Tag Archives: Writing Center

A little inspiration

One of my students shared a tip and I thought it was inspired!

This particular student takes advantage of university resources, like the writing center.  If you have an in-person appointment at our writing center the consultants will ask you to read your paper aloud and the consultant will make suggestions.  I’m familiar with this method because this was the same pedagogy employed by my writing center at SCSU.  Well, the student was working on their rough draft for a paper and wanted someone else to read it but didn’t have someone to just sit with him as he typed.  So, how to solve this problem? The student cut and pasted sections of his paper into Google Translate and let the program read his writing back to him!  I thought this was such a clever trick and is something that ELL and non-ELL students could implement.  Its simple, easy to use, and easy to replicate.

I love it when students share their brilliant ideas!


My heavy heart

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As I get ready to leave South Africa my time could quite easily be consumed with marking a list of lasts.  But then I would forget to marvel in the beauty that each new day brings. I keep thinking that this is a bittersweet moment. However, today I had a realization, my heart is not heavy from sadness. On the contrary, I leave South Africa with my soul opened, a wealth of new experiences, and friends. My heart is heavy with love.


The reason every book about Africa has the same cover—and it’s not pretty

As part of Africa Week here at NMMU I attended a lecture last night by UCT Professor Harry Garuba about Textualized Literature. First he spoke about Textual Territories which are areas of the world that have been written about so much that the writing has forever altered our perceptions of the place. He gave the example of Robben Island being inextricably linked to Nelson Mandela that the perception of the island will always be viewed through the “Mandela lense”.  Then he made the argument that Africa itself is an over-textualized territory.  First, Africa was written about by people who “discovered” various places in Africa.  They wrote tales of discovery.  There were diaries by missionaries, memos from colonial administrators that wrote back to their home countries of the manners and customs they witnessed.  These might be considered amateur ethnographies.  Literature of this first type that has reached canonical status are: Heart of Darkness, King Salomon’s Mines, Mister Johnson, Out of Africa, and Tarzan and the Apes.  These books participate in othering which is a process where the authors define identity by what they are not.  They identify themselves at the norm and everything else is negative or abnormal (white/black; good/evil; Christian/heathen; civilized/primitive or savage).  These texts and pieces of literature were published by the colonial powers about the land and people they were occupying in the colonies.

The next wave of literature then writes back to the empire.  African writers read the canonical works of literature and answered back with their own form of ethnographic novel.  Nobel Prize winning author Chinua Achebe said that he wrote because he didn’t see himself in the books he read for school.  As he was growing up he noted that at first he imagine himself as the explorers finding finding his way through the jungle.  But then he came to realize that in the book the author would have written him as one of  the dark faced cannibals not the explorer.    Achebe’s generation of authors wrote deeply contextualized pieces to show themselves through the books illustrating their own rich culture with long-standing traditions.  This generation was writing back to the cannon and presenting a unified front.

Following that wave were authors who wrote back from the perspective of further marginalized people.  So, homogeneity gives way to heterogeneity and differences within a culture are given room to be exposed.  In this wave class and gender are discussed. Some of the books in this category are: So Long a Letter, The Joys of Motherhood, Woman at Point Zero, A Man of the People, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born.

Then comes the 3rd wave or post-independence writers.  They are struggling with the current realities of African life and culture throughout the continent.  There is disillusionment with the current situation because the promised life that they were fighting for during apartheid or colonial domination has not come true as it was imagined.  These authors are posing what could be called a Marxist challenge to their current governments.  Professor Garuba argued that literature from South Africa should be considered interconnected to the literature from other countries on the continent.  These new writers are offering plural truths which allow for levity and a new lightness of being.  He postulated that the next concern for African cultural literature are authors who are represented as African authors but who no longer live in Africa.  It seems simple that this will happen because publishers find it easier to deal with a local author rather than one who is on the continent.  However, these authors call into question the authenticity not of their individual voice but their individual voice being held up as representative for a whole people once again.


Feedback is a gift

feedbagIs it?

