Erica Cirillo-McCarthy
Stanford University

Celeste Del Russo
Rowan University

Elizabeth Leahy
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga

Narrative 1: Yifan, a graduate student and multilingual writer, visits the writing center weekly to work on her qualifying paper. For the past year, she and her regular tutor would go through each section, addressing both global and local concerns. One day, she visits the center when her regularly scheduled tutor is not available. When she sits down to begin the session, Yifan asks for assistance on grammar and editing issues in her conclusion. The tutor kindly but firmly states, “I’m sorry, but we don’t do that here.” Feeling embarrassed, Yifan packs up her things and leaves.

Narrative 2: Rayna, a writing center director, is sitting in her office when Marcus, a PhD Candidate in Education (and repeat visitor) comes into her office to announce his progress on his nearly completed dissertation. Last year, his advisor sent him to the writing center to have a tutor help “clean up” his academic English. He worked with several tutors until he found one who would help him with grammar and editing. After working for a year with a tutor, focusing on sentence-level issues and editing, Marcus is preparing his dissertation for submission. “I know the writing center isn’t supposed to do grammar and editing,” he tells Rayna, “and that I shouldn’t advertise this with the rest of the students in our program, but when I meet weekly with my tutor, that’s exactly what we do. We do ‘grammar.’”

Narrative 3: Sam, a writing tutor, has been working with Marina for two semesters on sentence-level issues related to her prospectus. In some sessions, Marina and Sam sit side by side, identifying patterns in her grammar usage, referring to grammar rulebooks, and applying correct usage in the context of Marina’s writing. Lately, as the deadline for the prospectus gets closer, Sam has found herself doing more direct line editing than she normally would. She feels uncomfortable, as though she is not doing her job appropriately, as if she is misrepresenting the writing center’s philosophies by being overly directive, assuming the role of editor and not tutor.  

Over the years, as writing center tutors, graduate assistants, and administrators, we have witnessed the challenges facing multilingual graduate student writers on their quest for academic writing support. We have spent our time researching campus resources only to find that holistic (and whole-istic) approaches to working with the particular needs of graduate multilingual writers (GMLWs) are lacking. One common narrative that we witness repeatedly is concerned with GMLWs: the “we don’t do grammar” frame that many writing centers endorse. In the example from narrative one, which is based on a client with whom Erica has been working, Yifan left embarrassed, as she was made to feel like she had been using the writing center fraudulently. In Erica’s next meeting with Yifan, she explained why writing centers are so resistant to changing this frame for their work. While her explanation may have mediated Yifan’s embarrassment somewhat, Yifan was still hesitant to work with anyone besides Erica. A similar sense of guilt and embarrassment is felt by Sam, the tutor in narrative three, who focuses on local concerns in long-term, high stakes projects that graduate students typically bring to the center. All three narratives echo what we identify as particular obstacles faced not only by our GMLWs when seeking out resources to improve their communication skills, but also by tutors and administrators who wish to identify best practices in serving multilingual students.

In opening with these narratives, we want to ask, what do writing centers gain by this steadfast commitment to the “we don’t work on grammar” frame or any frame that defines what we “do” in the writing center by what we “don’t do?” We have seen that this unwavering stance, which first manifests in mission statements and cascades down to everyday practices, can become an obstacle for advanced GMLWs who have already done the critical thinking necessary to complete their doctoral courses and write theses/dissertations. When GMLWs are turned away from our writing centers, we are not only leaving them to cobble together writing support elsewhere, we are also excluding and isolating them from our mission and praxis.

