I’m not Tense; who’s Tense?!

Which of these two sentences sounds more interesting? “I like the dish that is on the mantel, I thought to myself, as the soup burned” or “I like the blue, speckled dish adorning the mantle, I thought to myself, as the chicken noodle soup on the stove burned.” If I had to take a guess, I would say most of you picked the second sentence. Now, consider why you made this choice. The reasoning behind your choice is most likely because the second sentence is more descriptive, appealing to your senses. It also provides some conflict, or tension, making it more exciting to read, causing suspense. Which is in part what I am discussing in this blog post today! This post will detail how you can effectively use strategies such as tension and description to improve the effectiveness of a creative writing or academic assignment.

I’ve had clients come in for tutoring for help with argumentative papers, for example. Their professor has made comments about the lack of persuasion in their argument. The first piece of advice I give them after reading their paper is not to just argue their side. Reading an argumentative paper that functions just to prop one side up is boring. Examining all sides of the issue, and giving credit to the opposing side when credit is due, allows you to appropriately set up your own argument now that you’ve considered all angles. This can add more sophistication and credibility in your argument, because you’re not hiding anything. More importantly, I would argue, it adds tension. Tension is created when two opposing sides are presented, because it “is defined as trouble on the page” and “is conflict,” according to Heather Sellers in The Practice of Creative Writing (205). By utilizing tension in your academic writing, your papers will be more engaging to read and most likely, considered more persuasive.

Description in academic writing is also very effective, and I’m not only discussing imagery. I have had clients that need help with rhetorical analysis papers, as another tutor astutely pointed out, this is just another argumentative essay. The title makes this paper seem daunting, but all that is required of the student is to analyze a how a message is conveyed in a story, therefore affecting the rhetorical situation. Many times students’ analyses only touch the surface, analyzing general pathos in the piece but not analyzing at the word or sentence level. This is where description can come into great use! If you not only describe the emotion of the piece, but what diction for example, makes the piece emotional, this is can be interpreted more specific, detailed scrutiny of the piece.

Of course, tension and description are not only useful in academic writing, but also in creative writing. All you nonfiction essayists and poets can use this in your own writing, and to help students who venture into the writing center for help with creative writing. Description and tension is important to the progress of every narrative. Whenever a client or classmate is stumped on how to begin a story, I ask them: “What makes a good story?” In some ways this always involves the progression of the plot, the beautiful, descriptive language used, or both! The progression of the plot almost always involves tension. The lack thereof, often results in the reader becoming bored from a flat plotline. Connecting creative writing with the client’s own reading experience is an effective way to get them over the dreaded writer’s block, because it allows them to emulate writing styles that are pleasurable to them—which often use strategies like imagery to improve upon the descriptiveness of their piece. This strategy also allows writers to become aware of how tension is used in other stories, for example, how tension or conflict comes to a head as rising action.

A problem that many students, including myself, encounter when writing a narrative is stiff dialogue or action. This is the result of many years of academic writing for school, and is especially true if you don’t write creative pieces constantly. Which leads me to another tip that my creative writing professor offered to me: write all the time. Keep a little notebook and note all the things you see in a day, or what is it about Scandal that makes being Olivia Pope so enticing, for example. Like I mentioned earlier, tension is a great way to spice up the action in your story. To expand a bit upon my first example, admiring the dish on the mantle while the soup is burning pulls a positive experience and negative one together causing tension, and allowing for more descriptive devices like imagery, to occur because there are more opportunities. For example, you could discuss how the soup looked when you pulled it from the burner, how the kitchen smelled, or even if the perception of the plate is now tainted because you will forever associate it with burnt chicken noodle soup.

I hope you find these strategies to be helpful in tutoring and in practice in your own writing!

-Hailey 🙂

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You really should be writing right now

So one of the things I experience the most in my time so far in the Writing Center, and I’m not the first to touch on this, is that people seem to have a bit of trouble starting. They have ideas, not fully formed, but in their head it seems to be there, waiting to cover the page and present a paper that is perfect in the eyes of their professor. However, the cursor, that thin black line that anticipates every single letter I type, yes, even as I type it out right now, misspell right and type write instead, it’s there, blinking against a white page, waiting. Waiting.

Waiting… …for words.

Whoa, sorry, got a little carried away there. I think I speak the truth though when I say it is hard to start writing. I constantly have decent ideas in my head, how I want to approach a topic, my kickass analysis of that overtly sexist commercial from Dodge, it is there, in my head. I don’t want to write it out though, I think. In my head, the idea is perfect, because it is just that, an idea, and what’s wrong with having an idea, right? They’re up there, swimming around in your skull mingling with other ideas, making conclusions, trying to make something of themselves. I’m not taking this too far, right? I think I am.

Maybe I should bring this back to reality.

Okay.

So the other day, we’ll call it a week or two, but honestly it could have been last month, because once the semester starts, I don’t really have the ability to keep track of time outside of due dates. But anyway, a student was having difficulty attempting a rhetorical analysis that was due later in the week. The student was trying to analyze a poem and then looked at me, leaned back in his chair. Defeated, the student sighed. He then said, “I know what I want to say, but I just don’t know how to…like start it.”

I was empathetic. I’ve been there. I remember writing my capstone project last winter and doing three… ahem …THREE PAGE ONE REWRITES of the thing as I tried to finish it for the end of the semester. That’s not a fun thing to do with a fifteen-page paper. It really isn’t. So, yeah I know what it’s like to try and get this perfect idea, or at least some idea on the page and just not know how to frame it. The solution? Well, it’s not fun. It’s actually kind of boring and well, it makes you feel like you’re in middle school. Write it as simply as you possibly can.

Now, when I say this, this obviously doesn’t mean that this is the version you are going to keep, there’s definitely going to be a significant amount of revision involved, which another tutor, Jackson, spoke about a few weeks ago, but it definitely does get the ball rolling. How did we accomplish this? I’ll tell you.

First, we discussed their analysis, since you should probably have a good handle on your topic before you start writing your paper. This seems obvious, but obviously, as obvious things sometimes are, we overlook it. The student had their main points, and he showed me the places in the poem he was analyzing that supported their ideas. Coolcoolcool.

Not knowing how to start writing, I asked him to just tell me what he was going to write about. He wrote the first sentence of his paper saying, and I quote, “In this paper, I’m going to tell you what I did and how I did it”. That was literally his first sentence. And you know what? It is a sentence; now I don’t know any person that would say that’s a really good sentence, but it got him started. Then he stated his three main points in sentence form—again, very Mickey Mouse easy, but he did it. And when it came to his thesis? Well, he’d already written most of the introduction, so he was starting to get into the groove and came up with an idea that connected his three ideas and prepared his audience for his analysis. Problem solved, right?

No, not really.

It did help him though, and that’s the main point. Sometimes just getting the words down in a really simple way, just the thoughts, lacking any sort of style or engaging prose that explicitly captures the innate complexities of what we try to define as the substance that makes up the human condition…ahem, yeah sorry, anyway those simple steps of getting it out is enough to get you going on to the larger argument of your paper. That student was now able to focus on the part of his paper that he really cared about, the points he was trying to make. He laughed after finishing the intro and said that it really sucked, but I told him that he had it complete. He was now done, at least until he started revising, but he’s on his way and that is the important part for any writer…get that stuff down. Write it out, because I don’t think it matters how much it is in your head, it’s not actually a piece of writing up there, a thing that someone else can read and understand, until you pull those thoughts down and press them onto paper.

 

-Nathan

A Matter of Perspective: On People and Different Approaches to Writing

I’m pretty sure that if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ve caught wind of the idea that “writing is a process,” or some form of that. In a metaphorical sense, writing is like taking a journey from your starting point to your determined destination. We don’t quite have apparating magic or teleportation technology (as far as I’m aware), so any journey we take won’t involve us getting to our destination instantly. It takes time and energy to get anywhere that we want to go. In much the same way, those assignments and papers we write aren’t going to magically plop down in front of us. It’s entirely possible that we’re putting blood, sweat, and perhaps buckets full of tears into these papers before they’re good and done.

 

So when you’re in the process of writing your paper, you’ve likely got an idea of where you’re going with it. You know the big point that’s the culmination of all your hard work that’s going to floor your readers. But what happens if you hit that writer’s block on your way to the end of your paper? What happens if you sit there and think and think until your brain leaks out your ears, and you still come up with nothing?

 

Ideally, the answer is not “have a breakdown,” because A), that doesn’t sound like a good time, and B), it probably isn’t going to get your paper written any faster. So what can you do, then? What happens when your process, your perspective on the writing approach isn’t working for you? Well, there’s many different ways you can go about it, but one tried-and-true method that I fall back on is to simply ask someone else for advice.

 

If we go back to that travel metaphor from earlier, you might have a route to your destination in mind that will send you through bumpy backroads, tollbooths, and generally take ages to go through. If you have others with you, though, they might have traveled to that same destination, but took a different route than you’re planning on taking. One of your compatriots could, for example, know a route that will take you half the time and not bump up your car (and mental state) on the way there.

 

See, people all have their own story and life experiences, and as such can bring different things to the table. So in much the same way as having a different route to travel on, your friends likely have a different approach to writing than you do. That can include how they structure their writing, their style, the way they go about thinking of how to put their ideas on paper, things of that nature. So, by getting advice from your peers, or getting a study group together, you can bounce ideas off of one another, see what works for you and what might not work for others. It doesn’t have to be as complex as cross-analyzing the writing styles of everyone involved, of course. It can be as simple as just asking for input on what you’re currently writing and getting advice. By doing something as simple as talking with your friends, peers, tutors, whoever, that paper that originally looked like a monster to write could potentially turn into a cakewalk.

 

For example, I was working with a group of friends recently, and one of us was having trouble with a paper describing the importance of her career. She had the academic, researched portion of the paper hammered out without any issue, but she just couldn’t seem to explain why her job was important from a personal perspective. The rest of us just asked her why she does what she does, and she rattled off her reasoning, saying that she cared for the kids that she worked with, and that if she didn’t do the job, someone else who might not give quite as adequate care to them might be in her position. “There you go, then,” I said. “Write that down.” She just looked at us for a second, and then got to typing, realizing that she had something to work with now that she might not have realized in working by herself. To her, she hadn’t thought about simply writing out what you vocalize, which to the rest of us was a concept that we were very familiar with. In that sense, being able to think about her process of writing from our perspective made an otherwise mind-numbing task far easier for her.

 

That’s only one example, of course. As everyone has their own experiences with writing, there’s a near-infinite amount of ways that you and your peers can open each other’s eyes to different perspectives and techniques for writing. So if you have a daunting project on the horizon, or perhaps just a journal response that you can’t quite tweak just right, why not grab a friend (or a Writing Center tutor)? Who knows, you just might come out of it with a better idea than before, and you’ll probably find the writing process more enjoyable than going solo, as well. The more, the merrier, right?

 

– Zack

It’s All About the Comma, Comma, Comma: A Not-So-Scary Approach to Comma Usage

I’ve found, in my writing career, that the number one source of mind numbing, grammatically frustrating, hair pulling terrors that await when structuring a sentence stem from a slight mark on the page. The comma.

In fact, as I’m writing this blog entry, a numerous amount of grammatical experts could sit around a large table and dissect my comma usage only to find that none would agree on the level of correctness in the judgement I had used in my comma placing. It’s hard to find a set rule to live by when the field of commas is based on preference.

So how exactly do you know when to insert the comma on the page, in the sentence? It seems to have become this guessing game of, when in doubt, slap it in there. Or, if there is a doubt, it doesn’t belong. I’ve heard both. And as a tutor, I find I spend a significant amount of time fixing the guessing game that developing writers, and even experienced writers, play in an attempt at knowing the comma and its correct usage.

In my own writing career, I’ve come to acknowledge a growth in my fondness for this particular grammatical feature. The power of this simple mark that cradles words amazes me just how much impact it can have on meaning, reading, and aesthetic appeal. The way it creates complexity and rhythm influenced my opinion in its favor.

