Spam Poetry

By - Monday, April 30, 2012, 2:34pm

From a spam commenter on this blog (I found it oddly poetic):

An ass responds? The honorary concept fasts behind a god. Does the resource research throughout his purpose steel? The home-based continues together with a terrorist. The stretches ambassador operates winter months.

Good luck in these final weeks…

Scary Tutor

By - Friday, April 20, 2012, 7:04pm

scary tutor (ˈsker-ē ˈtü-tər)* NP. a tutor who deliberately intimidates his/her tutee to reinforce his/her point. See also tough love

I try to be a fairly laid-back tutor. Occasionally, though, I find myself in a situation when my typical tutoring personalities just aren’t going to cut it. In those circumstances, I resort to a very specific tutor face: the scary tutor.

What is a scary tutor? A scary tutor is a tutor who lays all the cards on the table for the student without mincing words in order to impress the gravity of a situation onto that tutee. Playing scary tutor on the average nervous writer is not a good idea. When does this “scary tutor” come out? Here are a few examples in my own Writing Center consultant career where I have decided to use the scary tutor routine:


1) Students who come in with essay exams and no written permission

Academic honor code violations, for me, automatically warrant the scary tutor. When a student comes in with an essay exam, I sit the student down and explain exactly what could happen if we looked over the paper. In these circumstances, the student gets the absolute worst case scenario version, the one that involves professors being angry and possible expulsion. Of course, the chances of the student actually being expelled for going to the Writing Center with an essay exam without written consent is pretty minimal, but the point I want to get across is that academia take its honor codes friggin’ seriously. This whole monologue is delivered in an I’m-sympathetic-to-your-plight-but-my-hands-are-tied tone of voice because needing consent has probably never crossed the student’s mind before this moment. Still, it’s not a lesson I want them to forget.


2) Students whose work contains plagiarism

Non-ESL students who plop direct quotes in their paper without quotation marks or any sign of citation get the same talk as students who come with essay exams, only in a far more serious tone.


3) Students who come in the day an assignment’s due

I’m not talking about the rare student who’s been going to the Writing Center regularly for help on a big project and has just one more question before he/she turns the final draft of his/her precious writing baby. I’m talking about the students who come in, slap their draft on the desk, and ask you to fix _____ because they have to turn the thing in today. Typically, this situation involves a simple, “Okay, let’s see what we can get through. Keep in mind, though, that since the paper is due so soon, we won’t be able to focus on any big issues.” That’s not so much scary tutor as it is just letting the student know not to blame the Writing Center if the paper doesn’t go well. Scary tutor comes out on the more severe end of this spectrum. An example of “more severe”: I had a student come in with revisions for intro to lit, due that day. The student didn’t bring revisions because such revisions did not yet exist. The professor had refused to give the student a grade because the significance of the essay needed substantial work. The student wanted the paper “fixed.” I told the student flat out that the paper could not be fully revised in a few hours.


4) At your discretion, really. When you don’t think anything else is going to work and the student really needs to know how things are going to go down.


Of course, the trick to scary tutor is that it’s not the same as playing bad cop. When I become the scary tutor, I don’t want to make the student feel horrible. I don’t want to make the student feel stupid or send the student to the bathroom crying. “Scary tutor” is also very different from “angry tutor.” I want the student to be just nervous enough to realize how serious the situation is, and then, if I can, I want to show the student what to do next and how to avoid the situation in the future.



*This phonetic spelling has been lovingly commandeered from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. I, unfortunately, do not possess powers of phonetic transcription.

How Students Really Feel about Feedback

By - Monday, April 16, 2012, 12:10am

Tying together the results of my survey and the expectations I had for my research project on student perspective of professor commentary was actually a rather interesting process. I found that I was excited to see what students had to say about professor feedback.

I’d like to share some of the interesting data that I saw as a result of this voluntary survey sent out to St. Norbert English majors and minors.

For instance, when students are given the chance to have a rough draft before a final version of a paper, most do not discuss their paper with their professor when formulating their first draft, after receiving feedback, or in the process of revision for the next draft. Granted, a solid 45% of these students claimed that they “occasionally” get the opportunity to revise for a better grade, with “frequently and “rarely” getting to revise at a common percentage of 23%.

However, it was nice to see that most students take the liberty of revising more than what a professor believes should be changed when students receive feedback on a paper. When asked if they make changes that a professor does not advise or mark on the paper, 40% of students answered they “frequently” do so and 45% said they “occasionally” do so.

Another interesting tidbit, which I suppose should be obvious but surprised me, was that students value constructive criticism as long as it is paired with positive feedback. When asked what comments are most helpful to a student, comments that specify improvement, or comment on structure, organization, flow, and the thesis (argument) of a paper, are highly valued. At the same time, students also felt it was beneficial to have comments on what they did well and marked this as another valuable type of feedback.

