Talinn Phillips
Ohio University

Drawing on the experiences of two case study participants who were international multilingual graduate students, I argue that multilingual graduate writers’ budding identities as disciplinary experts sometimes hampered them from recognizing the kind of writing support they needed. As their identities shifted between expert and novice, disciplinary outsider and disciplinary insider, their perceived needs from writing centers changed as well. I suggest ways that writing centers may consider shifting their practices in order to meet multilingual graduate writers’ needs, wherever they are in their writing development.

While the academy at large typically views undergraduates as novice academic writers who need writing instruction and support, it has often viewed graduate students as having completed that process. Marilee Brooks-Gillies et al., in Across the Discipline’s special issue on graduate writing, also note this state of affairs, commenting that “graduate students […] are often expected to be expert academic writers of a variety of specialized genres.” Unfortunately, the academy still often understands graduate students as having mastered academic writing. Our own experiences as writing center professionals frequently—even often—suggest a more complex picture as students engage in the long-term process of becoming disciplinary scholars and professionals. Graduate students have rarely received instruction in or experience with crafting specialized genres and many still struggle with fundamental writing issues such as structure, organization, and development. This is most likely to be true for multilingual graduate writers (hereafter MGWs) who are often still learning American English and have usually had less exposure and instruction in U.S. academic writing and rhetoric.

Recognizing the writing challenges that graduate students face, there has been recent growth in writing centers’ work with graduate populations. Scholars like Paula Gillespie, Helen Snively, Steve Simpson, and Elizabeth Boquet et al. all describe new programs developed to work with graduate writers. However, my 2013 study revealed that many writing centers haven’t trained tutors to work with graduate students but instead seem to assume that the practices and strategies that are effective with undergraduates will be effective with graduate students as well. Further, writing centers still have minimal research available to inform this growing support for graduate students. We have much to learn about graduate students’ actual writing center experiences and even more about the experiences of MGWs. A special issue of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship may be the most substantive treatment of graduate students and writing centers to date, yet WLN’s articles are brief and the special issue editors note that “Absent from these themes [in the issue] is that of writing center support for multilingual graduate students” (Lawrence and Zawacki 1).¹ In order to make continued progress in designing effective services for MGWs, research on their writing center experiences and needs is important.

Here, I offer case studies of two international MGWs’ writing center experiences and consider their implications for writing center practice. The findings revealed these MGWs operating as both experts and novices, with their developing identities as scholars and disciplinary experts sometimes seeming to hamper them from recognizing the kind of writing support they seemed to need most.² They were often academic outsiders who needed support with vocabulary, stance, register, and basic genre knowledge; however, they were also becoming disciplinary insiders and developing particular areas of expertise. One participant was already recognized as a domain knowledge expert who was contributing to his field through original research. These case studies showed MGWs who moved quickly from identifying themselves as novices to experts, as disciplinary outsiders to insiders, as students to scholars; thus, what they needed from the writing center also shifted—sometimes quickly—in order to support that development. These shifting needs then suggest potential changes on the part of writing centers that seek to serve MGWs. These changes include making discipline-informed feedback available in any way possible and supporting writers’ language growth and development of academic style.


In these IRB-approved case studies, I followed five new students throughout the first year of their master’s programs at a large, Midwestern research institution in order to better understand the resources international MGWs used (including but not limited to the writing center) as they developed as writers.³ The writing center at this institution served both undergraduate and graduate students; however, approximately 50% of the sessions each year were with multilingual graduate students. There were few multilingual undergraduates on campus. The tutors were undergraduate students, graduate students, and M.A. holders from a variety of different fields. Due to space limitations, I focus here on two students, Iris and Chozin, who I continued to follow until the completion of their graduate programs. Participants were recruited via fliers and emails to relevant university organizations and student groups.

