Posts Tagged ‘student/consultant relationship’

Tutors as Tailors: Determining and Meeting Individual Needs in the Writing Center

By Gretchen Panzer - Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 6:06pm

As I was reading Julie Neff’s article on tutoring students with learning disabilities, I couldn’t help but ask the same question that I had after our discussions about ESL students: how can we quickly determine whether a student needs a style of tutoring that differs from our standard approach?

In my experience, it’s fairly easy to tell whether or not English is a student’s second language. However, I find it difficult to get a sense of what level of proficiency an ESL student has attained during some sessions. When explaining a grammatical error, I’m sometimes unsure if the student understands every word I’m saying, if she gets the general idea, or if she is struggling to understand because I’m not using the kind of vocabulary that she’s familiar with. I still wish someone would give me a flowchart that I could follow during sessions to quickly figure out how proficient the student is in English—and, therefore, how I should adapt my tutoring style to best meet her needs. Of course, it may be the case that no magic flowchart exists, and I simply have to face the fact that determining a student’s level of language proficiency is a messy process.

I think this judgment is even more difficult to make in the case of students with learning disabilities or other conditions that complicate the learning process. One of my closest friends is dyslexic, and I didn’t even realize this until he told me directly. I had noticed that he doesn’t read as quickly as I do, but I didn’t think anything of it because everyone reads at a different pace. Even when reading his papers, I didn’t notice any indication that writing might be difficult for him; he made no more sentence-level errors and had no more higher-order concerns in his writing than the average student.

While it’s possible that I’m an exceptionally oblivious person when it comes to things like this, I suspect that determining whether a student has a learning disability—and if so, what type—might be difficult for other tutors as well. After all, as Neff explains, these students are often extremely intelligent and have become skilled at “compensating for and adapting to their particular disabilit[ies]” (251). My friend uses different strategies than most students to learn the course content and demonstrate his knowledge of the material: he listens to audio versions of his textbooks and is allowed extra time to take his exams. While the extended test time in particular makes it obvious to his professors that he’s dyslexic, I wonder if a writing tutor would be able to pick up on this fact simply by having a session with him.

Unless a student is very open about his or her particular challenges—whether these include a learning disability, limited familiarity with the English language, or another factor that we have yet to discuss—how can we as tutors determine the best approach to use? Is trial and error the only means by which we can tailor our style to meet students’ individual needs? Do you have any strategies that help you hone in on a student’s needs, especially strategies that might speed up the process? What has helped you in the past, and what ideas do you have for future sessions?

Work Cited

Neff, Julie. “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 4th ed. Eds. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 249-62. Print.

Whose Paper Is It, Anyway?

By Gretchen Panzer - Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 2:37pm

I had a session recently that made me question the line between helping a student with his or her paper and imposing one’s own writing process or opinions upon it. I’m a big fan of non-directive tutoring and think of myself as a helpful resource rather than as an authority figure, so it came as a shock when I realized that I sometimes feel personally responsible for the papers students bring to the Writing Center. But why should I feel that way when I’m a tutor, not the writer? Just whose paper is it, anyway?

In the session I’ve referred to, the student came in about an hour before her paper was due, and expected that we’d work on final edits rather than any major revisions. However, there was a glaring higher-order concern with her literary analysis: her thesis contained two main claims, but she only supported one of these claims in her paper. Simply deleting the unsupported claim was out of the question, since one of her two critical sources related solely to that claim, and she needed both sources for the assignment. I knew if it were my paper, I’d go back to the text to find evidence to support the second claim. When I suggested this, however, the student said she couldn’t do that—both because she didn’t have enough time and because she had not purchased/rented/checked out a copy of the text.*

At this point in the session, I was at a loss. The student decided to add a sentence to each of her body paragraphs that related to her second claim, but without any textual evidence for her claims I knew she would not get a high grade on her paper. No matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to help this student make her paper as strong as I wanted it to be. But even as I write this, I wonder why I felt responsible for making another student’s paper as strong as I wanted it to be, rather than simply wanting to make it stronger than it was before. The student was content with her draft before she brought it in to the Writing Center; after all, she only wanted me to polish it. So what was the problem?

I think I felt personally responsible for the grade this student was going to receive because I had the opportunity to help make that paper a solid, well-supported literary analysis, but the student hadn’t done her part by giving herself the time she would need to actually follow her consultant’s advice after the session. Usually I don’t have such a hard time dealing with last-minute appointments—but usually, these students really do just need to polish their work. In this particular session, part of me wanted to insist that the student go find a copy of the book in the library and gather evidence for her claims, but of course I can’t force students to put more effort into their work than they’re willing to give, or refuse to offer any other advice besides a method that would take more time than they have to work with.

What do you think—am I overreacting to the situation? Have you ever wanted to assume ownership of the student’s paper by directing the student to do exactly what you would do? Can a sense of responsibility for other students’ papers have positive effects, or does it just make us feel like lousy tutors when a paper ultimately doesn’t meet our personal standards? How much (if at all) should we lower our standards when dealing with last-minute appointments?

*This is perhaps the biggest mystery of all—where did she get all the quotes she’d already cited in her paper if she didn’t have access to a copy of the literary work she was analyzing? I think my brain exploded a little when she said this.

 

Tough Love in the Writing Center

By Gretchen Panzer - Sunday, October 16, 2011, 6:04pm

“Your claim here doesn’t make any sense. You need to fix it.”

“As a reader, I don’t understand the claim you’re making here. Can you explain it to me?”

Which would you use to address a student’s unclear claim? Which would you prefer to hear if it were your paper? Though it doesn’t seem to be the most popular style of tutoring by any means, I’ve observed several sessions in our writing center in which the tutor adopted a “tough love” attitude. Since some of these sessions were conducted by tutors who were more experienced than I was, I can only assume that it can be an effective method. However, I worry that it may be used too liberally. While some students are thick-skinned enough to appreciate—and even prefer—tough love, others may lack the confidence it takes to withstand thirty minutes of direct, authoritative criticism.

How does tough love differ from other forms of tutoring? First, tutors who use tough love seem to focus only on what could be improved in the paper, ignoring its strengths. This ensures that no second of the session will be wasted, but it could shatter the confidence of a student who already feels like he is a bad writer. In his mind, the fact that he cannot write well is confirmed when his tutor points out error after error in his paper. With this student, pointing out a few of the paper’s strengths might boost his confidence and motivate him to continue improving his paper through revision.

Second, tutors applying tough love tend to speak in a very direct, authoritative manner. The quote I used at the beginning of this post (which is fictitious to avoid singling out any current or past tutors, but modeled after real statements) typifies the tough love approach. The tutor presents her opinion as fact—“your claim here doesn’t make any sense”—establishing herself as an authority figure rather than a peer. She is also very direct, reducing discussion of the student’s paper to a simple matter of problem and solution: this is wrong, so fix it.

By contrast, the tutor in the second quote positions herself as a reader rather than as an authority figure—“as a reader, I don’t understand the claim.” Rather than directing the student to correct an error, she asks the student to explain his claim. When I use this strategy, more often than not the student’s verbal explanation is perfectly clear and I only need to say, “That’s a really great way to phrase it—why don’t you use that sentence in your paper?” My goal in using strategies like this rather than tough love is to encourage the student to improve his writing without making him feel as if he is a bad writer for having an unclear claim in his paper.

I’ll confess that I’ve never tried the tough love approach, since I feel that it should only be used when the tutor is absolutely certain that the student prefers such a direct (and directive) approach. However, I may be overlooking some of its benefits. Have you ever experienced the tough love approach or used it yourself? Do you think it’s an effective method? What positive and/or negative effects have you noticed when using or observing the use of tough love?

 

Building Relationships in the Writing Center

By Gretchen Panzer - Thursday, September 8, 2011, 8:07pm

Our course readings have raised interesting points regarding the relationship between consultant and student in the writing center. As someone who normally worries about how to develop relationships with others—my Myers-Briggs introversion tendency is a perfect 100—I feel this is something I should explore further. I am particularly concerned with establishing a comfortable environment for the students I work with in the writing center and determining whether I present myself to students as a true collaborator or as an authority figure.

The introduction to The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors caused me to question whether the typical circumstances at our writing center are conducive to building strong relationships between students and consultants. Murphy and Sherwood seem to assume that most students who use writing centers visit the center several times per semester, scheduling all of their appointments with the same consultant. Unfortunately, I have only built a few of these relationships in my time at the writing center. While this may be due to a deficiency in my style, I think it is partially due to the product-driven view that most students have of their writing. It seems the typical student comes to the writing center because he or she is concerned with the assignment he or she is working on at the moment rather than with establishing regular sessions—or, as is too often the case, because his or her professor made visiting the writing center a requirement for the assignment and he or she would not be there otherwise. As a result, most students either visit the writing center only a couple of times or visit frequently but schedule their appointments with whoever is available at a particular time rather than seek out the same consultant. I would like to have a greater number of recurring appointments, since these sessions are both incredibly productive and rewarding on a personal level, but I am still trying to figure out how to achieve this goal.

My second concern regarding student/consultant relationships is establishing a collaborative peer relationship with students. In her essay “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center,” Lunsford writes:

I think we must be cautious in rushing to embrace collaboration because collaboration can also be used to reproduce the status quo; the rigid hierarchy of teacher-centered classrooms is replicated in the tutor-centered writing center in which the tutor is still the seat of all authority but is simply pretending it isn’t so. (74)

I share Lunsford’s concern with the equality (or lack thereof) of the student/consultant relationship, especially since I hope to model my approach after feminist, non-hierarchical pedagogical methods. I feel that my approach when working with a student in the writing center is nearly the same as my approach when participating in peer review with a classmate; however, Lunsford’s essay caused me to question whether I should be doing more to achieve true equality, since the student/consultant relationship has been traditionally viewed as inherently unequal.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, from your experiences as students visiting the writing center as well as your experiences as consultants. In particular, I hope you can weigh in on the following questions:

  • How can we encourage students to schedule recurring appointments? When this is not possible, how can we more effectively build strong relationships with students in the 30-minute time frame?
  • If you have visited our writing center as a student, did you view your consultant as a collaborator or as an authority figure?
  • As a consultant, how do you (or how do you plan to) encourage students to view you as a collaborator rather than as an authority figure?

 

Works Cited

Lunsford, Angela. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” Murphy and Sherwood 70-77.

Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood eds. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 4th ed. Bedford/St. Marin’s: Boston and

New York, 2011. Print.