Response to “Cultural Conflicts”

Kristin Baresich

Response to “Cultural Conflicts in the Writing Center”


I enjoyed this reading for being written in a slightly different style than the others. Rather than abstract theory about concepts relating to teaching writing, such as laziness, the validity of teaching grammar, etc., Muriel Harris offered helpful information for better interaction between ESL students and tutors based on a survey of real students and their concerns. Interestingly, though, I found that much of what was noted about the students’ expectations for tutoring mirrored my experience with several of my students – including native English speakers. For example, I connected strongly with Harris’s point that “without shared assumptions about what will happen, the tutor and ESL student can proceed on opposite tracks and spend their tutorial time trying to get the other person to move in their direction.” I could definitely relate to this observation, having spent sessions trying to prod a student toward discussion about their essay, while they clearly preferred to hand their paper over and ask “if there was anything they needed to fix.”

Moreover, I’m familiar with the “strained silence” in response to questions like “How do you think you could revise your thesis?” After a pause, students sometimes offer a phrase or two, but in a questioning manner, as though waiting for me to give them the stamp of approval on their idea before committing to it. Occasionally, if I summarize a point in their paper and reflect it back to them, like “So you’re saying that Pallasmaa is more focused on the eyes?” they simply nod and agree, as though I were quizzing them on the content of their paper rather than trying to initiate a discussion. I believe this has been a source of frustration for both sides in this situation, but I can see that this is most likely due to differing expectations of what tutoring is supposed to consist of and accomplish. Although from my standpoint it looks as though the student is trying to get away with not taking an active role in the revision of their paper, and to the student it probably seems as though I am unnecessarily and frustratingly withholding information, we may simply have clashing expectations of the way tutoring works. Thus, for next semester, I think I would spend a little more time in the beginning acquainting the student with the idea of collaborative, discussion-based tutoring, rather than assuming their familiarity with it and proceeding as though they understood.

However, besides aspects of tutoring that I could relate to, I was intrigued to learn about some of the other cases of conflicting expectations for ESL students that Harris went over in her paper. For instance, I wouldn’t have initially thought of the idea that “Asian students prefer to be indirect and may agree or nod rather than challenge or confront those they disagree with. They may also pretend to understand when they don’t, to save face.” Information like this is invaluable, considering that this phenomenon could potentially render entire sessions useless if the tutor thinks that the student is agreeing and comprehending, when in fact the student may simply be pretending for the sake of appearances or politeness. In fact, this reminded me of a piece I read by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he attributes the high accident rate of Korean airlines to first officers or copilots who notice errors or problems but fail to bring them to their copilots’ attention for fear of seeming critical or out of line. As a result, a problem that might have been pointed out and immediately corrected on an American plane might never be brought to light on a Korean plane until it is too late. Perhaps this is an extreme example, but I think it demonstrates that cultural conflicts are enormously important to consider when trying to maximize the helpfulness of tutoring.

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