Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Main Ideas From the Blog

Don’t Stress About What you Don’t Know
                Nearly every tutor mentioned feeling overwhelmed and inadequate when they first began tutoring. While this feeling of inferiority had various sources (never having taught before, not knowing how to explain concepts, etc.), it typically centered around a lack of grammar knowledge. Danae’s comment illustrates this feeling perfectly: “One piece of advice I would share with future tutors is DON’T FREAK OUT! Being a tutor is great, and once you realize that you know more than you give yourself credit for you will start having more productive tutoring sessions.Cheyney echoes the sentiment by saying “I was the great impostor, taking up space in the WC.”
It is only natural to feel unprepared when starting out as a tutor. Not only is the fledgling tutor thrust into a situation he or she may not have been in before (teaching someone else), but suddenly they find their knowledge of grammar and writing on display. For many tutors—who may have majors varying from visual art to chemical engineering and haven’t been in a formal grammar course for years—this is an intimidating prospect. The student is judging them. Their feeble explanations of concepts they understand intuitively but have difficulty explaining are out in the open. The student judges them. More seasoned tutors can overhear. Perhaps worst of all, Claire is always lurking out of sight. I understand the feeling well, for it is the same way I felt when I began tutoring (and still feel to a degree.) To hear that nearly all tutors go through this same thing is comforting to me.
How does a beginning tutor overcome this feeling? The advice they give is very basic. “Don’t worry about it.” On the surface this doesn’t seem very helpful. Telling a new tutor “don’t worry about it” is like telling a toddler who is convinced a monster is about to come out of their closet and eat them to “just relax.” But if the new tutor examines that advice closer, he or she learns that it is simply a matter of lowering expectations. Claire doesn’t expect the new tutor to know everything. The other tutors don’t expect it either—they’re going through the same learning process themselves. Even the tutee doesn’t expect the tutor to know everything. The only person who does is the tutee.
By understanding that feelings of anxiety and inadequacy are natural, as well as realizing that perfection isn’t expected at the beginning stage of tutorship (or, indeed, at any stage), the new tutor can relax and focus instead on helping the student. As Danae wrote: “Instead of freaking out for weeks because I didn’t remember every writing rule, I wish that I would have taken two deep breaths and enjoyed my first days more.”
Embrace the Learning Process
                This leads to the second major theme found in the tutors’ advice: don’t be afraid of the learning process.  The natural antidote to a lack of knowledge and feelings of inadequacy is learning. Learning is an ongoing process for a tutor. Like Chris B. said, “though I started this semester feeling pretty confident in my writing and tutoring skills, I have now decided that I know close to nothing of any real consequence.” Not only do we need to know grammar concepts and principles of good writing, we also need to know how to teach those things. There are many resources available to help in this effort: reference manuals, the MLA and APA handouts, Purdue Online, Strunk and White, Claire herself, and even that omnipotent dispenser of all worldly knowledge, Google.
Many tutors wished they had spent more time in the manuals, familiarizing themselves with the concepts they would share. Others pointed out how helpful it was to refer to past notes or go to Claire with questions. Nearly all of them stated that they learned just as much from being a tutor as the people they tutored learned from them.
Perhaps most interesting, the tutors didn’t just say they needed to learn, they talked about actually enjoying the process. Kyle Robbins had this to say: “Of course it would have been nice if I knew everything when I started tutoring. That would certainly alleviate a lot of stress in my life. It would, however, also have been very very boring. Learning is one of the most exciting parts about tutoring and going to school.” Many of the others echoed his sentiment. They enjoyed the process. They had fun with it. When they didn’t have an answer, they looked it up. Like Michelle said, “the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t know everything, nor am I expected to. I can open a manual; I can ask a fellow tutor; I can say I don’t know, how about we find out?”
When the tutor lets go of the expectation that he or she needs to know everything, true learning can take place. Learning can actually be a fun process. In fact, many of the tutors state that it was the most enjoyable aspect of their tutoring experience.

Themes and Common Advice


The most frequent piece of advice provided in the blog is that tutors should not feel like they need to know everything about writing, and that it is important to draw on the knowledge of other tutors and refer to writing manuals and books in order to find answers to questions that arise. This is important counsel for two reasons. First, if our main purpose as tutors is to help students become better writers, then we need to provide them with accurate information and useful strategies. Secondly, asking for advice and looking up information in books and online is a way to model effective learning strategies.


Another recommendation that repeatedly appeared in the blog was to get the tutees involved in planning the objectives of the session and to keep them engaged by having them summarize, explain, and rewrite.


