Vol. 3, No. 1 (Summer 2022)
By Mohsen Hosseinpour Moghaddam,
Graduate Writing Facilitator, Simon Fraser University
Mohsen is a PhD student in Education at Simon Fraser University. He moved to Canada from Iran in 2012. He started learning English at the age of twenty. Before that, he only knew a few words and grammar rules. He is currently working as an Graduate Writing Facilitator on the undergraduate team at the Student Learning Commons (SLC) and WriteAway. At SLC, in addition to offering individual writing consultations, he delivers general and course-integrated writing workshops across disciplines on topics ranging from argumentation to ethical use of research material in writing assignments.
“Body is never simply matter, for it is never divorced from perception and interpretation…and it is subject to examination and speculation” – Carla Peterson (2001, as cited in James Alexander, 2001, p. 108)
Scene 1 (teaching in-person)
I started working as an undergraduate writing advisor at the Student Learning Commons (SLC) in the middle of the third year of my PhD program. I have been teaching workshops and having one-on-one consultations with students since then. Coming to Canada as an international student from the Middle East (Iran) and being a non-native speaker/writer (NNS/W) of English made the challenges of being a writing advisor more intense. A question that has always lingered on my mind is if I am a legitimate writing advisor. I am not saying that others directly question my legitimacy and credibility as a writing advisor; this is just a feeling that I have always had with me as a NNS/W of English teaching at a Canadian university.
Before the pandemic, I taught workshops and had consultations in person. As a NNS/W of English, the feeling of being an illegitimate writing advisor arose more when I was teaching a workshop to predominantly white, native speakers of English and when my client was a native-English speaker. Maybe if I were teaching another course, I wouldn’t have that feeling, but I was teaching English academic writing to predominantly native speakers of English.
I remember multiple occasions when I had signed up for a workshop to teach, I entered the class and was welcomed by the white, Canadian instructor. I looked at the students as I was entering the class: mostly white students. During my workshops, there were times when I saw some students smiling or whispering something to their friends, and I wondered if I made a wrong word choice or mispronounced a word or maybe because of my accent I said something that wasn’t clear. Maybe their smile or whisper was for something else, but when you don’t speak a language as your first one and your skin color and race is different from the majority, you always carry these feelings and questions on your shoulders: Do the students and the instructor see a non-white, Middle Eastern NNS/W of English as a legitimate teacher to teach an English writing workshop? Do they wonder, “how can a person who can’t speak the language properly teach me to become a better academic writer?” My race, skin color, language, accent, and even nationality all play a role in the physical space and in both how I view myself and how I might be viewed by others. And these all play into my feelings of (il)legitimacy in my role as a writing advisor.
My race, skin color, language, accent, and even nationality all play a role in the physical space and in both how I view myself and how I might be viewed by others.
Scene 2 (teaching online)
When COVID started, the SLC switched to offering workshops and consultations online, and the first thing that I noticed was how parts of my identity became hidden (or maybe were no longer at the centre of attention) in a virtual environment. I started feeling more comfortable in the virtual space where no one else was around me. When I am teaching workshops virtually, students usually have their cameras off and even when they are on, the screen is too small, and I don’t pay attention to who is there. Of course, there can be a downside to this, as it can be good to see who is in the room with you. But I mean, being watched from a small screen is different from being watched in the physical space, and it changes my relationship to the ongoing questions I carry about my own legitimacy as an instructor in this space. My accent and race and ethnicity aren’t that important anymore. Feelings of illegitimacy don’t steadily accompany me. So, the virtual space is kind of hiding part of my identity. It is decentering the images that might reflect my “Otherness.”
So, the virtual space is kind of hiding part of my identity. It is decentering the images that might reflect my “Otherness.”
The self-image that makes me uncomfortable in the physical space is less visible/present in the virtual environment. I am now of two minds about Canagarajah’s (2016) claim that “identity cannot remain occluded in teaching.” On the one hand, I agree that in the physical space, the identity of a teacher is an inseparable part of their teaching. On the other hand, I feel when I teach online some facets of identity are occluded—including those parts that might lower a NNS/W’s self-esteem and confidence to teach English academic writing to native speakers of English at a predominately white institution.
And now this reflection makes me wonder why I have been having more and more English as Additional Language (EAL) students for one-on-one consultations in the virtual space than physical space. Could EAL students also feel more comfortable using the virtual space because they aren’t surrounded and watched by others in a predominately white institution? Could they feel more comfortable in a virtual space because they can occlude parts of their identity that reflect their “Otherness”? Or maybe they visit me more because I share parts of their identity and experience within the predominantly white institution?
 People from the Middle East and Iran carry with them a lot of uncomfortable labels and associations like terrorism, travel ban, nuclear bomb, etc. George Bush called Iran the “axis of evil.” How the media talks about Iran and the Middle East and the image that they present puts a lot of pressure on people of these regions. Working at a Canadian institution was extremely hard for me at the beginning because I was concerned about people’s reaction to my ethnicity. Being from the Middle East and Iran is very different from being from another part of the world. It is connected with a lot more “Otherness.”
Alexander, S. A. J. (2001). Walking on thin ice: The il/legitimacy of race and racial issues in the classroom. In D. P. Freedman & S.M. Holmes (Eds.), The teacher’s body: Embodiment, authority, and identity in academy (pp. 105-118). State University of New York Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/4686
Canagarajah, S. (2016). Multilingual identity in teaching multilingual writing. In G. Barkhuizen (Ed.), Reflections on language teacher identity research. New York, NY: Routledge.