Merging Tutoring and Editing in a Chinese Graduate Writing Center

Barbara Rau Kyle
University of Central Florida

Graduate students often find a mismatch between their needs and the services offered at university writing centers, a problem that has recently gained considerable attention from graduate writers and their advocates. Second language scholars have long challenged and modified writing center pedagogy to better serve non-native speakers of English (NNS), and similarly, the demand for more specific graduate writing support has resulted in various alternatives. Separate graduate writing centers are better able to accommodate the length and technical nature of graduate writing, and separate editing services meet the students’ need to begin publishing their papers. When the students are graduate multilingual writers (GMLW), that is, both graduate and NNS, graduate needs are compounded by second language issues. The graduate writing center faces challenges that may entail two of the greatest divergences from accepted practice: relocating the balance of attention to process and product, and the resultant redefinition of the role of writing tutors to that of combined tutor-editors. This paper addresses those reconceptualizations, and applies them toward balancing pedagogical values with situated needs at the nascent Tongji University Writing Center. This small English-language graduate writing center at a Chinese university is being built upon a loosely connected writing support system for the university’s Department of Traffic Engineering, in which outside editors have been assisting the department’s GMLW in publishing in English-language international journals. The globalization of research and concern for equal access to publishing suggest our situation is not isolated.

The writing center has, in recent decades, become higher education’s primary model for student writing support in North America and, increasingly, worldwide. Although Muriel Harris’s 1988 observation that “[w]riting centers, because of their variations from institution to institution, do not have a single model to follow or a mold by which to shape themselves” still holds, most centers must focus their attention on the largest population of users: undergraduate native speakers (NS) of English. It is on this model that standards of practice have been set. Those standards have been further cemented by what Jackie Grutsch McKinney terms the grand narrative—the story we tell of ourselves by which certain of the writing center’s aspects, such as student responsibility, have come to be seen as crucial to the writing center’s definition (60). That the grand narrative has helped make its role “legible” on campus (66) has no doubt contributed to the writing center’s proliferation. But Grutsch McKinney is troubled by aspects the narrative might be erasing (5), and this proliferation, ironically, has brought to the center an increasing diversity of students whose needs draw our attention to those erasures. Challenges to various standard practices have long come from non-native speakers (NNS) of English and advocates, such as Ben Rafoth; more recently, the concerns of graduate students have been addressed, for example, by the Consortium on Graduate Communication. When the graduate student is also NNS, the needs that fall outside the narrative are compounded (Simpson, “New Frontiers” 3), and challenges to two of the most basic writing center principles become apparent: writing centers seeking to accommodate the graduate multilingual writer (GMLW) must find a suitable balance between process and product, and, consequently, must often reconceptualize the role of tutors as tutor-editors.

The conflicts between process and product, and between tutoring and editing, are perhaps exacerbated when the employment of product-driven editing precedes the establishment of a process-oriented tutoring environment. I had been one of a few editors working remotely with the traffic engineering program at Shanghai’s Tongji University when I was asked to help establish a writing center. The idea seemed timely. The center’s scope, at the outset, would be restricted to the department’s approximately fifteen graduate student researchers, and the program head was sufficiently familiar with writing centers to appreciate and want to replicate the writing center’s process-oriented goals and approaches.  The center was to be funded, however, by an international traffic research organization whose primary goals included publication in international journals.

The majority of prestigious international journals are English-language (Belcher; Rafoth; Renck Jalongo and Saracho), and the pressure to publish in China is heavy, with an increasing number of programs requiring publication from their graduate students (Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Cargill et al.). The cultural nationalism that promotes Mandarin over English (Mao 77) is balanced by the equally nationalist desire for a global research presence. Of the language ideologies discussed by Bailey et al. (314), the ideology of this group of Tongji engineers is overwhelmingly practical: they are prepared to make compromises and ready to use whatever language best serves their purposes (Mao 81). Not only are Chinese researchers eager to enter the international academic conversations, but with China’s “R&D workforce estimated at 32 million in 2006,” the international community is just as eager for their entry (Cargill et al. 60). 

