Author Archive

Scary Tutor

By Hannah Schmitt - 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.

So…How ’bout that Research Project?

By Hannah Schmitt - 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.

Method Acting at the Writing Center

By Hannah Schmitt - 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?


Tips for Who vs Whom

By Hannah Schmitt - 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.

Nothing Personal: Working with Application Materials in the Writing Center

By Hannah Schmitt - Monday, December 5, 2011, 8:21pm

By Gretchen Panzer and Hannah Schmitt

Hannah: Last week, Gretchen and I met up for an appointment at the Quick Help Desk to work on her personal statements. Particularly, we worked on the hooks for these statements. It almost immediately became clear that hooks are by far the peskiest part of writing a personal statement because they’re so paradoxical: they’re supposed to be attention-grabbing without being cliche, sincere but not sentimental, bold but not out of place. In a sense, hooks epitomize the problems of personal statements: present an argument about yourself, but don’t be arrogant, overly sentimental, or soft-spoken. Inspired by this session, Gretchen and I decided  that for our last blog post of the semester we would, together, try to sort out what working with personal statements is all about.

Gretchen: Self-marketing seems to be a genre in its own right. Though we’ve learned how to evaluate lab reports, reading reviews, and religious studies essays that don’t discuss religion, we haven’t learned the ins and outs of evaluating application materials. In addition to using Hannah as a resource for my own applications, I’ve worked with several students on scholarship essays, personal statements for law school applications, resumes, and cover letters in my time at the Writing Center. I can tell these students whether their writing is clear, grammatically sound, and compelling to me as a general reader, but I can’t tell them if it is likely to impress the particular individuals who make up the admissions committees for the departments and institutions that they are applying to. How much are we as writing tutors expected to help students with application materials?

Hannah & Gretchen: Here are the queries that we’d like to present to you:

  • To what extent is it even our responsibility as writing tutors to speculate on the reactions of admissions committees? When should we refer students to Career Services or to their professors and when can we confidently advise them to change elements of their applications besides grammar, spelling, and other sentence-level issues?
  • The prompts for many scholarship and even graduate school applications encourage students to reflect on meaningful personal experiences; therefore we may tend to encounter more very personal stories than we do with other forms of writing. How much anecdote is too much anecdote? How can we best critique writing that is deeply personal?
  • Since application materials must be professional in tone, how can we judge when to encourage students to use more formal rhetoric and when to showcase their individual voice (especially in light of our class readings and discussion about creating space for diverse voices in the Writing Center)?
  • What qualifies as a higher-order concern for application materials? Because most scholarships, job offerings, and graduate programs are highly competitive, sentence-level errors can have serious ramifications. Should we therefore consider sentence-level issues to actually be higher-order concerns in the case of application materials? And if so, how can we fulfill our mission of not being merely copy editors?

Have you been asked to evaluate application materials before, either as a tutor or as a friend? How did you–or how would you–address the concerns we’ve listed above? Do you have any other concerns or insights related to evaluating application materials that we’ve failed to mention here?

Even Two Stars Make A Major General

By Hannah Schmitt - Saturday, November 19, 2011, 4:54pm

On Wednesday, Monica wrote a fabulous blog post in which she discussed the anxieties she had about allowing students to rate their consultations (“Two Gold Stars Up+ (with a five cherries on top)“). I found her ideas very though-provoking and I started to respond in the comments section, but then realized I had way more to say than what I could fit in the little box. So Monica, this one goes out to you.

First Thought:

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say it happens. Let’s say that, instead of being responsible responders, the only students (besides the three Gretchen mentioned) who take the time to respond to the survey are out to start a blood feud against the Writing Center. All of a sudden, our survey responses are written exclusively by irate students who came to their sessions unprepared, were not handed their essay revisions on a silver platter, received poor grades, and are now out to curse the name of all writing tutors. They write scathing reviews about how their grammatical errors went unfettered, how their absent assignment sheets went unfollowed, how their unstormed brains did not brainstorm themselves. “War!” they cry. “Abhorrent incivility! Death to the Writing Center! Down with peer tutoring!”

