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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Changing Conditions for Multilingual Writers: Writing Centers Destabilizing Standard Language Ideology

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Sarah Blazer and Brian Fallon

Abstract: Writing centers provide a crucial site for multilingual writers to experience generative and productive conversation about their writing projects and for their language and cultural experiences to be appreciated as sources for meaning-making. For this to be possible, tutors must understand the phenomenon and problems of standard language ideology (SLI) and should have opportunities to develop practices that reflect translingual perspectives on language and communication. This study examines peer tutors’ participation on a private staff blog to demonstrate how opportunities to reflect on translingual practices and experiences can shift tutors’ knowledge and attitudes about SLI and create conditions for more equitable, cosmopolitan experiences for multilingual writers.


Themes of destabilization and disruption have circulated writing center literature for decades, inspiring visions of writing centers as sites for epistemological, pedagogical, and ideological transformation. For instance, peer tutoring has been imagined as reshaping the boundaries between teaching and learning (Kail and Trimbur) and as disruptive yet creative and generative “noise” in information transmission (Boquet); and, writing center scholars describe sites where tutors challenge the language of oppression (Suhr-Sytsma and Brown) and destabilize the autonomous model of literacy (Grimm). In particular, Nancy Grimm’s calls for writing centers to resist institutional hegemony have drawn many to the work of disrupting standard language ideology (SLI) in order to improve conditions for culturally and linguistically diverse writers. We are inspired by Grimm’s conceptualization of writing centers disrupting conventional institutional thinking and have focused our peer tutor staff education on practices that promote meaningful change for multilingual{1} writers within and beyond our center.

To inform our tutor education pedagogy, we turn to Suresh Canagarajah’s vast research into translingual communities and his theory-building for pedagogical application in U.S. classrooms and Bobbi Olson’s insightful treatment of Canagarajah’s work in the context of writing centers. Additionally, Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur’s 2011 Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach continues to ground theory and practice development in our center, even as we have followed and been challenged by fruitful debates of many within and outside of Composition Studies (e.g. Tardy; Schreiber and Watson). Regarding practice, we have been motivated by the clear, accessible illustrations of translingual pedagogy in Aimee Krall-Lanoue’s piece on reading and discussing differences and Sarah Stanley’s piece on noticing and negotiating error with students during classroom discussions.

We recognize a natural fit between good writing center practice and translingual orientations, especially in calls to understand language differences as a resource and to become more careful, interested, and open-minded readers of student work. A translingual approach encourages us to interrogate, understand, and exercise the significance of conversation and relationships on our campus. Thus, we orient our program toward communicative strategies that appreciate home languages and cultures as resources for producing meaning, understand language as performative, and treat users of language as agentive (see Horner et al.; Canagarajah, A Rhetoric). As we engage translingual perspectives, our challenge as writing center directors is to continuously create conditions that encourage peer and professional consultants’ theoretical and pedagogical thinking about language and social justice within the context of their own experiences as language users and tutors. This study addresses the significance of creating opportunities for reflexive practice and provides illustrations of writing center tutors’ translingual practice, adding to contributions like Canagarajah’s (Codemeshing), Krall-Lanoue’s, and Sarah Stanley’s documentation of translingual written response and classroom teaching practice.

Institutional Context

The FIT Writing and Speaking Studio bears similarities to writing centers with peer tutors at public universities across the country. However, our institution is industry- and arts-focused, a top design school in the world, and a place that attracts creative and entrepreneurial people. Located in the heart of New York City, our students also have access to people, language, customs, and culture from a variety of backgrounds. Despite these surroundings, our student population is predominantly white--44% in Fall 2017 (FIT Fact Sheet); for many of these students, FIT is the most diverse place they have ever studied, which they often announce with pride. By contrast, our international and domestic students of color often report the opposite, and are troubled by the racism and xenophobia they witness and experience on campus. We ensure our writing center tutoring staff is culturally and linguistically diverse--often more than the general student population--to promote multi/translingual experiences and perspectives as a norm in our increasingly globalized world (Alvarez et al.; Grimm New). That said, some tutors, regardless of language background, come to our center believing that “standard English” is the ticket to scholastic success, a stark contrast to other tutors who have experienced the oppression and denigration of SLI. These at-odds experiences and worldviews have made for productive yet demanding and uncomfortable conversations that challenge tutors to recognize differences in how writers have experienced SLI; our conversations simultaneously test the limits of tutors’ relationships with one another.

Consequently, we are compelled to develop staff education practices that help tutors discuss and negotiate these differences. Interrogating SLI in an effort to undermine the grasp it has on individuals becomes a central and often arduous task of our staff education efforts. Few of our tutors will consider a career in language teaching, and while some might opt to minor in English or Communication Studies, they are far more likely to pursue careers in the global creative industries. However, the majority will find work and live in a cosmopolitan, globalized world. By encouraging a translingual orientation in their work with writers and each other, we prepare tutors for more just and equitable communication in the world beyond our writing center.

Empathy: Taking an Interest, Taking a Risk

We align our work with Canagarajah’s call for a practice-oriented cosmopolitan dialogic (Translingual Practice 196). All writing centers are contact zones, especially in the way Canagarajah rebrands Pratt’s notion of a conflict-oriented contact zone to one where “people also collaborate and help each other succeed in their interactions” (30). Writing centers tend to be a hub for international and multilingual students, making them spaces where culture, ideology, and language diversity take center stage. Nancy Effinger Wilson makes this assertion in her view of a cosmopolitan writing center arguing that, “it is precisely because tutors and tutees from various backgrounds socialize that a writing center can be an ideal ecology for ‘bottom-up cosmopolitanism’” (2). Wilson’s cosmopolitanism urges writing centers to be responsible for “acknowledging and applauding the heteroglossia of our students and the world at large” (4), and points out that writing centers are often already cosmopolitan places--that is, the kind of contact zones where people from different ways of life converge, converse, and adapt.

