Jessica Smietana, first year student in the French and Francophone Master’s Program at UIC, loves reading, baking, cats, and horror films. During her undergrad career at UIC, she was inspired by Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, a book she read for one of her classes, to explore the creative side of writing. As an English major in undergrad, she typically wrote papers in an academic structure. She wrote “Language Learned and Unlearned,” as a way of stepping out of her comfort zone to experience a different style of writing–one that didn’t involve a thesis-style format. She specifically chose to focus on grammar because it was a topic she repeatedly encountered in her tutoring sessions. Grammar is something she didn’t expect to be difficult to explain, but turned out to be just that. Read more about her experience here:

Language Learned and Unlearned

The advantages of writing centers are that they offer L2 writers the extra time and attention that may not be available in class, and they focus on the individual. In addition, tutors may be perceived as more approachable than teachers. A disadvantage is that not all the tutors may be trained for work with L2 writers. What tutors are prepared to do is collaborate, which can be frustrating for L2 writers who are looking for clear and direct answers. In addition, many writing center tutors tend to deflect questions about grammar, either because such a focus is not in accordance with the center’s philosophy or because they do not feel capable of giving adequate answers.” –Jessica Williams, Teaching Writing in Second and Foreign Language Classrooms

The Writing Center is not a fix-it shop, nor a grammar correction center. My experiences as a tutor, however, have taught me that some writers make an appointment at the Writing Center with just these expectations in mind, and with precisely these needs to address. L2 writers specifically may be prone to present their writing with an anxious awareness of their grammatical shortcomings. These writers express concern that their writing is incomprehensible because of its grammatical errors, and seem to believe that a paper’s content is of secondary importance to its grammatical correctness. Though these observations are not true of all of the L2 writers that I’ve worked with, and are certainly not intended to classify all L2 writers as a single entity, I have noticed that L2 writers are inclined to be more cognizant of grammar and expect that their imperfect understanding of it will be demonstrated in their writing.

Native speakers of a language tend not to think, as L2 writers do, of their knowledge of their own language as something that is in progress. The linguistic knowledge of a native speaker, as murky and incomplete as it is, can easily become fossilized and inexpressibly implicit. As a tutor, this is something that I have learned about myself. Despite being able to use my implicit understanding of grammar to form correctly constructed sentences, I have not been so easily able to communicate this knowledge to writers still in the process of mastering English grammar. After mangled attempts at an explanation, I have often found myself resorting to my standby solution: “This sounds better to me as a native speaker.” And although a questionable sentence may improve with the implementation of this method, the writer and the tutor unquestionably do not. The Writing Center is not a fix-it shop, nor a grammar correction center, except for a portion of nearly every session. And when the Writing Center does become a grammar correction center, even briefly, how does a tutor successfully address a writer’s grammatical concerns?

The truth is, Standard English does not really make any more sense than non-standardized dialects of English – in some cases, Standard English is simply a set of sanctioned language idiosyncrasies.” –Kenneth Lindblom and Patricia A. Dunn, Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction.

My writer and I are discussing escalators. She has designed a device to sanitize escalator railings, and her PowerPoint presentation must be submitted this weekend. She wants to talk about her grammar. She is an L2 writer and doesn’t want her presentation to reflect that. Her presentation is impressive, but generally missing articles. “I think we need an article there, what do you think?” I ask, trying to be nondirective. She agrees, but does not have a suggestion about which article would be appropriate to use. I know the answer, but I can’t make the reason why sound logical even to myself. The sentence in question reads, “When riding escalator, people are exposed to many bacteria.” My instinct tells me that “the escalator” would be the best choice, but this instinct falls apart under scrutiny. My understanding of article usage is that “the” refers to a specific noun, and “a” refers to a nonspecific one. In this sentence, however, we are not referring to a specific escalator. Despite being a native speaker, I do not possess an understanding of grammar sophisticated enough to explain or justify this article choice to the writer. I end up thinking “an escalator” would also work well enough in this sentence, but I doubt suggesting that the articles are interchangeable would be helpful to the writer. Ultimately, I express that I prefer “the,” but either one works. And this is not the last article I choose for the writer, who can hardly learn the native speaker secrets of proper article usage in one tutoring session.

After some time going over her presentation’s grammar, I realize that the word choice of “riding” an escalator seems incorrect to me. Taking an escalator, I suggest. We take trains and buses and escalators and ride bikes and horses and motorcycles. Is her word choice of “riding” appropriate only for modes of transportation that we straddle? Probably not. But I am not an expert.

“Writers may respond non-verbally by just nodding or maintaining eye-contact, or minimally with mmm or uh-huh, yet they do not always understand or agree.” –Jessica Williams, Tutoring and Revision: Second Language Writers in the Writing Center

One of the more difficult aspects of being a peer tutor is not knowing whether or not I’ve actually been of any real help to most writers. Feedback slips do not account for the aftermath of a session. Even if a writer leaves the Writing Center feeling encouraged and empowered, would that same writer return after receiving a lower than expected grade on a supposedly improved paper? Looking over the dates and times scrawled on my own feedback slips, I no longer quite know which session refers to which writer, let alone what helpful or unhelpful tutoring approaches I tried. Becoming more comfortable as a tutor unfortunately is not necessarily contingent on becoming more effective as a tutor. Perhaps one only becomes more comfortable with the reality of being ineffective at times.

I am working with a writer who wants assistance editing a paper for a history course. She is an L2 writer whose work has few serious grammatical issues. As time allows, I begin to point out her patterns of error as I notice them. After I suggest that she means “in order” when writing “in other,” she quickly and easily goes back and corrects prior instances of this error. My advice about commas or subject-verb agreement is less successful, however, and becomes tantamount to “fixing” as time runs out and my several attempts at explanation clearly have not sufficed. She maintains eye contact as I suggest another correction, but seems reluctant to move her cursor.

While it is easy as a tutor to get a sense of a session as being successful or unsuccessful, it is just as easy to misinterpret a writer’s mmm or uh-huh. An mmm might mean that no further explanation is required. An uh-huh may actually indicate a writer’s refusal to listen to another clumsy attempt at clarification. These are the distinctions that I have not learned as tutor, that may not be learnable.

Great help with citations and grammatical errors.”

Thanks a lot! It really helped me to improve my understanding about English & grammar!”

These anonymous feedback slips suggest that I helped these writers to better understand English grammar. I am glad that I accomplished this, but I cannot tell you how I did.