December 11, 2014

Talking Words vs. Writing Words

“Well, as we can see….”

“One thing leads to another and…..”

“Anyway, the point is…..”

“It’s like, you know….”

What’s a talking word?



In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register.  This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper.  Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”).  These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.

Why is this a problem in writing? What changes?  Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric?  If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do itoutside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.




“It’s like, you know….”



“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”.  We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning.  This is where meaning started, for that matter.  We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other.  So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.

The problem sets in when we change media.  In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context.  They literally clog up the sentence.  A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible.   When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor.  While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.


This means multiple voices competing for attention.  Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across.  Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you.  We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.




How to avoid this



The bare-bones method is simply telling a student.  When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling.  But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.

For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose.  Take individual sentences and analyze them.  What is the point of the sample sentence?  What is the main idea?  Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate.  See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used.  The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.

This article originally appeared on Liz's blog.




Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

October 30, 2014

Why Fight the Phone? Using tech to compliment writing instruction

This is the soundtrack for our classrooms: *bzzzbzz* *bzzbzzz*.  The rhythms of instruction are now delineated by the tiny mechanisms in student pockets.  LED lights and miniature vibrating motors alert us to the passage of time, irrespective of the actual pace of learning.  We are all familiar with the irritation of competing with phones.  We all have policies governing their use, some more strict than others.  We are all aware that these machines aren’t going away, nor is their effect going to be lessened.  

 I am going to propose that we lay down our arms.  Stop fighting the cell phone.  Learn to convert cell phone use into a teachable moment.  By teachable moment I mean use psychology and outright trick your students.  I believe in this wholeheartedly.

Below are “Reilly’s Rules for phones in class”.  Perhaps some of these can be helpful to you in managing this new reality we all share.  We don’t have to like students’ habits, but we have to work with them in some fashion.

Tech policies: State, repeat, and follow through

First things first, you have to decide your plan of attack.  What can you see yourself putting up with on the daily?  Are you really as technophobic or technophilic as you think?  Whatever boundaries you pick, you are committed to for the rest of the semester.  How much can you put up with for 14 weeks?  The obvious exception to this are students using assistive technologies.

Once you decide on your boundaries for non-assistive tech, outline them in plain language on your syllabus.  Then revise again for clarity and small words.  Students tend to love technology, so you don’t want to end up splitting hairs with them.  Be clear, be direct, and make them meet your expectations.  

Make techies look up pertinent information.

If it’s going to be in the classroom, you pay as well use it.  My personal policy is to ask students with phones to look up info in-class and report.  If there’s a word, concept, or process that is not common knowledge, but can easily be found with a quick google or wiki check, make them do it.  

Use tech metaphors when possible, or the tech itself.

Meet them where they’re interested.  Know how various popular technologies and apps function.  And use that knowledge in your storehouse to make metaphors students will understand.  If students don’t quite understand the point of including outside resources in their essays, present the quote or paraphrase as a form of link.  The citation is there to support their main work, and present a “link” of sorts to a larger body of work.

Learn to use a variety of platforms and apps.  

This is not just professional development for you, but also builds your word-hoard to reach out to students.  But be careful, and consider privacy. If you’re going to, for instance, build a social media page or account for your class, be sure to model the behavior you want your students to have, and use it to illustrate information related to the lesson.  However, I will caution you against making social media essential to your curriculum, unless you are ready and willing to walk your students through making “professional” accounts.  Do not ever demand your students use their private profiles for your class.  

Why fight it?

My personal policy is “don’t fight them when you can make them work with you”.  Personally, I can live with technology, as long as it is employed usefully.  My policy is phones, laptops, and tablets are allowable, but I reserve the right to “get nosy” and check out what the students are doing.  I make it a bit of a joke, but I follow through.  

I move around a lot during class, around the room and up and down the aisles.  I frequently make students group or circle so there’s not much opportunity to hunker down behind a screen. This approach requires a delicate touch - I don’t want to appear aggressive or violate a student’s personal space.  But I find that after one or two check-ins, I don’t need to do this much.  Students will start to self-police, and the bulk of them will understand that they must engage.  

Build the lesson assuming that someone’s going to have a phone or computer in hand - don't give them the opportunity to hide.  They’ll have to look up from that screen eventually.  Emphasize that this is what they’ll be doing in their careers, working this simultaneous screen/face presence.  They may as well know how to do it smartly.  And you may as well have one less aggravation in your classroom!





Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

October 6, 2014

How to have ideas

How many times have you sat down for a session with a student, and had this exchange:

Student: “My professor said write about XYZ.”

You: “Ok, so what’s your thesis on XYZ?  What is your opinion?  What position will you take?”

Student: “I don’t know!”

Consider this from the student’s perspective: They have been asked to produce a substantial body of writing for which they will be graded but they may not know anything about the subject. 
You may not like it either but as a professional, you have the advantage of experience and practice.  You know how to think on your feet.  The students are not there yet.

Our task is to guide them to this point.  How can we get them to the place where they are able to generate ideas and positions on given topics?  How can we instill critical-thinking behaviors necessary for academic success?  How can we impart a cogent form for their ideas without dictating content? 

This is the advantage of our education and experience as professionals: we know how to quickly form an educated opinion on a topic and impart it with clarity.   But how do we do that?  It is important to know our process so we can break it down and model it for our students.

We know how to read and listen.  We know how to not only assimilate information but to sieve it for useful artifacts.  We know to discard unnecessary words, how to identify and analyze key concepts.  And we do this all at a speed mystifying to students.  This is why we view our assignments as simple - we can throw ideas out a mile a minute compared to students.

In order to show our students how to have ideas that they can later develop, we have to think ourselves back to their place.  We have to recall what it’s like to not be able to draw on our well-furnished minds and generate writing on just about anything.

This is the essence of teaching writing, and it is not easy.  We’re moving upstream against cultural differences, systemic disadvantages, and the natural shyness of many students when we ask them to expand on their ideas about a text in the requisite five paragraphs.

I’ve tried to boil this process down to a shortlist of habits that encourage idea generation. 

I have asked my own students to develop these habits and I also ask myself to do the same when I stall on writing. Perhaps some of this may be helpful to you as well, in your classrooms and beyond:

I often see students that are stuck on brainstorming, but do not know item one about their topic.  I have learned to quiz them (“what is the income tax?”  “what was the Underground Railroad?” “do you know what hashtags are?”)  Often students simply don’t know certain facts which means I must “pull over” and show them how to find reliable information to address that knowledge gap.

Sometimes, however, students are disinterested in the topic and want me to tell them what to write.  This is impossible and frustrates both of us.  This is the time to try to gain their interest, and help them learn some facts about the topic.  Without basis of facts to work from, no one can generate a cogent opinion and discuss it in a scholarly fashion.  I tell them that they don’t have to agree with the topic, but they have to understand it.

While you cannot force curiosity onto students, it is possible to encourage it:

     Demonstrate your own passion (real or staged!) about readings.  Find something compelling and show them why you find this element interesting. 

     Ask them pointed questions, and encourage them to do the same.  Few are the students that respond well to open ended questions about their thoughts.  And questions about their opinions may elicit a flood of words, but little thought.  Putting the text under a microscope, and having them examine specific characters and situations, and try to imagine themselves in them can be very helpful.  “What would you do it you were in Hamlet’s shoes?  Why?”

     Ask them to relate information to their own lives.  My example of the hashtag earlier was real - this student disliked hashtags, but was unclear on their use. They were confusing various arguments about digital communication and had formed a position they could not defend in an essay.  I explained hashtags, but also asked them to tell me how they saw hashtags used in daily life, and guess why.  The student still disliked hashtags, but they were now able to discuss this opposition intelligently and with a thesis.

Summing up

There are many, many different ways to pique student interest.  But the secret is to get them to start working with their initial rough ideas as if they are tools - which they are.  It takes the concerted effort of many people, but seeing that light bulb go off is incredibly rewarding to both student and instructor. 


Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

June 3, 2014

Shifting Boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL)

Many scholars have written about the uncertain and shifting boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and composition programs at colleges. When they first began to proliferate in the United States during the mid-twentieth Century, ESL programs and main-stream composition programs either viewed their missions of teaching language and teaching writing as respective, separate and apart, or at least perceived the necessity for a divided house in differences of methodology. Since then, perspectives on this relationship have evolved, but they have evolved in more than one direction. Most of the contention seems to pivot on the student’s transition from one program to another, the effects this transition has on the student, and the way that either ESL or college writing programs respond to those effects.

