Conferencing with Students — Coffee Chat

Guest blogger, Josh Barsczewski, is a PhD candidate in Rhet/Comp at the UMass Amherst. He teaches the first-year writing courses in the Writing Program , where he also serves as a mentor to first-year teachers. Josh has also served as the Assistant Director of the UMass Writing Center. 


If you ask your fellow Writing Program colleagues how they handle the required “Interacting with Texts” conferences, you’ll hear a lot of different ideas. Some hold 20 minutes conferences with each student; some spend 30 minutes or more. Some read the Unit 2 drafts ahead of time; some read during the conference itself. Still others try group conferences where they act more like facilitators of a peer review session rather than an “instructor” per se.  There hasn’t typically been a lot of training around the Whys and Hows of conferencing because they aren’t something we do every day. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or that there aren’t some techniques to help make them more productive and enjoyable! Last Friday, (2/8/2019) Shannon Mooney, Stacie Klinowski, and I led an informal workshop/conversation on how to conference with students. Shannon, Stacie and I all have experience working in Writing Centers, where one-on-one pedagogy is key. So, we decided to share some of the tips and ideas we use to help students one-on-one.

Some ideas we talked about:

*Have a goal for your conferences. What do you hope to achieve? Do you want students to think more complexly? Then maybe prepare a few higher-level questions ahead of time that you can ask each student that might help them develop their ideas. Are you more focused on making sure students can summarize and paraphrase well? Then focus your session primarily on those things. For example, if you’re more concerned with organization, structure, or audience awareness, you don’t need to feel compelled to discuss grammatical errors.

*Think about where in the unit you’re scheduling your conferences. If you schedule conferences earlier, then you might want to focus on generative writing, brainstorming, and asking open-ended questions. Being comfortable with silence as students figure out what they’re thinking is key! If you schedule conferences after the initial draft, maybe you can focus on global revision strategies. But if you wait until later, maybe you should focus just on specific parts of the essay or sentence-level concerns.



*Focus on patterns and don’t think you need to cover everything. When we work one-on-one, we might feel compelled to share all of our tips and advice with students, but think of this from the students’ perspective. In trying to help them, we might be overloading them. Instead, it would be better to focus on a few things that we can cover in depth.

*Make the student do the work. If we put pressure on ourselves to do too much, we can quickly burnout! To help lift the burden off of yourself, make plans so that the student has to do most of the reading, note taking, thinking and writing. For example, have students come prepared with questions to ask you so you don’t need to think as much on the fly. Or, have students read their own papers out loud so you don’t have to pre-read or try to read quickly while they’re sitting next to you. You might even try just talking through the essay without reading it: see if your student can summarize what they themselves have written. If they can’t, they might need to go back on their own and figure out what they’re doing.

*Try to do some writing in the conference itself. Conferences don’t need to be just about talking! Most writing tutors will tell you that some of the most productive moments of tutorials are when the tutor steps back and the writer actually tests out what has been discussed. We can do that with our students too. If you suggest a new organizational strategy, for example, maybe take a step back and let your student have some silent time to write and see if the idea works for them. If it feels awkward sitting there while they write, you can take a step outside. Sometimes I like to walk around the perimeter of the 13th floor; after one trip around, I’ll check in on my student. If they want more time, I’ll walk around again.

Above all, keep in mind what we’re there for. Years ago, Stephen North declared the axiom around which Writing Centers operate when he said “Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.” That’s true in many ways for College Writing too, and certainly keeping this adage in mind can help us plan our conferences. Getting the student to write a perfect “Interacting with Texts” paper after our conference is a less achievable goal than helping them build writerly skills to carry forth throughout College Writing and beyond.


The Resource Center staff of the UMass Writing Program is hosting a series of Coffee Chats for Spring 2019 semester. Each Chat will take up a topic related to the teaching of writing. Chats will be held on the following Fridays (2/22, 3/22, 4/5, 4/19) from 2:30-3:30 in 1321 Du Bois Library. Coffee and snacks will be served!  Looking forward to seeing you there!

