All posts by Ezekiel Choffel

ECWCA Reflection

A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending the ECWCA Conference in South Bend, Indiana. For those of you who are not familiar with the ECWCA, the East Central Writing Center Association, is an organization that brings writing centers from across the Midwest together for an annual conference where consultants, directors, and administrators share what they have been working on for the last year.

This is my second time going and presenting at this conference and it is a great chance to see what other folks are working on. This year the theme focused on Ethics in the WC and I would like to take a chance to reflect on one of the keynote speakers’ presentations.

John Duffy is the founder of the Writing Center at Notre Dame and has maintained a working relationship with the WC at Notre Dame. He is now the writing program administrator for the writing program at Notre Dame. Dr. Duffy began his talk outlining what it means to ethically consult with students, describing ways to help students create ethical arguments and fact checking their opinions to provide solid evidence for scholarly research.

As the talk progressed, Dr. Duffy highlighted the responsibilities of writing consultants as a sounding board, bringing the long standing argument against WC work as peer to peer tutoring being one step away from cheating. Dr. Duffy discussed the many ways that this argument is ludicrous (it is rare to have a consultant working on the same assignment, WC’s aren’t copy editing services where students can drop off their papers and pick up polished essays, etc.) and provided context for the potential intervention moments consultants have to help students really engage in their ideas.

At the conclusion of his conversation Dr. Duffy provided some great advice on how to approach these kinds of conversations with clients, such as: ask the client if they have check multiple sources, talk with the client about how they are framing their arguments, try to find out what is the most important part of the argument to the client.

For me as a consultant these kinds of conversations are great, but I often feel that all of the outcomes of these conversations are based on the proverbial “difficult” client who needs to be helped. I also feel that these kinds of discussions start off with the assumption that the consultant is qualified and prepared to ethically engage with clients who have completely different world views and life experience.

During the discussion part of Dr. Duffy’s talk, it was clear to me that those who engaged Dr. Duffy were taking the assumptions as truths by the way that they conversations were framed. “Those students” are our client base and I take issue with placing all of the responsibility for ethical practice on the consultant. Similarly, I fear it is an even bigger issue to assume that our clients are unable to engage in ethical ways themselves.

At this point, I have to provide a disclaimer, I was one person listening and engaging with this conversation. It is totally possible that I heard/understood everything incorrectly during this discussion, but either way I do think that because of what I have been feeling in regards to all of this, it is an appropriate time to talk about it.

It is as much our responsibility to train our consultants in ways of ethical behavior and understandings as it is to work our clients on these ideas. It is not a safe assumption that consultants are prepared for ethical discourse, nor is acceptable to forget that consultants are students as well. We are not knowledge keepers and by putting the focus only on the client base, I believe there is a huge risk of distancing ourselves with the very folks we are claiming to help.

I have written multiple times about meeting students where they are at, but this is a reciprocal process. There are some things that I am great at as a consultant, but to assume that those things don’t need further work is a terrifying idea to me. As a consultant it is my job to continually investigate my position and knowledge base to best help clients, but more importantly it is my job to know that help looks and feels different for each client.

It is as much our responsibility to engage in our own ethical process as writing center communities as it is to work with our clients. I think the ideas that Dr. Duffy discussed are extremely important and are for the most part applicable, so much so that I would like to see conversations of how to make these ideas the focal point of consultant training modules.

At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons why I love being part of this community. My thoughts about the conference didn’t end when I left. I am still thinking about these ideas and still trying to figure out ways to best meet the needs of my clients. The ECWCA community is a great place to explore ideas and to meet like minded people.

Postmodernism in the Writing Center

In conjunction with the Cultural Rhetorics Conference** this past weekend here at MSU, it is time for another installment of Theories in the Center. This time around we will be looking at postmodern theory in relation with writing center theory and practice.

There are many ideas that postmodern theory brings to the WC that can be helpful for consultants and the work we do. There is a freeness that has become associated with postmodern theory, and for new consultants the language surrounding postmodernism is easy enough to understand and offer a jumping off point for consultants trying to theorize their experiences and consulting philosophies.

Nancy Grimm’s work Good Intentions describes the ongoing changes in the WC in terms of programmatic shifts in composition and population base, and frames postmodernism as theoretical lens through which to understand issues of diversity and resisting grand narratives that cause our clients high levels of anxiety. Grimm cites Standard English among one of the largest institutional grand narratives that needs to be examined and understood by practitioners of WC philosophies.