Something else previous tutors have advised is to respect the tutees’ role as the writer. Writers have to make several decisions in their work about what to include and what to exclude. It is their responsibility and privilege to choose what their writing expresses and how they convey their message. However, we can give input that may help the tutees get their intended meaning across more clearly and effectively.

Respecting the writer’s role is an especially important consideration when offensive or politically incorrect topics are broached. Tutors can inform students about how their language or discussion may be offensive or inappropriate in a school setting and can suggest that the student consider different phrases or topics, but it is ultimately up to them to decide what to say. Whether the tutor mentions these things or not depends on the situation. For example, if a student uses an unwelcome or offensive word to refer to a group of people, he or she may just be unaware of the proper way and would be fine using either term. Or perhaps they used the word deliberately because that language was used in a text they are responding to. On the other hand, if a student’s paper is promoting a certain viewpoint that the tutor personally disagrees with, it would be wisest to let it go. The writer has the final say and tutors need to respect that.


Previous students of English 3840/5840 have also counseled future tutors to identify a manageable number of revisions to be made in the tutees’ papers and to not try to address every problem or mistake. As one tutor explained, “It's important to remember that not every suggestion or technique can or should be employed in a particular setting. It's like the contents of a drawer have been dumped on a wide table: we choose the pieces to organize and call our own” (Mario, 2005). If tutors tried to use each tool in the drawer and didn’t select the most useful ones, the session would be disorganized and overwhelming for the tutors and the tutees.

Since we don't see each other's papers...

Below is an excerpt from my paper about the blog survey.

Before I address the similar nature of the concerns and suggestions blogged about by the tutors, I’d like to postulate a theory about why they are the same. In one sense the blog prompts are asking similar questions each semester so the responses are going to be on the same topics, and the nature of tutoring and teaching writing is essentially the same throughout so the same concerns are going to come up about how to teach writing, but the thing that struck me most interestingly is that the people who work in the writing center have similar natures or characters. We are all a little odd, but in a good way.

It makes sense that the personalities of people working in the writing center would have much in common with each other. Of all the students on campus, only a portion would apply for this position. They would have to like reading/writing well enough to think they could do the job. They would also have to have shown some proficiency in their own writing above the general student population. I noticed many posts on the blog along the line of, “I never had to try very hard to get good grades in English,” or, “I never took 1010 or 2010 at WSU because I took the AP test.” Even without that level of confidence in their own writing, many of the posts mentioned how they had no idea what tutoring actually entailed because they never needed to avail themselves of tutoring.

A group of people who excel at and enjoy doing the same thing are going to have some similarities. We enjoy talking about books and movies, making references to those same things, being sarcastic in our less formal responses, and we have the same insecurities about our tutoring.

“What if I screw up and make a paper worse,” or, “what if I don’t know the answer to a question,” or, “what if the tutee knows more than I do” are the kinds of insecurities that are echoed time and again in the first few weeks of each semester. We know that we’ve received good grades on our papers from English professors, so we must be doing something right. We enjoy talking about this subject or we would have never applied for the job. So, the question is, what are we so afraid of? This links to the notion that many tutors have never been tutored and have often breezed through composition courses in the past. We have never had to work very hard to be good writers, so we’ve never had to study and learn how to write. Often we write well because we have read a lot and have seen many examples of writing, but we’ve never had to struggle with remembering how to conjugate a verb or how to write a complete sentence. It’s the impostor syndrome we discussed in class which never goes away. We wonder if we have just been shined-on and told that we are good, but that someone will come along and laugh at us for thinking that we know anything about writing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What I Found

I also feel like I might get a bit repetitive here, since the blog prompt is essentially the same as our blog survey assignment, so I will focus on one area that I talked about at the end of my essay: OWLs.

Honestly, I was shocked at how negative the comments about OWLs were. A lot of tutors complained about them. They said they were literally giving them headaches and even that OWLs were satanic instruments. I really was not expecting this kind of response to online tutoring. Since I have taken the lead on them at the Writing Center, I actually have really enjoyed them, and if I had one complaint, it would be that I struggle to find time to focus on them. I usually do as many as I can during Mondays and Tuesdays and the catch up on Thursdays when I am at work until we close.

Anyway, I was taken aback by the negative responses about OWLs. I know there are drawbacks to online tutoring. It can be hard to know if what we say is going to make sense to the writer or even help at all. It is also difficult not having any kind of back-and-forth communication with our tutees. With that said, I really enjoy being able to think about exactly what I want to say, and knowing that my response will remain there for the student to look at in writing anytime he or she wants to consult it.

