By Scott Chiu –
Like many lucky students in US universities, I benefitted from the Writing Center, especially, from the privilege of working as a writing tutor in the writing center; I established my scholarly identity and pursued my vocation as an educator through the writing center world. More than just a beneficiary of the Writing Center philosophy, I like to say I am a product of Writing Center pedagogies. If you love the writing center but still are not sure about how much its practices can really impact a student writer, I am here to share my story as a living proof. And, it all started in the summer of 2008 when I found myself accepted and attending the 2008 IWCA Summer Institute at UW-Madison as an international graduate student in applied linguistics.
“Writing center summer institute? What is that?” My academic advisor scoffed when I told her I was planning to attend the Summer Institute. With a strong disapproval on her face, she warned me that would not be the best way to spend my time. At that point, I already failed my English pronunciation test, and my application to teach in the department was denied. I did not know what else to expect and nor if I would ever finish the doctoral program. However, what I had learned was just how helpless and hopeless international students could feel by living in their own small bubble on a big campus where labels and stereotypes were discussed in scholarship and experienced in person every day for better or worse.
At that moment, the 2008 IWCA Summer Institute came as a refreshing experience to me even in the initial email exchanges with the Institution Co-Chair, Brad Hughes. In his response to my inquiry email, Brad showed his sincerity by addressing every detail. “I love the fact that you bring your own writing to your writing center at MSU!” I honestly was not used to all that kind of positive energy from any established scholar I had encountered until that point in my graduate experience. At first, I thought he just sounded like a really nice person in the email, then I felt he was genuine and very enthusiastic, and finally I realized he was extremely passionate about his work and his relationship with others. For me, that was never seen before and hard to believe. Believe or not, it was just the beginning of this amazing journey. I was selected and offered a scholarship to attend the Summer Institute. Brad introduced and welcomed me to the writing center world. At first, I thought it was just Brad who was an exceptionally nice writing center person, then I felt everybody was so welcoming to one another and generous about sharing, and finally I realized this is a field where the professionals care more about the people than questions. For the first time, I felt people were genuinely interested in what I was saying about what I knew, but not judgmental about how I had said it in English. For the first time, my nonnative identity came to the foreground as multilingual and international. I did not know exactly what I was getting myself into, but as much as I felt overwhelmed with their enthusiasm, I knew for sure they were the kind of people whom I wanted to work with and be associated with. The 2008 Summer Institute in UW-Madison was decidedly the life-changing and career-transforming experience to me. Among the many, many incredible scholars and people influential to my career, I met Dianna Baldwin, who was about to begin her new position as Associate Director of the MSU Writing Center.
“I spoke with Trixie… In fact, if you are interested, we would love to talk to you about possibly joining the writing center as a consultant.” Dianna replied to my email and brought up a possibility I never thought would be possible. It came as a surprise and I jumped at it immediately. The next week I joined the first staff meeting of the new semester. In the room full of undergraduate and graduate writing consultants, I was nervous about this new, unfamiliar setting, and all those young and smart undergraduate consultants who seemed chill were only intimidating to me. When it came to my turn to introduce myself, I was so self-conscious and I scrambled to explain why I was there. Before it was getting really awkward, a girl came to my rescue like a ray of sunshine from out of the blue. Elena Garcia, with a big smile on her face, put her hands in the air and shouted, “Because we are the coolest on campus!” They truly were. Working with a dynamic and diverse group of undergraduate and graduate consultants in the Writing Center brought so many valuable influences on me especially for my social life experiences in America. Language and cultural barriers are real for both international and domestic students to develop friendships, and the Writing Center became a magical space for me to cross the boundaries– experience, interact, and have meaningful friendships with many wonderful American students. The profound impacts of the writing center were not just on my professional development in teaching and research, but also my personal development, cultural experiences, and insights into native, local student writers’ learning experiences and writing processes. The transparency of knowledge made me feel included personally and a sense of belonging professionally. Before the end of the semester, I reconstructed my committee and decided my dissertation on researching the writing center and L2 writers. I might have looked reckless and it must have risked my chance of finishing my doctoral program. Moving from the perspectives of social sciences to the humanities, it was a radical decision and action that I had never been more certain about for my career and for myself. Across the Red Cedar River on the MSU campus, I found my way to the humanity on campus at Bessey Hall, and I had never looked back.
Belong and Transform
I would be lying if I said I’d never questioned myself as a non-native speaker and never struggled for being perceived just as capable and helpful as American writing consultants. All the discrimination and stigma against non-native speakers of English we learned from the practices of ESL education had continued to haunt me and cripple my growth as a multilingual writing center professional. There were always frustrating experiences and setbacks when people looked incredulously at me; but there were indeed more love and support happening in the writing center that validated me. One of the most reassuring moment was when I wrote a draft of script for voice over on a SL video project and gave it to Lisa Yriart my project partner, an undergraduate consultant, for her recording. While I was expecting her to edit it away and probably polish it for native-like expression and language use, to my surprise, Lisa would go ahead and record the entire script based on every single word and the tone I put in the script without changing a thing. “You totally sounded like a native speaker of English.” I mumbled in disbelief. She looked at me like I was funny.
Again and again, the writing center made me feel I belonged to this community and this field as who I was. In 2009, I was offered a TA position and became the first graduate student at the MSU Writing Center to teach the undergraduate tutor training course: Writing Center Theory & Practice. I was thrilled and just considered myself extremely lucky- I didn’t what was coming. That year at the Symposium on Second Language Writing, Terese Thonus said to me, “Wow, look at MSU! Teaching that class is gonna get you a job!” They, these writing center people, seemed to know what they were doing. Sure enough, the next year I was offered a fixed-term full time instructor position at the First-Year Writing Program of the MSU WRAC Department. My international identity and L2 writing background were fully valued and appreciated in the FYW Program. While I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated my time teaching and researching at the MSU FYW program, I knew I was a writing center guy teaching in the writing classroom and I kept wondering if it would ever be possible at all to have my own writing center one day. I always remembered Trixie’s voice sounded louder and firmer than my own footsteps moving toward that goal: “You will get a writing center job.”
Living Embodiment of the Pedagogy
In 2013, five years after that first email with Brad about the Summer Institute at UW-Madison, I landed the dream job as a university writing center director on a tenure track faculty position. It was surreal, to say the least. Although I quickly realized that nobody had really told me how to be a writing center director and all that stuff, I did know one thing for sure that over the years, I had become a product of Writing Center pedagogies. Each of the writing center people I encountered was the pedagogy in action—inclusivity, diversity, equity, anti-racism, decolonization, compassion, non-judgment, support, advocacy, mentoring, transparency, empowerment, agency, identify, self-efficacy, collaboration, and ownership. Writing centers create better writers every day out of the tutors in their own centers. Jackie Grutsch McKinney, also a 2008 Summer Institute alumna, said if we were not sure about how we had helped student writers in the writing center, we could still rest assured of all the valuable skills our tutors had developed with them through their engagement with writing center theory and practice. The writing center is inevitably helpful. As a living proof of writing center pedagogies and the writing center guy at Cal Lu, I know we can’t go wrong by embodying the writing center philosophy and setting the pedagogy in motion across campus with our student writers, the tutors, and colleagues. We, the writing center people, talk the talk and walk the walk.