Tag Archives: writing centers

Writing Centers and ELL Students

Have you ever tried to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? You know, walk a mile…

I ask because it seems the filter through which we see the world is limited to our own biases until something jolts us just enough to look to the left or right. I’ve tutored adults learning English, usually with limited or no English; they were my first jolt. This week I watched three videos called Writing Across Borders. They were about college students from other countries, learning to write according to American English standards. This was another jolt.

I considered this a jolt, not because I personally did not understand this was an act that took courage on an international student’s part, but because of the rigidness of some professors. Not that I am suggesting the standards be lowered. I think there is a level of comprehension and ability to convey thoughts that a student definitely needs to be able to express. However, the lack of instruction on how to do such is often left undone.

An example from the video was of a woman from China explaining she did not understand the need to cite sources. Telling her not to plagiarize accomplishes little when consideration for where she is coming from a culturally has not been explored. As the student pointed out, she comes from a communist country where everything belongs to everyone, using others words is a part of writing.

Just because someone from another country attends an American school, doesn’t mean they instantly know how everything works just because their feet are walking the halls. I highly doubt Americans would adapt any better if the roles were reversed.

This week, to go along with the videos, I also read Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options by Muriel Harris and Tony Silva. This article was about how to prioritize errors, and meeting needs of the ESL student.

One of the comments that I thought fit with the videos was “…we also have to be aware that we might make unconscious judgments about others based on our expectations about such behaviors.” This was said in the context of looking for patterns in a student’s work, and how worthwhile it may or may not be.

I need to say, though, while I give this article leeway in using ESL (English as a Second Language) instead of ELL (English Language Learners) because it was written in 1993; I personally do not like ESL. For me, using it takes on a superiority complex that is false. It is Americans who are not fluent in other languages. Though this is beginning to change as we catch up with the rest of the world. Most other countries learn three or more languages; English is merely one of many for them.

Which brings me back to colleges, professors, and writing centers. We do a disservice to students (American or International), and our universities, if professors do not take a few steps in an International students shoes and try to understand what cultural differences may need further explanation. Universities could also improve on this as they integrate International students.  Finally, it does a writing center no service to send frustrated ELL students to their doors, who only want grammar help because a professor expects American articles to be included correctly in every sentence. After all, would we remember to remove them if we were attending a university in Russia?

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Posted by on February 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Writing Centers Should Be Bolder

This week’s articles dealt with the terminology used in and about writing centers. The first was Reading Our Own Words: Rhetorical Analysis and the Institutional Discourse of Writing Centers by Peter Carino.  I couldn’t find the whole article online for you. The copy I read came from the journal, Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation. I am coming to like Mr. Carino’s approach to writing about writing centers. In this article, he took a rhetorical approach to what writing centers say about themselves. He pointed out the strengths and weakness, but my favorite part was after pointing out the way directors of writing centers explain or emphasize the tutors are skilled, sometimes using “expert”, trying to maneuver through being marginalized, and be inclusive to everyone of all writing levels across all curriculums,  he pointed out how paranoid and over promising they sound. He asked this one question (my favorite), “Does the description of the biology department in our institutions’ catalogues assure students that the faculty are qualified? What an empowering question! Why is it English department, and writing centers, in particular, feel the need to tell others on their campus they know what they’re doing? Carino discussed several other topics in this article. It is worth reading if you are interested in writing centers.

The second article was Writing Centers and the Idea of Consultancy by William McCall. This is not a long essay. It is interesting, but it did something that frustrates me about English majors writing about what they do; make a disclaimer after working to support their thesis. This essay tackled whether using “tutor” or “consultant” conveyed what the position really does. Now, personally, having been a tutor for several years, I’m partial to “tutor.” “Consultant” sounds too stuffy to me, and I was surprised that McCall agreed in the beginning. He built his case and them showed his acceptance of using “consultant” as what better describes what goes on in a writing center. He went so far as to have a chart comparing the two. I’m not one to accept change easily, but was convincing me. And then, BAM! He says, “No designation for writing center staff is without its shortcomings, and this is as true of writing consultant as it is for tutor, writing fellow, or writing assistant. But we might ask ourselves which term offers the best and most complete description of our work not only in the center but also out of the center, and, in this regard, the consultancy model also has much to recommend it.”

