Writing Consulting with Non-Traditional Students: Some Advice

nontrad.jpg

I want to thank Writing Consultant Megan Reilly for providing the advice that follows. Megan has assisted Dr. Leatherman’s HRM 398 course this fall in The School of Continuing Studies.

This type of work is more common now at Richmond, yet often our 18-22 year old undergraduates find the experience to be daunting. I know the feeling; when I was new to teaching, I found it difficult to assist writers who might have been my parents’ age. It was hard to “correct them.”

The theorists whose work we read in the Eng. 383 course leave it as an open question whether it’s fair, or ethical, to make assumptions about writers based upon their ages. The professional literature often portrays “non trad” students as more engaged in learning, better prepared for meetings, more likely to start work early. At the same time, the flip side of this stereotype notes they may have full-time jobs, families, and other civic and personal responsibilities that our (in comparison) carefree undergraduates do not.

 Let’s see what Megan has to say about these writers and how we can provide effective assistance to them.

I think that one of the biggest worries that Writing Center Consultants have about working with nontraditional students is the fact that there typically is a considerable age difference between consultants and SCS students.  I’m sure both parties do not want any type of “awkwardness” because of this age difference.  SCS students are at a very different place in their lives than undergraduate students, and that is something to take note of; however, you do not want this to be a barrier between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ session.

One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed between UR undergrads and SCS students is that because SCS students can have regular, full-time jobs and families, this makes it harder to meet in person.  I still encourage all of the students in Dr. D’s HRM class to meet with me at the Boatwright Library.  When they do, I try to be as prepared as possible and go over the exact same issues that I would bring up with undergrads: content, sentence structure, organization, transitions, APA (or MLA) format.  If Dr. D’s students cannot meet with me in person I have them e-mail me their papers.  I provide comments via the “Review” feature in Microsoft Word and also e-mail them my thoughts and tell them to e-mail me if they have any questions! It is not uncommon that I look over a couple different drafts and rewrites of the same paper for one student.

I have also consulted with SCS students that have had trouble writing in English–English was not their first language.  In many ways this can be a daunting task because you do not want to correct everything wrong in that student’s paper.  I suggest choosing a couple sentences that display sentence structural errors (because this could most definitely be the case) and write how such a sentence should be written.  Have the SCS student try to correct these errors themselves when going through their paper.

I, personally, do not find working with SCS students that much different than UR undergrads.  I think both dynamics require patience and maturity on the part of the Consultant.  I believe that it is very important to be prepared, have constructive criticism, and that sense of maturity.  You need to show SCS students that you are capable of helping them improve in their writing, even if you are an undergraduate.  When I went to introduce myself to Dr. D’s class one student asked my how long had I been working in the Writing Center.  The question threw me off-guard at first, but I came to realize that this was a valid question.  As the Writing Consultant for this HRM class it was my job to show that I had experience both in the Writing Center and within my own classes.

Academic Demands & Student Stress

Bridge below Cornell

I’ve been thinking of Cornell University lately, the site of a first-year seminar program that heavily influenced my thinking about first-year education at Richmond.

Instead of having fond memories of my three visits to Ithaca, lately I’ve also been thinking about the three apparent suicides on the Cornell campus.

Bodies were discovered in the bottom of the gorges–huge canyons, really–that cross Cornell’s grounds. The image above shows the lowest of many foot bridges; on the bluffs above the bridges cross  gorges that are perilously deep.

There have already been six deaths on campus ruled as suicides, not including these three who presumably jumped into the gorges.

Later in life, it’s difficult to comprehend the stress that makes a young person do such a tragic and, finally, selfish thing.  Encountering suicide in person, however, is life-altering. In my second year as a UVA undergrad, I recall coming back to Monroe Hill’s dorms to find police on the scene. An electrical-engineering student had electrocuted himself by wiring his body to his room’s air-conditioner. For the first time in our self-centered lives, most of us came face to face with the reality of death.

