International Writing Tutors Leveraging Linguistic Diversity at a Hispanic-Serving Institution’s Writing Center

Lizbett Tinoco, Texas A&M University-San Antonio
Lou Herman, The University of Texas at El Paso
Shuv Raj Rana Bhat, The University of Texas at El Paso
Alison Zepeda, The University of Texas at El Paso

Abstract

The University Writing Center (UWC) at The University of Texas at El Paso, located on the U.S-Mexico border, employs mostly tutors who are bilingual, Spanish-English; however, there are a significant number of international tutors with different linguistic backgrounds. Using a qualitative method approach, this article discusses findings from focus groups and interviews with international multilingual student tutors who worked at the UWC. Through our analysis of the data, we found that international tutors face a unique set of challenges, but also bring a wealth of knowledge to working at the writing center. This article focuses on three major themes discussed by participants: varying degrees of confidence, feelings of being othered, and issues related to linguistic diversity that arise during tutoring sessions. Tutors’ experiences in leveraging linguistic and cultural differences prompted the need for the UWC to implement changes to its tutor training and policies to support international tutors. As institutions in the United States become more diverse, writing centers need to challenge who best practices in the discipline were created for and who they serve, all while critically examining how we can leverage the experiences of international tutors to reshape writing center pedagogy.

Keywords: international writing tutors; multilingualism; linguistic diversity; Hispanic-Serving Institution; writing center pedagogy; tutor training

The University Writing Center (UWC) at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is located in El Paso, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border. El Paso, combined with its sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, make it one of the largest bi-national areas in the world. Residents of Juarez frequently commute over the international bridges daily for work; many of these commuters include students at UTEP. UTEP is a Hispanic-Serving Institution where 80% of the student population identifies as Hispanic or Latinx (UTEP, 2019). Furthermore, 20% of these students are students from Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and an additional 5% of students are international students from around the world (UTEP, 2019). Due to the diverse and complex linguistic and cultural lived experiences of students at UTEP, the UWC is informed by theories on multilingualism, antiracism, and equity. It is often cited that writing centers are not just places that enact marginalization, but centers for those who are often marginalized in academia. The UWC has drawn from these theories to develop its programmatic identity, including its goals, tutor training and pedagogies, and professional development, in order to adopt socially just practices. This work, and the theories motivating the work at the UWC, serve as a direct response to our institution and to the students it supports.

In a typical semester, the UWC assists over 8,000 students with their writing. The UWC offers face-to-face and synchronous online tutoring, employing about 30 writing tutors, undergraduate and graduate. The undergraduate writing tutors are all hired directly by the UWC, and the graduate students are those who have been awarded a master’s or doctoral teaching assistantship through the English Department or the Creative Writing Department. This year alone, over 40% of the 30+ tutors working at the Writing Center are international students and bi/multilingual with languages ranging from Spanish to Nepalese. Needless to say, this creates a linguistically and culturally diverse work environment as international writing tutors assist students with their writing at the center. This diversity of languages is at the core of our approach to training and pedagogy for writing center tutors. An intricate dynamic develops between writing center tutors and students who often have different home languages, many of whom are English language learners often working towards enacting Academic English as their writing assignments require.

While the majority of writing center pedagogy focuses on how to tutor English as a Second Language students and many tutoring books include chapters on working with ESL students or multilingual writers (Bruce & Rafoth, 2009; Gillespie and Lerner, 2009; Ryan & Zimmerelli, 2015; Bruce & Rafoth, 2016; Lape, 2020), very little has been written on the experiences of international tutors from the tutor side. This project started in 2017 when the UWC Director and Assistant Directors were approached by several international students who had been writing tutors, one who is currently the Assistant Director of the UWC and co-author of this piece, asking how training would account for the linguistic differences between the new students joining us from Nepal and the majority of the Spanish speaking students who visited the writing center. Through multiple conversations with international student tutors about their experiences working at the UWC, we were confronted with addressing the following questions: What are the experiences of international tutors working at the UWC? How do non-native English speakers navigate assisting students who are native English speakers, or, in the case of our institution, many non-native English speakers with a different home language? The UWC’s week-long training at the beginning of each academic year includes an entire day focused on tutoring multilingual students, with a larger emphasis on Spanish speakers and writers. However, this was a destabilizing question and set us on the path to try and learn about the experiences of international tutors working at the writing center. In an effort to learn how international writing center tutors navigate concerns about language usage, the UWC needed to reconceptualize training to better account for linguistically and culturally diverse interactions during tutoring sessions.

