The HU-SO English Writing Center at Burapha University, in Chon Buri, Thailand, was the result of one administrator’s vision, followed by a series of serendipitous coincidences. While earning her doctorate in the U.S., Suchada Rattanawanitpun had witnessed the value of her American university’s writing center after a friend, another Thai graduate student, had been helped to succeed academically through writing center conferences. In 2018, as head of the Western Languages Department at Burapha University, Dr. Suchada resolved to create a writing center there, and obtained funding from the university to transform an empty classroom in the department into a modern writing center.
Concurrently, an English Language Fellow, Martha Olson, began a ten-month posting at Burapha University English Language Fellows are part of a public diplomacy initiative, funded through the U.S. State Department, that casts them as cultural ambassadors, promoting English language learning and cultural exchange through teaching and ancillary projects. As a Fellow at Burapha, Ms. Olson taught English classes 12 hours a week to undergraduate English majors, and also conducted teacher training workshops in Thailand and Southeast Asia. In January 2019, Ms. Olson attended a ThaiTESOL presentation facilitated by Molly McHarg, about the establishment of writing centers in the Middle East, and especially the use of peer tutors. Ms. Olson realized the value of Dr. McHarg’s expertise, and, several months later, Dr. McHarg visited Burapha University to give her presentation to the ad hoc writing center committee there.
Soon after, Dr. McHarg was granted Specialist status through the U.S. Embassy, Bangkok, and made several visits in 2019 to help organize the writing center, oversee the training of peer tutors, and advise on writing center pedagogy. On October 22, 2019, the HU-SO English Writing Center had its opening ceremony, and the first cohort of peer tutors who were mostly Thais received their certificates of tutor-training completion.
Initially, the writing center was promoted primarily to English language majors. Getting students to sign up for writing conferences was challenging. Due to budget constraints, the writing center’s limited schedule was by appointment only. Furthermore, Thailand’s universities, like many others in Asia, are strongly hierarchical (Young, 2021). The idea that students could get advice from student tutors, who might be only a year or two ahead of them, was new. However, Ms. Olson offered extra credit to students in her Essay Writing class who attended tutoring conferences, and other teachers began promoting the writing center. The students who did come to the writing center reported mostly positive experiences, according to exit surveys.
It was not only the tutees who benefitted. The 14 students who completed the six-hour peer training course, and who provided a total of 62 half-hour sessions in the period from October 2019 through March 2020, also self-reported improvements in social skills, writing proficiency, and metalinguistic awareness in a follow-up survey.
The writing center faced other challenges, with budget constraints paramount. However, as these challenges were being met, a juggernaut challenge appeared in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, all classes at Burapha University pivoted to remote learning. The already overworked faculty was unable to transition the writing center, still in its early stages, to online consultations. The HU-SO English Writing Center has remained inoperative since then. In June of 2020, it looked as if Thailand might have contained the pandemic; at that point another cohort of peer tutors received online training, but a recurrence of cases in Thailand has kept classes virtual and the writing center inactive.
Nevertheless, it is hoped that the HU-SO English Writing Center will reestablish once students return to the classrooms. Our experience over the short period of its operation provides some insight into the unusual aspects of writing center work in Asia. One observation we made is that, despite the initial reluctance of Thai students to trust their peers to provide useful writing advice, most soon acknowledged the tutors’ value. For many, just sharing a piece of writing with an audience other than a teacher, and identifying areas for improvement, was an unusual metalinguistic exercise.
Also, because in most cases both tutor and tutee spoke Thai, and were English-language majors, they could communicate in both languages. Many of the tutors had taken the same class and completed the same assignments that the tutees were seeking help with, so they could offer advice based on direct experience. Although it was emphasized during the peer tutor training that good peer tutoring does not depend on knowledge of the text’s subject matter, in this case, it helped.
First- and second-year English-major students did not show much interest in the writing center, and so the ad hoc committee decided to add a “Grammar in Writing” service for students taking basic English courses; grammar is undeniably a major concern for Thai students, even at the university level.
As academic writing centers are not yet widely embraced in Southeast Asia, the HU-SO English Writing Center might be considered an example of fortunate synchronicity. However, with writing centers becoming more established in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean universities, it is only a matter of time before they gain traction in underserved areas. The authors look forward to the reopening of the HU-SO English Writing Center when circumstances allow, and to continuing research in how to refine the model to better fit its mission.
Learn more about our center in Composition Forum: Design and Implementation of the First Peer-Staffed Writing Center in Thailand and by watching this video.
Young, D. (2021). The hierarchy of Thailand and its effects on English language learning. LEARN Journal: Language Education and Acquisition Research Network, 14(1), 15-27.