Writing center educators willing to embrace this cosmopolitanism can advance practices that align with Canagarajah’s dialogical cosmopolitanism, which he explains is, “...interactive and negotiated. It is not given, but is achieved in situated interactions. It is based on mutual collaboration, with an acceptance of everyone’s difference. It enables self-awareness and self-criticism, as communities don’t just maintain their difference and identity but further develop their cooperative dispositions and values” (Translingual Practice 196). Canagarajah’s discussion references Kwame Anthony Appiah’s focus on practices over principles and articulates a vision for cosmopolitanism based on process and practice, pointing out that, “Practices help negotiate the shifting, fluid, and hybrid values in changing situations and interlocutors to achieve community. In this sense, practices help side-step the search for shared values” (195). Appiah’s position on practices over principles is primarily concerned with how we change our minds about ideas, people, places, and cultures. He suggests--and we have found--that the slow march toward change is a process, noting that change rarely initiates with a persuasive argument or lengthy conversation about values but through gradual shifts in perspective in response to lived experiences (Appiah 73). Fundamentally, Appiah argues that cosmopolitanism involves an obligation to others and a serious consideration of the value “of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (xv).

Reading Appiah validated our long-held belief that practicing empathy as “taking an interest” is a generative concept for writing tutors to explore. When we imagine our work holistically as taking an interest rather than helping, we are better able to recognize the connections among how people believe and act, write, sign, and speak. Practicing empathy as taking an interest helps tutors see their roles not as language gatekeepers, but as mutual learners with an appreciation for the vast, sometimes untapped, resources people bring to our teaching and learning spaces. Taking an interest as a tutoring ethos is deceptively simple because mutual investment requires risk-taking; that is, thoughtful inquiries often result in more perplexing or complex situations than do prescriptive directives. Yet, a genuine interest on the part of the tutor can lead to important clarification on so many levels, from a writer’s intentions to a new, shared understanding. Further, a tutors’ empathic listening can help them deepen their own language awareness while also fostering growth in their social values and learning strategies. Like Elizabeth Boquet, we ask tutors to strive for a “higher-risk/higher-yield model” of tutoring and thus to “operate on the edge of their expertise” in situations where the outcome is not easily anticipated (81).

Our understanding of taking an interest and taking risks is closely aligned with Canagarajah’s cooperative dispositions. In language learning contact zones, cooperative dispositions that make “translinguals open to negotiating diversity and the co-construction of meaning” involve three components: individuals’ language awareness, their social values, and their learning/communicative strategies (179). We see a close connection between these components of cooperative dispositions and the types of knowledge, attitudes, and practices we aim to have tutors evolve over time. In an earlier study of tutors’ experiences, Sarah Blazer (What They Say) drew on Deardorff’s process model of intercultural competence to identify knowledge, attitudes, and practice as three dimensions of transformative learning. Thus, when we design staff education to destabilize SLI through translingual practice, we are intentional in our efforts to mediate development in each of these crucial areas.

From years of trial and error, we know that even those ideologically opposed to SLI are often underprepared to enact productive practices. Teacher scholars like Missy Watson identify this challenge, explaining that even with praxis assignments requiring her graduate students to develop lesson plans applying sociolinguistic theory to practice, students still needed opportunities to test and reflect on the lessons they developed (170). Watson’s discovery cannot be overstated, and this study aims to offer a model of how writing centers facilitate practitioners’ testing and reflecting on their developing pedagogical knowledge, attitudes, and practice.

Staff Education Practices for Translingual Thinking

Conditions for teaching and learning are particularly precarious for students identified as culturally and linguistically nondominant, and even as we interview potential tutors, we acknowledge this concern and our commitment to creating more equitable, just conditions. The most impactful way our program can change inequitable conditions is to ensure our staff education critically engages tutors in the conversation and work of destabilizing SLI.{2}

To cultivate the conditions for our staff to recognize SLI as a phenomenon and explore more productive and inclusive stances on language and communication, we tend to the previously discussed interrelated areas of knowledge, attitudes, and practice. Our approaches can be summed up simply: we expose tutors to scholarship from a variety of disciplines; ask them to share, imagine, and test new tutoring approaches; and use our private staff blog to facilitate ongoing written reflection on theory-building and practice. At every step, we ask tutors to connect prior and new knowledge and experiences. (For the genesis of this staff development pedagogy, see Blazer’s Twenty-First Century.)

We often use texts to introduce concepts like language ideology (e.g. Greenfield; Young) and translingual perspectives on pedagogy and writing center work (e.g. Horner et al; Olson; Green) and to provide guidance on translingual-oriented practice (e.g. Matsuda and Cox; Krall-Lanoue; Rose). Since we have found few accessible texts on practice, we draw on pieces like Fallon’s Why Peer Tutors are My Best Teachers to address the practical significance of peer empathy and connection and Boquet’s Noise from the Writing Center to encourage tutors to embrace the value of risk in their practice.