At one of end the spectrum is a camp inhabited by many practitioners, albeit few contemporary theorists, who view the mastering of academic writing for the English Language Learner (ELL) as a hierarchical process beginning with internalization of granular structures and terminating with native-like composition practices. This camp tends to hold a rather specific idea of what constitutes native-like usage, considers errors to be evidence of insufficient mastery, and equates errors of language use with errors in writing practice. Within this paradigm, it is the purpose of an ESL program to prepare ELLs to operate within composition programs in a fashion indistinguishable from Native English Speakers (NESs), and then, in turn, it is the mission of the composition program to instruct and assess ELLs and NESs without differentiation. Here, the transition from one program to the next is a gateway, one which closes once the student has traversed it.

Not very many of the people who hold to the view outlined above are bilingual. Or if they are bilingual, they have never faced the challenge of using their second language for rigorous academic or professional purposes. And their first language is almost invariably English. My first language is English, but I learned German in college, took classes at a University in Germany, and worked there for three years of my life. Germans complimented me all the time on how good my German was, which I noticed was pretty much what they said to anyone who was learning it as a second language. No one ever said I never made mistakes. No one ever expected me not to. No one ever corrected my grammar unless I said something evidently different from what I meant. I wrote papers for my college classes. I got Bs on them. My professors pointed out that the German in my papers was far from perfect, but their feedback made it clear that the Bs were for the content of the papers, which was fair, because the content could have been better. Perhaps I was fortunate in that case to be attending a university situated directly on the German-Polish border, where roughly half of the students were not German, possibly predisposing professors to be open-minded about language. But that hardly seems like an extreme case in a world where most people are bilingual.

It’s a simple fact. A majority of the world population is bilingual or multilingual, and research has shown that bilingual individuals are more prone to tolerate and accept differences in the ways that others use language. They look for meaning, not for errors. So maybe it’s just because I’m one of them, but my sympathies lie with the camp at an extreme opposite to the one described at the beginning of this post, whereby I contend that language instruction and writing instruction both need to change in ways that respect and leverage pluralistic attitudes towards language and communicative approaches towards writing, changes which will prepare not only ELLs but all students to live and write in the world which is actually coming to pass, and prepare them to make it better in the process. There lost of people who say it better than I could, but one of the strongest arguments comes from Jay Jordan. The way we look at it, the transition from ESL to college composition and beyond isn't a gateway, it’s a shift in orientation where the student begins accumulating new competencies for communication, and where the learning of language continues unabated.

I expect that the convictions of many who follow this blog fall somewhere in between the two perspectives outlined here. Whatever the case, it’s a conversation that ESL programs, composition programs and writing centers need to have, and which they need to have with each other, because the students who depend on us need us to be sure what it is that we are teaching them. Please comment.


Gunnar Jaeck is a writer and teacher. He is a tutor at the PCCC Writing Center, and has taught English and ESL in public high schools, universities, community programs and libraries. He holds masters degrees in TESOL and creative writing. His fiction has appeared recently in Used Gravitrons and Infinity's Kitchen.

May 2, 2014

The Writing Center, Social Networking & Communities of Practice

In The Everyday Writing Center, the authors couch the everyday disruptions of writing centers within the context of Etienne Wenger’s community of practice to suggest “the ideas and concerns that may have once belonged to or originated with one of us [become] collective matters or moments of possibility” (Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, and Boquet, 2).  Such collective moments of possibility can also extend outside the traditional, face-to-face borders of the writing center via social media platforms like Twitter and blogs. While The Everyday Writing Center focuses on traditional in-center interactions, this article extends the conversation outside these borders and suggests that writing centers might utilize social media like blogs and Twitter to create, build, or support writing communities of practice. Centers can envision a new sense of the writing center: one that engages in the practice of writing on a much larger scale and emphasizes the value of writing as a social practice.

The Writing Center, Social Networking and Communities of Practice


Etienne Wenger describes a community of practice as a group of people that share interests, crafts, or professions. Wenger mentions that through the process of sharing information, those associated with the community exchange ideas to develop their own understanding and knowledge about a particular practice.  Communities of practice can exist in many spaces, whether online or onsite.