Stellar Stories by Jodie Childers, Tech Fellow 2017

For the past few years, I’ve been looking for an easy-to-use tool to create digital stories in the classroom. This past semester, I used Steller, an app that allows students to construct digital stories on their phones by easily importing photographs and video from their phones, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

One goal of the project was to push students to maximize the capabilities of this tool. Steller is often used superficially to document vacations or to share streams of personal photos, and while I wanted students to consider how to write with images, I also wanted them to think about balancing images, videos, and text in a multimodal writing context.

As we prepared for the project, we viewed several Steller stories, and talked about their structure. One tendency we noticed was that most leaned too heavily on photographs with no explanatory text to contextualize the images. Other pieces, however, were filled with text and failed to compellingly hold the viewer’s attention. As multimodal writers, their goal was to find an effective balance among the various mediums and to consider how the mediums relate to one another.

Students chose a diverse range of topics. One student documented her trip to New York, but unlike most of the travelogues on Steller, she added historical context to the places, using her story not only to entertain but to inform the reader about the places she visited. Documenting her family’s tradition of cooking potstickers, another student took a more poetic approach, reflecting on the the tensions between simplicity and complexity, exploring the ways in which college students can navigate the stressors of finals by appreciating the simple things in life.

Here is the assignment sheet I gave my students:

Unit #4 Digital Essay

to engage and reflect upon the digital writing process
to gain awareness of rhetorical choices in multiple mediums & their effects on audience
to craft a voice/style tailored to a close audience (i.e., classmates)
to copy edit for audience

For this assignment, you will create a digital story on a topic of your choice using Steller, a platform that allows you to create visual stories.

Some possibilities for your narrative include:

a personal story
a persuasive essay on a topic that you are passionate about
an oral history or interview with a friend or family member
a how-to guide
an activist toolkit
a travel guide

As you decide on your topic for your digital story, consider not only exigence and audience but also the medium itself. In other words, choose a topic that allows you to play with both visual content and text.

The Writing Process

I also encouraged students to take original photographs for this project. We analyzed still shots, and I sent the students outside to compose their own photographs. I was impressed with how quickly they picked up on how to take photographs.

Mapping the Media by Thomas John Pickering, Tech Fellow 2017

Most people teach digital media literacy badly. Or, they teach it in ways that indoctrinate students into ideologies complicit with ruling class interests, which is essentially the same thing. Let me explain.

The usual approach to media literacy, emerging after the election of Donald Trump and the panic of fake news, is to teach students to recognize the difference between facts and opinions, truths and falsehoods, real news and fake news, credible sources and untrustworthy sources. It thus takes the crisis of fake news very seriously and assumes that the crisis can be solved or at least alleviated by a rigorous media literacy education project. There are two problems with this approach.

First, it assumes that there is an easily recognizable difference between fact and opinion, and that this difference can be determined by just a quick google search. What date was it published? How did you learn of this source? Can you find other sources that corroborate the story? Was it written for a trustworthy publication, like NPR or the Washington Post, or is it from Some Guy’s Blog? The New York Times has launched a whole media literacy campaign that as much as promises: if you go through this process, you’ll be okay!

Second, this solution to fake news emerged out of a particular exigence and worldview. The story goes like this: in the election between the qualified, truthtelling Hillary Clinton and a belligerent, fake news-spewing Donald Trump, falsehood and lies won out (given a helping hand of course by foreign others like Putin). People were tricked into voting for Donald Trump because they lacked sufficient literacy and knowledge to interpret and dismiss the fake news from the real. If America were more educated, we might have a different president. Teach media literacy; save the world, says English professor John Duffy.

My tech fellows project emerged out of a response to this approach to media literacy. I believe the issue is much more complicated than it is being given credit for, and I will illustrate that through a story: In the spring of 2015, a police department in the Denver area killed an unarmed black man in broad daylight. Having just emerged from protests for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Jessie Hernandez, myself and many other Denver-area community members were ready to go for another march. But the police department was hush-hush about the shooting, and the local media barely covered it. When they did, they were quick to emphasize the dead man’s criminal record and the police officer’s achievements and commendations.