The increased presence and needs of GMLWs present us with a moment to re-examine current writing center narratives to explore and assess the possibilities and limitations inherent within them. While writing center scholarship has addressed the writing support needs of multilingual undergraduate students (Matsuda and Cox; Bruce and Rafoth; Denny; Min), and of English-speaking graduate students (Shamoon and Burns; Gillespie; Snively; Mannon), there is a dearth of scholarship concerned with the needs of GMLWs (Phillips). Often the writing support needs of graduate students are ignored because they are already assumed to be “experts” in their fields’ genre and disciplinary conventions (Donnell, Petraglia-Bahri, and Gable). However, writing center and composition scholars have argued that many graduate students do not receive the mentoring and support necessary to gain the disciplinary writing expertise to successfully complete graduate-level writing projects (Leverenz; Micciche and Carr; Simpson). GMLWs further complicate the ‘expert’ graduate student writer narrative because linguistic surface errors in their writing are often perceived as a deficiency (Zamel). When GMLWs go to the writing center to address these so-called deficiencies, they face another type of deficit discourse from the writing center itself. In this article we grapple with the multiple “deficit discourses” that often shape our missions and in turn materialize in writing center praxis. We see these deficit discourses as a significant barrier to providing the writing support that GMLWs seek out. Ultimately, we offer strategies for reframing writing center mission statements and tutor training as a way to create more accessible programming for GMLWs.

We draw from Linda Adler-Kassner’s use of the term “frames” and Jackie Grutsch McKinney’s use of “story vision” to articulate the shift from a deficit discourse model towards a more holistic approach to working with GMLWs in the writing center. While experiences such as those depicted in the opening narratives provide concrete, personal examples of the impact mission statements have on our programming and overall vision of our writing center work, Adler-Kassner and McKinney provide us with the ability to understand the histories shaping these experiences. In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, McKinney creates a framework for interrogating “story vision,” a term we borrow for examining both the inclusive and exclusive nature of grand narratives. She writes, “the story, once in motion, excludes other ideas about writing centers that do not fit with the established writing center story. It is also so absolutely normal, so tacit, that it functions invisibly. It seems not to be a story, a representation, but more a definition, a fact, a truth” (11). Story vision is both a challenge and an asset in our field. Story vision places limitations on our understanding of the scope of writing center work, but it also allows us to interrogate, disrupt, and complicate narratives, searching for untold stories or misrepresented voices buried in grand narratives of writing center missions and praxis. For the purposes of our argument, story vision allows us to complicate narratives that cloak GMLWs’ needs in a language of deficiency. Concepts such as framing and story vision allow writing center practitioners to identify how stories such as the deficit discourse narrative are ingrained in our field’s practices. Such narratives, we argue, limit our ability or readiness to explore more innovative approaches to working with GMLWs as these approaches might seem controversial when positioned alongside an oft told writing center “story.”

Additionally, Linda Adler-Kassner’s concept of frames in The Activist WPA: Changing Stories About Writing and Writers provides us with an active approach to shifting narratives. We apply her concept of “frames” in writing program administration and situate it within writing center praxis. Adler-Kassner argues that “stories are always set within and reinforce particular boundaries” (4); in other words, the stories we tell ourselves and others about writing center work finds their origins and importance in other stories and frames that “both reflect and perpetuate dominant cultural values and interests” (12). That is not to say frames cannot be resisted. She argues that stakeholders must first understand that “story-changing work incorporates and proceeds from principles” (92). Writing center staff and administrators must uncover and examine the principles that have informed our stories and be able to articulate these principles if they want to change that story. If writing center practitioners take the opportunity to unpack and question stories often told about writing centers with regard to our work with GMLWs, we can not only eliminate deficit discourses in the writing center but also shift the narrative in favor of GMLWs. Looking back to the three epigraphs, we see how this shift has potential ripple effects for writing center administrators and tutors as well as GMLWs and other students. We first examine how deficit discourses are sometimes reproduced by the writing centers’ framing of graduate writing support—that is, we examine how we theorize, talk about, and practice graduate writing support and in particular, multilingual graduate writers. After doing so, we argue that current writing center frames do not serve this particular group of students and ought to be reframed to allow for a more inclusive story vision. We identify the mission statement as a crucial starting point for such reframing because it ultimately influences tutor training, tutor/GMLW interaction, and programming.

