Finding Your Voice: Tutoring Techniques

Have you ever paid attention to how people talk about reading and writing? We talk about hearing voices in written work and understanding what the author is trying to say. We speak of writing and reading as if they fall under the realm of verbal communication because all written forms of communication are based off of speech.

(I mean, you’re reading this blog in a fixed, visual format online rather than hearing me talk in person or via video, yet I’m sitting at my computer imagining myself speaking to you as I write. You will likely never read this out loud, but you’ll hear my voice when you take in these words.)

To put it in a more global context, here’s a nugget of astounding information from Walter J. Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy to make you think about the prevalence of speech and scarcity of writing in our global community:

“Language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages spoken in the course of human history only around
106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.” [i]

Societies don’t operate primarily on words as text, we operate on words as sounds communicated in person, where inflection, volume, emphasis, and pauses all work to layer the meaning of the words themselves. With years of indoctrination into literacy, however, our culture seems to give more weight to written text and the process of creating it than they do to conversations. It’s easy to forget that, in writing, we merely immortalize our thoughts, our “internalized version of conversation,” which are similar to the conversations that occur among peer groups in order to socially solidify beliefs and opinions.[ii]

From the other end, according to child development researcher and social constructionist Lev Vygotsky, language is a learned instrument by which we talk through our tasks with others in order to re-externalize the language of internalized conversation.”[iii] We’ve been using speech every day since our earliest years to enter discourse communities and reach consensus on group discussion—it’s our most well honed social method of organizing our thoughts and reaching conclusions and it mirrors the individual thinking process. We speak not only to transmit our ideas to others, but also to make better sense of those ideas to ourselves.

When we get into classrooms and writing centers, then, speaking becomes the most effective tool for teaching writing—whether during development, outlining, or revising. Scholar of rhetoric, composition, and literacy, Stephen M. North, emphasizes that “talk[ing] with excited writers at the height of their engagement with their work [is] the lifeblood of a writing center.”[iv] The ability to organize your thoughts with the clarity and speed necessary to verbally communicate the ideas you plan to put to paper is a trainable skill that works hand-in-hand with writing skills.

For students who struggle with writing, collaborative sessions with peers can help develop verbal communication skills, problem identifying and solving, and thought organization. According to Kenneth A. Bruffee, peer collaborations can be more beneficial than discussions with teachers or tutors, since conversation is more natural with others in your same discourse community. The practice of collaborative learning in classrooms during all stages of the writing process helps students begin to “internalize conversation about writing and carry it away with them so that they continue to be good writers on their own.”[v] By including the topics of writing, thought organization, and writing processes into our everyday discourse community, we integrate the physical writing techniques (brainstorming, outlining, drafting) into our natural thought process, thereby making writing feel like a more natural and organic way of communicating ideas. More like talking. Like other methods of teaching and tutoring writing, collaborative conversations serve to improve both the product and the process, the writing and the writer.

Similar tactics prove beneficial in tutoring sessions as well, as advocated by author and scholar Andrea Lunsford. By embracing social construction theory in writing centers we reconfigure the power balance and create a space for collaboration in tutoring, which “engages the whole student and encourages active learning.”[vi] However, creating negotiating groups who share power and control of a situation in order to further both the process and product is a daunting task—great care must be taken to promote conversation instead of appropriation. One of the many backlashes to interactive tutoring is the fear that involved tutors become the puppeteer of the work and writer. Donald A McAndrew warns readers, in the third chapter of his teaching guide Tutoring Writing, that the tutoring session is not a place for students to hand over control of their work to a more adept writer for a fix-it service.

Tutors must take care, then, that conversations are truly conversational, with equal input from both (or all) participants for the end goal of compelling thought generation, not necessarily for consensus or uniformity of thought, as posited by John Trimbur in “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.”[vii] And even if they do manage to create truly collaborative atmospheres for their students, there’s always the possibility that their work will face negative reactions from readers.

Lunsford gives examples of some common treatment of collaborative work: professors who encourage student collaboration in the classroom are seen as lazy, positions of authority are denied to scholars with a repertoire of collaborative work, and student collaborators are disqualified from poetry prizes. [viii] These examples point to an underlying problem in perceptions of acceptable writing processes that affects the way teachers and tutors choose methods of teaching student writers.

