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Using the Film for Writing Tutor Training
Most people who use the film in writing/tutoring centers are using it as a training opportunity. The following questions are meant to help tutors think specifically about issues that matter most in their work with international students. You can find background discussion and reflection about many of the topics by clicking on the discussion link following the question.
What kinds of cultural preferences do you think you have as a writer? Where did those preferences come from?
One of the most productive things for writing assistants to do is think about all the ways that their own writing preferences have been constructed and how long it took for them to become accustomed to writing in those ways. Let's consider just one cultural preference of American writers and readers: explicitness. U.S. writers (particularly academic writers) have an amazing patience and even desire for explicitness. American faculty, in particular, often choose explicitness over surprise and would prefer students to be too repetitive than too subtle. This is a rather strange preference if one just thinks about reading for interest. As one international student told me in an interview, “I just don't understand the useful[ness] of a thesis. If I give my point at the beginning, why does the person want to read?” Another international student complained to me that she thought Americans “just repeated so many times their main point. It gets so tiring.” So where is this preference for writing conceived? First, most Americans learn how to write their first essays according to the 5-paragraph theme structure. Writers are taught to give their points up front in the thesis, tie each paragraph back to that thesis in topic sentences, and then start the conclusion by restating the thesis. While many college faculty despise the five-paragraph theme, it's still the primary form taught. Larger cultural (and even economic) factors also contribute. American culture is one in which the consumer is king. This same principle is applied to American readers. In the U.S., almost all responsibility for meaning, clarity, and even entertainment value rests plainly on the shoulders of the writer. This is very different from most other cultures where the writer has authority and readers are expected to work hard to understand the writer’s points. As an Ecuadorian named Maria told me, “Americans don't [have] patience with things. Everything is fast food. Time is money. Reading for Americans is just that same way.” In addition to schools, politics, and cultural preferences, good writing, particularly good academic writing, owes much to the rhetorical tradition we come from. The western rhetorical tradition, of course, dates back to the ancient Greeks, and much of what they emphasized has stuck with us. For example, in composition classes, we still emphasize logical fallacies, the three appeals (pathos, ethos, logos), and deductive versus inductive reasoning. By emphasizing logic over style (See Plato's critiques of Sophists in Gorgias and Phaedrus), point-driven arguments become valued over more organic forms of discourse.
What do you do when you think you notice a cultural difference in how a student is writing or responding to an assignment? How do you broach the subject? What things do you need to be aware of?
First, it's very important to find out tactfully if culture is really at issue. I usually ask a series of questions to find that out. I ask the student why they've written the piece in that way or used that particular strategy. Then I ask them if that is something they were taught to do in their home country. I ask why that strategy is useful to readers in their country. Then, I talk about how I experience that as an American reader and explain American preferences. It's important to take time to talk about these things because the American preference might seem very strange to international students and may be opposed to what they believe to be good writing. During this process, writing assistants need to understand just how frustrating it can be to adapt to a new cultural model. A brief story will illustrate this point. When I started making this film, I had an Ecuadorian student from the department of public health visit my office. Her professor had told her that her writing was just too hard to understand. It contained too much irrelevant information and went off in digressions that seemed to have little to do with her main argument. Furthermore, the instructor was upset that the student wasn’t making her case point by point but, rather, seemed to talk around issues related to making those points. According to the instructor, the student's ideas needed to be clearer, and the links between those points needed to be made so simple that “any idiot could figure them out” (actual quote from the end comment). When I met with the student, it was true that she provided a lot more background information than I would have expected in an American essay, but the student reasoned that she had to make a connection with the reader. She said that she wanted to show some of the things that both she and the readers could agree on before starting to argue her case. When I asked her about making her points more clear (adding transitions, topic sentences, etc.), she seemed upset. She didn’t want to treat the readers like children. Being that explicit would infer to her readers that she thought they were stupid. My first reaction, of course, was to defend my way of doing things. And in a way, I was correct. The things that would build goodwill in Ecuador would frustrate an American reader. But then I thought about how frustrating it would be if I were studying in Ecuador and a professor told me that my writing was overly simplistic and rude. How would I respond if he or she then asked me to start making my points a little less directly and making my agenda a little less obvious? Would I know how to do that? Would I want to? Wouldn’t I have a similar reaction as the Ecuadorian student and believe my way to be proper? What writing assistants need to realize is that it's not their job to make the writer compose in the American way. That is a choice that the writer has to make. Instead, it's their job to make sure the student understands the American preference and can then make an informed choice.
What research-based issues have you noticed in international students' writing? How do you handle those issues?
