Caught between a teacher and a tutor.
At our first meeting, Lee wanted to know what I liked and what I "hated" about his narrative essay. Upon reading the paper, I immediately detected a punctuation error pattern. For example, Lee began his essay, "The thing I am going to tell you about is something that is a very easy habit to get into but it is a horribly bad thing, that is procrastination." This sentence exemplifies the less formal, conversational writing style he had intentionally attempted. Throughout the essay, his writing often lacked commas or had commas when other punctuation would have been more appropriate. I refrained from marking the errors and continued reading. When I finished, I was impressed with both Lee's writing ability and my reading skills. I congratulated myself for detecting a dominant error pattern so quickly and easily. I discussed the essay's many strengths at length, making a conscious effort to boost his confidence. Then I read Lee's first paragraph aloud, and he immediately said it sounded fine. I agreed and pointed out that readers see rather than hear language's flow; therefore, in writing, one has to represent the pauses of speech with appropriate punctuation. Then I presented a punctuation lesson and asked Lee to correct his errors with me acting as a guide. With his broad concerns (he asked what I liked and "hated" about his paper), Lee essentially relinquished his role in negotiating our session's agenda. Nonetheless, I believed that because our conference had "a mutually agreeable and mutually understood direction" (Newkirk 313), I felt comfortable with it based on my perceptions of "the dynamic among student, tutor, text, and assignment" (Pemberton 13).
I could have addressed other issues besides punctuation, notably Lee's wordiness. Instead, I focused on boosting his confidence with expansive praise and selective criticism rather than correcting every error. I hoped to contribute to Lee's growth as a student and did not realize I was possibly contravening the values of academic culture. In Good Intentions, Nancy Grimm argues that most educators want all students, regardless of "class, country, or culture," "to write, think, cite, and talk in clear, coherent, rational English" (2). Since educators also value "individual autonomy and responsibility," if a student struggles with writing, "the problem ... is presumed to lie with the student" rather than the educators' assumption that expectations for academic writing are natural and clear to everyone (2). In this view, writing centers exist to help "problem" students improve "the clarity, order, and correctness" of their writing (2). In effect, tutors support the teacher's position while showing students "the kind of writing valued in the academy" (8). In the process, they can easily disregard the students' intentions for their writing. For instance, teaching standard punctuation assimilated Lee's intended conversational style of writing into "clear, coherent, rational English."
However, I did not assimilate his writing nearly enough to satisfy his instructor. At our second meeting, Lee and I worked on revising his failing essay. Her comments briefly identified a few strengths before criticizing his point-of-view shifts, tense shifts, and apparent ambiguity. His body language and tone of voice revealed his frustration with his instructor's comments and his failing grade. No other errors were mentioned, and the instructor's marginalia either highlighted examples of shifts or asked for clarifications. The instructor clearly looked for error patterns and offered limited feedback to them, just as I did.
As I reviewed the circled words and corresponding marginalia, I realized that I had read over Lee's tense shifts in my eagerness to find an error pattern. For example, I was so focused on the punctuation errors in his sentence, "I had five weeks to complete my paper but who cares, I only needed twelve hours," that I did not even notice its verb tense shifts. Lee accepted the criticism of the tense and point-of-view shifts, as well as my advice for correcting them. Though we wrangled over several errors and comments, the instructor's most controversial comments occurred in the margins next to the essay's second paragraph:
One day in my English III class we were assigned a research paper. It was a humongous research paper that was worth a quarter of your final grade. In the past procrastination has led me to good grades and stuff, so as usual I procrastinate on one of the biggest papers in high school. If my memory serves me correctly my research paper was on any topic I chose. I decided to go with Alternative Sources of Energy It had to be five pages long, have three different sources and two of the sources not from the Internet. I had five weeks to complete the paper. Deep down inside I knew I only needed twelve hours.
His instructor asked in the margin, "Why did you think it was so humongous?" Evidently, the instructor felt that Lee could not have simultaneously believed the paper was humongous but would require only twelve hours to write. I repeated the instructor's question, expecting to jot down his response. Lee took the paper from my hand and underlined "one of the biggest papers in high school." He returned the paper with a defiant glare.
