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The UMN Center for Writing’s failure to support writers

Linguistic diversity or lip service?
Image by Sarah Mai

The UMN Center for Writing has a lofty mission statement: 

“Encourages the development of writers and the use of writing as a tool for critical thinking, learning and communicating in all fields; promotes expanded understandings of what writing is and how it works in the world; listens carefully to the ideas and perspectives of students, faculty, researchers and academic departments; engages in collaborative learning, teaching and research; and develops and communicates current knowledge and research about writing and writing pedagogy. The Center for Writing is committed to fostering and sustaining a culture of equity, inclusiveness and openness, which includes respect for linguistic diversity.”

Wow, what a lofty mission the Center for Writing has. Reading the statement inspires confidence that my writerly needs would be met. But, I have visited the UMN Center for Writing and found its service inadequate and inept.

In one session, I was told that I cannot write in Standard Written English because I hail from Yemen. The consultant essentially reduced my identity and excluded me from participating in standard English. I accuse them of dereliction of duty. 

Standard Written English is often a mode of writing that excludes non-native and bilingual writers like myself. I have unique ways of writing that ought to be respected because they represent my writerly voice. Yet, the UMN Center for Writing, which claims to value linguistic diversity, hires staff who are shockingly monolingual and parochially American.

I emailed the head of the UMN Center for Writing to inform them about this debacle. I received an apology from the consultant who had essentialized my identity, but it felt insincere as if they were apologizing for getting caught rather than for their despicable mistake.

Although the UMN Center for Writing claims to help students write better, the consultants refuse to do any interlinear emendations. But how can they help non-native English writers without showing them edited examples of their prose? 

As a non-native English writer, I need interlinear emendations to see how my prose is edited — to have before and after examples. I cannot learn much about the craft of language from simply talking about it. I need the consultants to edit the prose. When they refuse to do so, they are being lazy and derelict in their duties.

The UMN Center for Writing is essentially a remedial service on campus. They try to help students who struggle with writing. I am not ashamed to use the center because it is included in the tuition. Plus, as someone who has only been learning English for the past eight years, I am entitled to such services. My language development is still in its early stages, and I need all the scaffolding help I can get.

But, I am under no illusion that the UMN Center for Writing is trying to help writers produce masterpieces. They are focused on eliminating errors and infelicities in language. But good writing is about much more than correcting errors.

The writing consultants are obsessed with grammar, punctuation and usage. They gratuitously offer demeaning feedback to my non-native English writing. Grammar is not about strict rules, but rather tools to achieve clarity.

Most of the writing consultants are neither elegant nor brilliant writers themselves. Many of them are downright mediocre. If someone is a mediocre writer, they cannot effectively help bilingual writers improve their craft.

The UMN Center for Writing needs to address this problem. I suggest they read the scholarship of George Gopen, Bryan Garner and John Trimble — teachers of writing who advocate for line-editing as a way to teach novice writers. Essential books include The Sense of Structure by Gopen, Writing With Style by Trimble, and Garner’s Modern English Usage by Garner. The center should train their consultants to make interlinear emendations in prose to teach by example, following the adage of “show and tell.”

In addition to providing line-by-line edits, they need to train their staff in bilingual diversity and how to work with non-native English writers. They should hire non-native English writers who are skilled themselves. Just as women learn better from women professors in STEM fields, so too nonnative English writers learn better from someone who shares fundamental common ground with them. Just as LGBTQ students need allies in higher education to navigate their journeys, so too non-native English writers need allies in the writing center.

I urge the Center for Writing leadership to take this issue seriously — train their staff in the art and craft of editing and teach them how to help non-native English speakers. Right now, the Center for Writing is of no use to non-native English writers. It talks a good game about linguistic diversity but has yet to walk the walk. 

Sometimes they are doing more harm than good, especially when a consultant told me that I cannot write because I am from Yemen. That consultant was lazy and derelict in their duties — not to mention shockingly monolingual, and embarrassingly parochial.

Abdulrahman M. Bindamnan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota and a Scholar Fellow at ICGC. For any questions, comments, or suggestions, email him at [email protected]

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  • impressive
    Jul 9, 2024 at 11:07 am

    Someone count to 10, this is a knockout piece of writing.