In many ways I agree with the theorized outcomes of Grimm’s work with postmodernism in the WC, due to the fact that postmodernism resists definitions for definition’s sake and does provide an entry point for clients to discuss and understand the theoretical side of why they are doing what they are doing. The populations of clients who utilize our center’s services at MSU are certainly concerned with the pressures of existing grand narratives about what is academic writing and what is not, and these beliefs are enforced daily in classroom environments where requirements of Standard English are the norm.

But I can’t help but feel like there are greater and maybe more important pieces of the puzzle that need to be discussed in conjunction with postmodernism in the WC. I get that in one book conversations of diversity and the academic grand narratives are a good place to start, and while there are many authors who discuss postmodernism in the WC, the narratives that are constructed within these texts seem to shape a new grand narrative that rebels against the institution for rebellion’s sake. In the texts that I have found, Grimm’s is the most diverse in application and is often considered an authority on this topic.

The elephant in the room though is the connotation of continued whiteness that is associated with postmodern theory. It is easy to push back against the institutional system if the person pushing is of the status quo, assuming an incomplete view of otherness. This is often my critique of postmodernism as theoretical framework: postmodern scholars talk about diversity without understanding (most of the time) what is at stake. Additionally, postmodern scholars take up an assumed otherness by choice, which often times degrades, or at least lessens the impact of, folks who don’t have a choice in being seen or treated as others.

There is a sense of falseness that comes with an assumed sense of otherness. As bell hooks states in Post-Modern Blackness, postmodern theory is devoid of the voices of African Americans. A theory that shapes itself around notions of diversity but does not include diverse individuals seems confused to me, and it often times concerns me when I see applications of postmodern theory without an understanding of both sides of the theory. To paraphrase hooks, postmodernism casts away identity at the very moment that people of color are beginning to define, explore, and defend the identities that have been stripped by governmental institutions. The timing here seems too convenient to me. Building off of what hooks has already built, there are instances and practices of postmodernism that do work well in the WC context, but to base one’s entire consulting philosophy on postmodern theory alone will not provide a complete view of issues concerning race, education, sexual orientation, economics, and meeting clients where they are at in their life’s journey.

This critique is not to say that postmodernism should be ignored. It is one of the most accessible theories that could be directly applied to a writing center context and should be investigated. It is a good starting point towards critical thought and I believe that there are aspects of postmodernism that should be talked about and synthesized in practice.

I really enjoy the idea of deconstructing grand narratives, but something needs to be built that is theoretically sound ansi that provides our clients with alternative options that are compassionate and ethical in regards to their particular needs. Go ahead and deconstruct those totalizing grand narratives, but also help build something from the paradigm shift.

**For more information on the Cultural Rhetorics Conference, see its Facebook page or Twitter hashtag (#crcon). 

Decolonial Options for Writing Consultations

I have been a writing consultant for nearly 7 years and I have seen many students struggle with the nuanced rules and regulations imposed by academic writing and convention. These rules and regulations are troublesome for native speakers as much as international students. Often times instructors suggest that students come to The Writing Center for help on their “Standard English”. In many ways, “Standard English” is the vehicle of furthered colonial oppression due to the fact that there is no actual standard. Disciplinary writing is standard within a discipline, and sure there are specific rules that are generally applicable in most contexts, but all of these rules can and are broken daily in successful well thought out ways.

As a consultant, I see my job as support for students attempting the balancing act that is academic writing. Over the last few weeks I have engaged in a personal exercise to further my understandings of Decolonial theory in the context of writing center consultations. In this post I  weave the concept of options for Decolonial thought, as laid out by  Walter Mignolo and Shawn Wilson, into productive tools for understanding the larger academic system and the expectations this system imposes on students’ writing.

Why is this important you ask? The answer to this question is a difficult one, because academic colonality functions on multiple levels and not all of these levels are evil. In a writing context, understanding the “language of the oppressor” (Fanon, Richardson, Perryman-Clark) holds power that enables students to pass, to achieve, to graduate. None of these things are bad, but there is a sense of oppression that often times goes un-discussed.

