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Chapter 1

The Writing Center

Chapter 1


The diversity of City College students gives us a multifaceted role as writing tutors. We teach writing, and we are also ambassadors of US academic culture. Our students come from 140 countries with myriad cultural backgrounds that influence their self-concept as writers as well as their language ability and cognitive style. In addition, our students vary in skill level, stage of the writing process, type of assignment, and academic department. To respond to such diverse student needs, we approach all of our sessions with a student-centered pedagogy, and we put the student in the driver’s seat, helping them navigate their own ideas. 


Promote Student Agency

We help students discover their own intellectual agency and practice critical thinking and critical reading, understanding that many students were never taught that they have the power to create and communicate ideas, let alone plan and compose a paper. We can teach critical thinking by modeling it in the way we ask questions, actively reading our students’ work, and inviting students to critically analyze their own work. We respond to students’ work as trained readers and help them develop a self-concept as writers and thinkers who have important ideas to share.

Everyone Is an English Language Learner (Including Us)

We teach standard English writing to English Language Learners (ELLs) who come from both the US and abroad, including international students, immigrants, and native-born members of multilingual households. We support non-native speakers as they learn the elements of standard English. We also work with native speakers who use regional or local varieties of English that are substantially different from academic writing. Moreover, although many native speakers grasp the pillars of standard English, they continually clarify rules of grammar and punctuation, expand their vocabulary, and acquire new ways of expressing ideas. While teaching these students, tutors also deepen their understanding of English in all its forms.  

Be an Ambassador of US Academic Culture

We are ambassadors of a culturally specific style of thinking and writing that is prominent in US universities. Its characteristic elements include the following: 
putting the thesis in the introduction
structuring supporting arguments linearly with one main idea per paragraph 
writing concisely and directly with the clearest possible vocabulary 
stating arguments assertively and without qualifiers
Learning these conventions can be challenging because they are foreign to just about everybody in the world, including many people born and raised in this country. Students learn to think and communicate both in and beyond the classroom, and their innate or culturally imbued cognitive processes may be circular, parallel, or digressive (see Figure 2). We need to create innovative ways to explain US academic culture to students who find it foreign or unnatural.
Figure 2. Cognitive Systems

Encourage Code-Switching and Negotiating Cognitive Systems

It is crucial that we avoid presenting standard English or standard US academic writing as the correct form of communication for all audiences. We want students to add communicational tools to their tool belt, not discard their old tools and adopt ours. That is, we can encourage students to code-switch, meaning that they adapt their vocabulary, tone, and communication style to the audience and context. When writing for most classes at CCNY, they should use the linear style we teach them; when in their community or in other contexts, they can switch to the appropriate parallel, digressive, circular, or other cognitive system.

Meet Students Where They Need Us to Be

We teach students of different skill levels and meet them wherever they need us to be, including the basics if needed. We may see a few students with a strong command of standard English writing who want us to help them explore rhetorical strategies or articulate a complex argument more concisely, but more likely students will need help using the correct verb tense, outlining a five-paragraph essay, using in-text citations, or creating a thesis statement. This does not mean our students lack creativity; many brim with innovative ideas but lack the tools to effectively communicate them. Our task is to help them gain the skills to get their message across. 

Teach the Whole Writing Process

Students visit us at vastly different stages of the writing process, from having nothing on paper to having a graded paper marked up with the professor’s comments. Therefore, we must be prepared to teach the entire writing process. Part of this is to help students become aware that writing is a process and encourage them to develop their own approach. In this sense, we orient them to the recursive writing process (see Figure 3). We help them identify their preferred writing environment and method of choosing topics, brainstorming, outlining ideas, and producing and revising drafts.  
Figure 3. Recursive Writing Process 
 Adapted from: Nunan, D. (1999). Second Language Teaching and Learning. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle, p. 274.