Publishing, of course, is far more difficult for researchers with limited English proficiency. Following the challenging task of writing in a non-native language, NNS authors receive more language-related criticisms from journals’ peer reviewers, and fewer of their papers are published (Belcher; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Pandey). Their manuscripts are rejected largely for the same content-related shortcomings as those submitted by NS authors, and high NNS rejection rates might also be attributable to their limited access to technology and current research in their fields (Belcher; Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”). Yet Li and Flowerdew noted in 2007 that “in at least one set of cases” a high rejection rate was ascribed to multiple language errors (“Shaping” 101), which, in any case, can reduce authors’ credibility and predispose reviewers to look more critically at their methodology (Belcher; Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”; Pandey; Renck Jalongo and Saracho; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”). As if these were not sufficient obstacles, many NNS authors also experience difficulty responding satisfactorily to peer reviewer feedback (Renck Jalongo and Saracho; Rocco et al.). It is likely, of course, that the current strict adherence to standard written English (SWE) is being relaxed, as Li and Flowerdew observe that acceptance rates for Chinese scientists have increased (“Shaping). Our Tongji team has seen a growing proportion of GMLW in engineering, which could increase the number of reviewers who are themselves NNS, a prediction supported by Anita Pandey, who notes that the general increase in global contact and audience should improve the sense of NNS texts’ acceptability (218). Yet for the present, writing in English is still problematic for NNS, and authors are often advised by reviewers to get language-editing assistance (Canagarajah et al., 122; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”). 

The English proficiency of Tongji’s GMLW is sufficient to draft their research, but not to produce publication-ready articles; the focus of their academic careers has been on engineering, not English. Their curriculum is taught in Chinese, and, as is common for Chinese graduate students, they no longer attend English classes (Turner). Also common in China, regardless, are English programs that have traditionally focused on undergraduates passing the necessary tests, rather than academic writing (Li and Flowerdew, “Finding” 106). Interest in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at Tongji is growing, but, at the time of this writing, is not yet taught on campus. Writing centers in China are still only in evidence at partnership universities with English-delivered curriculum, such as NYU Shanghai and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou. 

My first visit to Tongji preceded the request to start the writing center. During the visit I conducted a student seminar addressing some typical NNS writing issues I had observed while editing their papers, and I worked with one student face-to-face in what I anticipated would be a standard writing conference.  I left that visit with three main impressions that were to guide both my subsequent agreement to start the writing center and the policies that would shape it. First, the students were interested. A few were eager to improve their writing in English, but all echoed on a personal level the national interest in publishing, not only for its prestige, but also for its societal value: traffic engineering is important work in the developing world, and they were proud to contribute their research. Second, they were ready. They had become accustomed to participating in the tutoring dialogue through our remote editing exchanges, and their feedback from the seminar reinforced my sense of their interest. Like the Chinese scientists in a project reported by Cargill and O’Connor, these writers wanted “more examples to be analysed . . . , more writing time, more one-to-one consultation on draughts” (216). Last, while my individual student consultation was not unproductive, circumstances had demanded a four-hour time block that frustrated and exhausted both of us in our efforts to understand and communicate. I resolved that if I were invited to return, I would not deviate from the shorter standard writing center session. I deliberated on how to manage it, however, as even the extended time was insufficient to both read the paper and discuss it. Previewing papers is not standard writing center practice, and the grand narrative exerted its pull on me. However, I reflected that previewing would not only have saved time better spent in conversation, but also, by getting an earlier overall understanding of the paper, my questions and suggestions would be more informed and concise—not a small matter when the other party is listening and responding in a non-native language. 

I felt confident in my decision to preview and that I would be able to find an effective balance between tutoring and editing, but I also had a real confidence in writing center practice that pushed me to further investigate those practices before making modifications. I needed to trace back through the second-language scholarship and the more recent work on graduate support to be certain I was clear on the rationales, problems, and existing solutions before I could set policies appropriate to this context. As research tends to do, this process raised new questions for me; for example, I began to realize how little I knew about the editor’s perspective. 

My two subsequent—longer—visits to campus were thus devoted mainly to using my own tutor-editing sessions to informally test out a groundwork that could be developed into a writing center model that would best serve our immediate goals. This paper, then, tells one of the stories missing from the grand narrative (Grutsch McKinney 86). It presents one set of solutions to the problem of balancing pedagogical values with practical editing needs, and it presents the reconceptualization that finding those solutions entailed. The increasing globalization of research across the disciplines and concern for equal access to publishing suggests that Tongji is not alone in its need for a dual-goal NNS graduate writing center.