Wendy Bishop argued that qualitative research like the case study “gains power [and validity] to the degree that the researcher spends time in the field … collects multiple sources of data … [and] lets the context and participants help guide research questions” (39). For two years I interviewed participants biweekly and asked them to submit intermediate and final drafts of all papers. The interviews examined their confidence and self-perceptions about writing and how they managed writing projects. The interviews also asked about their writing center use—how often they visited, the tutors they chose (and why), the session’s placement in the writing process, the work of the session, their feelings about the session and its value, and the revisions they made after tutoring. Each term I interviewed available teachers as well as tutors that the writers worked with regularly. I also collected tutors’ reports from each visit in order to triangulate data among the writers themselves, their teachers, and tutors. I recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed the interviews for themes.

Chozin: The Writing Center as “The Last Chance”

Chozin began his master’s in Southeast Asian Studies after taking intensive English courses the previous spring.⁴ He was quiet, very social, and passionate about his studies. He had recently been involved in tsunami relief work and planned to return to work with non-governmental organizations after graduation.

Chozin, whose home languages were Javanese and Bahasa, clearly struggled with English. It was sometimes difficult to understand him, especially early in his career, and he often struggled to express himself. In my assessment, his writing reflected a real need for support, especially for help with organization and development. Yet Chozin used the writing center only twice, despite regularly seeking writing support from others. His lack of writing center use thus offers a valuable window into potential barriers that keep MGWs away from writing centers. During an early research interview I had personally shown Chozin the writing center and how to make an appointment; we often met there for interviews and the free service was open 50 hours per week. The tutors were well trained for working with writers from different fields. Tutors often worked with others in his program, and many were graduate students themselves. According to one interview, he’d even had one successful session. He took his writing development very seriously, seeking out pre-submission feedback (usually from peers in his program) on nearly every paper.

Yet for the most part Chozin ignored the writing center. Initially, this was because he felt his English abilities were too weak for tutoring. In a first-term interview he considered a writing center session but the prospect of negotiating his writing in English for nearly an hour was overwhelming. He reported, “Yeah, if I start to—to—sometime I show [my paper] to writing center or if I show to my American friends, then sometime I don’t understand what they’re talking about, yeah. So it easier to show my paper to Indonesian friends because we discuss [my paper] in Indonesian.” In addition to explaining why Chozin initially avoided the writing center, this encounter was the first of many that revealed his belief that an important part of his scholarly development was developing professional relationships with colleagues. This belief served Chozin, if not his writing, remarkably well. He never mentioned language as a barrier to receiving writing feedback again and, a few months later, engaged in lengthy English-language conversations daily. Chozin seemed to have already “solved” the problem of writing support, though, and that solution was imbricated in the development of his scholarly, disciplinary identity. This first tutoring experience with a peer from his department became Chozin’s default form of writing support; he never seemed to give the writing center strong consideration again.

When Chozin and I discussed the roles that people had played in his writing development, he actually described the writing center as “the last chance,” by which he meant “the last resort,” revealing a belief that students who used the writing center were driven to do so because they were relationally impoverished and lacked other supports that might help them improve their writing:

For me, I think writing center is the last chance for me if I didn’t get anyone to work with me. […] I’m thinking I’m lucky because I have close relationship with teacher; I have friend who, like, believe in me to assist me and I think some students don’t have it so they still go to writing center.

Chozin, however, was neither unlucky nor friendless and wasn’t forced to rely on “the last resort” for support, which he seemed to understand as mechanical correctness. Unfortunately, the disciplinary peers he preferred to work with rarely made anything more than sentence-level corrections and Chozin’s writing didn’t reflect substantive revisions (although Chozin seemed satisfied). These disciplinary peers may have been engaging deeply with Chozin’s ideas, which is why Chozin said he preferred them to writing tutors, but they were either unable to critique his written expression or else Chozin was unable to implement their suggestions.⁵ 

Even at the beginning of his program, Chozin had a strong sense of himself as a content-area expert. This strong disciplinary identity seemed to encourage him to seek writing conversations with disciplinary peers so that they could discuss both his ideas and his writing. When asked why he chose to work with Monica, one of these peers, Chozin responded that in addition to the comfort level made possible by working with a friend, she shared his program of study and they had mutual classes. He was also able to reciprocate by helping her with her Bahasa classes; this element of reciprocity was very important to him. Chozin reported that Monica had been a significant source of writing support during the previous term. He said, “I feel comfort when I have something to do, I need her advice and check my grammar, check my everything. Yes, she help me a lot for everything.” I attempted to clarify, “So she was helping you with most of your work last quarter—with your writing?” He replied, “I think, with the writing, maybe not most maybe half, but for other things like the discussion about my topic.” I clarified again: “You were talking about ideas with her?” He responded with “Yeah, ideas.”