“We Don’t Do That Here:” Deficit Discourses in the Writing Center

In the field of education, “deficit discourse” is often used to describe the racialized narratives that teachers in urban settings use to explain the achievement gap (Delpit). Scholars in second language writing have also found this term useful in uncovering the negative language educators and administrators use in framing the linguistic differences of multilingual writers. As Shawna Shapiro explains, deficit discourses stem from the misconception that “differences in language, culture, race, and nation of origin are . . . educational obstacles, rather than resources” (387). Moreover, this type of deficit discourse often frames MLWs’ experiences in the university in negative ways. Matsuda has argued that instructors and administrators often subscribe to a “myth of linguistic homogeneity” that creates unsustainable and unrealistic assumptions about students’ linguistic abilities (82). These assumptions help create deficit discourses as well as policies and programs of what Matsuda terms “linguistic containment,” which send or quarantine linguistically diverse students elsewhere to fix their perceived deficiencies (85). As we think about creating writing center environments that are more accessible and invitational to GMLWs, we must consider not only the extent to which our policies and practices are influenced by deficit discourse but also how they may be complicit in reproducing deficit discourses. When it comes to our policies about and interactions with GMLWs, these deficit discourses can hinder access to the writing support that GMLWs seek out.

As writing center practitioners, we see these deficit discourses in our everyday interaction with GMLWs. The opening narratives offer composite experiences all three of us have faced. We frequently meet GMLWs who are referred by advisors or professors, and often their surface-level errors are a secondary concern to larger issues with idea development and disciplinary genre expectations. However, graduate advisors sometimes have difficulty providing such explicit feedback and instead default to the familiar “fix your grammar at the writing center” frame. This frame in turn reinforces for GMLWs that their linguistic reality is in fact a liability or that it is deficient in some way (Matsuda and Cox 5). This scenario is troubling for several reasons. First, framing GMLW’s writing support needs through the language of grammar is limiting in that it reduces complex writing projects such as dissertation chapters and conference papers to surface issues at the exclusion of engaging larger ideas and arguments in the writing. Second, emphasizing grammar and surface feature errors in this way sends the message to GMLWs that their work is not worth reading or engaging with if their written English is accented. Finally, when GMLWs are given explicit instructions to go to the writing center to fix their grammar, this is the charge they are likely to repeat to the staff members with whom they engage. Not only does this grammar frame potentially limit the type of support the student asks for, but it can also result in another type of deficit discourse in the writing center: “we don’t do that.” Meeting a request for writing support with such an emphatic rejection perpetuates the notion of linguistic containment for GMLWs. In other words, by telling a student that we don’t “do” grammar, we are also telling them that their work is too deficient for the writing center.  

As we will discuss later in the article, much of the deficit discourse that surfaces in writing centers stems from our field’s move to process-based approaches to tutoring. Therefore, we wish to examine the limitations of the process-based frame and ask if we have gone too far. More specifically, we want to consider how a process-focused narrative of the writing center may limit our ability to be open to and to serve the multi-layered needs of GMLWs. Are we ignoring the complex needs of the students who come to the writing center with a draft of a rather large high-stakes product, such as a thesis or dissertation? Some might argue that our critique of process-based framing may unknowingly unravel the decades’ worth of progress writing center practitioners have made in taking control of writing center narratives. But rather than seeing our call for reframing as a step backward, we see it as a continuation of a long tradition: writing centers as reflective places wherein re-examination and re-assessment of frames and resulting praxis serves the entirety of the student demographic. In order to better serve all students, we can no longer pretend that traditional writing center narratives, the stories we tell to both ourselves and to our stakeholders, are sufficient to meet multilingual graduate writers’ needs. Instead, writing centers can reframe how they theorize and practice graduate writing support in general and for multilingual graduate writers in particular. We believe the best place to start this reframing is by critically examining our mission statements.   