In addition to her research into audience reception of co-authored work, Lunsford’s personal experiences with collaboration (she frequently co-writes with contemporary Lisa Ede), shows that although theories of socially constructed knowledge are rising in popularity, applying those theories in practice are not yet accepted in the academic sphere. Co-authored works, whether at the student or professional level, are generally not considered worthy of the same level of recognition as pieces with only one author.[ix] Somehow, writing together on one topic is equated with cheating, even though these same readers support the idea of socially constructed and contextual knowledge.

Critics of collaboration in classrooms worry that the “autonomy of the individual” faces threat from “group think” molding “peer indoctrination classes.”[x] A group of students may experience a number of power dynamics and social fears that inhibit an exchange of ideas and creative thought construction. Similar to peer revision sessions, students involved may fear rocking the boat, or considering controversial opinions, and aim to reach consensus by conforming to the ideologies most valued by the strongest voices involved.

Furthermore, while collaborative learning helps writers organize their thoughts and validate their opinions in a social context, it does not necessarily guarantee easier transformation onto the page. For many passionate thinkers with unpolished writing processes, conversations about the ideas driving written work are easy. The problem arises when faced with a blank Word document. In these instances, alternate methods that focus on empowering a student to give their words the same weight in sound as on paper help break the writer’s block.

Some students may need to write themselves around to their point with frequent free writes at the start of their writing process—which translates the brainstorming conversation from thinking and speaking, to writing. For most writers free writes offer more creativity and stream of consciousness without the often inhibiting effects of self-editing. My personal writing process involves starting an internal conversation and letting my fingers capture the words onscreen as they echo in my head. I start with my introduction and after a few pages of compelling and well-written exposition, I finally arrive at a condensed and complex thesis. From there, I can go read what I have and pick out any usable lines or ideas—usually there are none, but the point is to spark an internal discussion that aids in thesis-building and organization.

This approach does not work for all writers who struggle with bringing their conversation to the page. In these instances, tutors can spark conversation with their tutees and record the session for future playback or have the student dictate to them. As mentioned in my previous reflection on tutoring sessions, dictation can be very useful, especially when sessions have a close deadline. These techniques keep sessions wholly student-centered in terms of idea creation, as the tutee does nearly all the talking except for brief interruptions by the tutor/dictatee for clarification. If we, as teachers and tutors of writing, often have the task of helping students find their writing voice, then why not encourage them to hear their real voices during the writing process? Conversation only helps bridge the gap between ideas and verbal language; for many students, a gap remains between verbal language and written language. As concisely stated by The Writing Wizard on cambridgecoaching.com, “once your writing voice and your speaking voice start to merge, your writing will improve,” and if the emphasis is truly on better writers, not better writing, dictation and voice recording should become just as integral to the tutoring and teaching sphere as collaborative discussion.

The ideas of social construction don’t stop with group discourse, they extend into all arenas where conversation takes place. Free writes: written conversation with self. Voice recording: verbal conversation with self. Online forums: written conversation with others. Peer response groups: verbal communication with others. Dictation: written recording of re-externalized internal conversation involving others. Each exercise should be explored with student writers in order to broaden their understanding of the criteria for acceptable writing processes and help them find their personal practice of writing, and their voice.

Works Cited:

[i] Ong, Walter J. “The orality of language.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1988. 7.

[ii] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge.” College English. 48.8 (1986). 777.

[iii] 785.

[iv] North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English. 46.5 (1984): 443.

[v] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Writing and Collaboration.” Collaborative Learning. 2nd Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 58.

[vi] 3.

[vii] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 608.

[viii] Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 16 (1991): 2.

[ix] 4.

[x] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 602.

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Research Paper Abstract

Those in the writing community have a reflexively negative reaction to the idea of a person dictating their written works to another, which is inextricably linked to belief in the Cartesian cognitive theory of knowledge: ideas come from somewhere inside the individual and are articulated through verbal and written language in order to communicate with others in an external context. As such, every part of the writing process, from brainstorm to outlining to writing to revising, is inherently individual—the ideas are theirs, so the words they come up with are theirs, and letting anyone else’s hands on their work means a loss of ownership.

Such possessive treatment of ideas and written work places limitations on writers, tutors, and teachers and draws a very clear picture of what a socially acceptable writing process looks like. And what it does not look like. Therefore, cognitive theory influences ideas about writing processes that make invalid some of the most effective ways to spark creativity and intellectual communication:

Collaborative writing confuses copyright claims. In both the academic and professional arenas, collaborative writing instances bring up the touchy subject of copyright: how much of the document can one writer claim ownership of, especially if the document isn’t broken up into sections by author? How can you say, definitively, which ideas and words were yours and which were not?