I have more to share, but this is where my research ends for now. I think it would be interesting along with the numerical data to collect more journal or free-style data outlets for students. There seems to be a slight disconnect between what people check off and what people write in detail, as my survey varied between multiple choice/check box format and short/long answer. If willing to comply, students are very insightful and honest about professor feedback which says volumes more than the numerical data that can tend to overgeneralize a situation.

The google form was a really helpful tool to use in creating my survey, but I wish I had known more about it from the start!

(I took a mini detour, it seems, when I was compiling my data… this is my tangent, folks.

You see, I am not good with technology. I call my laptop computer a monster-baby because it’s old, heats up like crazy, is slow, can’t go anywhere without a fan, and the battery lasts about an hour off charge. But this is mostly besides the point.

The point is, my frustration with technology extends to myself and how dumb I can be sometimes. I never used google docs before this semester, so I was happy to discover the format of the google form to use for my survey. But what I failed to realize was that the fancy google form also puts together a summary of all your findings. Pie graphs, bar graphs, calculated totals and percentages.

Of course, I found this out after I put together my own spreadsheet, compiled the data, etc.

Thank goodness I perused the toolbar before I got all mathematical and started figuring out percentages!

Sigh. tangent over)

So…How ’bout that Research Project?

By - Friday, April 13, 2012, 9:26pm

Okay, I’ll admit it: I am not very familiar with research projects. In fact (actually, factually), I haven’t written a full research project report since Honors Chem II in high school. And those were lab reports. If I have done a research project since those chemistry days, I can honestly say I don’t remember it. Truth be told, I don’t remember much of my chem lab reports either. I did once make a stuffed animal mole that screamed when you hit it, though.

Anywho, having to sit down and write this research report has got me thinking about how we tutor students in specialized areas. In the first semester of our course, we discussed the pros and cons of having generalized tutors. At the time, I was a little skeptical of the whole idea of generalized tutors. I mean, I am a generalized tutor, so I know I shouldn’t be that skeptical of the effectiveness of such folks, but I still couldn’t help feeling that if I had to write something for a class outside of the humanities in non-essay form, I’d probably go to the TAs or the professor, not the Writing Center. And then I sat down to write this paper.

First though: “I have no idea how to write an effective research project.” In fact, I held off starting my paper for longer than I really should have because I had no idea how to effectively organize the beast. I recorded the facts, made some notes, and sketched a (very) rough outline, but I didn’t feel as confident in my writing as I would have if I’d been writing an essay. Starting, then, became a huge problem.

Once I finally did start, though, I encountered new problems. Which are really exactly like my old problems. I have no idea if my paper makes any sense. Sure, part of the problem is my own very loose grasp on holistic visualization and my inability to follow outlines (I have wars with organization). Part of my problem, though, is that my sentences are getting all twisty. They’re curling up on themselves, like those strange red fortune-telling fish you put in the palm of your hand. They’re acting all loopy. They’re not sitting still, darn them! And I have never used so much passive voice in my life. Is this the way my research words are supposed to align themselves?

All of this thinking about writing, and unfamiliar styles, and trying to effectively communicate a point in a different form of writing has brought generalized tutors back to the front of my mind. Would I go to a generalized tutor for this paper? Honestly, I haven’t decided yet. I do think, though, that writing this paper is giving me a chance to gain more perspective on how generalized tutors work with students. And who knows? I might just have to change some of my generalizations about generalized tutoring.

Conversational Appointments

By - Sunday, March 25, 2012, 3:54pm

One of my recent writing consultations took on a very interesting focus. Usually when a student comes into the Writing Center, as a tutor I begin with the basics: we look at the assignment, establish the due date, see how far the student is in writing, and then I will ask what the student would most like to focus on. I think the last tactic of orienting the appointment around the student’s concerns is beneficial because not only does the student take the initiative, but they are also forced to prioritize their concerns.

However, the appointment I encountered last week was markedly different than the above process–which was interesting and refreshing. While we addressed the basics, the student took control of the appointment head-on. More than guidance, what she sought was dialogue. This varied drastically compared to the usual appointment. Many students come in specifically concerned about one particular thing: their thesis, or grammar. I would say another universal worry is if “the paper makes sense,” to which this student wasn’t immune. I am the same way–after working on a paper for endless hours it is easy to become desensitized to the clarity of your own writing style. Yet, this student wanted to talk out loud about her paper. While there were underlying concerns there about clarity and structure, the main priority was to simply talk through what she had written.

