The Writing Consultant and Information Literacy

During class visits, I tell students that they are welcome at the Writing Center during any phase of the writing process, even the phase prior to the actual writing, which consultants refer to as pre-writing and students sometimes identify as the most difficult phase because they do not yet know what their central idea will be. This stage is particularly complex when it comes to writing assignments that require research. Given this complexity, how can Writing Consultants aid students through the research stage, especially students who are unfamiliar with the research process?

While important expertise lies with academic librarians, I argue that a Writing Consultant should be similarly prepared to improve students’ information literacy skills. While I always advise students to see a subject-specific librarian if they are having difficulty locating sources, the Writing Center is another natural starting point. Writing Consultants offer students support in terms of determining what kind of knowledge they require in order to successfully complete their writing assignment.

Moreover, Writing Consultants find themselves well positioned to distill information literacy skills, as we are what may be described as “writing allies.” We are supportive and non-evaluative, and we provide assistance in a low-stakes environment that encourages natural curiosities. Information literacy promotes perennial learning and proves paramount in all disciplines. With this skill set, students are able to ascertain what kind of information they need, what resources are available to them, how to determine the credibility of research, and how to apply their original thinking to the research.

The collaboration between the library and the Writing Center is a natural partnership. If the Writing Center happens to be the student’s first stop, it is a useful opportunity to have a productive conversation about research—what kinds of ideas the student is compelled by and how to triangulate different kinds of sources to move a new idea forward. It can be a useful primer, in a sense, to the student’s research, which can begin, sometimes in the abstract, as a discussion with the consultant, and progress with the research librarian. Part of this beginning can be to work on figuring out ways to make students interested and have a stake in their research beyond the completion of an assignment for credit.

Finally, one thing consultants can do is to know how to help students make an appointment with a research librarian. Making this appointment can close out the writing consultation and provide the student with a clear next step. Here’s the link: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/library/students/researchconsultations.html.

#Draftgoals: Supporting Writers by Reading Less

I’m increasingly coming to feel that if a writer really needs to radically revise and is having trouble separating their old ideas/phrasing (and attendant frustration) from their potential new direction, their draft is actually a bad place to start. In one-on-one sessions where the writer and I are both present, for me to spend time looking closely at the draft in order to offer “feedback” is not only an inefficient road to revision—it’s actively doing the writer a disservice.

Initially, I began de-prioritizing draft reading as part of a broader effort to ensure I didn’t consciously or unconsciously assume control over a writer’s work, an awareness that also included practices like reading together while deliberately keeping the paper on the table between us and not writing on it without first asking permission. As my consulting practice began to focus more and more on the writer, the more it made sense to devote time to fully understanding her desires and ideas for her work by talking them through, beyond what she may have been able to achieve on the page.

Then I tried an experiment that forever convinced me that de-emphasizing a draft can lead to deeper, more radical revision: I offered my comp class a choice between meeting with me for a WC-style session or receiving written feedback on a draft (they’d each get the other option later, with a chance to revise in between). The difference in the depth of revision between the people who chose to meet with me first and those who chose written feedback was so dramatic I felt it was unethical to offer it as a choice ever again—in future semesters, I always met with students first, only lightly reading their drafts in advance. The phenomenon held—I continued to see drastic revisions on a scale I had never seen among writers at the same stage when I offered more detailed draft feedback.

In the WC where I am encountering a writer’s work and ideas in isolation, without a past or future encounter, I’ve found this approach equally effective and conducive to revision.

Here’s why I think it works:

By spending a good amount of time talking through the project before I’ve even read anything, the writer and I are both starting work from the best, purest, most ideal version of their essay—or even developing or discovering it together. This helps them get re-excited about their sources and ideas, away from the draft’s vexing sentences, but even more importantly—it helps me become expert, not in the current, flawed draft, but in the #goals version. Then, when I do read the draft—or whatever part of it the reader needs me to—I’m measuring it against the writer’s own vision for it, not against the potentially-flawed impression I got from the draft itself. Understanding the best-articulated version of their idea also allows me to help them make decisions about clarity, cuts, inclusions, etc., with a lot of confidence.