Our article’s contributions to both this special issue and the writing center community opens with an overview of the theories which inform our work at the UWC. First, we came to realize that applying writing center theory and best practices in the UWC was problematic, as some of these best practices did not resonate within the context of UTEP and the UWC–a clear indication of the highly contextualized linguistic ecologies of writing centers on college campuses. Most importantly, these best practices were developed from the ground up and informed by the experiences of students and tutors. Next, we provided a brief description of our study and data collection process. We then structured our data findings into three themes: varying degrees of confidence, feelings of being othered, and issues related to linguistic diversity that arise during tutoring sessions. Lastly, after discussing the most insightful aspects of our findings and how they informed changes to tutoring training at UWC training, we offer readers insight for how writing centers can reconceptualize and reframe the linguistic and cultural knowledges of international tutors as rich resources to learn from, and move away from the deficit rhetoric that has traditionally circulated about non-native English tutors.

Where Are International Writing Tutors in WC Scholarship?

In the United States, institutions of higher education have been enrolling a steady number of international students. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) (2019), the number of international students in the United States increased for the fourth consecutive year to a total of 1,095,299 international students for the 2018-2019 academic year. International students make up about 5.5% of the U.S. higher education student population (IIE, 2019). As institutions of higher education become more internationalized, the writing center community has mostly responded in theorizing how to tutor English as a second language students, English languages learners, and Generation 1.5 students (Harris & Silva, 1993; Thonus, 2003; Severino & Cogie, 2016; Naydan, 2016). However, much of this scholarship comes from the perspective of how to tutor linguistically diverse students and assumes the tutors are native speakers of English.

Nancy Grimm, in her keynote for the International Writing Center Association in 2008, put forth that writing centers should move towards hiring multilingual and international tutors to better prepare students for the global 21stcentury and proficiency in multiliteracies (Grimm, 2009, p. 21). In one of the few articles about international writing tutors, Balester (2012) argues how international tutors can bring “a different perspective and serve as resources for knowledge about language” (p. 7). Balester discusses that international students facilitate critical dialogue about stereotypes within the writing center and how tutoring can be effective in a variety of languages. Furthermore, according to Zhao (2017), “non-native speaker tutors have been largely neglected” (p. 580); and we argue this is also the case with international writing tutors.

Although the UWC does not consider itself a multilingual writing center, a center which supports writers to become literate in languages and writing other than English (Lape, 2020), many of the interactions within the UWC are linguistically and culturally diverse given our geographical context and the writing tutors employed by the UWC. To best articulate the linguistic richness of our context, we turned to translingualism. A translingual approach to writing, according to Horner et al. (2011) “sees difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening” (p. 303). Horner et al. (2011) also called “for more, not less, conscious and critical attention to how writers employ diction, syntax, and style, as well as form, register, and media (p. 304). Additionally, translingualism includes an affective dimension which “encourages reading with patience, respect for perceived differences within and across languages, and an attitude of deliberate inquiry” (Horner et al., 2011, p. 305). Within the writing center, translingualism gives international writing tutors the opportunity to draw from their linguistic knowledges and resources to communicate during tutoring sessions.

Furthermore, Leonard (2014) observed that multilingual writers writing across different languages and locations develop rhetorical attunement. Leonard defined rhetorical attunement as “a literate understanding that assumes multiplicity and invites the negotiation of meaning across difference” (p. 228). Rhetorical attunement, according to Leonard, shares many similarities with translingualism in that “each account for the range of creative and agentive practices, processes, and communicative moves writers use” (p. 229). Most importantly, rhetorical attunement, like a translingual approach to language, focuses on the knowledges multilingual writers create rather than what they lack (p. 230). Leonard argued that much of the literature on multilingualism and translingualism focuses on the “writers’ knowledge rather than their rhetorical activities—what their literate resources are rather than how they are used” (p. 231). It is through these theories and practices with multilingual writers and international students that the UWC implemented new training methods and pedagogical approaches, giving international students linguistic leverage while working at the writing center.