In order to get any “real” information on the shooting, especially information that contextualized it in relation to the larger history of violence against black bodies, I had to leave the official media sphere and turn to independent blogs and locally-run, grassroots websites. I have no doubt that any of these websites I visited would be labeled questionable and biased by the anti-fake news, facts-only train. But most of the time, they are all that is available to us.

Writing studies has grown very good at acknowledging the ways that some discourses and genres, like legal ones, are structured in such a way that simply do not allow for subaltern voices to speak and be heard. The same, I argue, is true of journalist discourses; the kind of parrhesiac positioning that mainstream media performs, wielding such slogans as “The Truth Is More Important Now Than Ever” and “Fair and Balanced,” commits itself to a liberal-bourgeois worldview that would never allow itself to narrate an event from a far left perspective without feeling that it was breaching some core journalistic value. Hence why mainstream media like the NYT or the Washington Post prove themselves, time and time again, utterly incapable of representing anti-racist, anti-capitalist politics.

The “truth” is that the left in America has no major news outlet. It has some very good smaller-scale operations, but most of us still have to get the majority of our news from the same places that Democrats and Republicans draw from. So we get used to wading through the pro-capitalist muck that is a New York Times article. We get used to having “alternative facts,” because we know that the official ones are pretty lousy. We become very, very good readers of the media precisely because we have embraced “post-truth” in a world where truth is equated with neoliberalism.

Teachers of writing and writing programs that commit themselves to media literacy pedagogies that proclaim a war against fake news and post-truth are, I argue, ultimately reactionary. They could only be made by a person (or a field) who is not used to reading mainstream media with a bitter taste in their mouth, who has grown comfortable with the soft-spoken, liberal NPR or the fiery “debates” on CNN. They represent a new, 21st-century “literacy crisis” narrative, except all the more insidious because at least when “Why Johnny Can’t Write” was published, the field recognized the crisis for what it was: conservative politics dressed up in pedagogy. Somewhere between then and now, we lost that critical gaze.

For my tech fellows project, then, I taught a digital media literacy unit that attempted to avoid these downfalls. Rather than decide for my students ahead of time that the NYT is trustworthy and their friend’s website is not, I asked them to create a “map” of the media along coordinates of their choosing, position individual media sources on the map, and write an essay defending their placement using evidence from actual media articles. To ensure that their maps did not fall easily along the usual liberal-conservative lines, I required that they include a few non-standard publications, like the far-left Socialist Worker.

Most of our in class time was spent reading digital media sources, comparing one account of an event to another, and talking about the many writing techniques publications use to condition information. Students learned firsthand how slippery the concept of “evidence” can be when tasked with the job of “proving” a publication is pro-war/imperialist or anti-animal rights, particularly when most journalist articles are written in such a way that they appear reasonable until compared to a radically different account. Along the way, they conducted their own original research to find their evidence and had to make an argument for why their map was socially useful–what it contributed to our conversations about media. Media is complicated, and so should be our pedagogies.

Annotated Bibliographies In The #fakenews Era by Tech Fellow Chris Ayala

As teachers, we often wonder how we can make our students more discernible citizens while adhering to a syllabus. Citizenry in our current moment is of the utmost importance and, as ENG112 instructors, we have a tool that can help us stay with the goals of our syllabus while helping our students become more discerning.

I’m talking about that Annotated Bibliography unit with a slight re-branding.

Reformatting Annotated Bibliography For News Summary:

This assignment came as a way to make my students read more. They started the semester joking about fake news and I used their humor as a way to pose the question: What is fake news?

None had an answer.

I told my students that, for extra credit, they should read one news article a day and talk about it with me. I had no idea how to track their progress, but I knew reading and about the news would make them more discerning with the right assignment. I remembered our Annotated Bibliography unit plan and reformatted that idea as a trackable assignment to help my students with this project.

Here were my terms:

  1. News link appears at the top (Dated).
  2. 20-25 words stating the links credibility and how they came to that conclusion.
  3. 20-25 words summarizing the article (NPR News summary was my example).
  4. A brief sentence or two saying what this article taught them.

This was the easiest way to make an assignment as far as format was concerned. Once these terms were laid out, my students went at it with a surprising vigor. On semester’s end, I was given an average of sixteen news summary pages, each entry more succinct than the last.