And it has to be said: aside from philosophical or pedagogical benefits, the real reason I continue this approach is strictly practical—it’s extremely effective for the writer and much less exhausting for me since I’m spending my energy listening, responding and suggesting, instead of quickly mastering and diagnosing someone else’s argument based only on a flawed document.

In WC practice, this approach means:

  • always asking a writer how much time they have before the draft is due and how open they are to radical revision. I also subtly try to get a read of how motivated they might be and much mental energy they have for rethinking this project; the more time/mental energy/motivation for revision a writer demonstrates, the less emphasis I put on the existing draft. This is triply true when a writer expresses frustration or exhaustion with the current draft.
  • after determining that revision is our biggest priority, asking the writer to put the draft aside and explain her most important ideas (thesis, main points) to me while I take notes. This is basically an informal, verbal kind of reverse outline. I usually try to capture the writer’s explanation of her idea as close to verbatim as possible so that if it’s an improvement or clarification on the current wording, we can insert it directly into the revision.
  • only moving to look at the actual draft once we have determined that the specific sentences/articulation of ideas in that draft will be useful to our discussion/planning, and/or when the writer is ready for me to help her figure out how material in the existing draft can be reworked or cut-and-pasted into her improved, revised line of argument.  This emphasis on the new, spoken/noted revision plan usually means I rarely look at a draft in the first 10 minutes of a session and very often means that I never read the entire draft at all.

In short, a consultant’s willingness to put aside the need to assert expertise—instead stepping back to the level of ideas and working from a place of discovery and excitement—allows the writer to do the same.

Tools of the Trade: Understanding Rhetorical Moves as Transaction

In an English composition class I’m teaching this semester, my students and I watched a video of author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at the Schomburg Center. In this talk, he argues that Americans are obligated to overcome “willful ignorance” about the history of American racism. Applying this idea that learning is a duty to another context entirely, we considered the process of writing: how much background research is a reader obligated to do in order to understand what a writer is trying to say?

We came to the conclusion that writers and readers should “meet each other halfway.” My students and I imagined the reader as a member of the writer’s target audience: someone who is capable of interpreting the writer’s meaning but who may not be an expert on the topic. According to my students, such readers should inform themselves about a topic they’re unfamiliar with (including any relevant historical context), and look up key terms or words instead of expecting writers to do all the work. For their part, writers should “give readers the tools they need in order to interpret meaning.”

But what are those tools, exactly? And how do we “give” them to readers?

The quick answer is that everything we encourage students to do in their writing – presenting thesis statements that act as “road maps” for the rest of the essay, providing responsible citations, writing clear topic sentences – can be thought of as “tools that we give to readers.” Each of these moves has the goal of making a writer’s meaning clearer, and can signal to the reader what information they need in order to understand. For example, while I was reading a dense article on postcolonial theory recently, the author’s citations pointed me to the foundational theory I needed to know in order to understand her argument.

The more I think about this, the more I am reminded of the writing center adage that the consultant’s role is to “dramatize the presence of the reader.” I think we can take this a step further by viewing the writing center consultation as a dramatization of the relationship between a writer and their reader (this has the added benefit of pushing the student to imagine an audience that goes beyond their professor). I have been doing this with students in the Writing Center by introducing the idea that writers and readers are obligated to “meet each other halfway,” and explain this as a transaction of “tools” that the writer provides and the reader uses to better understand.

I identify the tools I used in their writing that helped me as a reader, and explain how they helped:

  • “Because your thesis gave reasons for your claim, I was able to predict what you would say and in what order, which made me feel like I knew what was going on throughout the essay.”
  • “I don’t know much about this field, but the clear citations you used helped me quickly look up a key term.”
  • “The transition words you used in this section helped me follow your shifts in topic and argumentative purpose.”

