II Radhika Vu Thanh Vy II
Writing tutoring, civil discourse, and collaboration all play a key role in helping international students transfer their cultural and linguistic capital into success at an American academic institution. The category “international students” comprises a wide range of backgrounds and situations. Some international students enter college having attended boarding school in the U.S., so they have had some exposure to the American education system. Others attended English-speaking schools in their home countries, so they are fluent in English. However, they may not be familiar with American academic composition. For some students, English is not their first language. College could be the first time these students are immersed in an almost entirely English-speaking community. International students may experience doubt and uncertainty about themselves, and worry about not measuring up to their American classmates. A multi-literate perspective enables tutors to recognize the cultural and linguistic capital that the international student already has. Tutors must embrace the validity of culture-specific intellectual styles. This will ensure that writing center work does not reinforce the inferiority complex many international students have.
The inferiority complex experienced by many international students is part of a larger social phenomenon that results from the belief in a hierarchy of cultures or languages. Frantz Fanon, one of the founders of post-colonial theory, explores in detail and depth, issues with language and culture that people may face when they go abroad, and then return to their home country. His essay, “The Negro and Language,” is specific to the example of an African man who goes to France, learns French, and then returns home completely changed. This essay addresses the question of how language and culture can affect a person. Fanon explains that in this particular case, the black man feels torn between Creole, his native language, and French, the “language of the civilizing nation” (127). A history of colonization heightens the power dynamic between these two languages, which results in a superiority complex that places the French language over African languages.
In the same way that colonization establishes a hierarchy of culture, institutions and systems can deepen that hierarchy of language and culture. As a Vietnamese student who has attended English-speaking schools my whole life, I have internalized the concept that the English used or taught by white teachers is the most legitimate. The most legitimate accent is American or British. A Canadian or Australian accent is also good, but certainly not an “Asian” accent or an “African” accent. Fanon articulates the power relationship between languages accurately when he compares Antilles and Brittany, both of whom use French and their own dialect, but “the Bretons do not consider themselves inferior to the French people. The Bretons have not been civilized by the white man” (133). I have come to think of English as a superior language over Vietnamese, my mother tongue, not because of a history of colonization, but because of the opportunities English represents for me in terms of studying and working in institutions.
This superiority/inferiority complex can make its way into the writing center as well. Even though tutors may not subscribe to the idea of a hierarchy of language, they may still subconsciously classify “types” of writing, with “standard” English considered the most valid. When we are studying and working in an institution that privileges the American academic writing style, we may forget that there are other languages and cultures that promote different writing styles that are equally as valid as standard English. Fan Shen, a professor at an American college, wrote an essay called, “The Classroom and the Wider Culture,” in which he discusses the way his Chinese background affected his acquisition of English composition skills. Fan explains that the compositional strategies and values he acquired in China conflicted with the “logic” of English composition. Shen’s composition style and “system of values” had to be “modified or redefined” for him to develop a new form of communication appropriate for English papers (459).
Learning to negotiate two or more composition styles— or, as Shen calls it, identities— is a complex and demanding task. Tutoring centers can help students navigate this process in a way that helps them value and capitalize on their linguistic and cultural resources. My Vietnamese friends, who study abroad in English-speaking countries, have become frustrated. They have had difficulty writing “effective” English academic essays. These are the same students who have developed a writer’s voice and mastered essay composition in Vietnamese, but feel like they are back to square one when it comes to writing English essays. American academic composition style is based on generating an argument that involves the topic and the writer’s position in relation to that topic. In Vietnamese composition style, however, the writer’s position takes a back seat to widely accepted ideas. In Vietnamese culture, education is seen as the “the transmission of philosophical, beautiful, or useful thoughts, as in literature and technical knowledge where the informal and the familiar are excluded” (160). As a result, Vietnamese students learn that the aim of their essay is to express established ideas in the most articulate and persuasive way, rather than to synthesize and argue for their own ideas. In terms of style, Vietnamese students tend to be “brief and pompous” (160), because they try to adopt the elevated style of folk wisdom. One of the authors of the book Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy (2004) observed that her Vietnamese students, in academic contexts, are “stiff and inarticulate, as if they were dull and linguistically deprived” (159). However, when that author engaged in small talk with her Vietnamese students, they express themselves “elaborately and with a great amount of wit,” because “the pressure of formalism was lifted” (159). Sarah Blazer, the Writing Center Director at the Fashion Institute of Technology, argues that even though writing centers have a long history of positioning themselves as inclusive spaces, they still “reveal a fundamental deficit-oriented bias towards students who do not use privileged varieties of English or certain rhetorical moves valued in U.S. academic contexts” (22). An English-dominated academic environment can inadvertently reinforce the notion that English is “a monolithic and all-powerful entity” (Blazer 46).
In order for writing centers to make constructive progress towards a collaborative and inclusive academic atmosphere, tutors must develop “intercultural competence” (Blazer 36). As tutors, we need not be multilingual to be able to recognize and work with different culture-specific writing styles. Tutors will be better able to help international students if we understand where these students come from, in terms of their education system, cultural background, and composition styles. A section of tutor training should be dedicated to reading and discussing works like Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy. Students should read publications like Blazer’s and Shen’s essays, or “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center: Stories and Lessons from Two Beginners” by Nancy Barron and Nancy Grimm. From my experience tutoring a Chinese student, I found that my knowledge of the Chinese composition style from reading Shen’s essay, along with my own understanding of the Vietnamese composition style, helped me recognize a pattern in my tutee’s essay. As I worked with my tutee over an essay that I may have otherwise written off as weak in structure and organization, I was able to relax my rigid “thesis and topic sentence” essay model and examine the essay according to a different model, one informed by Shen’s essay. Indeed, my tutee’s paragraphs did not open with her topic sentence; instead, the topic sentences emerged at the end of each paragraph, and the thesis appeared in the conclusion. I noticed a pattern in which the earlier parts of her essay were more exploratory, and her main points were concentrated at the end of the each paragraph. Recognizing this pattern enabled me to discuss her essay without negating her writing knowledge. If I had fallen into the trap of telling my tutee that her essay lacked structure, I would have revealed my failure to recognize a paper styled after a culture-specific intellectual tradition.
