Crossing Borders: Bilingual and Multilingual Writing Centers

Melanie Doyle is a writing tutor at the Writing House in the College of Nursing and Heath Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She also teaches composition in UMass Boston’s English department while completing her MA.

In 2000, John Trimbur wrote of the importance of bilingualism in writing and called for more writing centers to transform from English-only to multilingual (30). Though many writing centers embrace notions of multiliteracies, some even rebranding themselves as multiliteracy centers, this designation tends to emphasize digital literacies rather than multilingualism or translingualism in the more traditional sense. In other words, despite college campuses becoming increasingly linguistically diverse, the majority of writing centers still operate under a dominant discourse. Indeed, though most (if not all) American college writing centers serve students from diverse language backgrounds, few can serve students in their preferred language. Looking slightly north, Canadian writing centers offer a unique perspective into writing tutoring, bilingually. Though Canada’s contribution to writing center scholarship has been historically small, the field is growing, and the work produced from the Canadian Writing Centres

Melanie Doyle

Association’s (CWCA) annual conferences look to extend the borders of writing research. And with the continuing interest—and current utter importance—of understanding students’ use of language, Canadian institutions are available sites for inquiry.

While Canada as a nation is officially bilingual, each Canadian province chooses its official language: Quebec, for example, is unilingual French, while Ontario, Canada’s largest province, is unilingual English. Still, many of Canada’s higher ed institutions offer francophone writing tutoring or bilingual writing tutoring. Ontario’s University of Ottawa, situated in Canada’s national capital and on the border with Quebec, is currently the largest bilingual university (French-English) in the world, and is thus is an interesting case study to examine bilingual writing tutoring.

To help me understand tutoring practices, pedagogies, and dynamics at the University of Ottawa, I spoke with Amélie from the Academic Writing Help Centre (AWHC), otherwise known as Centre d’aide à la rédaction des travaux universitaires (CARTU). Housed in a bilingual university where courses are taught in French and English, AWHC/CARTU’s mandate is to offer writing support to all students in the official language of their choice in order to fulfill the University’s mission. Indeed, the University of Ottawa is committed to protecting the region’s francophone culture; so in 2015, it obtained designation[1] for its services in French, including student support services like tutoring. In other words, by offering writing tutoring in both French and English, the AWHC/CARTU is doing its part to protect student rights to their own language, using official statutes to ensure protection and access. Ultimately, by supporting francophone students in their studies, the AWHC plays an important role in helping the University of Ottawa achieve its goals regarding the promotion and safeguarding of francophonie.

But what resources are available for centers taking on such a responsibility and challenge? Unfortunately, there are few. With nearly a dozen francophone or bilingual writing centers operating in Canada, and the support offered at policy and institutional levels, one would think that French language resources and networks would be readily

Writing House tutoring at UMass, Boston

available. Though the CWCA identifies itself as a bilingual community, their website offers little to none in terms of resources geared specifically towards francophone or bilingual centers. As Amélie put it, “as it is often the case with national and international associations, most communications are in English.” In recent years, however, the CWCA has called for an increase in French language research, but that call seems to have gone largely unanswered. Amélie suggested that “more research could be conducted/published in French” with the caveat that the same is probably true in any field. Though she is undeniably correct, I would like to suggest that perhaps multilingual research is indeed more important in a field like ours that emphasizes students’ languages, agency, and voice. Ultimately though, the most important resource offered to multilingual centers is the possibility to connect with other writing centers and writing practitioners. Indeed, it was through the CWCA’s francophone representative, Olivia Faucher, that I was put in touch with Amélie and the AWHC/CARTU.

Canadian French-English institutions are not the only places these conversations need to be happening. Nearly a year ago, the Writing Center Journal Blog identified the unique learning space in which writing centers at institutions on the U.S.-Mexico border are positioned. Nearly all of these institutions are designated Hispanic Serving

Institutions, meant to assist first-generation students, and thus these institutions reflect the region’s demographics and culture. Though this learning space is as unfamiliar to me as the AWHC/CARTU, they seem to share inherent similarities in their blending of multiple literacies and invite, if not deserve, special focus. Taking up this invitation, Sarah Blazer suggests that centers need to consider their role in “facilitat[ing] tutors’ development of inclusive multi/trans-cultural, -lingual, and -literacy perspectives and practice” (19). This process, I believe, should consider not only being mindful of multilingualism, as I think and hope all writing centers are, but also how we might more actively engage in multilingual, translingual, and bilingual practice.

Regarding tutors at the AWHC/CARTU, Amélie stated that all tutors use the same student-based approach regardless of their tutees’ preferred language, and though this aligns with writing center theory, we need to consider how our theories are changing. Much current work in writing center theory and practice suggests that we’re undergoing a transition from writing coaches toward literacy sponsors in writing center spaces, and, if that is the case, our conversations on literacy should be happening in languages other than English—across borders—as they are for our students.

[1] This designation came under the French Language Services Act of Ontario, which supports access to French under certain conditions.


Works Cited

Blazer, Sarah. “Twenty-first Century Writing Center Staff Education: Teaching and Learning towards Inclusive and Productive Everyday Practice.” The Writing Center Journal, 35, 1, 2015, 17-55.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. 1974. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” College Composition and Communication, 25. 3, 1-32.

Trimbur, John. “Multiliteracies, Social Futures, and Writing Centers.” The Writing Center Journal, 20, 2, 2000, 29-32.

Eodice, Michelle, Kerri Jordan, and Steve Price. “Backstories of Bilingual, Bicultural Writers: Fostering Confianza in Writing Centers and Other Teaching Spaces.”Writing Center Journal Blog Community, 2 May 2016, Writing Center Journal, 20 Feb. 2017.

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