Over time, we have found that certain conceptual knowledge is especially significant to our translingual project, which we introduce through texts and guided staff exercises. For example, to introduce the critical concept that languages are highly fluid, connected with identity and power, and regularly used against oppressed groups, we have shared Neisha-Anne Green’s article on the cancerous effects of SLI on her development as a student and professional. Tutors have responded to this text by sharing their own experiences of entanglement with the phenomenon of SLI, making clear its deleterious effects on members of our learning community. We introduce the concept of discourse communities as perceptible but dynamic constructs to help tutors understand how groups use varieties of language. With this concept, we have found a guided staff exercise to be most impactful: we ask tutors to write down every genre they composed in the previous week, display the results, and discuss features of these diverse genres and the range of processes tutors used to compose them. Our concrete, crowd-sourced findings allow us to talk about how and why groups construct and ascribe power to genres, and how malleable they really are. This activity prepares us to explore a third critical concept: how writing is an act of making choices--not just about the words we choose--but the syntax, organization, and other rhetorical devices we employ as well. We build conscious awareness of this concept by describing examples from our own work with writers on tricky matters like syntax but also by highlighting examples tutors have documented on our staff blog--sometimes unknowingly. We continuously weave these concepts through our staff education work because while they are comprehensible, they do not easily fit with the inflexible models and heuristics many tutors have developed through prior schooling and social experiences.

Enriching our approach to tutor education, B. Kumaravadivelu’s postmethod pedagogy provides a generative framework for fostering tutors’ development of critical pedagogy and advancing theoretical perspectives on writing center teaching and learning. Kumaravadivelu’s pedagogic parameters can be summed up this way: All pedagogy is local (particularity), all pedagogy should be theorized from practice (practicality), and all pedagogy is implicated in and can respond to relations of power and dominance (possibility) (538-544). These three parameters inform how we design opportunities for our community to cultivate an environment in which individuals’ differences are generative and mutual collaboration is valued (Canagarajah Translingual Practice 196). When we encourage tutors to share patterns and novelties they notice emerging from their work with FIT writers, we respect the role of particularity in driving pedagogical innovation. When we ask them to not only test published theories but also theorize from the patterns, questions, and strategies they recognize in their own practice, we foster a pedagogy of practicality. And when we invite tutors to learn with us about the ideological nature of language, literacies, and writing, and work with us to develop more just conditions, we support tutors generating pedagogical possibility.

Our studio’s private staff blog provides a crucial site for the critical tutor education we’ve been discussing. The blog allows for more contemplative and focused conversation among the tutors, extending our face-to-face discussion and engaging them asynchronously over time. Perhaps most significant, through the blog, we prompt tutors to notice, develop, and reflect on their own practice-based alternatives to SLI. After we prompt tutors to focus on a particular topic, we resist managing the space and generally do not respond to individual posts to allow the conversation to progress on their terms. Instead we read all of the posts, then reflect on and respond to themes raised to create a bridge from one place to the next in our own posts. Our posts are meant to highlight connections, appreciate and amplify tutors’ contributions, and issue focused challenges to encourage experimentation and risk-taking.

Study of Three Vignettes

We turn now to tutors’ blog contributions to describe and analyze manifestations of translingual theory and practice in our context. Under an IRB-reviewed project, we collected various types of work produced by tutors over a period of several years to study teaching and learning practices in our writing center. While we approach the data in this study retrospectively with a particular question in mind, the tutors agreed to participate in this research without knowledge of the specific question this study aims to address. We have used pseudonyms for all tutors whose work is included.

Reviewing more than 200 posts from our private staff blog, written over the course of 6 months in 2017, we used a grounded theory approach to identify themes; we categorized themes as evidence of transformation in tutors’ knowledge, attitudes, and practice. We chose to focus our subsequent analysis on three themes emerging across the staff’s posts in the area of practice for several reasons: one, without staff education attention to tutors’ practice, we believe transformations in knowledge and attitude may not be realized; two, without evidence of transformation in practice, we do not know if our efforts to change conditions for writers are bearing fruit; and three, practice is minimally treated in the literature on translingual pedagogy.

The vignettes we present and analyze in the next sections are three tutors’ responses to a blog post in which we ended with this challenge: “This week, make an extra effort to notice--and seize, if possible!--opportunities to draw on/encourage writers to draw on their L1+/C1+ as a resource, specifically in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.” (10/9/17) The tutors’ vignettes address three themes: negotiating lexical choices, testing translingual approaches with persistence, and developing critical consciousness through inquiry. The three vignettes we feature were written by tutors who identify as monolingual because we want to underscore, as Horner et al. have argued, the possibilities for all of us, regardless of our language backgrounds, to cultivate cooperative dispositions and practices. In our discussion of the themes highlighted by each vignette, we weave in excerpts from four additional tutors engaged in the blog conversation, most of whom identify as multilingual. We present and analyze these seven tutors’ contributions to highlight the significance of meaning-making through practice-based conversation in our teaching and learning environment.

Vignette 1. Lexical Choices: A Practical Way In

Tutors frequently wrote about their attempts to explore lexical choices in response to our challenge to draw on writers’ linguistic and cultural resources. In this first vignette, Afrah writes about a session in which she and the writer have an opportunity to negotiate a lexical choice. As Afrah writes below, she understands the writer’s meaning but wants to know more about her decision. Afrah’s reflection on lexical choices and experiences with writers initiates a transformation in her attitudes towards cultural and linguistic difference and her knowledge of language potential.