Using sources appropriately is a challenge for almost every student, so we shouldn't be surprised that it is an issue for international students too. Many students have difficulty becoming accustomed to American citation of sources because they come from cultures or educational systems where giving credit to sources isn't as strictly regimented and enforced as it is in the United States. This sometimes has to do with how cultures look at authority and individuality. As Kurt Bouman suggests in “Raising Questions About Plagiarism,” much of the western obsession with plagiarism has to do with the desire to achieve an individual voice and acknowledge individual achievements (107). In cultures where individuality is less emphasized than social cohesion, it makes sense that using sources would be done differently. In the film, Lili talks about how citation and giving credit “isn’t a big deal in China.” It's not that she didn't have to use sources in China; it's just that individual credit and voice were less emphasized. In addition to these larger cultural differences, Bouman points out how complicated it can be for international students to avoid plagiarism. Consider, for example, how difficult paraphrasing someone else's ideas must be. In order to paraphrase correctly, students have to understand the original source, glean the most important concepts and terms, and then transform those ideas accurately into new words (109-110). This is a tall order even for native speakers. Just imagine trying to perform such a complicated move in a second or third language. When writing assistants work with international students, they cannot be shy about addressing issues of plagiarism.
The second part of the film is about the issue of surface error. While this part of the film is meant for teachers, it is certainly relevant to our work in the writing center. First, what points do Tony Silva and Deborah Healey make about surface error? Second, how does what they say inform how we work with students?
Tony Silva begins by asking instructors to assess international student writing in a way that acknowledges the difficulty of learning to write in another language. He urges teachers to set a level of expectation that is in his words, “good enough, not perfect.” In other words, instead of expecting international students to write exactly like native speakers, he advocates that they learn to accept a certain amount of “accent” in their writing. Like Silva, Deborah Healey also asks that teachers not mark down for smaller accent issues. She suggests that an effective way to grade international students is to emphasize and only mark down for errors that detract from meaning. In other words, as long as the message is getting through clearly, teachers need to accept a certain amount of error. Of course, the grading strategies Silva and Healey advocate fit well with Writing Center pedagogy. Our purpose in sessions cannot be to make students sound like native speakers. That goal would be unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, we need to take time to understand the student’s meaning, address places the piece may be unclear, and do a good job making sure that the writer’s own ideas are coming through as clearly as possible. We should work in a way that maximizes our effectiveness with the student, not getting bogged down in addressing every error. By doing this, we can help the writer succeed in communicating without appropriating the student's voice.
How do you decide how much to work on surface error in the writing center?
ESL students often have quite unrealistic goals for writing center appointments. Sometimes they may be unfamiliar with the differences between an editor and a tutor. At other times, they will assert that they are at the writing center only to work on grammar, or they expect to leave with a perfect paper. In these cases, tutors must be very clear about their role. As when working with other students, global concerns need to be given priority. After all, having a clean paper that’s very disorganized will do the student little good. And there’s clearly no point addressing surface error in a section of the paper that needs to be re-written anyway. At the same time, of course, tutors certainly can’t ignore surface errors in ESL writing. To do so would be unproductive. Sharon Meyers, a composition scholar, for example, recommends a flexible approach in which tutors work back and forth between global and local errors, noting that there are connections between the two. Of course, particular emphasis should be put on talking about errors that affect meaning. It is also productive to address errors that are patterns or that students can learn from. What we need to keep clear, however, is that our purpose is not to scrub the paper so that it sounds like a native speaker has written it. Small sentence-level errors that constitute what Silva terms as accent shouldn’t take up much session time. Of course, there are situations that challenge this kind of clear-cut pronouncement. At Oregon State University, we regularly run into two situations in which we agree to take a more active role in error correction: 1) the student is working on a piece of writing that needs to be very clean (personal statements for graduate school, articles that are being submitted to journals, etc.) and they have already met with the writing assistant to work through other writing issues. 2) the faculty member they are writing for has expressed an unrealistic expectation for grammatical perfection and the student will likely fail because of accent issues.
Is it ever ok to give students quick fixes?
The main issue here is one of time. I have no problem with tutors giving occasional line edits or explaining a more natural way to say something. After all, some of these edits can be very useful for non-native speakers to learn. For instance, to explain the difference between rise and raise may come in handy later on. We need to remember though that editing for the student doesn’t really help the writer improve as a writer. Furthermore, it takes up time that could be spent working on other issues. All too often, tutors say something along the lines of, “Well, I have to edit the paper first in order to get to the global issues.” Of course this is not correct. It’s true that when sentence level error affects meaning, it needs to be clarified, but most errors have nothing to do with meaning. They only disrupt the fluidity of our reading. The problem is that it takes effort and practice to read through surface error. It also takes patience to accept that the paper is not going to sound like a native speaker wrote it.
