UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: The Musical and Often Muddled Nature of Punctuation in the Writing Center

Michelle Day, Writing Consultant

Like all good children born in the ‘80s, I sang along with Schoolhouse Rock to learn language mechanics in school. But I wish I would have known about this little gem  by L.L. Cool J, a song in which the rapper suspends his usual lyrics in favor of a minute-long exposition on punctuation. Amid flying periods, commas, questions marks, and exclamation points, the rapper declares, “When you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do.”

The content of the video is particularly relevant in light of the 9th annual “National Punctuation Day,” which was Monday. I’m as intrigued as the next person by flying punctuation that obeys L.L. Cool J’s every rhythmic command. However, his refrain, that “you have to know what to do” with punctuation, may mislead writers to think controlling punctuation is as intuitive as L.L. makes it seem. At the Writing Center, we see it differently.

Richard Nordquist, English scholar, professor and writer, writes that the origin of punctuation was for oral—not written—purposes. In ancient Greece and Rome, punctuation denoted how long a speaker should pause when reading out loud (the comma was the shortest mark, while the period was the longest). After the rise of printing, the importance of punctuation became less about speaking and more about writing and proper syntactical relationships. Writers like playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century began to codify the use of punctuation, and today, there are countless style guides and witty-sounding books on grammar that teach often-competing punctuation conventions. (Read Nordquist’s full article here.)

This last point is particularly relevant to our work at the Writing Center. Our clients—even graduate students with strong writing skills—are often unclear on issues as seemingly simple as when to use a comma. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t quite understand tricks teachers have taught them (“put commas wherever you would pause when speaking” is one of the more commonly misapplied tricks). Sometimes, they’re confused by the competing rules they’ve heard from different instructors. Other times, they’ve never been told how to punctuate a quotation correctly or connect complete sentences without creating a run on (or perhaps they weren’t paying attention to such riveting topics).

Even the Writing Center consultants find punctuation rules a little fuzzy. We recently spent a considerable amount of time discussing when it was appropriate to use single quotation marks (“scare quotes”) rather than double quotation marks. There’s also an ongoing tension between those who love the Oxford/serial comma (the comma that comes before the last item in a list of three or more) and those who consider it superfluous. Some of us have even confessed to intentionally breaking punctuation rules. For example, I frequently place commas in the middle of long sentences where they don’t technically belong, just because it feels right.

It’s true that Writing Center consultants likely discuss punctuation more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the average student (we even have a handout titled “Dash-Dash-Revolution” that describes the dash as “exciting”). But we still empathize with our clients’ confusion concerning punctuation and realize as G. V. Carey did that punctuation is decided “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste” (see Nordquist’s article). That’s why we keep stacks of handouts on common punctuation errors, why we sometimes take breaks from higher-order issues of content or organization to give clients some punctuation pointers. It’s why we attempt to be flexible about how clients’ use punctuation in their writing, and why we try not to judge if a students’ only experience using semicolons, parenthesis, and hyphens is typing emoticons.

Since the only way to avoid punctuating sentences is to never pause or stop a sentence, writers will always have to deal with the confusing or undecided aspects of proper punctuation. What are some of the “tricks” you were taught to remember correct punctuation?  Which were helpful, and which weren’t? What resources do you use now to help clients in session?

Writing Centers and Twitter: How We Use this ‘Weird’ Space and How Students Perceive It

Jennifer Marciniak, Assistant Director, University of Louisville Virtual Writing Center

When I use Twitter, I use it for a wide variety of information. My interests are varied, and, therefore, my Twitter feed bounces from what’s going on in higher education to the latest trade rumors in Major League Baseball.  I get the Groupons and other “slick deals” of the day, as well as headlines from oil and gas industry newspapers and blogs that commiserate with one another on the newest objections to hydraulic “fracking.”  You’ll even find Usain Bolt tweeting photos of himself at post-Olympic parties alongside updates regarding The Walking Dead and Grimm.  Yes, my Twitter feed is eclectic, to say the least.

However, interspersed among all these posts are those from writing centers at other universities. My position in the Virtual Writing Center at U of L demands I keep up with what’s being discussed in terms of online writing and writing centers as a whole, and for someone who is a perpetual headline-skimmer like me, Twitter is hard to beat. In terms of writing centers, there are the regular business-oriented tweets like University of Wisconsin –Madison’s call for students: “New badgers: stop by the UW-Madison Writing Center for individual writing instruction, group workshops & more!” Then there are “emergency tweets,” like University of Central Missouri Writing Center’s last minute change in plans that was cross-posted to UCM’s main Twitter feed for maximum effectiveness: “@UCentralMO writing center has temporarily been moved to Humph 119 Conference Room. Hopefully we will be back in #humph116 later today.”  These types of Tweets are basic bits of information that students need to know in order to find and understand the Writing Center’s “place” at the University.