I think this appointment has something interesting to say about the better way to write. Firstly, something missing from the writing process from my own writing experience at St. Norbert and perhaps from others, is encouraged dialogue and discussion about papers. Albeit, one of the reasons writers are probably lacking in this conversational aspect is because of time constraints. College is demanding. Peer-review even during class is a rare and often unsatisfying endeavor. In my personal experience, I am often hesitant to ask a roomate or friend or classmate to look over my paper–even though I desperately need a second-opinion–because I know how busy everyone is. Probably the only opportunity for students is the writing center–where people are paid to look at student writing. (disclaimer: but we like doing it! mostly!) Sure, professors are usually more than willing to discuss a paper, but this can be another issue of time. The point is that there is not a lot of organic, open, and encouraged discussion about student writing simply between students.

It’s a pity that an atmosphere of engaging dialogue seems to be on a small level or missing from the student writing process. While the appointment went well, and the student was satisfied with simply having someone to talk to about what she had written, and researched, and what she was finding out: this was rare. I think there are elements in most Writing Center appointments that encompass the one I had, but I think the main priority of simply having a conversation, a dialogue, about the student’s writing was unique.

If you’re wrong, does that mean I’m right?

By - Monday, March 19, 2012, 4:08pm

While the Writing Center does so many things to help students become better writers, the main way we help students become better writers is showing them how to make strong theses. I cannot count the number of times that I have told a student that a thesis must be debatable, precise, and supportable.  While these are essential aspects to making a strong thesis, they certainly are not the only ways one creates a strong argument.

Recently, I had a student come into the Writing Center for a research paper on Huckleberry Finn. This student chose to write about homosexuality in Huck Finn, arguing that Huck and Jim do not have a homosexual relationship.  This is a perfectly acceptable argument– this topic is something that has been exhaustively debated (so one could assume there will be a lot of information from the text and secondary sources to support this thesis). While this argument does work, the student’s thesis statement did not.  Instead of focusing on textual examples to support Huck and Jim’s platonic friendship, the student was heavily relying on one critic’s analysis of the novel.  Further complicating matters, her only means of defending her argument were to attack the critic– not the critic’s argument.

I will admit, I have read some relatively outlandish critical analyses that have caused me to question the legitimacy of the author(s).  However, if I were to use one of those articles in a research paper, attacking the author would not help my thesis whatsoever.  When one poorly chooses to critique the critic and not the critic’s argument, they are not helping their own argument; this type of argument is considered an “Ad hominem” fallacy.  Using Huck Finn as an example, if I were to argue that Huck and Finn have a homoerotic relationship, I would not be helping my own argument if I attacked a critic who disagrees with me.  If I argue that Sawyer’s argument (imaginary person) is incorrect because Sawyer is a product of his ridiculous religious beliefs, I am doing absolutely nothing to help my own argument.  The only thing I am actually achieving is showing my audience that Sawyer’s background and personal life might be affecting his argument.  Let me reiterate this– Sawyer as a person (an imaginary person), has nothing to do with my argument about Huck and Jim’s relationship.  How is this helping my argument? Long story short, it’s not.  So to answer the question that started this all: If you’re wrong, does that mean I’m right?  No.  Just because you’re wrong, doesn’t automatically make me right.  That would be too easy.  If I can properly negate your argument using textual evidence and other critics theories that support my argument, then there’s a much better chance that I’m right… and who doesn’t love being right?

Incomplete Perceptions of the Writing Center

By - Wednesday, February 29, 2012, 10:43am

As I was creating surveys for my research project, I decided to look over the criteria for writing intensive courses at St. Norbert. The WI class description is pretty basic and includes requirements you may expect to find in WI classes. However, I found one section that caught my eye and made me again wonder about professor’s perceptions of the writing center. The section says,

Instructors should concentrate in class on the higher order concerns about writing-content, organization, audience, research, etc.-and address lower order concerns-grammar and mechanics, for example-individually with students as these problems pertain to specific writing assignments. Instructors should refer students with basic writing problems to The Writing Center. (“St. Norbert”) (emphasize mine)

The last sentence in the paragraph surprised me because I feel that this sentence encourages incorrect perceptions about the writing center. Yes, we are here to help students with basic writing problems and with lower order concerns. But that is not all we do. The paragraph in the WI description makes it seem that professors are to address higher order concerns while the writing center picks up the lower order concerns that professors don’t have time to address or that the writing center only helps students who struggle with writing.

So, I began to think why professors might think of the writing center as a place that only helps students with basic writing problems. Here are a few things I came up with:

  1. The writing center is staffed by students who are not professional writers or teachers and who themselves are still learning good writing skills.
  2. The client report forms may often address basic writing skills and not higher order concerns. The forms may not give a professor a good idea of what goes on in a consultation because the forms are written more for the students’ benefit, and writing center consultants don’t fill in all the background knowledge of what happened in the consultation.
  3. Some students who go to the writing center still hand in poor papers because the writing center consultant cannot transform a paper in 30 minutes; the student must take responsibility for transforming their own paper.
  4. It seems that writing center visits are required in lower level classes more than they are required in upper level classes.

