Saturday, September 05, 2009

Whew! This prompt is a little tougher than the one we wrote last week. Since I didn’t know how I would or should handle these situations I decided I had better consult the tutor orientation handbook. What a resource! I found all the answers to these most perplexing questions and decided, since I want to become a hard-core tutor, I would follow the “rules” it provides.

Before I get to that though, I will never have to suggest that a student completely start a writing assignment over. In order to have anything written down, some form of thought has been put into that writing, therefore making it impossible to start with nothing again. For example, the essays we have read in class have always had parts or ideas that will contribute to a better organized, more thorough paper. Unless an assignment hasn’t been followed at all, or the student wants to start the paper over, I will never offer this as an option.

If a student is writing an argument or opinion essay, they are fully aware that their chosen topic is controversial. Now, what if the essay is deeply offensive? This is where the handbook “rules” are valuable. The National Association of Tutorial Services Tutor Code of Ethics states in parts nine and ten, “I will not impose my personal value system or lifestyle on my student, and I will not use a tutoring situation to proselytize my personal belief system.” Provided with that information I know that it is not my job to be offended by their essay, and ethically I am bound to suppress my own views.

I’ll follow the “rules” again to answer the question that refers to making the paper or writer better. The last part of the Writing Center/DELC Mission Statement says, “Our philosophy is to help people become better writers by giving them the skills and tools to do so. We like to say we work with people, not papers.” Since I am now a part of this organization, this is my philosophy. Establishing the distinction between the paper and the writer will be the hardest, yet most necessary part of tutoring. When it comes to helping the writer, and not just the paper, everything has to be black or white. Allowances must not be made in order to accommodate time constraints or student requests. In holding myself to these high expectations, some students will see me as being unhelpful which will frustrate me. Nevertheless, I will do what it takes to help students in the right way.

Helping people, not (necessarily) punctuation.

Being new to the tutoring world, I have yet to see a terrible paper(outside of tutor training class that is. The essay about Abraham Lincoln and Ghandi was really quite terrifying). Everything I am going to discuss in this entry is, therefore, going to be purely hypothetical and based upon the little situational knowledge that i have gained regarding tutoring sessions.
It is important to consider every paper that comes in as a rough draft. If the paper were not a draft, then there would be no reason for students to come into the writing center(unless their professor requires it, which can be quite problematic). Now, if the student and the tutor see the paper as a rough draft, it will be much easier to offer advice, corrections, and critical comments. When giving advice, it is also important to remember that this paper may not be just a collection of words and punctuation; it may actually mean something to the student. Tutors have to avoid anything that could be construed as an attack on the paper or its author. If a paper doesn't fill the assignment requirements, or if its organizational and grammatical problems are bad enough to warrant a re-write, how should a tutor disclose this to the student? The best way I can see, would be to highlight the things that were done right, then help the student create an outline for the next draft that would "embiggen" the good ideas.
I'm not suggesting that the tutor should write the actual essay; that would defeat the purpose of a tutoring session. A tutor should strive to help people increase their knowledge and better their skills; not viscously attack the faulty logic or punctuation. The distinction between helping the paper and helping the tutor is difficult to ascertain. If tutors do their job correctly, however, students will learn to recognize their mistakes all by themselves. That is the beauty of teaching. The sharing of knowledge ennables others to become better than they were.
There seem to be many lines in tutoring that are difficult to discern. For example: when discussing a student's paper, it would make sense to take an objective stance; yet it is also important to be able to empathize with the student. That's kind of hard to do when looking through the objective lens. So where does one draw the line between objectively guiding through the writing process, and emphatically helping the student? Students are people, so we can't really treat them like machines. I don't really have an answer for this dilemma, not yet. I expect it's something i will better understand with more experience.

Horrid Paper...

This week’s blog is being written in Spokane Washington. I decided on a random whim yesterday, with nothing else to do, to make the exciting ten hour drive to visit a friend I have not seen in awhile. Leaving at four in the afternoon got me here at two in the morning. It was a wonderfully therapeutic drive, beautiful mountains and scenery. And now I can not wait to get out and have some fun Washington adventures!