Writing Centers and NNS

To avoid any semblance of promoting academic dishonesty, writing centers that serve a general student population must be very clear to both students and faculty that they do not provide proofreading or editing (Harwood et al., “Proofreading”). Directly supporting the no-editing policy, a core element of the grand narrative, are two of the main tenets of writing centers: prioritization of global issues such as thesis and organization over local concerns such as grammar (Phillips, “Tutor”), and the emphasis on a non-directive over a directive tutoring approach (Harris). A non-directive approach keeps editing choices in the hands of the student, not the tutor, and attention to global concerns steers the session away from the sentence-level issues that encourage editing. Neither tenet arose, of course, simply as a guard against academic dishonesty; rather, both are generally good pedagogy. For example, a non-directive approach helps students more actively think through their ideas. Yet its universal value has been successfully challenged from a number of corners, including second-language researchers who maintain that directivity has an important role in the presence of cultural and language differences (Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”; Min; Rafoth; Vorhies).

Likewise, clarity of purpose and communication can be overlooked if excessive attention is paid to local errors (Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”). It is on largely pedagogical grounds, however, that second-language advocates have argued that the no-proofreading stance underserves NNS students. For NNS, work on grammar is basic to their learning; and, as is the case with NNS researchers intending to publish, attention to grammar helps them over the hurdle of sentence-level clarity that will permit their papers to be judged on content (Harwood et al., “Proofreading”; Phillips, “Tutor”; Rafoth; Blau et al.; Min). Indeed, local issues such as erroneous transitions, conjunctions, and prepositions can create global issues of reader miscomprehension (Blau et al.; Burrough-Boenisch, “Editing”; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Rogers et al.), as can flawed sentence structure that may misplace emphasis or affect level of assertion (Burrough-Boenisch, “Editing” 9). Additionally, although local errors are often due to limited English proficiency, they may also be due to a writer’s inadequate understanding of content or the paper’s required structure (Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”). Attention to these errors unmasks them and permits interrogation of larger problems that may have been overlooked. Because NNS needs add to rather than replace the time spent in a standard NS session, Ben Rafoth suggests expanding the typical 30-60 minutes to two hours (57).

Graduate Students: From Writing Support to Writing Centers

With their lengthier papers, the longer tutoring sessions that benefit NNS students benefit graduates as well (Reardon et al.; Phillips, “Writing”; Vorhies). Graduate students have also indicated they prefer to work with graduate tutors who have expertise in the genres in which they write (Renck Jalongo  and Saracho; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Phillips, “Writing”), a background in their disciplines (Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Reardon et al.; Phillips, “Writing”; Vorhies), and a familiarity with research methods (Phillips, “Writing”). As hiring specialty tutors and making other accommodations for graduate students can be unsuitable or unwieldy for writing centers serving large undergraduate populations, alternatives have been found, including peer writing groups  (Caplan and Cox; Freeman; Hixson, et al.; Simpson et al.) and writing workshops and courses for graduate students (Caplan and Cox; Cargill et al.; Freeman; Rocco et al.; Tierney). The coordination of these programs can be inadequate (Caplan and Cox), however, especially for the additional assistance GMLW may require (Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”; Cargill et al.; Tierney; Harwood et al., “Proofreading”; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Simpson, “New Frontiers”). Establishing separate graduate writing centers is an increasingly common solution (Caplan and Cox; Hixson-Bowles; Rocco et al.; Vorhies; Waldman). It permits significantly longer sessions (Phillips, “Writing”; Vorhies; Rocco et al.) and provides greater ability to employ tutors with the genre, discipline, and research expertise demanded (Freeman; Phillips, “Writing”). 

