Category Archives: Tales from the Writing Center

The US Model Writing Center in Russia

The New Economic School in Moscow is a rather unique place. Created in 1991 by a group that included a Russian technocrat, an Israeli economist, and George Soros, its ideals are fundamentally internationalist, designed to train the best and brightest from Russia and other CIS nations in economic theory, send some of them to the US or Western Europe for advanced degrees, and bring them back to become the business and academic elite here in their home country. For that reason, by the time they graduate, students are expected to be fluent in English and fully acculturated to academic norms in the West.

For that reason, NES has deliberately sought out foreign faculty and foreign educational models. Even the Russian faculty tend to carry PhDs from places like Cambridge and MIT. And when the school decided to start offering a liberal arts-model BA in addition to its two Master’s programs, the idea of importing the US Writing Center/WAC model followed almost immediately. Because most of the Economics faculty are not equipped for writing instruction in English, this program has been staffed with faculty with Humanities degrees from overseas. Right now, the English department is roughly half Russian/half American. Three of the last four Writing Center administrators have been American (including myself, obviously), and all four have had experience working in American writing centers.

So in a number of important ways, our Writing Center resembles the one I was trained in: we train consultants to use the non-directive, process-oriented pedagogy advocated by foundational scholars like Stephen North. In addition to providing consultations, we provide resources to faculty to support the integration of writing into their curriculum. We encounter similar issues of misunderstanding and resistance from students and faculty when it comes to our Socratic, non-directive pedagogical model, though these are perhaps a bit more pronounced given the authoritarian model of Russian secondary education.

But in some very huge and perhaps rather obvious ways, our Writing Center will probably never look exactly like a US one. NES isn’t the first non-US institution to adopt this model (though it is the first in Russia), which is becoming more popular worldwide (indeed, recent Humanities PhDs with a sense of adventure ought to seriously consider exploring the international market, which often offers more attractive opportunities than the US market). And for that reason, the specific challenges we have here are worth discussing. Naturally, this is a subject that I will continue to reflect on as my time in Russia progresses, but here are a few broad points that have come to the forefront as I’ve begun working here:

For starters, ours is a bi-lingual Writing Center, offering consultations in both Russian and English. And when it comes to English, we have to assist students with widely varying levels of proficiency. Which means that we are involved not only in teaching writing in English but in teaching the language of English itself. Students can come in not only to get help with their writing assignments but to practice their pronunciation or conversation skills. We offer workshops in oral presentation skills in addition to writing skills. For that reason, we call ourselves the Writing and Communications Center (literal translation from Russian: “The Center for Written and Oral Communication”). And while the difference appears subtle, consulting on oral vs. written communication for EFL students requires a different set of competencies for consultants. Simply being a native English speaker helps but isn’t quite enough on its own. Some linguistics training and a basic understanding of English vs. Russian morphology makes a gigantic difference.

The differences between English and Russian extend beyond the mere mechanics of language, however. In the past few weeks at NES, we have come to think of essay writing in English as a completely different genre than  essay writing in Russian, where the argument often appears at the end and the writing tends more toward circularity than toward the pyramidal model we teach in Freshman Comp in the US. It’s not that the Russian way of writing is incorrect, it’s just that audiences in each language have different expectations when it comes to the structure of an argument, and students must be taught to tailor their papers and presentations to fit each. Therefore, this is a Writing Center that has to address the idea of “good writing” not as a set of universal rules but as a set of culturally and linguistically mediated practices.

And finally, as Tzu-Shan Chang reports in this article about Taiwanese writing centers, it is nearly impossible to find qualified peer tutors for consultations in English. We have three American interns (who all hold either a BA or an MA) and one PhD student from Moscow State University, but otherwise, all of our consultants are faculty. Particularly at such a small institution, this requires us to adopt dramatically different roles in our encounters with students as instructors rather than consultants. We do not take consultations for work in our own classes, but it is possible that we will see our students for work assigned by other professors. And I tend to hold that certain superficial (and maybe kind of dumb) distinctions–such as asking students to use my first name when I am working as a consultant–are important to distinguishing my role.

Tales from the Writing Center: Business Communications Word Puzzles

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to and possibly see them included in this feature.