I also ask a lot of questions:

  • “What tools do you think you’re already providing the reader so that they can understand your message?”
  • “What other tools do you think you could include and how would they help your readers?”
  • “What tools did the author of [sample text] provide, and how did they help you keep track of their ideas? Could you use any of these tools in your writing, and if so, how/where?”

In this way, between the student and me, a picture emerges of the transactions between writer and reader. One of the benefits of this move is that our positions as reader and writer are malleable – the student can shift from being the writer, who provides tools for me, the reader, to a reader who uses tools to navigate a source text.

Thus far, I have found that using the meta-language of “tools” helps students better understand the relationship between writers and readers, and empowers them to use key rhetorical moves for specific, tangible purposes.

 

Above All, Make it Interesting

What makes a strong thesis?

Despite how important thesis statements are to academic writing, this question befuddles many student writers, and probably confounds a good number of professional academics as well. Student writers typically understand that a thesis statement should represent a main idea or point. Writing guides like Temple’s “5 Tips for Writing an Effective Thesis” provide helpful principles: a thesis should be substantial, supportable, precise, arguable, and relevant.

The unspoken criterion, but the one by which any reader inevitably judges our work, is whether the thesis is interesting.

But how do we define what is interesting? Mikhail Epstein devotes an entire essay to this very question, arguing that while of course what interests each of us is subjective, we can still use the interesting as a useful evaluative term for art and literature. Epstein describes an interesting theory as presenting “a consistent and plausible proof for what appears to be least probable” (Epstein, The Interesting). He goes on to describe the concept in surprisingly mathematical terms: “the interest of a theory is inversely proportional to the probability of its thesis and directly proportional to the provability of its argument.” In other words, the further a thesis goes from the obvious while still being provable, the more interesting it will be.

But how do we determine that a thesis is not obvious? This connects to another related criterion for a strong thesis, mentioned above—that it must be arguable. The easiest way to determine that a thesis is arguable is to identify counterarguments. So it often helps to work backwards, to think first about the antithesis, or what the Little Red Schoolhouse problem statement model calls the “status quo” perspective. Graff and Birkenstein highlight this method of identifying what the writing is responding to in their book They Say, I Say.

This move of identifying the obvious or status quo perspective seems easier when arguing about an issue­—when we’re writing in response to a topic like gun or border control, or reproductive rights. We can easily imagine the common arguments for or against such issues, so our work in crafting an interesting thesis is to push against one of these pre-existing arguments in a way that’s not obvious but is provable.

But when we’re responding to a work of literature, or a piece of art, it becomes more difficult. Sometimes, we’re writing about texts or images that are well known, which makes the status quo perspective more easily imaginable (see David Orr’s “The Most Misread Poem in America”  for an interesting reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”). But more often in academic contexts, we may feel like we’re writing in a vacuum surrounding a text.

Then, I find it helpful to think about a few resources that we often lose sight of:

  • Classroom discussion. What have peers said about the text or artwork in discussion, and what did they miss that you might have seen?
  • Our past selves. If we take notes in the margins of a reading on the first read, then re-read, we can take note of what we overlooked or misinterpreted in an earlier read.
  • Imagining a less careful reader. What could be easily missed or misinterpreted if someone wasn’t reading as closely as we were?

By taking stock of these other readers and the possibility of their alternative readings, we can imagine the obvious and work hard to push against it, to make our claims more interesting.

