A Paralysis of Purpose

One year ago, I was paralyzed with indecision. 

I was attempting to craft statements of purpose or responses to other prompts for a handful of PhD programs. I wrung my hands. I weighed the impact of every single word. Was I being too vague? Was I presuming I knew too much? Was I speaking to the interests of the programs I was applying to without sending my own academic interests down the river in attempt to appear appealing? Would the admissions committees see my statements and see in my writing a skill level inadequate to the task of teaching others about effective writing? In short, I worried I was the perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I was not accepted to any of the programs I applied to, and no matter how trite it sounds, I realize that was really for the best. With one exception, the programs I applied to in 2010 were not a good fit. In an attempt to be flexible in the type of program I sought, I applied to schools that did not particularly emphasize composition/rhetoric fields and the related pedagogy, even though that’s what I specifically wanted. I’ve fixed that for my 2011 (entering in Fall 2012) cycle. Only one school is making a repeat appearance, and that’s because it has something in common with the other five: my research interest in composition/writing studies and pedagogy. I’ve used the little bit of time I had between receiving the last rejection letter and starting the applications for what I’ve affectionately dubbed Round 2 to shore up (as much as was possible in 6 months) what I perceived to be the weaknesses of my Round 1 effort: I’ve presented at conferences alone and with others. I’ve taken new roles within the writing center and worked in service to the course that prepares students to become new tutors. I’ve improved the writing samples I’ll send. My GPA has only improved. I’m leaving the GRE situation well enough alone. I still have great relationships with those I’ve asked to write my letters of recommendation. Where does this leave me?
Back in the grips of Statement of Purpose Paralysis.
What I wrote above is, essentially, the same as what I need to put in a statement of purpose. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, writing pedagogy likes me (and I like it back). When I first considered what would be necessary to prepare my PhD applications months before Round 1, I perceived statements like this to be the cake part. I’m a writer who loves writing, who tutors writing, and who wants to teach writing; how could I not knock this one out of the park? Yet packaging all of this into something that reads like someone who is ready to take the next step in joining the ongoing discussion is another thing entirely. My audience, those who already do what I want to do eventually, are who I must convince that I’m prepared for that next step. And I must do it with conviction, with confidence, with mindfulness, and with the sense that I really know what I’m about. 
Thus, I’ve glimpsed in myself what I must remember about many of the writers who sit next to me at the writing center tables: I’m scared to death that I’m about to be found out. Am I really capable of writing this single page that may carry my academic future within its pixels? Can I convince my audience? Do I sound like the writer they want me to be (someone who understands the writer he is, and the writer he isn’t, and the writer he must yet be)? I’m frightened that this statement, which I once thought would easily demonstrate the complex academic inquiry I am capable of, will actually reveal the man behind the curtain. Each and every word I strangle out onto the keyboard for this process must be sorted into one of two impressions I perceive it to carry: the competent, self-assured writer/researcher/professor, pursing his lips sagely in his desk chair at his tenure-track office, piles of well-read books and journals scattered at arm’s reach; or an emaciated circus dog who has been taught to mimic a human very poorly, stumbling around awkwardly on his hind legs in people clothing, a pitiable imitation. 
I set out to write this here to help me talk myself through the jitters I was having, but as with all such introspective writing, I’ve come around to a solution. The realization that I am in exactly the same position as my writing center students leaves me with the obvious “physician, heal thyself” tactic: I’ve made an appointment at my own center to have this blasted thing tutored. I’ve chosen a fellow tutor I do not know well at all, with whom I have never worked. I’m sure her objectivity will be helpful in pulling me out of my own mind and showing me what I really have on the paper.
But god, do I feel sorry for saddling her with a nervous wreck for her 3 pm appointment.

For Good Measure – #NCPTW Presentation

For no other reason than because it felt like something to do, I’m posting what I presented Saturday, November 5 at 8am during the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, I modeled it loosely after the format seen here, although I did not autotime the slides and used some very minimalist wording for takeaways – that’s why it’s so graphic heavy and so text-light. The text is the (approximate) script I used to accompany the slide you’ll see with it.

I welcome any comments or discussion anyone might like to share.

Hi. I’m Roger Austin. I’m a tutor at the Marian E. Wright Writing Center at the University of Michigan-Flint. We’re a small to medium sized writing center, with between 15-20 student tutors on staff in a given semester. I’m talking today about negotiating how we approach our use of directiveness as tutors.