Heather Vorhies reports that tutors at the University of Maryland Graduate Student Writing Center comment directly onto writers’ drafts, modeling “sentence structure or wording when appropriate” (8).  Vorhies explains that once writers know their sentence-level concerns are addressed, they feel freer to engage in discussions on global questions such as organization and research. The author’s point is familiar, that tutors’ respect for writers’ local concerns permits the shift of focus to global issues that actually require dialogue, but also worth noting is the importance she places on the tutor recording comments on the draft itself. A similar move with an NS undergraduate might justifiably be seen as undermining the student responsibility of the grand narrative; but because graduate writers tend to be more invested in their writing, the concern carries much less weight. Finally, it is notable that Vorhies is speaking not only of GMLW: even NS graduate students have indicated they want more assistance with local issues (Mannon; Vorhies).


The sentence-level concerns of many graduate students go further: they want editing (Reardon et al.; Cirillo-McCarthy et al.). Indeed, both NS and NNS faculty researchers frequently hire editors, often funded by their departments, to bring their papers up to publishable standards (Burrough-Boenisch, “Negotiable”; Caplan and Cox; Erard). Graduate students’ advisors want cleaner papers, too. As advisors often have little time, and sometimes ability, to engage in careful language reviewing (Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Rogers et al.), some departments employ editors for graduate students as well as faculty (Caplan and Cox; Harwood et al., “Cleaner”). Most writing centers acknowledge the demand. Some maintain lists of outside editors that can be hired (Freeman; Cirillo-McCarthy et al.), and others have established editing services separate from the writing center (Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”). 

It can be assumed that such arrangements are not merely concessions to students’ desires for shortcuts, but rather recognition that editing assistance is sometimes appropriate. Moreover, in the quest for better written products, attention to process is not disregarded. Many editing services include teaching students to self-edit (Harwood et al., “Cleaner”; Rocco et al.; Waldman). NNS Dutch scientists typically have access to on-campus English-language teachers as well as editors (Burrough-Boenisch, “Negotiable”), and on-campus proofreaders are sometimes connected to their institutions’ EAP programs (Harwood et al., “Proofreading”). Yet editing within the graduate writing center is still uncommon (Blau et al.). One factor that may be responsible is the persistent line drawn between product and process.

Harwood et al. observe the contrast made in U.S. writing center literature between tutors and proofreaders:

where proofreaders are said to prescribe, writing centre tutors are said to elicit; proofreaders identify problems and supply corrections, while writing centre tutors enable the writer to do this for him/herself. . . . Global, rather than local, errors take priority . . . . The difference, then, is that proofreading services apparently do not constitute “a learning experience.” (572)

It is generally agreed that the main job of proofreaders and editors is to prioritize the text, or product (Harwood et al., “Cleaner” 572), and, conversely, that it is the role of teachers and tutors to prioritize learning, or process. As undergraduates move on to become graduate researchers, however, and their attention focuses on their chosen discipline, their concern with their writing shifts in the direction of product, writing simply becoming the medium that will communicate their research. With some variation depending on discipline, their advisors share their priorities (Rogers et al. 70).

Just as scholars and practitioners have softened the line between directivity and non-directivity, as well as between local and global issues, Kelsey Hixson-Bowles emphasizes that neither is product-process the dichotomy conventional usage has made it appear. Product and process form, instead, a continuum. When Stephen Kuntz protests that to “bail out on them at the last moment,” as the stakes for graduate students’ papers become higher, does not “make pedagogic sense” (Waldman), his concern is with the learning opportunities that will be missed. Kuntz’s sentiment is echoed by others, who are increasingly finding it within the proper scope of tutoring to give graduate writers the editing support they want and need (Cirillo-McCarthy et al.; Hixson-Bowles; Min; Phillips, “Tutor”; Waldman). 

Harwood et al. note that a number of proofreaders in their study, many of whom could be considered comprehensive editors, work with the writers as much as with the texts. They see helping make writers aware of purpose and audience as part of their role, and offer their clients, for example, reader interpretations so writers can make better decisions (“Proofreading”). Many editors meet with writers for discussions that resemble writing center conferences (Turner; Coogan; Harwood et al., “Cleaner”), and writers report that responding to editors’ questions helps them focus their thinking and clarify their writing (Buell and Park; Churchill). For GMLW, these editors seem to be “literacy brokers” (Poe 178) more than gatekeepers of SWE. However, Harwood et al. note that some hesitate to intervene on global issues on student texts, finding commenting on structure, argument, and content, for example, to be appropriating and unethical. The authors suggest that a willingness to take a less directive dialogic approach would permit learning without appropriation (“Proofreading”). This proofreader hesitance indeed makes an illuminating parallel with the scruples of many tutors who find attention to local, rather than global, issues, similarly appropriating and unethical. Just as it might be assumed that the hesitant tutors feel committed to non-directivity, it could be assumed that the hesitant proofreaders feel bound by the traditional directive role. Directivity, often appropriate for local-issue intervention, is rightly avoided for global issues since it can easily evolve into rewriting.