 

The Magic of the Map

Sometime in the spring semester of this year, I did something I had always wanted to do in a writing center session: at the end of a meeting with an international student, I asked her what country she was from, and then went a step further and asked if we could look up her exact home region on Google Maps. Looking at a map of her country (and city) of origin on the screen together sparked a delightful conversation: about the university she’d attended in her mid-sized Central Asian city, about the way the city is rapidly changing, about the things she misses about her home, about the reasons she loves New York. We looked at the map and talked in this way for less than five minutes, but the shift between us was quite palpable. Since this first experience looking up a student’s home on the map, I’ve done it regularly—at least once a week. I am interested in thinking through what it means to me as a consultant, and what it might mean for my students. ­

I’ve been interested in geography for as long as I can remember. When a girl who had emigrated from Vietnam joined my 5th grade class, I nervously and excitedly approached her and asked her to show me where she was from on the classroom map of Southeast Asia. Looking at the map together connected us instantaneously. I hope and believe that this interest in the visual artifact of the map stemmed not from an urge to exotify my new friend, but from a genuine curiosity about life in another place, a place this person knew well (just as I knew my own home well). This is the same curiosity that leads me to invite my students to show me their home on a map—a sincere desire to spend a moment imagining life in another place, in another culture, in another language.

But I think the effect of looking at a map together goes beyond the fulfillment of my own curiosity. For a long time, it was a scary leap to ask international students what country they were from, even though many of them disclose the fact that they are non-native English speakers up front, and a student’s native language is noted in their Writing Center profile. It can feel impolite at best to assume someone is not “American” by asking what country they come from. I was concerned that at worst, students would think that I was fixating on the ways in which they present as “international”— their accents, their names—as a means of singling them out as “foreign.” Examining this fear further, I realize that, in an attempt to be inclusive, I was subconsciously invested in maintaining a kind of invisibility around students’ diverse backgrounds. Without realizing it, I thought that part of my job was helping students feel they were assimilating successfully, most importantly when it came to their writing. By helping them become capable users of Standard Written English (or even Metropolitan English, or other World Englishes) without acknowledging where they were coming from, I was reaffirming an unspoken, unexamined goal: that their origins (including their native language and culture) could be elided from their personal idiom.

One effect of the great translanguaging work we’ve done at the Writing Center over the last few semesters is that I am able to follow the curiosity about places that I had cultivated early on in school. I now feel comfortable asking a student where she’s from—if there is time, and if I sense that she’d be interested in sharing—because our Writing Center is a culturally inclusive place where difference is celebrated. I know every student has her own relationship to disclosing where she is from, and I take care to only ask students who I think would welcome such a question. Having finished working on writing, it’s great to move with a student into a new, shared space in which her particular cultural context is acknowledged and valued. Taking the time to look up a student’s home region on the map, I think, allows the student to be seen as a person, beyond the confines of her writing or her academic life. Oftentimes there are clear entrées into looking up a student’s home on a map: a mention of an overseas job on a resume, a narrative about arriving in New York from another place. I’ve found the conversations that emerge when the map is visible to be delightfully open-ended. People begin talking about food, music, friends, cultural values, their families, architecture, history . . . there is something about the map that encourages writers, in many instances, to talk about things that interest them. I believe that this kind of free articulation can only be a good thing for someone in a new place, who may be just finding their home in a new language.

Making Time for Reflection

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can do less talking in one-to-one sessions, thereby offering up more space for the student to think and speak. We want our students to treat the Writing Center as a tool, but one that they are in control of. We want to say, “You can do this and I’m here to help” without the student hearing, “I see you struggling, and I could do this myself, but I won’t.”

I’m still a big proponent of beginning the session with a read-aloud. When students are hesitant, I say, “For me, hearing my own paper from start to finish helps offer a new perspective, but if you’re not comfortable reading aloud, that’s OK too!” Most students are up for it. In my practice as a consultant, my best discovery this semester has been this question: “Now that we’ve read it through, what do you think?”

Taking a moment to ask the student to reflect on her own work is pedagogically aligned with Writing Center practice, firmly placing control in the student’s hands. Secondly, turning to the student gives me a minute to organize my own thoughts on the paper. And finally, more often than not, I’m pleasantly surprised at how reflective the student becomes after a read-through. After this read, some students have the same feedback that I would have given myself, and others call attention to something I had missed.

