As someone who moved to California from India at the age of eleven, I understand how even a small language correction, such as the pronunciation of a mispronounced word, can bring feelings of alienation and humiliation. When someone corrected my words, I felt as though they were correcting more than that; they were correcting my voice, my thoughts, and me. In the beginning, when flaws in my English were exposed, I worked hard to morph my accent to be more American and improve my reading and writing; I wanted more than anything to blend in, and English was a huge reminder that I was different.
In India, the lack of English proficiency is often thought to be a lack of sophistication. When I moved to the US, I experienced the same type of prejudice against my accent. Of course, it can be argued that globalization is working to broaden our ideas of what constitutes “good” English, but language prejudice can often be deeply ingrained and internalized. Given my background, I can understand the pressure and perspective of someone who has grown up with the idea that their English needs to conform to a certain standard for them to be acknowledged. For many, this makes their English a sensitive point, and it is human to hide such vulnerabilities.
As a writing center tutor in my high school, I chose to use the grading technique I was so frequently exposed to in my own papers. I would fill up the clients’ pages with red and purple markings. As someone who was fortunate enough to be able to improve my own English, I felt that it was my responsibility to correct any mistakes I found– to not only prove to myself, but also to others around me that I was worthy of being in the writing center. I didn’t understand at the time that this was only a temporary solution for the client. The role of a writing center tutor is more than that. Specifically, it is less than that.
As a student in the tutor preparatory course at Virginia Tech, I came to understand that, just as it was for me, writing is a sensitive topic for many clients. This understanding began when I wrote a literacy narrative, our first assignment for the class, describing my journey with English literacy. Surprisingly, most of the moments I remembered were when my flaws in English were exposed—when I was reprimanded for mispronouncing words, when a paper I spent days on received a low grade, and so on. Little moments like that accumulated in my mind and made me wonder if I was creating the same negative moments for my writing center clients. By recounting and reflecting on my own experiences, I realized the importance of empathizing with my clients and backing off. This overlaps with the idea of minimalist tutoring that the Virginia Tech writing consultants’ practice; one must let the client be the one in control of the session to ensure that they get the most out of it. I even had the opportunity to practice it myself towards the end of my course as a consultant. I won’t deny that it was difficult, but it was more fulfilling to see the clients work through and come up with their own solutions with small nudges from me. Being overly critical can lower a writers’ chances of discovering the power behind their own perspective and subvert their way of conveying ideas, experiences, and feelings. I realized that to focus on their mistakes in such a straightforward manner was like digging into their vulnerabilities– what are still my own vulnerabilities.
Eventually, I learned to ease the spotlight off myself and onto the client during sessions. I started thinking of their language differences as something that could enrich their writing by adding uniqueness in the way they understand and convey meaning. I came to understand that my writing center sessions were not about me– I am merely a coach on the sidelines. For the session to be truly effective, the client needs to be empowered to take their place– and be the writer.
About the author — Aditi Diwan: I am working toward becoming a writing consultant at Virginia Tech. Born in India and raised in the US and India, I can observe cultural differences in language and expression from a dual perspective, which motivated me to write this piece. I’m currently involved in student organizations like CreativiTea (a creative writing club) and Association for Women in Computing (an organization that aims to foster a supportive community for women and other minorities in technological professions). I hope to become a source of encouragement and support as a consultant, and to continue looking for ways to improve my clients’ experience.