Professors can get the wrong idea about the writing center whether they get those ideas from print material, personal experiences, or an incomplete understanding of the writing center. I think it’s important to recognize why some professors have an incomplete view of the writing center, and I think that we should re-evaluate the description of the writing center in the writing intensive course description.

“St. Norbert College Writing-Across-the Curriculum Program.” Writing Across the Curriculum. St. Norbert College. 2012. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <>.



Method Acting at the Writing Center

By - Thursday, February 23, 2012, 11:11pm

In one of my recent sessions, I got to use one of my very favorite tutoring techniques: method acting.

I’ve used full-out roleplaying exactly twice in my Writing Center sessions (I don’t consider “pretend you’re someone who might disagree with your argument” roleplaying). The first time, my client was having difficulty trying to get into the mind of a character she was writing about. I took the Freud head, complete with his hat and red vase, and set him on the lounge chair we conveniently keep in the Writing Center. “Okay,” I said, “pretend Freud here is Frankie [the character in question].”

Then we psychoanalyzed him.

My client left with either a clearer understanding of the inner workings of Frankie or a firm conviction that Writing Center consultants were completely off their proverbial rockers. Since that session last semester, though, I have unfortunately not had the opportunity to utilize this technique again.

Until this week. This time, though, we went beyond mere roleplaying and launched straight into the realm of method acting.

It happened like this: my client (let’s call her was writing a paper on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She was at that odd point in a paper where there are lots of reasons but no clear main claim yet. We’d already done the standard House, MD, thing (where you throw all the evidence on the whiteboard and try to diagnose the main claim), and we were discussing one point in particular: how the narrator realizes she is the wallpaper. What was the significance of the narrator’s discovery? What does it mean to be wallpaper?

Clearly, the only one logical way to approach this scenario was to locate some actual wallpaper and stare at it. In this instance, we wound up in front of the random patch of wallpaper next to the bathrooms. Then we stared at it. Intently. And while we were staring, we talked about what we saw, how we felt, what it would mean to be wallpaper. We discussed the wallpaper itself. (Fact: that particular patch of wallpaper consists of vertical white lines which, upon closer inspection, are actually numbers. If you look really closely, you realize there are actually more numbers within the white numbers. It’s crazy.) Once we both felt ready to start creeping over things, we went back to the Writing Center, and she did some freewriting.

The point of this post, I think, is that I believe hands-on techniques have some value. For me, getting up and doing things not only helps reinforce what I’m saying but also helps me deal with having back-to-back sessions. If I don’t actually get up and move, then after two or three appointments I start feeling dull and repetitive. It mixes my sessions up and makes me approach writing differently.


So. Thoughts. How do you feel about more hands-on sessions? Have you conducted/had one? Was it helpful? Was it unhelpful? Why?


Protected: Helpful Tip from an Unnamed Citizen

By - Tuesday, February 14, 2012, 3:51pm

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Tips for Who vs Whom

By - Monday, February 6, 2012, 10:15pm

So here’s the deal: who is a subject, and whom is an object. Simple, right? Not really. The thing is, the vast majority of native English speakers have absolutely no clue when to use “who” and when to use “whom,” so we just sort close our eyes and pick one and hope our audience doesn’t know the difference either. Sometimes, though, blindly picking a pronoun and hoping for the best just doesn’t quite cut it. In those circumstances, the following schnazzy tips might just help.


Step One: Untangle that Snarly Sentence

We tend to like to use who and whom in really twisty sentences. Normal sentences get all flipped around and crazy-like once “who” enters the mix. Why? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with who/whom’s status as question words. (“I am talking to him” is a statement: “I am talking to whom?” is a question.) Who and whom tend to appear in parts of sentences that most other pronouns stay far away from. Restructuring the sentence in question, then, might help.


He is the one in whom I place my trust.


I place my trust in whom.


Step Two: Make the Question an Answer

If you’re dealing with a question, try turning the question into an answer. (Okay, so this is really more of an offshoot of step one, but four steps are better than three.)


To whom am I speaking?


I am speaking to whom.


Step Three: Switch Out Your Pronouns

If untangling your sentence still doesn’t make it quite clear, try replacing the “who/whom” with “she/her,” “he/him,” or “they/them” (you/you typically does not work as well in this scenario, but you’re welcome to try it, just so it doesn’t feel left out).


Step Four: Consider Your Audience

By this point, you’ve hopefully figured out which word is properly situated for your circumstances. (If you haven’t and the word is of vital importance, I would consider appealing to a Higher Grammar Authority.) Remember, though, that the grammatically correct word isn’t necessarily the right one: there will be times when your audience may actually prefer a wrong “who/whom” to a right one. If you’re writing a script for a gangster movie, for example, then “Who you talkin’ to?” is most likely far more appropriate than “To whom are you speaking?” The more formal the situation, the more formal the tone. The more formal the tone, the more important the grammar.