I can still see the poster neatly hung on the wall of my manager’s cubicle at American Express.  It was in full color and showed a single daisy in a terracotta pot.  However, my understanding of feedback has stayed rooted in corporate America’s space.  In my mind thinking of feedback as a gift always felt as genuine as those uber motivational posters every business major had in their dorm rooms in the 1990s. Feedback in work never felt like a gift but rather it always felt judgmental and punitive.  Feedback was given with performance reviews where you were told if you were going to get a raise or explained why you were not receiving one.  Feedback in school is generally tied to a grade and also feels punitive.  The feedback is an explanation of what you did wrong.  I’ll also say that receiving feedback in school had its own problematic roots that I’ve already delved into a bit. So, neither experience (work or school) had positive roots for me when it came to receiving feedback as a gift.  Until recently.  Over the past five semesters I have worked in a writing center, four semesters at SCSU’s The Write Place and one semester here at NMMU’s Writing Centre.  Through my immersion in the writing center culture, pedagogy, and practices I realized that feedback can be a gift.  I asked two of the people I’m working with this semester at NMMU to read through my thesis chapters and give me feedback on what I had written.  When they returned them to me with detailed comments I felt like I had been given a gift.  I read through the comments carefully taking in what they had to say.  They were deliberative and inquisitive and I processed each one individually.  I have now been both a manager and a consultant in the writing center where I gave feedback to employees and students.  I hope that as I move into the classroom I can help my students understand how to receive feedback but more importantly, I hope I can model a healthy manor to give feedback as an instructor.

 


Letting magic happen

20140505-204644.jpgMagic can happen in the classroom, a tutoring session, or meeting with a colleuge in their office. You have to embrace it. Let there be space enough for it to happen and lastly, you have to let go of your agenda so it has space to flourish.

Today, I popped up to someone’s office for a few minutes so we could discuss questions that I had after the workshop. I mentioned my idea of turning students’ perceived negatives into a positive. There was a lot of discussion at the workshop about how the students are not ready for university level education. The lecturers talked about how students use electronic devises in the classroom and how disruptive it can be to them as they try to teach. It seems this topic of discussion comes up quite a bit no matter which country I’m in. They started talking about how students multitask in their personal time or time away from the classroom. The conversation then took a sharp and predictable turn to “but they’re multitasking poorly.” So, this morning in our conversation I mentioned to the woman conducting these workshops, that multitasking is exactly what lectures expect from students, they just don’t want them using electronic devises to do it. For example, if a student is taking notes they are multitasking. The student has to listen to the instructor, process the information, and then translate it into notes on their paper. In order for the student to take notes well they have to listen, process, and write almost simultaneously. My real point was basically, like with employees, when training (teaching) you have to meet students where they are and then go from there.

I had a few more questions for her about South Africa’s higher education system, as a whole. It is a completely different system than I’m used to in the United States. The only instructors who get courses on pedagogy are in the education faculty (department). Other faculties (departments) assume teaching is common sense, everyone can do it. I was a bit surprised by this way of thinking but at the same time, not totally surprised. If this meeting had happened back in February, I would have been blown away. However, having been here this long and worked with as many students as I have, I had already picked up on this attitude. This attitude reflects in their teaching practices as well because in the workshop they mentioned several times not wanting to “spoon-feed” students. I know I mentioned that in the previous posting on this workshop but it really made an impression on me!

We went on to discuss the biggest debate in South Africa’s higher education circles, the restructuring of higher education to a four-year degree. This does not mean that South Africa is considering transforming to a liberal arts based educational system, but rather this additional year would be a transition year. She stated that many students drop out because they aren’t fully prepared for university life and this unpreparedness expresses itself in two ways. First, students who don’t have to work, away from home for the first time, and cannot handle this level of freedom. These students end up failing out of university because they party too much. The second group fails out of university because they are not fully prepared academically. So, these students come to university, but they are not fully prepared for the academic rigor they encounter in the classroom. Additionally, these students are generally balancing more responsibilities along with adjusting to university academics. They are probably working and could also be taking care of their younger siblings for example.

I’m looking forward to my next workshop on Thursday, Authentic assessment of student learning.


Students: Teaching in context, part 2

Everything we discussed in the workshop kept coming back to the NMMU students. Since the context a lecturer can have an immediate impact is the classroom. If the classrooms are empty, who would you teach? Once o the presenters did mention that she’d had a professor who would give the lecture even if no one attended class that day but most people would not do that. The student body and individual students need to be considered when thinking about teaching at NMMU.
When asked about their students the lecturers were able to create a long list of attributes which make NMMU students unique in their diversity. First, multiracial/multicultural, the person who listed this attribute only said multiracial but here you always have to follow with multicultural. There are black South Africans who are Xhosa, Zulu, or one of the other distinct cultures still thriving within the boarders of this country.  There was some discussion around the language policy, which states that students have the right to receive instruction in their dominate language.  The provided the facilitator to provide resources to the lectures for how they can get support fulfilling this requirement.