Reproducing Deficit Discourse in Mission Statements

Examining the ways writing centers position their practices rhetorically for students and other stakeholders has the potential to make evident the narratives with which writing centers identify; further, there are implications of this examination regarding programming, tutor training, and institutional identity. As Frankie Condon argues, “Mission statements articulate the purposes served by an institution or institutional site and the principles by which those purposes are to be achieved . . . . [M]ission statements name commitments to quality and service and as such serve as means by which an institution or institutional site can hold itself accountable or be held accountable to the constituencies it seeks to serve” (23). We interpret Condon’s definition of mission statements as actual frames that signal values and resulting writing center praxis to students. Because of this, we identify mission statements as the starting point for our reframing inquiry.

GMLWs’ first encounter with a writing center deficit discourse frame occurs in the mission statement: writing centers do not edit papers. Imagine a GMLW heading to your institution’s writing center webpage where the mission statement is featured on the home page, right next to welcoming pictures of smiling tutors and students. Her eyes scan the mission statement and settle on this: “We don’t fix papers.” Historically, writing centers have reframed their missions in response to institutional frames which position the writing center as a “fix it shop” (North; Boquet; Grimm). Writing centers were considered the place to send broken students, which reinforced a particular culturally-neutral concept of literacy that focuses solely on the individual student rather than the social aspect of writing, ignoring the context in which all writing and writers move (Grimm; Boquet). But in 1984, North pushed back against the fix-it-shop identity and described “the new writing center” as a manifestation of both the process movement and student-centered pedagogy, defining itself “in terms of the writers it serves” (438). North articulated a reframing of writing centers that was occurring across the nation (see for instance Bruffee; Harris; Harris and Silva), specifically moving from a place-based writing center frame (the place to send deficient students) to a process-based frame which is student-based and contextual. Writing center praxis, and thus mission statements, began to focus on the writer, not the writing. This particular frame of collaboration leading to growth as writers makes sense in the context of traditional institutional narratives about writing centers (Carino).

But what are the limitations inherent in this frame? As we pointed out previously, graduate students have multiple layers of needs; GMLWs even more so. If we focus on process at the exclusion of product, where does that leave high-stakes products such as the dissertation or thesis? A brief survey of writing center mission statements finds that this deficit discourse abounds. Drawing from our survey, we created a composite of U.S. writing center mission statements that contain what we identify as deficit language:

The Writing Center is a teaching and learning workplace (not a “fix-it” shop or an editing service). We are not editors; we are teachers. As such, our tutors do not edit and do not proofread, since doing so detracts from the goal of encouraging independent writers who are able to self-edit. Tutors are not meant to “perfect” a paper during a tutoring session; rather, they identify areas for improvement and offer suggestions on how enhance the final product. If you wish to focus on grammatical issues, you may want to use our grammar software or attend a group workshop.

While these mission statements work to define the goals of the writing center and more particularly what can and can’t be accomplished in a tutoring session, we argue that such statements reproduce deficit discourse by framing editing and grammar in a negative way, i.e., other people do that but we certainly do not. It is also important to note that mission statements that reproduce deficit discourse do so on a spectrum. Some centers include a brief note indicating what they don’t do, such as: “We are not a drop-off editing or proofreading service.” Other mission statements focus on the idea of “fixing” papers by emphasizing that they are not a fix-it shop, or that their goals do not involve “perfecting” papers. Some centers emphasize the difference between rote editing and interactive grammar instruction by including statements like “We don’t edit or proofread students’ drafts; rather, we teach students to identify and address problems themselves.” Often these statements make no mention of MLWs or even graduate level writers, resulting in a type of erasure before these students even show up. Other centers sometimes direct MLWs to graduate writing workshop offerings outside of the typical tutoring sessions; sometimes they direct MLWs to resources outside the writing center such as private language consultants or editing services for help with grammar. Often the justification for these referrals away from individual tutoring is premised on the thought that MLWs can disproportionately make use of resources, leaving little time for tutors to attend to other students.