Second Thought:

How often do we really get those unprepared students? The ones who come in, sit down, and expect their writing to be “fixed”–no effort required? The ones we absolutely cannot convince to do the work. The ones who sit and stare. How often–honestly? How often has each of us–personally–had to deal with an appointment where the student just wanted nothing to do with the session.

Once a week? Once a month? Once a semester?

Now think about that student. A student you have actually had who simply refused to participate. Lock on to the image of that student. Could you honestly see that student taking the time after his/her appointment to sit down and fill out an online questionnaire evaluating the quality of the consultation? What do you think that student actually did after the appointment was over? Went back to bed? Threw together the paper that was due in six hours? Whined on facebook about the assignment/class/teacher?

For that matter, what’s the likelihood that student even read the follow-up email?

Third thought:

But okay. Let’s say we do get those students. A whole herd of them. And they all fill out their surveys. And they all hated their tutoring sessions. What constructive things could those surveys actually tell us? As best as I can tell, the answer would probably be one of these four:

1) Students don’t understand the purpose of the Writing Center

2) Professors don’t understand/explain the purpose of the Writing Center

3) Tutors don’t clearly explaining the purpose of the Writing Center

4) The student recognizes that it is his/her own fault for being unprepared for the appointment but is unable to cope with this reality and so, in a classic display of displacement, redirects the focus of his/her anger from him-/herself to the Writing Center.

Now, when we’re considering these options, we have to keep two things in mind. First, in order for negative responses to be a significant problem, they must have a significant quantitative value. Let’s say 25 students fill out our survey. How many of those students would have to give a negative review for there to be a noticeable problem? Compare that number to the number of students you were able to think of in the “Second thought” section of this blog. How do those numbers stack up?

Second, 3/4 of those problems are fixable. While there’s not much we can do for situation #4 short of recommending group counseling, the other three have fairly easy fixes. We double our efforts. We explain to students what we do during our sessions. We remind students of our purpose in client reports. We make fliers explaining what the Writing Center does and deliver them to campus mailboxes. Fixable. More importantly, meaningful.

Final though:

It’s worth saying that I don’t honestly anticipate a slew of negative reviews. Overall, I think we do fairly well for ourselves at the Writing Center. I think students generally receive the help they need and gain opportunities to make themselves better writers. But even if negative reactions were to start dominating the surveys, they would still be immensely helpful. So everyone suddenly and surprisingly hates us–that would, at least, tell us something. We can’t fix problems if we don’t know they exist.

Post-final thought: In case you were wondering, a major general’s stars a silver, not gold.

Works Cited

Platten, Monica. “Two Gold Stars Up+ (with a five cherries on top).” St. Norbert College Writing Center. 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011

Panzer, Gretchen. “Two Gold Stars Up+ (with a five cherries on top.” Blog Post Comment.

If Tutees Were Like Their Operating Systems

By Hannah Schmitt - Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 1:28pm

Hey everyone!

In lieu of a regular written blog, this week Nicole and I decided to create a video blog instead. Enjoy!

If Tutees Were Like Their Operating Systems

(P.S. – We couldn’t figure out how to embed the video into our blog post. Prof. Cordell…do you know?)




An Imagined Conversation about the Quick Help Desk

By Hannah Schmitt - Wednesday, October 26, 2011, 8:08pm

So. (I think probably about 95% of my blog posts begin with the word “so” – it’s a great opener) Today in our staff meeting we discussed the Quick Help Desk, and I got to thinking: what does the average library-visiting student think about this desk? As I pulled myself up onto the lofty chair from which the Quick Help desker overlooks the library (and it always makes me think of The Lion King: “Everything the light touches…”), I noticed two students at the near table staring at me in confusion. In my mind, I imagined our conversation going something like this:

Student: Prithee, good  woman, do tell us honestly: What is the purpose of this stand from which you preside?

