International Student Participation in a Mainstream Composition Course: Opportunities and Challenges

International Student Participation in a Mainstream Composition Course: Opportunities and Challenges

Tony Cimasko and Dong-shin Shin


In this chapter Cimasko and Shin extend Critel’s discussion of the commonplaces surrounding student participation to examine the participation of second language and international writers, particularly the identities, discourses, and challenges second language (L2) learners and instructors face in United States composition classrooms. As scholarship on L2 writing has shown, L2 writers’ experiences are very similar to those of native speakers (L1), differing from them only by a matter of degree. Building from this premise, Cimasko and Shin use Critel’s commonplaces to help navigate the complexities their own study raises. For example, all four of Critel’s commonplaces were at play in the class they observed for this study, but the commonplaces of community and embodiment have the most to suggest about the tension between L1 and L2 students. Unlike classes with only L1 students, in which students tend to belong to disparate communities existing within a single national and linguistic sphere, classes with both L2 and L1 students are marked by the challenge of bringing two distinct and separate communities together into a new, coherent community. In the scenario they study, the fact that the two groups remained socially separate outside the composition classroom makes the challenge of creating a new composition community even more daunting. They conclude that the principle of being “transparent and fair—a necessary precondition for embodying the various means of participating in the class according to Critel—holds promise for fostering diversity and inclusion.


Composition programs in the United States have often responded to growing international student populations by providing dedicated ESL composition courses. Once ESL students have completed these courses, it is often assumed they will be equipped to operate at native-like levels of linguistic and cultural proficiency in writing classes designed primarily around domestic native users of English.The development of modern United States composition programs suggests that these courses are founded on a deeply ingrained “English-only” philosophy (Horner and Trimbur; Matsuda, "The Myth") that makes accommodation for increasingly diverse and internationalized student bodies difficult to achieve, even with the best intentions. Such views ignore many of the realities of second language (L2) learners, and the productive disruption of writing-classroom commonplaces, syllabi, communities, and materials remains static, with the result being that second language learners may find it difficult to participate. Offering appropriate instruction on L2 composition that is responsive to student backgrounds will become increasingly critical, as enrollment of international students—more than 30% higher than a decade earlier (Institute of International Education)—continues to grow. Scholarship on international-student participation in United States writing classes has primarily focused on ESL student-only contexts. Some aspects of ESL students’ participation in mainstream writing classrooms (such as speaking in class, giving and responding to written feedback, and small-group interactions with domestic students) have each been examined by focusing on a single aspect. There is a need for a holistic, ecological view of writing classrooms that understands how cultural, environmental, historical, perceptual, and social dimensions of their learning processes are dynamically interplayed, leading to the emergence of various levels of participation (Shin).

This chapter introduces a case study of international students’ participation in a mainstream writing course that served both domestic and international students. To understand the ecological nature of their participation in the course, the study seeks to answer the following specific questions:

  • In what ways does an instructor create or fail to create opportunities specifically for international students' participation?
  • In what ways do international students create, take advantage of, or miss opportunities for participation?
  • How do other students in the class foster or constrain participation for international students?

As the literature review illustrates, the scope of what is considered participation can vary widely. This chapter will position itself on the broader end of the continuum of definitions, recognizing that students and instructors alike coming from different individual and cultural backgrounds and with different needs engage with a course in diverse ways. In our chapter, participation is defined as any activity aside from the productive work of a course (e.g., drafting and revising a paper, taking a test) or specifically mandated activities (e.g., reading a textbook chapter), that is done to enhance understanding of course content or to improve performance on a directly and specifically mandated activity. Participation can take place inside or outside class; it can involve interaction with the instructor and/or with fellow students and/or with no one. All the categories of participation identified by Genevieve Critel (this collection) would by definition be included, but this chapter extends the range of extraclassroom activity further to cover things such as office-hour involvement face-to-face meetings with classmates, and electronic exchanges. An act of participation can potentially influence and be potentially influenced by other people, artifacts, and acts related to a class (including other acts of participation) in complex and interconnected ways. Thus, we aim to view participation in an ecological way, as being embedded in a web of circumstances.

