By Rachel Carrales
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.
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.
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