Although the proofreaders studied by Harwood et al. worked in different settings that may account for their variation in role perception, many of them were frankly uncertain of the boundaries (“Proofreading”). Like tutors, editors search, often uncomfortably, for proper balances when working with student writers (Harwood et al., “Proofreading”; Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”). Some flexibility is necessary for tutors and editors to respond appropriately to particular issues with particular clients (Turner; Erard), and graduate writing centers and campus editing services generally do set broad guidelines regarding, for example, rewriting and texts acceptable for editing (Harwood et al., “Cleaner”; Rocco et al.; Waldman). However, the extent of editor confusion has led Harwood et al. to recommend that much clearer guidelines be set (“Cleaner”). Insistence on the product-process dichotomy may have made tutor-editing a false ethical dilemma.


Related to my concerns with combining tutoring and editing was my plan to preview and annotate the students’ papers prior to face-to-face conferences, asynchronously and online. The richer face-to-face environment is fundamental to the grand narrative (Grutsch McKinney 58). It remains the preferred mode for tutoring, as the reduced interaction in the average online environment tends to encourage directivity, greater attention to product over process, and editing (Breuch; Wolfe and Griffin), all of which I wanted to delay until later in our interactions. Yet the growing popularity of the graduate writing center is increasing this demand for online tutoring (Phillips, “Writing”), and the demand, especially for the GMLW, may be partly attributed to the online conferences’ use of written comments. Written comments can be easier for NNS to understand (Ryan and Zimmerelli) and more effective at instilling the confidence that encourages learning (Vorhies). Frank Tuzi’s study of NNS writers showed that while they tended to prefer oral feedback, written feedback had greater impact on revision, especially on global revisions, such as adding information or emphasis.

Despite the advantages of synchronous sessions (Carino; Simpson et al.; Wolfe and Griffin), many writers prefer asynchronous sessions for the convenience of time and distance (Simpson et al.), and many scholars and practitioners are finding it pedagogically effective (Coogan; Erard; Hewett; Breuch). Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch observes that asynchronous send-reply delays may be an advantage, as they give the writer a sense of more time to draft, without the pressure to revise and converse simultaneously. Breuch was speaking of writers in general, but it is clear how a perceived slower pace might particularly benefit NNS writers. Tutor-editor Adam Turner finds the combination of online and face-to-face feedback “the most effective and flexible for writing center work” with Korean writers, and suggests that the traditional separation of online and face-to-face sessions “may need to be reexamined.” Previewing writers’ texts prior to the face-to-face tutoring conference is, in fact, fairly commonplace (Turner, Vorhies). Vorhies emphasizes that while it is optional elsewhere, previewing is standard at Maryland in order to accommodate the density and technical nature of the dissertations and articles for publication they review.

On the Ground in Shanghai

Practical as well as pedagogical demands, of course, guided the Tongji Writing Center’s formation, and the funding International Laboratory introduced affordances and constraints in addition to prioritizing the writing product. First, while it was understood that the eventual goal was a permanent, if part-time, writing center, the immediate on-site support need was discontinuous, coordinated with biannual submission deadlines and lasting for two to three weeks per occasion.  The remote editing that had been in place would continue to suffice at other times of the year. Second, because the writers had some obligation to the Lab as well as to themselves and their advisors, they had already made the commitment to work with writing support. The students made their own appointments, but this larger obligation forestalled any laxity about keeping them. Third, the Lab’s participation afforded the on-site assistance of international research advisors. Collectively, we comprised a team similar to the collaborative support Mya Poe finds essential to multilingual writing (176).