Wenger defines the structure of communities of practice as adhering to the following three components: (1) domain, (2) community, and (3) practice. The community of practice has a shared realm or domain of interest. Within the domain, members of the community engage in what Wenger calls “joint activities” and share information that “enable them to learn from each other” (Wenger). Interaction amongst participants is responsible for fostering community, not simply the dissemination of information. The community of practice must be practitioners who develop a “shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice” (Wenger).

Communities of practice can also manifest in an online environment, beyond geographical or physical locations. Wenger advocates that online communities of practice might increase the “possibilities for community and [call] for new kinds of communities based on shared practice” (Wenger). If communities of practice can function in an online capacity, then social networking might provide a platform for communities to exist, especially within the writing disciplines. Social networking allows individuals with similar interests and/or expertise to share knowledge and further practice within a domain-centric community. Practitioners of writing thrive via social networking, and connect via blogging and Twitter to discuss and promote writing as a process, craft, theory, teaching, tutoring and more.

Blogging

Blogs align with Wenger’s idea of a community of practice since they support a domain (topic); generate a community of subscribers communicating through comments, and share relevant content within a profession or niche. The PCCC Writing Center blog publishes posts that discuss writing best practices such as WAD, WAC, writing center theory, and writing instruction best practices. For example, the blog post “Better Writers, Not Just Better Writing–Even Online,” explored how writing centers supports online writers through online tutoring, LibGuides, and portfolios (“Better Writers, Not Just Better Writing–Even Online”). The blog post also asks its audience to comment on how they were making decisions on writing center policy, procedure, and even budget, as it applied to supporting students online.

The blog also promotes guest posts by outside practitioners of writing and writing center theory such as writing center directors, tutors, publishers and traditionally published and self-published writers across genres. Typically, an email is distributed via the writing center listserve and a call for submissions is tweeted through the Twitter stream. Rather than wait for people to submit ideas for guest blog posts, reaching out to experts in the field is also a way the blog produces guest spots. “An Interview with Muriel Harris,” in which Harris talked about the Purdue OWL best practices, its humble beginnings, and what's next for the online lab received 709 views within one week of posting, and brought an unprecedented amount of traffic and credibility to the blog (“From Local Center to Global OWL”).

In addition to offering tutoring tips within the walls of the center, the blog allows the Writing Center to create content relevant to writers across the spectrums. In February 2013, the PCCC Writing Center partnered with Claudia Serea, a Romanian-born poet, to develop the first annual National Writing in Translation Month (“National Translation Month”). Serea edited a month-long series about the craft of translation and included poetry translations from Romanian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, and Bulgarian. National Translation Month fostered communication with scholars beyond the college’s community, and opened the conversation about writing to writers across genres. Traditionally, writing in rhetoric and composition asks its audience to enter into a conversation. Such conversation promotes a community of practice in the sense that it allows social interaction between writer and reader, playing on the traditionally social nature of the writing process.

The social nature of the writing process allows for a community of practice to prosper via blogging. Kathleen Kitao and Namie Saeki talk about the social nature of the writing process in their article the “Process and Social Aspects of Writing: Theory and Classroom Application.” Both Kitao and Saeki suggest that writing emphasizes an “initiation-response-evaluation pattern of discourse between teachers and students” (86).  The process approach to writing includes various stages of revision in an effort to create meaning for an intended audience: the reader. The reader and writer are in a dialogue where the writer expounds meaning and the reader translates and internalizes meaning. Hence, writing is a social process (Kitao and Saeki 86). Both parties are engaged in all three aspects of a community of practice: (1) shared interest in process, (2) a community of writers involved in the process, and (3) clear practice of the writing process. 

Blogs allow for that same type of conversation only to a larger audience of practitioners within the writing community thereby transforming ideas of traditional theory and supporting the social nature of writing. Before the idea of blogs even existed, Eric Crump observed that MUDs might transform “our thinking about relationships, our connections with and affinity to others, and the influence and persuasive power of online communities on how we think” or view traditional theory (Crump 177).   For example, in a recent guest blog post, Diane O’Connell, a veteran New York publishing professional who had a successful career at Random House, wrote about crafting compelling characters when writing novels. While this post might seem outside the realm of writing center related content, it may generate student and community interest in writing as a craft and creative endeavor as opposed to a simple academic requirement.