I also really enjoy OWLs for selfish reasons. Writing OWL responses helps me hone my own writing skills. It is good practice, and it is a good way to model certain rules and certain concepts for our students. It also helps me come up with “scripts” that can be used offline in face to face tutoring, because I have said something so many times that it is there in a little filing cabinet in my brain, ready to be pulled out and used. No one mentioned this unique perk, and this omission was quite interesting to me.

It was also quite interesting to see just how few entries addressed OWLs at all. I am by no means suggesting that they are more important than face to face sessions, but I do think they deserve some attention and that they are an important part of what we do. In this technological age, we cannot afford to reject online communication and the opportunities the Internet affords us to serve our students. Just like online classes have taken off and helped many students get an education they would not otherwise be able to obtain, online tutoring can help busy and self-directed students get the help they need.

It Depends

I may have begun searching the blog in the hope of finding some good solid advice, but the most common theme I found was “it depends.”

As I expected, many of the first posts in each semester describe epic failures and embarrassments, but contrary to my expectations, the final posts did too.  The anecdotal evidence in the blog shows that no matter how well a tutor works there will always be unsatisfied students.  It is impossible for a tutor to please everyone, no matter how skilled and adaptable they are.  The blog recommends that the tutor should accept these facts but continue anyway. A tutor should recognize that being a tutor is difficult but doable.

Many of the questions on the blog and in class raise specific questions.  They ask “what would you do in this situation?” or “what is the best way to deal with this type of person?”  The answers, thankfully, are never so direct.  The phrase, “it depends,” comes up over and over again.  Often the discussions focus on hypothetical situations, but the tutors confirm that the reality almost never matches the hypothetical.  There are too many unknowns (both known and unknown).  A hypothetical situation can never account for all these unknowns, so a tutor can never be completely prepared for every situation.  The help a tutor should give will depend on the assignment, the student, and the expectations of the professor, but the assignment can have various options and ambiguities, the student can have various levels of ability and interest, and the professor’s expectations vary with each professor, each student, and each assignment.  It is a tangled web of “it depends.”

The message of the tutors on the blog is to accept the uncertain nature of the tutoring game.  Since sessions are not standard do not treat them as if they were. There is a danger of becoming too practiced if it causes the tutor to become rigid or formulaic.  A tutor should avoid claiming to know, “what professors want,” or “what works best.”  Qualifiers like, “usually,” or “perhaps,” may be frustrating for the tutor and the student but they are necessary. Advice like, “check with your professor,” or, “follow the assignment,” may upset a student, leaving them unsatisfied, but it is often the best advice.
            My first reaction to this mess of uncertainty was to give up.  After all what value can come from analyzing the hypothetical if it never matches reality?  How can I give the student advice on how to make their paper good when, ultimately, I am not the one that will grade it?  The answers came from the blog.  One tutor compared being a tutor to playing a sport.  The drills and scrimmages a team runs in practice may never match the plays in an actual game, but they help a player to be prepared.

A tutor cannot prepare for every situation, but a tutor can handle most situations by being inquisitive and focusing on the needs of the student. 

Shaun Conner

"Pumpkin 3.14159"... Get it?!

It seems a little off to have a blog-prompt about what we’re finding in the blog due the same week as our blog survey. I feel like I’m going to repeat myself a lot… but for the sake of having a good paper, I’m going to try and be as different as I can between the two.

The biggest theme I’ve noticed as I survey the blog is that the tutors all start out with the same fears and insecurities. By the end of the semester, they all feel better about things and have good advice to offer. Another interesting thing is that as time goes on, people get better about blogging. What I mean is, in 2004 when this thing started, blogging was still fairly new. People didn’t know what to do so they tried to answer the blog-prompts but often times got very off-topic and were a little more “creative” than “academic.” By the end of the blog, however, I feel like people were able to fin the balance between the 2. The responses are still creative but they stick much better to the prompt than our ancestor-tutors did.

Another thing I’m finding as I survey the posts is that a lot of the tutors are very similar – or more important, the type of person who wants to tutor is very unique. While we all have different ideas and beliefs, likes and dislikes, we are all very similar. When reading the blogs from the past few years, I could think to myself “that sounds a lot like something ‘Person X from the Writing Center’ would say.”