I wanted to agree that his instructor should have connected the ideas in his writing, but instead, I discussed how modifying and supporting the sentence, "I knew I only needed twelve hours," could address his teacher's concern. I suggested changing "knew" to "thought" to emphasize the fact that he was ultimately wrong about how much time he needed to spend on the paper. I also suggested adding an explanatory sentence, such as "I thought wrong." Ultimately, Lee changed "knew" to "thought" but did not add supporting detail. If not for his instructor's comment, I never would have questioned my perception that Lee's "knew" was as subjective as "thought." "Knew" seemed intentionally ironic to me, evidenced by his previous characterization of procrastination as "horrible." In contrast, the instructor failed to see the semantic relationships among "the biggest paper in high school," "I knew I only needed twelve hours," and "horrible" procrastination. The supposed semantic error was really a failure in the instructor's reading, presumably caused by excessively focusing on error patterns. In the hunt for vagueness, the instructor seemed to have lost her interpretative skills. Then she found the vagueness for which she was searching. (Or maybe she understood but took issue with his word choices--more on this later.)
Clearly, searching for error patterns can lead to "tunnel vision" reading and thus significant reading errors. I saw a pattern immediately and focused on it to the exclusion of other patterns that emerged later in the essay. The instructor identified all the error patterns but missed the implicit coherence of Lee's writing. As human beings, we have the tendency to find what we look for, and research indicates that we also have difficulty seeing beyond what we seek. In the study "Gorillas in our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events," Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris asked subjects to watch a video of a basketball team and count their passes. Less than half of the subjects (44%) noticed when a woman in a gorilla suit walked past the players (1069). If teachers and tutors focus on error patterns, how many "gorillas" might they miss? How many errors? How much coherence? Looking for certain error patterns may cause deficient reading of and response to student writing when seeking those patterns ceases to be a reading strategy and instead becomes a reading purpose, a conscious or unconscious "tunnel vision."
Besides "tunnel vision," the instructor's hyper-focus on errors may have stemmed from deeper assumptions about students' authority within the academy. As a basic writer, Lee was a cultural or intellectual "outsider" with no authority (Grimm 12). It is possible that his instructor failed to see the connections among his ideas because of her apparent assumption that Lee could not create subtle semantic links across various sections of writing. As soon as she saw a hint of vague, unclear, or inconsistent writing, the instructor seemed to assume that the student had a problem and then could not help but see more evidence of it (Grimm 2).
Or perhaps the instructor understood the connections among Lee's ideas but desired more precise word choices than "humongous" or "biggest paper in high school." Did "biggest" mean "longest," "most complex," or "most important" to his grade? I would argue that it could mean all of these things, and thus the word's supposed "vagueness" actually makes it a precise (although not poetic) word choice. Perhaps if Lee were a professional writer, his readers would devote more effort to interpreting his words and less to critiquing them, especially since criticizing word choice leads students to view revision as rewording (Sommers 46-8). To be fair, the instructor's feedback could be justified on the grounds that she was teaching the difference between "Writer-Based" and "Reader-Based" prose, as her comments require Lee to rely on explicit connections instead of reader inferences. Of course, writer-based prose should be converted into reader-based prose or else writing's purpose (communication) is impossible. Yet I would not call Lee's prose "writer-based." It was not "an unfocused and apparently pointless discussion" that forced the reader to discern "ideas out of details" (Flower 126, 133). Rather, the instructor became hyper-focused on specificity and "blind" to subtle semantic connections and valid rhetorical choices.
Later in the essay, for example, Lee described wasting time driving to and from a distant library since his local library lacked sources on his topic; he named the location of the distant library but not his local one. The instructor wrote in the margin, "Where were you at?" Since the passage's topic was wasting time the night before the paper's due date, why did the specific locations matter? The answer is not the instructor's error-focused reading or "inattentional blindness" but rather that Lee lacked authority as a writer. If he failed to specify some information, it was certainly not because he made a rhetorical choice to emphasize more important information; it was because he had problems with specificity. When I suggested adding the location, Lee expressed great frustration with having to waste his and the reader's time with non-essential information. Moreover, the instructor's question reinforced the "revision as rewording" mentality (Sommers 46-8). Though I shared Lee's frustration, I justified the instructor's comments on the grounds that she was teaching the importance of specificity so that readers could easily understand his thoughts. Lee replied, "Yeah, but doesn't the reader have some responsibility for understanding what you write?" If Lee had authority, then the reader might have some responsibility for comprehending his writing. But because he is a student, his instructor does not grant him the authority to rely on reader interpretation. Gail Stygall argues in "Resisting Privilege" that instructor feedback is greatly influenced by the distinction between published authors and students, "apprentice writers who do 'pseudo-writing'" (188). Lee's situation perfectly illustrates this influence. The instructor's attitude toward student authority, coupled with an emphasis on error patterns, produced a very myopic response to Lee's writing.
