tutoring as an ESL student

I found this week’s reading to be very helpful in addressing my concerns and insecurities with specific strategies and recommendations. Mara Brecht’s reflection on her work with the ABLE student Kathie is especially honest and thoughtful. I appreciated her admission that “there is no neutral zone” and that she would “never understand the impact of [her] language” (306). However, it seems to me that most conversations about the language of identity in the Writing Center context assume that the writing partner is the master of the dominant culture’s privileged writing discourse who needs to be considerate of the student’s disadvantaged, underserved background. As a Writing Partner who learned English as a second language, I wonder how the tutor-tutee dynamic would be affected if the roles were reversed.

On Sunday, I had a consultation with an English major who was working on a paper for her English class. Although our conversation went very smoothly, I found myself trying to appear to have more authority by mentioning that I had taken the same English class last semester and that I understand what it means to “close read” and write a paper without a thesis. At the end, the student asked me a preposition question, with which I was unable to help her. These moments in consultation amplify the imposter syndrome for me. Even though I had been selected and trained, am I qualified, as an outsider, to help people who write English as a native speaker, who have spent more time at school and at home immersed in American academic discourse?

Sometimes I worry that my student has a hard time understanding me not because of their  English proficiency, but mine. People tell me that I tend to swallow words and trail off at the end of my sentences, even when I speak Chinese. I feel especially insecure about speaking English when I am tired or recently return from Chinese-speaking environment. When I see puzzled looks during consultations, I worry that I wouldn’t be able to explain my suggestion in more accessible terms because the English I learned is far more academic than colloquial.

In Frances’ Nan’s article about weekly writing partner appointments with international students from China (this wasn’t a part of the assigned reading but was referenced in our assigned reading), she discussed strategies to work with English language learners and emphasized the importance to evaluate the student’s educational background and familiarity with writing standards at an American institution like Pomona. Six years later, the international student demographic group at Pomona has changed to include more Chinese students who went to high school in the US (myself included) than students who come from local Chinese schools. What does this mean then for writing partners who work with international students now? How does my educational and language background influence the students who work with me?

can I help you?

I remember feeling nervous when during the first Thursday training lunch, Pieter said that as a new Partner and a sophomore, one might find themselves in consultations with seniors working on their fellowship applications during the first couple weeks of the semester. Although the power dynamic between the student and the partner should be a peer-like relationship and we were trained to not be authority figures, the idea of talking to someone older and more experienced makes me think that the authority dynamic would swing the other way around. After all, English is not even my first language. I had never realized until I started working at the Writing Center how strongly age (or perceived difference in experience) influences power dynamic in interpersonal interactions.

Most of my first consultations were with first-years who are working on papers for ID1 classes. With them, I feel comfortable discussing strategies to structure a typical argumentative essay, or point out places for improvement. I can assume the role of a peer with perhaps more familiarity with college writing conventions when working with students who are younger than me. However, I find it much more difficult to take on authority or even act as a peer when the student is older than me and brings in a finished paper with a highly specific topic: ex. a 14-page paper on nuclear warheads in the Middle East that this student was going to submit for a conference. Sometimes the student seems to become a bit frustrated when it takes me a long time to understand the paper and even longer before I can offer anything intelligent.

One thing that I’ve found helpful in both situations is asking questions and giving feedback as if the consultation were a reader’s response exercise. Ianetta and Fitzgerald also discuss this strategy in the Tutoring Practices chapter (59). In the consultation I had just now with a first-year student about her ID 1 paper, she brought a commented copy that her professor “peer-edited.” Her professor asked questions, suggested alternative scenarios to push her consider the evidences further, and also brought up ideas that she could incorporate into her paper. I found it helpful to adopt the style her professor used in my consultation. Although Writing Partners are fellow student writers, we are also just readers when it comes to treating individual student’s papers. Any questions a reader might ask and ideas a reader could suggest would be valid for the role of a Writing Partner.   This framework could also break the dichotomy of characterizing the writing tutor as either a more experienced writer or a writer at the same level as the student.