Many writers (myself included!) rarely read a completed piece of writing through from beginning to end without stopping. The fact that typos make it through to publication is probably good proof of this. But we all know that it’s hard to get a clear view of the way the parts of a paper work together without taking the time to read it from beginning to end. This is, after all, the intended experience of your reader.

Our reads of the paper are vastly different, of course: Mine is the first time through on a subject I likely know little about; the student’s is certainly not the first time with the paper, and it’s a familiar topic.

Sometimes the student has a response to this question right away: “I think it’s really repetitive on this page,” or “I think I didn’t explain this quote very clearly,” but other times, she thinks about it and then responds: “I’m not sure if my conclusion is really a conclusion,” or “It seems like my body paragraphs aren’t really connected to the ideas in the introduction.” Since I’ve started making it a habit to ask this question and really wait for a response, I can’t believe all the reflection I must have missed.

Most importantly though, asking the student for her thoughts shows her that she is capable of doing this work. I believe that during these moments, students are learning about the revision process, about trusting themselves, and about what makes a piece of writing successful.

Image from Wikipedia

The Immigration Story as Grand Narrative

In her recent post, “This is Not My Story,” Deepti Dhir considered the way writers’ personal narratives “reflect a desire to culturally belong.” In the following post, Jono picks up this reflection on Jackie Grutsch McKinney’s work on “grand narratives,” considering how we can help writers share stories that may otherwise remain unwritten.

Many of us, as teachers and writing center consultants, have come across an assignment or statement of purpose that asks an international student to offer his/her personal account of coming to America. Although these stories can be moving and are likely a profound writing experience for the student, many of them participate in a common narrative arc. Are these young writers playing to what the audience (an American audience) expects to hear from an immigrant?

In her book Peripheral Visions for Writing Center, Jackie Grutsch McKinney explores the concept of “grand narratives” or what James Berlin has called “the stories we tell about our experiences that attempt to account for all features of it” (19, qtd in McKinney 11). She argues that we all participate in this narrative shorthand, which tries to capture a complex event or moment in a familiar, manageable story. We might think of these grand narratives (or meta-narratives) as the kind of folklore that exists in families (one in my family is the story of my mother who, as a young girl on a farm in South Dakota, was forced by her mother to kill her first chicken by breaking its neck underneath a two-by-four—a story that attempts to account for a lot: her rough childhood, her scary mother, her resilience, her distaste for chicken, etc.) Or we can think of these grand narratives as historical myths (In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…). But today, for the purposes of this blog, I want to think about the immigration story as grand narrative.

These grand narratives are crucial to our identity, McKinney insists, in that they help us make sense of past and future experiences. They are an attempt to create coherence where there typically is none, to attribute a neat linearity to the messiness of our lives and history. However, these narratives also borrow from institutionalized ideas and often become sites where the tellers “enact culture” by conforming to cultural expectations. McKinney, paraphrasing Jerome Bruner, goes on to suggest: “We wish to present ourselves to others (and to ourselves) as typical or characteristic or ‘culture confirming’ in some way. In other words, narratives reveal how tellers are trying to belong” (16). McKinney also borrows from Nancy Fleckenstein’s ideas on visual and rhetorical habits: “For Fleckenstein,” McKinney writes:

We belong to communities in proportion to the degree in which we can participate in specific visual and rhetorical modes valued by that community: ‘Membership in a culture is predicated on one’s ability to see and speak in the privileged mode. To be a member of a particular culture demands that one develop and deploy that culture’s dominant view of seeing and speaking. (18)

In this way we might come to read my mother’s story as one that perhaps conforms to culturally sanctioned notions of farm life or to the common narratives surrounding rough childhoods. The Columbus poem that we hear as children participates in the grand narrative of discovery and exploration, the antecedent to American ingenuity and wherewithal. But these stories conceal as much as they tell. Most obviously, the Columbus narrative falls apart as we later learn about the near decimation of an entire culture, which is to say that every narrative holds within it several counter-narratives. To quote Hayden White: “Every narrative, however seemingly full, is constructed on the basis of set events that might have been included but were left out: this is as true of imaginary narratives as it is of realistic ones” (10).