Chozin preferred being able to discuss his ideas with peers who shared his domain knowledge, but he was still a novice academic writer in many ways. Having read his work, I felt he could have benefited from fairly routine writing support that any strong tutor could have provided. Unfortunately, Chozin’s disciplinary peers could not or did not typically provide effective writing support. What Chozin perceived as their positive feedback meant that he didn’t take advantage of the writing center’s generalist tutors, or tutors who didn’t have any particular expertise in his field. As a result, the writing center never had an opportunity to change Chozin’s understanding of how it might support him as a writer and the barriers he identified—language and a lack of disciplinary feedback—remained.

Iris: “We Really Need Some Help in the Language”

Iris had just arrived from China to enter a MA TESOL program. Disillusioned with options in China, she hoped a master’s degree would open doors to better schools and better students. Iris, whose home language was Mandarin, commanded fairly strong English skills, but she had little confidence in them and she had difficulty reading the academic texts needed to produce strong, interesting papers. Thus while she took a highly analytical approach to writing and was competent at organizing texts with minimal errors, she agonized over her writing, routinely describing it as “not academic enough.”

Iris was a regular writing center user, visiting 16 times during her first year. Tutoring reports and interviews revealed she initially used the center for support across her writing process. She visited for brainstorming help, organization, development, basic academic genre knowledge (e.g. article critique assignments), academic register/vocabulary development, and error correction. However, as Iris’s sense of herself as a scholar developed, her respect for the writing tutors’ expertise shrank considerably and her perceived needs for support changed. Long before graduation she, too, deemed the tutors inadequate for her specialized, disciplinary work.

Iris continued to value tutors for teaching her academic vocabulary, syntax, and mechanics, though. As she developed as a scholar, language learning overtook global concerns as her primary tutoring need. She recognized that language issues were a reflection of her scholarly ethos and was often concerned that her language use was inadequate. She discussed this in an interview late in her first year. Various forms of sentence-level help were prominent in her response, but Iris also commented on the value of the help with organization and development some tutors had provided.

It’s very—very useful, especially for the grammar, vocabulary, punctuations, the details, small things. … [S]ometimes there are some very good tutors who can also help me with organizations, with the coherence of the paper—how to link paragraphs and how to organize ideas and also how to present or how to write your paper to make it clear—make it much easier to understand. It is useful […] for citations, too. When I write a paper I would definitely come here for help with the above things I have said. I will not hand in a paper which is eight or ten pages long without coming here. It’s a necessary thing to do before I hand in a paper because I’m not very confident with the language. First it’s not my native language. I don’t know if it’s native-like, if the words are good, if the vocabulary is expresses my opinions well, or if the punctuations are all right, the citations are OK. For international students, especially, because we really need some help in the language—in revising the language. We may not need help in the subjects we are writing, but we need help with the language itself and [the writing center is] helpful and valuable.

Iris clearly valued the work of the writing center and felt it met multiple needs for her, but those specific needs shifted quite quickly during her first year as she began to see herself as a junior scholar. She seemed to feel she had gained sufficient mastery over global issues and that her remaining global problems stemmed from her lack of disciplinary knowledge, which only professors or peers could address. My own assessment of Iris’s writing did not fully bear this out, but regardless, in Iris’s mind, the tutors’ expertise became limited to helping her at the sentence level. Although she often sought such help (e.g. syntax, spelling, word choice/register) for her writing development, she never became a problem user who seemed dependent on tutors for editing. However, her changing needs, expressed by requests for sentence-level help, may have put her in conflict with a different writing center that was less willing to provide this kind of language support for students (see, e.g. Williams 173).

