In my absence from Neopoet, an online poetry workshop that I am a member of, I've been a busy bee at university.
I started tutoring officially when I was an undergraduate at CFCC around 2012. I went from tutoring college students with their German classes, then transferred to UNCW and began tutoring a kindergartner with her reading skills and sight words (words you can't sound out). After I graduated with my Bachelor's degree, I was accepted for a position as a Writing Consultant during my Master's degree at ECU. There are so many differences between the tutoring I did back at CFCC and what I did in the past at Neopoet and what I do now.
I am also taking courses to certify me to become an instructor of composition at the university level, so when I'm all done with my schooling I'll be able to teach both writing and literature, so some of what I've learned comes from those classes as well as my writing center job.
At the writing center, I'm not called a tutor. I'm a writing consultant. I don't "correct" "bad" writing, I consult with the writer on what to do next, where to go from here. We also don't call our space a writing lab, because we're not there to "fix" students like they have a "problem" that would need them to enter a "lab" for help.
I use quotes to show that this language can be a problem in itself. We medicalize things that don't need to be medicalized. We make people feel like something is intrinsically wrong with them when we use these words. That's not pedagogically sound or ethical to do if you care about learning and growth. You can learn more about this concept via Mike Rose's "The Language of Inclusion: Writing Instruction at the University" (http://vaia110spring11.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2011/01/Mike-Rose_The-...) or learn more about him at his blog (http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/). His discussion of this topic hinges on our concepts of "remedial" classes and begins on page 349 (the tenth page of the article). I've mentioned before that all we need to do to apply the writing in these articles that I share to our work in a poetry workshop is to switch the nouns from "teachers" and "students" to "commenters" and "poets."
It's not sound to talk about writing in this medicalized way because writing is a practice; it is not a magical talent that you are either born with or not. Workshopping is about that practice. Working in a writing center is about that practice.
So, my most valuable piece of advice is to leave the writer with something they can use in the future. My appointments at the writing center are about more than the one hour allotment I have with the student. My comments on Neopoet are more than about that one poem or that one evening in the poet's life when they read my comment. My goal is to give them something to ponder, make a connection, or give them a skill or strategy or question they can come back to the next time that they write, again because writing is a skill. I want students at ECU and Neopoets to be able to become more self-reliant and proactive in their writing. In order to do that, I want to share something with them they can refer back to or work on more when they don't have me there for guidance.
Let me tell you a story. Last semester, I was taking a course to fulfill the requirements of my Multicultural Literature concentration. The class was a survey of Native American literatures. It was one of my first graduate level classes ever because that was my first semester. That class kicked my ass. By the end, I was so downtrodden in that course that I was ready to give up many times! No matter how hard I worked and how much I tried to get an "A" on my essays, the professor gave me all B's and filled my essays with comments, suggestions, and corrections. One that stood out to me goes like this:
I wrote a paragraph that explained how hard it must have been for the poet growing up and being bullied by all the other children around her. I cited every line in the poem that gave evidence for her experiences of bullying. At the end of the essay I argued that "This must have been especially hard for her, because she couldn't turn to her family, because her own sisters often bullied her too." Does that make sense? Apparently not for the professor.
Her comment was “this what?” She wrote that type of comment all over my paper. She expected that every time a writer uses “this” in the way that I did above, they would explicitly state what it was. Nevermind that I had written an entire paragraph on the topic, which is what you do; you switch paragraphs when you move onto a new topic. Most readers can imply the noun she demanded that I use. She wanted me to write “This experience of bullying must have been hard on her…” I totally agree that this new sentence (see how I did that?) is more clear than the original sentence, but she was so adamant that I will never forget her comment of “this what?” From then on, with every single paper I ever wrote I was meticulous to ask myself “this what?” and find every single instance of a “this” in my paper to make sure I wasn’t being even slightly vague or referential in a way a professor may construe as poor, lazy, presumptive writing.
In reality, people really can infer and it is fine. That’s how we talk. Yet, her strict grading and masses of comments on my essays will stick with me forever. I made A’s in all my other classes that semester. Yet, I made a “B” overall in that class, even though I would use her feedback on all my previous essays and apply it to the one I was currently working on, in fruitless attempts to get a higher grade. Now, for most writers, they will actually improve and reap the rewards of improvement by practicing that skill. I just didn’t.
It may seem that I'm overreacting; a B is great. To make my frustration more clear, you need to know that in grad school, at least at my university, if you make two C's in your courses, you are out. A single B was too close for me. Gradute level professors do not hand out A's that the student hasn't earned, for sure, but they also don't give a C lightly because of the impact it has on a student's future. If you're abroad and this letter scale is unfamiliar to you, a C is "average", B is "above average", and A is "excellent". There are corresponding percentages that quanitfy the letter range out of 100%. Usually a C is a score about an 80%, but it could be as low as a 70% at some universities or as high as an 84%. 84 out of 100 seems good! 70 out of 100 doesn't seem that bad either! Yet, they aren't acceptable in grad school.
