This is the transcript of an interview that a student in one of Belinda Walzer’s courses conducted with me about my work as a consultant at Northeastern University’s Writing Center. I answered the student’s prepared questions during a scheduled session on the interface that our center uses for online appointments.

These questions were useful in reflecting on strategies I use with students at the center. My answers represent much of my approach to writing pedagogy, both in that environment and more generally. I’ve tried to trace the origins of my convictions with the notes.

How would you describe the goal of the writing center at Northeastern?

We always talk about to create better writers, as opposed to better writing. I think as a center we are more focused on issues of rhetorical concern, especially “global” issues including organization and framing, rather than “local” or grammatical concerns (i.e. we are NOT an editing service). Of course, we understand that the local features are what often create those larger effects. We’re also committed to meeting students at any point in their writing process, and with making sure that students understand that not every writing process–between people or even between genres for the same writer–looks the same.1

What do you see as being the general goal for most of your tutoring sessions?

Accordingly, my goal is to leave tutees with strategies that they can use in their writing. It’s a failure, to me, if I just show them the way something “should” be. They need, additionally, to be able to know where to look if they don’t know how something “should” look. I want, further, for them to see those as conventions that are shaped by genre and audience. Of course, I have to do this at the same time as making sure the students’ needs are met, which often involve producing a piece of writing for some pragmatic purpose (e.g., an assignment). So, I try to frame each session as much as possible by asking the student what THEY want to get out of the session in terms of their particular piece, and redirecting when necessary to focus on what I’d like them to further get out of it as a writer.)

How do you approach tutoring a non native English speaker versus native English speaker?

I tend to speak much more slowly and moderate more complex language. It’s actually even a useful exercise for me to bring to sessions with people I perceive as native English speakers, since my background gives me a vocabulary that I can’t assume tutees share. I look at non-native speakers as kind of an extreme case of the kind of “translating” that I do in every session.2 With multilingual students in particular, I try even more so to bring it back to the student’s preconceived knowledge–what we might call “antecedent genre knowledge”3–to gauge what they are familiar with, given their cultural context, as an angle for getting them to engage with and understand the purpose of the assignment that they set out to do. I tend to return to first principles more often. Again, this is something I do with ALL students, but is particularly on my mind with non-native English speakers.

What do you think about the quote by [Stephen] North stating that the goal is to “produce better writers not better writing”?4

Hah! I referenced that above. I think it’s a good goal to have. But it can’t be absolute. We can’t deny that students come in to the center with certain expectations about our roles as their support. As much as we try to resist narratives of transaction and exchange, and to sell ourselves as peers, at some level we are still “experts”5 (if only by comparison) that tutees expect to (a) inform them about what is “correct” writing and (b) help them to produce a finished product. Most often this pressure is external, since professors suggest students come to the writing center to polish assignments more often than for drafting–and, might I add, disproportionately suggest multilingual students to come for this purpose.

If your tutee is focused on grammar and spelling, low order concerns, what do you do?

I try as much as possible to help the student with what they ask for. Of course, this is shaped by MY interests surrounding their writing. If I think there are more important global concerns we should deal with, I try to show how these lower order concerns construct the higher order ones that I want to focus on (except in the rare case that I have few global concerns and the piece just indeed needs “polishing”). While I’m doing this, I try to define technical language for them that they can use to see and give name to patterns in their future writing, towards the goals I mentioned above. This keeps it from feeling like a session where someone watches me mark up their paper.

If the tutee compares her language level to a young child (like the woman in your session that I observed did) how do you address this? Especially if the tutee is a non native English speaker?

Sometimes I’ll talk about my own difficulties engaging with languages foreign to my own experience. Sometimes I’ll go broad and compare language-learning to other literacies and skills, which no one expects people to just possess without work. If someone used this wording specifically, I might problematize the youth issue along those lines by talking about how scholars are considered “young scholars” regardless of their age if they are early on in their field. People rarely want to be preached to, though. I’m conscious of not taking up too much session time, for better and for worse, with that mode of support, given the expectations I’ve described above that students have about what they will accomplish during a session. Most often, I awkwardly deflect.

Do you ever notice tutees talking about their writing instead of sharing their writing with you? Do you think that the tutee is often just insecure about their writing?

Yes, and in fact I encourage it [talking about their writing]. A valuable exercise that I use often is to ask a student to paraphrase what they said, since they often tell me much more about context or their interest in the topic (and their angle in approaching it) that is missing from their writing and their reader would appreciate. Sometimes, I’ll ask them to tell me a little bit about what purpose they saw a certain constructed they used in their piece serving.6 Given my own disciplinary interests, my favorite sessions transition from talking about the writing that’s on the table to writing practices in general, and especially students’ specific practices. Like I said, I see my goal as providing them with strategies, getting them to think from the same critical, rhetorical frame I do, eventually making myself unnecessary in the equation–or, at least someone they want to seek out as a peer rather than a consult. I don’t think this only happens when tutees are insecure about their writing, although students are more likely, anecdotally, to do it unprompted if they are.

What do you think is or what have you found to be the goal of most non native English speaking writers you work with?

Nearly 100% to make sure that their grammar is perfect and language is “correct.” Even when non-native English students I’ve encountered are thinking rhetorically, they still frame those rhetorical concerns as issues of correctness rather than convention. I try to take this goal on its own while reframing it using some theories we are familiar with around multilingual writing in our field: namely, to encourage writers to take “ownership” of multiple Englishes7 and use them in deliberate (and sometimes “marked”) ways.8

How do you communicate differently with a non native English speaker that is having difficulty understanding what you are trying to say?

It is perhaps telling that my answer to this question–that I try to slow down or use simpler terms–is the first one I provided to the comparatively broad question of “how do you approach tutoring a non-native English speaker…?” So, apparently the language barrier is the first thing I encounter and try to navigate in these scenarios. I try to find other ways of describing the concept I mean. I think I have a visibly more welcoming affect with the folks that have trouble understanding me, overcorrecting for what I perceive they must deal with on a regular basis. I’m trying to communicate to them, non-verbally, that I’m okay with them not getting what I’m saying the first time, that I understand the labor involved in trying to piece together what I’m saying. And that is labor for me, and it can of course be frustrating. Speaking of, there are other modes of communication, beyond verbal, that we will use as well. I’ve had tutees who want to draw out the structure of their arguments. I’m Italian, so I gesture wildly.


  1. See Breuch, Lee-Ann M. Kastman. “Post-Process ‘pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” JAC, 2002, 119–150. 

  2. See Canagarajah, Suresh, ed. Literacy as Translingual Practice: Between Communities and Classrooms. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 1-2. 

  3. Devitt, Amy J. Writing Genres. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 204. 

  4. North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5 (1984): 438. 

  5. See Carino, Peter. “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring.” In The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship, edited by Michael A. Pemberton and Joyce A. Kinkead. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003). 

  6. See Emig, Janet A. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. National Council of Teachers of English, 1971. 

  7. See Horner, Bruce, et al. “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English, vol. 73, no. 3 (2011): 303–321. 

  8. Matsuda, Aya, and Paul Kei Matsuda. “World Englishes and the Teaching of Writing.” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, (2010): 373.