Based mainly on Vorhies’s model, I settled on a 60-minute face-to-face conference with an additional minimum 60-minute preview. Because students—twelve over the course of two on-site visits—were assigned to work with me with the goal of having publication-ready papers by the end of the period, I saw most of them as often as they were ready with new revisions. Including online exchanges toward the end of the periods, I worked with some students as many as twelve times on a paper, with an average of three times each. Face-to-face time with each student averaged 5.75 hours, with an additional 7 hours of preview time, on average. In practice, the average face-to-face session lasted 86 minutes, cutting into preview time when I had appointments 2 hours apart. I began to space appointments further apart when possible, and I previewed soon after I received a paper so I could return to the student the annotated version prior to the appointment. The small number of students, and their diligence in sending me papers the day before our appointments, made the flexibility in this system workable. Our 60 to 90-minute conferences were much more relaxed, interactive, and hence productive than my earlier experience with the long four-hour session. Previewing and pre-annotating allowed me to more easily see past mechanical issues so I could better focus and prioritize the global during our conferences; additionally, providing students the time to review my annotations prior to the conference tended to enhance their participation. 

Global Issues and Other Observations

The papers the students brought me were solid drafts they had completed with input from their advisors. These advisors were important offstage participants with whom students consulted on my questions regarding, for example, background that seemed missing and terminology they were using in a new way. Despite the multiple stakeholders, and contrary to the passivity that has sometimes been observed in NNS undergraduate writers (Staben and Nordhaus), rare was the writer who accepted my suggestions without question. Even students with limited oral English proficiency paused over most revisions as they prepared to dissent if they perceived that my suggested edit would have distorted their meaning. Over time, even they were eager to tell me about their research.

With the preparation permitted by preview-annotating, we were generally able to move directly into typical writing center dialogues on global issues, of which the largest proportion consisted of the same genre issues NS confront (Cargill and O’Connor; Douglas; Simpson et al.; Renck Jalongo and Saracho; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Paltridge and Starfield; Rocco et al.). While the overall research paper structure was usually on target, flawed transitions and misplaced or inadequately detailed material often confused or misled the reader. For example, the relevance of a reference in the literature review might not be clear, while the methods section lacked supportive evidence and rationale. Discussions and conclusions tended to need more interpretative material, while results sections needed less; all three needed more context and comparison. Some of the students’ genre difficulties were likely compounded by their writing in a second language. Prompted by my suggestion that an assertion needed further explanation, one student chuckled and told me he had heard that American readers want more detail and feel that Chinese writers “don’t really say anything.” I had to refute the latter, but did agree with the American concern for detail, reflecting that his good-natured challenge illustrated the observation of Paltridge and Starfield that cultures differ on reader-writer responsibility for clarity and interpretation (49). Although problems with the placement and balance of detail and interpretation are also shared by NS, here those problems may be compounded by Chinese writers trying to meet the expectations of an unfamiliar audience, and even, as in one of Rabbi and Canagarajah’s 2017 case studies, making the decision as to whether or not to meet them (7).

In many cases, before we could identify global issues, local issues needed attention. Whether tutor or editor, a reviewer cannot help a writer convey meaning until the reviewer understands that meaning. Often excess words needed to be eliminated, words that had been added as the writer searched for the best way to express an idea. Other problems were more typical NNS issues of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. While they were ostensibly surface errors, it was not infrequent that they made meaning ambiguous or misplaced emphasis. Conversation, mutual turns at editing, and often extensive negotiations helped us arrive at solutions clear enough to temporarily accept so we could see the passage in context and proceed—all strategies Suresh Canagarajah has found common to successful international English communication (774). As we alternated between local clean-up and global making of meaning, the students realized that clear English sentences could be achieved in a daunting number of ways (Denny 130), and that even that achievement did not mean the paragraph was finished. The process was often so formidable that I was almost apologetic when I reminded them that recursivity is the norm. While such negotiations would have been frustrating if our only goal was the written product, they were probably the richest exchanges in terms of students learning both the language and the writing process. Engineering students that they are, most were enthusiastic about the increase in clarity that resulted from the revisions, but only a few took the kind of initiative in steering the conversation demonstrated by the “American reader” student. These were the students who were sufficiently linguistically proficient to be cognizant of the areas in which they might have made inappropriate choices, and who were confident enough to question me on those choices and their rationale. These were the students with whom I would have the chance to fully share the responsibility of final copyediting. 

