From Visitors to Exiles to Tutors: The Changing Face of the Writing Center

By Paula Gillespie.

Paula and Buster.  Paula Gillespie got her start in writing centers at UW Madison, under the directorship of Joyce Steward, 1977-1980.

Paula and Buster. Paula Gillespie got her start in writing centers at UW Madison, under the directorship of Joyce Steward, 1977-1980.

South Florida is full of surprises. A troop of macaws, probably freed from a zoo or pet store during a hurricane, descends into the trees down the street and spends the morning there, squabbling about which one gets to sit where. Burmese pythons, once pets that are now too large to keep around, roam Miami’s streets and thrive in the Everglades, just west of our school. And orchids grow on trees.

I read, some years ago, in the book The Orchid Thief, that Floridians tie their orchids to trees when they stop blooming, and that the orchids wrap their roots around the trunk and then bloom whenever the spirit moves them. When you’re a recent transplant to Miami like I am, you go to a nursery and ask how to tie up your orchids. They send you home with a bag of coconut fiber, some sphagnum moss, a spool of twist ties, and you’re in business.

Miami’s welcome extends not only to transplanted orchids, but to newcomers like me and like the 57% of its population that was born in another country. Miami and a few other of our cities are unique in their diverse population, but not for long. They offer a foretaste of what our culture will be, in many places: international, multi-ethnic, heterogeneous. Florida International University, where I direct the Center for Excellence in Writing, reflects the population of Miami; it truly deserves its name: it is in every way an international urban public research university.

Orchid tied to tree decides to blossom

Orchid tied to tree decides to blossom

When I taught at Marquette (1980-2009), “ESL students” almost always meant students from other countries spending a few years in the US, sometimes in special programs arranged by their governments. In most cases, they’d have studied English formally and they would know quite a lot about English grammar. They’d have TOEFL scores.

Here at FIU, many of our students and members of our tutoring staff come from families that have been uprooted, forced from countries with oppressive leaders. Some have fled from places where wars and violence made family life impossible. Many of our tutors arrived as children and had little formal ESL training; add to that the cruel fact that the most recent immigrants, called “reffies,” are shunned on the playground. Dark skin is the norm here; it is not the pervasive “yes or no” determinant of social sifting that it is in other places.

When I ask my students about discrimination in Miami, their replies almost always start, “Well, in middle school,” and then they go on to speak of hierarchies based on who buys clothes at Walmart and who has the designer labels. They swear, though, that even these distinctions disappear in college. Here I see, as I never have before, students of every possible skin color mixing and forming bonds across races.

FIU Tutor Aura Altamiranda

FIU Tutor Aura Altamiranda

FIU Tutor Juan Arevalo

FIU Tutor Juan Arevalo

FIU Tutor Diane Arias

FIU Tutor Diane Arias

FIU Tutor Katir Ann Britton

FIU Tutor Katir Ann Britton

FIU Tutor Laura De La Cruz

FIU Tutor Laura De La Cruz

FIU Tutor Martha Diaz Ossa

FIU Tutor Martha Diaz Ossa

FIU Tutor Brianne Eltz

FIU Tutor Brianne Eltz

FIU Tutor Jeffrey Fernandez

FIU Tutor Jeffrey Fernandez

FIU Tutor Daniel Gil

FIU Tutor Daniel Gil

I had met my international, multi-ethnic staff before I arrived at FIU because the interim director had each of them make a short video of introduction. I heard the many accents, and was told stories of birthplaces in countries I could not definitively find on a map. My first peer tutoring class, like my current one, was made up primarily of students whose first language was not English.

I had no idea, coming in, how our writing center’s stakeholders – students, faculty, administrators – would respond to our tutoring staff. I could easily imagine writers calling in and asking to work with a native speaker. But the opposite has been true, so far as I can tell anecdotally. Writers often call our receptionists for appointments rather than use our online scheduler because they want to request a tutor who speaks Spanish. And the faculty has been uniformly supportive when I have addressed them in various venues; I see them nodding enthusiastically when I say that non-native speakers make great tutors.

dscn0529

FIU Tutor Michelle working with a student-writer

Of course, this is no surprise to the many writing center professionals outside the US who use native speakers of their own languages to tutor students in English. But we in the US seem to be the last to learn it, if our tutor training texts are any indication: these texts and many of our articles seem primarily to be written by white authors for mainstream tutors (and I am including my own co-authored tutoring text in this). I felt this keenly as I read chapter after chapter of The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring in preparation for teaching my tutors. Neal Lerner, my co-author, and I use first person quite a bit, and the “we” is always assumed to be native speakers who are free of dialect, and the ESL students are always “them.” What can we do to help them better? I could feel how my students would respond to a body of literature that does not see them, does not address them in any way.

A notable exception is Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth’s text, ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors.  This collection includes chapters by non-native-speaking authors who refer to their own language issues as they discuss theoretical approaches to tutoring ESL students.

The more I talk to writing center directors the more I find that the world of tutoring is opening and that tutors are increasingly diverse. We have taken seriously the calls by Nancy Grimm and others over the years to take an active role in making sure our tutoring staff includes ethnic difference. Centers located in traditionally Hispanic areas commonly and successfully include L2 tutors; they are able to offer L2 and multilanguage writers the benefits of having gone through what these writers face now; they empathize, and they show it. As we try to provide the best tutoring experiences for both our writers and our tutors, sometimes the best thing they can do is be their own international selves.

Alberta Gloria’s research on the retention of Hispanic students shows that they thrive when they have successful colleagues and role models who look like them and who are interested in their backgrounds, not just in their written work. (See Brian Williams’ post on this blog for more on Gloria’s work and its relevance.)

Sometimes I feel that I’m the one who doesn’t speak the local language. There are codes I can’t read, hierarchies I am only now learning about. I am the transplant here, trying, often unsuccessfully, to read and map this complex landscape.

Ultimately, though, the transplant metaphor breaks down. Metaphors, though, are always most interesting when they fall apart. The orchid wraps its roots around the new tree trunk, so we presume that it feels no yearning for its rainforest home; it does not feel shunned because it is new. It is not silenced by the stubborn refusal of an English word to come when bidden.  We, on the other hand, take time and need help adapting to a new culture and language, whether our relocation is voluntary or forced, whether we are tourists who fell in love with Miami as I did or whether we are exiled from homes, families, and communities we love but will never see again.closing_photo_gillespie_birds_smaller

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *