Five by Five

Five by Five:

Improving Literacy, Competency and Agency for

Multilingual Students in College Writing Centers


If writing centers are going to finally be accepted, surely they must be accepted… as places whose primary responsibility, whose only reason for being, is to talk to writers. That is their heritage, and it stretches… back, in fact, to Athens where in a busy marketplace a tutor called Socrates set up the same kind of shop: open to all comers, no fees charged, offering, on whatever subject a visitor might propose, a continuous dialectic that is, finally, its own end (North 46 quoted by Jaeger 1).



The primary research question this paper will explore is what could be learned through attempting to marry relevant research regarding the estranged lands of TESOL, Writing Center scholarship and modern narrative theory to the goal of how university writing centers could better assist English Second Language (ESL) students to be successful writing in the American academic genre. The issue is significant because American universities are continuing to enroll ESL students in dramatically increasing numbers, and yet supporting those students with writing centers whose philosophies are still largely centered in the 1980s theories of Richard North, which, problematically, were designed for English as first language learners (Min 11, 1, Collins 56). The universities which recruit and enroll ESL students must be concerned with successfully supporting these students in the academic world in which student’s work is generated, and assessed, in the English written language (Wang and Machado 1144). The argument that American universities are viable sites for recruitment of ESL students rests on the demonstrated proof that these students become successful as academics, and go forward to continue that success as scholars and professionals, in a world increasingly dominated by publishing in English (Matsuda, Lu & Horner; Jeffrey, Kieffer & Matsuda).

ESL students arrive to US universities in many different fields, with widely varying capabilities in writing in English, and even more so, in writing in the academic discourse (Hall 1). Faculty in these discourse areas in which the ESL students enroll are not, even in the case of freshman composition and rhetoric, often trained in TESOL, nor is writing assistance the primary focus of their teaching obligations (Matsuda, Saenkhum & Accardi 68). ESL students, like many other students whose writing skills fall below expectation for academic course work, are often funneled to schools’ Writing Centers (Moussou 55), which are most commonly staffed by volunteer English literature students, who have little, or often no training in ESL, or the academic cultures from where these students come that are often very different from the American independent, process based systems. Further complicating these problems are faculty and ESL student expectations that the purpose of the writing center is to focus on structure and grammar, or in other words, simply fix the students’ English.

The resulting problems, frustrations on the parts of students and tutors, and the gap between ESL student needs, who are becoming a quickly growing part of the American university student body, and writing centers, have not gone unnoticed by researchers. A recent academic search yielded no less than 1300 hits on just the combined topic of “ESL and Writing Centers.” An analysis of that research, which will be discussed further, demonstrates that although there is a large amount of critical research being done regarding post-secondary ESL students that research is being done along a distinct separating line between TESOL studies and Writing Center process oriented theory. The Jaeger article, the quote that opens this proposal, is a case in point. The essay argues for further exploration of North’s philosophy along the dialogic method but simply returns to the goal of getting the student dialogue partner to see the academic essay formula in exclusion of the student’s needs, or motivations for writing. [1] The highly developed TESOL research could be helpful in exploring practice in the writing center but as of now there seems to be no, or little dialogue. Further, much of the research seems increasingly aimed at the larger system[2], not the very real needs of students and tutors, right now.

This paper will take a postmodern approach to writing centers by questioning why they exist, how/or if they fulfill that mission by using first, an overview of the current research focused on the needs of ESL students in the university writing center. The paper will then add an autoethnographic methodological approach[3], my own stories and conclusions about partnerships with undergraduate students in the college writing studio supported by interviews with current tutors and ESL students of a local university. This will lead to a discussion of how modern narrative theory could provide the centering space for new dialogue that includes TESOL, writing center scholarship and personal experience, in order to create a revised paradigm to better scaffold a variety of learners in the development of their own academic success. The conclusion of this discussion will be to suggest practical changes that can be implemented now in writing centers, and directions for future exploration,

This report will fill an important gap within existing critical research directly relevant to improving the performance and sustainability. Writing studios are entities that are not common everywhere, and even in the US where they are more common, their existence is often challenged, as traditional academic institutions become more fiscally challenged. The year after I graduated, the Director position for the studio was eliminated for financial reasons and supposedly, lack of student utilization.  Yet, I never had a night when I did not have students come to see me in the Writing Center, so there is a very real opportunity for this research to bring some disparate works together, and continue to open up this new conversation.

[1] Two other essays in this Spring 2016 issue of Praxis (Naydan “Generation 1.5” and Min “When ‘Editing’ becomes ‘Educating)’ are directed towards ESL students unique needs and support the timeliness of this project. A further indicator is the upcoming special issue on ESL in the writing center, due December 2016 from WLN: The Journal of Writing Center Scholarship.

[2] Wang & Machado (2015) call for writing center partners to be paired according to countries of origin. This would perhaps be an optimal situation for some ESL students. What’s unclear is how that could be achieved at a small college that has three students from Korea and only one from Somalia. That was my experience in the writing center of a small university, and these students seemed to like, based on their returns to the center, working with an American student. Matsuda, Lu, and Horner call for, and I agree, a reconceptualization of how academia conceptualizes cultural language use in academia. This is a truly wonderful concept which I hope to see realized in my life time. But this paper is more concerned with: what do we know now, that we could use now, that could be brought into dialogue now, to apply the valuable work that is happening in semi-isolation to the very real issues of WCs and students, today.

[3] My autoethnographic methodology is aligned to the work of Deborah Journet, Jayne Pitard, in the use of vignettes (2016), and Patrick Camangian (2010) in feeding this work back into the classroom, or in this case writing center. Pedagogically, I align with David Bartholomae, Peter Elbow’s (and Marlen Harrison’s) humanizing pedagogy, Janet Emig’s writing as a way of being and Richard Straub reflective reading. As a postmodernist theorist, I believe in Francois Lyotard’s disbelief in metanarratives and the value of the narrative petit; the early work of Jean Baudrillard, questioning  the role of the media in dissolving the real; Kerwin Klein’s exploration of narrative in identity formation and Linda Hutcheon’s recognition of the role of parody and pastiche in postmodern meaning making. In that later approach, and agreeing that writing centers have their own metanarratives, I am connected to  the recent article in Praxis 13.2 (2016), by Liliana Naydan “Generation 1.5 Writing Center Practice: Problems with Multilingualism and Possibilities via Hybridity.”


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