Richmond does not have an engineering program, where students often take 6, even 7, classes per term. I roomed with an engineer in my third year, and the workload he faced was simply excessive.  The goal early in the program was to weed out many students, and luckily–I think now–I got weeded. But even at Richmond, faculty and students may not realize the demands we place upon each other. I grow concerned that we are only a year or two away from a tragedy on our campus as well.

Faculty at Richmond could do more by assigning less busy work, shorter readings, and shorter papers. At the same time, that reduction in workload needs to come with a clear message to students: “I will be asking more of you.” I’ve tried this in a limited way, and while I recapture some free time, and my students appear to be doing better projects at the end of the terms, they place enough emphasis on the grades they get to worry me.

Students need to understand–and this probably could be emphasized more effectively in orientation for first-years–that not everyone gets an A at Richmond, that a B or C will mean little, in isolation, to future employers, and that faculty are not understanding when a student places friends or social activities ahead of coursework.

This proposed attitude falls into a generation gap. Millennial-generation students have been studied extensively, and one apparent characteristic is their desire to do meaningful work on a schedule that pleases them. They crave constant assessment and demand both service from authorities and continual guidance. At Richmond, too often, they exhibit a strong sense of entitlement and treat the university like a product they have purchased. All of that grates on many faculty, especially those like me who believe that failure is a teacher and self-reliance the best guide in life. Yet “I’m confused; what do I need to do?” could be the mantra of Millennials, just as “Suck it up and do it yourself” was–well, is–the mantra of my fellow Gen-Xers. Circumstances from the early 70s onward taught many in my age cohort that life is, indeed, hard. We missed the late 1960s and its culture of bliss.

I’m not that callous, usually, but often I find myself telling a student who wants more from me “you cannot have that” or “that’s not A work.” Many, especially in the first year, have never been told this before.

Often, I worry about the consequences.  Yet the world is not made for us, whatever well intentioned but coddling parents claim when they, in effect, tell a child “you are wonderful, and always will be. You can be anything you wish.”  Xers had a different lesson; we older ones had distant and “tough love” parents. “You have no sense at all” and “life will teach you” were common messages among my friends’ and my parents. Younger Xers often had parents who had divorced; as children many led “latchkey” lives. That was rare among my friends, and all of us, after a time of rebellion, came back to love and honor our parents when they, in old age, most needed our help.

Yet Millennials now share something with Xers: graduating into a world with economic turmoil and no guarantee of lifetime employment, something only the oldest Boomers can recall.

If college should be a place to prepare students to think for themselves, to cope with adversity, and to broaden their intellectual horizons, are we Xer and Boomer faculty doing the best job? Or, perhaps, making the lessons too hard for young people who are not able to cope?

We all need to talk more about it, and change our expectations.

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”

Greetings From “The Old Man Store”

Old Time Office Supplies

Today I placed an order with Staples for some supplies badly needed at the Center:

  •  “Reinforcement, hole”
  • “Pressboard Report Cover, side tab”

My reader may well wonder, “why badly needed?”  No one died because pages fell out of a three-ring binder.

We forget at times how much the work of writing still depends on paper. As much as I’ve tried, mightily in fact, to be rid of paper in my office, I find that about once per year, I will need an ancient text I photocopied in grad school in the late 1980s, an article I saved and hole-punched from a moldy issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid 90s, or  a news item printed from the New York Times‘ Web site in 2005.

These sorts of materials are not alien to my students, but I suspect that keeping and organizing them are as alien as, say, using a slide rule would be to their peers in the sciences.  And yet a Writing Center could  not exist without its crumbling archives of printed matter.

One day in the not-too-distant future, such paper-based storage supplies will be as hard to locate as typewriter ribbons (Google that, you young rascals! We can still order them!). When that dolorous day arrives, I’ll do one of two things.

Option One: horde the remaining stocks of Dymo labels from the 1970s, hole-punch machines, and White-Out for personal use.

Option Two: Open “The Old Man Store,” with lines of clothing (suspenders, by gum!) and food (Where in the Sam Hill can I get me any Ovaltine?).

For a long while, The Vermont Country Store served this purpose, even including jabs at “the young word-processing crowd” in their praise for a manual typewriter (no longer available, it seems).

