Confronting the Politics of Language Diversity in the Writing Center

By Rachel Carrales

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Rachel Carrales has worked in the writing center at UW-Madison since 2010. She is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison, where she studies how middle-class mothers use their literacy practices to respond to the ideology of domesticity.

In addition to working as a tutor in the writing center at UW-Madison, I also teach a class on literacy practices and identity, an intermediate composition course that fulfills students’ comm B requirement. About a week before the start of the semester, Mary Fiorenza, the writing program administrator of English 201, handed out a list of lessons that Deborah Brandt, a literacy scholar and longtime teacher, had “learned the hard way.” One of the lessons she had learned was that it was important to “honestly confront the politics of language diversity,” a phrase which struck me as beautifully capturing what it is that I try to do with all of my students in the writing center, but a goal that I have in mind with my multilingual graduate students in particular.

Qingwei, a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, is one of the many multilingual writers I've had the privilege of working with.

Qingwei, a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, is one of the many multilingual writers I’ve had the privilege of working with.

As part of my duties at the writing center, I have had the privilege of teaching a workshop on how to give conference presentations. Presenting a paper at a conference is an anxiety producing experience for any student, but it’s an event that can be particularly frustrating for multilingual writers, who are often already overwhelmed with mastering the codes and conventions of academic writing in English, and who have serious concerns about speaking in a foreign accent.

About a year ago, I taught a student named “Amy,” a graduate student from China. She had missed my workshop on conference presentations and wanted to set up a session with me so that she could feel more comfortable with an upcoming conference at which she was presenting. Our session was less about looking at her written work, and was far more about helping her understand the rhetorical situation of the conference, about what the expectations might be, and about how she could present her ideas in a clear, concise, and engaging way. It didn’t take long, though, for Amy to say that while she could work on the grammar of her presentation, making sure that her ideas were expertly organized and thoughtfully written, she wasn’t sure what she could do about her accent. She was earnest in her desire to get help with this, and to make sure that she was pronouncing English words as correctly as possible. Amy’s concerns were twofold: there was, of course, her concern that her audience wouldn’t be able to understand what she perceived to be her thick foreign accent, but she was also communicating her desire to be taken seriously, to not be dismissed on account of her difference, and to be truly heard in a space that privileges standard English. What Amy was actually asking was, “How can you help me establish ethos in a space where I will almost certainly be rendered invisible?”

A part of me was surprised by the ease with which Amy expressed her concerns. I had to take a moment to reflect on what was really going on, and I had to also temper my own impulse to reassure her in superficial and ultimately unhelpful ways. As a tutor who wants my students to feel better about their writing after talking to me than before, I was reticent about really addressing her anxieties. I worried that it wouldn’t help, and that she might just leave feeling discouraged by all that we couldn’t change about her situation—about people’s perceptions of her accent, about the racism of those in the academy, and about how much harder she needs to work on her writing in order to meet the exacting standards of those in her discipline.

But, as a Mexican-American, and the daughter of a man who was asked to take speech classes at his university because of his Spanish accent, I felt obligated to, as Deborah Brandt would say, honestly confront the politics of language diversity. The first thing I did was talk about the importance of understanding her rhetorical situation, something that Amy was clearly already doing. I said that she was correct, that people would have particular expectations of what a speaker/writer looks and sounds like in an academic setting. I didn’t try to persuade her that her concerns were unfounded. Instead, I emphasized that understanding the expectations of her audience was the first step in crafting a successful presentation, and I pointed out the rhetorical savvy she was already displaying in simply having these concerns. The second thing I did was to reassure her that there was nothing innately wrong with having an accent, either in speech or in writing, a fact that may seem entirely obvious to people in the field of composition and rhetoric, but a fact that nonetheless surprised Amy, who has been trained to doubt her own way of speaking and writing since studying in the U.S. The third thing I did was share a story that—at least to my mind—got at the heart of what concerned Amy. One of my professors during my M.A. program, a scholar in composition and rhetoric, is from Malaysia, and I will never forget her telling our class that she would painstakingly record Dan Rather’s news segments, repeating his standard English aloud and practicing until her accent morphed into what it is today—smooth, even, and without a trace of a foreign accent. She said that she did this not because she felt shame about her own accent, but because she was keenly aware of how she would be perceived by her colleagues if she had retained it.