I see it as part of my job to enter this discussion. When I am working with clients and we are struggling together, I find it useful to reflect on why this process is necessary. Last week I was in the middle of a consultation with a student who was struggling with understanding the function of the article ‘the’. This was an instance where I found myself providing options to understand, but in the end I had to acknowledge that the inclusion or exclusion of ‘the’ does not impede comprehension. This student stated bluntly that they needed to know why their instructor focused so much on grammar when the class that they were in was Marketing.

This presents an interesting situation to me, as a consultant, because English was not this student’s primary language and was in fact the third language they were learning/knew, but there was a continued push for this student to conform to “Standard English”. Within the discussion to understand articles, we talked about how neither of the languages the student knew used articles, and we came to the conclusion that the focus on grammar thus becomes a tool to function within the academe, not some life sustaining knowledge that provides meaning and depth to live, but a hurdle to acknowledge and choose to overcome, or not.

As an active learner of Decolonial theory, I see this acknowledgement as a Decolonial option for students. This is one example, but an example that occurs frequently. How do you explain to a student who possesses mastery of multiple languages that these formalities are not a reflection on their intelligence but rather an issue of passing? I have found that talking about the students options often times helps us both get to this point, because we both know internally that “Standard English” serves a function in academic discourse, but rarely reflects where students are in their classrooms. As a consultant, I believe it is my job to help empower students and sometimes this means providing options, other times it means breaking down the academic structures to be understood as optional. I try to help my students understand the outcomes of resisting theses structures as well as following them, but these conversations are situated on the client’s terms and needs, not mine.

Featured Resource: Purdue OWL

Hello again, it is time for a new featured resource! This time we will be taking a look at the Purdue OWL website. As a consultant one of the most frequent questions I help students with is how to cite sources. Citations are difficult for many reasons, but the Purdue OWL is one great option for finding examples of how to cite your sources.

Whether it be MLA or APA formatting the OWL has the answers. This resource is great for many reasons. The first being that each subject has a visual explanation and examples.

In addition to citing guides, the OWL also has tutorials and exercises for students, tutors, and teachers. When tackling a new subject, these tutorials can help provide a brief introduction to how to best execute the usage of your source material. If you look at the Teacher and Tutor Resources page and select any of the options you will find yourself at different exercises and presentations to help along the way.

screenshot of Purdue OWL website

Your First Writing Assignment: Where to Start

As writers, it is often difficult to think of how to start. Whether it be an essay or everyone’s favorite, a literacy narrative, there are many ways to get going.

When I am faced with beginning a new writing project I find I have to also start thinking about who my audience is and what will appeal to them on top of what I am trying to say. Who your audience is, and what would appeal to them, can be one of the hardest questions writers have to answer. Luckily, for most of the First Year Writing projects, your audience has been predetermined as your classmates and professor. Unluckily, if this is your first time writing an essay that does not conform to the 5 paragraph format, knowing how to appeal to your classmates and professor can still be very difficult.

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The Writing Center’s New Locations: The MSU Union and McDonel Hall

South entrance to the MSU Union

The MSU Union

The Writing Center would like to invite you to check out our two new satellite locations at The MSU Union and McDonel Hall.

These new satellite locations have been opened to offer new and diverse locations to get the same great help as all of our other Writing Center locations. Whether you live just behind Albert Road or are a graduate student in Owen, these two locations have been open with our clients in mind.

The MSU Union location is a great place to come if you live in West Circle, or after you stop into the “original” Biggby and grab a cup of coffee. The MSU Union location is open 5pm-10pm on Sundays and 6:30pm-10pm Monday through Wednesday.

West entrance to McDonel Hall

McDonel Hall

Our new satellite location in McDonel Hall is located in room 105c and has extremely easy access to the Sparty’s in the next room over. This location provides easy access to The Writing Center services whether you live in Owen, Holmes, or McDonel itself. Graduate students, International Students, Lyman-Briggs students, and all kinds of students alike are welcome to check out this new location on Sunday from 5pm-10pm, Monday from 2pm-9pm, or Tuesday and Wednesday 6pm-9pm

Featured Resource: Wikipedia

This week’s featured resource is Wikipedia. Of all of the web resources available to students, Wikipedia is one of the most controversial. As we discussed briefly last time, Wikipedia is not a currently considered credible source.

In its inception Wikipedia began as an encyclopedic resources that could be modified by “anyone”, and was thus deemed unusable as an academic resource. Today, the editors of Wikipedia are struggling against this stigma and are trying to present Wikipedia as a reliable resource with up to date information.