As if my students get sweaty palms thinking about opening MS Word.

I just wonder if, in a few  years, their younger siblings will be saying things like “OMG you still have an external computer!” as they chat on their brain-implants.

What that will mean for writing remains unseen, but I worry about the longevity of the technologies for paper storage. These everyday items have so long been a part of a writer’s fortifications against forgetfulness and stupidity.

1970s Dymo Label Maker

Wishes for 2010 in Writing

I’m hoping for the following on our campus this  year:

  •  Steady growth in what Stanford calls “a culture of writing.” I love this phrase from their Hume Writing Center. This would involve, at Richmond, faculty engagement in the forthcoming seminars to prepare us to teach in the First-Year Seminar program, more writing in disciplines where it is not traditionally assigned, and, perhaps, a different way of thinking beyond “writing to get it done” by students.
  • More work with technology in writing assignments. Eng. 103 faculty have done an admirable job, during their swansong years as the program winds down. But how many of my other colleagues have writers work online with blogs, wikis, or multimedia compositions?  These are the sorts of writing our students will do beyond the college gates, and I’m not seeing enough of this sort of work assigned.
  •  Fewer “busy work” assignments. Many of our students take writing less seriously than they might because we pack in so much reading, short assignments that never get assessed, and so forth. Part of this, I feel, stems from faculty belief that students won’t do any work unless we push them. My policy of late has been to assign less but assess more carefully. Grades still motivate students; a short “write to learn” in each class that may be occasionally graded will keep students reading more than regular and lengthy assignments. Then writers will have more time for formal writing.

Those are three wishes from the Writing Center Director! We’ll see what 2010 brings.

Why Some Academics Hate Twitter: Part III (The Sermon)


Location: Reading Student Journals (on paper!)

My dear fellow Humanists:

We are doomed in Birkerts’ “Electronic Millennium” unless we adapt to its forms of communication, yet carry with us the Humanities’ irascible and unhip hermeneutics for providing social commentary and critique. Notably, we somehow have to manage this for skim-the-surface students who live in an eternal now of consumerist bliss (or unfulfilled desire).

I nail these 9.5 theses to the digital doors at Wittenberg. Since this is a blog, I won’t make it 95, but that rascal Luther had the luxury of a bookish century to support his spleen.

  1. Get over your fetish for “The Book.” Reading and its habits, not bound volumes, transform our minds. As new forms of communication enhance the reading experience, we should move beyond our walls of books to consider how embedded film, audio, image, and experiential elements enhance new texts. Then we must develop critical methods to teach them. Civilization will not fall if we stop reading Henry James, sad as that would be. It did not end when most educated folk stopped reading Aquinas. If, however, we stop reading thoughtfully, we’re in real trouble.
  2. Embrace Web. 2.0 in a thoughtful manner. These tools can further the critical method of the technologically adept humanist. I’ve learned that Twitter provides a painless way to post a link, report progress on a project, and share ideas quickly with those who share my interests. Blogs provide my students with the opportunity to practice in public what they do only for me in their paper journals, as they move from private to public (and ever more formal) discourse at their course wiki-sites.
  3. Refuse the “eternal now” culture and its interruptive technologies. I don’t carry a cell phone. I check mail three times daily so I can focus on the tasks for which I’m paid and evaluated: supporting students, doing research, and teaching well. To what extent do you practice such habits and provide an example to students? They learn, for instance, that I routinely delete e-mails without a subject line 🙂
  4. Seduce others into seeing The Matrix for what it is. We have many tech users but few who consider their practices critically. Ask students in appropriate assignments to log their uses of a particular networked technology. It reveals much about them. I’ve had fewer writers fret about “those addicted to gaming” when they take a long, hard look at how much time they dedicate to Facebook.
  5. Practice teche and episteme. Kudos to Tom Boellstorff in Coming of Age in Second Life for reminding me what these words mean, as he notes that academics live in their heads too often and don’t create enough. For me, Techne means making in Second Life and outside it, by writing for a general readership in our local alternative weekly and other non-academic venues.
  6. Employ “Ordnung” without driving a buggy. Futurist Howard Rheingold found, when doing research for “Look Who’s Talking,” that the Amish have a sophisticated system for deciding which new inventions get sanctioned or prohibited by their bishops. Generally the community use a new tool for a time, and at each step the members ask whether the tool builds community or pulls it apart.
  7. Dare to reinvent past treasures. Rezzable’s Virtual Tut, my own House of Usher Simulation, and Jane Austen’s (and Seth Grahame-Smith’s) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies point the way to a New Humanities that will move beyond rigor for its own sake to bring playfulness and the ancient sense of “ludus”–school and play–into our classrooms.
  8. Question to paddlers of tomorrow. Textbook publishers, software companies, and some of our colleagues who are early adopters become overly eager and evangelize us about each wondrous new application that awaits. Like some evangelists, some of these paddlers want our money. Others mean well. I listen and apply theses 1-7 in these cases.
  9. Watch South Park or write for the Alphaville Herald. We need to take ourselves less seriously and find social commentary in the lowest of places. Humor is the best medicine to prevent sanctimoniousness.