Tutors must be trained to adopt multi-literate perspectives to help international students in a fair and constructive way. For example, the University of Denver has an online document called “Guidelines for Responding to the Writing of International Students,” designed to help professors work with non-native speakers. In a section on “cultural differences in rhetorical conventions,” the document states that “not all cultures share the American emphasis on thesis statements, linear development, or the summing up through a conclusion.” In addition, the document recognizes a case in which “students from some cultural traditions may tend to approach a topic from a variety of viewpoints in order to examine it indirectly and may also feel a greater freedom to digress or to introduce extraneous material.” This document reflects the serious steps that the University of Denver has taken to develop a multicultural perspective among faculty. Professor Doug Hesse, the Executive Director of the Writing Program and a Professor of English at the University of Denver, discusses his grading philosophy in a companion piece to the guidelines document. Hesse discusses three separate criteria he uses for evaluating student work: aptness of content and approach to the task, rhetorical fit, and conformity to conventions of edited American English. He explains that these criteria help him teach international students effectively and grade their work fairly. These steps prevents him from “focusing only on surface features” while “miss[ing] strengths—and weaknesses—in the other two dimensions.” Professors must give international students their due credit by evaluating higher-order thinking through the content and approach criterion because, as Hesse asserts, “Writing is importantly top-down, driven by the task at hand.”
Similar to the University of Denver, the general writing center philosophy ought to embody “inclusive multi/trans-cultural, -lingual, and –literacy perspectives and practices” (Blazer 19). Even though writing centers have made significant progress in becoming more diverse and accommodating multilingual students, many writing centers have yet to adopt the “diversity-as-norm” and “diversity-as-resource” ideology (Blazer 23). In “Twenty-first Century Writing Center Staff Education,” Blazer examines the type of staff training and practices conducive to this inclusive ideology. She discusses the usefulness of private staff blogs in allowing tutors to engage in informal, dynamic, and honest conversations about language and tutoring sessions. In addition to various other strategies, Blazer cites Canagarajah’s advice on teaching tutors “the meta-awareness necessary to identify in others’ writing— and employ in their own— a diverse array of linguistic and discourse features” (23). The skill to recognize culture-specific stylistic features in essays will be instrumental in enabling tutors to effectively support international students. We can use collaborative methods like group discussions or, as Blazer suggests, “blogging in our private, shared digital space” (47), to take advantage of the multicultural and multi-literate insight among the tutors. Since discovering the major impact of multiculturalism on writing, I have examined my own composition style and developed a curiosity towardsmy international friends. How much is their writing style is shaped by their background? Is the style influenced more by language-specific factors or culture-specific factors? This spirit of inquiry is conducive to collaborative learning in and outside of the writing center. The writing center represents a rich pool of diverse backgrounds and deep insight into linguistic and cultural knowledge and experiences. By learning and sharing this knowledge with each other and with our tutees, tutors can make remarkable progress in “shifting orientations to linguistic diversity,” which is the “foundation for a transformative ethos in 21st-century writing centers” (Blazer 19).
Indeed, adopting linguistic diversity is a challenge. International students face the difficulty of finding their place within multiple languages and cultures. Tutors also have to put in much time and effort to diversify their own perspectives. Not only is a multilingual and multicultural philosophical stance conducive to an inclusive academic environment, but it also enables individuals to become more effective participants in cultural globalization. International students study abroad to increase their adaptability in different cultural environments. Academic institutions admit international students because diverse perspectives can contribute to research and enrich the quality of civil discourse within classrooms. Writing centers want to help international students become better communicators and writers. A multicultural, multilingual, and multi-literate ideology is a fair and constructive tutoring tradition, and — most significantly— it serves the common goal of inclusivity and cultural globalization.
Benz, Brad, et al. “Guidelines for Responding to the Writing of International Students.” University of Denver Writing Program, University of Denver, Jan. 2014, www.du.edu/writing/eventsnews/newsletters/guidelines-for-responding-to-nns.html.
Blazer, Sarah. “Twenty-First Century Writing Center Staff Education: Teaching and Learning towards Inclusive and Productive Everyday Practice.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, 2015, pp. 17–55., www.jstor.org/stable/43673618.
Fanon, Franz. “The Negro and Language.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, 3rd ed., Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, 2008, pp. 127–139.
Hesse, Doug. “Working With International Student Writers.” The University of Denver Writing Program, The University of Denver, 2014, www.du.edu/writing/eventsnews/newsletters/14second-language-writers.html.
Perez, Bertha. “Language and Literacy Acquisition in Diverse Communities.” Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy, 2nd ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.
Shen, Fan. “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 40, no. 4, 1989, pp. 459–466., www.jstor.org/stable/358245.
Radhika is a sophomore majoring in English and Economics at Colby College. She has always loved literature and creative writing, but after becoming a tutor at the Farnham Writers’ Center on campus, she discovered that she is also deeply interested in pedagogical approaches of teaching writing. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate (of passions)! She is the coordinator of the Colby English Department Student Advisory Board.