I even use this comment when I work in the writing center now, but not the way she does. When I truly don’t understand the sentence, I ask that clarifying question or if a writer does it so much that the essay is vague overall and lacking in the specifics that they need, then I’ll ask. It’s a new comment for many students and I hope my way of using it sticks with them even though I don’t use it to the extremes that my professor did.
This exchange (did it again) should be our goal on Neopoet (or any poetry workshop), especially for Advocates, but definitely for everyone. If you can leave the writer with something that can apply to their future work, something they can explore and learn about on their own, or make a connection with them that lasts, that is amazing. Before I came back to Neopoet, I’m sure my comments achieved this goal (did it again) sometimes, but not always. I didn’t think of it that way or really concern myself with that idea all too often. My blogs may have given people something to think about for the future of their writing in general, but my comments on poems were likely lacking this crucial feature (did it again).
This advice (did it again) can apply to everyone and every type of commenter. You like long and personal comments? Go for it. You like blunt comments? Go for it. Like your comments to be a poem in and of themselves? Go for it. Take what you know, what you are reminded of by the poem, or what you would like to see explored in the poem and give the poet something solid: a skill, a literary device, a link to an article or resource, a question, or something they can come back to during future work. Let your comment speak to the nature of writing as a practice with many steps and many skills that can be honed. Let your comment give the writer a task beyond fixing typos, cliches, or imprecisions. “Fixing” (again, not a good word to use as an educator - revising is better and doesn’t have the exclusionary connotations of “fix”) that one poem is the first step. What advice could you provide the writer that would help them point out or avoid those things in their writing down the road? When writers can do this identification, they can become proactive about their writing and spend more time developing their craft instead of going back and proofreading because they can learn how to catch “mistakes” before they happen. That’s how writing actually improves, by getting ahead of what holds the writing back instead of just “fixing” existing “mistakes.”
With all this advice (did it again) in mind, we should also ask questions of the poet. Don’t assume that they know what you know or that your interpretation of the poem was their intention. Just ask. Get on the same page with the writer and you both will benefit from the exchange of ideas. Whether the poem is “good” or not, you both have something to learn from reading it and engaging with it.
Every day students come into the writing center and preface our appointment by apologizing for being "bad writers". I tell them that’s not the truth. They just need practice and guidance. I stand by that belief. Every day students come to me and they think I’m the infallible solution to their problem. I’m not. I’m a person too and I learn so much from them as well. I remind them of this exchange and our equality as learners whenever I can. People leave my appointments so relieved of their stress and confident and prepared to keep trying, knowing that the ability is in them and simply needs to be revealed by their own power as a writer and a learner.
I don't assume this complement because I think I'm great; I actually am rather self-depreciating and worry every day that I wasn't helpful enough. They tell me how much they appreciate working with me and how glad they are that they finally got the courage to come to the writing center. Courage. They needed courage because they don't know that writing is a skill and they fear they can never be a writer because they don't have a talent for it. Teachers have told them they won't get better, that they haven't said anything meaningful in their writing, that if they haven't mastered the skill by now there's no hope, or that they'll never succeed as students or succeed in the real world and it sticks with them. I do everything in my power to change that deep-seeded belief for them.
So whether you’re old or young or experienced or not, know that you have something to contribute and you could always learn something from others. We all can.
As a member of a poetry workshop, if you want to make brusque comments, harsh comments, hefty critique, whatever you’d call it, I challenge you to do better in that work.
Explain to the writer why you feel the way you do about the poem. Learn some grammatical and pedagogical and literary concepts that support your feelings about the writing. Don’t know where to start? I’ve got blogs galore (https://www.neopoet.com/swamp-witch/blogs). Don’t leave the poet hanging with nothing but corrections for that one poem, especially if they’re new. They can’t learn if the work stops when that one poem is revised. If you can't explain why that part of the poem could use work and explain what the work entails, like learning parts of speech, comma rules, or metaphors, or imagery, or poetic forms, then the comment doesn't give them anything of value for the future. They can't read your mind and know what you're trying to accomplish with your comment if you don't tell them. Knock them on their back if you want, sure, but make it worthwhile. Give them practical advice, advice that can apply to the future of their writing. Advice needs to foster skill-building, critical thinking, scaffolding (http://edglossary.org/scaffolding/), and deeper ideas in writing, not just how to proofread one poem or how to grow a thick skin.
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.