I recently worked with a multilingual student. She was writing a memoir for her English class. She wrote about how when she first came to America, her English was so elementary that she accidentally told her host family she was from North Korea, instead of South. It took years before she finally understood their bewilderment. She went on to speak about her first day at school, saying something along the lines of, “My heart began to stomp in my chest.”

I stopped her. “Stomp?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Like it was going really fast.”

Of course I had understood exactly what she meant to say. Likely most of us would’ve opted for a word maybe along the lines of “pounded”. But she selected stomped.

“Is that wrong?” she asked me. I was unsure about the answer to this question. No, it wasn’t wrong. It made sense, it was simply a more original take on a common English term. I explained this to her and she asked if she should change it. Instead of agreeing, I inquired what made her choose “stomp” in the first place. She explained to me that at home they use a word similar to “stomp”, since the heart is viewed almost as though it were personified. When it speeds up, it’s similar to that of a person speeding up their pace... stomping on the ground.

... The student opted to keep the word “stomp”, and we actually found a way to incorporate her explanation of the word, into the essay. (10/19/17)

Afrah could have read past the writer’s unexpected but effective word choice, signaling uptake. This is one way to reflect a translingual disposition of openness to difference. However, pointing it out initiates conversation that prompts the writer to share the personal and cultural significance of her linguistic choice. It creates an opportunity for Afrah to demonstrate her interest in the writer and support the writer’s choice to preserve the unique language. It is worth noting that Afrah has no way to confirm the ‘accuracy’ of the writer’s input about the word she chose; in other words, other Korean-speaking readers might not have the same experience with the idea of the heart “stomping.” What is important from a translingual writing center perspective is that the dialogue Afrah and the writer engage in around the writer’s word choice enables both writer and tutor to build language awareness and understanding of language possibility. Ultimately, the two devise a strategy for embedding an explanation of the term, a strategy each may find useful in future texts as well.

Later in the same blog post, Afrah makes sense of this moment, recalling an excerpt from Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary which we had read together during a staff meeting. She writes:

[Rose] writes about the intelligence of the student’s mistake, and I realized that was exactly what was happening during my session. The word, while maybe awkward, wasn’t chosen at random. Understanding that there was logic behind her decision allowed me to use her L1 as a resource. (10/19/17)

Even if we feel Afrah misunderstands the writer’s choice as a “mistake” and would not label the choice “awkward,” we see her engage critically the notion that an individual’s unique language background is worth exploring and then apply this stance in practice. It is crucial that Afrah experiences for herself the realization that the writer made an intentional, personally significant choice. It is moments like this that drive the transformation we see in Afrah.

When Afrah began tutoring with us during the summer of 2017, she joined a small group of tutors reading Bobbi Olson’s Rethinking our Work with Multilingual Writers and immediately planted herself firmly, and alone, in the center of a tense ideological discussion about immigration and language. The returning tutors had been primed for Olson and were participating in a small group to help us see what was tricky and what resonated in preparation for our Fall staff education work. Afrah was encountering Olson’s ideas without the same introduction to concepts like discourse communities and genres.

Rereading Olson’s article later in the Fall, Afrah writes about this first encounter with the text when she felt inclined to “rebel” against Olson. Here, she shares her impressions of a passage she found particularly troubling:

At one point [Olson] writes, “Writing center practitioners often feel an institutional pressure to participate in the effort to mainstream 'different' sounding/looking texts.” I felt she was almost inferring that “different” sounding/looking texts didn't need to be mainstreamed, and that so-called “incorrect" English was fully acceptable. English is English, I thought. How, in a writing center of all places, could this fact be disputed? But then I began tutoring. (10/5/17)

More than many tutors, Afrah is forthcoming with concerns and expresses ideological conflict with a rejection of SLI, drawing frequently on her parents as models of immigrant language learning against great odds. We recognize that Afrah’s initial reaction is informed by her previous home and school experiences, and, as she admits, precedes opportunities to engage in practice.

As a result of our informal summer pilot, when the Fall semester resumed, we chose not to begin with Olson but to ease the staff into our semester’s work around translingual practice by introducing tutors to Fallon’s construct of “peer moments” (359) and a discussion of practicing empathy by taking an interest in writers and their projects. We invited tutors to reflect on moments of unexpected connection in their practice and remind everyone how significant and satisfying these moments can be. This entry point allowed all of our staff--new, like Afrah, and returning--space to enter a complex conversation through their own experiences and knowledge, their own positionality and attitudes as learners, language users, and collaborators.

Without diverse entry points, through texts, discussion, and practice, and space to explore, reflect, and share, tutors may reject new perspectives and possibilities. For Afrah, as she states plainly, it is when she begins tutoring--when she begins practicing--that she begins thinking differently about what English is. No longer does she draw almost exclusively on her parents’ immigrant experiences to understand and express her stance on English; now, she draws on her widening circle--peer writers she has connected and worked with--to explore and explain her thinking.

