What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.


I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.


§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

3 comments on “What is American?

  1. Such smart questions, Ann, from your students and from you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. codeinfig says:

    i really take issue with the idea that our culture is simply “appropriated.” my family came here from europe– other familes came from asia or africa or this continent, or south america– to me, thats all the same.

    we didnt just go steal culture from all over the world– i mean, we did bring africans over on boats, but so did the british actually. most of the culture we have here today, was brought here, re-created here, and by the people that brought it with them.

    thats not appropriation, its collaboration. we have a collaborative culture– try and argue with it other than citing non-collaborative examples. people continue to bring their culture here and share it. youtube (and i hate google) even lets people do this from all over the earth.

    we are also absurdly corporate, and corporations actually do appropriate our cultures– then use them to manipulate us. but thats not a fault we have as a people, thats a threat that exists against us; and its quite beside the point of whether america “appropriated” its culture or not.


    • I know appropriation has a negative connotation, and I do think there are times our culture is indeed collaborative (as you point out quite correctly) and times that appropriation is the more accurate word–particularly linguistically. Thank you for mentioning the collaborative aspect of culture! Nothing in society is simply one set of behaviors.

      Liked by 1 person

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