Like Chad, another theme I noticed running from year to year was how much thanksgiving influences people’s lives. People like pie. They like over-eating, then complaining about it later. I don’t blame Americans for forgetting the ‘true meaning’ of the holiday though. As a consumer-driven nation, built upon the foundation that we are free to do whatever we want because we are awesome (ok, so the founding fathers were a little more delicate in their wording, but that’s pretty much what they meant), it’s only natural that every major holiday be changed from religious or secular ceremony to consumerist celebration. For more on this, listen to Jim Gaffigan’s explanation of the Holidays.

here’s the video, in case you want to watch it. It’s hilarious! I know this is off topic, but as I mentioned before, I don’t want to completely destroy all my good points for my “blog survey” assignment here on the blog, so I’m filling in my required word count with semi-related things. Seriously though, watch the video. It makes me laugh every time!!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So Many Posts... So Very Many Posts...

Was I the only one who thought this survey paper was going to be the final straw that triggered their impending aneurysm? No? Just me, then? Well, anyway, I did, but it's actually been exponentially more helpful than I'd anticipated. I'm shocked at how many previous tutors shared a lot of the same anxieties and problems at work that I've experienced. The glorious part is that many of them have provided helpful little tips to deal with problems. There was a tutor some years ago who was having problems with lazy or uninterested students and he noticed that his marks were scrawled all over the page but the student had neither spoken nor written a note for nearly ten minutes. The same thing happened to me three times yesterday! When this would happen, the tutor would simply set his pen down, thereby making the student feel more inclined to mark the draft himself. INGENIOUS! It was reassuring to read through the first posts of new tutors at the beginning of each year, and harvest a little empathy from the past. It's been nice to know that I'm not the only person to have worked in the Writing Center that was afraid that they'd make a simple mistake (such as those we were hired to correct) and loose all credibility with the student and fellow tutors. That was a surprisingly common theme. Nobody wants to look like an illiterate nit when their being paid to be just the opposite... and yet...

Several of the motifs throughout the posts were very relevant to the sessions I’d worked on moments before I’d read them. One reoccurring problem I observed was distinguishing the boundary between correcting syntax and sabotaging the student’s style and voice. I’ve been struggling with this concept throughout the week. I worked with a narrative paper wherein the speaker recollected her time in a psychiatric ward, and her quirky manner of phrasing wasn’t exactly “correct” by the rigid standards of the literary bureaucracy, but served the subject matter of the paper immensely. I helped her rephrase it, because I wanted to play it safe, but I effectively hindered her voice as a writer. I’ve been very interested to see the evolution of the Writing Center. I read a few posts wherein the tutors discussed how strange it was to work with drop-ins, as apposed to students who they saw regularly throughout the week and who signed up to be specifically tutored by them. In my last few shifts, I've been averaging twelve to fifteen sessions a day, all of which are drop-ins. I've only tutored one student more than once.

But most importantly! Why am I always talking? Evidently, in years past, it was rare that the tutor recited the paper; now I read papers out loud all day for nine hours straight and my voice is gone before the sun goes down. I vote we reinstate the paradigm where the students do all the talking. Anybody with me?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ten Years of Blog Posts

As I survey the blog posts, I can see many themes that were touched upon in the past by former and current writing tutors. Some of the writing tutors expressed their fears of being able to properly explain grammar. This is quite reasonable since grammar is a very tough subject to explain, and to articulate it well is a challenging endeavour. During my time at Weber State University , I've only met one Professor that was able to verbally explore the vague ever changing concept of grammar adequately. That Professor just happens to be Dr. Mckay who specializes in linguistics. I think it might be time to visit her office with a notepad and paper.

Another theme for discussion that appeared during my time reading endless blog posts from writing tutors was issue of "most difficult subjects". Some tutors expressed that they loathed helping tutees with composing science papers because, often times, they didn't know what the heck the tutees were talking about. I can relate to this scenario a lot. The last time I had to read a science paper my brain almost melted like Velveeta cheese in a microwave oven trying comprehend some algorithmic procedure for making light particles dance on the top of some golden tinfoil.

Yet Another theme that I could discuss here is "Turkey Day". I guess Americans are not so different from other people living in various areas of the world celebrating a feast in commemoration of some fallen hero or new moon. It's just, we celebrate this particular feast to remember a gathering that supposedly happened between the first Pilgrims and the Native Indians. To add insult to injury, what differentiates us from the - at least in this case - more civilized cultures of the world is that fact that nobody gives a rip about some long lost gathering between the Indians and the Pilgrims. Although this holiday is meant to celebrate brotherly love and crossing cultural divides, it is now used as a marketing tool to make money for the NFL.

Excuse me if I sound a bit bitter about the failure of or country to stay connected to its roots, but that's why we have this blog; we can all share our unique perspectives about certain issues and read and learn from each other.

Monday, September 19, 2011


What kinds of things are you finding as you survey the blog posts? Any themes?

