Using Enculturation as an Inclusive Tool in Writing Centres

Matt Rahimian, Huron University College in London, Ontario, Canada


Writing centres are the middle grounds of academia, where students can discuss their assignments, learn about writing expectations, and in many cases, talk about their learning strategies. When students with backgrounds other than those of the dominant cultural groups attend post-secondary education, they have to acquire certain norms and practices to succeed academically. Over several decades and centuries, certain discourses have gained dominance in post-secondary education. Writing centres are the middle ground between students and instructors. These centres support students’ writing, communication, and learning skills to help them advance in their academic endeavours. Many of these centres support students in peer-style and learner-centred ways; however, these centres constantly communicate with the instructors and other departments within the institutions. This middle-ground positionality places writing centres in a unique situation: they need to empower students in learning academic norms and, at the same time, help them find their unique voices in writing. While some student-support practices might favour students’ acculturation, acculturation of students in academic norms is at the service of colonial practices and inherently contradictory to the mandates or promises of educational institutes to train critical thinkers that advance our understanding of the world and how we operate within it. Enculturation, however, is a concept in language socialization that explains how people within a culture acquire the necessary cultural norms and practices while they engage in various tasks and activities. The attainment of such standards and procedures will deliver competent individuals in that culture. While enculturation helps students become competent cultural practitioners within an institution, it does not mandate acculturation. Therefore, it can serve as a tool to empower students belonging to social groups other than the dominant culture to succeed academically. At the same time, it does not require them to abandon their cultural practices. In that sense, enculturation can serve inclusive education practices.  In this paper, I will argue that writing centres, and mainly tutors in writing centres, can employ enculturation to help student writers successfully learn the necessary cultural norms of the institution to function well.

Keywords: Enculturation, Writing Centres, Language Socialization, Discourse, Tutors


Joy Adowaa Buolamwini, in the Coded Bias documentary, explains when she joined the M. I. T. Media Lab, she expected many new experiences, but not for her face to be unrecognizable by the computer’s facial recognition software. The facial recognition software did not recognize her face as a legitimate human interactor simply because she was black. After some explorations, Joy realized that the facial recognition software had been developed with dominantly white and male faces as the initial inputs. She shows that the program can detect a face by wearing a white mask, but without one, the program fails (Kantayya, 2020).

Writers who do not belong to a dominant culture have challenging tasks while writing, much similar to the task Joy faced. They are trying to communicate within a system that has not been designed to include them. The system does not recognize them as legitimate users.

For centuries, writing has been a controlled tool by shamans of power in many countries. Canada is not an exception, and writing centres often educate students in acquiring certain writing norms. In Canada, when non-mainstream writers attempt to communicate their ideas using English writing, they convey in a discourse that white middle-class English descendant immigrants have guarded and advanced for centuries. Depending on the circumstances, some challenges non-mainstream writers might face are communicating meaning, forming ideas, using grammar and vocabulary, and legitimizing the author.

Suppose a writer intends to communicate a meaning out of the “holy academia” box. In that case, they are swimming upstream, and their novelty attempts will probably be dismissed as such attempts might tremble the power status quo gained through conversation within the discourse. On the other hand, using language structures out of the (unwritten) protocols of the dominant culture can be tedious to understand for those unfamiliar with such structures. Further, such use might also question the symbolic values of the dominant culture’s discourse. Shifting semiotic meanings of language is not destructive to the nature of language, but it would suggest changes that many language users might not welcome.

The Foucauldian concepts of discourse, subjectivity, and power (e.g., McHoul & Grace, 1993) are used to demonstrate a clear picture of what it means to function in a different system. Writing practices and enculturation have a complicated relationship (Prior & Bilbro, 2012). To illustrate how writers can navigate obstacles in writing, the linguistic concept of semiotic meaning has been employed in conversation with the enculturation concept (Berry, 2007). Although enculturation has been mainly discussed in first-language socialization, it is arguably applicable to non-dominant first-language writing orientation, including first and second-language users.