Literature Review

Much of what has been discussed about participation by domestic students throughout this volume can be applied broadly to international, second language students of composition. As noted by Tony Silva in a review of literature comparing these two populations, many of the kinds of struggles and successes of domestic, first-language (L1) students are also encountered by L2 learners, even though the differences are substantial enough to warrant separate lines of research and pedagogical planning for L2 populations. As noted in the introduction, though, literature on participation by these students is limited. The “social turn” (Bizzell; Trimbur) in mainstream composition studies occurred sooner than the shift toward context and societal concerns (including participation) in second language studies. Until more recently, primary interest in individual process and finished texts held sway—a pattern that may have been motivated in part by the influence of linguistics and scientific intellectual traditions on L2 writing (Silva and Leki). Combined with an implicit requirement in many mainstream classrooms for students to be completely assimilated to the dominant United States academic and national cultures (Horner and Trimbur; Matsuda, "The Myth"), insights into L2 student participation—especially in mixed L1/L2 classrooms—have been slow to build.

Participation by ESL Students in ESL Settings

Like their mainstream counterparts, many researchers of second language students assume learner participation is vocal involvement with fellow students and instructors in and out of the classroom, in contrast with quieter and more personal forms of engagement. A. Suresh Canagarajah and Sarah Benesch mark early explicit approaches to the subject, connecting the issue of participation to the field’s most enduring concerns, such as ambivalence of attitudes toward the target language and needs assessment. Working in the non-Anglophone context of Sri Lanka, Canagarajah interrogates the relevance of English to any aspect of the lives of these students. He points out that the limited importance of the language quickly leads to diminishing participation in English classrooms, a predictor of diminished learning outcomes. Benesch assumes a similar measure of skepticism, but goes further in her recommendations. She critiques instructors' decades-long approach of identifying the specific language needs of students in curriculum design and argues that instructors acting without input from students are almost certain to fail. Language learners, Benesch continues, are the leading experts on their present circumstances and their future goals, and they must be represented in curriculum design at all phases. Both these pieces see connections between classroom involvement and much broader concerns: Benesch works to make students present throughout the curriculum, while Canagarajah sees reflections of and deference to broader social, economic, and political contexts.

From these early developments, scholarship pushed beyond curriculum-oriented notions of L2 student participation into students’ perceptions of target language communities. Bonny Norton, building on Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s model of novice members at the margins of communities of practice, proposes the concept of imagined communities as a crucial component to successful learning. These are communities of past, present, or future membership for students based on their identities and ambitions. Successful classroom participation, in Norton’s view, takes place when pedagogy allows for connections with and expressions of these communities—but almost paradoxically, authority figures in the classroom who more clearly represent students’ imagined communities can become sources of anxiety and discomfort. From this perspective, non-participation can become a purposeful act of resistance when imagined communities are not represented. Culture is often cited as a primary determinant of participation or non-participation on the part of second language learners, the result of endorsing cultures that value deference and “passive” learning more or less than the supposed norm in the United States (Braddock et al.; Cortazzi and Jin; Ferris and Tagg; Flowerdew and Miller; Littlewood). Contributing a dissenting voice, Xiaotang Cheng notes that professors with more ample experience teaching Asian students have an awareness of a wide range of participation and enthusiasm levels, and that classrooms in countries conventionally thought to limit student participation such as China in fact allow for open student contributions. In light of this, Cheng argues that language ability, anxiety over cultural divides, and the openness of an instructor’s methods are more likely explanatory factors. Cheng’s findings are bolstered by a metastudy of motivations and participation among language learners conducted by Anne-Marie Masgoret and Robert C. Gardner, who found that desire to connect with a new and unfamiliar community was far less reliable in correlating with L2 participation outcomes.

