I came from Nepal in 2019 Fall to pursue a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). My mother tongue is Nepali, and English is my primary foreign language. In my school and college years, the Nepali language was used as a medium of instruction except for English language courses. The instruction in my English composition classes was largely confined to copying exercises, penmanship, and memorization. Throughout my student years, I rarely received any specific feedback on my writing. My teachers could not offer feedback on my writing even if they wanted to since our classes were filled up with more than 60 students in a class.
Prior to UTEP, I taught EFL courses at the college level for more than a decade in Nepal. While offering feedback on students’ papers, I would often mostly focus on grammar and content. When I came to UTEP and started to work as a writing center consultant, I struggled in offering feedback on students’ writing since I came from a totally different academic environment to an English-speaking country where almost everything was wildly dissimilar from what I had experienced and been used to. I found that the practice of offering feedback on students’ writing, the types of papers students bring to my table, the content of their writing, and the academic conventions were all different.
One of the differences I found is in the types of assignments. For instance, before arriving at UTEP, I was not familiar with genre analysis and website-designing assignments. I really struggled in offering feedback with these assignments. Similarly, I found that the students would come with the expectation that “good” writing means writing introduction paragraphs with thesis statements, body paragraphs starting with topic sentences, and conclusions formed by restating the introductory paragraph and wrapping with the main points of body paragraphs. Though I was familiar with these concepts theoretically, back in Nepal we would rarely or not at all focus on these western conventions and traditions. Instead, as mentioned earlier, we would focus much more on grammar, and on content.
Due to the above-stated reasons, I was naturally less confident in offering feedback on students’ writing. In such a situation, I had to make a wise decision to provide appropriate feedback on their writing; I had to embrace strategies that would assist me in better tutoring them. Considering the situational Kairos, in my sessions I applied two strategies in my tutoring: let-us-go-together approach and looking at the organization and structural parts of the text.
To begin with the first strategy, before starting my own session with the students, I tell them: “We will work together on the paper.” When I start reading the students’ papers, I would invite them: “Let us go together.” When I do not understand what they want to communicate through certain phrases, phrases, and paragraphs, I would ask them to show the phrases, sentences and paragraphs, to clarify the message they really intend to convey. Then the students can explain to me, as best as they can, what they wish to write in the paper. Listening to their concerns, I would strive to offer them feedback. That kind of strategy has helped me understand their concerns and also usually saved me from failure on a pragmatic understanding of their papers. This sort of approach is, of course, vastly more time-consuming than a simpler, directive approach, but it was essential for my success.
For example, during the spring semester in 2020, a male student came in with a genre analysis paper. As usual, I followed the let-us-go-together approach. I asked him what he wanted to communicate through this or that particular sentence—showing the sentences in question—and he would tell me in a different way, usually in clearer words for the point he wanted to make. At the end of the session, he said: “You asked me, ‘Let us go together’ and this helped me to clarify what I wanted to convey. I understood all the feedback you provided. In the earlier times, sometimes my paper would be revised without my involvement and sometimes I would not grasp the feedback offered by tutors.” Indeed, throughout the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 before the lockdown, I was following this approach and found it most useful to understand students’ concerns and to be able to offer meaningful feedback on students’ writing.
The second strategy that I embraced was to look at the organization and structural part of students’ writing. I quickly became aware that local English-dominant students are usually far better in both spoken and written English than I initially expected. Since my own accent was unfamiliar to them, there was the real possibility that students might even question my own English language proficiency. To avoid this, I started to focus my consulting on higher-order skills such as the organization and coherence of their papers. I decided to embrace this strategy to save my face, as well as to offer some meaningful feedback on their papers. In my consultations, I directed my feedback to what to write in the introduction section and how to maintain the flow of ideas; what to write in body paragraphs and how to continue the idea flow; and what to write in the conclusion. I focused carefully on the structural aspect of their writing. Through this process, I could give students confidence that I do indeed have a solid knowledge of English-language writing. For these reasons, I directed my consultation toward organizational and structural aspects of writing rather than simply correcting superficial errors, stylistics and mechanics. I used it as a principle to “produce better writers, not better writing” (North 438). Unless specifically asked, I would make few corrections to superficial aspects of their writing.
As a newly-arrived international EFL Writing Center consultant at UTEP, I certainly encountered some initial tensions and challenges. However, despite these tensions and challenges, the two strategies that I embraced allowed me to deal with student writing and became a successful consultant.
North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46.5 (1984): 433-446.
About the author: Jagadish Paudel is a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Writing Studies and Assistant Instructor of English at The University of Texas at EL Paso. He is from Nepal and has taught EFL courses at the college level for more than a decade.