The Many Levels of “Making Sense” (as illustrated by puking on an old lady)

One of the most problematic words or phrases I encounter is "making sense." As in:

ME: So what would you like me to look at today?
TUTEE: I want you to look at it and tell me if it makes sense.
ME: Okay, no problem. What particularly you are wondering about?
TUTEE: Well, like, does it, you know…make sense?
It seems like an easy enough request. We ask each other the same thing all the time. “Does what I just said make sense?” But when it comes to writing, “making sense” has multiple levels.
For instance, if I write “ME GO STORE. BARF ON OLD LADY,” you get a pretty good idea of what is going on. Despite the lack of articles and prepositions, you know I plan to go to a store somewhere and vomit on an unsuspecting elderly woman. It makes sense. But it’s horrible writing.

What makes it horrible? Wording. Lack of grammar. The words get the point across, but the way they do so is difficult to follow. Our goal in writing is not only to convey meaning, it is to convey meaning in an understandable, concise, and even aesthetic manner. In other words, it isn't enough for writing to just make sense. It has to make sense in an understandable, pleasing way.

There's more to it than that, though. Let's take it a step further. Say I write the sentence "I'm going to go to WalMart and puke on an old lady." Again, does it "make sense"? Sure. Does it get the point across in an understandable, grammatically correct manner? Yes. But questions linger. Why WalMart? Would Fresh Market or Smith's provide similar targets for my vomit? Just who is this woman? Is she someone I know and hold a grudge against, or is she simply a random, unsuspecting target of wanton public puking? And just why do I want to throw up on her in the first place?
And that takes us to the next level. To make sense, effective writing also needs to provide adequate background and explanation. A student can come in with a grammatically-correct paper, but if there is no explanation as to why the topic is important or what it has to do with anything else, it could be labeled as "not making sense."

The final level. Say I write this. "My mom is a greeter at WalMart. Once, when I was a teenager, she came to the Wendy's drive-through where I worked, made retching sounds, then spat cold oatmeal all over the wall as though throwing up while Dad took a picture. I'm going to go to WalMart with this cup of cold oatmeal and get her back." NOW you understand. It is told in a clear manner and adequate background is given. Now the writing "makes sense."

So there are different levels of making sense. What we're shooting for is the final example--writing that is grammatically correct while covering all its bases. I try to explain this to the tutees, but it doesn't always get across. I guess that sometimes in writing, the best we can do is puke on an old lady.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Is this paragraph a TARDIS? Does your sentence have a Flux Capacitor in it? No? Then stop time-travelling!

We spent Monday talking about the vocabulary issues that might affect students interactions with you in the WC.* Which of those bits of language do you think is the most problematic? Is it more difficult to help a student with "flow" than it is to help a student with "grammar"? -- * WC=Writing Center, not Water Closet

The biggest issue I see in vocabulary is explaining the ideas to the tutees. I personally like people to assume I’m smarter than I am when explaining things to me, and if I have to ask them to slow down or “dumb something down” for me, I don’t feel bad. However, if they assume I know nothing about a subject and talk down to me, I get upset. I tend to do the same thing… assume others already come from a position of knowledge about the subject. I have to really be careful with this.
If I say that the paper is full of dependent clauses or that their verbs need to agree with the subjects, or the verb tense is inconsistent, they may have no idea what I’m talking about. As an English major, or at least someone who knows a little bit more about English than the tutee, I need to use the correct term but also be able to explain the concepts in a way that they can understand. People in the writing world have a lingo all their own and it can be very intimidating for people on the outside. I have found a few ways to aid in the lingo-usage. Instead of simply saying the verb tense isn’t consistent, I also say that the sentence is a “time-traveller. It starts out in the past and jumps to the present.” This usually gets a laugh, but it also lets them see why verb-tense is important.
Explaining why a dependent clause can’t stand alone is another one that can be tricky. Tutees should understand the term, but sometimes they don’t know what it means. I have to be able to explain the idea without using terms that are over the tutee’s head or words that are strictly found in an English-major’s vocabulary.
Some other bloggers have mentioned “flow” as being a term that causes some issues, and I definitely agree. It is such an open-ended term that it is hard to know what exactly the student wants. Here it becomes important to ask questions to learn what the student means by flow. If they can explain what they mean by flow then I can look for their flow, but I can’t assume their definition is the same as the next person I will help, or the last person I helped. If 3 students in a row need help with “flow,” I will have to ask and tailor my approach to each one individually. Despite “flow’s” ambiguous definition, sometimes it is the only thing the student knows how to ask for. If that is the case, we might be able to educate them in other terms so they can ask specifically for what they want and not be limited to one literary word.