By Rachel Azima –
When I took my first writing center director position, I inherited a set of interview questions that I have continued to tweak, semester by semester. One question I have retained is one I imagine many folks might ask prospective consultants: what are some qualities you feel a consultant should have (and, as a follow-up, how do you embody them)?
An answer I have often received—and that tends to make me wince a little—is “patience.” This probably seems like an odd response to get hung up on; “patience” is one of those words that seems pretty reliably positive. It reminds me of “community” in Joseph Harris’s “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing,” in which he invokes Raymond Williams’ discussion of community as a term that “seems never to be used unfavourably” (13).
Given that patience is similarly assumed to be a good thing, generally speaking, my resistance to it as an interview answer seemed more than a little unreasonable. I mean, impatience wouldn’t be a particularly useful quality for a consultant, would it? Before I go on, I want to issue two disclaimers:
- I am not by nature a patient person. Particularly as a parent, this is a character flaw I struggle with every day.
- There are many wonderful, necessary things about patience in writing center work: being patient with ourselves, waiting for answers to our questions rather than rushing in with more of our own words, being patient with writing and consulting as processes that take time and typically don’t benefit from attempting to barrel through at breakneck speed. These are indispensable forms of patience, and far be it from me to discount them.
I didn’t think, however, that my gut response to the “patience” answer was simply because of its contrast with my own temperament—though if we’re going to be honest, perhaps it was in part. But it didn’t seem that #2 was necessarily what folks had in mind either. The word usually came up in the context of other comments that evoked the “little teacher” mentality we typically try to avoid: an attitude of “I know how to do this, and I will be patient while you figure it out.” (This was never a deal-breaker, of course, since typically the interviewee was simply unfamiliar with our approach to tutoring. It just gave me pause.)
Patience in another context
That being said, I knew that perhaps I was misreading this, so I was all right with my reaction to hearing about patience in interviews as a possibly justifiable but fairly idiosyncratic pet peeve. But at a recent professional gathering, conversation turned in a panel discussion (as it often does) to working with non-native speakers of English. When someone asked, “What do we need to work successfully with ESL students in the writing center?” the very first response to the question was “patience.”
But why? Why would this be a quality that needed to be called out specifically when discussing a particular sub-group of writers? Is patience really more necessary for working with non-native speakers, as opposed to native ones?
This time it really bothered me—and I think writing this blog post has helped me figure out why.
First, I think it speaks to the mentality of non-native speakers as “different” students, in the ways Jackie Grutsch McKinney highlights in the “Writing Centers Tutor (All Students)” chapter of Peripheral Visions For Writing Centers. We can “deal” with these writers with extra patience, waiting as they catch up, or try to—the implied attitude I found bothersome in the interview context, but on steroids. Tying the need for patience to an identity category seems questionable at best.
But the bigger problem in my mind is where it locates the challenge in the consultant-writer dynamic: when it comes to working with multilingual writers, I would argue that the “patience” mindset assumes that communication breakdowns, whether written or oral, stem from the non-native speakers’ lack of facility with the language—a difficulty that can be offset by more patience from the consultant. But particularly when we’re thinking about communication between writers and consultants, I don’t think this is the full story.
Here’s where I have to issue another disclaimer, which is that I can’t find a way to say what I want to without it coming off as boastful, which is not what I intend. So let me just forge ahead: since I grew up around immigrant grandparents who spoke heavily accented English, I have generally felt like I had a leg up in understanding non-native speakers of English. These experiences have assuredly shaped my perspective: I think it’s possible to pick up more of the slack, as it were, and do more of the deciphering and understanding when communicating becomes challenging. (Rest assured that this is the silver lining for me of feeling quite profoundly othered while growing up in the Midwest, when all I wanted were “normal” family members.)
But I know not everyone has what I have come to recognize as an advantage: adequate practice in understanding folks who speak the language differently than one does oneself. Many of us work in places with relatively homogenous populations, where consultants simply do not have the opportunities to hear different varieties of spoken English on a regular basis. And even formative experiences like mine are not a guarantee: I remember vividly working with a writer in Madison who was struggling a great deal with both speaking and understanding spoken English. We only managed to talk about a few sentences during the appointment, and even then, I wasn’t sure I had helped. I had a very hard time understanding what she was saying and making myself understood, and I felt badly that I wasn’t able to provide better assistance.