Thesis 9.5? Add your own in the comments section! “Hush up Iggy” does not count.

Why Some Academics Hate Twitter, Part II

Location: Ensconced Before My Walls of Books

image above is not my office!

In “Into the Electronic Millennium,” a chapter in the very readable and depressing The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments that our culture of connectedness and instant access destroys something that he–like many Humanities faculty I know on campus–cherish: the contemplative life as reflected in the slow, thoughtful, and reflective reading of challenging books:

Curricula will be streamlined and simplified, and difficult texts will be pruned and glossed. Fewer and fewer people will be able to contend with the masterworks of literature or ideas. Joyce, Woolf, James, and the rest will go unread, and the civilizing energies of their prose will circulate aimlessly between closed covers.

Enter Twitter, with its 140 character tweets, and you have exhibit A for the decline of civilized life as we know it (or maybe we have exhibit R–the lamentations have been going on for a while).

I set out here not to skewer Birkerts or my cyberphobic colleagues. Instead, while reaching to an audience that accepts Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, I want to point out the nature of the cultural decay Birkerts catalogs:

  • Language Erosion: Nuance gets lost as we shorten our prose, substitute little words for big ones, and lose touch with the origins of words and our cultural history.
  • The Flattening of Historical Perspectives: Neil Postman’s belief that we live in a “and now, this!” culture of consumption and gratification.
  • The Waning of the Private Self: Expectations of 24/7 access, quick replies, and easy answers at our fingertips lead us suspect the introspective person, the loner, the dawdler.

And, Professor Birkerts, I agree with you, even as I post a tweet and log on to Second Life.

I too fear a future like that of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, a dark satire of a consumerist culture out of control where vagaries such as “thing” and “stuff” are about the most complex terms in the language, where the Internet is in our heads and not outside them, and where no one remembers much of anything from before the globe became a deadzone of toxic waste-sites.

My students read less and less for pleasure. Most take the easiest path in their studies and even crossing campus. They even fight the difficulties of learning the non-intuitive interface of SL. In fact, many of them seem to want a eternal early-June day of temperatures in the mid-80s, low humidity, and someone else to cut the grass they sit on with their friends. In time they may, in another reference in your book, become “efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.” That is Anderson’s vision of a time just before the Great Collapse of American life.

Twitter alone won’t make that future arrive, especially if we academics appropriate (ah, Marx, thanks for that verb) it for noble ends.

So how do we “Fight the Feed” while using it to keep our cherished ways of learning alive?

Good news, Humanists: you still have a mission.

Next Up: Part III–My Sermon To Humanists

Why Some Academics Hate Twittter, Part 1

Location: Puritan Cleaners

Please explain to me why my dry-cleaners has has Twitter Feed and a Facebook page. Now, I can see how a program like “Coats for Kids” could benefit from the added cheer-leading that a few well-chosen tweets provide.