Exploring Tensions Between Common Writing Center Practice & MGWS’ Needs

Both Chozin and Iris underwent an important developmental transition during their master’s programs: They went from primarily seeing themselves as students and novices toward identifying as scholars and budding experts. This transition had major impacts on their perceived needs for writing support, even though their experiences were different in many ways. These impacts point to important tensions in the common practices of many writing centers that may affect other international and resident MGWs.⁶ They also suggest possibilities for adapting to better serve MGWs in the midst of their rapidly changing perceptions of their needs.

The first site of tension that these case studies point to is whether writing centers should aim to provide disciplinary or generalist tutors—to encourage writers to get feedback from an outsider’s perspective such as peers or experts who share their disciplinary background.⁷ Chozin and Iris’s experiences suggest that the answer to this question may be both. Chozin and Iris needed support with core writing issues that any well-trained tutor should be able to provide, regardless of disciplinary background. These issues included organization, development, knowledge of basic U.S. academic genres (e.g. lit review, abstract), and appropriate U.S. academic discourse. The challenge for writing centers is that both Chozin and Iris stopped identifying primarily as academic outsiders and began identifying as members of their disciplines with expert knowledge. Perhaps they had never recognized the extent of their challenges with those core writing issues, perhaps they had greatly increased their confidence, or perhaps they had developed an increased awareness of disciplinary writing conventions, but the outcome was the same: they gave less authority to the generalist tutors at the writing center and sought discipline-informed feedback instead.

Chozin seemed to feel that a generalist reader was inadequate, and he had a clear preference for working with disciplinary peers because he wanted to discuss his ideas and not just his writing. He didn’t believe that a generalist tutor would be able to discuss his ideas in a meaningful way. Disciplinary expertise and the chance to develop scholarly relationships were so important to him that they became his primary criteria in choosing writing support. The result was that he didn’t use the writing center.

Iris was initially willing to work with generalist tutors, but as her scholarly identity developed, so did her desire for discipline-informed feedback. She found generalist tutors helpful when she was learning fundamental genre and rhetorical conventions of U.S. academic writing, but once she felt she’d mastered those competencies, she only viewed generalist tutors as able to provide the sentence-level support that helped her be seen as a credible scholar. Thus Iris’s growing disciplinary expertise actually seemed to hamper her writing development as a whole. In contrast, other writers in the study were able to work with tutors from similar disciplines and they used the writing center frequently. Without this option, Chozin and Iris seemed to see limited value in the writing center. Having read their writing, I believe generalist tutors could have helped both Iris and Chozin throughout their programs. My assessment was irrelevant, though, because the writers didn’t believe the generalist tutors could help them and so didn’t seek that help.

Furthermore, the fact that generalist tutors could have helped them doesn’t exclude the possibility that disciplinary tutors could have also helped or that they could have provided more appropriate help. Within the writing center community, we often market ourselves as able to help “any writer with any paper for any course.” While we can certainly always offer some help, tutoring graduate writers quickly makes me confront the limits of my own knowledge, both in content and in disciplinary conventions. Elizabeth Boquet et al. acknowledge this limitation while designing resources for the first graduate program on their campus, writing, “we find ourselves taking on new roles and identities, becoming teacher/learners, expert/novices, in short, co-learners with our students.” Boquet et al. acknowledge that while their outsider status does have value, it also has limitations. As writing specialists, we develop skills to counter those limitations in various ways—framing critique in terms of disciplinary norms, focusing on structure, encouraging writers to clarify with advisors, etc.—but there are nevertheless moments when our limitations matter. And while a generalist reader can provide fresh insight by approaching a text as an outsider, we have certainly all experienced the benefits of a disciplinary reader. My point here is not that one kind of reader is superior to the other, but that when the stakes are so high, a graduate writer may well privilege a disciplinary reading over a generalist one and that this privileging may actually be a valuable part of their scholarly development.

The desire for some level of disciplinary/scholarly affinity is not unique to Chozin and Iris. Snively, who directed a writing center designed for graduate students and staffed primarily by doctoral students, conducted research that also suggested the value of tutors sharing a graduate student’s disciplinary background. She argues that

Students knew we often had enough domain knowledge to engage deeply in the conversation about a topic as a very informed audience. […] Though tutors in every writing center will engage deeply in conversations with a peer, few undergraduates, or even beginning doctoral students, can also bring to that conversation a deep knowledge of the field…. (92-93)

For Snively’s graduate students, providing that “deep knowledge of the field” was an important part of the tutors’ work and ethos with their clients, something that this writing center was unable to provide for these writers.           