Theoretical Framework

Foucauldian Concepts of Discourse, Power, and Subjectivity

Constructivists argue that knowledge is constructed collaboratively among language users. Knowledge construction is affected by discourse, power, and subjectivity (McHoul & Grace, 1993). In his famous book, The Order of Things, Foucault (1970) discussed how what we get to know (i.e., knowledge) is created and affected by power, peoples’ positions, and contexts (i.e., discourse). These elements collectively affect the knowledge being created. Similarly, constructivists argue that various players collaborate in knowledge construction. To contextualize the matter, writers use the conventions they deem suitable for that work when writing. They think of where and how the written piece is being received. These considerations, among many others, arguably form their discourse of writing. An author writes with a specific audience, real or imaginary, in mind. Depending on whether the writing is addressed to their parents, boss, or a colleague at a distant institute, its structure changes. These elements show how subjectivity will impact knowledge construction in this case. A writer’s and readers’ positions also influence how a message is communicated and will be received; hence, power affects the knowledge that is allowed, welcomed, and created. Additionally, the newly created knowledge can either create power or threaten it, often subtly. Every time our students write their assignments and for out-of-academia purposes, whether they come to our writing centres or not, they are creating knowledge that is impacted by various discourse, power, and subjectivity elements. Understanding and navigating those elements are crucial for effective communication that can empower or demote the writer. If writing centres’ personnel are informed of such determining factors and can help writers communicate effectively within the discourse, then the writers can be empowered not only by having tools to succeed in communication but also by creating power through (written) communication.

Semiotic Meanings in Writing

Semiotic is generally defined as the knowledge, or science, of the meanings associated with signs (e.g., Crystal, 2008). Language includes words, phrases, gap-fillers, syntax, and other forms, or signs, that resonate meanings. These meanings are often associated with various information pieces. Language in itself is referred to as a semiotic system that is associated with multiple social meanings (Ochs & Schieffelin, 2017). As such, Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schiefflin (2017) discuss that language is closely connected with different bodies of knowledge and beliefs. Additionally, the acquisition of the semiotic meanings in language predominantly “takes place implicitly; children and other novices infer and appropriate indexical meanings through repeated participation in language-mediated practices and events that establish routine associations between certain forms and certain settings, relationships, practices, emotions, and thought-worlds” (p. 9). It is within such a complicated and implicit interaction of linguistic development that humans acquire meanings associated with crucial elements of their lives. One area these elements contribute to its construction is individuals’ identities (MacKinnon & Heise, 2010; Rahimian, 2018). Entertaining the idea that language has semiotic meanings in its various structures, including words, collocations, sentence structure, tone, etc., we can see how writing as a form of language communication is entangled with semiotic meanings. Remembering that most semiotic meanings are implicitly acquired when human beings are engaged in the use of language, one can appreciate the diversified factors contributing to the development of writing knowledge and practice. When the writing knowledge and practice at a given educational institute represent a particular group in society, and historically, it has not been formed inclusively, it is evident that students belonging to that background are equipped with tools to succeed in writing practices.

Similarly, one can argue that students not belonging to that specific social group are less likely to have the writing tools necessary to excel academically. This is not to say that the excluded students can not succeed; instead, they need to learn a whole new system for success. In that environment, the burden of writing centres becomes evident in supporting those students to gain the tools for success, negotiate meaning, and remedy the educational practices to be more inclusive.

Enculturation vs. Acculturation

In conversations about enculturation, it is crucial to distinguish between acculturation and enculturation. A common term used when scholars refer to individuals’ integration into cultures is acculturation. Acculturation is the process in which an individual learns to adapt to the cultural norms of a group (Berry, 2014). In this process, the person learns how to behave in a group. As many scholars have discussed previously, such as Suresh Canagarajah (1997), and Umar Saje and Mal. Inuwa Mahmud (2020), acculturation has several negative consequences for the individual or groups adapting it. One such consequence is down-looking the person’s own identity and culture. On the contrary, enculturation, as used in this paper, refers to equipping the individual with the necessary tools to survive in a specific culture while they can construct their unique identities (Prior & Bilbro, 2012). There are several differences between the two. While in acculturation, the individual submits to the culture of the social group; in enculturation, the individual learns the necessary skills to succeed in a social group. The difference becomes especially significant when a person is in adulthood and has acquired a particular identity and culture, such as a student coming to university. If that person’s culture varies from the new culture, they do not need to acquire everything in the new culture. Instead, they can acquire those elements of the new culture that are necessary for their success. The hope is to connect the person’s background, culture, and identity to the new culture.

In the enculturation process, the individuals learn the practices of the new culture by engaging in various tasks such as talking, playing, writing, and schooling. Writing practices within an organization or a system are also part of the enculturation (Farby, 2018a, 2018b). When students enter a particular school, over time and by being engaged in various activities, they acquire cultural practices within that school. This knowledge is necessary for their proper functionality in that system. Enculturation in writing practices has a complicated nature and examining the relationship between the two requires meticulous scholarship (Prior & Bilbro, 2012).

