From Visitors to Exiles to Tutors: The Changing Face of the Writing Center

Multilingual Writers, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

By Paula Gillespie.

Paula and Buster.  Paula Gillespie got her start in writing centers at UW Madison, under the directorship of Joyce Steward, 1977-1980.
Paula and Buster. Paula Gillespie got her start in writing centers at UW Madison, under the directorship of Joyce Steward, 1977-1980.

South Florida is full of surprises. A troop of macaws, probably freed from a zoo or pet store during a hurricane, descends into the trees down the street and spends the morning there, squabbling about which one gets to sit where. Burmese pythons, once pets that are now too large to keep around, roam Miami’s streets and thrive in the Everglades, just west of our school. And orchids grow on trees.

I read, some years ago, in the book The Orchid Thief, that Floridians tie their orchids to trees when they stop blooming, and that the orchids wrap their roots around the trunk and then bloom whenever the spirit moves them. When you’re a recent transplant to Miami like I am, you go to a nursery and ask how to tie up your orchids. They send you home with a bag of coconut fiber, some sphagnum moss, a spool of twist ties, and you’re in business.

Miami’s welcome extends not only to transplanted orchids, but to newcomers like me and like the 57% of its population that was born in another country. Miami and a few other of our cities are unique in their diverse population, but not for long. They offer a foretaste of what our culture will be, in many places: international, multi-ethnic, heterogeneous. Florida International University, where I direct the Center for Excellence in Writing, reflects the population of Miami; it truly deserves its name: it is in every way an international urban public research university.

Orchid tied to tree decides to blossom
Orchid tied to tree decides to blossom

When I taught at Marquette (1980-2009), “ESL students” almost always meant students from other countries spending a few years in the US, sometimes in special programs arranged by their governments. In most cases, they’d have studied English formally and they would know quite a lot about English grammar. They’d have TOEFL scores.

Here at FIU, many of our students and members of our tutoring staff come from families that have been uprooted, forced from countries with oppressive leaders. Some have fled from places where wars and violence made family life impossible. Many of our tutors arrived as children and had little formal ESL training; add to that the cruel fact that the most recent immigrants, called “reffies,” are shunned on the playground. Dark skin is the norm here; it is not the pervasive “yes or no” determinant of social sifting that it is in other places.

When I ask my students about discrimination in Miami, their replies almost always start, “Well, in middle school,” and then they go on to speak of hierarchies based on who buys clothes at Walmart and who has the designer labels. They swear, though, that even these distinctions disappear in college. Here I see, as I never have before, students of every possible skin color mixing and forming bonds across races.

FIU Tutor Aura Altamiranda
FIU Tutor Aura Altamiranda
FIU Tutor Juan Arevalo
FIU Tutor Juan Arevalo
FIU Tutor Diane Arias
FIU Tutor Diane Arias
FIU Tutor Katir Ann Britton
FIU Tutor Katir Ann Britton
FIU Tutor Laura De La Cruz
FIU Tutor Laura De La Cruz
FIU Tutor Martha Diaz Ossa
FIU Tutor Martha Diaz Ossa
FIU Tutor Brianne Eltz
FIU Tutor Brianne Eltz
FIU Tutor Jeffrey Fernandez
FIU Tutor Jeffrey Fernandez
FIU Tutor Daniel Gil
FIU Tutor Daniel Gil

I had met my international, multi-ethnic staff before I arrived at FIU because the interim director had each of them make a short video of introduction. I heard the many accents, and was told stories of birthplaces in countries I could not definitively find on a map. My first peer tutoring class, like my current one, was made up primarily of students whose first language was not English.

I had no idea, coming in, how our writing center’s stakeholders – students, faculty, administrators – would respond to our tutoring staff. I could easily imagine writers calling in and asking to work with a native speaker. But the opposite has been true, so far as I can tell anecdotally. Writers often call our receptionists for appointments rather than use our online scheduler because they want to request a tutor who speaks Spanish. And the faculty has been uniformly supportive when I have addressed them in various venues; I see them nodding enthusiastically when I say that non-native speakers make great tutors.

FIU Tutor Michelle working with a student-writer

Of course, this is no surprise to the many writing center professionals outside the US who use native speakers of their own languages to tutor students in English. But we in the US seem to be the last to learn it, if our tutor training texts are any indication: these texts and many of our articles seem primarily to be written by white authors for mainstream tutors (and I am including my own co-authored tutoring text in this). I felt this keenly as I read chapter after chapter of The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring in preparation for teaching my tutors. Neal Lerner, my co-author, and I use first person quite a bit, and the “we” is always assumed to be native speakers who are free of dialect, and the ESL students are always “them.” What can we do to help them better? I could feel how my students would respond to a body of literature that does not see them, does not address them in any way.

A notable exception is Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth’s text, ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors.  This collection includes chapters by non-native-speaking authors who refer to their own language issues as they discuss theoretical approaches to tutoring ESL students.

The more I talk to writing center directors the more I find that the world of tutoring is opening and that tutors are increasingly diverse. We have taken seriously the calls by Nancy Grimm and others over the years to take an active role in making sure our tutoring staff includes ethnic difference. Centers located in traditionally Hispanic areas commonly and successfully include L2 tutors; they are able to offer L2 and multilanguage writers the benefits of having gone through what these writers face now; they empathize, and they show it. As we try to provide the best tutoring experiences for both our writers and our tutors, sometimes the best thing they can do is be their own international selves.

Alberta Gloria’s research on the retention of Hispanic students shows that they thrive when they have successful colleagues and role models who look like them and who are interested in their backgrounds, not just in their written work. (See Brian Williams’ post on this blog for more on Gloria’s work and its relevance.)

Sometimes I feel that I’m the one who doesn’t speak the local language. There are codes I can’t read, hierarchies I am only now learning about. I am the transplant here, trying, often unsuccessfully, to read and map this complex landscape.

Ultimately, though, the transplant metaphor breaks down. Metaphors, though, are always most interesting when they fall apart. The orchid wraps its roots around the new tree trunk, so we presume that it feels no yearning for its rainforest home; it does not feel shunned because it is new. It is not silenced by the stubborn refusal of an English word to come when bidden.  We, on the other hand, take time and need help adapting to a new culture and language, whether our relocation is voluntary or forced, whether we are tourists who fell in love with Miami as I did or whether we are exiled from homes, families, and communities we love but will never see again.closing_photo_gillespie_birds_smaller

23 Replies to “From Visitors to Exiles to Tutors: The Changing Face of the Writing Center”

  1. I love the orchid analogy. Sometimes we take Miami and FIU for granted; reading this article makes me feel fortunate to be part of something great and semi-revolutionary–it makes me feel that I am making a difference.

  2. The orchid is able to thrive because the new environment is kind, warm, and hospitable. This is a great metaphor for Miami and how it embraces newcomers!

    I think the need to re-evaluate who “we” are and who “they” are is something not only necessary for a multicultural city like Miami, but for the whole country. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that: “By 2050, 54 percent of the population will be minorities. Minority children are projected to reach that milestone even sooner. By 2023, the bureau said, more than half of all children will be minorities.” As of 2010, the bureau indicates that 65% of Miami-Dade residents are persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, and 70.3% speak a language other than English at home (

    If Miami is any indication of what the future holds, then “we” will be defined by a large, multicultural, multilingual population. The majority of us will come from homes where English is not our first language, and our universities and writing centers will be populated by a heterogeneous mix of faculty, staff, and students.

    I am very proud to be part of the staff at the Center for Excellence in Writing under Dr. Gillespie’s visionary leadership. I think other writing centers will be able to look to us as the leading example for how to accommodate the needs of a rapidly changing student population.

  3. No orchids here in western Pennsylvania, I’m afraid, where the wind is growing chilly and the leaves are turning. As they change into brilliant hues of orange and red, we’ll weather-proof doors and windows to protect ourselves against the pain of winter. I wish I were in Miami with you guys!

    What a nice reflection, Paula, and a reminder for everyone that we all come from some place else. The macaws and pythons seem to be thriving in Miami, immigrants all, just like the rest of us, whether blue-bloods who fought in the Revolution, Irishmen who came to work in the mills of Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Birmingham, or Cherokee whose ancestors came over the Asian land bridge. Writing center tutors who celebrate multitudinous linguistic heritages remind us that we all come from some place else.

    Congratulations to the tutors at FIU’s Center for Excellence in Writing!

  4. Oscar, I remember so well your written reflection on the consequences of speaking in the “wrong” kind of English in the wrong place. I’d love to hear you reflect more on that. And Courtney, I remember your paper on the way you broke the ice with a student who’d wanted a Spanish-speaking tutor – you said a few words to him in beginner Spanish, and he relaxed, knowing that he wasn’t the only one trying to get hold of a language. Thank you both for replying!