If we applied these ideas to our students’ immigration stories, we might better understand how culture can impact the way one writes about the world, and thus sees and experiences the world. So again we should ask: Are these recurring narrative moments—the sad goodbye, the confusing big city, the struggle and miscommunication, the gradual assimilation—inspired by the student’s actual experiences or by the audience’s expectations?

If this question bothers us, McKinney offers a get-out-of-jail-free card. Drawing on Betty Edwards, she suggests that, “Instead of telling a story … on what we imagine is there based on our communal habits of storying … maybe we should study closely what we do see and trace the negative space around that so we get a sense of what [we] are not” (89).

In other words, McKinney reminds us that sometimes our jobs demand more than passing on tools to initiate students into the academic modes of traditional discourse; sometimes we need to access a student’s voice by looking for and pointing to what’s not in that discourse, to teach by way of contradiction. She cites Nancy Fleckenstein on this sense of contradiction:

Contradiction erupts within the visual narrative because any narrative—verbal or visual—is sewn together out of bits and pieces of images…We sift through a bewildering kaleidoscope of images, picking and choosing what to attend to and how to respond to those selected images…However all those bits and pieces we leave out press for attention. They put pressure on the tenuous narrative unity so that disorder and incoherence erupt. (125, qtd in McKinney 87)

Disorder is the aim here only insofar as it challenges the dominant culture and allows, perhaps, for a version of the story that is closer to the truth (albeit, in a constructivist framework, no such truth exists.) Nonetheless, McKinney says we should encourage the counter-narratives, the versions of the story that exist beneath or beyond the grand narrative. Taking up Nancy Grimm’s term, she calls this type of teacher or consultant a “trickster”—one who is always looking to put pressure on “institutional expectations and values.” So the questions on the table are: Should we become this trickster when faced with an immigration story that feels somehow false? And in what other ways can we highlight counter-narratives to provide students with a voice that is not solely the domain of the academy and the dominant culture?

 

image from https://www.statuecruises.com/#/

Co-Constructing the English Sentence

During our discussion at inquiry day this semester, our very own Kat and Kate called my attention to an important question they had been investigating, “How do you figure out how much to offer the writer?” Often, a sense of worry that we’re giving the student “too much” sets in where we ask ourselves, “How much is too much?”

At times, we may even falsely believe that in offering a student what we consider to be “too much,” we make the writer more dependent.

As a first step toward revising an unclear idea, we may direct the student to get something down on the page without worrying about if it’s perfect or not, or we ask, “Can you talk more about X?” and then record what the student says. I like to directly probe the student with, “Can you try saying this another way?”

However, the result of one of the above moves is usually a sentence or two that is much clearer, but that still has some lingering word choice or phrasing concerns. At this point, particularly if the student does not speak English as their first language, it may not be as useful to direct the student to correct the sentence further on her own.

After the student has come up with an improved idea, I have found one of the following to be a useful second step towards further revision.

  1. Here’s how I commonly hear it:
    Ex: “Given the fact that . . . ” instead of “Given to fact, . . . ”
  2. Take your pick:
    Ex: “Disney was able to make/earn/gain a profit . . . ”
  3. Fill it in:
    Ex: “
    Smith seems to suggest that ________”

The process of going from the student producing language to the consultant helping to frame it helps to strike a balance between using the student’s words and supplying corrections or changes. This process also relieves some of the tension around giving the student what we feel is too much language, since the student herself gets a chance to produce right off the bat before we jump in.

There are certainly a few others ways of scaffolding the writing of an English sentence. I would argue that the three outlined above work to foster a sense of independence in the writer. Very plainly, the student cannot encounter new vocabulary in a vacuum. They need quality input from proficient speakers before they can independently use new forms of the language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about other ways of approaching sentence-level work that have proven to be useful in your practice.

 

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