Dictation or discussion in the development phase borders on appropriation. Tutors and teachers have to tread lightly when helping student writers with papers, making sure that they know the line separating helping a writer better develop and understand their viewpoint and appropriating a student’s work to ensure they arrive at your conclusion.

The concerns raised above all deal with the Who of the situation; cognitive theory trips itself up any time the agent of a work comes into contact with outside influences because the theory itself rests on the belief that each person has some individual, inherent Self that exists in a vacuum. That belief no longer holds weight in a world moving towards the belief in an interconnected universe and human consciousness.

Enter, social construction theory, the postmodern epistemology. Alternative to cognitive theory, social constructionism sees the creation and formation of knowledge as a social affair. Belief in socially constructed knowledge crops up in a diverse range of fields from linguistics to Eastern faith traditions to developmental science and supports the idea that nothing is ours. All our beliefs and thoughts and ideas are shaped by and drawn from everything we experience from the moment we are born. In the realm of writing, social constructionism means that our ideas and thoughts are formed via conversations with peers and the physical act of writing serves only to fix those ideas in static, visual medium for others to study and draw from.

The hurdles cognitive theory fails to pass are no longer a problem once the perspective lens is switched to a social constructionist setting. The concerns now being raised are not “Who wrote this,” but “Why, How, and for What Purpose did they write this.” By removing the barrier presented by copyright contention and embracing theories of social construction, we allow for writers to incorporate a wider variety of techniques into their individual process.

In my final exploration into the theories and practices of writing tutoring and conference, I will explore how dictation and collaboration benefits student writers using several key sources including: Walter J. Ong’s ideas on the oral nature of language, Stephen M. North’s position on talking in tutoring centers, Kenneth A. Bruffee’s interpretation of the epistemic nature of social constructionism, and Muriel Harris’ study of collaborative writing versus collaborative learning.

Opening up our understanding of the ideal writing process from an isolated genius hunched over his desk, words pouring forth onto a page from deep inside his soul, to a lively give-and-take between peers who ascend to a more meaningful level of debate by talking to each other, brings intellectual conversation into a more social realm that is less concerned with the people involved (who they are, where they come from, which author is right and which is wrong) and more concerned with the flow of ideas taking place.

So I Went to a Tutoring Session: Part Two

I chose to bring in a short GE essay on rewriting gender norms for my tutoring session—a fundamentally different piece of work than the kind my fellow classmate brought in to discuss. I had a five-page analytical paper that was handed in to one professor via hard copy. He had a personal narrative that was posted on a public blog site.

The notes I received on previous essays for this professor were all lower order concerns (grammar, punctuation, contraction use), although I knew there were a few higher order concerns I needed to address. I assumed, then, that I wouldn’t have many HOCs to address in this second paper.

As soon as I sat down and had to answer the question, “So what issues do you think you need to fix with this paper?” I realized that there were organizational issues I had problems with; I just hadn’t given it much thought. I’d treated this paper like I do all my GE assignments: I know the professors just want to check that I’ve read the textbook, so as long as I slap in some terms and concepts from the reading and relate them accurately to the prompt I’ll get a passing grade, no matter how much attention I pay to creatively crafting my words. That instantly makes me less invested in the paper and makes the assignment feel like fluff work. I spend an afternoon banging the paper out and I turn it in without any revision or rereading.

So, naturally, I was extremely reluctant to read the work out loud to my tutor and the two peer observers sitting in for our session. I would much rather have preferred not to look at this paper ever again, but, of course, that’s not the writing tutor way.

I did as asked and read the paper aloud. And it was instantly clear to me where my issues were—I went full film kid. The assignment asked for a breakdown of a contemporary pop culture artifact in terms of gender communication and then a potential rewrite of the artifact with gender equality in mind. I chose a recent film, and linked the importance of its gender characterization to a century-long history of feminism in Disney princess movies.

I bit off a bit more than I could chew; reading through the paper, I realized that I let my excitement for feminism in movies get away from me. I spent way too long detailing the history of Disney princess character construction and delved way too deep into the three act structure flaws in their latest film. Conversely, I barely spent any time pointing out the sexist elements—they seemed totally obvious to me—and arrived at my main argument halfway through the essay. If I’d just read through the paper once on my own I probably would have been able to target and fix these problems—compressing the details and more explicitly drawing out terms of gender communication.

 

I don’t know if my tutor felt as rewarded as me after our session, but she should have because she might have accomplished the true goal of writing center tutors: fixing the writer instead of the writing. Maybe, the next time I have to write a paper I have little interest in, I’ll actually read it over before handing it in!

