Re-thinking “multilingual tutors” in SLAC writing centers: Post-pandemic observations, by John Katunich

This entry is the fourth in a short series entitled “Adapting to New Pedagogical Situations in the Continuing Covid Era” that the SLAC-WPA is publishing on its blog in spring 2022.

At Dickinson College, like many other small liberal-arts colleges, international students were among those whose learning was most disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many either returned to their home countries where they had to overcome time zone differences or connectivity problems to participate in classes, or they stayed in the US, far from families during an extraordinarily stressful time. At the Norman M. Eberly Multilingual Writing Center at Dickinson College, half of our international student tutors were unable to continue tutoring from March 2020 for one or more semesters because they had returned to home countries and could not be employed in the US. Likewise, programs we had had in place to bring Overseas Student Assistants and Fulbright Fellows to work as foreign language writing tutors were halted and did not resume until Fall 2021. Both of these groups of tutors, who play important roles on our campus and in our writing center, were sorely missed. So, as we found ourselves last year approaching a new post-pandemic normal, we saw an important opportunity to examine the role of that multilingual tutors play in creating an equitable and diverse writing center while trying to better understand how to train and support tutors to center multilingualism as a writing center norm.

With support from the Judy Gill Fund for Tutor Development, a research team of four multilingual tutors and myself had the opportunity to engage in a year-long investigation of the complex tutor identities and practices that multilingual tutors bring into writing tutoring sessions. Our team (Nhi Ly, Xenia Makosky, Nhu Truong, and brian long Ta, all multilingual tutors themselves, plus myself) designed and conducted a study to understand how and when tutors self-identify as “multilingual,” how they view their multilingual repertoire as an asset in tutoring, and how multilingual tutors established (or struggled to establish) a sense of legitimacy as tutors.

Image of four tutors and their faculty mentor sitting at a desk with a laptop.
Participants in the multilingual tutor research project at Dickinson virtually attended the NCPTW conference in November 2021 (pictured here). From left to right: brian Long Ta, John Katunich, Nhi Ly, Xenia Makosky, and Nhu Truong. Photo credit: Xenia Makosky

The starting point for the research looked at the admittedly sparse literature on multilingual tutors in writing centers. Even as scholarship on multilingual writers has become an integral part of writing center studies, going all the way back to Muriel Harris and Tony Silva’s seminal 1993 article “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options and more recently with books like Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth’s 2016 edited collection Tutoring Second Language Writers, scholarship on multilingual tutors has remained quite limited, with none of the existing studies looking at multilingual tutors in the context of a small liberal arts college. (For additional reading, please see at the bottom for a list of articles over the last decade that have examined multilingual writers at writing centers.)

At one of our early team meetings, several of the tutor-researchers expressed a feeling that many of the stories being told in the literature about multilingual tutors didn’t capture the complexities of what tutoring as a multilingual tutor was like. We eventually noticed that the implicit assumption that multilingual writers benefit from tutors who serve as cultural, linguistic, or rhetorical informants or insiders (Blau, Hall, & Sparks, 2002; Harris & Silva, 1993; Cox, 2016) inadvertently positions multilingual tutors as outsiders, if they don’t bring this insider-informant perspective on US-based cultural background knowledge or the linguistic grammatical intuition that comes from learning a language from a young age. This insider-outsider tension, and how multilingual tutors navigate it, became a focal point in our study. What we found has already prompted significant changes in how I think about recruiting, training and supporting multilingual tutors at a small liberal-arts college writing center, as well as how we prepare all of our tutors to work with a linguistically diverse population of writers. Three of the most essential and impactful findings follow here.