News Round Up And How To Make It Better:

The students who actively participated in this project made tremendous strides in their classroom participation and how they analyzed texts assigned. I noticed, too, the research paper and annotated bibliography lessons (from where the project format came) were easier to go over.

As far as critique and implementing this as a full on project, checking progress and unpacking where the information was coming from as well as how they were interacting with the material would be paramount to further success. For an extra credit assignment, I am happy with the work my students have done and the strides made toward being more discerning citizens.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phone by Tech Fellow Emily Hunerwadel

So. You’re a new TO, and if you’re anything like me, you are panicking right now as you read this sentence. There is so much to worry about in crafting a teaching persona and managing a class. Will you be the suit wearing, quiz stickler? The yoga-pant-wearing, cross-legged desk sitter? What about when your munchkins start coming in 10 minutes late? And, for god’s sake, what will you do about texting, twitter, insta, facebook, snapchat and the millions of other blinking platforms that serve as a carnival-esque distraction from your teaching curriculum? Don’t worry, baby girl, I got you.  

While I can’t tell you what to wear or how loud to talk in front of your class, I can say I’ve had some success with phones in my classroom. I know, I know, there actually is something to be said for the addiction narratives we assign to social media usage, and it is sometimes easier to be the “everyone-put-your-phones-in-this-basket” kind of teacher. But Shhhh. Let me convince you of the cell phone’s virtues in the following quippy listicle:

  • Stop iPhone-Forbidden-Fruit Syndrome

This is probably the most obvious and easily-debatable points, but forbidding phones in the classroom does not get rid of the distraction. In my own experience as a student, being told I could not look at my phone only made checking it more tantalizing. Even if I was a good little girl and kept my phone in my bag, I would often find that, as the class topic/discussion became more boring or unappealing, I would daydream of who was messaging me, liking my cat-child instagram pics, or sending me snapchats of their morning wake-up hair.

And that’s the crux of the problem: It’s not an issue of cell-phone usage; it’s an issue of engagement. An uninterested student will find a way to disengage with your class, iPhone or no. One needs no tools to daydream, and, as all teenagers (and biblical characters) know, telling someone “no” is a great way to create temptation. While it’s easy to blame technology for the waxy looks in your students’ eyes, banning phones eliminates so many possibilities of using this tech as a teaching tool while not solving the actual problem.

  • Exemplify Context: IRL Self v. Online Self

Yep. I said it. The Writing Program buzzword: context. Social media is a great tool for explaining and teaching the rhetorical concepts of Unit 1. While your youngins might not have much experience writing a personal essay, they tend to have a good amount of exposure to an online presence. In my experience, they come into class with at least some understanding that what they choose to share and how they choose to express themselves changes between social media platforms or between their virtual and physical “selves.” Pointing this out in the classroom setting is a great way to scaffold to related ideas of context and audience.

“The IRL Fetish” in Opening Conversations is obviously a great text to get them thinking and ready to discuss these concepts. This semester, I paired the Jurgenson essay with an activity stolen from Elizabeth M:

As students came into our second class, I told everyone we would be doing a social IRL experiment and to turn their phones and computers’ volume up as loud as possible.

As we started to discuss and debate the Jurgenson text, pings and bips abounded. Each time a phone rang, the responsible student’s face would blush red and often they felt the need to apologize. This is where the questioning and context exploration began. I turned the conversation to why each student felt so embarrassed when their iPhone-bell-tones perforated our discussion, and, after pondering, students replied saying they weren’t used to iPhones being ok in a class.

They were used to being reprimanded when their phones sounded in a classroom, so by being in the context of the classroom and hearing the sound, they expected some sort of trouble like a labrat trained that cheese=electric shock. I then asked if they would have the same reaction to the sound of their iPhone if alone in their dorm room or at a party or on the sidewalk, to which, they all agreed, would probably warrant different responses. The noise had a different meaning in a different space. In a different context!

By having a small physical example of context, they were then more ready to accept that they, in fact, have different ways of being in different situations, that context affects their sense of self and ways of acting. We were able to have a very worthwhile discussion about how our writing changes based upon context, branching to the differences between their online and embodied selves. I ended the class with generative writing comparing their virtual and IRL selves, which I noticed filtered into some of the Unit 1 essays.