Anyways back to the topic…

Last spring semester when I was working as an appointment math tutor I had a tutee come to me with a problem. He had taken a paper he had written to the writing center as was part of the assignment. The tutor who helped him was not very graceful in letting him not that his paper was a piece of garbage. She told him it was horrid and that he needed to not only rewrite the whole thing, but to also come up with a new topic. His paper was very anti-religion and anti-government. The topic offended the tutor and she let him know that. She refused to help him with it because of the topic and bad construction. Needless to say my tutee was pretty furious with the writing center.

This is definitely an example of what not to do.

After he told me this I read his paper. It was a horrid piece of garbage honestly. I did not tell him this though. The topic greatly offended me. The paper had every imaginable problem. It had no thesis, ranting about this and that. The main problem was it was extremely choppy. He bounced around ideas like a beach ball at a Nickelback concert. I tried to point out some positives in his paper, although I can not remember what they were. I then got over the irritation the topic caused me and tried to help him as much as I could with grammar, syntax, and organization. I gave him some pointers on how to better construct the paper. I did not give him false hope that the paper was good, I told him it needed work, but that he was going to be able to fix it. He left in a lot better mood, inspired to fix his paper, but with no intent to ever step foot in the writing center again.

What a horrible experience for the student. It did not need to be like that. All it took from me to motivate him was a little help, a positive attitude, and letting him know he could do it. It was not hard for me to overcome the topic, while uncomfortable and totally not agreeing with him at times, they were his opinions and I saw no reason to badger him about changing his beliefs when what he came to me for was a little grammatical advice.

I will use this experience to help myself be a better tutor, using a positive attitude no matter the circumstances. Hopefully I will never cause a student to have that bad of an experience in the writing center.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Houston, we've had a problem here...

Did you know that the famous quote, "Houston, we have a problem?" is actually a misquotation? Attributed to Commander Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, the original phrase was uttered first by a crewman, Jack Swigert. The official NASA records say that at 55 hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds, Swigert said, "Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here." They responded, "This is Houston. Say again please." Only then did Commander Lovell say, "Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt." So how did this horrible misquotation work its way into commonly spoken English? Hollywood. In the drama Apollo Thirteen, Tom Hanks said the fated words, "Houston, we have a problem."

When I first learned this, I was stunned. I'd been using it incorrectly my whole life! Immediately I made the necessary paradigm switch, and I took it upon myself to alert the rest of the public about this grievous misquotation. As I tutored on Thursday, a student came in with a paper to be corrected. I just about died. The title contained the dreaded words: "Houston, we have a problem!!"

All joking aside, factual errors are a real problem that a writing tutor must face sooner or later, and while I might not point out to the student that they've misquoted a phrase that is almost identical to the original, when students say something really outrageous, like "Martin Luther led the African Americans to equality" or "The French Revolution inspired the Americans to fight for freedom", I tend to get a little stressed. Especially if the factual error is in the thesis.

So what would I do if a paper was just so bad, it would be better to start over? I'd probably count to ten silently, and then (with a big smile on my face) tell them that this is a great beginning. I'd say something like, "You've got a lot of great ideas in this paper, although they don't seem to be very organized. Did you make an outline before you wrote this?" If they answer no (because if the essay is really that bad, it most likely doesn’t have an outline) I would say, "Alright, well, let's make an outline together. What is your thesis statement?" Once we'd worked to create a suitable thesis, I'd then help them organize their paper. I'd try to hit their biggest problems (like conjunctions and main clauses), compliment their writing again, and then encourage them to come back after they'd made the changes to their assignment.

If a paper was offensive, it would be trickier. I'd read through and emphasize the good things that they did with their paper, but then talk about the intended audience, their professor. "How do you think the professor will respond to your paper?" I'd ask. If they had no blatant factual errors or unsubstantiated remarks, I'd most likely add, "You have some controversial viewpoints." Or, if they're just making outrageous statements, "Where are your sources for this paper?" If those methods fail, I'd say something like, "It's good that you expressed your opinions, but would you agree that the most important thing is satisfying your professor? Well, I'm not sure your professor will like the way you said..." If even that didn't work, I'd go for total candor: "Some people might find the way you wrote this offensive. I'd recommend rewriting that portion." After that, it's out of my hands. If they choose to ignore my advice, they will receive the inevitable bad grade from their professor, and all they’ll be left with is that oft perpetuated but incorrect statement, "Houston, we have a problem."

It's just a tad bad...