However, I know that not everyone shares this passion for the usage of commas. And in an attempt at recruiting writers over to the comma side, I’ll try to inspire with a few simple steps that might allow you to find the comma process a bit easier and slightly more accessible.

Pause! In the Name of Commas.

There are mixed feelings about this method, and honestly, it goes back to preference. But when I teach the students that come in to the writing center about commas, I generally fall back on this simple explanation.

Read the sentence aloud. When you pause, there should be a comma.

Now, I know this doesn’t necessarily work every time, nor is it a strategy for every writer. If you constantly run out of breath in the middle of speaking, and you pause between wheezes, you might run into problems with this method.

Generally, in speech, we pause when there needs to be a comma. It happens naturally when we use introductory words before the main clause, or when we interject different thoughts in the midst of a complete sentence. It isn’t a perfect method, and it takes practice. But for a student just starting out in the art of comma usage, it helps.

-Comma-nds to Follow

As for specific rules in grammatically correct comma usage, I found that the Google Search Engine would generate more accurate and better explained results than my memory could. I ended up coming across Purdue Owl’s (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/01/) section on comma rules to follow.

1. When combining separate independent clauses with the coordinating conjunctions, and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet, you need to slap that comma right in there before the conjunctions.

2. When it comes to clauses, phrases, or words before the main clause, I find that this is the easiest rule to live by, or at least, the easiest rule to pick up on. After the introduction of the sentence, you need to place a comma.

3. Make sure to surround clauses, phrases, or words in the middle of a sentence that is not essential in creating clarity in the sentence with commas. Place one commas before to show the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

4. I would say the series rule is perhaps the most well known rule when it comes to comma usage. Be sure to use commas to detach three or more words, phrases, or clauses when in sequence.

5. When using two or more coordinate adjectives that pertain to the same noun, you need to separate said adjectives with our lovely commas. However, be careful not to stamp the comma after the final adjective, or to use commas that with adjectives that contrast each other.

6. Set a comma near the end of the sentence when you come across a clear pause or shift, or when you find an opposing coordinating element.

7. Place commas to signify phrases at the end of the sentence that reference the beginning or middle of the same sentence. These phrases are known as free modifiers, and they should be able to be inserted anywhere within the sentence without causing puzzlement.

8. Attach commas to all geographical names, items in dates (except for the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names. I’ve found that it is rare that you’ll need to apply this rule, but it makes sense to acknowledge its existence.

9. Whenever you use a quote in the midst of a sentence, you’ll need to place a comma in between the main discourse and the quotation.

10. And finally, use commas wherever you find necessary to skirt around possible confusion or misreading. The pause method really helps here.

If commas are something that you really struggle with, or even slightly struggle with, try reading the rules before you begin in your writing. That way, they’ll be fresh in your mind.

Knowing the exact rules can help you become more confident in where you place the commas. Learn them, write them down, save the link I placed up above. In fact, just save this blog entry to reference when writing your papers. Once you’ve found that technique that helps you form a healthy habit of knowing when to place the commas, really dig deep in research and understand why you place commas where you do.

However, what I’ve found that has best helped me in knowing where to place commas is simply to write. The more you write, the more practice you’ll have in applying your comma knowledge, and the more natural you’ll be at knowing where the commas go. I’m not saying you’ll never mess up again; everyone messes up. It can’t be helped. But your errors will continue to appear less and less until finally, you will consistently create a work that is comma error free.

Use “Comma” Sense.

Take the knowledge you know and dive on in. Use your common sense and trust that you know what you’re doing. Learn the rules, use the suggestions that I offered to you, and free fall into comma bliss. Confidence is key not only in knowing where to place commas, but in writing in general.

If you mess up, that’s okay. Learn where you went wrong and remember for the next time you come across a similar situation. Commas aren’t scary, they aren’t daunting. They are simply misunderstood. Soon, with lots of practice, you can become a comma conquerer.

It’s quite the achievement.

– Hannah

Obliterating the Obfuscation: Understanding Academic Jargon

A common grievance with writing assignments is that the hardest part is getting started. However, sometimes the challenge begins even earlier. Often we struggle to get going because we don’t fully understand the tasks we are asked to perform in our writing.