Blogs also decentralize the writing center as Melinda Baer suggested in her article “Using Weblogs in Your Writing Center.” I agree with Baer that blogs transform the idea of physical space, allowing students, faculty and tutors to participate in “writing centers’ discussions on their own terms” (2). Blogs permit writing centers to make information available and accessible at any time and in one concentrated space even after office hour’s end. Baer adds that such availability and accessibility of content eliminates “excuses for not participating” in writing center discussions (2).

Blogs promote the exchange of ideas, which is reflected in its content and accessibility. The more writing centers communicate to the larger community, the more meaningful the conversation (about writing) becomes with writers across spectrums contributing to the conversation. By varying blog content and creating a common space for discussion, writing centers might show they are open to an exchange of knowledge not limited to tutoring writing, but to the methodology and pedagogy of teaching writing, the writer’s craft (creative and critical), and professional writing thus becoming a part of an expanded community of practice.

Final Thoughts

Social networking is riddled with writing centers looking to delve outside the boundaries of the center and the classroom. Writing centers can take advantage of social networking to build a writing community of practice, thereby promoting their value, claiming their space in a global community, and reinforcing writing as a social process. Muriel Harris wrote in her article “Preparing to Sit at the Head Table: Maintaining Writing Center Viability in the Twenty-First Century” that in order to maintain our viability “we have to look beyond our campuses to see where the rest of the world is headed” (13). While she wasn’t referring to social media, she does suggest that writing centers look outside their boundaries to determine opportunities for intellectual and physical expansion. Social media allows writing centers to contribute to center scholarship and discussion beyond physical space as well as connect to a wider periphery, conceptualizing Wenger’s communities of practice and the social and interactive nature of writing. Writing is the basis of communication and social media is its obvious extension, permitting centers to expand writing as a discipline outside just academic concerns.

References
Baer, Melinda. “Using Weblogs in Your Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 31.2 (2006):1-4. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 19 March 2009.

Crump, Eric. “At Home In the MUD: Writing Centers Learn to Wallow.”  High Wired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOS. Eds. Cynthia Ann Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik. 177-190. University of Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

Harris, Muriel. “Preparing to Sit at the Head of the Table: Maintaining Writing Center Viability if the Twenty-First Century.” The Writing Center Journal 20.2. (Spring/Summer 2000):13-21. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

Kitao, S. Kathleen, and Namie Saeki. "Process And Social Aspects Of Writing: Theory And Classroom Application." Annual Reports Of Studies 33.1 (1992): 86-102. ERIC. Web. 11   Mar. 2013.


Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” Communities of Practice. N.p. June 2006. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.


March 24, 2014

Embedding #Writing Hashtags in Your Tweets

The PCCC Writing Center does not use the blog exclusively to promote writing center content. Twitter is incorporated to help expand our content reach and facilitate conversation in a way to build a virtual social presence. One way that we promote content is by using hashtags or the "#" sign followed by a keyword such as "#writing." Hashtags "allow you to organize content and track discussion topics based on those keywords," as per Mashable. Hashtags also make you more discoverable and searchable, which is what helps tweeps find you (#VeryCool).

Let's have a look, shall we?

The use of hashtags has helped promote our content by making it more searchable (discoverable). For example, by using the hashtag #WriterWednesday (#WW) we’ve been able to connect with and gain followers to expand our Twitter stream.  For example, we’ve written tweets for this hashtag such as: “Looking to follow some new tweeps? Check out @[TwitterName].”  Some additional hashtags used in Tweets that help build an account are: #FollowFriday, which was started to recommend favorite tweeps to followers; #amwriting; #amediting; #writetips; #writertips; #writing; and #grammartip.

The PCCC Writing Center uses hashtags either at the end or beginning of the tweet. For example: “Experience/practice the writing assignment first before distributing it to students. Any revisions needed? #TeachingTips #justsayin.” Or, incorporate the hashtag in with the tweet: “Each language has its own confusing rules, like word order; sentence organization, missing (or extra) parts of speech. #L2 fact.”  In addition, the center’s Twitter account utilizes hashtags like #MondayBlogs or #MentionMonday to promote the PCCC Writing Center blog posts every Monday, which allows us to build our Twitter account through the addition of new followers, and help disseminate our content to new or existing followers.

Remember, social media is not for everyone, and it takes time and practice. However, you might find it inspirational, or somewhat enlightening to branch out beyond your writing center walls and share content over various writing landscapes.

How does your center use hashtags to promote content?