Employing Enculturation in Writing Centres

When students attend post-secondary education, they walk into a life that has created certain discourses for communication. There are certain linguistic powers and different people who bring various backgrounds with them. Students who come to tertiary education and do not belong to a similar culture as the one dominant in post-secondary education often do not possess the knowledge necessary to succeed in that system. Usually, the system has not been developed to include students with diverse backgrounds. Nevertheless, writing in that system is similar to communicating with a facial recognition system designed to respond only to certain visages. In other words, the system has not evolved to recognize the writing styles of many social groups. To employ enculturation at writing centres, the centres need to possess not only the communication norms of the system but also (a) the awareness that the operational discourse at the institution is only one of the operational discourses that have evolved for centuries and (b) students may not be familiar with this discourse. Employing enculturation at writing centres includes recognizing writers’ background knowledge and experience, familiarizing them with the norms and practices in academia, and helping them bridge their background with the writing norms in academia. To that end, the process can become an inclusivity practice that will benefit both the writers and the institution. By providing diverse ideas and voices to the academic discourse, the materialization of inclusion will benefit our post-secondary institutions while helping different writers not only to exist but also to thrive at our universities and colleges.

Academic Discourse as a Familiarization Ground (Functions)

One of the potential areas writing centres can assist students is to engage the community in conversations about academic discourses and their expectations. Narrations and exposure to them have been part of creating meaning and transferring social and cultural knowledge (Farby, 2018a). Explaining the discoursal norms and practices within an institution, sharing success stories and how they were accomplished, and sharing expert knowledge mainly in the form of instructors’ input on writing expectations, are some of the steps of familiarizing writers with the academic discourse. The next step would be to train tutors to transfer those forms of knowledge to the student writers in practical ways. In addition to sharing steps to succeed academically, tutors can apply the gradual release of responsibility model in their work with student writers. Rooted in the Vygotsky scaffolding concept, the gradual release of responsibility model provides a framework where trainers provide learners with an assisted way to collaborate in their learning until they gain independence in handling the content (Pearson et al., 2019). A pertinent example in a writing centre would be explaining to writers what a thesis statement is, then teaching them how to form a thesis statement, then collaboratively working with them to formulate some hypothetical thesis statements, and finally asking them to walk through the process of developing their paper’s thesis statement.

Tutor Training: Gradual Release of Responsibilities

After the initial stage of consciously familiarizing writing tutors with academic discourse practices, we need to equip them with tools and pedagogical practices so they can transfer their knowledge and skills to writers. By virtue of working in the writing centres as successful writers in the institution, writing tutors are probably familiar with the discoursal practices at the institution. However, most language socialization, including the process of acquiring semiotic meanings in a culture, especially if it is the individual’s own culture, is implicit (Ochs & Schieffelin, 2017). As Berry (2007) mentioned, “there is not necessarily anything deliberate or didactic about this process; often there is learning without specific teaching.” (p. 547)

Additionally, using certain practices would form norms in our minds, and we might forget the learning process. Therefore, bringing academic norms and practices to the consciousness is crucial to prepare tutors for the next stage of transferring these skills to the writers. The next step of training tutors to employ enculturation as a peer practice is to train them in the scaffolding process. Applying the same principles of gradual release of responsibilities to train the tutors about the model itself and then illustrating how to use it in the enculturation process is an effective strategy. To illustrate further, the tutor training workshop can start with an introduction of the gradual release of responsibilities, followed by one or two examples of the method, followed by a few scenarios where everybody in the workshop collaborates in resolving the scenario-presented problem. The workshop moderator leads the activity and assists as needed in this last part. Next, new scenarios for designing scaffolded training are shared with the attendees. They are asked to discuss each scenario and develop a training plan to apply the gradual release of responsibilities to their scenarios. After some group checking of the scenarios and discussing group outcomes, more cases are presented. Lastly, tutors will tackle cases individually to generate ideas on employing appropriate scaffolding procedures.

Tutor Training: Using Enculturation

Although there might be a tendency to seek generalizable recommendations for employing enculturation in writing centres, one needs to note that using practices to promote diversity requires diversity at different levels. Therefore, the suggestion here is for the tutors to explore what the writers bring to the writing centres and, together with the writer, construct ways they can communicate their background in their writing. This practice is effective and validates many students, but more so for students coming to universities from non-mainstream cultural groups. Learning about those students’ backgrounds is the first step in diversity and inclusion. Thinking about how those experiences can be used to further the writer’s scholarship and writing is the next step in diversity. Finally, helping students communicate their background in writing practices is another step for inclusion. By doing so, the tutors assist writers with the construction of knowledge while acknowledging the value of their backgrounds and helping them succeed in their academic pursuits.