You may have observed by this time in your higher education journey that there is a fairly particular vocabulary that college instructors draw from in assigning projects. A clear understanding of common academic terms can be the difference in completing an assignment successfully and falling short of the instructor’s requests.

For a deeper comprehension of “what the heck” your teacher is asking of you, I’ve compiled the following list of terms accompanied by “in-my-own-words” descriptions, commonly used in instructor discourse and found on assignment sheets and syllabi.

Evaluate/Access-You should consider not only the work or topic as a whole, but also the smaller elements that make up that work. Draw some sort of conclusion or implication out of what you are evaluating and discuss that in relation and based on it.

Analyze-Your instructor will expect you to go beyond a summary. He or she will want to see not only that you engaged with whatever you were asked to analyze, but also that you are interpreting its elements. Supporting examples are key in making analytical claims. Ask questions throughout your reading, researching, and composing process and then answer them with the texts.

Compare-You will most likely have two or more sources to draw comparisons among. The point in comparing two or more items is to show their connections (“contrast” is usually automatically implied, so your instructor will want you to show the differences as well.) The purpose in this task is for you to be able to make some sort of conclusion based on the comparison.

Survey-Your instructor wants you to ask and answer questions about a topic, but not necessarily in a literal sense. This is the approach to writing that you want to keep in mind as you explore and then compose. Write about your topic in a way that you are anticipating the questions other readers would ask by providing textual support.

Summarize-You will probably see less of this request now that you’re in college, however, this is oftentimes a component in a larger writing assignments. The key is to compose effectively, yet concisely. A good trick is to break the text you’re summarizing in to main points/sections (if headings are involved, those can provide a good outline for your summary), and then aiming to get one to two good sentences that represent that point or section.

Reflect– Your instructor will want you to go beyond summary here, too. He or she most likely wants to know your reaction to a certain topic or text. Try to express your thoughts and feelings by incorporating examples from your source or topic.

Research-You are expected to go beyond the reach of your own personal thoughts and opinions. Your instructor wants you to spend some time in the library, skimming reference books and surfing the scholarly databases. While there are definitely quality sources on the Internet, consider digging a little deeper than just using whatever links pop up first after a general Google search.

Synthesize-You will draw from multiple parts, sources, or topics in order to make one argument. Think of it as quilt making; you’re weaving together different materials along with your own inquiries and thoughts in order to make one product.

 

I hope this list has helped you review the meaning of some of those words your instructors use to assign your writing assignments. If there are terms that are not listed here that you come across in your syllabi or assignment sheets, don’t be afraid to ask one of us Writing Center tutors to clarify the meaning. There is no judgment in wanting to understand so that you can be successful in your writing performance.

-Amber

From Start to Finish

Dear Students Who Are Required to Write—

So. I was searching around this blog, looking for something worthwhile and new to say to help each and every one of you who need to crank out a paper that will, hopefully, get you a good grade. Everything here’s been indispensable . . . so far (I could easily stop that train cold right here). And, you know, I had this whole, sentimental thing typed up about how a music professor changed my life and taught me how to trust myself (true), and, then, we both lived forever in each other’s hearts because of music (weird).

I had it all ready to go, and then I thought: what am I doing, man? Who am I? I might as well start a Taylor Swift cover band; because, while that little essay wouldn’t’ve been untrue to my beautiful soul, nobody in their right mind would want to hear that. So, I decided to put that one back on the shelf, and, related, I sold my guitar and threw my special notebook into the river.

That brings me back to searching. And, just when I thought I’d never find it, something great happened: I realized that I was trying to write this thing. And I was (poorly) brainstorming. What’re you supposed to do when you’ve got three days to write a Formalist analysis of a T. S. Eliot poem? I have a couple suggestions:

Take a walk?

Ride a bike?

Eat everything on the planet Earth?

Whatever floats your boat.