Now you might read this and think he is actually supporting it. But is he? Look closely, he is definitely taking a step away from his argument. It goes back to what Carino was saying earlier about why writing center directors feel the need to say they and their staff are competent. All I could think was, Be bolder McCall. You were convincing even me! But that step backwards made me question you.

Maybe that is the real key to writing centers being successful across curriculums and within their institutions–be bold and stop apologizing and explaining your ability and need to be there. At UNL I don’t see our Business School explaining why they are there or that they are qualified to educate students. They present themselves more as: where do you think you’ll be without me?

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Posted by on February 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Writing Centers: When Thos in the Academy Do Not Agree

This week for English 480 Writing Theory and Practice, we were assigned three readings: Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work by Jeff Brooks, A Critique of Pure Tutoring  by Linda K. Shamoon and Deborah H. Burns, and Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring by Peter Carino. I’ve listed them in the order in which I read them; this also happens to be chronological. Also, as I mentioned before, the articles I am reading are from The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors for those interested.

I have to confess to you that when I started this course, I wanted something more focused on technic and improving my writing. I knew this course centered on writing centers and tutors but, nonetheless, thought the primary subject matter would be technic. We may get to some of that down the road; I don’t know. I saw “theory” and “practice” in the title of the course and signed up. Maybe I should thoroughly read course descriptions better. However, I am really enjoying the majority of these articles on writing centers.

The reason these articles were so interesting to me is because, well, I didn’t have any interest in the writing center or tutoring in it before. One reason for that is in Jeff Brooks’s article. It is full of how to ask questions of students so they can make the paper all their own. He goes as far as to instruct tutors not to hold a pen in their hand, sit beside not across from a student, and physically lean away from and not touch a student’s paper. All this to attain a nondirective approach of egalitarian tutoring. It seems the concept is to help a student create their own knowledge by asking lots of questions. I am a writer and an editor. I love my red (and green, and blue) pens. And, I have been doing it for a long time. I have some skills that, according to Jeff Brooks, I would have to stifle to help a student.  As I read this essay, I kept thinking, Yep. This is why I have zero interest in participating in a writing center.

Then I got to Shamoon and Burns’ essay. I thought I was going to get more of the same but, that was not the case. In fact, this is the best essay I’ve read so far, and not just because I agree with it. They used other disciples to show how knowledge from and “expert” is imparted to a student, such as music. They also discussed how the knowledge of writing seems to be held back until a student is working on their masters’ degree with a professor working one-on-one with them over their dissertation. Much of what happens in these one-on-one sessions is the professor marking up, even rewording and reorganizing the paper. The student learns from this much the same way a musician learns from their teacher. It is directive tutoring, a passing of knowledge rather than creating knowledge.

As much as we might like to think we create knowledge, it seems that it is passed to us from someone else with more knowledge, either in a directive or nondirective way. We might be able to build upon that knowledge but, I am not convinced we actually create it within ourselves. But this gets into a more philosophical debate, does it not?

The third essay by Peter Carino compares directive and nondirective tutoring and settles on a combination of the two. He points out that saying a tutor has no authority or power is hurtful to what a tutor does in a writing center. Carino does not hold back his thoughts on the two different approaches, pointing out when a center is uncomfortable with authority and power it becomes marginalized and subject to budget cuts and, most detrimental in my view; teachers use it as a remedial center for unprepared students.

These articles had me wondering if a writing center boasted it was directive and hierarchical, would professors find them unsettling. Would they feel their toes were getting stepped on? Because according to Peter Carino, “I think the kind of tutoring I am calling for and Cogie describes has been going on for a long time in many centers, without being widely acknowledged.”

