Thursday, September 16, 2010

How Writing Centers Create Mini-Successes for Language Diversity and Latin@ Students

Introductory Bio

Paula Gillespie is an associate professor of English and the director for of the Center of Excellence in Writing at Florida International University since July, 2009. Prior to that she was a faculty member and directed the writing center at Marquette University. While there, she served on a subcommittee of the Diversity Task Force: “Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Faculty.” She has served as the secretary and then president of the International Writing Centers Association and has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. With Neal Lerner, she is the co-author of The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring, now in its second edition. She is the co-editor of Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation, which won the IWCA prize for outstanding scholarship. She and Brad Hughes designed the IWCA Summer Institute, which she has co-chaired three times. She and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Maine have been conducting a study on the short- and long-term effects of peer tutoring on tutors. She has consulted and/or led workshops on writing centers, writing, and peer tutoring in Germany, Greece, and Mexico.

Blog Entry

One year and one month ago I made a move that was as much a seismic shift as a transplantation. After 29 very happy years at Marquette University, a private Jesuit school set in downtown Milwaukee, I took a job as director of the Center for Excellence in Writing at Florida International University, a public university often ranked the most diverse in the country.

Our FIU students come in every skin color imaginable. Of its 40,455 students in fall of 2009, 75% are classified as racial/ethnic minorities. Perhaps more telling is that 30% of these students come from families with an annual income of under $30,000. Many have gone to elementary and high schools in the poorest sections of Miami. Many are international, but are not middle-class, international students attending a US university, planning to return to home countries. Ours are multilingual students who might be the children of refugees, families that left their homelands under duress or who were forced to emigrate. They often bring with them the nostalgia and longing for a home they will never see again, and a sense that others have destroyed their homeland (Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 2001).

In addition, the barriers of a new language make them feel alienated, silenced, and alone. In their homelands their parents may well have been successful professionals, but here, to assure that their children will get a good education, they take menial jobs at low pay. Many FIU students often work, not just to finance their educations, but sometimes to help support parents and/or children. At home they may speak and read fluently in Spanish or another language, but at school they struggle to find a word in English and feel ashamed when they make a mistake. Some say that in spite of their seeming fluency, they are never sure of themselves when they speak or write.

At the start of the academic year at Marquette in 2008-2009, I had no idea that I was headed for FIU. But while still at Marquette, I was fascinated by the work of a visiting Association of Marquette University Women (ASMU) Chair whose specialty is the retention of Latin@ (her term) students, Professor Alberta Gloria. Once I heard her speak briefly on her research, I felt that there was a close tie between what she asserted as the needs of Latin@ students and the needs of writers who seek the services of writing centers, both native and non-native speakers. Her work reminded me of the writings of Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings on the student retention of minority students. By the time she gave her open-to-the-public lecture at the end of her one-year stay, I knew I was headed for a new position in the Writing Center at FIU. By that time, Dr. Gloria's lecture and report of her year at Marquette were all the more relevant to me.

Alberta Gloria and her colleagues feel that changes must be made in American universities: that Latin@ students are blamed for their lack of success, are stereotyped, and do not so much drop out as they are pushed out of institutions. Her studies focused on students who did not have the standard advantages deemed necessary to success in college, but yet who persisted and graduated. Latin@ students, such as those at FIU, succeed by creating communities for themselves, and find mentors and role models who understand and respect their cultures. They find ways to achieve mini-successes, and these factors sustain them during dark times in college.

Immediately, when Dr. Gloria arrived at Marquette, she sought out the multi-cultural center, looked into the Latin@ student organizations, attended, helped publicize, and supported their events, involved her students in her research, and took them to conferences with her. Marquette was not a Hispanic-serving institution, as FIU is, but with and for the students, she created a metaphorical space where they could achieve mini-successes. She offered herself as mentor, role model, and cheering section.

This, to me, is the vital link between her theories and the work of writing centers. It sounded very much like the arguments Nancy Grimm has been advocating in both her written work (Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times.) and conference presentations: we should be willing to go to some worthwhile lengths to make a writing center a diverse site, to focus on relationship in the center (such as Grimm's book on writing centers. Creating opportunities for Latin@s and others to encounter tutors like themselves pays big dividends

At writing centers, we educate our undergraduate and graduate consultants to talk with writers, not just to focus on the texts they bring us and hope we will fix. We engage them in conversations and in so doing help them to deepen and intensify their understanding of their subject matter. The high-order concerns we deal with often call for Bruffean kinds of conversations about the topic, the assignment, and their understanding of the goals for a written piece. But this experience in writing centers offers us rich opportunities to show writers that we are interested in Latin@ students, both in their cultures and in their traditions. When we praise elements of their writing, we actually create mini-successes for them.

