“The Political Economy” of Peer Tutoring

Bringing two motivated people into one room to discuss writing offers immense opportunities for mutual learning, and that is what makes the concept of the Writing Center so appealing. The voluntary nature of meetings endows a tutor with discretion to give advice that will be heard. At the same time, it places a constraint on being overly didactic, which makes sessions more student-oriented than traditional lessons. Usually this system of checks and balances plays out well for both parties, especially when interests of a student and a tutor are aligned. Sometimes, however, a student’s focus on short-term goals, such as receiving a good grade or getting some professional editing, might drag a consultation into the realm of “populism,” when a tutor needs to excessively cater to student’s wishes not to lose her presence. Interestingly enough, if a tutor manages to establish a closer relationship with a student, this “populism” can be avoided, and more focus on the fundamental goal of improving writing skills maintained. Finding personal ways to deal with their fellow students, peer tutors make learning at the writing center even more accessible and effective.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a fictional example of a consultation, loosely based on several cases from my actual practice. Suppose you are reading a student’s essay and start noticing many colloquial phrases, coupled with plenty of filler words like “basically,” “actually,” “well,” “obviously.” What you do is you draw the student’s attention to this writing aspect and ask whether he would like to sound more conversational rather than scholarly. To which you receive a reply, “I think the prof won’t penalize me for that. And I don’t need a perfect essay, I want, well, B+ material.” On your second attempt to discuss the issue, the student interrupts you and says, “Look, you don’t have to teach me all this academic writing stuff, I am not going to do a PhD or something. All I want is to drag this essay into a B+/A- area, and the deadline is, like, tonight.”

Now, here’s a problem. You wish you could convey your message on the importance of writing tone to the student. However, it’s hard to get him to listen, and not necessarily because he lacks intellectual curiosity — his desire to squeeze the best result out of his work under a harsh time constraint is perfectly understandable. Let’s paint it black and white and assume that your potential solutions to the problem are restricted to the binary world. At one extreme, you can start preaching the virtues of a formal tone to the student, risking that you will lose his responsiveness or even face some kind of retaliation. At the polar opposite, you act the “populist” way and decide to ignore the issue by saying “OK, let’s move on.” While artificial and hyperbolic, such a division highlights the problem of striking balance between your feeling of what is right and what the student asks for.

My argument is that, in a special case, when interests of a student and a tutor diverge on crucial matters, tutors can employ ethos of their peer status to convince the student to take their side of the table. This might seem counter-intuitive at first: one would think that, when a student solicits feedback, peer authority is weaker than that of a professionally trained consultant. The thing is, whenever a student conflates the writing center with a fix-it shop or sees it as a helping stick to pass the course, this is not the mechanism in action. If a student wants a tutor to consult him on how to “throw in some words to increase text volume,” his peer has more capital of trust than his more professional colleagues. What he needs to do is to spend this capital parsimoniously to transmit his vision to the student and change the way that person thinks about writing.

“Well, this is not just about academia. You read Financial Times, right? You won’t find that kind of style in Financial Times, even in opinion pieces,” you challenge a future investment banker sitting in front of you. “Well, yeah… I guess…” the student acknowledges. “That’s because throwing in useless words is the same as wasting time of your reader. It gets simply irritating at some point, you know?” After some discussion, the student sees what you mean, but his mind is back on more pressing issues. “So what, I just cross out all these? That would kill a lot of words, and I am barely hitting the word limit right now.” Here’s when you can tone down your righteous harangue and concede some playing ground. “Given you have little time remaining till the submission, it’s up to you, I guess you can forget about it this time. But next time you write a serious text — I mean, the one really important to you, not the one you write to get a passing grade — recall what we’ve just talked about. Like, when Forbes calls you to contribute an article, you’ll know what mistakes you should avoid.” This closes an example of a highly stylized conversation, in which you end up teaching the student something important — even though he was resistant initially — without losing common ground.

Mutual learning happens in many instances at the writing center. A consultation need not always be the story of Eliza Doolittle coming to Professor Higgins to learn to speak like a lady in a flower shop for actual learning to occur. In cases, where a student’s motivation is unclear or complicated, peer tutors can make learning happen even more seamlessly than some professional consultants. Trading off some professionalism for a deeper integration into the student body therefore is a right choice for some writing centers to make.