  • Demonstrate Genre Conventions and Form

My first semester, I tried to teach these concepts through my Unit 4 assignment, in which we together made a class magazine. I brought in different online or physical magazine-type articles and tried to demonstrate how the addition of a picture or different typography affected the reading of the text. However, our final class magazine had only one essay that deviated from a typical essay format, which was slightly disappointing. Looking back, I think I did not incorporate enough exercises that modeled form or genre into my lesson plans, and so, in the final paper, they still did not feel comfortable taking those kinds of risks.

In reworking my lesson plans for this semester, I thought about ways to make the concept of genre and form more reachable and realized that perhaps, here again, they have more experience editing their writing for different social media platforms.

As a way to tap into that experience,I crafted a lesson plan tweak of a Writing Program Database favorite—“Short Long Short.” You can find a description of that activity here I’ve found that students LOVE this exercise and that it really gets them thinking about revision techniques while giving them the confidence to experiment with descriptive language.

In my class, I brought in my blue typewriter as our object (which they got a kick out of). I had them complete the activity in the normal way described, allowing them to distill their long descriptions into 50 words. After we discussed what exactly they’d done in the revision, I broke the class into smaller groups and asked them to choose one 50 word description and mold it into three separate social media posts, allowing them to choose which platforms to use (i.e. twitter, instagram, etc.)

We then analyzed how the templates of these social media platforms affected the content. We talked through questions like: How did the curation or picture-based quality of instagram change how you wrote the caption? How did your post need to change in particular to fit the more ephemeral medium of snapchat?

It was fairly obvious to most students how their Facebook post would need to change in order to be more appropriate for Twitter, and by teaching these differences as the “genre” of Facebook or the “form” of a tweet, I was able to help my students apply this vocabulary to their writing.


Writing is Always Multimodal by Sharanya Sridhar

Hello Everyone,

I am Sharanya Sridhar, a first year PhD student in literature. I also teach College Writing. During my masters program at Boise State, I taught first-year writing with a different curriculum that introduced me to critical conversations about multimodal composition.  The opportunity be a Tech Fellow this spring allowed me to talk about my evolving ideas about multimodality with my peers. It’s been incredibly helpful to have a community of first-year teachers with whom I could ruminate my excitements as well as anxieties about using technology and pedagogical practices. What follows is a snapshot of my project for Tech Fellows and a related activity. Hope you enjoy it!

Overarching context: My project for Tech-fellows this spring involved thinking about ways to incorporate multimodality and digital rhetoric in classroom conversations. I have also been thinking about ways to frame interesting theoretical concepts from composition studies as classroom activities so it becomes accessible and useful for first-year writers. The following activity speaks to both these goals.  

Immediate Goal(s): To introduce students to certain threshold concepts in writing, to get them to think about different shades of meaning the term ‘text’ could take, to understand that writing is always multimodal.

Preparatory Reading Assignment: As a preparation for this activity, students read 5 threshold concepts (I picked out the ones I wanted them to read) from “Writing is a Rhetorical and Social Activity”, Naming What We Know and pick 2 favourite concepts

In Class Activity: Based on the concepts they picked as their favourite, I put them in 4 different groups. Each group had to visually represent the concept they picked. Some made mind maps or roadmaps while some represented their concept with a series of sketches. Each group presented their visual representation and explained the concept but also talked about their own choices in representing their chosen concept.

Follow up Discussion: We talked about how we use different mediums to write, to make meaning, and to communicate our thoughts. We also talked about how writing gets interpreted differently based on how readers interpret it and the mediums readers use to interpret a piece of writing.

Follow up freewrite:  Based on the activity and our discussion, I asked them to write about their definition of text and it might be different from their previous conceptions of the term. I also asked them to give examples of certain texts that they hadn’t thought of as texts before.

Their responses to the activity and the freewrite was a positive one. It helped me set the the tone for the second unit (Interacting with a Text) and allowed them to explore multimodal texts like Ted Talks for their unit essay.