The sentiment that MLWs stress an already stretched resource is not new. In 1995, Powers and Nelson conducted a survey of GMLWs in the writing center, and were able to synthesize the growing sense of frustration writing centers had with longer, more complex writing projects such as theses and dissertations. Respondents believed that traditional writing center support needed to be buttressed by “content-area experts” in order to meet their GMLWs’ needs (Powers & Nelson 120). Almost 20 years later, John Hall argued that increasing numbers of MLWs at both the undergraduate and graduate level have a negative impact on writing center practice, in particular by taking up a good portion of the tutoring sessions. He concludes that multilingual writers would be best served by creating dedicated resources for these students that are separate from the writing center. If these students are able to utilize a resource dedicated to international students, he argues, writing centers may be able to “stick to their traditional emphasis on global writing issues” (5). While scholars in Second Language Writing do agree that sheltered tutoring or teaching (i.e., courses or resources dedicated to multilingual writers) is sometimes beneficial to students, Hall’s call for such resources reiterates the deficit discourse that students often face and reflects the very real financial and pedagogical tensions writing centers face when working with GMLWs. However, to suggest that writing centers need to find a way to contain linguistic differences in order to continue to focus on global issues not only limits the scope of writing center work but also sends the wrong message to our GMLWs, a message that often finds its way into mission statements.

We question who and what is served by mission statements that contain this type of deficit discourse and consider what would happen if mission statements were reframed to focus on meeting the needs of all writers. While GMLWs may not see themselves as writers just yet, they are writing complex, sustained research projects in multiple genres and modes. With that in mind, we encourage writing center administrators and staff to explore their mission statements to uncover phrases, codes, or references that might inadvertently and unnecessarily problematize a consultation between a tutor and a GMLW due to the language of deficit discourse, where value is placed heavily on process and not product.

After identifying components of mission statements that reproduce deficit discourses, the next step involves examining specific ways to articulate the center’s values and missions. Adler-Kassner argues that the way to reclaim frames and use them to the advantage of the writing center is to move from the abstract to the more particular. Further, speaking positively about what writing centers do for students and for the institution is more effective than continually claiming what it is writing centers do not do, for negating a frame reinforces that frame (148). In other words, rather than spend energy on arguing against counter narratives, (e.g., not a fix-it-shop; not an editing service), which we see as reproducing deficit discourse, writing center staff and administrators would do well to explore the intersections between GMLWs’ needs and what writing centers can offer, and this starts with a reframing of the mission statement. We are heartened by what we see as a growing trend towards more inclusive and positive mission statements, which no doubt have been influenced by writing center scholars who argue for ways writing centers can embody inclusivity in their documents and practice (see for instance Condon; Denny). Some examples include the Boise State Writing Center:

Each consultation is geared toward the individual needs of the writer and is a collaborative effort between writer and consultant. We consult with writers in supportive and nonjudgmental ways to facilitate self-discovery and inspire confidence in writers as they learn, grown, and take ownership of their words and ideas. Because we appreciate the courage it takes to share writing, we respect all the identities, cultures, and points of view writers bring to the Center.

From the University of Kansas Writing Center:

All writers, with their unique life experiences, worldviews, languages and voices, are respected and welcomed. We provide an environment that is conducive to diverse learning styles and forms of expression, and we respect writers’ use of their home languages and world Englishes.

Positive, inclusive language presents a starting point in mission statements where writing centers can begin including signals to their multiple and diverse practices that more closely suit the needs of all students, including GMLWs.

Collaborative Mission Reframing

We envision that these larger changes to how we frame our writing centers have the potential to cascade through everyday tutoring practices in a variety of ways. One way writing centers can begin the process of reframing their mission is to collaborate with staff to identify deficit discourses in a reflective process that is multivocal and collaborative. As Sarah Blazer argues, writing center staff training and education is essential if we are to move beyond reframing towards real action in practicing the values of linguistic diversity in our centers. That is, the transformative power of reframing the mission statement, which cascades down to tutor training and pedagogy has perhaps the most direct impact on how our centers can reframe negative perceptions of language difference, particularly in relation to working with multilingual graduate student writers.

