Writing Across the Foreignness

John Anderson

Writing Center TA John Anderson

By John Stafford Anderson. Saturday, at a party we had celebrating her upcoming dissertation defense, a friend of mine tearfully took me aside.  She wanted to know if I would be available next week to help her with some writing points on her dissertation.  Of course, I agreed to help, but I wanted to know why she was so tearful at this amazing South African-themed braai being held in her honor.  My friend is not prone to drama or gossip; she is quite practical.  Since she arrived in Madison, she has maintained course in some particularly ugly storms without needing tissues.  The tears were definitely out of place.  She pulled me aside, away from the music, out of earshot from others, and dropped the bomb:  “my advisor,” she said, “said my writing is awful:  he said I write like a foreigner.”  Well, my friend is a foreigner who is fluent in three languages besides English.  How else should she write, I wondered?  “He said I should write like an American,” she explained.

I then recognized her tears.  Reflecting back on my experiences this year as a first-year instructor in the Writing Center, I recalled seeing those same tears streaming down the cheeks of several UW-Madison international students who have come into the center for help “to not write like a foreigner.”  What a dirty word, foreigner.  It brings up all sorts of nasty connotations about who, in this country, is better, and why.  All I could think of after hearing my friend say this was an imperialistic billionaire with an awful comb-over who is getting a remarkable amount of air time denouncing the President as foreign.  I am not sure whether these professors and teaching assistants have comb-overs, but what they inflict upon student writers who are not from the United States is nothing short of cultural imperialism.  Of all the perceived-inadequacies and self-diagnosed shortcomings that all students suffer (see Ginger Jurecka Blake’s March 29 post), this is more debilitating because the bad writing diagnoses are coming from persons whom students are actively trying to impress.  Why is writing like a foreigner bad?  Are departments unaware how their new admits write until they arrive?  Isn’t it a slap in the face of the University’s goals for diversity to offer admittance to a student who speaks and writes differently only to tell them after they arrive that they need to learn to write like an American?  How do you teach a person who is fluent in four languages to write like an American?  Why is it necessary?  And finally, most concerning to me, since all of our literature about us states that “we can’t perform miracles,” what, exactly, as a Writing Center Instructor is my role in this assimilation project supposed to be?

museumofcortemp_hatsThe Writing Center and its satellites are the most diverse spaces on the UW-Madison campus.  While some may guffaw, citing what is lamented as a dearth of diversity on campus, in the Writing Center we see just how international we are.  It makes working there all the more special.  International students come into the center for myriad reasons, but I am wont to say that the majority come seeking help with their grammar, idioms, endings, and articles because they have been told that mastering such tiny linguistic specks will make their papers read as more American, or less like “it’s written by a stupid foreigner,” as one international student explained the problem with his paper to me recently.  It is Writing Center policy that we not focus all of our conversation, session after session, on sentence-level concerns.  This may sound brutal, but it is to the writer’s advantage to master real writing instead of stuff that really, arguably, does not impact what is being said.  The first time we meet with students who demonstrate the need for help in these areas, we discuss the patterns we see with them, and then point out the governing grammatical rules that have been broken.  We conclude the session by sending students home with some self-help tools and examples.  At subsequent meetings, if the problem persists, the Writing Center instructor should briefly explain the rules again to help the student fix the mistake, and keep it moving.  Some students, of course, attempt to get around the policy by insisting upon line-by-line help with their papers.  They will read a line, pause, and wait for praise or correction.  This is when we have to gently explain to them that the Writing Center maintains a list of professional proofreaders with whom they can make their own arrangements.  This is often met with dismay because most tutors are so concerned about their students’ wellbeing that we will occasionally bend our policies for them, and they become dependent upon us doing so to help them mask their foreignness.  When we try to take them deeper than the surface issues, often wounds of deeper writing insecurities surface.  Most specifically, the fact that they are not American and probably won’t write like one until having lived here for who knows how many years?

At the 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival, following her reading from her book Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adiche was asked by a seemingly baffled American woman what should one do to “prepare” to read her novel.  When Adichie responding by asking why reading her book required preparation, the woman said it was because it is “so different, so foreign,” and that she didn’t know how to get herself ready to be textually immersed into another culture.  Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the Biafran War, and Adichie had just finished reading a passage wherein the characters are enduring the hopelessness of a refugee camp, so her irritated response – how do you think millions of non-American English-speaking peoples prepare to read a novel set in the United States, written by an American author – was timely and expected.  The would-be reader found the English being used to write about the culture perplexing, not necessarily the language itself.  Essentially, that is what I believe international students are being urged not to do.  For instance, recently a woman came for help with a biographical work about veiling in Iraq.  She, too, had been encouraged to come to the Writing Center for help not sounding foreign.  As she read her paper aloud, there was no issue with articles, idioms, or endings.  In fact, being a dissertator in a foreign literature department, had she been one of my students, I would have suggested she try to publish the paper.  She wasn’t writing like an American because she was not writing an American’s experience:  she was writing about her life in Iraq.globe1

English Departments are not without merit seen as sites of privilege, even as their doctoral students work on subjects as sensitive as postcoloniality, sexuality, race, and religion.  The Writing Center is different however, as we are engaging themes of social justice, writing inclusion, and providing safe spaces and support for writers and their controversial topics.  As a Writing Center instructor, I consistently encourage students to find and set-free their inner writing voice.  This is not an easy task when one is being admonished for being something other than one happens to be.

4 thoughts on “Writing Across the Foreignness

  1. Thank you for such a smart and insightful post, John. I hope everyone on our staff (and many beyond) reads it!

  2. Speaking from “beyond” (I got here through a link on the Eastern Illinois University Writing Center blog) I am grateful for your eloquent storytelling and analysis.

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful post on such an important concern for students and for writing centers! I really appreciate your take on “sounding foreign,” as it approaches the challenges (and many advantages!) of multilingual writers in a refreshing way. I think that the “cultural imperialism” of language that you point to is a major concern globally, and that you are able to capture both the tangible struggles with grammar alongside the pressing cultural conflicts.

    A couple of questions for you – and the writing center blog readers:

    To what extent can some of this problem be attributed to an inadequate vocabulary for discussing writing? Has “writing like a foreigner” become a shorthand that inadequately describes issues ranging from grammatical errors that obscure or impede meaning to divergence from a disciplinary and /or cultural set of conventions for argumentation? Or, does it continue to imply adherence to some kind of non-existent ‘idiomatic’ or ‘fluent’ English?

    How important or necessary a skill is “writing like an American”? Different languages and different cultures have their own modes and styles of argumentation. Isn’t part of learning to “write like an American” learning these conventions and potentially tailoring them to a given rhetorical situation? Not – of course – to the exclusion of others, the importance of which your last two examples so powerfully suggest.

    Thanks again!

  4. Thanks a lot for your post. You are right on the spot to point out this, ” Isn’t it a slap in the face of the University’s goals for diversity to offer admittance to a student who speaks and writes differently only to tell them after they arrive that they need to learn to write like an American? How do you teach a person who is fluent in four languages to write like an American? Why is it necessary? And finally, most concerning to me, since all of our literature about us states that “we can’t perform miracles,” what, exactly, as a Writing Center Instructor is my role in this assimilation project supposed to be?”

    Like many other non-native speakers worldwide, coming to America does not mean you must speak and sound like an American.

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