My university has a mammoth business school, a mammoth business school that is even more finicky about grammar than the English, Communications, and Journalism departments put together.  Every freshman business student is required to take a Business Communications class, where they learn how to write memos and executive summaries and such.  My first year staffing the writing center, the faculty head of that particular program came to a training session to tell us what to expect from these students and assignments.  During that session, we learned that writing for Business is different from writing for English class in the following ways:

  • Writing in business is audience-oriented
  • Writing in business is about solving problems
  • Writing in business is clear
  • When writing in business, we don’t use flowery language
  • When writing in business, we use a lot of bullet points

Got that?  Also, we were told that in Business Communications, they do not tolerate grammar errors.  Also, if Business Communications students were to come into the Writing Center, we should totally just focus on grammar, because we weren’t qualified to comment on any other aspect of their assignments.

It gets better.  They told their students this as well, so often times, the business students who wandered into the Writing Center on their way to a networking lunch carried the same prejudices and obsessions that their professors did.  The typical Business Communications student walked in looking for help–not with drafting readable, engaging prose–but navigating the byzantine style rules they are supposed to follow.

For example, this freshman girl comes in for a consultation with me.  Her task for this class is to write an email to a prospective career mentor, describing her expectations for the mentorship and the duties of the mentor.  The email was supposed to be exactly one page long.  Additionally, she was only allowed to use any first person pronoun (I, me, my, or mine) a maximum of five times.  Also, passive voice was strictly verboten.  Now, let me start by saying that I understand the spirit of these rules.  Writing that contains a surplus of first person constructions tends to be overly centered on the writer, the writer’s expectations, and the writer’s needs.  Similarly, the passive voice tends to obscure agency, though the professor who came to train us informed us that passive voice is acceptable in business if you are trying to avoid responsibility for something:  “Mistakes Were Made.”  Yes, she actually said that.  Out loud.

Just for fun, in your spare time, try writing a one page message to someone you want to work with while avoiding using yourself as the subject or direct object of the sentence.  If you were able to do this and still produce prose that sounds natural, you deserve a giant freaking gold star, because we were not able to do this within the 45 minutes allotted for the consultation.  Just for fun, let’s give it a shot here.

Dear So and So,

Thank you for agreeing to be my [1] career mentor this year.  During our time together, I [2] will be following you during your work day once a month.  I [3] look forward to learning more about your field and your responsibilities in the position of X.  Before the mentorship begins, I [4] want to take a moment to describe what you can expect during this mentorship.  If you have further questions after reading this message, feel free to contact me [5] or my [6] faculty mentor.

So that was 6 in one paragraph, and this assignment was supposed to take up an entire page.  The thing is, I find the above paragraph to be a perfectly lucid introduction to a collaborative relationship.  While there are six first person pronouns (3 subjects, 1 direct object, 2 adjectives), each sentence in that paragraph speaks directly to the reader and attempts to address the reader’s concerns.  So, while it would have been entirely feasible to have gotten rid of, say 3 of those first person pronouns, it is actually extremely difficult to abstain from doing so over the course of three or four, especially while avoiding passive voice or irritating imperative constructions.  Furthermore, I’m just not sure that it’s necessary. If you want the piece to be audience-oriented, give your students some better guidelines regarding how one avoids making a piece of writing all about the speaker while still conveying appreciation and investment in the relationship.

Otherwise, the assignment becomes a damn word puzzle, not an actual writing assignment.

Tales From the Writing Center: The Clueless TA

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to and possibly see them included in this feature.

In two years of working at my university’s writing center, there was only one consultation that I was not able to finish, where I actually had to call a colleague over to calm the student down and complete the appointment for me. I made some critical mistakes in that consultation, but ultimately (and I’m really not trying to dodge responsibility here), I believe source of the tension was the very poor feedback given to this student by his instructor, in this case a TA.

The student in question was a non-native English speaker with a Korean background. I am fairly accustomed to dealing with second language students at varying levels of mastery, so I wasn’t necessarily thrown by the language problem. I also wasn’t surprised to discover that the student’s mastery of written English was quite a bit stronger than his spoken English. That’s actually pretty common. I’m sort of wired that way myself, where I can learn another language best through writing but have difficulty with conversation. Nevertheless, we were able to communicate with one another pretty effectively.

I was semi-thrilled to discover that the class he needed help with was a class that I had TA’d for my first year in grad school. I was familiar with this professor’s assignments and the way he instructed his students to grade. So, I tried to set the student at ease by passing myself off as an “expert” about how to succeed at this particular assignment. That was probably a mistake. I’ll explain why in a second. As we began looking at the essay and the instructor’s previous feedback (he had received a very poor grade on the first draft), I noted that–no real surprise here–most of the comments related to grammar and readability. So naturally, that was what the student wanted to talk about. The thing is, usage was the least of this kid’s problems. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of true mistakes. Sure, the writing was meandering, and the point was unclear, but those problems were related to very different issue: The paper lacked a clear thesis, and it wasn’t analyzing the selected text so much as it was summarizing them. Reading the instructors comments, it was clear that the TA had read a problematic, difficult to get through paper and chalked it all up to language. In short, this instructor had done the student a disservice, and while I don’t have clairvoyant insight into his or her thought processes, I wouldn’t be shocked if the student’s mastery of spoken English had subconsciously made it’s way into his or her diagnosis.

So, I as the “expert” tried to help him out. In the Socratic, conversational manner we are trained to use, I asked him what the point of the overall paper was and tried to talk him through the reasons why that point wasn’t coming through. Once I finally got him to realize that what he needed wasn’t editing but a whole new argument, he started to freak out a bit. Looking back, I can’t really say I blame him. These were the final two weeks of the semester, and while I knew this student would have up until exam day to revise, it’s probably a shock to discover that the essay you’ve been working on for the past 8 weeks has to rebuilt from the bottom up. Plus, he had probably spent the entire term being told to work on one (wrong) thing, and now another “expert” was revealing a whole new problem for him to tackle. I would probably start panicking a bit myself. Instead of speaking to him as just one among many possible readers, I positioned myself as an authority figure, which is problematic in a tutoring situation, since you now have two authority figures asking for very different things. So yeah, I fumbled that play.

But people are responsible for their own reactions, and this student reacted…poorly. The student questioned my competency (though in the context of that appointment, he may have had a case) and my knowledge of W.E.B. DuBois and got so loud in doing so that heads were starting to turn. I finally called a male consultant over to tag in and went to the restroom to calm myself down.

There are two lessons to learn from this one, both for tutors and instructors.

Instructors: If an essay has readability problems, make sure that you note where they are occurring on the hierarchy of writing concerns. Also, don’t make assumptions about second language students, whose mastery of spoken English may be quite different from written English (also, cultural conventions regarding essay construction vary, but more on that in another post).

Tutors: Always position yourself as an informed reader among many possible readers (with many possible readings and reactions) rather than an authority figure or expert. And try to work within the parameters of an instructor’s feedback, even if you think that feedback is terrible. You don’t have to lie about what the issues are, but you can use what the instructor says as a jumping off point: “Why do you think a reader might have issues discerning the point of this section?” “Why do you think your instructor said this?”

But also, don’t hesitate to call on a colleague if a student just isn’t hearing you any longer, especially if they become belligerent, insulting, and scary. Learn what you can from the situation and do better next time.

Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to and possibly see them included in this feature.

Remember group projects? Yeah, I hated them too. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am just guessing that you were probably the kid that wound up doing all the work, because everyone else was perfectly willing to allow that to happen and let’s face it, you’re a bit of a control freak. I get that–particularly for engineering and business majors, who are about to enter a workforce in which teamwork is sort of the norm–doing group projects is an important educational experience. To me, it seems like part of the educational experience is figuring out whether you are going to be one of the high functioning employees who routinely covers for your co-workers or one of the sponges. The best group project designs that I have seen have the work already pre-apportioned in some way (Person A does B, Person B does C, etc.) or contain some kind of mechanism for peer evaluation, but those are kind of rare.

You can tell that a group project has been well-designed when the entire group shows up in the writing center at once to talk about their work in a holistic fashion. Less encouraging is when each student comes in separately to have their pieces of the project checked–so you can’t really address continuity or flow. But at least everyone seems to be more or less doing their share. No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group (read: the one who does the majority of the work) and is therefore responsible for having the entire project “checked” (read: copyedited) by the writing center. In cases where students have divvied up sections and paragraphs, I tell The Editor that I will just go over her sections, since I’m really only supposed to address the work of the person in front of me, but it’s truly sad when The Editor can’t really tell me what’s his and what’s everyone else’s, because it’s sort of clear that everyone else decided they were “big picture” people or just did tables or something and let this kid do, you know, most of the project.