Me: I’faith, it is the Quick Help Desk, from which learnéd tutors offer advice.

Student: Zwounds! And how, forsooth, does one become such a thing as that?

Me: By eating your green vegetables? But seriously, though, do you have any idea what we do?

Student: Nope.

That conversation, I think, accurately depicts the average student’s understanding of the Quick Help Desk. This imaginary conversation made me wonder how we could encourage students to learn more about the Quick Help Desk, or educate them about what we do. As we discussed during the meeting, college students can be difficult to reach because they already have so much going on. After careful contemplation, here are some ideas I’ve come up with which might inform students about the Desk (a few of these I’ve said before, but I’ve included them anyway, for symmetry).

11 Practical Suggestions to Increase the Visibility of the Quick Help Desk:

  1. Dress up as famous literary figures and answer QHD questions in character. (For example, dress up as Chaucer and end every session with a dirty joke. Or Poe and tell everyone that their work is awful.) If I saw someone dressed as Jane Austen sitting at a podium, I would dig around until I found out what was going on.
  2. Relocate the QHD to the elevator. Well, not the actual desk…just put the tutor on a stool and have him/her ride the elevator for an hour. One can easily work writing into a conversation while operating the elevator. (“Which floor? Third? Good. Oh, by the way, do you have any writing assignments coming up that you might have quick help questions on?”)
  3. Dismantle the Quick Help Desk altogether. Instead, have tutors dress up in 19th century household servant garb and wander around the library carrying silver trays and offering assistance to lone writers. (Tutor: Might I interest you in some citation assistance, sir? No? Very well. And how about you, ma’am–would you care to check the significance of your thesis?) At the very least, students will know what we’re doing.
  4. Stage a Wild West style showdown between tutors at the change of every shift (Tutor A: “I done told you, Chicago-style Jane, this Help Desk ain’t big enough for the two of us.” Tutor B: “Well I reckon you ought to support that claim with some evidence”). Spectacle works for Aristotelian comedies, so why not Quick Help Desks?
  5. Answer all QHD questions in Pig Latin. Students will at least learn Pig Latin.
  6. Organize a faux protest of the QHD (bring signs like: “Protect our Weak Theses!” “We Have a Write to Mispell!” “MLA Kills Bunnies!”). Controversy breeds popularity, right?
  7. Distribute cupcakes that contain complete descriptions of the purpose of the QHD written in frosting. (If an artist can create masterpieces on a grain of rice, we ought to be able to fit a mission statement on a cupcake.)
  8. Change the “Quick Help Desk” sign to “Free Puppies!” Answer inquiries with bits of writing advice.
  9. Write a musical for Knights on Broadway about the Writing Center entitled “Writing Center: The Musical!” Include a song about the purpose of the QHD. (Other popular highlights include “Grade My Grammar,” “But It’s Due in Six Minutes!” and “The Schedule Song.”)
  10. Start an exclusive night club in the basement of the Mulva and only allow in students who’ve used the QHD.
  11. Do nothing. If the students don’t figure out the purpose of the QHD by the end of the semester, revoke their Ed’s privileges.

Or maybe we could just keep sending out emails.


Now Push! Midwifery and the Writing Center

By Hannah Schmitt - Thursday, October 13, 2011, 12:52pm

Last night I had one of those appointments, the kind where you KNOW the student walked out with a better grasp on his/her paper. I was talking about it with Joanna this morning, and we started talking about my ridiculous birth metaphors, several of which came up in this consultation. For the sake of brevity and privacy, I will refer to my student as “Galadriel,” because using standard code names like “Sally,” “Sue,” or “Jane” just gets old. Also, who doesn’t want to be Galadriel?