Afrah, like her peers, consistently responded to our call to draw on writers’ language backgrounds by looking out for opportunities to discuss lexical choices, sharing these experiences in writing and in staff meetings. In another blog post, she recalls a writer asking her to help him replace a term he developed in English to describe a concept from an experience he had in Korea. Afrah and the writer briefly consider replacing his term with the word, ‘soldier,’ but determine the unique English phrase he developed--previously unfamiliar to Afrah--reflected best the concept he knew from his experience in the Korean military. (10/5/17) Afrah’s peer, Arianne, chimes in, drawing on her own extensive translingual experiences, to add: “There are so many instances where other words from languages can never be translated into English and that is ok.” (10/6/17) Arianne goes on to connect an experience of being authorized to integrate multiple languages in a text she composed for her own class. She echoes Afrah, citing Olson’s claim that writing centers should reject pressures to “mainstream” writers’ texts, suggesting hers and Afrah’s efforts are “a step forward in relearning ways in which languages can be presented without reverting back to what we've been conditioned with.” (10/6/17)

Through reflexive practice, we see Afrah and her peers (re)consider the notion of lexical correctness. By the end of the semester, Afrah was one of several tutors to write about the assimilationist, accommodationist, and separatist stances outlined in another text all tutors read: Matsuda and Cox’s Reading an ESL Writer’s Text. Commenting on another tutor’s post, Afrah wrote that she, too, was “work[ing] to pull away from being an ‘assimilationist.’” She noted the difficulty of doing so when students ask her to “make their papers ‘flow’ and sound ‘natural’ not realizing that there can actually be more character added to a paper when it sounds... UNnatural.” (11/9/17) While we could contest the binary of natural versus unnatural, Afrah’s statement reflects a significant transformation in her disposition towards language she deems different. In the same post, Afrah closes with this point for consideration: “Maybe we're actually dealing with a much larger problem... it's not just about reframing our mindset, but about reframing THEIR mindset, as well.”

Vignette 2. Persistence in Practice Makes Progress

During the period of our study, tutors frequently describe students’ resistance to exploring options. They point to students’ perspectives on correctness, fears of writing the wrong way, and preoccupation with fixing grammar in order to submit a perfect paper. And yet, the tutors persist in their experimentation with methods of opening conversation about choices and sharing the results of their attempts. In this vignette, Evie describes three situations in which students resist her attempt to draw on their home languages to overcome a block in their writing. With persistence, Evie demonstrates her commitment to exploring a translingual stance.

[...] So when I worked with a few multilingual students this week, I was all excited to ask them to discuss their ideas in their native tongues to see if it maybe came more easily or even just differently. I tried to incorporate these strategies into two appointments, but the tutees were having none of it. When working with one woman, whose first language is Hebrew, we came upon a difficult sentence when I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. I asked her if she wanted to try saying it to me in Hebrew, to which she replied, “Oh! You speak Hebrew?” I told her no, but maybe saying it outloud in her native language would help her sort through her ideas in a different way. She wasn’t impressed, I think she thought I was confused? I struck out. It was sad.

I worked with another woman, whose first language was Mandarin. When we came upon some sentences that I was having some difficulty understanding, I popped the question: “Do you want to say it to me in Mandarin?” Again, she wondered if I spoke Mandarin, I said no, she was confused. I said that I didn’t speak Mandarin but maybe she could try it and see if she could articulate her ideas in her first language as a start. She declined. Rejection washed over me.

Okay third appointment. A student working on a narrative essay about being on the cross-country team in high school. Inner me: No way are you asking this girl to speak Korean. Me outloud: What if you tell me in Korean? Again this woman looked surprised, “Do you speak Korean?” And y’all can guess what I said. “No” (someone please teach me another language). I explained that even though I didn’t speak Korean, maybe she could just try it. “Just speak and see what happens, see what we find out,” I said. She did and I had no idea what she was saying... I asked if she could tell me a little bit about what she had said in English. She explained her ideas with a degree of depth and detail that I hadn’t gotten yet in this section of the piece. (10/19/17)

Evie’s attempts to encourage students to draw on their first language to negotiate meaning are interesting and instructive on a number of levels. Evie notes confusion in the first two scenarios, stemming, she assumes, from the students not understanding how the strategy might work if Evie herself does not speak the language. While we don’t know all the reasons why the first two students were reluctant to draw upon their L1 at Evie’s suggestion, she clearly felt the students did not see value in making the attempt if she was not able to understand or respond in the L1.

On Evie’s third try, even after initially receiving a similar response from the writer, Evie succeeds in convincing the student to try the strategy. This time, she reports the strategy yielded richer conversation and an increased number of possibilities for making choices. The difference we see in Evie’s retelling of her third and successful attempt, is that she adds an encouraging, “Just speak and see what happens, see what we find out.” She’s signaling to the writer that she has a hunch there is something to be discovered and some informal exploration will be productive. Evie’s language in her third attempt also strikes us as more confident and collaborative. We appreciate Evie’s persistence as she mindfully tests this practice with multiple students, demonstrating the importance of exploring possibilities and tailoring approaches to individual writers.

In her invitations to test a communicative strategy, Evie is also playing with her positioning to students by defying the premise that she might have to understand the students’ other languages in order to make space for them in the session. While some risk is involved in a move like this--anything from having your strategy rejected by the tutees, as Evie experienced, to simply not knowing if the exercise will be productive--there’s also possibility in allowing, as Evie puts it, “language to be a bridge for better communication as opposed to a barrier.” Evie’s efforts highlight her openness to risk-taking in an effort to resist monolingual approaches to idea development and to develop a greater knowledge of translingual experience and a range of learning and communication strategies.

Evie’s persistent attempts to draw upon students’ other languages as resources for producing meaning are also notable given another common theme across the blog: tutors often reported regret and guilt at being positioned by students as arbiters of English language standards. Viewing tutors in this way, it is not surprising that many students resist tutors’ overtures to explore language possibility together. Tutors Arianne, Daiba, and Amara—all multilingual—reflect on this phenomenon of student resistance. Arianne describes one such challenging instance of her effort to adopt a translingual stance with peer writers: “Instead of editing the paper for her, I asked her questions that would allow her to reflect and maybe come to a conclusion herself. This was when we hit a wall. Upon asking the question, she simply replied with, ‘If I knew, I wouldn't be here.’” (10/5/17) Arianne reflected that she felt like a gatekeeper in this session, especially after reading Olson’s piece. While she was ready to reject the gatekeeper role, the writer was not. Many writers are not.