N. Eleni Pappamehiel points to the need for finer-grained analyses beyond the label of second language learner, beyond a binary distinction between L1 and L2 status, and the need to recognize diversity in kinds of participation. Among the young learners she studied, indirect participation was an important strategy for managing anxiety, such as weaker language learners befriending stronger ones and relying on them for help, addressing a class while facing or directly addressing no one, and employing strategies for delay in order to gather thoughts and organize language before speaking. These strategies may be productively interpreted as a second language variant on the student "underlife" described by Robert Brooke and Derek Mueller (see Critel's chapter, this collection). Some of Pappamehiel’s findings are echoed in Naoko Morita, who found that university-level students create participation strategies informed by two seemingly contradictory desires: the need to be perceived as competent contributors but at the same time the need to be recognized as English-language learners who can benefit from assistance. Morita also highlighted the evolving nature of participation strategies and how they align with students’ evolving identities. Those students who sought help from instructors were able to create and take advantage of opportunities for participation more frequently and saw themselves in a more positive light; those who did not continued to feel marginalized and considered themselves inadequate to the body of knowledge that was required.

Mainstream Writing Classrooms: Ideological Undercurrents

Many four-year institutions in the United States have designed courses designated ESL (or other comparable terms) for students who are coming from abroad for their college or university studies, who did not begin learning English until well into primary school or even later, and who are newcomers to the culture(s) of American academia. However, the field of L2 writing has long given attention to “Generation 1.5” students, those who spent the early portion of their childhoods abroad before immigrating to the United States permanently and integrating themselves, to varying degrees, into American English and American society (Harklau et al.; Roberge et al.). Such students have very different relationships with their college curricula than do international students and often view themselves as culturally domestic, even if instructors and other students do not. Likewise, many international students labeled ESL learned and grew up with English in their own countries of origin in addition to another language from a very early age, acquiring it mostly in school and using it on a routine basis in selected situations. The terms ESL, second language/L2, and international have been used on an interchangeable basis, but these terms could represent different demographic groups even though there is overlap among the terms.

Even in relatively monolithic classroom settings, composition curricula in the United States have been including multicultural elements with greater frequency than in past decades (e.g., Matsuda, "The Myth"; Reid). This has been achieved primarily by adding readings from non-White United States writers and international writers, and by explicating United States and other cultures more clearly while problematizing a binary view of United States and other cultures. This would appear to enhance the receptiveness of first-year composition (FYC) environments to international learners. However, as Bruce Horner and John Trimbur first highlighted through their historical analysis, the modern composition classroom is dominated by strong undercurrents of assumed assimilation to American cultural norms and native-like fluency in English. This is the result, according to the authors, of a century-long process of a disciplinary division of labor that moved classical-language studies (Greek and Latin) to separate programs. By default, English departments became an English-only and a United States-culture-only domain, resting on assumptions of clearly defined language ability and cultural identity. Paul Kei Matsuda, in a review of historical trends in composition, clearly articulates how this philosophical underpinning is manifested by FYC instructors: “It is not unusual for teachers who are overwhelmed by the presence of language differences to tell students simply to ‘proofread more carefully’ or to ‘go to the writing center’; those who are not native speakers of dominant varieties of English are thus being held accountable for what is not being taught” ("The Myth" 640). Given that “there is … no clear point at which an individual can be said to be or not be a speaker of a given language” (Horner and Trimbur 612), the flaw in this intellectual undercurrent becomes clear. Despite a growing awareness of this issue and a desire on the part of many writing instructors to address it through multicultural curricula, strong skepticism (e.g., Reid) remains, slowing progress toward an inclusive and effective environment for L2 student learning. Successful participation, therefore, is narrowly defined by L2 students’ compliance with those styles that reflect a near monopoly of native United States and L1 English patterns.

The disparate strands of scholarship on L2 writing and composition classrooms that contribute to our current understanding of participation point to a wide spectrum of influences both inside and outside the classroom. However, studies address various factors shaping participation mostly on a separate, one-by-one basis. To build understanding of such a complex network of skills, identities, and associations, a more holistic approach would be needed. It is at this point that we drew on ecological perspectives of language learning and development, influenced greatly by James J. Gibson. Comparable to studies of natural ecologies, these perspectives acknowledge it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the language performer or learner from their rich context of learning. An ecological approach draws on a variety of disciplines and multiple domains of data in an attempt to understand how language users, their interlocutors, discourses, and contexts all function together to enhance or inhibit learning—and often both (Gibson; Kramsch; van Lier, Ecology, "From Input").

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