I suppose this isn’t a nightmare tutorial situation so much as it is a situation that always gives me sympathy shudders in solidarity with the go-getter in question. However, it also gives me pause to consider the status of writing in the egghead professions, those to which the self-labelled “bad writers” tend to gravitate because it seems unlikely that they will have to deal with comma splices and metaphors in those fields. They aren’t lazy, not by any stretch of the imagination(I know how hard it is to get into business or engineering at my university), they are just occasionally writing-phobic just as many humanities grad students I know get heart palpitations during tax time (despite the fact that most of us qualify for the 1040-EZ form), because MATH.  This is where I think our cultural tendency to separate the humanities and language arts into one category and the “hard sciences” into another does a serious disservice to our students. I know many middle aged adults who went into engineering or medicine or computer science because they hated English class only to find out that a good portion of their job consists of writing reports or articles. As one chemical engineer recently said to me, “Given what I do all day, I might as well have been an English major.” That’s not to say that we should be funneling all budding biochemists into English classes, just that in terms of “real skills” that have immediate application to on-the-job situations, writing is way up there on the list of “stuff I ought to be pretty comfortable with before I enter the work-force.” One of the reasons I think that one student winds up in front of me in the writing center, having been delegated total responsibility for writing up the project is because the other four have self-selected into the category of “was terrible at writing in high school and am not comfortable with this stuff.” But I’m generalizing pretty ferociously here, so perhaps that’s not most people’s experience. I just feel a bit bad for the kid that gets stuck with all of that work because he supposedly has a “natural gift” for it.

Tales from the Writing Center: “There are Four Errors” OR That Goddamn Bird Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to and possibly see them included in this feature.

It was the final week of the semester, and the writing center was packed to the gills, bleary-eyed students crowding the waiting area whilst world-weary front desk admins intoned–over and over again–”
no, you can’t just drop your paper off here for editing.” End-of-term is simultaneously that time when triage is most necessary–due to the difficulty of getting a walk-in appointment–and that time when the filter system falls apart, due to the mayhem. In other words, that’s when the really weird shit turns up.

The student in question was an unassuming young man bearing a heavy burden. As we walked to the computer terminals, he informed me that he was working on his final project for biology class, an ornithology class to be specific, in which he was supposed to record his identifications of over 200 local bird species observed throughout the semester. What a nightmare, I thought to myself, though I had no idea how bad it was going to get. At the computer terminal, he pulled up a gargantuan Excel file. Each entry described a bird, where it was sighted, the characteristics used to classify it, and the Latin name.

Perplexed about what he expected to get from this consultation, I asked why for he had come. “Well, you see, my professor takes a point off for each typo, spelling, or grammatical error.” I looked around the room and recalled with anguish that the entire writing center is windowless, thus, there was nothing to jump out of. I politely reminded the student that we were not a copy-editing service and that while I could show him how to correct certain usage problems, it would be up to him to edit the project himself. “No problem,” he said. “In fact, the professor already looked at a rough draft.” I had no idea that this was the precursor to something even more horrible. “He gave it back to me with one note: ‘There are four errors.’ I need help figuring out what the errors are.”

In a small but very loud corner of my brain, a high pitched voice was shrieking obscenities. So, this was a freaking “Where’s Waldo” exercise with words and punctuation, needles in a goddamn haystack. What’s worse, the student had no clue what the errors might be. They could be the aforementioned punctuation or spelling errors. They could also be formatting errors. They could be misspellings of the Latin bird names, or mis-identifications of the birds themselves. In other words, about twenty minutes in, I realized that what we were dealing with was not really part of my job description. I am not sure which damn fool recommended he bring his unidentified four errors to the writing center, but I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for that person.

While I have issues with the “one point off for every error” policy, I get the pedagogical point behind making students correct stuff if they want to get an A, and even getting them to figure out what’s wrong in the first place. But depending on the writing center (which at my university means people with MA’s in their field and full appointment books at the end of term) to help them correct this stuff is, quite simply, a waste of people’s time. I have no idea if this was a result of student laziness or instructor obliviousness, but WOW. Just wow.

I don’t think this is what Anne Lamott was talking about when she wrote Bird by Bird.