On the other hand, as a reluctant and recent Twitterer, I feared that Puritan is drifting from the stolidity of their New-England namesakes and was falling prey to the Gartner Group’s hype cycle for new technologies. Second Life users know this well. We SLers are climbing out of stage 3, the “Trough of Disillusionment” and staggering up stage 4, “The Slope of Enlightenment.”

Three years ago, Puritan would have a created a storefront in SL. They are clearly riding high on stage 1, “The Peak of Inflated Expectations.”

Yes, and SL was to make all of us zillionaires selling…um, something…in 2006, just as protologyinthehome.com would in 1999.

Such hyperbole is antithetical to the academic mind, with its rather staid manner of vetting every source, considering every point, and taking one’s time to say a whole lot, lest one be labeled a dilettante.

We profs don’t look kindly on dabblers. And Twitter is a technology of dabbling, of telling one’s circle what one had for lunch or other minutiae. Consider my last two tweets:

  • “Checking Twitter feed for my dry-cleaners. Cat has a hairball.”
  • “Began reading Coming of Age in Second Life. Outstanding! Had broasted weasels for lunch. Tasty but needed more sauce.”

Okay, I cannot stand it when someone tells me on Twitter what they had for lunch. So my lunch tweets will get more surreal, as my 140 characters permit.

Now if they found a great tapas place in Madrid, I’d be all ears (or stomach).

Next up: About those 140 characters, Sven Birkerts, and Tweeting barbarians eroding our language and, hence, our Gutenberg World.

I’ll tweet
when it’s done.

Saving Isis: Critical Thinking with Rezzable’s Open Sim Tut

The South Wall
Location: Rezzable’s Valley of the Kings in Open Sim

On my first tour of Rezzable’s Heritage Key site dedicated to King Tut, and when the entire project was quite new, I was taken by the South Wall of the young king’s tomb.

It was an immersive moment; I felt that I was as close to the actual site in Egypt as I’d ever get.

Anubis and Hathor greet Tut as he enters the other world, but Howard Carter had to destroy a figure of the goddess Isis (to the left of Anubis, in the image above) as he and this team made their way into the tomb. This struck me as a tragedy that might have been avoided.

With modern technology, we might have been able to plunder (there’s no kind word for it) the tomb without destroying Isis’ image. So I’ve decided to let my writing students have a crack at this. They’ll work in teams to solve the problem, if they can. And to make their writing “count for something” beyond a grade, I’ll have readers I invite vote for the strongest solution to this archeological dilemma.

Read the assignment here. Projects are due Oct. 29 and I’ll provide updates and may open up judging the projects to readers here. Meanwhile, my Heritage Key avatar will be bumbling around virtual Egypt, trying to look like the poor man’s Indiana Jones…

Room of Swag

The Silence of the Floppy Disks

Location: Rummaging Through Desk Drawer

The annual office-cleaning before the semester turns up some interesting artifacts. This year, it was a 3.5″ floppy disk of an external reviewer’s 1998 report on our writing program.

I mused on this homely item and the fate of our media-storage technologies.

The report is on one of four or five disks I have left, after a massive dumpster-dump of the rest (I broke cartridges, one by one, to make data-retreival harder). They now reside in a strata above the cassette tapes, and those lie above the Eight-Tracks in our landfill, one day to be an archeological dig when Richmond lies in quaint ruins.

The report in question had become important again. We are in the midst of curricular change again, so instead of slapping more prims (and removing some redundant ones) in our Second Life simulation of Poe’s House of Usher, I decided to make sure I had a backup copy of the report.

I have it on paper, but puh-leeze.

For a technology only a few years out of date, the floppy sounded positively Victorian once I hooked up the small USB drive I keep around just for such antiquities (I’ve a USB Zip Drive here too–for 100MB or 250MB cartridges).

I soon found that I did not have an electronic copy of the report on my laptop or backup hard disk. The floppy, creaks, clunks, and groans, saved the day.

Now to make MORE backups. I wonder, as I go back to adding features to the House of Usher, how transferable the skills from SL will prove, when I move on to other virtual worlds. Let’s hope those skills have more longevity than, say, an Eight Track of Barry Manilow.