In a recent tutor training activity, Celeste and her tutors collaborated to reframe the language in the mission and framing of their services on their center’s website. Though well intentioned, the mission (as articulated on the student website) began with the premise that writing was a “scary” task for most students, a daunting one that could be made less challenging if they came to the writing center and worked with one of our tutors. Tutors identified the ways in which these terms trickled down into tutor practices and interactions with tutees. As one tutor astutely noted, when we approach writing as scary, we tend to remove the excitement of exploring ideas and the generative nature of writing collaboratively. The staff also noted how the “we don’t do that here” statements came to be a tutor mantra, when in fact many tutors had worked with GMLWs to teach editing skills and modeled editing as an important stage of the writing process. This activity allowed for some important, guided group-talk, to identify the problematic language in our mission statement.

In a gesture of reframing, we shifted the tone of our mission to include language that would invite students into our writing center. Being careful to avoid language that was written in the form of what we don’t do, we focused on what we do do. On a new whiteboard, tutors were asked to write down our writing center’s values in one-word answers. On a second board, they identified verbs that best described how they enact those values in their tutoring. The discussion that followed led us to create the following bulleted list of values and actions that demonstrate these values:

The Writing Center provides resources and opportunities that enable student writers to discover and develop writing practices that:

  • Promote collaboration between student writers
  • Encourage autonomy and confidence in writing
  • Promote purposeful and passionate writing
  • Empower students to identify as writers
  • Inspire students to develop personal style/ voice
  • Collaborate with students through all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming and drafting, to revision and editing.   

Mission statement reframing such as in the example from Celeste’s staff workshop, is only the start for removing deficit discourse and replacing it with more holistic approaches to working with GMLWs. Still, there are immediate outcomes of this activity.  First, re-visioning and reframing mission statements asks tutors to call out the language and practice of deficit discourse in the writing center and replace it with a more reflective, inclusive, and multilayered approach for meeting the needs of GMLWs. In mission reframing, writing center leaders model the language of linguistic diversity and thus position writing center staff well for future conversations on enacting tutor pedagogies that embrace that linguistic diversity. When tutors view their work with tutees as a collaborative process in which GMLWs are recognized as experts in their field and on their own learning and language needs, their focus is less on identifying error and more on “promoting purposeful writing” or “empowering students to identify as writers.” Focus is shifted from identifying language difference as a deficit to understanding it as a valuable asset.

A second benefit of this collaborative reframing effort is that the nuances of working with student writers—whether they are multilingual, undergraduate, or graduate students—are  unearthed. Collaboratively reframing the mission has made visible the often invisible conversations that tutors have with students in the writing center.  For example, this reframing and discussion also exposed the multiple layers of “guilt” resulting from the deficit discourse mission statement, including feelings of guilt that tutors expressed when they found themselves caught between the tensions of GMLWs’ grammar and editing needs and the writing center’s mandate that they not focus on grammar. Tutors such as Sam in the opening narrative understood that they could be a collaborative tutor and still assist students with their editing and grammar needs. Likewise, the pressure of having to be a “grammar expert” was lessened for tutors who felt as though they had to have all of the correct answers for multilingual writers. Most importantly, the conversations shifted from what tutors can teach MLWs to what tutors can learn about their tutoring and their own writing from working with MLWs. What we want to note here is that the conversations that emerge during the reframing process can directly impact tutors’ interactions with all student writers, but are especially important for encouraging positive, holistic approaches for working with GMLWs. Calling out deficit discourse in our language and in our everyday interactions with student writers is an important starting point to developing our praxis.