Like my fellow tutors, I underwent a great deal of training – our writing center requires its tutors to take a full-semester class with an observation component – and in that class, we are of course introduced to a whole range of tutoring styles and theories. The intention was to give us the range of options and tools. Our instructor and center director was really specific about only one thing he wanted in the center: “I don’t like minimalism.” So what happened in my first semester tutoring?
Of course, I went minimalist. I heard myself saying “what do you think” to everything students asked me and I cringed, but I kept doing it. For the first couple of months, I’d sit back and let the students do the work, and the results were usually good, but I felt like I was ignoring opportunities to help them better. Finally, I realized I had started tutoring as a minimalist because I felt intimidated by the power I’d been given over my fellow students. I didn’t want to screw this up. So then what happened for the rest of the semester?
I did the exact opposite. Suddenly I knew the answer, I was in a position to share it, and share it I did. I answered questions with certitude. I suggested the best words. I stopped saying “I think you could” and started saying “I think you should.” I quickly realized this was no better and vowed to move somewhere toward the middle. I had to establish a few things, first.
Writing center tutors are not really peers. Placed in this position of reviewing, critiquing, and suggesting methods of development for other students is scary. We do these things as a peer, but from a formal, institutional role in which the writing center casts us. It’s no wonder there’s a pressure to back off and maintain the sense of peership minimalism offers. The consequences are lower.
On the other hand, it’s easy to swing the other way once the tutor realizes that first and foremost, they are there to help. From there it’s a short trip to seeing writers as possessing “flawed” documents that can be “fixed.” Tutors are put there with an authority. Exercising it is startlingly easy, and what the writer leaves with is undoubtedly a “better” paper, but it is no longer really their paper.
Just because a tutor has authority, that does not mean the tutor should be authoritarian. A tutor has the opportunity to introduce the writer to a two-way conversation about writing: suggestions are made, arguments are examined, and content is weighed, but all decisions to revise remain ultimately with the text’s owner. Two writers discussing a spectrum of writing options while maintaining the authority of both contributors is pure collaboration. How does the tutor define the boundaries of that spectrum, and of that collaboration?
“Directive” is not (always) a bad word. When a writer turns to you not because they want you to do the work, but because they don’t know or aren’t sure how to do the work, give them a direction because they may feel directionless. You don’t have to be a turn-by-turn GPS with “A Paper” as the destination. You can be a compass and give the writer a heading.
But purely directive removes the writer. If a writer hasn’t turned to you for direction, or needs only a little nudge, there’s a fine line for the tutor between making a suggestion and taking over.  Being too directive can preempt the writer’s invention process, mute their voice, and rob them of their stake in the outcome. Instead of showing the writer what they can do to write better, you’ve only shown them how you write better.
“Minimalist” is not (always) a bad word. When your writer has the idea, has the drive, and has the skills, but needs a sounding board or a warm body to listen to their plans, sit back and see how far they can go. Ask questions about their work, not their questions. Make them think about how their audience will read them, don’t just tell them. Giving the writer a chance to take control can lead them to a better learning experience.
But purely minimalist stalls the writer. Refusing to ever read the writer’s paper to them is denying them the chance to hear their words more objectively. Mirroring the body language of a disinterested writer borders on being petty. If you meet the writer’s every question with a question of your own, you are obstructing their search for answers, while plainly displaying that you know but are not sharing. Doing this abuses your position of authority, is evasive, and almost elitist.
It may be easy to make assumptions about where a writer will be on their spectrum of writing skill, and what help they will need accordingly, but be willing to move along the spectrum to meet your writer where they need you.
When you start out minimal, you offer the writer a chance to step up and assert their authority over their work. If they don’t seem to want that authority, or don’t think they can handle it, help them find it. Even though they didn’t want that authority at first, they may want to take it back from you as the session unfolds. Offer the reins back frequently.
The best sessions can be when you sit back, and with only a few questions or comments, inspire your student to see their own text in a whole new way. Not only can it be enjoyable for you to watch that session unfold so well, but you’re demonstrating that writers own their writing, and can add, subtract, invent, reinvent, or discard their words any time they want.
If the writer resists their authority, insisting they take it helps no one. Ask questions about the assignment. Establish what they know about their topic. Make suggestions. Tell them if something isn’t clear. Tell them there are alternatives, and don’t be afraid to show them a few. If their paper lacks a clear thesis, tell them so. If a supporting argument is underdeveloped, tell them that. This doesn’t mean you have to tell them exactly how to fix it.
The best sessions can also be when you help a writer who was frustrated by their work step back, break the assignment down into its component parts, and help them form a plan to attack each one. Not only can it be enjoyable for you to watch that session unfold so well, but you’ve also defanged the assignment before it became unmanageable, and have show them that a hard assignment is not an impossible assignment.
We tell our writers that writing is a recursive process that moves back and forth along invention, drafting, and revision constantly. The journey along the spectrum of directivity is not a straight line, but a path that twists back on itself. Starting minimalist and going directive doesn’t mean the tutor has to stay directive. If the session needs to start directive, it doesn’t mean the tutor can’t put the power back in the writer’s hands by offering more minimalist input later.
The writer may have abandoned control, but it is the tutor’s duty to keep giving it back. The writer may keep pushing the reins away, and if they do, don’t force the issue. The writer may also want to take the reins back after seeing one barrier fall away, and be eager to push the rest aside themselves.
Writers exist at many places on the spectrums of writing skill and engagement. By moving fluidly along the spectrum of directivity, tutors can more nimbly intercept the writers wherever they are on their personal writing spectrums, and more assuredly guide them to where they want to go.
Thank you.