Permission to Continue Building a Writing Community

Sean Bates is a first-year MFA candidate in Poetry at UMass  Amherst where he also teaches College Writing. He hails from the Finger Lakes Region in Upstate New York, and completed his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.

It occurred to me into my second week that I had done ice breakers for two days and still my class felt stagnant when it came to sharing or even speaking in class. When I solicited for their anonymous feedback, the majority said they were enjoying the class. The breakdown appeared to be my assumption that the ice breakers of interviews and names  had been enough to foster a writing community with this particular class.

I was concerned about “giving up a day” to do more community building. I brought this to the table during our course director group meeting, and our director wrote on the board a simple idea that felt like a revelation. She wrote: “Give yourself permission to give your class what they need.”

Our Resource Center mentor followed up by asking me about the classroom space. I explained that although I am thankful for the seminar style table, the room is quite small. He, maybe jokingly, suggested that I have them sit under the tables. In my own experience as a student, I recognized the power of psychology of space and I knew that this would catch my class off guard.

As I walked in, I asked them all to pack up their stuff and move the tables to the side (making sure to not block the door.) We all sat on the floor and I had them rip their papers in half. For the rest of the class, we did one line story exquisite corpse exercise. They were more comfortable in cautious silence, and easily fell back on it. But I forced them to share and we actually had some low stakes fun.

A Semester of Conversations on Technology

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

As technology coordinator, I worked with teachers to expand the meaning of what a text means—it is an essay in Other Words or Student Anthology, and it is also a song, a movie clip, a blog post, a videogame, or a list of curated tweets, as long they’re each read in the context of an audience and unit goal. Together we expanded the possibilities for portfolio collection: all student writing for a given unit can live in a single Google Doc, making it easy for the instructor to check off activities as they’re grading, and more importantly, to see, with a single doc, how a student’s writing has grown over the course of the unit. We spoke about Moodle and conference scheduling, Unit IV activities and final portfolios.

This process of knowledge-expansion took place in one-on-one conversations and also in classrooms; teachers invited me to their classes and together we had conversations with students on the forms of technology they would be using in the class and why it was helpful—why it made sense, for instance, to do peer review on a shared Google Doc. We spoke about hurdles students might face in facilitating a technology-driven, paperless classroom, and some possible solutions. I will be collating and sharing these solutions with teachers during the Spring symposium.

As a teacher I found that technology, by channeling the external into the classroom, facilitated the opposite: it placed the skills learned in 112 classrooms in the context of the social reality students interact with. In reframing a Facebook post for a non-native speaker of English, or for a high school teacher, students understood the meaning of audience. In watching a foreign language film without subtitles and “guessing” what was happening in the scene, and then seeing what was actually happening, they appreciated the meaning of context. And in setting a section of a videogame in dialogue with a film, they understood what it meant to get resources to interact. It was a pleasure sharing these ideas with fellow-teachers and hearing their perspectives.

I enjoy talking about technology in the context of teaching writing, and I hope, in the upcoming semester, to have conversations with more teachers on how they can bring in technology that works well with their teaching personality, and in the process help more students learn that the skills they learn in our classes have contextual applications in spaces beyond our classrooms.

Multimedia Resources for a Digital Age

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger  Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree  and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

“Use a multimedia source as one of your resources,” I told my students as I was describing to them my expectations for the “Adding to the Conversation” paper.

“So we can use a YouTube video?” asked a student, her interest clearly piqued.

“And a tweet too?” went another student.

To engage their curiosity, I had them discuss, in groups of three, possible multimedia sources that can be used to support their assertions. Together we had a laundry list of, astonishingly, sixteen different kind of multimedia resources. My students never fail to astonish me with their resourcefulness. Getting them engaged is what it begins with.

“Let’s switch roles,” I said. “You are the audience. Assume you see an article in the Daily Collegian that says your favorite band plagiarized all their tracks. And as evidence they cite a YouTube video which has some anonymous UMass students stating this opinion. Will you believe them?”

“Of course we would not,” they said.

“But what if you listened to a YouTube video which showed you album covers from which the tracks were plagiarized and gives you links where you can verify that their release date preceded the release date of your favorite band’s song?”

“Then we would have to believe the video,” they said, albeit reluctantly.