I told Amy this story not to encourage her to record the nightly news in an effort to erase the story of herself in her voice, but because I wanted her to know that other people have also had her concerns, that there are no easy answers, and that I truly empathized with her situation. I was also careful to point out that Amy’s accent would not undermine her audience’s ability to understand her, and that my earlier point, that there is nothing incorrect about speaking in an accent, still stands.

Amy expressed relief at learning from a writing teacher that there was nothing wrong with the way that she expresses herself, that having a foreign accent only indicates that you were born and raised someplace else, that you know more than one language, and that you have a history outside of the U.S. She decided that she would like to think through some strategies for the question and answer portion of her conference presentation, that she would make an effort to speak slowly so that she could be better understood—something that all presenters should make an effort to do—and that she would be extra diligent about thinking through the components of her presentation and how she could make it as lively and smart as possible, an authentic reflection of what she knew and cared about. Contrary to my own concerns, Amy left feeling more confident and capable. She had a plan. It didn’t involve trying to sound like anyone other than who she was; instead, it involved her fostering an awareness of what was expected, while also feeling confident in the worth of her own ideas and the means by which she expressed them.

Chooza is a PhD candidate in Nursing at UW-Madison and is a multilingual writer who I've enjoyed getting to know in recent weeks.

Chooza is a PhD candidate in Nursing at UW-Madison and is a multilingual writer who I’ve enjoyed getting to know in recent weeks.

I’ve spoken a great deal about how to address the concerns that multilingual writers have about their role as speakers, an issue that may seem beside the point in the writing center, which focuses primarily on what and how people write. My hope, though, is that you can take Amy’s anxieties seriously, and that the example I was able to offer can help all of us rise to the occasion, becoming willing and able to honestly address the politics of language diversity, however the issue is made manifest in our sessions. As I see it, our job isn’t simply to teach writing, or to teach writers tools to think about their writing as a process. Our job is to also address the implications of writing, speaking, and communicating in a world that demands increased standards of literacy, and that expects writing to look and sound only one way.

Banner photograph courtesy of Qingwei Wang

11 thoughts on “Confronting the Politics of Language Diversity in the Writing Center

  1. I hope this helps.

    In grad school a hundred years ago, I had a prof with a Chinese / Phillippine (sp?) background. He spoke with a heavy accent, & several students had trouble understanding his lectures. For a reason I only learned later, I did not. The man was not only brilliant in his field, but extremely gifted in his teaching; one of the best profs I had in my whole college experience.

    A couple of years later, I had the need to telephone my prof on a issue I was struggling with out in the real world. Then, I discovered, over the phone, that I was lip reading + hearing his lectures in class–that’s why I didn’t have any trouble with his accent in school. On the phone, however, I was totally lost!!

    The phone experience made me feel so inadequate. I hoped he hadn’t felt less than for not being able to offer me some lead out of my intellectual / real world thicket that I was thrashing about in.

    That incident has always stuck with me–especially when I get someone on the phone that obviously is not speaking English as a first language. The key for me is to slow everything down, ask for clarification when needed, & acknowledge the help they are giving me–both in the clarifications & the overall objective of the phone conversation.

    Thank you for reminding me, again, of these things.

  2. Michael, that is a really poignant story! Thank you so much for sharing it. I know that as an undergrad I was often upset at peers of mine who would diminish the intellect of teachers based on an accent. This is different, of course, from simply expressing frustration that a teacher is difficult to understand, but I found that these kinds of comments were often enmeshed. I think it’s amazing that you were able to understand your professor and that his accent didn’t present a barrier from creating a sound teacher-student relationship. Your ability to move beyond his accent and to learn from him despite these surface differences offers a model for all of us.

  3. Thanks for this post, Rachel! More than anything, this raises for me a really thorny, uncomfortable question about what it means to “confront” the politics of language diversity. That is, even if Amy leaves a session with a new understanding of language diversity and a new confidence in her linguistic abilities, this doesn’t change the fact that she may, as you note, be invisible at an academic conference in the U.S.

    I suppose what I am getting at is that discussions like the one you had with Amy are only a part of the work of confrontation/interruption. Certainly an essential part, but only a part. As tutors we might help student-writers navigate the linguistic expectations and the discourse communities they traverse, but do we not also have a responsibility (responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean ability!) to help transform those discourse communities?