Reframing Our Programming: A Multilevel Approach

Revising our mission statements also offers an opportunity to reevaluate, reframe, and reimagine the programming we offer our students. Framing our missions in ways that encourage language diversity and inclusiveness can allow us to consider more holistically GMLWs’ multi-layered needs and whether or not our current programming options support these needs. One of the perhaps unintended consequences of conflating grammar issues with deficiencies is that this narrative may ignore the more complex writing support GMLWs could benefit from. Writing centers should consider whether their assumptions about the needs of GMLWs stand in the way of opportunities to receive multiple levels of writing support. Recently scholars have explored the benefits that can be derived from dedicated writing groups, thesis or dissertation boot camps, and workshop series focused on graduate-level writing (Simpson, Phillips, Mannon). This type of programming tends to focus more on the writing process and disciplinary genre conventions and can potentially fill a much needed gap in mentoring for students whose home departments do not offer writing support. These services also allow graduate students to be framed as experts in their fields as we help them identify their disciplinary writing conventions and how best to articulate their arguments and develop their ideas within these genre constraints.

In our experiences implementing such support, we have seen how these offerings are beneficial to both multilingual and monolingual students. We encourage writing centers to consider how offering such programming can help graduate students of all linguistic backgrounds. However, many writing centers segregate these offerings with the labels of “international” and “domestic.” This practice of siloing students based on perceived linguistic abilities is problematic for a number of reasons. First, these labels do not adequately capture the linguistic diversity of our students, conflating immigration status with language ability. Many international students are monolingual, and many domestic students are multilingual. More importantly, these labels fit too neatly within the narratives of deficit discourse by creating an impression that international graduate students need to be remediated, that their writing is not on equal footing with domestic students, and that they need to be contained within a special group to work on these problems. Such narratives can be a barrier to the process-based, collaborative writing support that dissertation writing groups or other graduate-specific support can offer. We agree that programming offerings should be driven by the needs of the campus community, and we also acknowledge that shelter-based programming can be beneficial to many students. However, we urge writing centers to think about how such siloing contributes to narratives of deficit discourse.   

We also acknowledge a need for programming that prepares GMLWs for performing precise, academic English that is often used as a gatekeeper to their profession. A multilevel approach to programming includes addressing this second, pressing need for GMLWs in refining their work once they have developed their written projects. As Lu and Horner have argued, multilingual student writers are often caught in the tension between multilingual theories that value language diversity as norm and the pragmatic reality of having to perform (and meet) the demands of an academic audience, including writing in unaccented, standardized academic English. Programming that provides contextual, grammar intensive workshops and editing services at no cost to GMLWs can value language diversity while also recognizing the barriers these students face in progressing through their courses. As Young-Kyoung Min recently argued, writing centers should recognize that for multilingual writers, working on grammar is a part of the language acquisition process and therefore “an integral part of their composing process” (25). Writing centers whose missions are reframed to recognize grammar as a component of the writing process can shift everyday narratives about grammar while creating a space for programming that values this part of the process. Such reframing can help make the writing center a more reflective and invitational place for GMLWs to flourish.


Narrative 1, revisioned: Yifan, a graduate student and multilingual writer, visits the writing center weekly to work on her qualifying paper. For the past year, she and her regular tutor would go through each section, addressing both global and local concerns. One day, she visits the center when her regularly scheduled tutor is not available.  When she sits down to begin the session, Yifan asks for assistance going through the conclusion for grammar and editing issues. The new tutor, empowered by her writing center’s inclusive and responsive mission statement comfortably replies: “Sure thing! It must feel wonderful to be at the end of writing this high stakes document. Why don’t we start with you giving me some examples of common errors in your writing that you and your regular tutor have identified, and then we’ll move forward from there.” Yifan leaves the session confident in her writing and editing abilities, and turns in her qualifying paper a few days later.