Sources may change form, I went on to explain, but the essential need, what we look for in a resource, does not change. We still need a resource to be credible in its support – or dispute – of a claim. We need our resources to be unbiased, to have no motivation other than to interact with the nature of an idea’s truth and arrive at a conclusion in a clear, logical fashion.

“So what is the point of using a web resource?” I asked my students. “Why look for a new form of a resource if the requirements are just the same? Remember how excited you all got when I asked you to use a multimedia resource? It is because the digital form is vital to our social interactions. It has become a critical part of public discourse, how information is circulated to a target audience. And you want to set your essay in dialogue with this digital space, not only because it interests you, but also because it is the space your audience draws their information from.”

If we do have our students use multimedia resources, given their interest in the medium then, along with asking them to verify the resource for credibility and bias, we may want to consider talking to them about how the resource we use is ultimately a function of audience: moving beyond the essential goal of wanting to convince our audience, we want them to believe that the topic which the resource supports is of interest to them because of the digital space they’re engaged with.

From Teaching to Tutoring and Back: A Reflection on Old Dogs and the Tricks They May Learn

Deirdre Vinyard is the Deputy Director of the UMass Writing Program. She teaches the first-year writing courses (College and Basic Writing) and directs the Basic Writing Program.

Last fall I started tutoring at the Writing Center here at UMass. I’ve always been a fan of Writing Centers—I know what they have done for my students and their writing—but I had never been at a Writing Center, either as a writer or as a tutor.  I figured after 30 years of teaching, it was time to learn about this wonderful resource for myself.

Tutoring in the Writing Center context is very different from conferencing with students in my class—and this is something I hadn’t realized.  When I conference with my students, I know a lot about them and a lot about the writing they are doing.  I often have a sense of the strengths and challenges they bring to the writing task we are working on and of course I wrote the assignment—I know the teacher’s expectations!

In the Writing Center, I am faced with writers whom I do not know, writing in disciplines distant from my own and for professors whose expectations I can sometimes only guess at.  At times, I feel at sea.

My mentors in the Writing Center have reminded me that I am a guide, not a guru, in these sessions.  I am there to help students figure out their intentions in their writing and to think about the ways their ideas are presented.  Sometimes we explore the expectations of the teacher or the genre together, by carefully reading the assignment sheet, by looking at other requirements in the course, or by looking for models. I have learned a lot about how writing happens across campus, across disciplines. 

As a teacher, I think my background as an ESL teacher—with its focus on language—has made me want to jump into my students’ papers.  I love the idea of the rolling up my sleeves and plunging into the “verbal clay,” to borrow Patrick Hartwell’s term.  I want to get my hands into the paper.  And of course, when I know what we are trying to make from the clay (because I wrote the assignment), it’s easy to jump in. One of the things I have learned at the Writing Center is to roll my sleeves back down, edge my chair a bit from the table, and lean back. 

And of course, there is a connection to my teaching.  Let me tell you a story. Last semester in my Basic Writing class, one of my students came to me for some feedback on his essay. Harvey had a draft, but he felt it didn’t quite say what he wanted—he told me he was having trouble connecting the ideas.  I read it, and I could see his frustration.  I couldn’t really tell what the main point was—it was a collection of different, seemingly unrelated ideas from the reading and his experience. I was tempted to go through the essay with Harvey, talking about each paragraph and how they related to my assignment and to each other—to see how we together could better connect his ideas.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves.  But for some reason, I didn’t.

Instead, I sat back in my chair (and without realizing it, put on my WC hat) and asked him just to tell me what he wanted to talk about in the essay.  He then beautifully articulated a great idea, bringing together these disparate points–into a really cool theme that connected to the course readings in a fresh and personal (for him) way.  I was so excited.  More importantly, Harvey was now excited and no longer frustrated.  

What I take away from this experience is that Writing Center work has taught me to be a bit more observational, in a positive way, with my students’ writing.  As Leslie Bradshaw told us in our last training session, we are working with writers—more than we are working with writing.  I think my conference with Harvey was so successful because I sat back and worked with him and then let him work with his writing.

I continue to tutor at the Writing Center every week.  I am learning.  I am loving it.