  4. Chris, you raise a crucial point, which is that Amy is still entering a world in which whiteness and/or being born and raised in the U.S. confers enormous credibility and privilege. I don’t have any easy answers for how we can begin to address this larger problem, which impacts all of the writers with whom we work. I know that what I’ve proposed here is just a humble beginning in responding to this larger systemic issue. Bonus points go to the poster who can solve it ; )

  5. In a situation like this, I can see myself wanting to say, “Don’t worry! Everyone will recognize that you are intelligent and capable! They won’t marginalize you because of your accent.” I think it’s important that you didn’t do this (even though it is hopefully true for many people in the academy). Glossing over the problem doesn’t make it go away.

    A student of mine wrote an opinion editorial about how UW should stop hiring “non-native English speakers.” To support this claim, he cited UW’s current academic ranking from US News & World Report and said that this rank would improve if students’ learning wasn’t impeded by faculty with accents. In addition to the fallacious reasoning of this argument, I was troubled by the implied connection between professors’ accents and inferior teaching skills or intellect or expertise. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is alive and well and, like you said, it’s important for us to honestly confront it.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rachel, and for drawing attention to the role of writing tutors and instructors in supporting students as speakers as well as writers.

  7. Thanks for taking on this complex issue, Rachel. I’m going to share this post with my consultants here at UNL–I think it will resonate with them.

  8. Rachel, thanks for this really thoughtful post. I am often struck by students’ own awareness of and anxiety about their spoken language — and struggle to deal with the reality that culturally, their speaking can matter a lot. I am happy to have read about the way you thought through this set of expectations with one student in particular, and will be thinking of this in my next conference presentation conversation.

  9. This is becoming more and less of a problem as many of the science graduate courses are now made up of more ESL students who find themselves giving conference presentations to fellow ESL students. Over the years in the presentation course I teach, I encourage the students to accept that they will have an accent, but that they can slow down their speech with pacing and visuals and be sure to project more– better to be heard incorrectly than not at all. After a semester, many of students have gone on to make good presentations.

  10. Thanks for this thoughtful, sensitive post, Rachel. As a former ESL teacher, I’d thought through some of the same dilemmas, though not necessarily in the context of higher education. We can teach multilingual learners to write, speak, and decipher English, but this is only half the battle; the other half is political and emotional. How to awaken native speakers to that twinge of doubt they instinctively feel on first hearing someone speak their own language with a foreign accent? How to get them to perceive these speakers not as cute, but as equals with sophisticated things to say? And how to help the speakers themselves overcome their own ingrained, often torturous self-doubt? Heck, I remember living in Spain years ago and struggling, myself, to cultivate and establish ethos in spite of my stammering, imperfect Spanish; to overcome that cuteness factor and be taken seriously. I can only imagine all this would be magnified tenfold in an academic scenario, where even we native speakers kill ourselves for intellectual credibility.

    Perhaps there is no easy answer to the problem you spotlight; as Chris notes, working with these scholars to help them overcome their self-doubt doesn’t fix the much larger systemic arrogance and skepticism that generated that doubt to begin with. Still, posts like yours remind me of the anguish that many multilingual learners struggle with inside, and convince me to be as sensitive as I can when I work with them at the Writing Center.

  11. “… pronouncing English words as correctly as possible …” One thing that linguist insist on is that there is no “pronouncing” written words. Writing is the secondary coding system, speech the first and speech was there (hundreds of) thousands of years ago before an alphabet or e.g. kanji were invented. That said, one of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of sounding like a native speaker (and even these sound dialectically very diverse) is that while a baby can still adapt to any language, even Xhosa, after a few years all these phoneme combinations are lost except for those that pertain to the native language itself. And since French has about 30 odd phonemes, the French are always the “odd one out” when speaking English or German each of which uses about 40. Had they been inundated, e.g. through taped recordings, during their early years, with other languages (never mind if you can’t understand a word! – You don’t in your native language even!) then later in life they would have been able to use any of the about 70 phonemes almost effortlessly. So the “rehearse Dan Rather” strategy is one of the only brute-force avenues we as adults have left once these nervous currents representing the non-native phonemes have been cut to re-establish a semblance or “received pronunciation”. But for that we need to give up the idea of “pronouncing” written words first …

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