On a different note, some consultations clearly go more smoothly than others, and it can be hard to get engaged right away in a consultation sometimes. There are days when I just  can’t articulate a thought, or times when I can’t think of good questions to ask. My energy level at the time and my perceived difficulty of the consultation can influence my confidence too. What are strategies for times like those?

Who are you to tell me that I can’t write? or Plagiarism as defined by Turnitin.com

It has been a long time since I read/heard something as inflammatory as how Daniel Martin characterized me and my peers: “International students, particularly Asians, are often seen as persistent perpetrators of unethical academic behavior (Deckert, 1993)” (Martin, 2011, p.262). And here’s more: “Asian students are often seen as having deficient knowledge about English writing due to their lack of language skills and their background in foreign educational norms, and are therefore more tempted to plagiarize” (Martin, 2011, p. 264). Am I breaking stereotypes by working at the Writing Center?

While I was relieved to see that Martin found that being Asian does not mean higher tendency to plagiarize and that collectivism culture does not lead to plagiarism, I am wary of the “moderate associations” between years spent in the US and plagiarism (Martin, 2011, p. 269). This implies that acculturation is analogous to assimilating and conforming to American standard, as it is defined by Turnitin.com, a tool that is counterproductive to promoting creative and engaged pedagogy as Adler-Kassner et al. point out (2008, p. 243). Granted, plagiarism has different definitions in the academic discourse communities in different countries, and the international discourse community is dominated by American conventional practices. However, it is dangerous to encourage international students to become less recognizably Asian, assuming the common perception of Asian students as plagiarizers out of collectivist cultural norms. Martin’s theoretical framework and its implication linking degrees of assimilation to achievement of academic expectation is rather heavy-handed and lacks nuance.

Furthermore, Martin’s study fails to acknowledge the demographical diversity of the US, and disregards the diversity of Asians altogether. What about American-born students with parents from Asia who have collectivist home culture but American school experience? What about multi-racial students? What about non-East Asians? What about international students who went to international schools in Asia where academic expectations are essentially western? What about Caucasian Americans who went to school in Asia? Not only are international students identified as the other, assimilation to academic expectations in prevention of plagiarism is equated with learning ethical standards.

As I am writing this blogpost I find myself obsessing over sentences as to not demonstrate my “lack of language skills and background in foreign educational norms” (Martin, 2011, p.262). Do my professors harbor the same impression of Asian students? What do readers assume about me and my writing when they realize that I was born and raised in Beijing? Do my five and a half years of American education purify me of my culture?

Review, receive, rewrite


“This is a solid start! However, you seem a bit confused toward the last paragraph and the idea of spatial orientation could be developed a bit further here…” When I receive a paper back from Professor Zhiru, I can expect comments along the lines of this that run from the last page of my draft onto the bottom of the blank back page. And more often than not, I can also count on another 8 hours of substantive revising, or rewriting, before I can come up with a decent final draft, often twice the length and depth of the first one.

My favorite thing about reading Professor Zhiru’s feedback is that I can hear it in her voice. As Nancy Sommers points out, students invest in academic writing a lot more when they feel a personal stake in it. Insofar as the student draft is personal because a good piece of writing answers the “why care” question, helpful feedback is also directed beyond the draft, at the person behind the words, and benefit from the commenter’s personality and personal voice.

I think customized, personalized writing and feedback is inseparable from the idea of discourse community in college writing. Summers suggests that student writers, in order to produce genuine work, cannot write into a void but need to have their reader in mind. Good feedback also need to aim at producing better writers instead of better writing. Both Sommers’ study and Winalski’s reflection reveal that the key to effective reception of feedback on the part of the student is having a growth mindset, that comments on one assignment can apply to writing patterns in general and contribute to development as a writer in the long term. On the other hand, it is often overlooked that teachers are not static and their comments are not final or stable either – Nancy Sommers’ reflection on her first essay about feedback on writing after 24 years shows us that teachers grow with students, and the art of giving feedback can be perfected over time just like the art of writing.