So I Went to a Tutoring Session: Part One

I walked into Demille Hall on a Thursday afternoon full of fake confidence—of course I know where the Writing Center is, of course I have a paper ready for critique, and of course this will be a breeze! I did not, in fact, have any current piece of writing needing review, nor had I ever been to the Writing Center before, but that didn’t stop me from wandering around the dark, cramped labyrinth of Demille Hall—home of the Language department, Honors Society, and the Writing, Tutoring & Learning Center. These three departments jostle for space in a tiny one-story building crammed between Memorial Lawn and the beautiful, big Business building.

I found the Tutoring & Learning Center just fine, not only because there were signs with arrows on the walls pointing me in the right direction. The TLC receptionist couldn’t quite understand why I was so confused by her answer to what I thought was a legitimate question:

“So, um…I have an appointment with the writing center for 1 o’clock…?”

Her response:

“You know where the tutoring center is?” I nod. “It’s all the way in the back.”

Now, let me clarify: “tutoring center” refers to the windowless classroom around the corner crammed with cubicles. I’d already made a short circuit of said room. By “all the way in the back” I assumed I’d find a doorway to maybe a smaller classroom set aside for writing tutoring.

I assumed erroneously.

When my assigned tutor showed up, she led myself and the classmate who I’d paired up with for this experiential course assignment, literally, all the way to the back of the tutoring “center” to two cubicles in the corner that boasted a piece of computer paper taped to the shelf. It read:

“THESE CUBICLES RESERVED FOR WRITING CENTER TUTORS.”

Oh, I thought, so this is how it is.

 

Now that you have an idea of what kind of setup Chapman offers students looking for writing assistance, I’ll dive into my observations of a tutoring experience.

 

My fellow classmate brought in a personal non-fiction piece about his writing inspirations and individual creative process. (His version of my literacy narrative.) I was all ready to study the tutor’s technique critically, with our theoretical readings hovering in the back of my mind. She did all the right things:

1)       allow the student to talk first about what he thinks are issues with the paper, what he wants help on, what his goals were with the paper

2)      have him read the paper out loud

3)      ask questions, instead of diving in with edits or correction

4)      get the student to realize what changes were needed instead of spoon-feeding

 

Real A+ work, Tutor. It was clear that the tutee knew what needed to be done, but benefited greatly from the simple task of talking about his next steps with the tutor. That’s not to say that no assistance in the form of actual review was given by the tutor, but those corrections acted to reinforce realizations previously made by the student. It seemed like the perfect tutoring session experience–higher order concerns were addressed, the student incorporated the professor’s thoughtful notes into his rewrite, and left the session with a more focused, organized, and cohesive paper.

By the end of their session, I had mentally picked out a piece of writing for review–a five-page paper on gender communication and stereotypes in a pop culture–but I assumed my tutoring session would be much different. My professor was not of the writing department mentality. Her corrections on my assignment were purely mechanical, and I knew that if I wanted a perfect grade on the next assignment I would need to focus more on lower order concerns and format issues than anything else.

Again, I assumed incorrectly.

Creative Collaboration in Student Writing

In my last post update, I proposed my search for true collaborative writing between students at the university level. To be honest, my expectations were low prior to sitting in on my screenwriting roommate’s script workshop. But I am happy to report that I’ve found it! I’ve found students who are actually willing to, and capable of, sharing in all of the writing process: pre-writing, writing, and revising.

My roommate has collaborated with directors before—this was not her first rodeo. From all the stories of her previous partnership, I cobbled together a prejudice about writer-director relationships: the director takes the reigns on much of the storyline construction and characterization and the screenwriting takes control of the physical act of writing. In this setup, directors act as pre-writing supervisors, revisers, and editors, with the screenwriter doing the detailed legwork and maintaining a feeling of authorship. It seems like a decent enough division of labor on paper—the director directs the “vision,” as we like to call it, and the screenwriter writes. Duh.

But there is a problem. The title of screenwriter holds less power and importance in this relationship, because much of the creative brainchild comes from the director while the mechanics are left up to the writer, unless the writer actively pushes for greater involvement and unless their personal relationship allows for the writer to have a say. The problem then sleeps quiet until the issue of copyright and on-screen credit rears its ugly head.