The second site of tension is language support, a perceived need expressed by many MGWs (if the literature is any indication) and one that may take a variety of forms.⁸ For instance, Chozin’s anxiety about negotiating an English-language tutoring session meant that he sought help elsewhere so that he could speak in his home language. While all writing centers work with limited resources, his experiences suggest that writing centers might consider seeking out multilingual tutors or treating multilingualism as an additional tutor qualification, especially potential tutors who speak a campus population’s most common home languages like Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. When available, multilingual tutors could potentially alleviate many frustrations for MGWs. They could work with writers in home languages when needed, especially at the beginning of the academic year when students’ language abilities are likely at their lowest and anxiety levels at their highest. Tutors could also use home languages to bridge communication breakdowns and make home-language rhetorical comparisons to help explain important conventions of U.S. academic writing. Finally, multilingual tutors, even if they don’t share a writer’s language background, would offer “peer-ness” and models of academic success that monolingual English-speaking tutors can never provide.

Another facet of language support is providing sentence-level tutoring for writers like Iris as they work to improve their use of scholarly discourse and strengthen their ethe. While Iris felt that she mastered genre conventions quickly, she recognized that some problems with syntax, general academic vocabulary, and word choice/register persisted in her writing and that generalist tutors could help her improve. In the past, writing centers have positioned themselves rhetorically as places for working with students’ global concerns, not as “fix-it shops” for students needing sentence-level assistance. This historic strategy of de-emphasizing the sentence may make sense for undergraduate writers, particularly if they are native English speakers who can be made aware of errors indirectly and who are not under pressure to sound like professionals, much less publish. Avoiding or ignoring the sentence is a far less successful strategy for supporting MGWs. Error gravity studies, which reveal the kinds of errors that most impede meaning, reveal that while article or preposition problems are not usually penalized by readers, they may react quite negatively to problems like word choice and verb tense (Matsuda and Cox 47). Williams and Severino also note that “‘grammar’ problems […] can be of such magnitude as to affect comprehensibility,” which can make it difficult for tutors to establish priorities between important, global concerns and minor grammatical issues (168).

In consequence, scholars in applied linguistics and second language writing encourage tutors to engage in sentence-level tutoring for multilingual writers and thus to support writers’ language development. Sharon Myers argues that “the greatest problem many ESL writers have is in controlling the syntax and lexis of the English language” (56) while Ben Rafoth, drawing on research in applied linguistics, notes that the value of a tutoring session is two-fold: “the back and forth of conversation is not merely an opportunity to practice using the language but is itself a source of learning” (48). Moreover, research by Dana Ferris and other second language writing researchers suggests that providing writers with feedback on their errors can help them revise their texts more effectively and improve their accuracy over time (Ferris 12-13).⁹

Iris often used the writing center to support sentence-level writing and language learning without becoming dependent on line editing. She described this language learning in one of our interviews:

[The tutor and I] talked about vocabulary. I think I repeat verbs like “show” and “indicate” too often and sometimes I don’t want to use aspects, like cultural perspectives aspects and I don’t know if it’s native-like or not, but he said it’s fine. I didn’t know how to ask if the word can be changed or if it’s native-like. […] Like, the main aim of this article is to blah blah blah and I said ‘through a study.” I don't know if ‘through a study’ is fine. I don’t know if it’s native-like to say ‘through a study” and I don’t know if it’s Chinglish or not.

Iris’s experience suggests that writing centers can provide MGWs with such help without being overwhelmed by fears of appropriating writers’ papers or encouraging dependence.