Tutoring, Editing, Technology, and Deadlines

Two circumstances worked to move our conferences toward the copyediting that was coming and the greater directivity that it would entail. The first was our use of dual laptops. My intention was to use the laptops as usually employed in tutoring sessions; that is, the students would make their own revisions in response to our discussion, while my laptop was for additional observations I would send to the student post-session. However, I noticed that I was controlling the session with my laptop, just as the tutors in Amber Buck’s 2008 case studies had. Although the writer and I sat side by side, I found I wanted easier viewing to aid my often challenging read of their papers, and I wanted easier access to the written word as prosthesis to our often stumbling oral communication. As is often the case with NNS whose English instruction has focused on reading and writing more than conversation (Renck Jalongo and Saracho), many of these students were better with the written word than the spoken. I have always valued the tutor-as-scribe strategy of writing down a student’s oral explanations, but I discovered in these sessions that following up my own oral comments and interpretations with typed comments was frequently the best tactic. Typing comments in context on my version of the paper, sometimes in comment boxes and sometimes directly to the paper with Track Changes, further advanced the students’ understanding of my words. The reverse was also true, and most students quite spontaneously took the mouse to my laptop to explain to me a point I was not comprehending. This alternation between spoken and written communication did not constrain our conversation, but, much as adding an illustration might, added to and reinforced it.

The second circumstance moving us toward editing was the impending deadline. As it approached, my interventions became more selective, directive, and focused on local issues. Although, by this time, most global concerns had been largely resolved in the papers of students I had been seeing, a few students were contacting me for the first time. For the former, ambiguities that had previously been hidden by local issues were by now evident and could be addressed; but for the newcomers, the need to be selective meant that when no serious problems were immediately obvious, hidden problems would remain so. In both cases, without the time to engage in dialogue over multiple exchanges, my questions on ambiguous passages became much less open-ended. I would often simply ask, “Did I understand your meaning here?” attached to an edit at which I took my best guess. Selectively allowing myself this somewhat heavier approach permitted us time to interact on issues that required interaction.

As appointment coordination grew more difficult, some of the review was moved to an asynchronous online mode. That is, we merely exchanged drafts. The average hours I spent with online-only students was 9.63, roughly 76% of the total 12.75 combined face-to-face and preview hours I spent with the others. For all students, online reviewing was faster, due not only to the deadline, but also to the absence of the slower face-to-face dialogue and to the online mode’s enticement to edit. These are disadvantages for process, but advantages for product, which had become the leading goal of the day. Still, there were a few advantages for process. The students, of course, were also feeling the time pressure, so they revised more independently than either of us perhaps anticipated. Also, because multiple exchanges with the same students took place within a day, the reviews took on some of the high-interaction advantages of synchronous sessions, and students became more assertive, pointing more frequently, for example, to passages about which they were unsure. 

The differences between face-to-face, synchronous online, and asynchronous tutoring have been much discussed, but this accelerated schedule of working with a small number of students in both face-to-face and online modes gave me a chance to observe more keenly the differences within the asynchronous mode, especially regarding the boundaries where editing becomes tutoring. My remote edits, despite their tutoring element, had been far less interactive than my deadline-driven on-site online reviews. When editing, it is often uncertain whether or not the client will reply with a new revision or with simply a thank you. Consequently, the editor must be as thorough as possible in the first round. Because I anticipated at least a few exchanges in the on-site reviews, I considered them as tutoring rather than editing; that is, I expected a return dialogue, so I was clear to initiate one. For the same reason, I focused my comments and questions on just a few global issues, allowing writers similar focus by which they could learn something without being overwhelmed by extensive commenting. However, I handled the local issues directly as an editor, as attention to even slightly awkward phrasing could uncover more serious problems once the writer saw and possibly rejected the revision. I thus became a surer and heavier editor, which ironically opened the door to more interaction and learning. If my tutoring has shifted toward editing, my editing has also shifted toward tutoring. I realized that these shifts represented a hybrid tutor-editing that not only was a plausible solution to our dual goals, but was also a step toward creating a permanent writing center. Time, not mode, is the important variable in this case. Increase the time available, and the review moves toward the process tutoring end of the continuum; decrease time, and it moves toward product editing. The online reviewing that would bridge face-to-face visits would not mean a switch from tutoring to editing. But for the mode switch and the demands of time, the tutor-editing would be seamless.


