Monday, September 16, 2013

Punctuation, Formatting and Formatting

      I’ve only tutored a handful of students, and while a couple have specifically asked for help with thesis statements and higher order concerns, most have come with general, vague symptoms of writing distress. As Claire pointed out in class, sometimes students come in asking for help with “punctuation”, or “formatting” when they don’t know how to recognize or ask for feedback on a more specific, higher level concern.

            Today I had three students ask for help with punctuation and two ask for help with formatting. As I went through the papers with each student, I realized that the punctuation questions were almost always related to sentence structure: IC/DC issues; run-on sentences; sentence fragments and the like. I would point out to the student that her worry over a period, or a comma was more than punctuation, but was a matter of sentence structure. We discussed the structural issue underlying the surface punctuation concern, thus not only slapping a Band-Aid on the paper, but figuring out why the punctuation was important, and how it reflected sentence structure.
            The students today who asked about formatting were not asking about margins and page numbers, but were really asking about structure and organization. One student was having difficulty knowing when to break up paragraphs. Her essay was a single, two-page paragraph. I realized that her underlying concern was not about mechanical formatting, but about structure and organization, so I flat out asked her, “Are you talking about figuring out paragraphs?” She said yes, and seemed relieved that I could give words to her anxiety. We spent a productive session organizing individual paragraphs, then figuring out how to structure her essay with an introduction, support paragraphs and a concluding paragraph. All of this was contained in one word, “formatting.”
            However, sometimes “formatting” really does mean sheer mechanics. Earlier in the semester, I had a student ask about formatting her Works Cited section. We got out the APA guide, and I showed her where to find the information, and then let her start adding the citations into her paper. As it turned out, formatting citations was her immediate concern, but not the greatest skill needing attention. She didn’t know how to use the computer (someone else had typed the paper for her) and had no idea how to format a paper with name, date, class number, title, etc. So, while sometimes a student’s question about vague formatting or punctuation concerns can mask another issue, sometimes a question can truly be a basic concern that needs attention.
            I haven’t had a student come in yet with a paper that had gone completely off the rails, into the weeds and down the rabbit hole (to mix as many of Dr. Rogers’ metaphors as possible). I suppose when that occurs I will have to gently guide the student back on track with guided questions, active listening, and positive feedback.           


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