Another tutor, Daiba, describes the pressures to align with SLI, in spite of her appreciation for language diversity and potential:

...sometimes we're like wow this person has some great stuff but their tiny grammar mistakes or hiccups or honestly just differences in ways of speaking feel so wrong to them that they came here for my help, so I have to help them, I have to fix these tiny differences so they feel like their work sounds perfect to me, the tutor, and ultimately sounds perfect to their teachers, too. (10/16/17)

Daiba’s sentiment is a common one, especially her acknowledgement of faculty expectations, whether stated or perceived. Many tutors report trying to open conversation with students only to find them fearful and resistant to spend precious time considering alternatives to conformity.

Finally, Amara sheds light on the broader landscape of SLI, explaining the power ascribed to English as a lingua franca in her experience: “There exists a popular notion where I come from - If you cannot speak English, you are basically uneducated. You are not seen as someone who is literate and knowledgeable if you are not fluent in English, and it has led to many issues - personal and political.” (10/27/17) Amara suggests the guilt tutors feel and the power students ascribe to them are not unfounded and how even multilingual students may struggle to shed monolingual practices.

The conversations unfolding on the blog allow tutors to see troubling patterns in how SLI restricts possibility, and upon seeing these patterns more clearly, gain confidence and strategies for resisting its power. Arianne, Daiba, and Amara expose fundamental challenges SLI seeds in our work with writers, and yet, like Evie, they persist in their efforts to draw upon writers’ cultural and linguistic resources to explore communicative options. Not all writers will want to experiment with tutors during sessions, and we respect this stance; the pressure to get it right and the demands of the academy can make experimentation feel too risky. But the tutors’ persistent attempts to change the degree to which SLI constrains us all allow them to expand their knowledge of translingual experiences, further cultivate their dispositions of openness, and develop tools for resisting SLI.

Vignette 3. Just Ask: Learning, Un-learning, and Critical Consciousness

In our final vignette, we see Riani working with a Chinese student she has met before. In this session, the writer expresses confidence in her topic and writing, which Riani notes means “she was truly in command.” In the paragraphs leading up to the vignette below, Riani explains the writer’s style as “clear, but work[ing] in spirals, includ[ing] very specific vocabulary, and rel[ying] on abstract ideas.” She contrasts the writer’s style to American writing which she sees as “‘more organized’ with a clear thesis, beginning, and end.” (10/13/17) Below, Riani explains and reflects on how she navigates discussion of unfamiliar features in the writer’s piece. Through Riani, we see the potential for tutors’ pedagogical transformation when they discover the power of understanding and respecting writers’ intentions.

[...] I feel as though I have a pretty decent vocabulary and understanding of the abstract, but in this session we had long discussions about the words “fetters” and “salutary” where I, unsure of the meaning, asked why she had chosen these words. I explained that in the context and considering her audience (her classmates) there may be more conventional words to use especially for a personal narrative. Each time her choice was clearly well thought out and she simply said, “It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the word, it’s exactly what I mean.” And from there we would move on.

It became very clear that as a writer, she didn’t care if readers had to do more work. She discussed theories within the multiverse theory as a metaphor to an action in the story, but she didn’t say she meant this theory, she assumed all readers would understand the reference. I think this is a good time to emphasize when as tutors we must let go of certain standards we are even subconsciously trying to maintain. The student’s grammar, syntax, and vocabulary was “correct”, but the meaning was still confusing to an American reader like me, but so what? Clearly her intentions were to express her meaning, not make it easy for readers understand. I was transparent with my own perceptions and encouraged her to consider her audience, but she held tight to her words.

[...] The student considered other’s perspectives and I suggested that even if she felt keeping her abstract ideas in the text, perhaps she could also add in concrete, physical scenes to guide the readers through the abstract. She agreed with this and felt this was what her professor was looking for.... She understood the potential consequences of her writing style (lack of understanding from readers) and still made the choice to keep it the same. If anything I felt this was one of my more successful sessions because I learned a lot of new vocabulary and ways of writing in addition to strategies and questions to ask in order to have writers explain their own meaning rather than assuming my own understanding is what they meant. (10/13/17)

Riani reports asking questions about unfamiliar lexical, syntactical, and rhetorical features, learning the writer’s motivations, and offering alternative perspectives framed to encourage the writer to carefully consider her audience. In staff meetings, we discussed how we can approach any given feature in a writer’s work with a translingual perspective just by asking a question. By asking a question about why a writer chose a word, a tense, a construction, etc., we resist correcting differences and instead, open the possibility of learning a writer’s motivations, of having a more interesting and focused conversation, in which the tutor and the writer may gain new knowledge (Olson 4).

Riani champions the simple but powerful technique of asking about a writer’s intentions. Taking a firm stance, she argues, “When we criticize writing and cross out ‘mistakes’ and state things are wrong rather than asking for meaning, we risk criticizing the writer and perhaps their individual cultural and language backgrounds.” (11/12/17) Riani does not reject the value of critique; rather she is stressing here the importance of asking writers to share insight into their choices before rushing to judge their accuracy or rhetorical efficacy. Throughout the semester, Riani integrates challenges to SLI on her own terms and with confidence. Continuing from the previous claim, she states: “This is why I think we should focus on meaning by asking questions, being invested in understanding what the writer is truly trying to say, not just making their ideas more simplified.” (11/12/17) Riani seems to appreciate the complexity of human expression and communication as well as the way that learning, thought, and knowledge are only ever partially reflected in the artifacts individuals produce.