Lee's case is hardly unique. Again, Grimm argues that the academy wants students "to write, think, cite, and talk in clear, coherent, rational English" (2). Therefore, the effective instructor improves "the clarity, order, and correctness of student writing." The "ideal" writing center in this scenario assists the academy by "unequivocally supporting] the teacher's position while showing students the kind of writing valued in the academy" (8). The process of assimilation--and silencing--can occur throughout the student's writing experience. Obviously, encouraging resistance to assimilation is not viable; students will not succeed with a complete disregard for an instructor's comments, and pretending otherwise will certainly disserve the student. If students fail as a result of writing consultations, the writing center will inevitably fail, too. No writing center wants students and instructors to say that it does not help. Yet, emphasizing errors and error patterns risks problematic reading mistakes, reinforcing the "revision as rewording" mentality, and countering the best practices of writing center work.
Alternatively, the tutor could emphasize relationship and focus on a student's personal growth rather than errors, correctness, and even higher-order concerns. Changing the tutorial's focus from product to person eliminates "defensive concerns about ... adequately enacting the teacher's desires" (Grimm 19). This happened in my first session with Lee, when I granted him authority and stroked his confidence. However, Lee's final product suffered from my emphasis on relationship; as Lisa Delpit reminds us in "The Silenced Dialogue": "students will be judged on their product regardless of the process they utilized to achieve it" (573). In the conflict of instructor, tutor, and student authority, the instructor always holds the upper hand through grading, and emphasizing relationship instead of the instructor's trump card can damage the very thing that the tutor seeks to foster. How much did I harm my relationship with Lee--how much did I damage his confidence and growth-by setting him up to fail with glowing praise and scant attention to his writing's weaknesses, followed with a desperate attempt to assimilate his writing? Perhaps the best option is to break out of limiting dichotomies: assimilation vs. resistance, instructor authority vs. student authority, product vs. person, etc. Negotiating the conflict of instructor and student authority could involve compromise, negotiation, subversion, or some combination thereof. The tutor could refocus the session on the rhetorical situation, including how the assignment constructs the student, how the student's purpose can connect with the teacher-grader's expectations, and how the student might "negotiate with those expectations ... beyond mere acceptance or rejection" (Grimm 24, 50). When instructor feedback (mis)directs students' attention to rewording, tutors can help the student dramatically revise and thus transcend that feedback.
For example, Lee's instructor did not recognize the incongruence of narrative essays and academic writing. To an extent, the narrative assignment set Lee up to make punctuation errors by allowing him freedom, but not authority, to affect a conversational style. Lee and I could have discussed ways to negotiate this complex rhetorical situation. We could have discovered ways to establish his authority through adhering to convention and then cleverly breaking it, thus both compromising with and challenging the instructor's attitude. When reviewing the marginalia, we might have determined how to subvert the instructor's expectation for mind-numbing specificity, perhaps through extensive revision as discovery. Our sessions could have gone much further than correct or incorrect, acceptance or rejection, assimilation or resistance.
Whatever approach one takes, it must be balanced with critical self-reflection and careful consideration of the student's best interests. Though seeking error patterns can lead to effective, efficient instruction, both teachers and tutors must remember that they may misunderstand student writing when they look for error patterns. When providing feedback, teachers and tutors have to evaluate their pedagogy if it results in rewording rather than revision. They must balance concern for the person with concern for the person's graded product. Most importantly, if they believe they have marginalized and silenced students through assimilation, they are obligated to question their methods, their motivations, and the limits of their dichotomies.
Delpit, Lisa. "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 565-88. Print.
Flower, Linda. "Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing." To Compose: Teaching Writing in High School and College. Ed. Thomas Newkirk. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1990. 125-52. Print.
Grimm, Nancy. Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1999. Print.
Newkirk, Thomas. "The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference." The Longman Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Ed. Robert Barnett and Jacob Blumner. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2008. 302-15. Print.
Pemberton, Michael. "Student Agendas and Expectations for Writing Center Conferences (Part II)." Writing Lab Newsletter 22.7 (1998): 12-13. Print.
Simons, D.J. and C.F. Chabris. "Gorillas in our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events." Perception 28 (1999): 1059-74. Print.
Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 43-54. Print.
Stygall, Gail. "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault's Author Function." Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. 185-203. Print.
* Eric Sentell
Northern Virginia Community College
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|Publication:||Writing Lab Newsletter|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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