Research Process


If there’s a place to be inspired to inquire about the experiences of multi-lingual writers, it’s George Mason University.

George Mason University is, by some estimates, the most diverse institution in the country and at the University Writing Center we are privileged to work with students from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Our students speak and write over fifty-five different languages and represent well over half the total number of students we tutor each year. In an effort to better understand our multi-lingual students’ experiences as writers and rhetors in the academy, our research team, comprised of five writing center colleagues, embarked on this multi-year, HSRB-approved research project, which involves interviews with multi-lingual writers on their experiences writing for the U.S. academy.

We want to acknowledge the DVD Writing Across Borders as inspiration for our research. The DVD was produced by Wayne Robertson at Oregon State University in partnership with Vicki Tolar Burton, Director of the Writing Intensive Curriculum at Oregon State, and Lisa Ede, Director of the OSU Center for Writing and Learning. Writing Across Borders features eight non-native students talking about expectations for writing in their native countries compared to those they encountered in their studies at Oregon State University. After seeing an early draft of the video at the 2004 Writing Across the Curriculum conference, Dr. Terry Zawacki, the Director of the GMU Writing Center returned determined to follow up on the Oregon project by collecting stories from an even larger and more diverse range of multi-lingual George Mason students to be presented in a web-based format, making the students’ stories accessible to a much wider audience. This website is the culmination of our efforts though certainly not the end of the story, for us or for the students and educators whose voices we hope will join with those we’ve presented here.


We began our research process by reviewing the relevant literature on contrastive rhetoric and the scholarship in composition and ESL. Our informants are international and immigrant students who we encountered primarily at the writing center and the English Language Institute. We gained Human Subjects Review Board approval and each member of our research team was certified to conduct social/behavioral research because of the possible sensitivity of informant responses. Drawing from ethnographic theory, we then used grounded analysis methods to code the transcripts, working first individually and then as a group to see what themes emerged. These themes from the individual stories became the foundation for our analysis and the construction of this website.

Even as we set out to discover how our multi-lingual student informants “invent” the American university, we realized how challenging it would be to ask students to explain school-writing practices and experiences—here and in their home country–of which they may be largely unaware and unused to thinking about. As Sri, a student from India, commented, “It’s my own language, so I can’t really identify a particular aspect of it to say I learned to write it this way or that way.”  We also recognized that informants who had come more recently to the U.S. may have a better recall of academic writing in their home countries, that those who had more years of experience in the U.S. academy may be more apt to have the academic language to reflect on their writing practices, and that those with plans to return to their home country may have had less commitment to understanding the nuances of academic English. Moreover, we knew it would be difficult to analyze what might represent cultural influences versus individual experiences and preferences and even the extent to which the questions we asked elicited certain kinds of recall. Related to the latter, we wondered how the informants perceived our research. Did our line of questioning lead them to think we were expecting their culture to be exceedingly different, inferior, exotic? Did they have reason to be suspicious of how American culture (mis)represents them?

Preparing for Interviews

As reflexive researchers, we took note of the debates around the research on contrastive rhetoric (see Literature Review). An influential voice in these debates is Suresh Canagarajah, who argues that teachers and researchers of the English texts written by multi-lingual writers often attribute “peculiarities” in the writing to influences that are apparent from the native language; however, after comparing writing samples from the same writer in two different languages and three different rhetorical contexts, he found that the greatest determiner of difference was not language but rather audience, purpose, and context, just as in English there is no single way to write for every purpose and every reader. Although we did not ask specifically about writing in disciplines, several of our informants, typically seniors or graduate students who had had more experience writing in a range of courses, made rhetorical distinctions based on purpose and audience. Kanishka, a graduate student in Public Policy from Sri Lanka, told us, for example,

Here it is a more functional language, and practical, and I think professional too, because you know that is what people are looking for. …I am used to writing where you are demonstrating the beauty of the language, [which is] pretty much different from where you try to convey a quick message.  They would be two different arenas totally, so maybe if you are doing something in an office, maybe you shouldn’t use too much beautiful language, that doesn’t make sense.  Just tell me what you are telling me and that makes sense. What is your point–that is the thing, the time restrictions and the deadlines and the bottom lines.