But although I did blame the university for not providing her adequate support to begin with, I was also unhappy with my own inability to understand and communicate successfully. And I think that’s what we need to do in writing centers: look as much at ourselves as we do our multilingual writers as the sources of communication challenges in cross-cultural consulting situations. And I believe thinking in terms of “patience” obscures this need for self-examination.
So what are we to do? We can’t hop in a time machine and change our consultants’ life experiences so they are more used to hearing different forms of accented English. Perhaps there are opportunities for more low-stakes engagements between consultants and writers at our institutions, where both can practice understanding the other. As Ben Rafoth articulates in Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers, we certainly need to look carefully at staff education, and we may well need to hire more non-native speakers and language learners as consultants (believe me, I realize that I’m replicating unhelpful stereotypes by assuming a native-speaking consultant throughout this post).
Happily, though, a lot of this has to do with mindset—hence my resistance to “patience” as the go-to answer. We can realize that communication often breaks down because of our failure to understand, not just the writer’s failure to communicate in ways we expect. I explicitly encourage consultants to acknowledge this openly: it’s perfectly fine—preferable, really—to ask writers to repeat themselves more than is comfortable rather than guessing at what they mean, possibly even saying “I’m sorry, I struggle sometimes with understanding other accents. Can you repeat it one more time for me?”
And of course, it’s more complicated than mere listening comprehension: one time toward the end of her life, my grandmother said to me, “you always seem to know what it is I’m trying to say. Your mom was like that too.” (This was a big deal for her to acknowledge, especially since she was no fan of my mom’s at the time.) One might imagine that my bilingual father would or should have found it easier to figure out what she was trying to say in English, but that wasn’t the case. It took a different kind of listening and attention—the same kind we hope to cultivate among consultants in general, just with an additional layer of linguistic and cultural complexity in the mix. I’m convinced it’s this kind of close, careful listening that’s key: I speak maybe a dozen words of my grandmother’s first language, so that certainly wasn’t what helped. It would possibly be useful for more of us to know Chinese or Arabic or Portuguese or whatever the first language is for many students we see in the writing center, but I don’t believe it’s essential—which is good news for all of us and our limited curricula and lifespans.
Now that I’ve written all of this out, it seems incredibly basic. But we all know that subtle differences do matter. The mindsets we inhabit at the start (or even before the start) of a session invariably shape what happens between us and the writers we talk with. And given trends across the country in higher education, when more and more international students are being admitted to our universities, it behooves us to continually re-think our approaches to supporting multilingual writers and to avoid falling into unhelpful habits of thinking.
So what would be my answer to the question posed during the professional panel discussion about what is essential for working with writers who are non-native speakers? Empathy. Excellent listening skills, including the ability to decipher and extrapolate without assuming or projecting (an absolutely vital distinction and a tightrope walk that takes practice—and humility—to master). The ability to pay careful attention so you can find out what the writer means, and so you don’t miss subtle cues, such as when you’ve guessed incorrectly but the writer is too polite to tell you. Creativity, so one can find multiple ways of explaining a concept or different strategies for tackling a knotty writing problem. Basically, everything that is crucial for working with any writer, just turned up to 11.
And, yes, patience too, when you come down to it—enough to make sure you are truly on the same page before you move on or make concrete suggestions; enough to wait while you both think and listen, and so you don’t feel pressured to achieve a misleading sort of completeness during any particular session. Patience can be beautiful and valuable, and I may well need to get over my own hangups about it—but it also can’t hurt to remember that it might also bring along baggage that we would do well to unpack.
My thanks to one of my Assistant Directors, Nicole Green, who has been patient (ha!) with my informal rants on this topic and who also helped me clarify my draft. Any flaws that remain are of course my own.
Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Utah State UP: 2013. Print.
Harris, Joseph. “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 40.1 (1989): 11–22. Web.
Rafoth, Ben. Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers. Utah State UP: 2015. Print.