While I still agree with Stephen North that writing centers are about growth and learning of a writer; I am not sure I agree with a nondirective, nonhierarchical approach to tutoring. A knowledgeable tutor has a lot to offer and to expect her/him to hold back that knowledge seems a disservice to a student, and in some ways a disservice to the tutor, as they will not be able to grow either.

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Posted by on January 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Collaboration! What is it Good for? Huh!

This week’s post centers on three different articles, regarding writing centers. First is a history of writing centers authored by Elizabeth H. Boquet titled, “Our Little Secret”: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions.

In this article from 1999, Boquet recounts the history and highlights the many struggles of the writing center along the way. Many of these struggles point back to the same difficulties noted in my earlier post. There continues to be a want on the part of educators to use a writing center as a place for students to go to get up to speed. It would seem that teachers have a need/don’t need view of writing centers. Kind of a go there to learn to write in a way that I find acceptable, but don’t question my instructions or assignments. This, to me, has the potential to suppress the student’s desire to learn and grow as a writer, communicator.

Speaking of a communicator, this leads me to the second article titled, “Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind” by Kenneth A. Bruffee, published in 1984.

I liked this article, not only for its content but because it focused on writing as a form of conversation, albeit, that conversation can sometimes be one-sided. But, I think the goal of this article is to open a dialogue and have a conversation about peers tutoring and what takes place when they do. As Bruffee states, “Peer tutoring was a type of collaborative learning. It did not seem to change what people learned but, rather the social context in which they learned it.” This statement is one reason, I believe, teachers do not support writing centers, or only use them as a fix-it shop. They understand that if this statement is true, it is also threatening because “The better we understand this conceptual rationale, however, the more it leads us to suspect that peer tutoring (and collaborative learning in general) has the potential to challenge the theory and practice of traditional classroom learning itself.”

The article goes on to discuss and lay out, nearly step-by-step, the conversational exchange that happens when someone writes. Bruffee points out that the value and natural exchange that takes place when someone discusses vocally their thoughts before writing. This collaborative learning has a place and value within writing centers.

Collaboration takes me to the third article, “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center” by Andrea Lunsford of Stanford University. I read the article in The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, but the link is to a public newsletter and the same article. While this is a good article, I found myself continuing to ask, “Who gets the credit and acknowledgment for the work with collaboration?”

So what does collaboration mean? According to Merriam-Webster, collaborate has two main definitions: 1) to work with others (as in writing a book) and 2) to cooperate with an enemy force that has taken over a person’s country.

Lunsford does a great job of pointing out and cautioning about the use of collaboration throughout the article, to the point I started to wonder if she was buying her own arguments. Maybe because I’m an overly cautious individual, and I would be quite upset if while collaborating with someone they used my quotes and/or research and claimed it as their own. In a case such as that, I would be inclined to relate more with definition number two than one. Whatever the cautions and challenges that may come through collaboration (and there are many listed within the article), Lunsford makes some insightful comments such as,

“I believe, collaboration both in theory and practice reflects a broad-based epistemological shift, a shift in the way we view knowledge. The shift involves a move from viewing knowledge and reality as things exterior to or outside of us, as immediately accessible, individually knowable, measurable, and shareable—to viewing knowledge and reality as mediated by or constructed through language in social use, as socially constructed, contextualized, as, in short, the product of collaboration.”

This view, however, takes some power away from the writing center, and I’m not sure that is entirely a bad thing. What I mean by this is the focus of what a writing center is changes from keeper-of-the-skills key to the individuals and the conversations they are having.

Another notable quote from Lunsford article (and a hard to argue against one) is “Collaboration promotes excellence. In this regard, I am fond of quoting Hannah Arendt: ‘For excellence, the presence of others is always required.’” Think about that for a moment. I’m an individual that is comfortable with my own company, an introvert who likes to think I excel all on my own, but I can’t think of a time that I succeeded without having a conversation with someone about my aims, my goals, my thoughts. When was the last time you excelled without having a conversation about it?