While most writing centers use Twitter to get the word out, there seems to be only so much a Writing Center can do to get people to follow their feed, or in terms of Facebook, “like” their page. Even when considering how the Uof L Writing Center could benefit from Twitter, I really couldn’t think of anything past the above UW-Madison and UCM examples. But further research shows that some writing centers are starting to push against the business-oriented Twitter post, and are starting to get more creative with what they tweet.  West Virginia University uses Twitter to post helpful blogs and videos like this one for students to refer to once they leave the writing center: “New blog post about interpreting instructor feedback.” Others are using more visual forms of marketing to promote their services. The University of Kansas sometimes uses internet memes to market their center, such as this most recent one with a viral photograph of a marathon runner: “Even Ridiculously Photogenic Guy knows the power of the Writing Center.”  The meshing of academic and social discourse arguably shows the writing center’s willingness to reach into dimensions utilized and accepted by the demographic toward which the center needs to market.  Writing centers can also do more than just report available tutor times and promote writing workshops. Memes are visual and often shared and/or retweeted across the social media genres. Because the University of Kansas meme was also cross-posted to Facebook, the University of Kentucky Writing Center, a “friend” of the University of Kansas Writing Center, shared the meme with social media friends and followers, who will most likely share as well.  I just retweeted it myself.

Some of the most remarkable writing center tweets are not even by the writing centers, but instead the students themselves. Student voices are by far the most heard on twitter when searching the key term writing center, out-tweeting writing centers 2-to-1.  Many are positive, giving props to what the center has to offer. One student, Michelle W, tweeted of her writing center experience: “Coming to the writing center and there’s candy, play dough, and markers on the tables #lovecollege.”  Another said, “The writing Center about to be My bff today.” Sometimes, though, student tweets show us that as Writing Center personnel we need to be aware of our actions and comments. Chelby KC tweeted about her not-so-hot experience in her writing center: “I love how there are a ton of people on the walk-in waiting list for the writing center and there are 5 staff members standing around.”  Others, like this tweet by Scuba Steve, are just a bit more in need of interpretation: “Idk why my Professor wants us to get our papers checked by the Writing Center…we’re in college for a reason #smh.” There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Okay, well, publicity that displays a multi-faceted response to the Writing Center’s necessity to student learning, anyway.  And while you would never hear me advocate Team_Marti’s choice to my students, the value of one-on-one assistance sometimes warrants some balancing of priorities: “I shoulda skipped this class x went to the writing center. Tuh !”

This is just a sample of how writing centers use Twitter and what people are saying about writing centers on Twitter. While it does give us an idea of how we can use this particular social networking site to market our writing center services, it is important to consider questions of oversaturation and too-much cross-posting, as well bordering on “creepy treehouse” syndrome. Another question to ask is do we even need it? Will it be another social networking tool that fades into the ether? Some writing centers have not updated their Twitter feeds in months, begging the question of whether or not it was deemed effective or possibly not used as effectively as it could have been, and therefore abandoned.

I know what I use Twitter for. If you use Twitter, I would like to know your thoughts on how your university programs, office and services (like the writing center) use Twitter. Do you think it is effective or intruding on your personal space? What do you wish the University would use it for? If you do not use Twitter, I would really like to know about your aversion to it. The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2010) describes Twitter as a “weird space” – that people either do not use it, or they go “all in.” That’s a pretty spot-on description, in my opinion. On my Twitter feed today actor Neil Patrick Harris was tweeting pictures of his dinner while mere seconds prior a digital media scholar posted an expletive-filled retweet about hating Blackboard. And that was about five minutes after Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps tweeted yet another picture of him holding a huge fish on some island in the Indian Ocean. “Weird” is right.

Jennifer Marciniak is a 3rd year PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at U of L. She is the Assistant Director of the U of L Virtual Writing Center. You can follower her on Twitter at @tululoo.

Remembering the First Semester of Consulting

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last week in my post about what it’s like to be the observed tutor, I mentioned that our new cohort of writing center consultants also began their first semester of tutoring at U of L. Between the two weeks of observation and this first week of tutoring, there has been a lot of reminiscing about memorable tutoring sessions both from those of us mentoring in the Writing Center and from a number of our consultants who have tutored at other institutions. These stories have been useful in helping to explain tutoring strategies, but also in remembering what it’s like to be a consultant for the first time.

My first job as a writing center consultant was in the Texas State University Writing Center, where I started in the Spring of 2006. I was excited about this position not just because it sounded better than checking groceries but also because at the time I was studying to teach high school English. I figured writing consulting would be good training and experience. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, my writing center work definitely shapes the kind of teacher I am, and vice versa. Still, that first semester of tutoring wasn’t quite smooth sailing like I thought it would be.