Methods for Gathering Insights

This study was conducted using a qualitative approach with the approval from the Institutional Review Board from The University of Texas at El Paso (IRB #1138677-1). An email invitation to participate in the study was sent out to all international students who were working at the writing center or had worked at the writing center the previous year. This timeframe allowed us to ensure participants were not too far removed from their work as tutors. The focus groups and personal interviews sought insight into our research questions: What are the experiences of international tutors working at the UWC? How do non-native English speakers navigate assisting students who are native English speakers, or, in the case of our institution, many non-native English speakers with a different home language? We were especially interested to know how international students experienced working in a writing center that privileges academic English and their personal perceptions of how the UWC training, support, and tutoring interactions created dissonance between their lived experiences, the expectations of the UWC and the students they tutored.

As we wanted to focus on international students’ experiences, sampling was purposefully done to complete an in-depth analysis of data collected from interviews. As implied in the research question, we deliberately selected only international tutors who were currently working at the UWC or had worked there the previous year because “purposeful sampling focuses on selecting information-rich cases whose study will illuminate the questions under study” (Patton, Kindle Locations 9057-9059). While purposeful sampling is considered to be biased, “what would be “bias” in statistical sampling, and therefore a weakness, becomes the intended focus in qualitative sampling, and therefore a strength” (Patton, Kindle Locations 9057-9059). We considered the University Writing Center at The University of Texas at El Paso to be a research site teemed with “information-rich cases” because, as mentioned in the introduction, over 40% of the 30+ tutors are international tutors, and, we believed this could yield important insights and in-depth understanding of international tutors’ experiences. In alignment with our research questions, we carefully and strategically zeroed in on case selection, using the same considerations to select participants and build rapport. In order to avoid any conflict of interest, the UWC Director provided two of the co-authors in this article contact information, such as email addresses, for all international tutors working at the UWC. The Director was not listed as a co-principal investigator for this study and was not involved in the data collection process.

The study consisted of two focus groups of four students each. One group was made up of four undergraduate international student tutors, and the other group consisted of four international graduate student tutors, both M.A. and Ph.D. students. Through a semi-structured approach, we asked students to describe their experience working at the UWC, discuss the UWC training, and detail their experiences tutoring native and non-native speakers (see Appendix). The focus group environment allowed the tutors to share their ideas and draw or deviate from other responses. Each focus group discussion was voice recorded and lasted around 60 minutes. After transcribing the discussions from the two focus groups, we coded the responses to allow themes to emerge from the data. The first round of coding was analyzed with the research question in mind, so we coded segments of the data that were relevant to or captured something interesting about our research question. We did not code every piece of text. Additionally, we used open coding, which means we did not have pre-set codes, but developed and modified codes as we worked through the coding process. These major themes were used to develop a follow-up questionnaire of open-ended questions given to participants to respond to in writing during the Spring of 2018. These open-ended questions gave participants the opportunity to elaborate on the themes identified from the focus groups, and ultimately, provided us with greater insight into their experiences as international student tutors in the writing center.

International Tutors’ Experiences in the University Writing Center

To better understand the experiences of international tutors working in writing centers in the United States, here we illustrate some of the data collected. First, we present some background and contextual information about each of the participants. We, then, share three themes that emerged from the data, which prompted our writing center to create small, but significant, changes to tutor training.

We had the opportunity to learn from eight international tutors for this study. Not all international tutors who worked at the writing center participated, but the eight that did participated from the start to finish of the data collection process. Of the eight participants, four were undergraduate international students, and four were graduate international students. Figure 1 provides a brief profile of each participant, which includes their home country and the languages they indicated as knowing.