I think this is at the heart of what a writing center does, helping people excel through conversation. Call it collaboration, or call it being what humans do, either way, it is helping each other achieve our goals, succeed…grow.

Check out our class blog for other thoughts on the subject.

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Posted by on January 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


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What is a Writing Center?

It has been a long while since I’ve posted here. In my time of blogging silence, I’ve been attending UNL to finish my degree in English. Which leads me to this interesting post I’ve blogged for you.

I am in a writing theory and practice class that has a focus on writing centers. I will be posting my personal thoughts on readings from this class each week. You are invited to comment and share your thoughts. It is my hope that we all grow and learn some. 

So, what is a writing center?

Last semester, in September, I had the good pleasure of listening to Professor Stephen North. His comments were interesting in that he used his failure to speak up when he thought he could have made a difference, at his university in Albany, when they were constructing a curriculum for the English department as a way to motivate a younger generation to do what he did not, or feels he failed to do which was, for one thing, educate educators and students on what a writing center is.

It is completely ironic to me, as an English major, we do not have the verbiage to explain exactly what we do. Sure there are words like author, novelist, poet, Professor of English Studies, and writer. But what do they do and how do they get there? Professor North spoke about this as well, and his frustration was clearly heard.

I often wonder if we lack the verbiage because in the past we called ourselves scholars, and set ourselves apart as elitists, pushing interest away from the Literature and Writing in the process. It is disheartening to see English departments collapsing in on themselves. Here at UNL, there is much talk among students and those who work in the Writing Center, about lack, of funding, funding being cut, or underfunding. But how can funding be given when the majority of university staff do not even agree on what the Writing Center is, or what it does?

In The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, Professor North has an article titled, “The Idea of a Writing Center.” Though the article is entertaining to read, much as he was in person to listen to, Professor North doesn’t have any clear direction other than it is hard to get people to understand what a writing center is. Even faculty of a university do not agree. Is it a place where professors send remedial students with “special needs” for help in getting a paper done? Is it where accomplished writers go when they have writer’s block? Is it where an average student goes to get a paper proofread for grammar mistakes?

According to Professor North in his article listed above, “For faculty members the two primary criteria were grammar and punctuation” for the usage of a writing center. However, according to Muriel Harris, a professor of English at Purdue University, in her journal article “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors” says, “Writing centers do not and should not repeat the classroom experience and are not there to compensate for poor teaching, overcrowded classrooms, or lack of time for overburdened instructors to confer adequately with their students.” Writing centers are place for students to go for many reasons though. Some include to understand the verbiage a teacher uses, to talk through an idea, to have someone ask them questions about their writing, etc. It is a safe, unintimidating place for students to better their writing. Even Wikipedia is getting it, saying it is a place to learn.

From Professor Harris’ article, I learned that from her student surveys many students are learning and growing as writers, in whatever field they are writing in. One thought I had was, a writing center seems closely related to what constructive workshops and critique groups do for a creative writer. Now I do have to admit that my first experience with the Writing Center at UNL back in 2014 was not the best…nor was my second. It was loud and crowded, with only two students being helped. The rest of the chatter was from others there with nothing to do. I left to go work on my own where it was quiet and I could think. Although I strongly support writing centers, the location and space was not conducive to learning or discussing anything for me. Now in 2016, after waiting and waiting, UNL is finally renovating their writing center. At the moment, they have been relocated to Love Library, where I am typing this blog outside the room, and you know what? It’s quiet. Not silent, but quiet. I can work and students are learning and I hope (fingers crossed) that when they are moved back into their renovated space, it remains a quiet place conducive to learning and growing as a writer.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m the only student that wants to use the writing center as a quiet space to converse about my writing with a tutor, to bounce ideas off of them and grow as a writer? Or would the university suggest I find a critique group or a workshop?

But I ask you when you think of a writing center, what does it mean to you? Have you ever thought about it? And how can we better change the static notion of the majority that a writing center is only for those who need extra help because they didn’t learn what they should have in high school into what a writing center really is?

To read other blogs on this topic check out our class blog.


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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Uncategorized


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