A bad essay!? I never would have thought it possible! Okay, sarcasm may not be the best approach to starting this blog, but at least it’s started! I’ll focus for now on the first of the questions asked, what would I do if a student’s essay was so bad that they had to start over? First of all, I’d be happy that the student came into the writing center in the first place. In most cases this would show that the writer knows he or she needs help. Granted, there are instances when the student may be there because he or she has to, or the student may not realize just how bad the paper is. But, for the most part, I think a trip to the writing center shows that the student is looking for help.

It’s important to keep in mind what a tutor’s responsibility is. Are we there to ensure that the student leaves the writing center with a better paper? Or are we there to make sure the student leaves with the skills to write a better paper. Of course, the two can go hand in hand. Both can be accomplished. But the writer should never be sacrificed for the paper.
I think that the best way to approach the idea of starting over varies from student to student. Some students may be able to take it bluntly. Others may need it handed it to them a little more delicately. I think that I would begin by talking with the student about what he or she is trying to accomplish with the paper. After that has been taken care of, I would ask how he or she is planning on getting there. With answers to these questions, the student has a starting point. Questions can be a great way to help the student make the connection. “Do you feel this paper accomplishes what you want it to? Do you think an objective reader would now what points you are trying to make?” Hopefully the student will be able to see that their paper is not accomplishing what they want it to.

Unfortunately the student may not be able to recognize that his or her paper is in shambles even after the questions have been asked. I think at that point you just have to tell the student that you don’t feel that the paper is accomplishing what it ought to. It may be hard to break it, but sometimes the truth hurts.

As far as the essay being deeply offensive goes, I think it depends on what the assignment is. If it’s an opinion or argument paper, there’s really not much I could do. My beliefs and values should not play a role in helping the student become a better writer. I feel that it is my responsibility as a tutor to help writers become better writers, to help them increase their skills and abilities. I know this is easier said than done. There could be times when it is extremely difficult to read an offensive essay and keep my focus on helping the writer. But, I suppose I’ll have to deal with that in stride.

Just walk away...but come back.

I had a problematic essay to deal with just the other day. The woman I worked with couldn’t find the instructions for the assignment, so we had to go on with what she remembered. She had labored long on the paper, and did a fairly good job putting it together, but she needed to clean up the grammar and word choices. After about 30 minutes I started asking her if she was ready to stop, but she just wanted to keep going. We worked for over an hour on that paper, but it was looking pretty good by then.
Then she remembered she needed to print something up. It ended up being the instructions for her paper. Her paper had nothing to do with the assignment at all. It was a catastrophic blow.
I had to mentally step back and decide what to do. I had just invested an hour in this paper. It was easy to feel stupid, embarrassed, even a little betrayed. I’m sure it was worse for my tutee. I decided I needed to salvage the moment for her.
I told her to save the paper for later. It was a good autobiographical introduction, and I told her she might need it for another class someday. Then I went through the instructions with her and outlined on paper what steps to take next. I told her she was welcome to come back when she needed help again. Fortunately for her, she still had a few weeks to go before the paper would be due.
I hope she comes back.
I think I handled the situation in the best way possible. It was difficult to know what to say, and to know what to refrain from saying, but I think my tutee understood that there was still hope, and even humor, in the situation. I am sure that she will NEVER AGAIN forget to check the assignment first. I just hope the disappointment won’t keep her from trying again.
Will I always know just what to say in a difficult situation? No, I’m sure I won’t. And I’m sure I will want to, and I’m sure I’ll feel bad that I can’t. Still, I enjoy having the chance to try, and to learn ways to do it all better.
Don’t get me wrong. I do know how to walk away when someone is being totally unreasonable. For instance, one young man came into the Writing Center wanting help finding the last word in his word find puzzle. I showed him a dictionary and left.
Now, what would I do if an essay is deeply offensive? That would have to depend on the situation. Some things I can ignore and just push on through, others would be harder. I think I’d do my best to just get the job done. If I couldn’t, I would have to defer to Claire, the queen of all knowledge. What should I do? What would be ethical in that situation? I would like to know more about it.