  1. First of all, it became clear to the research team that the term itself “multilingual tutor” has been used in the literature as a euphemism for someone who is an international student or non-native speaker of English; however, it is important to recognize there is a wide range of tutors beyond international students who are multilingual.  Multilingual tutors can and should include domestic student tutors who are heritage-speakers of other languages as well as domestic student tutors (and international students) at our writing center tutoring in a foreign language that is not their first. And perhaps most importantly, at an institution like Dickinson (and many other small liberal arts colleges) where intermediate or higher proficiency in a second language is a graduation requirement, all of our tutors may be considered multilingual or at least on their way to being so. Yet in our study, many tutors—even those who are tutoring in a second or additional language—did not self-identify as multilingual and may not be recognizing their own multilingual repertoire as an asset.  In a recent tutor training class session, I prompted all tutors to consider their own multilingual repertoire, both to bring a multilingual orientation to their tutoring and to sustain a writing center culture in which multilingualism is seen as the norm.
  2. Furthermore, for some multilingual tutors we interviewed, native-speakerism (that is to say, the false assumption that native speakers are inherently superior to non-native speakers as teachers or tutors of a target language) is part of their experience of tutoring, and created an implicit or explicit push to “legitimize” themselves as tutors in tutoring sessions. This was experienced by international student tutors tutoring in English, as well as international and domestic tutors tutoring a foreign language that wasn’t their first or primary language. Recognizing this, it is even more important that discussions happen in tutor training classes about the native speaker fallacy, and how the very idea of a “native speaker” is deeply problematic. We also need to equip all tutors across all language backgrounds to be able to challenge explicit native-speakerism if it arises when working with writers.
  3. Finally, in the face of this pressure to legitimize themselves as tutors, the multilingual tutors we talked to in the study showed themselves to be innovative in re-framing as strengths what may conventionally be considered limitations. For example, one of our research participants, Camellia, an English writing tutor who is an international student from Vietnam, shared how she recognizes that she may not have the same US cultural background knowledge as a domestic student tutor, so she asks questions that she describes as “obvious,” which serve to help clarify the intention of the writer and allow the writer to craft writing that is clear and understandable to anyone, regardless of language or cultural background. We see this as a potentially vulnerable move in a session, especially as other research (Hedengren, 2018) has shown that multilingual tutors often feel pressure to be directive in tutoring, precisely to fend off questions about their legitimacy as a tutor. Our research suggests that we can better support multilingual tutors to move away from a position of “tutor-as-informant” and toward what our research team called an “in-between” space for tutoring, in which the tutor is neither an insider nor outsider, but where they can ask productive questions precisely because they do not share the same set of cultural, linguistic, or rhetorical assumptions as the writer.

As writing programs at small liberal arts colleges continue to move into a “post-pandemic” period, it remains crucial to recognize the important role that multilingual tutors play in building and sustaining a culture of multilingualism.  As we center multilingualism and multilingual norms in our writing center and writing program, at Dickinson we prioritize recruiting, training and supporting multilingual tutors of all varieties—international students, heritage-speakers, foreign language tutors, and domestic language learners—who enrich and enhance the diverse and multilingual writing that we want to see take place.


Blau, S., Hall, J., & Sparks, S. (2002). Guilt-free tutoring: Rethinking how we tutor non-native-English-speaking students. The Writing Center Journal23(1), 23-44.

Bruce, S. and Rafoth, B. (Eds.). (2016). Tutoring Second Language Writers. University Press of Colorado.

Cox, M. (2016) Identity Construction, Second Language Writers, and the Writing Center. In S. Bruce and B. Rafold, Tutoring Second Language Writers (p. 53-77). Boulder, CA: Utah State University Press.

Harris, M., & Silva, T. (1993). Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options. College Composition             and Communication, 44(4), 525-537.

Hedengren, M. (2018). An Empirical Study of Non-Native English Speaking Tutors in the Writing Center. The Peer Review, 2(2).

For future reading on multilingual tutors in writing centers:

Balester, V. (2012). International tutors Make a Difference. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 37, 6-9.

Cui, W. (2020) Identity Construction of a Multilingual Writing Tutor. The Peer Review, 3 (2).

Dvorak, K. (2016) Multilingual Writers, Multilingual Tutors:  Code-Switching/Mixing/Meshing in the Writing Center. In S. Bruce and B. Rafold, Tutoring Second Language Writers (p. 101-122). Boulder, CA: Utah State University Press.

Grimm, N. (2009). New Conceptual Frameworks for Writing Center Work. The Writing Center Journal, 29 (2), 11-27.

Hedengren, M. (2018). An Empirical Study of Non-Native English Speaking Tutors in the Writing Center. The Peer Review, 2(2).

Okuda, T. (2019). Student Perceptions of non-native English Speaking tutors at a Writing Center in Japan. Journal of Second Language Writing, 44, 13-22.

Tinoco, L., Herman, L., Bhat, S., and Zepeda, A. (2020). International Writing Tutors Leveraging Linguistic Diversity at a Hispanic-Serving Institution’s Writing Center, The Peer Review, 4(2).

Walstrom, H. (2013). Imposter in the Writing Center-Trials of a Non-Native Tutor. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 38, 10-13.

Zhao, Y. (2017). Student Interactions with a Native Speaker Tutor and a Nonnative Speaker Tutor at an American Writing Center. The Writing Center Journal, 36 (2), 57-87.

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