An Alumna Takes Her Writing Consultant Experience to South America!

Medellin Columbia

Image and story by Meghann Lewis

My work as a Writing Consultant gave me the confidence to enter the world of teaching beyond the University of Richmond. In fact, “Writing Consultant” was the position that I listed first while applying for teaching jobs over this summer.

After a fairly lengthy application process (finding jobs in South America while still living in the States is no easy task!), I landed a job at a small English-teaching company in Medellín, Colombia, where I will work part-time as I complete a 10-month research internship in the field of public health. I’m three weeks into my new job, and I have already applied so many tactics that I used every week in Boatwright 180.

Many of my students here are just beginning to learn English, so both their speaking and writing contain quite a few errors. Although it is tempting to overcorrect these students, I make myself think back to Dr. Essid’s mantra “the Writing Center is not a fix-it shop!” I know that “fixing” each and every small spoken mistake of an A1 or A2 English language-learner doesn’t do much good.

Rather, I single out repeated errors as a means of creating teaching points that will really stick with the student—that way, they can build upon their new language skills with each lesson. Additionally, working in the Writing Center with international and study abroad students (many of whom spoke Spanish as their first language) helped me build communication skills that I use with my Colombian students.

Even though we don’t speak the same first language, we are able to have productive lessons, relate to one another, and have a good time. I am grateful for the skills that I gained from working at the University of Richmond Writing Center; I truly will carry them forward and continue to develop them wherever my teaching jobs take me!

Word of the Week! Praxis

PraxisApologies for a late post. I’ve been working on a different deadline, and the Friday afternoon cutoff for a Monday Spiderbyte notice slipped by, well, like a ship in the late afternoon.

We have an excellent word to make up for that tardiness, one I employ in every class where I train our Writing Consultants. Sharon Condrey, UR’s Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll, nominated a word that enjoys a good deal of academic usage; it could also prove very helpful in business settings.

I learned “praxis” as a newly minted teacher of first-year composition at Indiana University.  According to the OED, praxis is of mixed Greek and Latin parentage. It came to me through the writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and political radical (radical ideas among grad students were nothing new in the mid-80s, nor are they today). Freire very much intended to employ the Marxist notion of the term, that is, the application of economic theory to everyday practices. In a less charged political sense, that was how we applied ideas then new to the writing classroom, through pedagogy such as guided peer-review, collaborative learning, and subtle yet powerful methods for “pre-writing” when drafting essays.  This is where I got my notion of making writers prepare a “bias statement” early in the writing process, then keep it with them as they attempt that neutral and nuanced voice of the Academy.

Peruse the OED entry and you’ll find political and linguistic meanings for praxis, yet all of them are “performative” in some manner.

I tell my writers and Consultants what David Bartholomae’s theory of “Error Analysis,” where nearly every error signals a mistaken intention, not some mortal sin, is the “soul” of Writing-Center praxis. Our praxis makes some faculty and writers mad that we do not proofread papers. I have patiently explained that that level of “doing for” a writer is not only unethical but also unproductive:  writers need to know where and why their intentions went awry and then, only then, we teach them. This is hard work, but this praxis of writing centers presumes that writers can learn by doing, that repeated errors provide clues to their intentions, and that most error is systematic in some manner.

That series of axioms, derived from Bartholomae’s and other scholars’ theories, led to our modern praxis. Think, now, about a modern office that involves any degree of creative work. Don’t the “open office” layout, guided teamwork, and a flatter hierarchy all come from a theory about how we work best together? Otherwise, we’d still be in the top-down, if colorfully drunken, world of Mad Men. Don Draper and Roger Sterling were fascinating characters, but I’d not want to work for them. Would you?

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

A Competitive Edge: Writing Consultants in the Job Search

This column was submitted by Steven Inglis, Writing Center Alumnus, Class of 2011.

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at Nationwide’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC. As part of a team that functions as a liaison between the company, its clients, and the Federal Government, I quickly found that the skills I used and taught as a Writing Consultant were invaluable to my job. The more I thought about it, the experience gained writing, editing, mentoring, organizing endless drafts of papers, and working with clients (both teachers and students) provided skills that are applicable and transferable to any job.

Current Writing Consultants: many of you already have (or will soon be searching for) internships and job opportunities for this coming summer. Although this may seem like a long time from now, I encourage each of you to realize the value of the experience you are gaining and how it can be cited on your resume, in interviews, and finally used in the workplace. From my own experience, I can say without reservation that working as a Writing Consultant helped me most with the following:

First and most obviously, writing and editing. From simple e-mails to high-level industry documents and letters to Congressmen, my supervisors were impressed that I could not only draft an error-free document the first time around, but also demonstrate an uncanny attention to detail when peer reviewing. I could provide substantive recommendations on organization and presentation of an argument or message. This is something we work with daily as Writing Consultants, and a skill that is vital to a majority of jobs. Consider this: a 2004 College Board survey found that 86% of responding companies would frown upon poorly written job applications, and 80% of jobs in the most rapidly expanding service sectors required writing skills. This certainly lends credence to their claim that writing is increasingly a “gatekeeper” or “threshold skill” in the job market. For more, see Writing: A Ticket or a Ticket Out (CollegeBoard 2004).

Second, organization. Writing consulting will teach you how to stay organized during even the most hectic situations, which I came across frequently during my internship. I am sure many of you have experienced how stressful it can be to have sixteen drafts to read and track, sixteen appointments to set up, and professors to keep regularly updated, all on or near the week(s) you have your own midterms and essays to tackle. Stressful as it may be, this offers considerable perspective and helps build habits that can be carried forth throughout your career.

Third, communication. Writing consulting is a client-based process. It helps you learn how to communicate with professors on a professional level, as well as with other students at a peer and mentor level. Likewise, mature and respectful interaction with clients as well as coworkers is inherent to any and every workplace.

Although this list goes on, I feel the message is very clear. Rare is the occasion that you will encounter a job posting that leaves out key qualifications like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘effective written and verbal communicator,’ ‘strong writing skills,’ and ‘highly organized.’ Indeed, as a Writing Consultant, you will continue to develop all of the above, which you can draw upon in interviews (to help you land the job) and in the workplace (to allow you to excel at the job).

As for me, I was happy to be offered a highly regarded full-time position with that same Nationwide office in August. Speaking from experience, I am confident that your work as a Writing Consultant will give you a significant edge in the job hunt and allow you to stand out as the “real world” approaches.

Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.