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An international student tutoring at the writing center.

From the very beginning, I felt like an interloper, the proverbial carpetbagger, only from East Africa. Thank goodness nobody actually insinuated I was one. I have generally felt welcome since my arrival at the University of Idaho's Writing Center as a peer writing tutor, but I have had several people asking me "where I learnt my English." Why, I say, the English invaded us and after a several years of very uncivilized negotiations, during which we had to learn English to effectively argue with them, they fumed away with the word "safari" in their Oxford dictionaries.

Then came the American English nonnegotiable invasion via mass media and globalization. So, you see, asking me "where I learnt my English" means I get to take a little time to answer your question. This is because my East African English is an alloy of sorts.

Being an alloy of sorts does not make it any easier tutoring at the Writing Center or being an English graduate student. My alloy "foreignness" shows. I say "full stop" when helping my peer student writers with their punctuation before I stop like a fool at the blank look on their faces to hurriedly say "period." Yes, I have made certain concessions. But I will absolutely not commend you on your nice "pants," no sir! Nice "trousers," I will insist, even to Americans, because saying the former at home will have people embarrassingly checking the state of their flies.

So, even if I am a tutor at the Writing Center, I commiserate with all the foreign students who come there for help with their writing. I can honestly say that the Writing Center is the most diverse of places on campus. In my five months here, I have tutored student writers from Sweden, Germany, Norway, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, China and Mexico. Their "foreignness," like mine, creeps into their writing, so that at one time or another we have all exhibited that dour face, which reminds me of Shel Silverstein's poem "Peckin":

The saddest thing I ever did see Was a woodpecker peckin' at a plastic tree. He looked at me, and "Friend," says he, "Things ain't as sweet as they used to be." (Silverstein 83)

Nothing could be truer. Many foreign writing students here are like Silverstein's poor woodpecker pecking at the new unfathomable tree of the American academia. Obviously, writing "ain't as sweet as it used to be." For many of these students, who are actually quite proficient and intelligible in their own languages, writing has turned into an arduous task that can only be surmounted with patience and time.

During our Internship in Tutoring Writing class, one of my fellow tutors, Deborah, recounted an incident at the Writing Center where she literally made one ESL student writer's dream come true. This writer had dreamt of opening a dictionary and not finding words with their meanings next to them but words and their synonyms. When Deborah handed her a thesaurus, she could not believe her eyes. It was a dream come true!

Please do not laugh. Such, at times, is the desperation of foreign students who could dream their problems away if they could. It is the same desperation I felt when I realized that my British citation method was not acceptable in the American literary school. Even though all my instructors were very understanding about this and did not mark me down in my papers for it, I felt I was out on a limb. Being part of the Internees at the Writing Center, who were supposed to be helping student writers, did not help matters. It would not do, I knew, to be clueless.

So I learnt the MLA Citation Method the way one learns a crash course: in a tearing hurry. Then I thought I had gotten it and went ahead in a tutoring session to suggest "proper" MLA research-paper format to one of my student writers at the Writing Center. As a matter of cosmetics, I told her that she should justify her margins so that her work could look neater, only to have my instructor kindly point out to me later that the MLA Handbook in page 104 says that "you should not justify on the right margin."

The gist of the matter is, as a tutor, especially an international tutor, one has to learn to swallow crow. Eat lots of humble pie readily, I will say to any international tutor that it is good for the general well-being of your body. So these five past months at the Writing Center I have been eating lots of humble pie; learning as well as tutoring.

Despite all the crow-eating and my failings as a tutor, I have still managed to have major concerns about the position of foreign international students and their ability to write. While acknowledging their problems and my own, I have learnt to advocate for the treatment of each student as an individual because not all can be assumed to have traditional ESL problems. There is nothing as bad in a writing center, I believe, as stereotyping all foreigners as poor English writers when this is not always the case.

But when all is said and done, we cannot ignore the fact that a significant number of foreign students face this problem. And not only in writing, but also in reading where they are prone to making unconventional readings.

In an online discussion, our training course instructor asked what reason we tutoring interns would give as to why certain students, like international students, might be placed a remedial class. My reply to that was that such students might have totally different answers from those expected from "socialized" English students who are products of the American academy. Low grades might stem from such (unconventional readings) consequently placing otherwise capable students in remedial classes.

Other foreign students might find themselves under the remedial umbrella because they cannot effectively communicate in English rather than because of their intellectual abilities, which could probably be astoundingly put across in their native language.

Categorizing foreign students into the remedial category might be useful when looking for generally studied and approved ways of dealing with their problems. Take the example of ESL teaching techniques. Certain tutoring procedures have been researched, tested and found to be working and, indeed, useful. But as I have said before, one should be cautious about applying generalizations as each foreign student is an individual.

How does all this affect our position as tutors? I think being aware of the seemingly inevitable "socialization" of international students puts tutors in a dilemma. They are caught between turning the student into a conventional reader and letting him/her be with their specific social-cultural and socialhistorical backgrounds. To survive the American academic system they have to be rearranged, and yet it is this very rearrangement that robs the system of its claim of accommodating different views or interpretation of its many texts.

Being an international tutor myself puts me in an even greater dilemma. I feel increasingly "socialized" and with nothing to say or do about it. When a friend from home called me recently, she asked: "What has happened to your voice? You sound like an American."

"Oh, God, no," I said. "It must be the phone thing. . . . we're thousands of miles apart. Maybe the static."

But all the while, I was staring at the open page of my favorite poet Silverstein and reading:

They've put a brassiere on the camel, They claim she's more decent this way. They've put a brassiere on the camel, The camel had nothing to say. They squeezed her into it, I'll never know how. (166).

But at the Writing Center the following day, I was tutoring a writing student and he said "pardon?" Suddenly I was so happy that I smiled. The brassiere is a good old removable brassiere, I suppose. And so I proceed, lighter at heart; with the murmur of other tutoring sessions all around me; with the possibility of a young mother's baby--carried along for a session because there was no one to baby-sit it, breaking into cries; with Japanese writing all over the white board; with a hand now and then dipping into our famous candy jar.

The writing center, in many ways, is home away from home for many foreign students. It is a place for encouragement, and a writing shoulder to cry on. My instructor has always said a university cannot hope to increase diversity without setting up an adequate support system. The writing center is a crucial part of that support system. It helps international students and tutors alike, to wear that brassiere with a smile.

Work Cited

Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. NY: Harper & Row, 1981.

Lily Mabura

2002-2003 AAUW International Fellow

University of Idaho

Moscow, ID
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Title Annotation:TUTORS' COLUMN
Author:Mabura, Lily
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Calendar for Writing Centers Associations.
Next Article:Following the yellow brick road.

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