We Have Problems

Problematic essays are one thing that I do not look forward to. When presented with an essay that needs lots of work, I'll most likely want to simply fix everything in it because it is, according to my mental definitions, "wrong." What I think I'll end up doing, though, is what we discussed in class. Of course, trying to look for the positive is always a good idea. Telling the tutee that they have a good start or that you see some good qualities throughout the paper will be the easy part. I think the toughest thing will be to tell them these qualities while sorting through what to work out first, trying to explain it in language that is understandable, effective, and inoffensive, and figuring out a way for them to be motivated enough to do it on their own. Even thinking of this scenario and the challenges it presents is overwhelming. I think, though, that the best thing for me to do is just take it one step at a time and check off maybe the first or second largest problem in the paper and then mention the others and ways to prevent them, but not go into too much detail.

Now, offensive papers are a different question. In this case, I know it will take much more self-control to not use offensive or incredibly biased language. It is true that some papers will attest the very opposite of what I feel on a subject, and do it as strongly as I do the other way. In this case, I'll be sure to stay away from the premise of the argument or the content of the thesis specifically and focus more on general things. Most likely I'll stick with the things that are easier to explain in objective language, such as we discussed in class today: Introduction, Organization, Conclusion, and so on, rather than stating my convictions. Also, I'll try to keep in mind that some of the papers I write or have written may be just as offensive to that person as theirs is to me. It really is a matter of opinion, and always a choice whether or not to be personally offended. Much of the time, the writer doesn't have any specific person in mind when writing about a certain position, but rather an abstract idea that has struck an amiable chord with them. In this case, their position becomes the "us" thing and the opposition position becomes a "them" thing. I think our job is to temporarily take ourselves out of the "us" stance to as objective a state as possible in order not to turn a tutoring session into a heated ethical debate.

One other thing that was talked about in class on Wednesday was the bit about getting papers from students with the same professors you've had before. One thing I hadn't considered before was not letting slip the opinion you had of the professor. It hadn't occurred to me that saying that you didn't like the professor or that you had a really hard time in the class might discourage student or taint the session unnecessarily. I think, to prevent this happening, I'll mention certain writing styles that the professor has a tendency to look for and help the student do those things (which, more often than not, is what the professor has spelled out in the assignment anyway). As I'm not perfect, I feel I'm likely to slip in this area more than I'd like, but we shall see....what we shall see.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Problematic Essays...

How does one deal with a problematic essay, and are we trying to produce better papers or better writers?

I think that a problematic essay is really just a rough draft. I think that by explaining to students that the writing process is exactly that -- a process, will save you from trouble. I would also give them personal examples of when I have had to scrap a paper and restart. If they know a master's student struggles with writing, I think it gives them comfort that their struggles are real and conquerable.

I also think that as a tutor we have to reserve judgment about someone's essay. We may not agree with what the student is saying, but we can help them say it in the most correct way possible. However, I think that if a paper is racially offensive or sexually inappropriate, we have the right to not help them. This is an area where asking your supervisor is an important key. The supervisor is better equipped to handle this kind of situation.

I have also learned this week that a derisive snort is not the appropriate response to a "bad" essay. We have to be empathetic to the tutee's situation. They are nervous about their paper and concerned enough to come to us, which means they deserve respect regardless of how "bad" their paper is.

At the end of the day, I hope we are producing better writers and not just better papers. Our job as tutors is to make ourselves obsolete. Our tutees should become writers that no longer need us. If we can help them so that they are comfortable writing and with the process of writing, then we have done our job. The rest is up to the tutee. We are like the training wheels on a bike, if we aren't needed anymore, then we have done our job.

Talking about this problem with the whole class has been very helpful and informative. Everyday that I go to class, or read the books helps me feel more confident when it comes to tutoring. Even in the past two weeks my confidence has grown immensely.

I also feel that this training will be helpful in the future as I go on to teach (hopefully) in college. I know that dealing with these kinds of issues is a part of tutoring that we will all have to face and learning about how to deal with it is great.

I don't really have anything else to say, maybe when I deal with something like this I will. So far it has been pretty smooth sailing.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Tutoring Worries?

I personally don't have any major worries/concerns about tutoring. It's my students that need to worry. LOL! I consider myself very laid back, so students don't need to act a certain way around me. One thing that I try to build is trust. I believe trust is important when it comes to one-on-one tutoring. I do one-on-one tutoring for the most part and I enjoy it very much. I like building that relationship with the student. In due time, trust begins to build.

