected to know the ins and outs of music downloading or when someone should say "glycogen" instead of "glucogen," but I do think that I should be able to help with their writing in any case.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sadly...I Don't Know Everything...

There have been many instances in the writing center when students have come in with papers that seem to me written in a completely foreign language. The majority of these cases have been with students somehow involved in the health or medical majors. The long terms that seem to have one too many consonants in them are basically impossible for me to pronounce, much less define. However, as I have gone through these sessions, I have realized that it is largely unneeded for me to absolutely know what those terms mean (good thing too). The majority of the time, the paper in question still has many of the same stylistic and organizational problems that any English 1010 paper has, allowing the tutor to focus on more the writing aspect of the paper rather than the subject matter. However, whenever one of these sessions creep up, I always make sure to preface my advice by telling the student that I really have no experience in their discipline. Basically, if they have a question about the subject matter or expect me to know if each of their terms is used in the right context, they have come to the wrong place.
Unfortunately, it always seems that some sort of background knowledge is needed in order to understand the point of the paper. I usually ask the students what sort of audience they are supposed to be addressing, namely whether or not the people who will be reading this paper are already knowledgeable professionals in their fields or an ignorant bystander (like me). This especially becomes important, I have found, when students bring in papers for their English classes that are horribly convoluted with technical jargon and long terms that I have to skip over when I read aloud. I experienced a paper like this, when a mechanical major came in comparing automobile transmissions in his argumentative essay for English 2010. After reading the paper and still being unable to tell the difference between the two things he was arguing, I asked him if he thought that his teacher would be able to understand and follow his argument without having a background in the inner workings of cars. Realizing that his paper would probably go way over her head (just like it did mine) allowed him to see the logic in revising his paper so that it could be made clear for anyone to understand.
Although this approach might not work for papers that really are for professors who will know what the student means by their ten letter terms, for those papers that “cross over” into different academic fields, clarity is a must for understanding. Even if I don’t know exactly what the student means when they are discussing medical procedures for an illness I have never even heard of before, I can still find aspects within the paper that need improvement simply due to mistakes in writing. Although it is frustrating to not know everything, students have to be aware that writing center tutors are there to help with specific writing problems, not test whether or not their facts are right. Usually, if the mistake is blatantly obvious, I will point out to a student to double check their sources, but ultimately, the content of the paper is the responsibility of nobody else but the student’s.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Yesterday I had a paper from BioMed 1110 about Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). As the student read, I realized he used the phrase "Guillain-Barre Syndrome" in every sentence. When I mentioned to him that he could abbreviate it to GBS as I just did above, he explained that he had considered doing so but that he wanted to write it out so it would take up more space and therefore make his paper longer. I could sympathize with this, but he could have saved himself some carpal tunnel by abbreviating!

As we reviewed the rest of his paper, I had almost nothing constructive to say about the content. Luckily, he composed sentences with some skill, so I did not have to correct any punctuation or grammar. We ended up focusing on APA format, which also turned out to be easy because he had already showed his paper to his professor. She had taken the time to mark each one of his in-text citations. With all of that done, we looked at the References page. This was a mess. We pulled out the APA pamphlet from the Writing Center and covered a few of the entries. From there, he felt comfortable enough to take the pamphlet with him and finish formatting the rest.

Things got confusing when he asked me what I thought of the material he had covered. He asked a lot of questions, which made the session successful and interesting, but he wanted to know if his section on "Ethics" belonged. Wow. I did not know. I have never been a doctor or studied GBS (surprise, I know). I did not know if that section needed to be covered. So, I bluffed. I took a few minutes to read the paragraph silently to myself, rereading the last sentence several times to give my brain some time to think. Then, it came to me. He could combine the "Ethics" section with the "Etiology" section. Because the "Ethics" part talked about a possibility of the flu vaccine causing GBS (why do we have such an irrational fear of vaccines?), it would fit nicely with the other causes of the disease. So, that is what I suggested. He seemed impressed. I felt relieved.

On a side note, his last name is the same as my mother's maiden name, so we talked genealogy for a while. His family and mine both hail from California, so it looks as if I may have found a long lost cousin. I may have to drill my grandma on this before I can be sure.

Aquatic Ecology

I was originally going to write about the first paper I tutored that was in the unfamiliar subject of aquatic ecology. Honestly, that session was a lot of fun. The student was great to work with and I just explained that I wasn't familiar with his area of study, but that I was willing to work through the paper with him. He caught a lot of his own mistakes, I made some writing suggestions and I asked content questions as we went along. In the end it was beneficial for both of us, because I think he got a tighter paper, and I learned a ton about mercury in fish in Weber county. (Don't eat large quantities of fish from any rivers in this area.)