Some faculty are obviously stricter about surface error than others. The film points out that to be fair in their grading, faculty need to be aware that international students will write with an accent, that they will misuse articles, that they cannot be assessed entirely equally. Some faculty accept accent and grade accordingly while others do not. Do we worry at all about this issue? Is it our problem? How might you counsel students about this issue?
First, we need to find out from the student what they know about that professor’s grading. Is some accent okay with that professor or does he or she mark down for everything? Often, the student won’t know. One good strategy then is to help ESL students become better advocates for themselves. Counsel them to approach their teacher with a past paper and ask whether it’s good enough or whether there’s too much accent. They can ask the teacher to identify the kinds of errors that will be acceptable versus the kind that won’t be. This strategy helps not only the international student understand what their professor expects, but it will also help the professor too. Often, faculty have never made that conscious decision about what they’ll accept and what they won’t.
What do we do when we know that a particular faculty member is going to grade according to unrealistic expectations?
In "Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options," Muriel Harris and Tony Silva address this question in a very direct way. They write, "If an ESL student’s teacher has such unrealistic expectations, then the student is justified in seeking out editing help, and a native speaking colleague, friend, or tutor is justified in providing such help." The question is an ethical one. If we know that a student is going to be graded unfairly for things that he or she can’t fix without our help, do we have a responsibility to edit? My own personal answer is “yes,” because I see this as a question of loyalty to the student versus loyalty to the principle that we are not editors. However, having said this, I can certainly understand the argument that it is not the writing center's place to edit, regardless of what the teacher does. No matter what conclusion is reached, it is important for tutors and administrators to think about this question seriously and make a conscious decision about how to address this when it comes up.
The film points out that many surface errors have nothing to do with grammar rules, but rather are lexical in nature and thus require years of advanced memorization through practicing, hearing, and speaking the language. Can you think of any examples of this?
One common type of lexical error mentioned in the DVD has to do with prepositions. Very often, ESL students will use the incorrect preposition with an adjective, adverb, noun, or verb, and the tutor will assume it’s a grammatical error. I’ve frequently heard native speakers trying to rationalize or come up with rules that describe how prepositions are used, and their efforts are almost always doomed to failure. Take for example, a class of verbs called “phrasal verbs,” also referred to sometimes as “two-word verbs.” These are combinations of verbs and prepositions that have distinct meaning when used together. For example, “to turn in” either means to submit something (a report, a paper, etc) or to go to bed. “To turn down,” on the other hand, means to reject, while “to turn on” means to excite. “Turn up,” “Turn around,” “turn out,” etc. all have their own individual meanings. In other words, phrasal verbs are pieces of vocabulary and cannot be explained with a rule. What’s tricky is that very often things that look like grammatical mistakes are, in fact, lexical errors. As one example of this, consider that some verbs in English take a gerund, while other verbs take an infinitive. For instance, the verb “enjoy” always takes a gerund. We say, “I enjoy skiing or I enjoy surfing,” but we can’t use the infinitive with the word enjoy. Any native speaker immediately knows this because we can’t say “I enjoy to ski” or “I enjoy to surf.” The verb “want” on the other hand always takes the infinitive. We say “I want to ski.” If we try to stick a gerund after it, we think it sounds strange. Imagine someone saying, “Yes, I want skiing.” Some verbs can take both the gerund and the infinitive. For example, we can say I like to ski and I like skiing, and they mean the same thing. On the other hand, “I stopped to smoke” means something very different than “I stopped smoking.” Why does one verb take the gerund, while another takes the infinitive? Why do some take both and keep the same meaning, while others can take both but have very different meanings? There’s no rule that explains when to use one and when to use the other.
Let's imagine that an international student comes in with a statement of purpose they are using to apply to a graduate program. The student wants you to help her edit the statement so that it sounds exactly like a native speaker has written it. Is there an ethical problem with doing so? Are we fooling the graduate school they are applying to?
Our job in this situation, it seems to me, is to help the student express his or her ideas clearly and make sure the piece reads smoothly. In this kind of high pressure writing situation, I don't mind writing assistants giving line edits as long as they've addressed the other issues first. The reason for this is that the student will be at a severe disadvantage without editing. In personal statements, perfection is required, and some committee members might actually get upset that the student didn't seek out an editor. We could insist that the student hire a professional editor for the piece, but I would claim that our dedication toward the student outweighs the crime of a little editing. The thing that a writing assistant has to remember in this situation though is not to change the author's voice. Writing assistants shouldn't go crazy with changes just because they sound more like the native way to say them. This is a delicate balance to achieve, but it's important that the student sounds like him or herself. In terms of whether this is unfair to the graduate school, I would claim that it is no different than when we help a native speaker organize their personal statement. Are we fooling the school because the student's organization is better than it would have been without talking to us?