Leah Misemer is a PhD candidate in Literary Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison writing her dissertation on how serial comics form communities of authors and readers. She has worked at the Writing Center since Fall of 2011 and in email instruction for two semesters.
Whenever a writing center instructor and a writer sit down for a session, a negotiation of power takes place. Sometimes, the writer begins by seeing the instructor as a storehouse of information, and thus, believes the instructor is in charge of the session. One of the important things to me as an instructor is to help the student gain confidence in his or her own writing skills, so that I become just a partner in the writing process, helping along the way. For a long time, I struggled with how to create and maintain this partner relationship when a student asked for proofreading or grammar instruction. This is the story of that exploration, which ends with my current approach to addressing grammatical concerns in email instruction. I would love to hear in the comments about other instructors’ experiences with grammar instruction and the negotiation of power in tutorials where you have discussed grammar.
My concept of grammar in the writing center was formed during an exercise we did as part of training to become a writing center tutor at Washington University in St. Louis where I did my undergrad. We were told to bring in papers we had in progress and that we would be peer reviewing them. I thought I knew what this meant. I had been editing my peers’ drafts since high school, and I carried a red pen in a holster. I was The Fixer, a kind of writing superhero, saving drafts from bad grammar.
At the beginning of the peer review session, the professor told us how things would play out: we were to use pencils and we were (SHOCK!) not allowed to touch the writing in the draft. Instead, we were to write a letter to the writer, addressing broadly what worked well and what needed improvement in the draft. As I went through my peer’s draft, I had to suppress knee jerk reactions to fix, to invade, to overpower. But I also learned to talk with the writer as an equal instead of an expert. This relationship of two equals working together to improve writing skills, not just drafts, is what made me love writing center teaching and what energizes me in my role as instructor today.
This anecdote is meant to illustrate that I used to have trouble talking about grammar because I allied it with proofreading and proofreading meant taking over a writer’s paper. After my first round of writing center training, I wanted to have conversations about writing, not save papers. This meant I shied away from talking about grammar, because I didn’t want to tell students to “fix” their papers. I wanted them to be in control, and whenever I talked about grammar, I felt like I had become the expert. I didn’t like that power dynamic. When students came in concerned about grammar, I would explain that we don’t proofread, talk about global concerns like ideas and structure, and usually, we would spend our session talking about ideas instead of about whether or not the commas were correct.
What I didn’t realize was that my refusal to address grammar was a different kind of power play, a sneakier one: we spent the session talking about what I wanted to talk about, because I had directed the session that way. I wasn’t exactly a superhero anymore, but I was still policing the writing session, determining “right” and “wrong” subjects to address during our conversation. It wasn’t that I never discussed grammar; it was just that I decided when we would discuss it.
Last semester I began email instruction and learned to negotiate my relationship with writers a bit differently. Because my advice and the student’s concerns were in writing, I was able to critically read over my sessions, and I started to realize the policing role I had taken on in terms of what we discussed during sessions. This role was particularly evident in sessions where students said they were concerned with grammar and word choice.
At first, I developed a redirect response, saying that, “because our time is limited, I will first address global concerns (content and structure) before moving on to more local concerns (grammar and word choice).” This sentence was my way out of grammar instruction.
Recently, I got a request for grammar instruction from a student whose draft I had commented on before. She had made changes based on my previous suggestions and I decided to try teaching grammar. I found two sentences that had grammatical issues that I saw elsewhere in the draft and highlighted them in different colors in my attachment to her. Then I set about writing my email response, using the following method:
1) Teach the rule using non-expert language
2) Show how to revise the model sentence by following the rule
3) Ask the student to try finding other places in the draft that need grammatical revision
4) Provide a link to more information about the concept
In the end, my comment ended up looking like this:
Using this instructional method gets around some of my issues with the power dynamic involved in fixit grammar. First, even though I position myself as an authority in terms of grammar knowledge, that authority is shared by the webpage found at the link. Second, I only “fix” one or two sentences in the draft and I fix them in the email comments, not in the draft itself, thereby avoiding invading the student’s writing. Third, I leave the rest of the revision up to the student. Her writing remains hers and she is in charge of revising it.
Discovering the possibility of teaching grammar lessons rather than proofreading has helped me become more comfortable in my partnership with the writer. When I teach rather than edit, I am no longer a superhero or a policeman, but a fellow writer, showing the way.