This table shows the breakdown of participants in the study, their classification, their home country, and languages spoken other than English.
Figure 1. Brief Profile of Participants

In addition to learning about the linguistic diversity these eight international tutors brought to the UWC, after coding the data, we found that they mostly spoke about their experience navigating their work in the UWC in three themes. These themes focused on varying degrees of confidence, feelings of being othered, and issues related to linguistic diversity that arise during tutoring sessions. One of the things we would like to acknowledge is that some of the data falls into multiple codes and themes. This illustrates the interconnectedness of responses and how coding qualitative data can involve degrees of analytical complexity.

In describing their experiences working at the UWC, participants frequently discussed issues related to what we themed as varying degrees of confidence. Through the data, we observed several tutors speak about the fear that initially came when asked to be part of a group of “writing experts” while not having the confidence to see themselves as experts. For example, one participant describes:

It was a little scary at first for me cause I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to help people improve their papers and things, especially because these papers can come from any subject that I might have no knowledge of, but then I think it’s, we’re also in a very interesting setting here, since we’re on the border, and since most of the students that come here are second language speakers, so in that way, when we are helping them and teaching them how to write, I guess it’s also gets kind of more basic than what I imagined it would be to work in another writing center in another part of the country.

Additionally, many of the tutors expressed issues of confidence when working with native and non-native English speakers. One tutor expressed, “When it comes to native speakers, my self-consciousness has always been on the accent, whether they actually understand the way I pronounce words or not. That is the first point, that sometimes I tend to struggle with the accent. I have no intention of imitating American accent.” Another shared a similar sentiment, “I get more self-conscious because I feel like, oh you know much more than I do, so I don’t want to…so they’re coming here for help, and I don’t want them to think, oh, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. So I become a little bit more self-conscious about how I express myself in English.” However, not all of the statements about confidence were self-critical or negative. One of the participants described how working at the writing center actually helped him gain more confidence: “It’s helped me become a little bit more confident in my English and it’s given me more inside power to write paper and more of the educational kind of pages.” Several of the participants shared their confidence when working on grammar with native speakers, as one participant stated, “but in general, honestly speaking, I feel my grammar is better than theirs sometimes.” While some respondents used the term confidence, most described varying degrees of confidence in their responses without explicitly naming it.

Another theme identified from the data was that tutors often navigated feelings of being othered. Frequently, these experiences came in the form of disbelief or pejorative comments that “a non-native speaker of English could help someone with their Academic English writing.” Almost all of them relayed stories about how they perceived to be judged from their immediate outward appearance, such as ethnicity, and their accents and ways of speaking by students or professors before they were given the chance to show their skills and abilities. For example, one tutor commented, “If I’m like, [Name of tutor]. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, Asian.’ They’re just stereotyping. That’s what I feel. But that might be me again, like feeling, having low confidence.” While another tutor stated, “When people that come from other countries, for example, they are more strict with me because, they say, ‘Okay, do you speak English?’” Another tutor described:

For me, linguistically, my difficulty has been with the accent. Because in Ghana, English is not a native language in Ghana, and because of British colonization we speak British English, or we study British English. So coming to the U.S, there is a difficulty of the accent, one, and then sometimes there are some little vocabulary differences.

Several of the tutors shared similar stories in which they felt othered based on names or appearances before the session even began. Although some of the participants didn’t explicitly state instances of being stereotyped and feeling othered, many alluded to them. Participants shared stories that conveyed a lack of confidence based on previous experiences. However, these feelings of being othered did not come just from their interactions in the writing center. One of the participants was very well aware of how he would be perceived differently back home due to his time in the United States and changes to his accent as he shared:

I have no intentions of imitating American accent, especially with how profound the R is, because I may not be here forever, and I go back home, sometimes, people make fun of you that because you’ve been in the U.S for two years or for three years, you are suddenly trying to speak American English. So I don’t want to be a laughingstock when I go back home. So it’s a question of the accent. This has been my main challenge.

This and other responses shared by the participants illustrate the complexities of lived experiences international tutors have to navigate when working at a writing center.