Narrative 2, revisioned: Rayna, a writing center director, is sitting in her office when Marcus, a PhD Candidate in Education (and repeat visitor) comes into her office to announce his progress on his dissertation. Last year the writing center began piloting multi-level programming for graduate students, and Marcus took advantage of these programs. In the earlier stages of his dissertation Marcus participated in a writing group where he gained peer feedback on organizing and clarifying his ideas. As he moved forward with his project, he also worked closely with tutors on sentence-level issues and editing. “I wanted to thank you for supporting my work as I have developed my dissertation,” he tells Rayna. “I am always telling new graduate students to come here, especially those who are nervous about writing graduate-level papers and articles because they are not used to this type of writing or because they are worried about their English language skills. I’ve told them that no matter what kind of help they need, the writing center has their back!”

Narrative 3, revisioned: Sam, a writing tutor, has been working with Marina for two semesters on sentence level issues related to her prospectus. They sit side by side, identifying patterns in Marina’s grammar usage, referring to grammar rulebooks, and applying correct usage in the context of Marina’s writing. Lately, as the deadline for the dissertation gets closer, Sam has found herself doing more direct line editing. Sam is proud to offer this support to Marina because of the positive discussions in her writing center about mission statements and avoiding deficit discourse. She worked with Marina in the earlier stages of this project as she brainstormed and expanded on her ideas in Russian and later as she was writing them in English. Sam’s training has taught her that editing and revision are significant moments in the writing process, and she understands that being more directive is useful and appropriate when balanced with collaboration and conversation. She reflects on what she has learned from Marina about the cultural differences between writing for academic audiences, and she recognizes Marina as a specialist not only in her content area, but in her own needs as a multilingual writer.

Overall, we believe the reframing of writing center missions can cascade out and through our daily praxis as our re-visioning of the opening narratives demonstrates. As we demonstrated in our analysis of mission statements, narratives emphasizing the hierarchical structure of higher order concerns, the development of the writer, and developing a writer’s autonomy often drive the exclusion of multilingual graduate student writers from the writing center. A reframed mission creates opportunities to shift the conversations we have with and about GMLWs and helps us create programming options that better meet the needs of these students. We believe this leads to a more holistic approach to working with multilingual writers because it allows us to more fully consider their needs. This reframing also encourages practitioners to acknowledge the language and practices of our writing centers that further isolate and create obstacles for multilingual writers. In our sample narratives, Yifan and Marcus no longer feel they are misusing the writing center’s resources, while Sam no longer feels a tension between her writing center’s mission and her tutees’ diverse needs.   

While we pointed to the exponential growth of international students as exigency for our argument, we do not feel that it is simply this growth that has motivated our thinking. Instead, we argue that whether they are part of a growing group or not, writing centers serve all students on campus. In many ways, this is what drew all three of us to writing centers: the inclusivity of their praxis. We see inclusivity as a process that consistently has to be reflected upon and readjusted to shifting contexts to best serve students. To that end, we wish to amplify Bobbi Olson’s call for writing center practitioners to attend to our “critical responsibility for acknowledging the ethical dimensions of our work, particularly given the historical functions writing centers have been made to serve within institutions of higher education as gatekeepers of access and conservators of particular conceptions of academic Englishes” (2). If we do not attend to our responsibilities which have long been identified as the space to resist an exclusive concept of literacy, then we risk reproducing a particularly limiting view of literacy as a commodity, or a quality that one either possesses or does not.

We emphasize here that these shifts are not easy to make. They require real work in reshaping long-held assumptions about writing center work and its potential. This work means challenging many of the frames and grand narratives that we have been trained in as scholars. Mission statements cannot simply be rewritten. We also need to help shift the grand narratives about multilingual writers, which are often embedded within local and institutional practice. Not only do writing centers have a responsibility to examine how institutional practices impact their local contexts, they must also remain reflective in their framing of these narratives as they engage with their campus. Although we have focused mainly on the potential that our mission reframing might have in shifting writing center programming and praxis, we hope that in shifting these narratives within the center we can cascade these narratives out into the wider campus community.


We wish to thank the anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful comments and suggestions helped us create a stronger article. We also wish to thank the many graduate student writers who have inspired our work in this area.

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