Trust can also be a bad thing. There have been countless times when I have had students come to me and basically ask me to rewrite their paper for them. They assume that I'd be OK with it since I enjoy English so much. They're wrong! LOL! They are not learning anything by me doing the rewrite obviously, so I tell them that I can't do that for them. But I do tell them what I can do is show them what we may need to consider taking a deeper look into. My goal is to let them see why they should take a look at this, etc.

OK, maybe there is one major thing that I am concerned about. Sometimes, I am asked by students to help them with their papers as far as grammatical errors. They only ask me to help them with that and that only, so I read their paper without being over concerned with the subject of the paper. But as I read these papers, I notice that what they are saying is not making any sense. There is no clear thesis statement, It's very opinionated when it's not suppose to be. The paper is basically all over the place! My dilemma: sometimes I want to help them and show them how to improve their work. But then again, I was just asked to help out with grammar. I don't want to be a pushy tutor and make them rewrite it like I would. But at the same time, I want the student to learn and I don't want their professor to give them a bad grade. It's tough.

I would say it's more of a moral dilemma when it comes to the subject that I was just blogging about. I do feel bad. But I'm sure it happens to all of us. I am not concerned about having the student come back to me and say that his/her professor gave him/her a bad grade because it was not a very good paper. I have never had that happen to me but I'm sure it will at some point. If they only want me to check grammar then that's what I'll do and that's it. I will not be the student's back up plan when it comes to his or her English class.

Tutoring is a lot of fun for me. I enjoy sitting down and helping a fellow student with his or her questions. I'm sure there are plenty of other issues that I just can't think of right now. I'm interesed in learning about them throughout this semester. One thing I must admit I will need to learn more about is tutuoring, what I call, "the everyday student." As I mentioned, I usually do one-on-one tutoring. I usually know my students. If they are new, I build a trust with them as time goes on. I don't have experience in a tutoring lab. I don't usually deal with students who just come in once and leave. That'll be something new this semester.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Week Two Prompt

We'll discuss this issue in more detail in class, but I'd like to hear your thoughts about how you might deal with an essay that was particularly problematic. What if an essay is so bad that the student needs to start over? What if the essay is deeply offensive?

Be aware that, to a degree, your answer will depend upon how you see your role as a tutor. Are you making the paper better or the writer? How important is that distinction?


What scares me most is the thought of not being a good enough tutor. I feel like I can help, but can I help enough? When we were going over the paper in class I was just overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do or where to start. I was lost. Maybe I was thinking too much or not concentrating enough. Also as I was reading through this essay I was often reminded of myself, I thought that paper could have been mine. I am guilty as charged when it comes to fluffing to get that extra page or two, but nobody is perfect. Another fear I have is becoming misleading. I do not want to give the tutee bad advice or even false information. I’m taking this class so I can become the best tutor I can be. I will learn from my mistakes and bad habits and overcome my fears. I want to work on my writing strategies, my tutoring skills and I want to master grammar. I also have a constant fear of writer’s block, which by working on different writing strategies, I wish to eliminate.

When it comes to tutoring explaining something that you understand to another person can be difficult. That’s what makes a good tutor, explaining something and making sure the tutee understands what you are saying. When I’m out there giving people help with their papers I need to know what I’m doing. I need to know how to express myself the way I want to, so I’m not just one big ambiguous wreck. With time and practice I know I can overcome the nervousness of not being good enough. I have a good idea on where to start my practice, my own work. By working on my own writing I can learn and reflect from my own mistakes. And from these mistakes I will develop strategies that will not only help me, but my peers too.

I don’t want to mislead a student with their paper wasting my time and most importantly theirs. I don’t want them to work and spend time on a dead ended, pointless paper. That’s why I’m going to question the writer. I’m going to question both the grammar and the thesis of their work. I want them to learn something as well as have their paper to be tutored. I have also realized that I’m going to run into students that have writers’ block. I want to be able to rise above this barrier so I can show others how to as well.

When I tutor I want to be clear on what is to be done. I want to form my own type of style and game plan so I can breeze through the students’ papers with no problems. I don’t want to be unorganized with each paper. I want to be on my feet at all times so I know what I’m doing. This class will help me correct and learn from my mistakes and get on my feet. It will help me basically develop a lesson plan that I will improve over time.