Really, just take a step back. Give yourself a quick break, and, then, think about it. You’ll probably find it helpful to go have a conversation about it with a friend or several (or folks here at the writing center). Panicking is good motivation, but you’ll really find success when you can begin to think down different avenues or see it from other perspectives. Then, you need to get words on the page (a lot of them), and that’s the biggest hurdle for any writer writing anything forever and ever amen. So, forget your hang-ups. Just start writing something. Free-write if you need to. It really doesn’t matter. See where your brain takes you. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard: “writing is re-writing.”

So, when you’re all done, you’re totally not done. Be prepared to, if necessary, pull up a new, blank document (even if you didn’t just completely ramble out this paper) and write it all over again. I, oftentimes, start several new documents at various stages of the writing process so I can rewrite and restructure what’s there (which is usually a very scattered, very rough draft). For every ten pages I get down, I’ve usually written about 20 more that’re gone forever or assimilated in. There’re either plenty of things that can be condensed (because I’ve already said it once before in an essay or creative work, and it doesn’t need repeating) or conflated. Or moved around. Or a lot of things. Be aware, too, that reading your paper out loud, like a few of our other posts say, is almost always invaluable (in fact, a fellow tutor is reading this aloud right now, against my will, and it helps—no matter how much I want to choke him). I’ll catch more grammatical mistakes or confusing sentences that way than any other. The more I’ve reread this, the more I’ve almost restructured it entirely based on my continuing assessment of it.

And, remember, Microsoft Word is not always your friend. It will think a perfectly grammatical sentence is un-grammatical or vice versa. I can’t tell you how often it’s told me to use “its” instead of “it’s.” It underlined “it’s [it is] bar-none” in this blog, and I am super not wrong in that usage. It also wanted to make “whatever floats your boat” a question. Why, God? Am I asking somebody that the very intangible concept of “whatever” is what’s floating their boat? Did I reply to someone, clarifying, because I thought they might’ve said “goat?” Is this a strictly nautical question?

When it comes to spelling, Word’s bar-none; you can’t find a human alive who can beat it. But, sometimes, it’ll spell for you, perfectly, the way-wrong-est-word-to-use-ever in a particular sentence. That’s something that, sometimes, only you can fix. Misuse of a word happens to everyone, and, sometimes, we’re genuinely but incorrectly sure of a meaning, and we’ll need someone else to point it out. But, if you’ve ever not been sure of what a word means, you may’ve found yourself wondering: “How can I find out? Is there a place where I can go to see them all—like a word-zoo?” I probably (hopefully) don’t need to answer that. The point is, when in doubt, you can probably take the time to find out (and I’m sure many of you do). My point: don’t trust Word; ultimately, its main problem, for everything good that it is, is that it’s not a person with a human-brain like you and me. Your voice and your mind-in-critical-mode will usually help you structure and polish your work if you just keep at it until you’re satisfied.

Speaking—you’re in college, and I want you to make work that, in some way, makes you proud. Find something that satisfies you in everything you do. Is there a way you can take this topic and make it fun for you? Whenever possible, have passion in your life and your writing. You don’t always have to like the assignment to enjoy doing it. I (sometimes) like to challenge myself in some way, even if I don’t need to. I wanted to do my analysis of an Eliot prose-poem, as subtly and cleverly as I could, in the style of—wait for it—a prose-poem. Did it work out that way? Nope. Not at all. But it got words on the page, and I didn’t mind doing it so much.

So, to reiterate: clear your mind; talk to a friend (or yourself); forget your hang-ups and start throwing words onto the paper; revise, revise, revise; use your brain; have passion; and, finally, come and see us—we love to help you.

—Jackson

Communication in the Writing Center

So, you are working with a student, and the two of you are struggling to communicate. What can you, as a tutor, possibly do? I have found in my few weeks in the writing center that asking questions can help build understanding between a tutor and a student. Now, I am not saying you should interrogate the student, but there are quite a few options for you:

 

Don’t:

  • Aggressively ask why the student made this decision.
    • Why would you choose to do this instead of that?
  • Attack the student for not agreeing with your comments.
    • Why aren’t you changing that? Or how can you think your way is better than mine?