Writing centres need to ensure that tutors receive proper training on applying enculturation in their tutoring sessions. New and experienced tutors require to recognize the values in different students’ learning and living experiences. Deviating from a Eurocentric, Western-centric, or any other biasing mentality, and thus understanding the importance of diverse experiences in forming knowledge, is key to recognizing and valuing students’ prior knowledge. Therefore, familiarizing tutors with lifestyles, achievements, and advancements across the world and educating them on decolonial thinking can help them understand how students from different backgrounds can bring valuable lessons to academic conversations. Next, training tutors to help writers translate those experiences into academic discourse provides enculturation practices that will serve writers and the larger academic community.

Writing Centre directors can train tutors in applying the enculturation practices. During training sessions, the trainers can explain and demonstrate enculturation practices. The explanation includes discussing the theory, its benefits, applications, and challenges. The demonstration can be done using scenario-based problems and eventually applying the method with tutors themselves. For example, sharing with tutors the best practices of tutoring and then asking them about their tutoring experiences, followed by exploring ways to use their backgrounds in their sessions, are effective ways of demonstrating enculturation in practice. These training sessions need to be rooted in theory and practice and bring real-life examples to the tutors.

Course-Integrated Tutoring

Similar to other cases, in course-integrated tutoring sessions, writing centres’ staff can use enculturation to help all students get familiarized with academic discourse and its requirements. Communicating clearly with course instructors and learning about their expectations is the first step in such activities. Sharing how recognizing students’ backgrounds can help them learn the course content better and fit into the scholarly community is the next step. Finally, meeting with students for group or individual tutoring sessions is the last major stage in course-integrated tutoring that can be used to help student writers with their writing and their integration into the academic community. By increasing the students’ opportunities to learn about academic norms and practices and ways they can bridge their background knowledge with their studies, writing centres can help students succeed in an inclusive manner.

On the Good and Bad of Enculturation

Similar to one’s own language and cultural acquisition, enculturation for students belonging to other cultural and linguistic groups is a way to help them successfully navigate through their education and move on to their professional practices. Enculturation, in general, results in the individual’s competency “in the culture, including its language, its rituals, its values, and so on” (Berry, 2007, p. 547). I suggest applying enculturation in writing centres because it helps build writers’ competencies in academic norms and practices. Being able to function competently in the cultural norms of academia is a necessity for students. One might argue that too much emphasis on enculturation would help generate the norms and practices that dominate academia, many of which serve certain groups in society and their colonial practices. We need to note the difference between enculturation and acculturation here. While acculturation results in acquiring the dominant group’s culture and making their norms your norms (e.g., Reger, 2009), enculturation, as explained before, is the process of developing what is necessary to function in society. Therefore, one of the training foci for the tutors would be to acknowledge that academic discourse is just but one of the possible ways of communication in a larger society. Combining enculturation practices with empowering tools, such as critical literacies practices (e.g., King, 2018; Luke, 2012; Vasquez et al., 2019) can help tutors assist student-writers in helping them first survive in academia and then be empowered to deviate from its discoursal norms successfully, but that discussion requires a different place. On the other hand, like any other given method, enculturation has its limits. There will be cases when writing centres find enculturation not suiting their needs well or partially meeting them. We have to employ it carefully to make the best of it. Additionally, we have to be careful not to view enculturation as a reductionist tool for writers’ background cultures and experiences. Sometimes, encouraging writers to pursue non-normative ways to communicate their ideas is necessary to disturb the colonial practices in academia. However, writing centres can play a strategic role in helping student writers to push the boundaries of education in ways of communication while assisting them to survive in the environment.

As a final thought, writing skills are attainable through continuous testing and practice. Longitudinal attempts beyond single one-semester courses are needed to fully scaffold students’ writing efforts (e.g., Paszek, 2016). The continuous nature of acquiring writing skills places writing centres in a unique position. Training tutors to create ongoing rapport with students can support a long-term relationship between students and writing centres. A long-term relationship can facilitate a scaffolding of skill acquisition and enculturation. Writers can come to the writing centres beyond their needs for writing assignments. If long-term collaborations are established, writers can visit the writing centres to test their hypotheses in writing and communication.


The ideas for this paper were shaped during years of working with different writing centres. Engaging in inclusivity conversations at the University of Guelph initiated the original thought for applying enculturation at writing centre practices. The editorial board of The Peer Review journal made significant comments that helped improve the quality of this paper. Any remaining errors are mine.

Author Biography

Matt Rahimian is an educator and scholar at Huron University College in London, Ontario, Canada. His research focuses on post-secondary and international education. Matt’s scholarship focuses on using holistic approaches to education and research.


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