Ultimately, when an MGW experiences unmet needs at the writing center, the real issue may be a tension between the perceived needs of MGWs and the field’s historic practices with (predominantly monolingual) undergraduate writers. The use of perceived needs is vital here. Writers come to the writing center with their own assessments of their needs, both in a global sense and for a specific paper. The validity of those initial self-perceptions is perhaps irrelevant. Even if we begin from the (admittedly problematic) premise that we always make better assessments of writers’ challenges than the writers themselves, we cannot help them change and improve those self-assessments if they won’t cross the writing center’s threshold first. Thus if we want to support writers, they must see us as being able and willing to address their perceived needs or, like Chozin, they will find other sources of writing support or seek no support at all.

Further, even though writing centers’ historic clients were predominantly monolingual undergraduates, that’s no longer the case for most writing centers. Now our challenge is to continue responding to changing demographics by developing different practices that honor the different needs that MGWs experience during their graduate programs. Acknowledging these tensions between the needs of our traditional work with undergraduates and those of new student populations—including multilingual graduate writers—is an important step toward ensuring all writers’ needs are respected and met wherever possible.

Chozin and Iris point towards two broad possibilities for doing this. First, provide language support in as many ways as feasible. We can attempt to hire tutors from diverse language backgrounds. We can also train tutors to provide better language support and/or give them explicit permission to employ what they already know about vocabulary, grammar, etc. without instilling undue fears about being “too directive.” By providing that language support, writing centers position themselves as resources early in MGWs’ graduate writing careers.

Second, we can work to improve the disciplinary support we offer to writers. We can attempt to hire tutors from a variety of disciplines by actively recruiting across campus. When that isn’t possible, we can give additional attention to disciplinarity during tutor training. Again, this positions writing centers as valuable and familiar resources in the future when writers still need support but also feel that their expertise has increased (and thus they may be less likely to pursue help that is viewed as remedial).

Recruiting a diverse tutoring staff can sometimes feel like an impossible task; we can only hire those who apply, after all. We do have complete control over tutor training, however, and can increase the expertise of the tutors we do have. Regardless of our resource gaps, we can all endeavor to establish a culture that values the needs of MGWs, both those surfaced by these writers’ experiences and others. Even when resources are limited, we can acknowledge MGWs’ needs, recognize how they diverge from those of our majority student populations, and then provide the support we can with our available means.


1.  The fall 2016 special issue of Praxis (14.1) also focused on graduate writers, but it was not yet available at the time of this writing.

2.  Based on personal experience, I find many native English-speaking graduate students share these same struggles; however, the participants of this study are MGWs. I leave it to readers to determine when the findings here might also apply to native-English-speaking graduate students.

3.  I had been a tutor at this writing center for several years but was not affiliated with it during the first year of this study. In the second year of the study I was interim director of the writing center but did not tutor either writer, nor were they discussed in staff meetings, receive special treatment, etc.

4. Chozin (koh-ZEEN), when giving consent to participate in the study, preferred to have his real name used. All other names are pseudonyms.

5.   In two years of interviews, Chozin never expressed dissatisfaction with his peers’ feedback, confusion about its meaning, or an inability to implement it. On at least one paper, a peer wrote questions on Chozin’s paper that would have triggered substantive revision but Chozin did not address those questions in his revised paper.

6.   Case studies are still commonly criticized for not being generalizable. However, Thomas Newkirk challenges this, arguing that while there is no internal mechanism for generalization (such as a large, representative sample size), qualitative methodologies like case studies instead allow the readers to perform the act of generalization: Readers determine whether case study participants look like their own students or situations and therefore if and how those participants’ experiences should be catalysts to change their own work (130). I argue that case studies create contingent generalizabilities—they operate as heuristics that offer up new explanations and possibilities. Thus while case studies should never be treated as prescriptive, they certainly are suggestive and ask readers to consider whether a participant’s experience is likely to be representative of the students in our own contexts. In this spirit, I offer implications from the experiences of Chozin and Iris.

7.   This is closely connected to the important question of whether tutors of graduate writers should themselves be undergraduates, graduates, or professionals. This issue did not feature prominently in the experiences of Iris and Chozin and so is beyond the scope of this particular project.

8.   See Blau and Hall; Bruce and Rafoth; Myers.

9.   For research-based pedagogies on error feedback, see Dana Ferris’s Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing or Language Power.

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