The screenplay was a collaborative effort, yes, but not an equal one. Both parties don’t deserve co-writing credits, so the director often adopts a “story by” or “created by” credit and leaves the “written by” credit for the screenwriter, again keeping the more respected (and better paid) credit for her- or himself while the writer gets shafted.

So when I entered the room last weekend to sit in on my first writer-director workshop, I was primed for disappointment and disapproval. Instead, I discovered the magical unicorn of collaborative relationships.

This was the third meeting in their writing process; they had a shared understanding of the tone, plot points, characters, and message and the director had written the first draft of the script. My roommate, the writer, read the draft and the notes written by the director’s classmates in his thesis workshop course and gave her opinion about their opinions. Then they discussed elements of the draft that they liked, disliked, were unsure of, and so forth. Before breaking, they laid out the rules of the universe and cemented character backstories so they could ensure their story would be rooted in some sort of credibly constructed context. My roommate then prepared to take the draft and write her own, incorporating the best elements, notes, and ideas discussed in their meeting.

Let me repeat: the director wrote a draft, handed it over to the writer, and asked her to write her own version. Upon reconvening the next week, they would have a new script with new notes from the workshop course and be able to continue developing the best possible script version.

I have never in my life met a director so willing to allow his brainchild and his creative writing to be totally gutted by someone else. I have never seen a director at Dodge trust another screenwriter at Dodge and be so open to critique and advice.

Maybe I’ve been missing out on a whole new world of wonderful writing relationships that fly under the radar here at Chapman. Or maybe I just happened to stumble upon something rare and unique. Or…maybe most people don’t collaborate in this way because it’s impossible and the end result will devolve into a confused mish-mash of two different brainchildren.

Stay tuned for more updates, because this phenomenon is worth keeping track of.

The Elusive Collaborative Student Writing

In Collaboration Is Not Collaboration Is Not Collaboration: Writing Center Tutorials vs. Peer Response Groups, essayist Murial Harris raises a point that seems so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t been aware of it before: we talk about knowledge being socially constructed and therefore all our work and writing is a sort of collaboration between peer groups, but I can’t think of any experience I’ve had where that theory is applied. Certainly not in the sphere of academic writing. The peer review groups that high school teachers and sometimes college professors seem so fond of often fall into the category of “editorial work” focusing on lower order concerns that I’ve been railing against in previous posts (Harris 372).

My mission then became a search for natural practical application of collaborative writing at the university level. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t find it my GE courses or the English department, these are places where the author is still seen as the isolated genius sitting at a desk whipping words into perfection. (Or their places where indifferent students slap sentences onto the page for a mediocre grade.) So I turned to the creative writing circles, primarily those that I’m familiar with: writing rooms at the film school. Collaborations between directors and writers, or producers and directors, or producers and writers are fairly common during the development stage of thesis films–or, they’re supposed to be. Luckily, I’m a producer living with one of the screenwriters who involves herself in the production department.

I endeavored to sit in on one of her writer-director script workshops to see just how collaborative the process was…will the director construct the storyline and leave the physical act of writing to the screenwriter? How much say will she have in the plot structure? How involved with the director be in word-crafting? I fully expect these writing workshops to be different depending on the participants, but, having never been present for one myself, I want to see the collaborative magic happen before my eyes. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally catch a glimpse of true collaborative writing face-to-face.

 

Stayed tuned for the results.

But what all th…

But what all that stems from is this idea that emerged in the Romantic period of the 19th century, the image of the writer as the solitary genius, the idea of the work of art springing fully formed from the pure imaginative invention of the writer. And there’s an idea of the writer with his blank bit of paper, and that’s the sacred scene of origin of the literary work. But if you actually start looking at the historical records we have of the theater in Shakespeare’s lifetime, in fact it wasn’t like that at all. It was a profoundly collaborative activity. For instance, Shakespeare wrote particular parts for particular actors, because sometimes instead of putting the name of the character he puts the name of the actor. And you can actually see in his plays, there’s always a role for the clown, and he knows who the clown is, there’s a role for the actor who specialized in playing the older man — the councilor, the Polonius figure.

Jonathan Bate, in a PSB interview about the authorship debate raging in Shakespearean circles: who was William Shakespeare?

The commonly and most widely believed account points to commoner William Shaksper of Stratford-upon-Avon, but theorists have argued for centuries over the real identity of the playwright. Was it contemporary Christopher Marlowe? The famous Sir Francis Bacon? Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere?

Sometimes it’s validating to hear academics from completely different circles speaking to the belief that writing is not a singular, individual act but a collaboration among peers, just like I spoke about in my first post in this category.