Like Riani, we see other tutors recognizing the simple but powerful practice of inquiring about a writer’s motivation for a particular choice, pleasantly surprised by what they uncover. For example, Katie, one of our professional consultants, reflects on the role of asking questions in her evolving approach to “lower order details”:

[...] when I come across a confusing sentence, I've been trying to figure out how I can ask the student about it on a higher-order level as a strategy to get into the lower order details. Rather than asking about, say, verb tense right away, I've been starting with a bigger question like “Oh, are you moving to a discussion of what happened in the past now?” I'm finding that I sometimes get the response I'm expecting ("no, I'm still talking about the same time frame”) that will lead us to talk about the lower-order detail, but even more than I thought I would, I'm learning that the "errors” I see are signals that there is some big-idea shift in play that the student is trying to express -- in which case I have to realize that if I'd started with the “error,” we would have missed out on a very important conversation. (9/28/17)

Other tutors also write about the significance of seeking information from writers in the face of confusion, posing seemingly simple questions and stumbling into unexpected opportunities to learn together. Situations like the one Katie describes remind us that when tutors experience this kind of surprise first-hand, they are conditioning themselves to set aside assumptions and keep asking questions.

Ultimately, the writer working with Riani decides to act on some of her input, but on her own terms, arguing that the reader should share responsibility for understanding her work. The writer’s level of confidence is striking because, as discussed previously, students frequently express hesitation, concern, and fear, that they will be penalized for not writing correctly, even at the expense of writing substantively or with conviction. Riani’s peer, Arianne, is also struck by the writer’s confidence, responding:

I'm glad the student stuck to her decision to “make the reader work a little harder". I don't think there should be a standard of writing style that the students have to adhere, especially in a higher level education setting. This is the time in which students should experiment and go beyond what is expected of them. The audience too should be of a more sophisticated kind as well, considering we are all here to learn on a higher degree. (10/19/17)

We see Arianne speaking to Riani’s earlier epiphany that making writers’ “ideas more simplified” might discount the complexity of risk-taking and rhetorical experimentation in learning and impede the potential for writers to make meaning.

Riani acknowledges early and often the difficulty of our work together, pointing out that “complex issues like erasing differences and tutoring as a political practice take a lot of time to digest into meaning.” (10/4/17) And yet, she and the tutors accept the challenge of developing more just conditions for writers of all cultural and language backgrounds. Several tutors reflect explicitly on shedding their assimilationist stances and embracing instead accommodationist, even separatist approaches, and several explicitly note the importance of being reminded “constantly” to think and ask questions about students’ language experiences and choices. As Riani asserts, when it comes to challenging SLI, “unlearning what we know is an infinite process.” (11/12/17)

Peer Tutors Transforming Themselves, Transforming Conditions

In the broadest sense, we hope this study’s methodology and data reflect the potential for writing centers to be transformative for teaching and learning when curious, open-minded, empathetic peer tutors invite multilingual writers to negotiate and co-construct meaning. Change happens through genuine exchange, and Appiah points out that conversation is a critical part of change both literally and metaphorically, especially in how it facilitates “engagement with the experience and ideas of others” (85). Simply put, conversation is at the heart of cosmopolitanism because it “helps people get used to one another” by creating opportunities to gather new insights on life (85). Appiah’s cosmopolitanism provides insight into why we believe we are seeing shifts in attitudes about language and communication amongst our tutors. What we aim to foster in our tutors is their growth as critically engaged readers, collaborators, and facilitators. We don’t expect them to always share our linguistic values because we rarely find that to be a manageable starting point, as was the case with Afrah; however, we do expect them to prioritize meaningful conversation and to develop positive co-learning relationships through their practice.

We recognize institutional conditions are uniquely challenging for students from minority language and cultural backgrounds. When we work with tutors to understand SLI and productive alternatives, we help them understand their role in changing these institutional conditions. Teaching tutors about SLI helps them understand the scope--and limits--of our knowledge about languages and written communication; encouraging translingual practice invites them to let go by focusing less on what may or may not be correct and more on what writers are trying to accomplish and the many ways language mediates their efforts. We can’t expect all tutors to completely reject SLI, but our study shows they can question how SLI limits possibilities for their interactions with others. We agree with Canagarajah when he riffs off Appiah suggesting, “practices help side-step the search for shared values” (195). Indeed, Afrah demonstrates how an initial “English is English” perspective shifts dramatically when practice presents her with opportunities to see writers’ choices in a new light. Riani’s vignette demonstrates how opting to focus on practices like asking writers to share their intentions enables tutors to grapple with the more ideologically demanding issues inherent in shifting from a monolingual to a translingual orientation. We have found that when our discussions about SLI appreciate particularity with a focus on developing contextually-sensitive, principled practice, we have an opportunity to show how a translingual orientation offers the possibility of more meaningful and respectful ways to engage students in the writing process.