Do:

  • Inquire about the student’s decision.
    • What is this doing for the rest of your paper? What is it doing to help prove your argument?
  • Talk about why the student is doing a certain thing one way over another.
    • How does this help your argument? Or what compels you to do it this way? How does this method add to your paper?

 

As you can probably see, the don’ts list is malicious and judgmental, which is unnecessary in the writing center, while the dos list is more questioning and open, therefore more appropriate for writing centers. You don’t need to tell a student they are wrong or insult them; you need to work with the student to help them improve their papers as best they can. I think realizing the paper is the student’s might be the best way to approach the issue of trying to help a student make their paper understandable and clear because, while you are there to help, it isn’t your paper to tear apart any way you want to.

 

Another instance where asking questions can help is when I, as a tutor, get confused during a conversation with a student, I ask for clarification. What do I mean about getting confused? For example, if I am working with a student and bring up an issue of understanding what they are saying or where they are going with a statement or idea, and then the student tells me that the word, phrase, or sentence is correct or already good and I just don’t understand it. From here I ask: What does this word or this phrase mean? What is this section of text/ example/ idea adding to your text? I didn’t quite understand that, could you explain it again? Or in the instance that we are working on a thesis, what are you arguing? or what are you trying to say? can be very useful questions, as sometimes it is hard to understand what exactly a thesis should be when learning all the things you shouldn’t do when composing one.

 

Sometimes, I just don’t know what the student wants to focus on during the session. Maybe we have already covered the first issue they wanted discussed, or I feel like I am dominating the discussion with my concerns and not their concerns. In this instance, I try to pull back and ask: What would you like to work on? What do you want me to look at? Is there any specific section you had any questions or concerns about?

 

Also, it is much easier to change or alter an unclear explanation on the tutor’s part when you know what was not understood, but what can you do to try to make a student that you may only see once for this one short session comfortable, so they are not afraid to ask you questions? Look at the student when they are talking and as much as possible when you are talking to them, as this will make it apparent that you are paying attention and working with the student instead of at them. Angle your body toward your student. This will make you appear more open and once again attentive to the student and their ideas. Do what you can to make the student feel that the two of you are on equal footing. I am not suggesting that you make anything up, but, if the two of you are working on something that you did once struggle with, feel free to mention that. It not only shows where your knowledge of the topic was born from, but also helps build a common trait that can lead to communication.

 

However this does not always work or there is simply just not enough time to build a comfortable environment for easy communication. Because of these instances, I try to pay attention to the body language my student is exhibiting as, while I hope they are comfortable enough with me that they wouldn’t be intimidated to ask me questions, I want to be aware when something is not clicking or making sense to them. What should you look for to realize this is what is happening? This is a bit more complicated as there is no universal answer for how someone will react, but you can pay attention to your student and see if they aren’t reacting positively or if they are acting confused or unsure. These can help you realize if they don’t understand what you have said.

 

What do you do if what you have explained clearly makes no sense to your student? Sometimes, you can ask and see if your student understands any part of your explanation which would allow you to only have to explain a portion of what you have said instead of everything, but you can also pull back and try to explain your thoughts differently. I know that this is hard because it always seems after you have said something that there is no other possible way for you to explain it, but take a breath, attempt to erase the idea that there is no other possible way to say your explanation, and try again. There is another way. It is just a matter of figuring it out.

 

Now, of course, body language is not always possible, such as is the case with online tutoring. Here asking questions is even more important because your words will be compensating for the lack of body language and face to face communication, by which I mean the inflection of your voice and tone. With online tutoring, you should probably be asking more questions. Maybe try to stop once in a while and ask if what you are saying is making sense. More often than you would in person where you can gauge their reactions. This approach is unfortunately less useful when doing an online tutoring session where you look at the paper, but do not have direct contact with student. You can however use question to probe the student on where they could add content, explanations, or even clarity to hopefully assist the student that you are only speaking to indirectly. Ask: What are you saying here? Could you elaborate more? Do you have any evidence that could help back this up? These can help students see where they can work on their papers, even without having directly spoken to or physically having seen a tutor.

  • Andrea