My First Experience with ESL Writers

I just recently had my first interaction tutoring ESL students, and yeah it was frightening at first. Throughout my class time we spoke about how english language learners come to writing centers with questions and concerns and how to assist them, yet being in the interaction was completely different then theory. I tutored two ESL students, to make things more manageable for myself I assisted each student one after the other continuously rooting my attention between them and opening up the floor for questions if any popped up or concerns. One student had a passage in which her professor commented, the main concern was organization of thought. While speaking with her I understood her ideas and thoughts, her theories were ideal, but it was not how she had written them. We then continued to express her words through her writing and created a collaborative effort in ensuring her work came out great. Another student  needed assistance getting quotes that are relevant to her arguments, therefore we looked into her book and found some with little ease. These interactions thought me a lot, it taught me to be patient, understanding and empathetic with all writers. Sometimes their idea is there, its just hidden and we must assist them in clearing it up!

Is Code Switching Necessary? Sometimes.

Last week Professor Aksakalova introduced us to a short film and and article that emphasized the importance of being an ally in the writing center and how to teach English. In the short film Becoming An Ally, Ohio university’s writing center explores what being an ally to a multilingual writer looks like and the issues and challenges that may arise. Each scene portrayed real problems that have occurred in their writing center such as assumptions about writers/tutors, appropriation of texts, and correcting grammar.

I was particularly fond of scenes 4 and 5 because these 2 scenes alone encompassed a parallel that could not be experienced by a monolingual tutor tutoring an ESL student. In between sessions, the tutor used code switching to assist the visiting writer with her dissertation. The parallel is code switching. For those who are reading this and are unfamiliar with the term code switching, it is a medium of communication that switches between someone’s mother tongue and any other language they speak. When monolingual English speakers deal with a multilingual writer there are limits to explaining the conventions of writing academically in English. Simply because there is a lack of words (or too many) that could confuse the writer.

In Maria’s last post, “In English, please!” she explains eloquently when it is best to use code switching. Here is an excerpt of what she wrote:

Nevertheless, it is sometimes better to discuss some writing issues in native language (in my case in Russian), as it can help the student deepen his understanding of English as an instrument for communication and thoughts expression. It can happen either if the student is not confident enough in his understanding of explanations in English (that’s really rare) or if you discuss something specific with him. For instance, when I discuss the word choice with a student or explain some grammar to him, it is usually helpful to make comparisons between Russian and English words and rules. Moreover, if you discuss something related to culture or traditions, one cannot find a proper synonym for some details. This is when it comes to a discussion in native language.”

English is only a medium of communication. If we are going to be a proper ally to multilingual writers academically we must get them accustomed to expressing their ideas verbally and on paper in the language they are writing in. Therefore, I encourage and advocate the use of code switching if it is reserved for the interpretation and translation of ideas or texts.

Robert Jenkins pursues ally-ship differently. In his article, “We Must Help Students Master Standard English”, Jenkins argues in favor of using Standard English to teach writers of the language. He defines Standard English as the accepted norms of writing students would abide by at work and school. It is well known that the English language ranks high above other written languages in a way that can be found as racist or discriminatory. However, this is not a reason we should become more lenient as we continue teaching it. The definition Jenkins created is important because it shifts the conversation from writing academically to writing as a working professional (which is often overlooked). English is recognized globally with many different dialects and having a standard of writing makes it easier for us all to communicate. It is not a tool of oppression. If we do not inform students the value the language serves outside of the classroom we are not being an ally and potentially hindering their success.

In English, please!

Since I started working as a peer consultant, it has always been a question for me whether I can or should conduct the consultation in Russian. The reason for it is that sometimes the students are resistant to speaking in English, as they know me as a native Russian speaker. Therefore, they sometimes try to switch the language of the consultation.

I believe it is important to conduct the consultation in the language of the paper for discussion. Firstly, it develops the student’s speaking skills and gives him active practice instead of passive (listening during the lectures, reading, etc.). Even though the majority of studies for most NES and HSE students is in English, they still lack of speaking practice, especially in formal environment. Secondly, it helps the person develop thinking in English, which is often a difficult thing to develop. I think most multilingual people are acquainted with a three-step path in our brain: we see the object or think about it, then as a first association comes is the word in our mother tongue, and only after that we translate it into second language. To avoid this process, one needs to practice speaking and thinking in a foreign language.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes better to discuss some writing issues in native language (in my case in Russian), as it can help the student deepen his understanding of English as an instrument for communication and thoughts expression. It can happen either if the student is not confident enough in his understanding of explanations in English (that’s really rare) or if you discuss something specific with him. For instance, when I discuss the word choice with a student or explain some grammar to him, it is usually helpful to make comparisons between Russian and English words and rules. Moreover, if you discuss something related to culture or traditions, one cannot find a proper synonym for some details. This is when it comes to a discussion in native language.