  5. I am so happy you remember my paper!I truly believe that everyone has the ability to become great writers. To me the most important aspect of being a great writer is the ability to communicate effectively while maintaining the uniqueness of your individual voice. My paper dealt with the pressures of conforming to academia, which can ultimately lead students (especially students from different cultures) to want to sound like “sophisticated Americans.” I felt the want was harmful and oppressive because it smothered the student’s creative power (I still believe that). Besides the student’s want to conform, I also talked about the danger of the teacher’s want to deposit knowledge in the student because “they don’t know and ‘I’ the teacher have the answers.” In short, my paper primarily presented an argument defending the students’ right to express themselves fearlessly and exposed the hierarchy that exist in the student-teacher relationship.

    On a different note, I just finished reading Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” What an awesome book! It reminds me of the topics we discussed in class, and it has reinforced the non-directive approach we use at the center. It presents the concept of banking education vs. question-posing education: in banking education the teacher deposits information into a passive, submissive student while in question-posing education there exist a teacher-student, student-teacher relationship where they both tackle information through dialogue. In the latter, students are empowered and true learning is reached—both teacher and student learn. However, like in all good relationships, mutual trust must exist. The teacher must believe in the students’ ability to contribute and their ability to create. I wish I had read this book when I took your class; it would have made my paper better.

    If I had any doubts about the non-directive philosophy before, after reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” I definitely do not have a doubt now. As a tutor and future teacher I honestly believe in a non-directive, question-posing approach. I also believe in the creative power of my students and in their right to express themselves fearlessly.

  6. I think this blog truly captures the essence of Miami and its diverse student population. As a first generation American from Hispanic parents, I often find it difficult to identify with one of the categories (“we” and “they”), especially since Spanish is my first language. I’m glad to see that these schisms are slowly eroding due to strong cultural influences and the impact that tutors are making at the FIU campus.

    At the FIU Center for Excellence in Writing there is a little piece of the “revolution” since tutors (even those who do not speak fluent Spanish) are going above and beyond to meet the needs of L2 writers.

  7. Thanks for reminding us how to see ethnic diversity in writing centers. I’m curious: how would you (or Neal) revise the Longman Guide in light of your realization?

  8. I’ve excerpted a bit of this illuminating post (which showed up on our recommended blog list) to share with writing consultants at Eastern Illinois University, where I am Assistant Director of the Writing Center. I’m always struck by the way our evolution as Writing Center professionals gets expressed in revision. North critiques his WC mission statement in “The Idea of a Writing Center” for playing into the idea that what “we” do is to “fix” “problems.” In a staff meeting in our Writing Center, we discussed revising a conventional but unnecessarily blunt slide in our orientation power point that informs prospective visitors that “we” do not proofread.

    I look forward to the next generation of tutor training guides. Just yesterday during our practicum, we read DiPardo’s “Whispers of Coming and Going” from the “Welcoming Diversity” section of one of our textbooks and I winced at the phrasing of these lines: “We all negotiate multiple identities….As increasing numbers of non-Anglo students pass through the doors of OUR writing centers, such knowledge of our shape-shifting can help us begin–if only begin–to understand the social and linguistic challenges which inform THEIR struggles..”

  9. Thanks for your great response, Fern. I’d like to ask my tutors-in-training if they noticed that as they read it a week or so ago. It wasn’t what we focused on as we discussed the article. Now these issues will be on their radar as appropriate to discuss in class, and I know they will enrich the course. Thank you, Fern.

  10. Thank you for this post. It let me reflect on the European situation:
    In my daughter’s high school in Berlin already 80% of all children have parents who were not born in Germany. At home they speak Turkish, Russian or other languages. I admire how fluent they are in different languages. It is a pity that many people still see the backgrounds and competencies of these smart kids as “problematic”.

    At European University Viadrina (in Germany at the Polish border) we tutor in German and most students write papers in German. If foreign students feel uncomfortable with German we try to use English as lingua franca in the tutoring sessions. Also, many of our peer tutors have been abroad to study and therefore sometimes tutor in French or Spanish or Russian. Nevertheless, we tend to speak about “them” (the foreign students) in our team meetings, although 40% of our tutoring sessions have foreign students involved. I think it should be our goal to get some Polish or other international tutors and make our team more diverse. After your post I will definitely be more careful with the use of language in our writing center.

    What we found really helpful to reduce the feeling of “us” and “them” are intercultural writing groups. We started this project one year ago in some of our masters programs. Students participate in a class on academic writing, but every other week they meet autonomously in small interculturally mixed groups to practice creative writing. This helps them to practice writing and also to get to know each other better. They write for example about how they would celebrate birthdays at home or about their views on Germany. This writing is not graded, it’s just for fun (I call that the “hedonistic function of writing”). One of the students wrote: “I liked how many different situations, ideas and worldviews resulted from this seminar. Participating in this seminar and learning from international students helped me to prepare for working and living across borders in Europe”.