Initial thoughts on the conclusion of #NCPTW

I sit now on the balcony of my hotel room in Miami. The Atlantic churns steadily below, but it has been especially tumultuous since yesterday afternoon. My notions of a post-conference dip were pulled out to sea with the riptide warning that’s been in effect for almost the entire weekend. I, of course, curse myself now for having left some work to do on my presentation Thursday afternoon. The feeble consolation prize wade I took tonight only deepened that regret: the water was pleasantly warm and would have been perfect for a swim, except for those pesky 10 ft waves and the purple flag advisory indicating the presence of “Dangerous Marine Life.”
Fortunately, I did not just wade into the National Conference on Peer Tutoring and Writing (see what I did there? Heh. Writing is neat). Having been to one conference already this year as an attendee, a second as a co-presenter, and finally NCPTW as a solo presenter, I knew well enough to really get in deep and get soaked this time. I’d scheduled my flights for the purpose of taking in the whole conference without missing a session, and I kept to that plan. Being a first-time attendee to NCPTW, I went off the assumption that it’d be a bunch of tutors talking about tutoring. I was right, but it really was so much more.
When you really commit to something, really think about it as constantly as I have come to do with writing center theory in the past 12-18 months, a thought roams wider inside your head the deeper you go: Am I really getting this, or am I just scratching the surface in a pale imitation of real theorists? The answer NCPTW provided: I am just scratching the surface, but I am also really beginning to get this.
Many times this weekend, I found myself simply getting it. I don’t know how else to describe that sense of philosophical zen or oneness. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything I heard, but what I observed in sessions and their related discussions was relatable to something I had experienced, had read about, or as in some cases, had been studying closely myself. Jennifer Forsthoefel (Georgia State), in talking about achieving (or retaining) peerness in a writing center session as a graduate writing tutor/consultant, made observations very similar to my own from my session the day before, even going so far as to draw her theory from some of the same sources.
This unexpected philosophical parity is reassuring, but not because I feel like someone working at a higher level has independently drawn some of the same conclusions I have. It’s that I know I’m not off in left field, not completely missing the point of these key discussions. It’s exciting to realize that while I may not yet have joined the larger venues of the discussion, I recognize that I’m almost there. I’m only scratching the surface of what the sessions at NCPTW accomplished for me right now, and I really hope to explore the after-conference effects in upcoming posts.
So to shoehorn home the metaphor I so artlessly started earlier, attending and presenting at NCPTW has gotten me to a point past wading and past treading water. I’m not swimming in the rough surf yet, but NCPTW has at least convinced me I’m in no imminent danger of rhetorically drowning. Now about that “Dangerous Marine Life” …
Special note: I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to the selection committees working with the University of Michigan-Flint’s Fran Frazier Travel Grant and NCPTW’s Registration & Grub Grant. The support provided by these grants made this trip and all its positive results possible.