We had to consider Robert B. Kaplan’s 1966 article that spurred the dialogue on contrastive rhetoric (see Literature Review). Though good to think with, and certainly informative for our research, Kaplan’s models are reductive. And although a student may not be aware of Kaplan’s theory, they may have encountered the essentializing of various stereotypes. We tried to keep in mind the advice of Sandarshi, one of our administrative informants from Sri Lanka:

I think it’s hard to do that [to] any given culture. I think by saying Middle Eastern people write in circles or English write straight through…those are, I think, American stereotypes or Western stereotypes. It’s more the things you believe—values and judgment. There are basic things which are universally common like [a] grammar [and] structure, but beyond that, it’s the norms and the way you think.

We are not reducing thinkers into neat categories, but rather trying to find some common ground in addressing the diverse needs of writers in internationalized institutions.

Recognizing the possible sensitivity of our informants’ responses, we applied for Human Subjects Review Board approval to conduct research. The university deemed our research ethical, posing minimal emotional risk to our informants. Each member of our team was certified in social/behavioral research after taking the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative online modules and quizzes.

Selecting Informants, Framing Interviews, and Analyzing Data

In selecting informants, we used George Mason and our writing center demographics as a guide. Researcher Alo Das developed a language tree to see if we covered our branches. We did not actively seek out students of western European backgrounds, because of the low ratio of these students in the Mason community and the similarities in rhetoric between the American academy and their own linguistic traditions. In speaking with several informants of European upbringing (namely, France, Spain, and Greece), our suspicions of similarities were confirmed in that their writing practices seemed to stem from the Western rhetorical tradition.

To provide a context for our interviews, we asked our 26 informants to fill out a questionnaire giving us information about their backgrounds, including the languages they speak and their level of proficiency, countries they have lived in, how and where they learned English, the number of years they have been studying in the U.S., and what field(s) they have studied. We knew making generalizations, especially about culture and academic writing styles, would be difficult, and we certainly didn’t want to make any untoward assumptions. The difficulty of associating our informants’ comments with a culture became very clear to us when we spoke to students like Efrata, who was born in Ethiopa, moved to Russia when she was three, and then to the U.S. for high school. Or to Luis, from Peru, who, in addition to living abroad in other Spanish speaking countries, lived in Bangladesh for three years and in Philippines for four before coming to the U.S. for college. Or to researchers Anna and Alokparna, who each grew up in post-colonial countries—Alo in India and Anna in Lebanon—where they were immersed in their native languages, Hindi and Arabic respectively, and the language of the colonial power, English for Alo and French for Anna. This page provides a detailed list of our informants which highlights the complexity of their backgrounds and experiences. What we can say in general about them is that they come from twenty-one different countries that span South America, Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, South-East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Many were educated in post-colonial contexts, which further complicated their responses to our questions.

We conducted one focus group, which was not as useful to our research as we had hoped as the students in this introductory composition course were from such mixed backgrounds and had a variety of motives for being in the class. In the focus group, as well as with a number of our individual informants, we found it difficult to determine the extent to which their responses were influenced by their enrollment in a composition class for non-native writers during the time we interviewed them.

One issue we encountered during interviews was the Hawthorne Effect, the phenomenon that, when people are observed in a study, their behavior temporarily changes. In our case, we were concerned we were anticipating answers and framing interview questions in such a way as to encourage certain responses. Similarly, in cases where students may not have the language or training to discuss a process, we questioned whether we were leading the conversation, and if they were giving us a response they thought we’d like to hear.

In one line of questioning, we asked Luis, a student from Chile, to speak about the characteristics of his language. Researcher Anna Habib, attempting to better explain the question, said, “For example, I speak Arabic and in Arabic everything is over-exaggerated and very flowery…there is a difference in the way that the language feels.” Luis subsequently picked up on Anna’s terminology in describing his Spanish friend’s approach to writing a few moments later: “Ignacio tries to put flowers and things; he is really a good student. I am just more simple.” Here we obviously gave the informant an expression to describe writing.
In one case in particular we felt the Hawthorne Effect to be in full force, as it seemed a student was perhaps repeating generalizations he has heard about writing in Spanish. Luis from Peru exaggerated the point of Spanish being romantic so much that we felt he may be recalling things that he had heard, but perhaps not experienced. We need to consider that students may be drawing on generalizations projected on them by other research, playing off simple reductivism.

Drawing from ethnographic theory, we used grounded analysis methods to code the transcripts, working first individually and then meeting as a group to see what themes emerged. We realize that the themes that “emerge” from the coding process are always shaped by existing preconceptions and experiences; reflecting as a group helped us keep our analysis balanced, especially considering the diverse experiences of our team itself, which included three multi-lingual, multi-cultural members. We considered these members “informed informants”; their experiences informed our analysis and are also woven into the research.