I was really impressed by how professionally did the consultant in Scene #4 switch the conversation and made the writer’s way towards the idea. It is so interesting to see how the proper questions help them both develop the idea together. As Maxim has already mentioned in one of his posts, it is important to give the thoughts an opportunity to develop out of the limits of the paper. This can be either a general topic discussion or, on the opposite, a more deep discussion of some aspect of the paper.

All in all, I believe there is no chance to find a perfect way to conduct the consultation. There is no correct answer to the question whether we should be restricted to use only English language or not, as it fully depends on the situation, the paper and the student.

 

In Regards to Deviation

The scene that really spoke to me was scene 6 entitled, “Allyship with Writers of Global Englishes.” Within the scene the tutor points out that the student is using a word that is not commonly used among the average American audience. He also points out that the student uses a specific idiom that is native and not widely known without any explanation of its meaning. When talking with global English language speakers, it can sometimes be hard to explain how an American audience might respond to native colloquialism and idioms without explanation. After all, writing doesn’t require one to say everything literal, but by tone such devices might come off as conversational and unbelonging in an academic paper. Therefore, I believe it would be productive to deviate from standard English during a session where there is a complication outside of the context of the writing. Such circumstances of difficulty might include a communicable misunderstanding or preparatory instructions in regards to the consultation. This way corrections can be made in a native language to minimize confusion or misinterpretation, and save time.

Lastly, in the video the student disagrees stating her use of the word “graft” is fine within her writing; however, I slightly disagree. I believe academic reading is meant to be comprehensive and understood by the majority. If one can unpack the meaning of their idiom or exchange their word for a more easily understood synonym without losing any meaning of intention, then why not?

Code-Switching

Tutoring is about bringing the student and tutor together into a partnership. It’s important to have an environment where the student feels comfortable and on the same level as the tutor by having a balance of power in a session. One thing tutors can do to help bilingual students is to code-switch if necessary.

By code-switching, students can feel like the tutor is their ally in writing a paper because the tutor is speaking to them and explaining things in the student’s’ first language. This not only helps the student academically, but it also develops a stronger relationship between tutor and tutee. International or bilingual students who come to English speaking schools may find sanctuary knowing there is someone in a position of authority who has a similar background as them. It also provides reassurance to have someone else understand you and be able to help you in your own language.

After watching a few tutoring videos, I can see that you can make an ESL student comfortable when code-switching isn’t an option. Providing reassurance to a student who is lacking confidence is key. This little step can go a long way in helping someone become a better writer. Even if it’s hard to understand a student, you can be honest and tell them you are doing your best and you will both get there together. Asking questions to make sure you’re on the same page is a great technique to make sure you are both achieving a goal during the session.

Language can be an obstacle during a tutoring session but it can be overcome by using all of the things I mentioned, and more!

 

My Thoughts about Standard English

I agree with Rob Jenkins that the main purpose of any language is communication. Nowadays people from different countries communicate with each other very often. We have diverse cultural and social background; however, there are many tasks and problems which we should solve together. So, if people from Russia and South Korea work together, they have to use a language which all of them know. Usually, this language is English. Nevertheless, our own language isn’t just combinations of words which we use; it reflects the way how we think. Sometimes, people don’t know how to translate a sentence from one language to another without losing its meaning. For this reason, it so important to use standard English. Otherwise, we won’t understand each other.

Tutors sometimes assists students to translate their texts. For instance, in the fifth video Yi-Ting helps with the translation of the Chinese text. Tutor and tutee use Chinese language to better understand the meaning of the word and find the best possible English equivalent. I think it is a great example how the use of another language during a consultation allows to satisfy student’s needs better. In our writing center in Moscow we have more opportunities to provide such support because many tutors and almost all tutees are native Russian speakers. Thus, we always can speak Russian if a student has problems. I remember a consultation in which we had to use our native language. A student created a very long sentence in Russian and then translated it into English. This sentence was grammatically correct but difficult to understand. I asked her to explain what she tried to say in Russian. After that, we found the way how to divide her idea into two sentences. Thus, I think we sometimes can use our native language if it allows us to understand the students’ thoughts better.

Another problem which was mentioned in the film (Video #6) is use of words which are unfamiliar for a tutor or informal phrases. I think the essential question to ask a student: What is the main aim of your writing? If you want that readers will “receive your message” you should choose words which they will understand. Of course, now I’m not talking about poetry or novels because the language of these texts is an important part of creation. I mean more common texts such as scientific research or reports on a job. Usually, you should explain your idea as simply as possible. In addition, it is better to avoid idioms; however, I often see them in tutees’ texts and sometimes it is difficult to explain that a reader may not know these idioms.

To conclude, I think the main purpose of a writer to explain his/her thoughts to readers. If they don’t understand the writer it’s his/her fault. So, we should find a balance between simplicity and variety of our language.