  11. Katrin, thank you for this thoughtful response.
    I very much admire your “hedonistic” writing group!
    I hope you are enjoying your stay in Madison. They have been looking forward to your arrival.

  12. This was a beautiful well thought look at our future. “We” frequently forget how very valuable other languages and cultures are when it comes to academia. The metaphors and analogies from other languages dont always directly translate but it gives us something to reflect on and a new way to look at something.

  13. Thanks, Paula, for a beautifully written and thoughtful post. In my new position as Writing Center Director at Northeastern University in Boston, we grappling with these issues in a variety of ways. The writing consultant staff does not necessarily reflect the diversity of our student writers, unfortunately, but thanks to Paula’s and others’ thoughts on these issues, that’s certainly an important goal of mine. This year Northeastern’s first-year class is made up of 17% international students, representing a wide array of languages and language preparation. The representation of international students in the Writing Center in the several weeks we’ve been open this semester is much higher than that. Still, I see this situation as representing an opportunity, not necessarily a challenge. My staff (a mix of graduate students and undergraduates) have opportunity to be co-learners with these writers, learning about what it means to be a student writer in the 21st century at an urban university. And I have opportunity to understand what it means to offer writing instruction to the Northeastern community. Our Writing Center is quite small, housed in the English Dept. building, and somewhat off of the beaten path. My goal is to bring writing center instruction to where writers are, whether face-to-face or online, perhaps tied to particular departments or disciplines or part of a more general effort. In other words, the diversity of our community calls for diversity of not just our staff, but of our approaches to tutoring writing. I don’t quite know what this will all look like in the end, but I’m very excited by the possibilities.

  14. Neal, thanks so much for writing. I can’t wait to see what you do with your center and how it evolves. It’s going to be a model for the process of rethinking the urban writing center! I think that the work of Alberta Gloria and others is so important in the way it spells out the factors that make Latin@ students successful. But she says, and I believe, that her study results apply not only to Hispanic students, but to others as well, and, I’d argue, to all students to some extent. I’ve written about it at a little more length at We return to her ideas repeatedly in our center.

  15. If I may be so bold, I want to say that I loved this article. It was a brilliant expression of the diversity that thrives in Miami the positivity it brings to our city.
    I’ve met many people before who criticized the acceptance of new ethnicities in Miami, saying that it taints the security, the esthetic and culture of this city. I think this is a case of misinformation and fear of the new and unknown. People sometimes forget we are a nation of “poly,” not “mono”. Even the English language is comprised of borrowed grammatical rules and words that have transcended through nations and time. And still today, our language morphs to accept new dialects and rules so that, in a hundred years, we’ll probably be using “y’all” in mainstream speech. I’m hoping that in less than a hundred years, japaspanglish, euroafrasia, or whatever made up words I come up with will be the way to define Miami, United States, or the silly blue dot hanging in space we live on.

  16. Thanks, Paula, for From Visitors to Exiles to Tutors: The Changing Face of Writing Centers. It is an inspiring read, not only for its insights into a future of diversity for writing centers, but also for the spirit of confidence that it demonstrates in the special place of peer tutoring in the fraught transition from exile to full citizenship. It expands in interesting ways the originating energy for collaborative learning in writing that came from opening the doors of the City University of New York to a new and different student population some fifty years ago.

    I loved the pictures of the tutors and the orchids and the Macaws,too, and I loved the idea that metaphors “are most interesting when they fall apart.” That’s a keeper.

    I think you should expand this piece into an article…or a book…as soon as possible!

  17. Georgia, thank you for your comment. I love your japaspanglish and your eurofrasia. And I wondered when you mentioned that little blue dot whether you meant this one [], or that little blue dot on the Iphone that’s so certain that it knows where we are at any given moment. It’s much more confident about that than most of us are, and I thank Apple for that.

    Harvey, thank you for the encouragement to continue this discussion. I hope others will want to continue this inquiry as well.

  18. I love it when I go to as far as Orlando with my friends to see people’s reaction to the question they always ask us: “where are you guys from?”
    We respond, “Miami.” It’s always received with a “ohh, you’re from there.”
    It’s four hours away!

    This post makes me feel proud to live in future of America. Gloria’s research was really good; i’m glad you placed it in this article. I will start using her model more.

    It took me about ten years to learn the locale language, and i’m still learning it.
    Overall, Great post.

  19. I love the orchid analogy. Sometimes we take Miami and FIU for granted; reading this article makes me feel fortunate to be part of something great and semi-revolutionary–it makes me feel that I am making a difference

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