Adapt to Different Types of Writing Assignments and Academic Subcultures

Students’ papers take many forms and vary by academic discipline, and we as ambassadors of academic culture must be prepared to guide students through these differences. You may encounter short-answer essays, master’s theses, personal statements, and PowerPoint presentations. Academic departments use various formal systems within the US academy itself, from the arts to the social sciences to the natural sciences to the professions. For example, biology lab reports are more permissive of the passive voice and have six or seven standard sections: introduction, literature review, hypothesis, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. Creative writing employs rich imagery and complex, varied vocabulary, whereas some disciplines–in particular psychology and economics–prize simplicity, tolerate repetition if it yields accuracy, and avoid grandiose vocabulary.  

Be Student-Centered

In everything we do, we want the students to take ownership of their writing and learning. If this were a gym, we would be the personal trainers, and the students would be pumping the iron. We cannot do push-ups for them! Learning is ultimately their responsibility, but it is our responsibility to facilitate learning in a way that empowers the student and adapts to their needs. Consider the following questions:
How much is the student talking? Be aware of the ratio of student-to-tutor talk time. Tutors need to speak, of course. Otherwise, how would grammar rules be explained or thesis statements get clarified? Also, some students may not feel comfortable with extensive verbalization or may lack the capability at first. Nonetheless, if students can do more of the talking, it will help them process ideas, learn and remember techniques, and stay engaged.
How much is the student doing? As a general principle, you should let students do anything they can do, rather than do it for them. As you are explaining and modeling writing skills, ask the student if they are ready to practice the skill on their own. You can also look for signs that they are ready: they might catch and correct errors before you point them out, or they might just need you to point to the line where the error is and let them find it. As soon as they are ready, let them practice! 
How much is the student leading and deciding? Students are often able and willing to steer the session themselves. If this is possible, then let it happen! Give the students opportunities to decide what to focus on, how to practice (sometimes they know their own learning style and can tell you), and how to assess their learning. If students lead the session in a direction that likely won’t help them become better writers, then you can steer them back on course.  
How relevant is the session to the student? Tutors have less control over this because we do not usually determine the writing assignment, and we do not always work with students long enough to get a sense of their learning style or cultural preferences. However, to the extent you are able, adapt the session to the student’s culture, learning style, or personality. 
Remember, if this were a tandem bicycle ride, the tutor would be on the back seat helping to balance and push, and the students would hold the handle bars. The ultimate focus is not how much you know but how much the student knows and continues to develop after the session ends. 

Practice Flexible Minimalist Tutoring

In addition to being student-centered teachers, we practice the ancient and mysterious tutoring art of flexible minimalism. This ensures that we are giving the students the support they need–but no more than they need–to become independent writers. 
Minimalism: Improve the Writer, Not the Paper
We are in a constant tug-of-war between editing and tutoring: the more we intervene and actively revise a student’s paper, the less we actually teach the student. “Fixing flawed papers is easy; showing the students how to fix their papers is complex and difficult,” according to Jeff Brooks, minimalist tutoring expert.   As minimalist tutors, we gravitate toward the arduous, recursive, and gradual process of teaching the student to write on their own.    
Flexibility: Don’t Be Afraid to Step in When Needed 
We say “flexible” minimalism because, as you will surely find, our students come with distinct skill sets, and some, especially English language learners who are at an intermediate level of English, will need us to lean over and steer the wheel or tap the breaks more than others. Indeed, employing pure minimalism may actually detract from students’ learning in some cases where a greater degree of explanation, modeling, and guided practice is required to provide the student with a solid platform on which to stand as a writer. Even so, we are essentially teachers and not proofreaders–even with students whose papers have multiple grammar errors in every sentence. We can be minimalist with both macro and micro issues. 

Sliding Scale 

A great mental tool for tutors is the sliding scale (see Figure 4). The scale slides between tutor-led instruction and student-led construction. For students who need more active help from us, we can slide more toward them; then, if our next student is more independent as a writer, we can slide back, put down our pencils, and leave the paper entirely in front of the student. To decide where along the sliding scale to place ourselves, we can consider to what extent we need to reach in and guide this student. If the student were learning to ride a bicycle, would we hold on to the handle bars, their shoulder, or the bike seat–or would we just run alongside them? The sliding scale concept can also be applied to the decision about whether to focus the session on macro or micro issues, a concept developed in Chapter 2. 
Figure 4. The Sliding Scale