Although the participants in this study are classified as international students, many of their linguistic practices are much more complex and do not quite fit the “non-native” speaker term as some participants recall learning English alongside other home languages from an early age. As a result, the theme of issues related to leveraging linguistic diversity that could potentially arise during tutoring sessions and while working with students at the writing center was something the majority of participants discussed. Many of the tutors interviewed were concerned how their home language might interfere with their tutoring session, but they describe being attentive to linguistic differences and trying to work through such moments. For example, a tutor recounted, “I remember one incident with a student. I was pronouncing the word ‘twelve,’ and she would not understand. And finally I wrote it and she responded, “ahh, twelve.” And we laughed.” Similarly, many other tutors describe engaging with language differences in an empathetic manner, as one participant noted, “I feel like because we speak another language, you understand where they’re coming from as well, so I think that I know where they’re coming from.” Another tutor explained, “I think it’s a little bit more challenging and requires more patience because sometimes it’s hard to understand what they’re trying to say.” Furthermore, a tutor describes:

I negotiate language differences by indicating to students that I am a non-native speaker myself and this usually establishes a calm atmosphere at the beginning of the session. During the tutoring session, I tend to ask clarifying questions from students and at the end, I sometimes make positive remarks about their English proficiency.

Another tutor remarked “On a few occasions, I have had students add one or two Spanish words while explaining something to me. What is quite frequent is when I ask Spanish-English bilinguals yes-no questions and they reply “si.” I just smile and remind them that they just replied in Spanish and then we laugh over it.” It is through these shared multilingual experiences that international tutors can make connections with students during tutoring sessions.

International Tutors Shaping Tutor Training

After listening to the comments and feedback from the international students involved in the focus groups and interviews, we began to design and implement new training methods and practices with the help of the participants involved in this project. Initially, a primary aspect of assisting students at the writing center was an inclusion of the higher order and lower order concerns that are often taught as a priority of writing center pedagogy. Typically, we train tutors to look for higher order concerns first—responding to the assignment, proper context for the type of writing that is expected, language usage—and slowly work our way to aspects of writing such as grammar, syntax, and citations. However, from the interviews, we found the international students felt most confident when teaching issues of grammar first. Participants in this study explained they were far more involved in grammar rules as a multilingual acquisition practice because they had been exposed to a lot of grammar instruction throughout their education. This is contrary to many of the experiences of native speakers of English. This expertise is something that should be valued by writing centers and seen as valuable to other international students visiting the writing center. Furthermore, this absolutely benefits native English speakers who are embedded in these grammar practices, but sometimes don’t have the knowledge to name them. Turning this aspect of writing tutoring on its head—shifting the focus from higher order concerns, to what is typically a lower order concern—gives international students more confidence in their ability to gain rapport with the students they help, builds confidence in their abilities to assist those students, and enriches tutoring sessions by drawing on their previous knowledge. Once students see the expertise that international students bring to the table, they become more involved in the session, and things can move forward into higher order concerns with papers.

Sharing a lived experience was another aspect of leveraging that international tutors were able to bring to the writing session. International writing tutors show rhetorical attunement and are able to share experiences of language acquisition that were hurdles and they can leverage that shared experience into teaching moments. One of our training modules for new tutors now includes an activity that helps tutors articulate their personal experiences with writing and how those experiences are often widely shared amongst other tutors and the students that visit the WC. Since the majority of our students at our institution are bilingual in Spanish/English, regardless of the home language or the second language acquisition, students and tutors share a common ground, and tutors frequently use this as their “in” with the students.

One of the larger aspects of training we were able to implement was to give international tutors, and other tutors, the proper tools and confidence to say “I don’t know.” Many of the international students were unsure of their ability to give students advice on their writing, or even direction for fear of being wrong. This hesitance caused many of the international tutors to avoid certain sessions–particularly sessions with final papers, theses, and dissertations that appeared to have higher stakes. The practice and training at the writing center currently says that saying “I don’t know” is completely acceptable as long as the tutor follows it up with “Let’s find out together.” This gives the tutor far more leverage to assist the student and provides the student with tools to apply to future writing assignments when both the tutor and student would work together to find the answer. The tutor takes the opportunity to share how they would look for the answer, and hopefully transfers the skill of looking for the answer, rather than just providing an answer. Rather than having to be the expert all the time, the tutors felt that they didn’t need to be right, they just had to help the student find answers.

