Photo by Helen_Field/iStock / Getty Images
After two years as a writing consultant in the University Writing Center (UWC) here at UT Austin, I’ve learned innumerable life lessons—much more than I can adequately express in this 600-word blog post. If I had to explain my job to someone who has never heard of writing centers, I might suggest that writing consultations are a kind of art form—specifically, the art of having meaningful and productive conversations with other writers. Talking with students about their writing is an extremely dialectical and ever-changing process. One aspect of this job that I did not expect is the extraordinary difference and diversity of each consultation. No day at the UWC is the same, as each writer’s needs are wide-ranging and disparate. Whether it’s the freshman who is frustrated at the non-directive non-evaluative approach, pleading for an answer to the question “But, do you think my essay is good?” or the senior biology major who struggles to accurately portray her brilliance in a personal statement for medical school, every writer is in a vulnerable position, opening themselves up to criticism and direction. At times, I’ve walked out of appointments mentally applauding myself for how much I helped the student; after others, I scolded myself because nothing I tried seemed to work. Through both the good and bad, working hands-on with undergraduate writers has given me the opportunity to see a multitude of different perspectives on the English language.
Every writer’s approach to our language is unique; it is a reflection of their psyche and the apparatus for expressing their voice, their culture, and their identity. This is what I find particularly fascinating about ELL writers. The stigma remains that these students are ‘worse’ writers than native English speakers, and that might be true for some on a purely grammatical level. But what I’ve learned from the many conversations I’ve had with these students is that their extraordinarily creative ideas often surpass the simple structure of the 5-paragraph model that is required of them by the American school system. For example, while I was explaining the 5-paragraph essay structure to an ELL writer, she was baffled at the concept of a thesis statement. She asked why we would give away our argument within the first paragraph; why not save it until the end as a surprise? I immediately thought, “Well, wouldn’t that be a much more interesting and engaging way to read and write academic work?” After explaining the purpose of thesis statements in great detail, I saw another blank look on her face. At that point, I had no real answer for her except: “That’s just the way we do it here.”
I had another ELL student who was working on a paper for his philosophy of religion course. He could not grasp the difference between ‘a God,’ ‘the God,’ and just ‘God.’ I had trouble explaining the reasons for such arbitrary article rules other than, again, “Well, that’s just what we say.” This seemingly simple grammatical construction goes deeper than the level of the sentence, harking back to the student’s own cultural understanding of higher powers. Each of our conceptual backdrops, mine Western and his Eastern, is reflected by the only lens through which we can clearly express ourselves: language. The underlying problem here comes from the differences between our entire cultural mindsets, which could never be reconciled in a mere 45-minute consultation. However, it is quite beautiful that, by sharing a language and engaging in conversations about it, we might begin to understand our fundamental differences as people.
As a French minor studying abroad in Lyon over the summer, I was given a small glimpse of these students’ struggles: the frustration that comes with not understanding and not being understood, day after day, constantly restricted to a language that is not their own, unable to fully express themselves. This is where writing center work is the most valuable, as we do not judge, criticize, or grade the student on their ability to abide by our culture’s often arbitrary set of linguistic guidelines, but instead offer a positive space where they can feel understood, even if it is just for 45 minutes.