Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reassessing the "Proofreading Trap": ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction

Sharon Myers discusses an important dilemma I have felt many times when working with ESL writers: where to begin when confronted with a host of errors. I totally agree with Myers' point that we can't reduce the difficulties these students are facing down to mere language and errors. In a Shaunessey type way, we must understand the source or rationale for their linguistic problems and work with them with that awareness centrally in mind.

In one way, the trap becomes something like this: "Oh my, there are a ton of errors. OK, let's fix them one by one." The tutor or teacher diving into this bog of error, indeed, falls into a trap because the errors are so numerous and so difficult. Work to correct each of these errors can take hours. I like, however, Myers' description of the trap: "There is indeed a 'trap.' It is created by the contradictions between what ESL learners need and are capable of and what an uninformed perspective leads us to suppose they need and are capable of"(233). We suppose they need the paper fixed, but their needs may be for more fundamental lexical or syntactic understandings about language. The tutoring session is in fact a teaching session. Ultimately, the paper is not important--it is the learning that can be gained for the ESL writer while they work on the paper.

Myers trashes Cogie's four strategies useful for tutors to work with ESL students: learner's dictionaries, minimal marking, error logs, and self-editing checklists. Instead, she closes her article (and illustrates it too) with her recommendations:
  1. a more relaxed attitude toward error
  2. an appreciation of second language acquisition processes
  3. and better training in the pedagogical grammar of English as a second language
I like these recommendations. It is the last one that is the hardest because it depends upon a level of knowledge and reflective judgment dealing with an ESL writers work that inexperienced tutors may not have. Personally, this awareness of where ESL writers are in their language acquisition and some sense of why they make these kinds of errors and what we can do to work with them regarding these problems comes from the chapters in handbooks devoted to working with ESL writers. I think these are a good starting place, and often have more detailed information that ESL writers appreciate.

In terms of my new role as WC Director, I think that this article makes some significant points. It will be important to make ESL writers a prominent subject for our training and discussions as well as for the resources available from within our WC.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Concept of Essay Success in Rhetorical Reflection

One of the subjects of extended discussion in my dissertation defense was the concept of "essay success." At the time, I don't believe I had found the words yet to adequately express what I mean by this concept; however, since I have been working on my "Picturing Reflection" article, I believe I have fleshed out the concept. Below is a section from this article I am still drafting:


My research discovered that rhetorical reflection involves comparison, assessment, and judgment made in terms of a writer’s conception of “essay success.” What is considered and gleaned from feedback, the identification and framing of problems, the understandings generated as well as the plans made for revision all depend on the writer’s concept of what constitutes essay success.
The concept of essay success closely resembles Hayes’s idea of task schema because it likewise serves as a controlling factor for the entire dynamic of reflective thinking within rhetorical reflection. If as Higgins, Flower, and Petraglia believe true reflection involves critical evaluation, the grounded theory of rhetorical reflection says that this evaluation starts with a comparison between the “real text/writer” (that is, the actual text on the page or activities performed by the writer) and the ideal text/writer (the ideal of what the text should be or the activities performed by the writer should be). The essential double-movement or dialectic of rhetorical reflection involves this comparison within the writer’s mind between the real and the ideal text/writer, as the following graphic illustrates:
The diagram also portrays the important place of feedback in providing the writer with an outside representation of the real and ideal text/writer for consideration.
Within rhetorical reflection, writers constantly interpret, transform, and confirm their conceptions of the real and ideal text/writer. Although essay success equates to the ideal text/writer, the concept of essay success differs because it represents the practical and tangible expression of the ideal text/writer in actual writing. Essay success is the closest alignment writers can manage between the real text/writer and the ideal/text writer—acknowledging that the real never matches absolutely the ideal. Despite Knoblauch and Brannon’s critique of the “Ideal Text” as reductive and an expression of teacher authority, this idealized conception of the text need not be either fixed or in the sole possession of the teacher (120). As the diagram below illustrates, aspects of essay success are multiple and exist along a spectrum from being fixed and definite to more various and contingent: 
For instance, task requirements such as page length or the requirement to incorporate quotes from research constitute fixed aspects of essay success for that particular assignment. Standard conventions for the use of punctuation or documentation are similarly more certain characteristics of essay success. However, how to create an engaging opener for the essay or how to provide adequate and convincing support are much less definite and abstract. The contingent side of essay success is open to a greater variety of options and is subject to context to determine appropriateness and success.
Wherever the concept of essay success may fall within writers’ thinking, it exists as a kind of measuring stick against which writers make the comparisons, assessments, and judgments that constitute the reflective thinking of rhetorical reflection. Any knowledge generated or validated within these reflective writings originates from the writer’s representation of essay success. Also, the assessments and judgments that occur within these reflections are based upon this concept of success or failure, and writers constantly orient themselves toward this goal of essay success and try to move in its direction (similar to McAlpine’s et al.’s model). A problem in the text won’t be acknowledged as a problem unless it is seen to be out of alignment with writers’ understanding of the ideal text; likewise, a plan for revision won’t be considered or devised and accepted unless it is moving the real text toward essay success. Resembling the notion of to prepon from classical rhetoric, “fitting-in-bounds” is the term that describes this reflective thinking made in terms of essay success.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

New Vistas: The SAC Writing Center

I will be starting a new adventure this next semester as the SAC Writing Center Director. I only have a two course release-time for a position that can easily suck 40-60 hours a week, so I am a bit anxious about this work load, but I am excited about this new experience in writing and writing pedagogy. I've begun reading some of the (vast) literature on writing centers, and I feel my head spinning.

What is the SAC Writing Center, as a center? How will I shape it?

Is it a fix-it shop, a garret, or a Burkian parlour? Is it a product oriented, process oriented, or post-colonial writing center? I prefer it to be a Burkian parlour, but we shall see if I can succeed in shaping it that direction. I like the notions of the writing center being something like a "cafe" where writer get fed. All writers are hungry, all writers are welcome at the cafe--it isn't a place for just one group (deficient writers or struggling writers). A writing center is a place to feed writers!


I know that in the future I will have more posts related to writing centers and their theory and practice.