Next, they talked about the life experiences students bring to the classroom.  Students come to NMMU from rural communities and urban areas.  This was one of the aspects of diversity that was talked about during our orientation.  We were cautioned against thinking that as international students we were the only ones going through culture shock.  Rather to be kind to our South African classmates because they could be going through culture shock as well.  I couldn’t help but think of SCSU when we were told about the urban/rural divide because we have students who go through culture shock coming from tiny towns but I’m not sure how the SCSU addresses it.

Another aspect to NMMU students follows the larger context of the South African university system as a whole.  When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and the Apartheid government was officially over, suddenly the majority of students had access to the higher educational system.  The transition was overnight, not in the least bit gradual.  Universities are still coping or trying to cope with this paradigm shift.  According to the Department of Education 70% of South African university students are the first in their families to enroll in higher education.  Of the students who enroll in higher education programs 50% of them do not complete their program.  Dropout rate for first-year students is 30%, while 20% dropout within year 2 or 3 (it takes 3 years to get your bachelors and a 4th year is called honors). Only 15% of South African university students complete their program of study on-time.

The lecturers said that students come to their first-year classes unprepared to learn, not knowing how to take notes or summarize.  The facilitator encouraged the lecturers to take a few minutes and teach the students how to take notes for their class.  Alternatively, they could bring in a representative from Academic Resources to hold a workshop.  However, I did pipe up at this point and said that a lot of students don’t know how to take notes their freshman year in the States either because taking notes for high school and university is a different skill set.  The conversation took a slightly different turn because the facilitator then talked about how jarring it is for students to come from primary school into university where everything is so different.  Textbooks transition from only having facts to having theories and arguments.  She urged the lecturers to understand the difficulty of just this much of the transition for their students along with everything else their students are dealing with.

In the United States we talk about university students struggling because of their multiple commitments.  Many students are juggling work, school, and family commitments.  However, in South Africa 1/5 of all children live in orphan headed households.  This means that an older sibling is taking care of the younger siblings because their parents have died.  So, these students are not struggling to support their own children but rather their brothers and sisters.  These children lack a support network from extended family, even if they have a family member who may intermittently check on them.  They did not get support from a family structure to develop natural coping skills because they had to take on the responsibility of raising their siblings.

Listing these circumstances off and calling the classroom diverse seems to be a dramatic understatement.  The lecturers still have the pressure to research and publish like professors back in the states in order to get promotions and tenure.  In the workshop she encouraged the lecturers to set expectations for each term on the first day of class.  Structure what they expected from students and what the consequences would be if those expectations were not met.  She encouraged the lecturers to be explicit about this procedure and treat the students like adults who were entering into a contract.  She also suggested that they could help students learn by sharing their vulnerabilities.  If they admit, for example, that they are unsure on how to use a piece of technology then ask for help from the students.  She used the example of a calculator and the students were excited to show her how to use it and she was getting that all important buy-in at the same time.

Honestly, I still find it overwhelming. But they are making progress one lecturer at a time.


Teaching in Context

20140426-121105.jpgYesterday I attended a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Certificate (SoTLC) workshop. These workshops are conducted by the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Media (CTLM), which is where the former Writing Centre is now housed. The SoTLC workshops are conducted throughout the academic year and if a lecturer completes 7 of the 9 they will receive a certificate at the end. The certificate helps build their teaching portfolio and bolster their chance for tenure. This was the first workshop I attended and the topic was “Being a university teacher: the higher education context and practices.” The facilitators spent a lot of time in the workshop talking about and getting the participants to puzzle through the context in which they teach. First they discussed the context of their classroom. Then their disipline. The discussion moved next to the university, but each of these contexts offer multiple layers for analysis and reflection.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.” Henry Adams

First, the university context. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) is a unique institution. It is a new institution even though the campus and the buildings have been there for a while. The university’s formation happened in 2005 when 5 universities combined into one entity. Prior to 2005 the South Campus university was known as Univeristy of Port Elizabeth which was founded in 1964. The 5 campuses still exist with the George campus approximately 4.5 hours away. One of the presenters called it “a hybrid structure where there are universities with in the university.” NMMU became a comprehensive university in the South African sense of the term. South Africa has five comprehensive universities and they are:

  • University of Johannesburg
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
  • University of South Africa
  • University of Venda
  • Walter Sisulu University

The University of Johannesburg was also formed by merging other institutions into one university system. The main institution that became UofJ was founded in 1967 as Rand Afrikaans University.