Many writing center consultants, I think, fall into this trap of thinking they already know how to consult or that it will be easy to pick up. Generally our writing has been praised by our teachers and we think of ourselves as good writers. We are certainly qualified then to help others with writing, right? What I quickly learned in working with students who were less confident in their writing was that being a good writer does not translate to being a good writing consultant. We might recognize why a sentence is “wrong” or sounds awkward, but explaining why that is the case can be a struggle. This can put the tutor in a frustrating position, feeling the pressure to help the student with their paper and their writing while also feeling the pressure of the ticking clock. Many times that semester I fought the impulse to “just fix it” for the student; thankfully that training was firmly rooted into my brain before I began any sessions.

To combat this feeling, I used two strategies. I couldn’t quite let go of the pencil yet, but I started holding it upside down. This way even if I briefly gave into the impulse to write on the paper, I would be instantly reminded that I shouldn’t. The second strategy was far more useful in the long-term, though. Our writing center had extensive and useful handouts about mechanics and grammar. After talking with a student about his concerns and/or reading through some of his paper, I would briefly excuse myself to grab some of the handouts. I would use the handout whenever I felt myself struggling to explain something. Using these handouts not only helped me deal with the various pressures of not knowing how to explain a concern, they also taught me some basic grammar rules and strategies for how to explain them. Many of the examples on those handouts (or at least that were on the handouts six years ago) are examples I still use today, probably word for word. We’re only into the fourth week of the schedule this semester, and I know I’ve already  showed at least two students and one consultant the FANBOYS mnemonic for remembering the common conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

I try to remember how stranded and nervous I felt in some sessions during that first semester. Sometimes I still feel that way when I’m working with a student. Remembering those early experiences though reminds me to call on the resources around me, including other tutors. It also helps me to imagine how the student might be feeling, unsure of how to talk about writing. Using those sessions of examples of how to work through those feelings and make them productive also helps me to work with new consultants.

In what ways have your early consulting sessions helped you to become a better consultant, both in working with students and in working with other consultants?

Reflections from the Observed Tutor

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

In writing center training we often talk about how valuable observing is because it gives the consultant the opportunity to reflect on the multiple roles people can take up in a tutoring session, including the different perspectives and positions that both the consultant and the writer might embody. Importantly, as Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner demonstrate with real tutor reflections, the observing process gives the consultant a chance to learn new approaches and also to reflect on what they might do in a similar session. It is with this understanding that our consultants have observed at least four—but often more—different sessions over the past two weeks. However, as we talk about and prepare consultants for the observing process, we tend to focus on the person who is doing the observing—how to do it, why it’s valuable, etc. We even spend time talking about making sure the writer is comfortable being observed. I’d like to think here, though, about the experience of being observed, because over the past two weeks, I’ve found there’s plenty to learn on that side of the situation as well.

First, I found there is just as much opportunity to learn new strategies when you’re the one being observed. We’re lucky to have experienced and reflective new tutors in the Writing Center this year. These tutors taught me new approaches and terms as we talked about the sessions we had just been a part of. In one session last week, one of the observing consultants and I stepped away from a student to let him work on revising and developing a new paragraph in his essay. During the session, I had been struggling to discover what the student wanted help with and how I could help him best for the paper and future papers. The observing consultant, Daniel, suggested that in addition to talking about paragraph development, we also show him the “3 by 5” structure for the whole paper. I had never heard of this term for what is basically the five paragraph model for essay writing. When we returned to the student, we looked over the paragraph he wrote, and then the observer talked to him about the “3 by 5” structure. The student knew exactly what he was talking about and saw how it could help him with his paper.

Similarly, even though I was at first nervous to be observed, I found that a number of the observing consultants were able to step in when I was having trouble explaining concepts to students. In one session, an observing consultant gave me more terminology so that we could help a student identify when to end his sentences. I was talking about “periods,” a term with which the writer was not familiar. The consultant observing, Brit, was able to simply offer the term “full stop.” This allowed the writer and me to understand one another and quickly address the concern in his writing. I had a similar but more complex experience while Scott was observing and he helped to explain the rules about the use of articles.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons for me over the past two weeks, though, has been simply the articulation of my tutoring strategies and practices. While our new consultants take a graduate course about tutoring practice, most of my writing center training has come from practice, instinct, and whatever I could transfer from my classroom teaching training. Talking to the new group of consultants about sessions and responding to their questions made me more conscious of the reasons behind the way I tutor. It gave me an explicit opportunity to consider my practices as well as the value of other practices. Also, because I was especially hoping to demonstrate a range of strategies while tutoring, I believe I’ve pushed myself to become a better tutor—one who is not as set in her ways and is more open to trying new things. More importantly, I push myself harder to listen to the student and think about what might be the best way to work with that particular student.

Thus, while I was initially anxious about being observed, I find that the experience has in fact been enjoyable and important to my theory of tutoring. I hope that as the consultants begin tutoring they are able to take similarly valuable lessons with them from these two weeks. Even when we have experience and even when we feel like we know what we’re doing, it’s sometimes nice and refreshing to be in the training position again.

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