Galadriel came in last night with a paper proposal for her religious studies class. When we opened the session, she was having some serious thesis-related anxiety. Normally I’m all about thesis awareness, but the problem Galadriel had was that she was convinced she needed to have a polished, 100% perfect, set-in-stone thesis before she wrote her paper. I tend to fail at transcribing speech into paraphrasing, so here’s the gist of my response:

Me: Okay, hold on. If you think your thesis you have now isn’t going to change, you’re never going to be able to write a good paper. Your assignment here is a proposal. In the pregnancy of your paper, basically you’ve just peed on a stick and it’s come up with the little plus sign. The important thing is that there’s something there—that’s really all you need to know. You don’t need to start picking out wallpaper or buying baby clothes—if you do, you’re going to find out that what you thought was a girl was actually a boy, and then you’re going to have to repaint the room, and pick out new clothes, and basically start all over.

Galadriel started laughing about halfway through this metaphor, but I think she understood my point. The pregnancy theme continued throughout the appointment (I told her to come back as she gets further along so we can have an argument baby shower). We also birthed an introduction.

Even before I started working in the writing center, I’ve used birth/pregnancy metaphors to describe writing (one time I scheduled an appointment and told my tutor that my thesis baby had anoxia). I think pregnancy metaphors work well for me because they stress that writing is a process, not a once-and-done occurrence. Just as pregnancy takes nine months, arguments don’t spontaneously appear on paper. Healthy papers need careful attention and time to develop.

The metaphor also works well for me because of the roles it gives tutors. If papers are pregnancies, then tutors are midwives. Students have to birth their own papers, but writing center consultants are here to help students through that long and sometimes painful process. Some arguments flow really naturally and only need a little bit of interference; other papers need much more attention. Students still need to do the work, but we’re here whenever they have questions, want guidance, or just need someone to help them focus.


And the Last Shall Be First (sort of)

By Hannah Schmitt - Wednesday, October 12, 2011, 7:50pm

Actually, the last idea shall come first. In your next sentence. Sometimes.

After reading The Craft of Research‘s advice about putting familiar information first in a sentence and discussing that piece of advice in class, I started thinking about appointments I’ve had where I might have been able to use that information.

In fact, I had an appointment where I could have discussed new vs. old information a few days ago. A student came in with a reflection-style paper on the roads of his home town. In his paper, each of his topic sentences seemed off topic. As I typically do when I get confused by students’ topic sentences (or lack thereof), I had the student explain to me the point of each paragraph.

Here’s where things got interesting. When the student explained the point of his paper, he essentially came up with information he already had in his topic sentences. For example, he would say the point of a paragraph was to show how roads bring communities together. I would ask him where that information was in his topic sentence. He would take one look at his topic sentence, underline “the road brings my community together,” and stare at me like I was an idiot. Whoops!

In this student’s case, my confusion stemmed from the syntax, not the content, of his sentences. He was introducing new information and then moving back to old information, which threw emphasis on really strange parts of his sentence and made the sentence sound like it was about something completely different.

Once I realized what the problem was, the very quiet part of my brain went, “Hey! Isn’t that like that whole old information/new information thing we learned last year?” I hadn’t done the reading for class yet, so it wasn’t very fresh in my mind, but I did remember it from one of our WC meetings last year. This might make me a bad WAC student, but I ignored that voice, because I never really understood that metaphor–it seems very slippery to me. (I mean, what exactly IS old information? New information? For whatever reason, the metaphor just hasn’t really clicked with my mind yet) Instead, I talked about emphasis, and how the information you present first sets the tone for what you’re going to talk about. The student seemed to understand that.

Even though that appointment went fairly well, I still want to be able to explain new information vs. old information. Maybe I just need to let the idea stew in the back of my mind for a while, but right now I’m not sure how to present that information. As I said earlier the whole idea still sounds slippery.

How are the rest of you planning on approaching old/new (or simple/complex) information? When do you think you will use it? How do you think you might set it up? How do you anticipate students responding?


Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., and Williams, Joseph M. The Craft of Research. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.