NMMU Mission:
Developing a distinct institutional ethos and culture as a merged African institution.

NMMU Vision:
To be a dynamic African university recognized for its leadership in generating cutting-edge knowledge or a sustainable future

I was surprised by the conversation that came from placing the mission and vision statements on the power point. Being African or calling one’s self African is still a controversial subject here in South Africa. One of the presenters was a Xhosa woman and the other presenter was an Afrikaans woman. Participants in the workshop were mixed between black, colored (they still used Apartheid era distinctions as part of their rhetoric around race), and white. The first comment someone made about the mission statement was that “Do they know Africa is the contenent?” She was laughing when she said this and making a bit of a joke. The Afrikaans presenter however made the statement some people do not think she should call herself African but she is also African. This discussion didn’t really have legs (I think because it is too controversial) and we moved onto the mission statement.
Again, there was some laughter and the first thing said, by a different lecturer, was “being a ‘dynamic African university’ was in direct conflict with ‘cutting-edge knowledge.'” I struggled to not say anything because my roll as an intern and not a teacher at the institution, I felt was to listen and observe. I was furiously making notes. I spoke to the presenters after everyone else had left and asked them about that particular section of the discussion. It was my opinion that the professors were still struggling with an internalized colonial mindset of Africa or African being a synonym for something of lesser quality. I’m struck daily by the rich cultural environment of South Africa and how it is easily fertile ground for “cutting-edge knowledge.” Innovation for new teaching styles, language feels very fluid here, and I see a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurship here but it could be done in an African way not a western way. Agreeing with me she said that it was difficult for her to bring up the things I was saying because of her status as an Afrikaaner. All of that mix though is also what makes an African context challenging and unique.


Meeting students where they are

I met with my regularly scheduled appointments.  Each time I meet with these students I come away with questions on how to better serve them and how they are functioning at the university, in general.  The International Office connected these particular students because they are having a difficult time with their classes.  Some of them were almost kicked out of the university for not passing enough credits.  However, working with them on particular writing assignments is not always what I’m asked about when they come to meet with me.  This week George (not his real name) brought a friend along to his appointment.  They both had questions about basic study skills.   The questions weren’t just “how do I study?” No, rather these questions were along the lines of “I get up at 3am to study.  Then I go to class and I’m falling asleep but when I lay down to sleep I’m wide awake.  What should I do?”  My first thought was one of “This isn’t what I’m here for.  I’m not an expert on this.”  But how can I deny them some sort of help when they are trying and reaching out?

Then I recalled so much of what I’ve learned about what it means to be the first in your family to attend university. They are here without a personal safety-net.  The type of support many of us take for granted.  If you aren’t the first in your family (village) to attend university, if you run into a snag you can call home and one of your parents or even an older sibling can help you work through the issue.  Even if they don’t have the answer they know enough about how a university functions and the systems in place they can direct you how best to find the help you need.  These particular students do not have that resource and bring with them a different set of disadvantages than the South African students.  I don’t want to say worse because to each student their set of disadvantages are their own personal struggle and I do not like getting into “my suffering is worse than yours” arguments.  Since I’m coming from the outside I also do not want to put qualifiers because it can get too close to judgement for my liking.

While they lack a personal safety-net of family or community, they are here as a group.  They help support each other through the difficulties they have had getting assimilated into South Africa’s university system.  Each time I work with George and the other Nigerian students I always have it in the back of my mind how limited my time is here.  Empowering them with off-line tools for improving their academic writing because they do not have internet at home and computer labs are difficult to access here on campus.  Often when I was at the Write Place and working with English 190 students I would give students links to online resources, it became second nature.  I especially like giving students links to EngVid videos because then students can easily watch it over at their own pace to better understand the topic.  George told me that he has tried to watch the links I sent him in the library but that sometimes the computers in the library are too slow to view them properly.

So, we had a conversation about study habits.


A semester isn’t long enough!

Yes, I have come to peace with the fact that I am going to miss something from my well-crafted South African Bucket List. But I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride with my internship and I’ve reached the half-way tipping point of my trip. However, just now I’m feeling like I have built a rapport with my colleagues, know how to work with the students in this academic environment, and feel my skill level being raised by my experience.  Students in classes have a built-in structure to their experience (syllabus and timetable). But having a new internship position I have been learning along with my supervisors how I can be the most productive.  While I was in my first semester in the Write Place at SCSU I had ENGL 654 where I learned the pedagogy of US writing center’s and The WP specifically through our conversations.  Along with my internship here in South Africa, I have been doing a LOT of reading!  I ordered an ebook version of Changing Spaces, which is about the unique roll of writing centers in South Africa’s university system.  At the same time I am also trying to understand the distinct educational system in South Africa with the mix of students within the system.  I feel like my time here is a long snapshot because 6 months is not a very long time but it is longer than the Spring Break experience I had in 2013.