Unfortunately, not every professor has the time and energy to give two pages of feedback and I cannot afford to spend two weeks on revision for every writing assignment. What happens when the first draft is the final draft, and feedback is really evaluation? It can be hard to treat an essay as a work in progress rather than the finished product when the instructor has to stamp a grade on it, and unless rewrite policies were in place, neither the instructor nor the student is likely to return to it again. This seems to put a burden on the students to compare comments from different assignments to draw patterns about their writing, in order to become better writers. On the other hand, we occupy unique positions in the discourse community of college writing as writing partners. As feedback-givers, we do not have the pressure to evaluate, and can simply act as fellow writers and experienced readers. What are the implications, then, for our feedback on student writing? How does this help us use the feedback we receive and become better writers ourselves?

On thesis and originality

Berggren makes a striking claim – although it does not appear in the last sentence of her first paragraph – that thesis statements stifle originality in writing. The better alternative, according to her experience and her composition philosophy, is to prep the readers with evidence and let one’s conclusion develop organically over the flow of arguments. To prove her point, Berggren points to an older and better time when thesis meant “general questions” explored in a piece of writing (56). As Thorpe suggested in 1929, it makes no sense to come up with a conclusion first without examining the evidences (58).

Last week, a fourth-year complained to me about his senior seminar because they have to propose a thesis before writing the chapters. In his view, which I think Berggren would agree, having a conclusion obliterates the necessity to go through the thinking and writing to get to that destination. This reminded me of Elbow’s writing ideology, where one lets the words lead oneself to the central idea, rather than reining them by a presupposition. Is it possible then that Elbow and Berggren are describing how one would write the “first draft” to figure out a conclusion, and after extrapolating a thesis produced by that process, we can rewrite a “second draft” with a thesis in the beginning of the paper this time? This way the thesis does not have to be “perfunctory” nor does the thinking process have to be compromised (60).

If suggesting a chronological order between two kinds of essays – the ones with and the ones without a formulaic thesis – implies an unnecessary hierarchy, it may be helpful to think of them as writings with different aims. In Berggren’s strongest assertion in her article, writing is little more than “training exercises” for students and there is no need to pretend that there should be some bigger implication to answer the “so what” question (56). By undermining the enterprise of academia, Berggren embraces, rather than attempts to reject, the contravenes of academic writing. But that model of education, as she observes, has lost popularity with the spread of mass higher education in the US.

Berggren’s historical explanations for the rise of thesis bear resemblance to the suspicion of mass-produced art held by artists from an older generation and condemnation of mass-produced commodities from traditional artisans. Rather than reminiscing the good old days when people didn’t need the fast-food version of “thesised” writing to understand the main idea of an article, what can we do now to produce good writing, and more importantly engage in good thinking, given the updated norms and expectations of composition pedagogy? The more important question for us to answer as students and as writing tutors is how we can write with both theses and originality.

Authorize, Author, Authority

How do student writers become “authors” with “authority?” Mark Gaipa answers this question in “Breaking into the Conversation,” telling the story about how his students become “authorized” – initiated into the academic discourse community of Hemingway literary criticism.

Writing into the scholarly debate resolves the problem of student writing as having no real stake other than for the sake of practice, as Gaipa points out in his discussion about “motive” (421). While reading secondary sources sets up the context of academic discourse of a certain field out of which new thoughts arise, it also provides, ideally, the image of a target audience with genuine interest to read what the student might have to say. “The reality of competition in the marketplace of ideas” (421), however, strikes me as a cold and scary concept that inadvertently draws too harsh a line between academic writing and personal writing. How does engagement with scholarly discourse balance with having a personal stake in not explicitly personal writing?