Over time, with multiple points of entry available, tutors developed translingual pedagogies with similarities to the practice-based cosmopolitanism Canagarajah theorizes from his research into language contact zones. For instance, Evie invites students into a contact zone that presents them with potential for making new associations using unexpected linguistic resources. Evie’s persistence with this communicative strategy provides an example of cooperative disposition on two levels. First, she suspends her own authority by creating a language contact zone where the student has the power to harness the potential of the strategy. Second, she attempts to sidestep the perceived value of a monolingual orientation, intentionally creating an opportunity to share the struggle to negotiate meaning by using a resource only the writer has access to. Canagarajah identifies such learning/communicative strategies, as well as social values and language awareness, as constituent parts of cooperative dispositions individuals practice in productive translingual contexts (180).

Like Canagarajah’s cooperative dispositions, the most prominent types of knowledge, attitudes, and practice we attend to in our staff education are those we also saw manifest in tutors’ contributions to our staff blog:

  • knowledge - development in tutors’ understanding of translingual experiences and the phenomenon of language ideology (Afrah; Riani).

  • attitudes - shifts in their sense of responsibility in a translingual project, dispositions of openness towards difference, conceptualization of writers as agentive, not passive (Afrah; Evie; Riani)

  • practice - asking writers to share what motivated a particular choice (Afrah; Riani), exploring lexical choices (Afrah; Riani), and using writers’ multiple language resources to explore and make meaning (Afrah; Evie).

The tutors demonstrate that without practice, monolingual attitudes and knowledge may remain fixed and translingual attitudes and knowledge remain untested.

More than any other area of practice, tutors have shown us the power of translingual perspectives to influence their dispositions and practices regarding writers’ lexical decisions. While vocabulary is only one feature in a text that can be addressed from a translingual perspective, it’s a significant one. It’s a particularly rich site of learning and empowerment for tutors and writers because, as evidenced in their posts, they are able to creatively explore possibilities sensitive to the writer’s confidence and language knowledge and suss out optimal choices based on the writers’ intentions and stance towards their readers. Writers who visit our studio experience discussions of lexical choices such that their agency is highlighted, and we believe experiences like this can inspire writers’ confidence and decision-making in other writing and speaking situations. By responding to the tutors’ skill and the strength of their imaginations for novel lexical choices, we have been able to build on their collective strength and use it as a portal to introduce other strategies for practicing translingual cosmopolitanism.

The tutors’ writing on our staff blog reveals how mediating their thinking about SLI can transform the responsibility and confidence tutors feel for changing the conversation and conditions for multilingual writers. We foster collective transformation by designing staff education with attention to the significant interplay of individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, and practice. Not surprisingly, individuals progress from different points of entry. For example, our tutors with translingual experience tend to be compelled by ideological dimensions of a translingual project; they appreciate learning there is a scholarly community devoted to (re)casting their own and others’ heterogenous language and cultural experiences as useful and desirable sources of meaning-making. Still, we have found over the years that even tutors with translingual experiences are unlikely to actively resist monolingual approaches to tutoring until we, as their supervisors, persistently encourage--even convince and ‘authorize’ them--to imagine and test alternatives. While some tutors are less inclined to problematize SLI because they believe in its power to open doors or are unconvinced of its negative impact, we have found they, too, are still interested in developing and testing approaches that yield more collaborative and satisfying conversations with writers. The more we create varied opportunities for transformation, the more we see tutors rise to the occasion.


Understanding our work as a cosmopolitan pursuit offers us a way to interrogate, understand, and exercise the significance of conversation and relationships on our campus. Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is not specifically about language but about ethical behavior in a connected world, and this is relevant to writing center practitioners who understand that while our day-to-day may be focused on the local consequences of our programs, our outcomes are unmeasurably global. Tutors are more likely to adopt a cosmopolitan perspective out in the world--in their professional and civic lives--if they have adopted a cosmopolitan perspective--consciously or not--through their work in the writing center.

The tutors’ blog contributions demonstrate significant possibilities for engaging non-experts in the cultivation of productive teaching and learning environments for all writers, especially multilingual writers. Indeed, we believe that engaging non-experts—whether tutors or faculty colleagues with daily influence on teaching and learning—is the work of destabilizing SLI and changing conditions for multilingual writers within and beyond our institution. In addition to the themes under discussion in this study, we were heartened to see many tutors write about transferring translingual perspectives to their lives outside of our center: sharing details from class discussions in which they drew on new information, perspective, and confidence to speak up on behalf of their peers; reflecting on changes in how they communicated with family and partners with translingual backgrounds; and adopting new perspectives on language, culture, and communication in the professions they were entering.

The tutors in this study resisted complacency, writing about the importance of continuing these conversations and of continuing to learn more. Ultimately, the tutors articulate their transformation and commitment to change best, so we leave you with a final emphatic exchange from the blog. As one tutor implored her peers,

[...] I hope we’re all cognizant of what’s happening outside of the Writing Studio and using what we’ve been reading and discussing to be allies to international and multilingual students. If it wasn’t for everything that I have learned this semester from working with so many students and talking to so many of you guys, I might have never been able to notice the treatment of these students because I never before thought to look outside of my bubble. (11/21/17)

Another tutor echoed, “I think you're right, what we do here at the writing studio really can transcend these walls. The work we do can influence what's happening beyond even FIT.” (11/22/17)


  1. We use multilingual in the broadest sense, acknowledging the fluidity and porous borders of languages and thus the imprecision of the term multilingual. Throughout the text, we use multilingual to refer to people and translingual to refer to experiences and perspectives. (Return to text.)

  2. Tutors participate in staff education work during time on shift and in monthly half-day staff meetings. Most peer tutors work with us for two to three years. FIT does not offer a for-credit tutoring course. (Return to text.)

Works Cited

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