Why aren't you petting me?

Why aren’t you petting me?


What am I doing here? (Updated)

This was a question I asked myself many times over during my master’s program. I became an English major after discovering the field of rhetoric. Through rhetoric I was finally given the tools I needed to discuss and interpret the world around me. Some of the language came to me through my background in political science and public policy analysis, which is what I majored in for my bachelors. In many regards though I had always been searching for rhetorical analysis and the vocabulary held within the disapline. Beyond finding myself in the field of rhetoric, it has been more of a journey allowing myself to recognize that I have a desire to teach.

Nontraditional student? Yes, I’m coming to my master’s program after a career as a manager with for-profit and non-profit organizations. I thoroughly enjoyed being in management, especially turning around a failing store or organization and getting it on track to fulfill its goals. The toughest and most rewarding part of the job was working with employees. Developing talent, encouraging people to meet their potential, and sometimes, even seeing amazing employees leave because they were able to move onto bigger and better opportunities. However, American companies have moved away from truly letting employees be developed through on the job training and have moved to hiring people for positions below their skill level and then promoting “from within.”

As a manager, I really enjoyed going through the hiring process. Its just down right fun to call someone up and offer them a job! However, my heart would break for some people as I read their resumes and job applications because I knew that their lack of skill with resumes and cover letters was holding them back. I fought back the urge to call them and suggest changes to their resume content, style, and format. So, when I encountered rhetoric and composition studies, I found a way to be able to empower people by helping them gain a necessary knowledge base. I’m passionate when I help give the writing center tours about writing as a skill students will need no matter their chosen career or field of study. I think writing well is even more important now because individuals produce more writing now than in previous eras. For example, businessmen used to dictate letters but now write their own emails to communicate with clients.

That’s only the first portion of my answer…what am I doing here? I wasn’t supposed to be here, this far along in higher education. My first class in the SCSU English Department we were asked to give our literacy narrative orally, to the class. Honestly, I think I made something up because I don’t remember learning to read. I know I learned how before I went to school and it just seemed like a given. But this assignment made me think about my formative educational years for the first time in years. Actually, part of my personal discovery during my master’s program was revisiting these old ghosts. From 1st through 7th grade I went to a very small private school that had multiple grades in the same rooms. Grades 1-4 were taught in the same room and another teacher was across the hall with grades 5-8. I was precocious and loved learning but my foundational years did not endear me to any teachers. Early in first grade my teacher put my desk in the bathroom with the door closed. This was not a large bathroom but rather a small bathroom off the classroom with just a toilet and a sink. It was dark because I was so small and the light was only on the ceiling. By 3rd and 4th grade we had a new teacher and instead of my desk being in the bathroom she created a patrician blocking me off from the rest of the class. Essentially, she just gave me my assignments and I was supposed to just do them. I was cut off from class discussion or interaction with my peers.

However, nothing compared to 5th grade, it was a special kind of hell. Our firth grade teacher was both physically and verbally abusive. I was getting older by this point and tried to not only stand-up for myself but my classmates as well. The teacher would lash out, I would say something, and he would respond by locking me in a closet where the sports equipment was kept. Or he would send me out in the hall and leave me there, for hours. There was more than once when he laid hands on me, once pushing me down and I hit my head on the metal chalktray. There was one occasion when I asked him to explain some instructions over again because I didn’t understand what he wanted us to do on the assignment. Instead of repeating himself, he made me write a confession stating that I had not paid attention in class complete with my signature and date. As I stood next to his desk, which was in front of the classroom. he told me that I would never be anything.

I did not expect to confront these demons as I read rhetorical theory, but they came up. Haunting me as normal graduate school doubt was over taken by my former elementary school teacher again whispering into my psyche. So, what’s the answer…why am I here? Its never that simple, is it? It is not simple because or in-spite of any one person or event. Rather these are all parts of me and so it should not be a surprise that I latch onto Ferreira and embrace his pedagogical philosophy. I do reflect on my actions because I do not want to devalue a student or make them in any way feel marginalized. I am here because after much struggle this is where I fought to be.


Erin A. Frost

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