Not remedial, but a walk-through.
Often when a student enters the writing center, it quickly becomes obvious that the student doesn't understand the assignment, so the tutor begins to offer a remedial lesson, erroneously assuming the student was improperly instructed. But typically, the instructor taught the student the same principles the consultant is now reviewing, and if the student didn't learn these conventions the first time, there's no reason to assume he'll understand them the second time. What most students need, then, isn't a remedial lesson. Rather, they need the one thing a writing center can provide that the classroom often cannot: a one-to-one walk-through in which the student is shown explicitly how to understand a writing assignment.
A comparative example may help illustrate what I mean. Although writing may come naturally to me, I have always struggled with math. I have had to learn overtly what most mathematicians learned intuitively. Hence, the math classes I struggled with most were ones where the teacher reviewed the same lesson with me individually that he had presented before the class, expecting me to pick up the math intuitively. The math classes where I excelled the most were the ones where the instructor walked me through a problem, taking into account my current knowledge and skill level. After I had been walked through the process of solving a math problem, I could solve the math problem on my own. Areas of math such as geometry, algebra, and calculus were all foreign and frightening esoteric disciplines that I had no intuitive access to. I tried to apply the principles of basic arithmetic to them and failed. I had to have the principles of each area of math explained to me explicitly before I could operate in it.
The same principle applies to writing: for most students, most genres of college writing are strange and forbidding, and they try to apply the principles of more familiar genres in their desperate attempt to function in a new one. However, once most students are walked through a genre, they can write in the genre on their own. For example, here at the University of Utah Writing Center, about four weeks into every semester, we're inundated with freshman composition students seeking help with their "rhetorical analysis" assignments. In this assignment, students are asked to analyze the rhetorical techniques used in a famous text, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
What often happens is that King's iconic status as a civil rights leader overshadows his rhetoric in students' minds, causing their papers more often than not to be discussions on race relations rather than rhetorical analyses. Even if the student remembers to minimize her own opinions in the paper, she still forgets to analyze the speech and instead simply summarizes the author's key points. As well intentioned, even insightful, as these papers can be, they fail to address the key components of the rhetorical analysis genre. Students are often unaware of their mistake and must receive the bad news from the writing center consultant, "Your paper did not follow the assignment." This situation occurs because the students are unfamiliar with the genre of rhetorical analysis, and so they write in a genre they are more familiar with, such as argumentative essay or textual summary. It's not that they don't want to write a rhetorical analysis; it's that they don't know what is expected of them.
The problem often is that instructors and consultants are too good at writing. For many of us, the conventions of the rhetorical analysis genre appear self-explanatory or are easily learned; in fact, literary genres may come intuitively to tutors who are proficient readers and writers. Even if the tutor encounters a genre in an unfamiliar discipline, such as business memorandum or annotated bibliography, she can usually pick up the conventions fairly quickly. What instructors and consultants sometimes fail to realize is that most students are not able to do that. Nothing about the rhetorical analysis is self-explanatory; it is an alien genre to most students. They are uninitiated. As Amy Devitt, Anis Barwashi, and Mary Jo Reiff write, "[genre] instructions contain presumptions, implications, specifications known by the . . . community but unknown to the unsuspecting" inductees (544). We members of the writing community don't always understand just how fully initiated and saturated we are in the discourse of the writing community, a community foreign to most new students. Just recently I worked with a student who was asked to analyze Thomas Frank's "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," an essay about the assimilation of the counter-culture by American capitalism. To help this student understand the expectations of the rhetorical analysis genre, I asked him to focus on the following line:
You can't outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long: it's their racetrack, and that's them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland." (1) I told the student he could almost write an entire paper on this line alone. Look at the rich diction: "outrun," "racetrack," "outrageous," and "prudes. All of these are loaded words, calculated to play on people's prejudices, preconceptions, and emotions. By the time we got through picking apart this one sentence's diction, the student had at least a page-worth of detailed rhetorical analysis. Suddenly, the student wasn't fretting about how to fill three pages but about how to trim the paper down. This quotation could also be analyzed for the word order, pronoun usage, position of clauses--the analytical potential of this line is nearly inexhaustible, and the rhetorical analysis is only a three-page assignment. I can't count how many students have said, "You mean, that's all I have to do? Explain it in detail?" So accustomed are these students to writing in broad terms, over-generalizing on subjects, that they've never really learned how to write in specifics. For many of them, it's a breath of fresh air, a feeling of freedom, to have to parse apart a sentence and nothing else.
In acknowledging the difficulty students often have with this assignment, I do not mean to imply they are unintelligent: quite the opposite. The genre expectations that have been hammered into them for years are that papers are supposed to be detailed arguments defending a specific point of view--requiring introduction, background, context, and argumentation--and that this format is the only form an essay can take; they are not even aware that other genres of formal college writing exist.
For example, a high school senior writing a paper on Hamlet isn't usually instructed to parse out the interplay between rhyme and diction in Act III, scene i, lines 56-86, but rather is typically trained to comment on the general theme of "madness" or "vengeance" as it occurs throughout the play as a whole. In other words, most students arriving at college have been trained to comment on the forest at the expense of the trees, and now suddenly they are being asked to focus exclusively on the trees. This dissonance between their high school and college instruction has tripped up more than one incoming college student. Even in more standard writing genres such as analytical essays and research papers, the student is often unaware that the expectation now in college writing is to write in specifics, not generalities. Suddenly focusing on concrete details instead of on the writing's overall theme is foreign to most new students, a factor both composition instructors and writing center consultants need to acknowledge.
Hence, these students don't simply need to be told to write differently, as though all these different genres are intuitively understood; rather, they need to be explicitly shown how to write them. And it's not just rhetorical analyses, but research papers, research proposals, memos, business plans, news articles, responses, literature reviews, literature surveys, bibliographies, graduate theses, and so forth- -all of these genres need not remedial instruction, but a walk-through. I have found that walking students through different genres of college writing has made my job easier and more enjoyable.
Offering a walk-through not only prevents us from becoming remedial instructors, but also helps justify our existence, as we fulfill a function the classroom often cannot. Logistically, the writing instructor simply doesn't have sufficient time during class or office hours to provide all the walk-throughs that students need to understand a genre. The walk-through is the purview of writing centers. F
Devitt, Amy J., Anis Barwashi, and Mary Jo Reiff. "Materiality and Genre in the Study of Discourse Communities." College English 65.5 (May, 2003): 541-58. Print.
Frank, Thomas. "Why Johnny Can't Dissent." The Baffler Literary Magazine. New York Times, 1997. Web. 2 Feb. 2009.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. "Letter From Birmingham Jail." African Studies Center, U of Pennsylvania. 16 Apr. 1963. Web. 2 Feb. 2009.
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT