The Psychosociocultural Perspective: Academic Families and Student Mentoring

Graduate Students, Social Justice Committee, Student Voices, Uncategorized, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Center Theory, Writing Centers / Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Professor Alberta Gloria, flanked by the Writing Center's John Anderson and Rachel Carrales
Professor Alberta Gloria, flanked by the Writing Center's John Anderson and Rachel Carrales

On Friday, February 11 we had our monthly staff meeting, which, as we usually do in the spring semester, addressed social justice in Writing Center work.  UW-Madison Professor Alberta Gloria, an award-winning researcher, teacher and mentor from the department of Counseling Psychology, spoke with us at length.  Her presentation was entitled “Research and Practice Implications of a Psychosociocultural Perspective: Latin@s in Higher Education.”  The title may seem somewhat daunting; Prof. Gloria’s impassioned lecture was anything but.  She spoke eloquently about a holistic process of mentoring, and while her talk was directly about our goals as teachers, her ideas resonate strongly with larger questions of writing and writing center practice.

Prof. Gloria’s research builds off her interest in Latin@ students in higher education, focusing on students who are at greater risk to leave school early.  Her work seeks to redefine/reorient ideas of success for students, in terms that will no doubt resonate with our own experiences in the Writing Center.  Process rather than outcome, small gains rather than one big success, engaging the student’s interests and authority–these tenets of Writing Center pedagogy are all a part of any successful mentoring practice.

Her most theoretical challenge to us comes from her Psychosociocultural (PSC) methodology.  It’s a big word, so bear with me: every mentor, she argued, should engage students along three distinct but overlapping levels.  Psycho- looks at their self-efficacy and personal validation; Socio- looks at their family (particularly their academic family); Cultural looks at their sense of connectedness, ethnic, and cultural identity.  In terms of my own that no doubt grossly oversimplify Prof. Gloria’s work, successful mentoring involves finding out about the student’s individual goals and interests, locating the student within their own culture(s), and helping the student create networks, or academic families.

This notion of an academic family dominated the remainder of our discussion, which revolved around questions that all mentors should ask–and which, as I’ll soon touch on, writing center tutors should consider.  Rather than recap the entire discussion, I’ll drastically shorten this already lengthy post by simply offering the three pivotal questions Prof. Gloria gave us:

1. How do we develop and gain an academic family?

2. How do we recreate and redefine family in academia?

3. How do we create venues for students to express their family?

I take this third question to be the most pivotal, particularly here at UW.  Our graduate English program prides itself on its sense of collegiality, on our willingness to help each other, to form an academic family unto ourselves.  Moreover, our Writing Center strives to create that environment as well, both within and outside the walls of the Center.  But that third question, how do we create venues for our students, that’s the one that seems the most tricky.  It invokes the oft-heard debate between practicality–how do I help this student succeed on this paper?–and idealism–how do I help this student succeed as a writer?  This is of course a false binary, but too often it’s the trap we can fall into as tutors.

Our questions for Prof. Gloria seemed to revolve around this last issue, where we sought practical, pragmatic answers and tips we could take into our sessions.  Her answers involved expressing interest in the student, encouraging the student’s voice, asking the student about his/her expertise, inviting the student into different discourse communities, and offering insights into how a student can develop or add to his/her academic family.

But what really resonated with me was one of the terms she used to describe this process.  She called it expressing “wonderment,” an invented term she and her students use to describe the fascination involved in exploring a student’s expertise.  It indicates the approach she espouses–finding students’ authority and being excited by it–but it also oddly meshes with another topic I’ve been considering recently, the growth of World Englishes in composition.

One of the best parts of my job as T.A. Assistant Director is that I get to explore and discuss a lot of composition and Writing Center theory.  Just now I’ve been looking at A. Suresh Canagarajah’s work on World Englishes and Plurality.  Canagarajah talks about the ways speakers of different Englishes  navigate dialects and vocabularies, and that our duty as composition thinkers is to encourage a plurality of Englishes to better prepare students for a globalized society.   This both prepares students and encourages different language communities to come together, rather than simply setting up an expert/novice binary.

Canagarajah’s work is very complex (and well worth reading, I think), but I bring it up here specifically because Prof. Gloria’s coining of “wonderment” seemed to invoke Canagarajah as a way we as Writing Center tutors can bring her ideals of mentoring into our own practice.  He writes that “rather than focusing on correctness, we should perceive ‘error’ as the learner’s active negotiation and exploration of choices and possibilities.”  So while we know as tutors that we can’t just tell students to write whatever they want, we can actively engage their own expertise based on their language choices.

If we want students to understand and express their academic family, we can get them to actively think about the words and phrases they use.  While we’re teaching about discourse communities and conventions, we can ask about their own language and writing communities, and how they express that in their text.  Our own “wonderment” can come at something as small as a word choice, their ability to bring in multiple vocabularies, or to take a topic that they feel disconnected from, and make it their own through the terms they use.  This way, they can (to use Canagarajah’s term), “shuttle between” their professor’s discourse and their own, while still doing their best to meet the assignment.

Particularly for tutors (like me) who have been completely indoctrinated by ideas of “correct” English, this challenge can allow us to seek out our students’ expertise in language, and express our own wonderment at their academic communities.  If we want to help develop “families” around the university, looking at the words themselves could be a great start.

(All quotations from Canagarajah come from his piece “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.”  CCC 57.4 [June 2006]: 586-619.)

5 Replies to “The Psychosociocultural Perspective: Academic Families and Student Mentoring”

  1. What an interesting turn this post takes, Brian! I, too, was struck by Professor Gloria’s use of wonderment and, in my own head, likened it to the curiosity I encourage by students to have when they write and the curiosity I often feel when encountering research topics and writing styles that cause me tilt my head just so. But wonderment, of course, sounds new, fresh, somehow cozy.

    And I agree that we need to express wonderment at the writing of our multilingual students—those who are writing between languages as well as multiple Englishes—because it is this kind of curiosity that motivates us to ask questions about the writing. Why are you using past participles in such a strange yet consistent way? I think this is how we can get behind the writing to all the good stuff, all the PSC goodness that informs the choices students are making. In fact, I think I even wrote that on my goal sheet for this semester (!)—“ask better questions.”

  2. Brian, I hadn’t thought of it at the time but you’re right: Canagarajah’s work (and in particular, the piece you cited) is apt follow-up reading to our excellent session with Prof. Gloria. So here’s an invitation to the UW-Madison WC / WF community, and anyone else who can make it here: Interested in joining me for an informal brown bag discussion of this article? Email me off-blog and we’ll set it up!

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