In a writing-intensive seminar class, I had an experience with secondary sources that was similar to Gaipa’s stick-figure picture of the Hemingway Society conference. My relationship with scholarly writing changed when I read an article most of the references in which were authors I recognize – in a narrow subject that according to my professor has a dearth of English scholarship, it is possible to see the same five people talking about each other in their scholarly writings and engaging with one another using strategies similar to the ones Gaipa outlined. The templates he provides could be useful tools to supplement “They Say I Say,” with perhaps more nuanced ways to do “I say,” given what “they say.”

I really liked the idea that “scholarship has a history and a direction,” and that “collaborative knowledge about a text unfolds dialectically over time” (422). Pointing out that there’s no singular truth buried in the text waiting to be discovered reinforces the sense of having a stake in the discourse community. Because knowledge is collaborative, the voice of everyone counts and adds value to the room. While the process of “authorizing” student writers in the field of literary criticism is easy to see, I wonder if the same idea of writing into academic discourse applies for every field of study. And for students studying subjects that perhaps fit less well into Gaipa’s model, how could they “acquire authority for their writing?”

Revising as Rethinking

According to Nancy Sommers, “finding the form or shape of their argument” is the main purpose of revision for experienced writers (384). Although not quite an experienced writer, I have been forced to make what she terms “semantic changes” in Professor Zhiru’s seminar classes, where I have been growing the most as a writer (382).

The setup of Professor Zhiru’s class involves the kind of workshop environment Kimberly Nelson describes. Every week, two students are assigned to present the week’s readings and each write a five-page rough draft about the primary and/or secondary sources. These rough drafts have virtually no prompt and can be taken in any direction, depending on the student’s engagement with the sources. Two days before the class meets, people who have written send their rough drafts to everyone in the class, and people who are not presenting write a one-page response to their peers’ work. After class discussion and receiving written and verbal feedback from classmates and the professor, students have a week or two to revise their rough draft. This system intentionally separates the rough draft from the final draft while having class discussion and feedback in between, making the revision process much easier to approach and reformulating arguments much less scary.

Turning in rough drafts to Professor Zhiru and my classmates takes a lot of courage. Presenting unpolished work and half-finished thoughts is hard enough, but facing critiques from half-a-dozen people – some more pointed than others – definitely challenges me to be okay with having confusion and changing my mind, or as Sommers calls it, “changing vision.” Some peer responses focus on the thought and content of my rough draft, while others scrutinize the mechanics of my writing. Adding on to everything, the three-hour class discussion (we have one of those once-a-week night seminars) often leads me to see the sources in a different light, prompting new ideas for revising my paper. Consequently, I always find myself rewriting the whole thing when I revise these assignments. Sometimes I ask a different thesis question, sometimes I keep certain paragraphs, but invariably I have to start a new in order to make changes on the argument level.

Despite the relative ease of rethinking a paper with this setup, the revision process is intimidating. Last Monday, I wrote a five-page draft about tomb paintings in 200 B.C. China and their implications on the afterlife in ancient Chinese imagination. The readings were difficult and the class discussion left me in further confusion. I have yet to sort through my notes filled with scribbled ideas and responses from my peers. The revision process, I imagine, will most likely involve some serious rethinking about my argument and rewriting, and I am dodging it by writing this blog post.

Returning to Sommers, I find her student writer/experienced writer dichotomy overly simplistic. After all, how does a student writer becomes experienced? Weren’t all experienced writers once students? While a diagnosis of what the student writers fail to do in the revision process is helpful, it may be more productive to consider venues of growth that allow student writers to learn the mindset and skills of experienced writers. Another point with which I cannot agree is Sommers’ criticism of student writing as imitation or transcription of speech (382). Although it is true that student revision patterns resemble cleaning up speech, condemning “writing as one would talk” risks barring students whose speech vernacular differs from standard English conventions from academic discourse communities. How do we as student writers gain experience without necessarily subscribing to a single narrative of expertise?