The editing team at Wikipedia has spent the last few years working to change the reputation of the website. While it is true, “anyone” can make changes to Wikipedia, these changes are now subject to a team of editors who do background research to check the validity of the changes made.

With that said, Wikipedia remains a great resource from preliminary research and often provides insight to the cultural importance of a research topic, by providing timelines of events and multiple locations of coverage depending on what topic you are researching. For example, when I researched Keynesian economics, Wikipedia not only provided the basics of understanding the theories involved, but also supplied examples of which countries follow the Keynesian approach. While I couldn’t cite Wikipedia as a primary source, I would definitely use Wikipedia as a secondary source in this case.

Personally, whenever I have to write a research paper, the first place I start is Wikipedia. Through a quick look through any Wikipedia article a reader can gather basic facts on just about any topic. With these facts gathered, it then becomes easier to plot your research around the basic understandings found from Wikipedia.

When used in conjunction, as a secondary resource, with scholarly material, Wikipedia can often speed up the research process on pretty much any research topic, which as a student can be an invaluable resource.

Featured Resource: TED Talks

This week we will be introducing a new bi-weekly article to our website users. The featured resource entry will cover different resources to help our clients more effectively construct and execute their writing.

As a consultant one of the most frequent questions I receive is: “What are good resources to help me write my paper?” The purpose of this reoccurring article is to provide our users with different resources that may help in many different aspects of your writing. Some of the resources will be websites that provide credible information that can then be cited within your document, while others will be resources that answer formatting questions.

This week we will be covering TED Talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and is nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED Talks is a resource that features videos of different types of presentations. Some of these presentations are scholarly conference presentations, comedy routines, motivational speakers, and music videos.

All of these videos are credible resources to use in your writing assignments, and many are downright interesting. In preparation for this article I watched some of the videos to observe and analyze so I could better understand the usefulness of this resource.

One of the videos I watched, titled “Cesar Harada: A Novel Idea of Cleaning Up Oil Spills,”  covers a revolutionary concept which multiplies the effectiveness of “oil absorbents” connected to fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

This one example showed me many ways these talks can be useful. The first and primary way is the fact that these talks cover current issues in a way that is interactive and understandable across audiences. I didn’t need to know what the chemical properties of oil were or how the current method that is used is ineffective because Cesar Harada used visual elements to illustrate both of these properties. Harada was not talking about the Exxon Valdez, an oil spill that happened twenty years ago, but he spoke about an issue that was currently effecting the way people live in the Gulf today.

As a student, it can be difficult to find up-to-date resources that tackle “current events”, but TED Talks provides a large database of videos doing just that.

The second way that I found TED Talks to be useful was that all of these sources are credible. As a student at any level in the college process, credible resources can be difficult to locate, but more importantly, knowing what sources are credible and which are not becomes difficult at times due to the prevalence of websites like Wikipedia.

Websites like Wikipedia provide massive amounts of information and are always a good place to start, but rarely can we use Wikipedia itself as a credible source. TED Talks remedies this problem in a few ways: first, through a brief search through oil spills on Wikipedia, I found the previously mentioned video as a primary source for oil spill technology; second, TED Talks is its own massive database that has easy to locate tags, with nearly all of the academic videos being presented by professors, students still in college, or professionals who write scholarly articles and establish their credibility by presenting the different processes in which their video presentations are created and the topics they discuss are researched.

The third and last way covered in this article that I found TED Talks useful is: that it is a great resource when you are looking for ideas to start your paper. The amount of different topics on TED Talks is truly mind blowing. There is a little bit for every academic field, and quite a bit for pop culture.  These conversations cover all of the bases. Nearly any topic that may interest you can be easily found.

TED Talks is a great resource that provides credible sources that can be relied upon. Whether you are stuck trying to figure out a topic that you want to write about or you want to find a current approach to age old problem, chances are  TED Talks will have something to help you.

 

An Ode to the Writing Center

Oh, the Writing Center, How do I Love thee
Let me count the Ways—
With your Hot coffee and Tasty candy Trays
We pass our Time speaking of words that Rhyme
Discussing theoretical Matters that pass our Days

And when the day is Done we gather our Fun
And share the Happenings that came our Way
Clients and Consultants, we are intertwined
With meaning, Laughter and learning on the mind

We provide response to those who wish to find
Answers to the Grammar situation
Past present and participle

This place is a Scared space where we explore
How learning opens our door