We have had some success on the product side. Of the eleven student papers I reviewed in July 2016, five were accepted to the targeted conference. Two of the year’s total twelve were published within the year, and others continue to come under peer review. Informal student feedback suggests success on the process side as well, but tighter assessment of student learning will help us establish guidelines. Immediate next steps toward process focus include extending appointment times to 90 minutes and expanding the on-site time to four weeks.

This paper has focused on my own discoveries and adaptations in the writing center’s first developmental year, but on my most recent visit, I was joined by two other tutor-editors, one of the visiting NS research advisors, and a Chinese NNS Tongji faculty second-language scholar. The language scholar brings the hope of an eventual EAP addition to our program, helps ground it in evolving local language politics, and is an essential communication bridge between the NS tutor-editors and NNS administrators. Her role with students may indeed foreshadow the future of the program, as there is a trend in China toward the use of NNS tutors, made feasible by increasing numbers of Chinese students majoring in English. Some scholars observe a preference among Asian English learners for NNS teachers and tutors (Lin et al. 214), with some pointing to the advantage of providing tutors from similar language and cultural backgrounds who can make the conversation more comfortable (Burrough-Boenisch, “Shapers”; Harwood et al., “Proofreading”; Li and Flowerdew, “Shaping”; Simpson, “New Frontiers”). Additionally, some scholars, such as Harry C. Denny, note that NNS can be valuable models for codeswitching (135).

The NS research advisor is valuable for his engineering as well as his writing expertise, and together, as native English speakers, we help the students increase their conversational proficiency and expose them to the expectations of the western reader, which continues to be an important audience, if—increasingly—only one of many international audiences. Just as the topics of research are being localized as Chinese engineers apply international findings to local conditions and offer their own local studies for international application, we should expect that, in this exceedingly global field of engineering publishing, language will also become more inclusive. Tutor-editors may eventually be able to reduce their attention to SWE, and instead, encourage writers to actively use local idioms and codemeshing to appeal to broader, more international audiences (Pandey 225; Canagarajah 113).

Yet here, with our English-language graduate writing center, is where we start. I am reminded how intuitive writing center practice can be, as neither of my colleagues has a writing center background. While some of our methods differ, my colleagues work well with the students, and we have much to learn from each other’s perspectives and expertise. Some of the procedures and tutor-edit balances I worked out for myself may be modified as they are tested by the others, as it is in collaboration that we must clarify our goals and practices in order to create consistency for the students and the guidelines necessary for the future. Yet I am certain that we are on a viable track. As Michael Erard, tutor-editor for nursing faculty observes,

Helping people meet professional goals works very well with a process-driven approach, as long as you’re willing to do product-oriented work as well. . . . In the professional model, the writing consultant aims to benefit the organization as a whole.

It is likely that a subsequent step will be the establishment of graduate writing groups to take advantage of these students’ very capable peer support. Indeed, such groups would assist the transition we may eventually make to accommodate peer tutors. The center may also eventually expand to support graduate students in other departments, or we may expand vertically to engineering undergraduates. Any of these changes would require policy adjustments, but the inclusion of undergraduate writers, in particular, would pose a challenge to our tutor-editing, and would likely warrant separate graduate and undergraduate writing centers. An undergraduate center, in this case, would spring from the graduate center, and would accommodate the graduate center’s standards to the undergraduate. Such a reversal, originating from outside the grand narrative, could only be illuminating.

As Elizabeth Boquet writes, “the writing center is most interesting to me for its post-disciplinary possibilities, for the contradictions it embraces, for its tendency to go off-task.” She is intrigued, as I am, by “new possibilities” and the “unanticipated outcomes” that accompany those possibilities (478-79). Writing centers have historically found ways to accommodate the variety of needs that appear on their doorsteps, and the range of collective writing center possibilities grows as each center responds to its unique demands.

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