What the additions to current training and writing center pedagogy at the UWC point to is finding the positive aspects of writing and skills-based transfer that international tutors bring to the table for a writing session. Rather than teaching higher order concerns and lower order concerns, international student tutors are able to put into practice aspects of their knowledge and skill base relevant to the teaching of writing and beneficial to the students who visit the writing center. Leveraging these particular skills gives international tutors an opportunity to overcome the fear and confidence issues we found so prevalent.

At a writing center such as UTEP, an HSI and first-generation college, the majority of our students are bi/multilingual, and to be able to get specific training for academic English from someone who has a shared and lived experience, creates a strong and personal peer connection between the student and the tutor and produces more successful sessions. It also provides the tutor with tools to boost their confidence in both their teaching and writing abilities. These opportunities to share lived experiences also overcome aspects of othering that international tutors experience.

In the end, small, but explicit, changes to tutor training alleviated many of the international tutors’ concerns regarding their work at the writing center. This empowered international tutors to be more involved in the writing center’s practice and engagement with students and gave them the confidence to work as tutors. Through the voicing of participants’ experiences with the trauma of deficit rhetoric, we were able to inform our practice in ways that would not perpetuate these experiences further. When one of the international graduate tutors was asked how the training they received during the semester informed their work at the writing center, they replied:

it introduced me to the idea that the writing center here is okay with the fact that everyone is not perfect…that we are okay with the imperfections…and it never matters to me whether I’m speaking with a native speaker or a non-native speaker, I feel like it’s the same for everyone. I was happy to begin with that idea.

The writing center is seeking to break down student perceptions of what is “perfect” and help to define and understand each student’s concept of their own “imperfections”. Through an examination of what international tutors expect writing center work to be (i.e. “perfections”) from past experiences, they can reflect and examine what their “imperfections” are. By examining those “imperfections” and differences, international tutors come to understand them as positive assets instead of deficits. Leveraging these differences provides them with a stronger sense of ability and confidence in their work as writing tutors.

Conclusion

We have encountered many aspects of deficit thinking when it comes to international students’ ability to tutor in a writing center. Some of it is external based on the expectations of English speakers and the expectations of writing in Academic English. The authors of this article have also experienced these types of concerns while presenting at national and international conferences when audience members ask questions such as; “How can you let a non-native speaker of English tutor students in English?” Subsequently, it is understandable international tutors and domestic non-native speakers of English tutors would be hesitant tutoring in English. Much of the deficit thinking came from the international tutors themselves, either indoctrinated by external deficit thinking in the past or by a general expectation of what writing center work should be and how their skill set fits with those expectations. Today this prospect is even more evident given the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 and how disproportionately it has affected international students at the University. Now, more than ever, it is important to see just how fitting and relevant international student participation is in our system of higher education, and allow international students to bring their skills and abilities to challenge and shape our pedagogies and best practices. How can international students be expected to perform work in a system that is prepared to send them away during a moment of crisis? These students’ perspectives and experiences are not a deficit, but instead serve to enrich the diversity and connection to the rest of the student body and progress of the mission of education and learning.

Writing centers and writing scholars need to move away from these deficit ideologies, and instead, focus on the assets international students bring to our academic spaces. International tutors bring to the table a litany of additional skills that native writers and speakers of English practice but probably could not explain. International tutors also possess a wealth of experience and expertise as non-native English speakers to assist and empathize with other non-native English speakers having to perform in Academic English, and they can teach grammar rules in a way that many native English speakers cannot. In the spirit of what Horner et. al (2011) argued for, the writing center is a space for international undergraduate and graduate students to see their translanguaging practices as having a positive influence on the students. Providing space for international writing tutors at the writing center makes the writing center a more pedagogically rounded peer-center and provides students at the university a stronger link to success. While much of the training conducted at this writing center is unique based on the demographics of the university, the approaches mentioned here can easily be adopted and adapted to other institutions. Through a careful examination of the student demographic the writing center serves and a willingness to allow international tutors the space to participate and leverage their knowledge in ways they find most comfortable, writing centers can strike a balance between the dual roles they provide students: writing assistance and tutor development.

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