By Jessie Reeder. Jessie is the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a dissertator in literary studies, focusing on 19th century British Literature and Latin American revolution.
Have you ever studied a foreign language? If you’re like most American students, you took a few years in high school, and maybe a few more in college. It was probably French or Spanish, maybe German. That’s a pretty typical exposure in the United States. A few of us, spurred on by interest, will have studied abroad and continued our studies to an advanced-intermediate level. But rarely are we required to inhabit this second tongue. To subsist on it.
Imagine going on to graduate study in your chosen field—perhaps it is philosophy, engineering, or anthropology. Many of us have done this, and we know the challenges it brings. Immersion in a new level of discourse, brand new expectations and genres for writing, and an environment filled with high-powered thinkers and producers. It’s enough to make anyone sweat. Now imagine you’re pursuing this rigorous work abroad, and doing it all in your second language.
Let’s say it’s German. Your reading every night, already covering challenging new topics, is in German. Your class discussions, digging into the complexity of this new material, are held in German. If you want to talk with your professor about a paper topic, a difficult concept, or even a missed class, you must do so in German. Are you sweating a little more? Can you imagine the gaps in understanding you might have, or worry about having? Let’s face it: “ontology” is a tough enough concept to grasp, even if you know the full meaning and nuance of every word used in its definition. It’s hard enough to form a graduate-level argument, even when you are struggling to express it in your first language. Your classmates are all native German speakers, which means they can focus 100% of their energy on acquiring the material. For them, language is as transparent as air. For you, it is an overgrown thicket, constantly obscuring your path.
When I work with international graduate students in the Writing Center, I’m constantly playing out this scenario in my mind. My doctoral program has been just about as challenging as I can handle, and I get to speak my native language every moment of every day. Not to mention that if I were to live abroad, I could count on hearing English spoken in a great number of other countries. It’s not likely that a student in Madison will ever hear a professor, classmate, librarian, barista, bus driver, or landlord break into the relief-bringing strains of their native language… say, Russian. I try to imagine the experiences of our English language learners from China, Peru, and Thailand—and I’m just bowled over by their courage, effort, and ability. According to International Student Services here at UW-Madison (with whom we partner in lots of different ways), 1,100 new international students joined our campus this year alone. That’s an awful lot of really impressive people!
As a Writing Center tutor, I am hyper-aware of how much we mean to these students. They are swimming upstream through ceaseless waves of partially-legible information. We give them a chance to slow down the flood for a moment. Perhaps we spend an hour talking about what a literature review is. Or we devote 30 minutes to a confusing paragraph in their writing, which helps them feel confident that they’ve fully expressed the idea in their head that they fear their new language won’t accommodate. Maybe we simply provide a handout on APA style that their professors assumed no one needed.
These services aren’t really any different from the ones we provide to native English speakers. But a recent conversation with one of my international students helped me see that we have an impact on our students we may not even be aware of.
I have been working with “Abby” since October. She’s a graduate student in the social sciences, and she’s new to the U.S. Abby is an absolute delight to work with—she’s always laughing, and she blends her sense of humor about graduate school with an incredible work ethic. She’s a sponge for writing skills, and in the past four months her writing has become markedly more organized, efficient, and clear.
But in addition to talking about her writing, we also talk about her new life at an American university. So much of her experience requires translation—and not just language. Professors’ expectations, the demeanor of her classmates in seminar, and the social dynamics of group work, are all facets of her education that she needs help interpreting.
Recently she confided in me that one of her biggest challenges in graduate school, amongst all the ones that might seem obvious and loomingly terrifying, is feeling ignored. If she’s had a short night’s sleep (and who wouldn’t, reading dense academic writing in a foreign language), English comes more slowly off her tongue, and the pace of classmates’ conversation seems to skim by without her. It can be hard for her to feel as though she’s really part of the discussion, both in class and in working groups. She worries that she’s seen as a nuisance, not a peer. Touchingly, she told me that if she returns to teach or study in her home country, she will have an entirely different approach to international students, now that she knows their experience.
Now, Abby is a tough cookie. She doesn’t dwell on her challenges; she stares them down. But our talk got me thinking about how, for students like her, the Writing Center might be a lot more than just a place to learn about writing. If the tutor and the student have a strong relationship, it can be a place for the student to be heard. To converse for an hour about tough concepts, at a pace that suits them, with an engaged listener. To slow down the river of language that is constantly bearing them along, to make eye contact, to talk to an eager listener, and to have someone say, “Yes, I hear you, and your idea makes a lot of sense to me. It’s worth writing about.” How many graduate students have an hour every week like that, and how valuable would it be to their confidence? How much more so when they struggle not just with tough material but with the opacity of a second language and the strangeness of a new university culture?
The Writing Center is immensely popular with our international graduate students, and it’s no wonder. As tutors we offer a lot more than just our experience with certain genres, or our knowledge of important writing skills. We provide a place where a student can say, “I have trouble reading handwritten English; can you help me understand these marginal comments?” or where they can confess to feeling totally lost in the methods section of an assigned reading, and to do so with someone outside of their field, someone who they don’t fear is too busy, someone they aren’t afraid they must appear unquestionably capable in front of, someone who will not assign them a grade or determine their future in research.
And ultimately, by listening, by affirming, and by addressing these students’ concerns, we can do them the best service of all: we can reassure them, from our position of experience, that their classmates who speak fluent English suffer many of the same anxieties and gaps in understanding. That their challenges may be different in degree because of their language barrier, but that they aren’t different in kind.
Hopefully we can help them feel confidence and a sense that someone’s listening. These aren’t, I would argue, tangential to the lifelong process of learning to write. I think, actually, they are the two most important tools in a writer’s kit.
As a coda, I’d like to mention that we have a number of international students teaching in the Writing Center, from Poland, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Canada, and Yemen. It would be wonderful to hear from some of them in the comments, as I’m sure I cannot begin to do justice to their experiences as instructors!