But I just got done tutoring the legions of BioMed papers and now I really feel out of my league! While it has been fun to learn about different types of diseases and problems you can have it's been hard to read through some of the language. They have used large medical terms that I usually just skip over when I am reading it out loud. The students generally think it's funny that I can't pronounce the terms, or that I choose not to pronounce the terms, and I don't mind making them smile. Even though some of the language was difficult, I did not have any problems recognizing writing that could profit from tightening. On one of the papers we worked through proper punctuation. I know it wasn't a paper on string theory, but my lack of knowledge on the subject matter did not hinder me from tutoring the writing of the student.

Sometimes I do have to be careful because I distract myself with wanting to ask questions. When people come in with such interesting papers and subjects I just want to know more. I get so curious about what they are writing. Today one of the papers was about a heart condition called a VSD. Through the whole thing I wanted to ask about its relation to ASDs, but there was a line waiting for tutors and I didn't want to get off track. I did allow myself to ask a couple of questions because I just get so curious! I stayed mostly on track with the one about breast cancer. (applause)

I think the best approach to take with unfamiliar subjects is to just tell the student that you may not understand everything about the text but you can help him/her with his/her writing. Questions are always helpful, and in many cases you can learn a lot from the student. Just be careful about that gray line where you moving from being the tutored to the tutee!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever submitted a blog this early in the week, but I’m leaving town on Friday. Yahoo! Let’s see if I can get my brain in gear…

I’ve tutored quite a few sessions with unfamiliar terminology, but I don’t know if I’ve had one with a completely unfamiliar subject. For a couple weeks there were oodles of nutrition papers, followed by a wave of health science research papers. I learned a lot that week. (I even had a student promise to bring in some Indian food. Still waiting.) Like Michelle, I’ve really enjoyed reading the variety of topics students choose to write about.

For me, the hardest topics are those that are VERY familiar. Who can forget the Obama vs. McCain deluge? I found myself making the same recommendations, asking the same questions, finding the same gaps. Not my best tutoring moments. Same goes for those universal, hot-button topics such as gun control, abortion, illegal immigration, etc. It’s hard not to become catatonic when they come in one after another.

I’m rarely left speechless (no secret), but there have been a few sessions wherein I’ve struggled. The first was with an English 955 student out at the Davis campus. I can’t say she didn’t warn me; her first words to me were, “I’m so sorry. My professor says I have an ING problem.” She didn’t lie. Her essay about love consisted of paragraph-shaped groupings of “ing” words: kissing, hugging, loving, holding, wishing, wanting, wailing. You get the picture. She did have an occasional full sentence, and I grabbed on to these like lifelines. I really didn’t know what to say or how to begin. But an essay is “a try,” right? My first strategy was to drown ourselves in words and conversation until I figured out the real strategy. I was trying desperately to get her to give me some idea of her thoughts on her topic while inside I was screaming, Gerunds! Millions of them! Present participles by the dozen! This is not an ING problem, it’s a talent!

The session lasted an hour and a half. Nobody was waiting in line to be tutored, and the student was in no hurry to go anywhere. We grouped the INGs into three clusters that fit loosely into her main ideas on love. Next we wrote complete sentences. Then we faced the INGs where they stood. I didn’t feel capable of addressing her imbedded writing practices, so I tacked another method on top. One process progressed thusly: produce gerund, construct sentence, cover the ING with a finger, place the word “to” in front. For example, “Kissing is such a good thing” became “To kiss is such a good thing.” She was thrilled; I felt completely inadequate.

Another session, also involving a 955 student, left me speechless for a completely different reason. This boy was terrified of me. I was working like crazy to get him to relax, or even look at me. As he read his paper his hands shook on the desktop; he actually had beads of sweat on his forehead. It wasn’t his palpable terror that silenced me, though. It was his essay on beauty. The writing was far from perfect, but he had such startling, poetic views that I actually thought I was going to bawl like a baby. It was one of the most heartfelt essays that I’ve read in my time as a tutor. My strategy consisted of a fake sneeze to cover the obvious tears in my eyes. Professional, eh? It also gave me just a moment to gather myself and find my words again.

Just keep smiling and nodding when asked a question....

Basically, I fake it... I get out my "I'm right because I'm wearing the name tag voice" and I tell them all sorts of things that probably aren't true.

Totally not serious here.

There are two subject matters that I enjoy tutoring for. First, any subject that I know a lot about. Often my enjoyment is spliced with random stomach spasms as I read untruths, arguments I totally disagree with, and other things that I just think shouldn't be said about this subject that I love, but I always enjoy them overall. I love reading the poly sci kids' essays, and I enjoy tutoring essays on my favorite books, concepts that I've written on, etc.

The second type of paper I like is the complete opposite. These are the papers that use words that look made up to me, talk about stuff that I was previously unaware anyone bothered talking about, or introduce completely foreign ideas, concepts and facts. I feel like I'm being paid to learn when I read papers like this.

Before I move on, I feel like I need to answer the question I just begged: If I love the papers about subjects I know a lot about and love, and I love the papers about things I know nothing about, what papers don't I enjoy tutoring? Well, to be honest, there aren't many that I don't enjoy to some extent, but in case of favorites, everything in between the 'unknown' and 'subjects I am passionate about' do not make my list of favorite subject matters to tutor. Moving on.

There are problems with both. On the subjects I know too much about, I always want to rewrite their papers. Hmm, did you know John Locke said something that might fit here? Have you actually read Marx, because I'm pretty sure he didn't actually say that. You're saying what about Obama and McCain? What do you mean Russia and Georgia are both to blame for the conflict? I honestly have to keep myself in check and pull back from their work.

For unfamiliar subject matters much of how the session goes depends on what the student wants. If they want grammar and flow, I can do that with only a vague idea about the subject. If they want logical arguments, well, then I pretend it's a reading comp section on the LSAT and try to figure it out as I go along. I can only think of once that I really had no idea what to say or do about a paper after reading it, because most I think writers explain their ideas in the paper adequately enough so as I go through I can work with the paper. The once that I didn't know what to do, it was honestly because nothing struck me as out of place in the paper, her grammar was better than mine, her flow made sense, even if the ideas were beyond me. Her paper might have been using basic vocabulary words wrong and I had no way of picking that up, but her ideas seemed solid, and I really didn't know what to tell her other than: "looks great! Maybe add a little more in your conclusion section. Thanks, come again."

And now that I've written about this, I have a feeling something is coming. I'll get my unfamiliar subject matter paper brought in by a belligerent student, and probably I'll have failed a test sometime earlier that day so I'll be feeling out of sorts anyways. It'll be fun...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Unfamiliar

Have you had students come in with topics you didn't know anything about?  Have you had sessions where you didn't know what to say?

What did you do?

Bad Doctors

My neck starts hurting a week ago Saturday. It is hurting worse on Sunday, still aches on Monday, and on Tuesday I run a fever. I go see the campus doctor Wednesday and he says he thinks its a virus and that I should stay away from people. He also explains that the neck ache may be a symptom of spinal meningitis(I spelled that right without the spell checker). The campus doctor doesn't stop there; he goes on to tell me that spinal meningitis can kill you in a day. He then explains that he doesn't have the equipment to know for sure whether its the fatal meningitis or not and says not to worry about it, just to stay away from people because I might be contagious.

Against his recommendations I worry about it. I go to another doctor that same day. The nurse that takes my blood pressure asks me what symptoms I have. I tell her my back and neck has been aching for the last few days, that I ran a fever the night before, and since the fever my nose has been a little runny. She writes it all down. Dr. CurlyHair comes in a few minutes later and says, "So Robert . . ." I hate being called 'Robert', "I hear you've had a sore throat and a runny nose. How long has this been going on." Sore throat? I didn't say anything about a sore throat.

I tell him its been going on a few days, but that I didn't have any sore throat just an achy neck, a high fever, and more recently a runny nose. He suggested that I get a lot of rest, and that I take some pain killer for my sore throat. What?! Then he asked me if I needed a note for school. I was irate. I explained to him that I didn't have a sore throat again, and that I thought that I may need to be tested for something more serious like spinal meningitis. He said that it was probably just a virus and no I didn't need to be tested for spinal meningitis. Spinal meningitis is a virus, stupid.

So I decided to wait it out. If I ran another fever I was going to go to the ER where they might take me a little more seriously. I didn't run another fever and my neck is feeling better so the campus doctor was probably right. It still bothers me that they didn't check though. I think doctors should be willing to go the extra mile just to disprove the worse. That's my story.