At FIU, the tutors are more likely to speak Spanish – or French, or Creole - than English as a first language. Our tutors’ home countries include India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Dominica, and Colombia. Some are L 1.5, having learned one dominant language at home and another at school or in the playground. FIU tutors are able to empathize with non-native speaking writers because they have been there, and they are willing to say so.

The tutors may even hold a discussion in Spanish to put the Writing Center student at ease. They may ask for a Spanish word that is eluding the writer in English, and then use a translation program to help find the right English word: “Yeah, I have trouble with prepositions, too, and when I do, this is the resource I use,” they often say to these students who seek help. In effect, our tutors serve as mentors for their writing, and as role models, someone like them who has succeeded and attained a level of expertise that helps them.

Latin@s and other international students fit in our writing center. They hang out and write there, hoping that between sessions they’ll be able to ask a quick question, or just overhear some good advice given to someone else. Some writers make our center their home away from home, a place they go to study. Most writing centers have a strong sense of community within and among staffers; our community, like many others, includes the writers.

Our tutors care deeply about one another. To them, skin color is perhaps the least important element in their relationships with one another and with writers. Still, many of them, tutors as well as writers, do not live on campus but have to return to their homes in a high-stakes city, where a lapse into academic English may be looked at as a rejection of their neighborhoods, of their home communities. Lesson: keep a keen eye on your code-switching. Many of my students have not yet used their education to buy their way out of their poorer neighborhoods. In fact, many of these students love their neighborhoods and would never leave them. But others can’t wait to leave. Some students face anti-Islamic biases; some have to struggle to protect their children from danger, and, of course, some are threatened by the renewed fervor for immigration reform.

The learning curve is steep here for me as a White professor; I don’t know and can’t discern my students’ own stratifications, but they are generous, open, committed, and caring. Like many minority communities, they care enough to help educate me. Mutual respect is the first and most significant phrase that I stress on the first day of my tutor education class, and I can see eyes widen when I urge future tutors to respect the beloved mother tongue a writer might bring in. I can see them relax into themselves when they realize that not only are they expected to respect others, but that their languages, their customs, their families are to be respected, too. They have important work to do, and they do it with excellence.


Tania Cepero Lopez said...

I've often thought of my years as an undergraduate student and how much it would have meant to see a Latin@ in a teaching position. That, I think, would have created an instant role model for me. It would have immediately engrained in my brain that I could too become an English professor.
Perhaps because I lacked that tangible, real model, when it came time to decide whether to go to graduate school, I met with my favorite English professor who was not Hispanic but did create that very significant mini-success for me. I remember asking him if he thought my Spanish accent would be an obstacle in teaching a class in English. He looked at me as if I had said the most ridiculous thing in the world, probably because I had, and explained that if anything, being a Hispanic woman would make me an even more desirable candidate for a teaching position. "Your English, he said, it's fine". I'll never forget that. As a full-time faculty instructor at FIU, I am not the luckiest person in the world, not only because I have the pleasure of working with Dr. Gillespie but also because when I encounter hundreds of students every year with the same fears; when they come to me asking "Is my grammar horrible?" or "Do you find my accent difficult to understand"?, I can look at them as if they just said the most ludicrous thing in the world and they have. After my exaggerated show of surprise, I always tell them the truth; that same truth my beloved professor, Dr. John Leeds at Florida Atlantic University, told me many years ago "Your English is fine. You will succeed".

Tania Cepero Lopez said...

I just realized that I wrote "I am not the luckiest person in the world..." but what I meant to write was "I am the luckiest person in the world". Could you please make this correction on the original comment?

Brad Hughes said...

Thanks, Paula, for a thought-provoking post on such an important topic. Alberta Gloria's research on Latin@ and Chican@ students' experiences in higher education is powerful, and I think those of us in writing centers, at all colleges and universities, have a lot to learn from her work. We need to learn more about students' experiences in our universities, think deeply about the multiple ways we can support mini-successes for student writers, have our centers play a role in mentoring, and tap into Latin@ and Chican@ students' intelligence and talents and experiences as consultants and tutors in our writing centers. From having had the honor of visiting FIU's center for excellence in writing and having talked with the wonderful student staff there last December, I know first hand how smart they are, how fabulously multilingual they are, how dedicated they are to helping all students succeed and excel at a great university, and how critically reflective they are about their work. I'll never forget my wonderful conversations with them.

In case anyone wants to learn more about Alberta Gloria's research, here's a link to her home page--

My colleagues and I are delighted to have Prof. Gloria speaking at our next writing center staff meeting!

brad hughes
director, writing center
director, writing across the curriculum
university of wisconsin-madison

Paula Gillespie said...

Brad, I am so envious of you, having Alberta Gloria right there on campus to talk with your staff. That's great! and thank you for the kind words about our tutors. They are exceptional.

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