Working in the University Writing Center: Techniques and Strategies for Effective Tutoring
VII. Writing in the DisciplinesTutoring
Other Rhetorical Concerns
Writing assignments are not limited to English courses. Students may come into a writing center with assignments from a wide variety of disciplines, with different genres, formats, jargon words, and expectations.
The writing center appointment systems are often not set up to schedule a student working on a paper for a particular discipline with a tutor from that discipline. For this reason, you may find yourself helping a student who is working in an unfamiliar genre in an unfamiliar discipline. The rhetorical principles outlines above are invaluable in this situation. In addition, keep the following points in mind:
- Don't pretend to know more than you do about the course or the discipline?your expertise is in writing, and not, in most cases, in whatever field the writer is writing in. In this situation, the student is the expert on the course, and may actually know more about what to do than he or she thinks.
- Ask questions?let the student clarify his or her knowledge by explaining it to you. Don't worry if it seems sometimes that the roles have been reversed and that the student is tutoring you in Management, or Molecular Biology. While you learn, the student is solidifying his or her grasp on the concepts and mastering the necessary language.
- Don't give advice you are not sure about. Let the student make the decisions.
- Don't turn a lab report or a case study analysis into a college essay.
- Consult some of the handbooks in the UWC library. We have handbooks for business writing, technical writing, writing in the sciences, and for many other disciplines and areas of study.
Your overall task in this situation is to make the student aware of the rhetorical features of the writing situation, and to help him or her make rhetorical decisions. If you and the student cannot come up with necessary information about the assignment, help the writer articulate questions for the instructor, and encourage the student to meet with the instructor as soon as possible.
The following sections have to do with the genre of the writing, and the associated writing conventions of the particular discourse community within which the writing is taking place.
Determining the Context
The context refers to the immediate situation of the writing, as well as the issues and concerns of the discourse community within which the writing is situated. The following questions will help both you and the writer determine the context of the writing.
- As with audience, there are usually two contexts--that of the academic course and that of the hypothetical "real-world." Ask the student about both contexts.
- If the paper is a research paper or an opinion piece, what is going on in this discourse community? What is controversial, and what is accepted opinion?
- Are there different factions, issues, points of view? What is changing? What is remaining stable? These questions will help the student discover what they have to say and how to situate his or her point of view.
Considering the Evaluation Criteria
The following questions will help both you and the writer evaluate the writing relative to the instructor's evaluation criteria.
- How is the instructor going to evaluate or grade the writing?
- Are there explicit criteria? If so, help the student apply them to the writing.
- Are certain features of the writing more important than others? Has the writer taken this into account?
For example, Geri-Ann Galanti of the Anthropology Department at CSULA says that an "A" paper for her Anthropology 250 course has the following characteristics:
- Follows directions and completes all aspects of the assignment,
- Interviews more than the minimum number of people required,
- Is well-written and well-organized, making it easy for the reader, and
- Does an in-depth analysis of the data.
Galanti says, "If the student does the first three things on my list above, they will generally receive a ?B.' To get an ?A,' however, I must see evidence that they can go beyond mere description and comparison?that they can analyze data." They must:
- Explain why people respond in certain ways;
- How it relates to other aspects of their culture, etc.
According to Galanti, "inability to do in-depth analysis is the major problem preventing papers from receiving ?A' grades."
Cristina Bodinger-deUriarte, also at CSULA, says that an "A" paper for Sociology should:
- Iterate the formal definitions of the key concepts used;
- Cite the relevant reading from the course;
- Quote source material, but sparingly, to illustrate what is being discussed;
- Know when to quote and when to cite -- do not use direct passages from the text as if they are in your own words;
- Interpret and integrate the concepts -- make your own "value added" contribution to your work clear;
- Set up the paper with an introduction that lets the reader in on your purpose and logically frames what is to follow;
- Conclude with a summation that also gives the reader an indication of the significance of the issues (I call this my "so what" factor);
- The paper should have a logical flow as though written to an outline (in an ideal world, it would be!);
- Students should not lose sight of the purpose of the assignment and go off on interests or tangents of their own -- They should realize the assignments are given for a reason and they need to follow directions;
- Students should refrain from giving extraneous details -- learn to discriminate between the important and the peripheral.
In Thinking and Writing in College, Barbara Walvoord and Lucile McCarthy note that cognitive psychologists distinguish between:
- Declarative knowledge (knowledge of what) and
- Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how).
In Galanti's scheme this distinction is the crucial difference between the "B" and the "A."
- The "B" student presents the anthropological concepts learned from the course along with the data that has been gathered.
- The "A" student uses anthropological concepts and procedures to analyze the data, and goes beyond reporting about anthropology to doing anthropology.
Whenever possible, ask the student to show you the assignment and the evaluation criteria. Students do not always understand how their papers are going to be judged.
Identifying the Format
The following questions will help both you and the writer identify the format. It is important to remember that some disciplines (and some instructors) have very strict formatting requirements.
- What is the proper format for the writing? Is it a report, an essay, a summary, a review, a memo, a letter, or something else?
- Does the student have a model or example of a typical piece of this type?
- Does it have sections or subheads? What sort of information belongs in each section?
Example: Research Paper for the Biological Sciences
The research paper for biology has nine components: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgements, and Literature Cited. Each section contains specific information in a specific format. Handbooks in the Writing Center library provide models and descriptions of most of the types of papers that students will write.
Go to Next Section -->
Go back to Section List -->