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


The present study serves only as a beginning of research into the rhetorical and pedagogical dimensions of international-student participation in domestic United States writing classrooms. Like previous studies of international and L2 participation, complex interrelationships and conflicting messages about the value of particular forms of engagement have emerged. Future researchers are encouraged to pursue and build upon this complexity. A critical and longitudinal examination would extend the range of research, problematizing a United States monolingual view of participation, comparing ESL writing courses with domestic/L1 courses, and comparing writing classrooms with other writing-intensive settings across the university curriculum. A study of cumulative student experiences in the United States academy can contribute to understanding changes in international students’ participation patterns over time. Although domestic students are discussed in the present study, their involvement is limited. Future research may look at domestic students as the focus and investigate what informs their participation or lack of it and how they perceive their international counterparts. All these qualitative investigations are likely to be more effective when they are taken alongside larger-scale quantitative studies of L2 students in L1 classrooms, comparable to Matsuda, Tanita Saenkhum, and Steven Accardi’s survey.

Execution and promotion of the rhetorical and pedagogical dimensions of participation depend on the instructor’s curriculum and instruction. Beyond the instructor’s individual level of efforts, a systematic program-level approach can contribute to integrating these two populations. For instance, reflective planning and modification can be conducted in a mediated approach, similar to Matsuda and Silva’s experimental half-domestic and half-international writing course. While doing so, however, instructors should be careful to not view international/second language learners as deficient students who are struggling to reach an inevitable goal of native-like command of language and culture but as representatives of different multilingual and multicultural perspectives that deserve space and respect (e.g., Stuart). As the present study shows, international students in mixed settings will fall back on a variety of strategies for engagement in classes, and instructors should be open to such variety (e.g., Morita; Pappamehiel). Explicit statements in syllabi on diverse forms of participation simultaneously demonstrate instructors' openness to variety and their expectation that students will vary their own approaches. As they do with much of the content of any course syllabus, instructors will need to revisit their statements periodically in order to further clarify them and strengthen student awareness (Smith and Razzouk).

In acknowledging that students may need to occasionally rely on strategies that run counter to the American model of vocal action, instructors should also speak directly with students about trying new approaches if they are overreliant on one or two. Instructors who create lists of specific and concrete strategies to share with students for their use will find it easier to have these conversations. Similarly, instructors should vary the way they create opportunities for speaking, switching between the familiar structure of IRF to more open-ended discussions as a way of scaffolding students into fuller participation. Classroom discussion strategies will have a limited effect if materials and lessons are not designed with a wider range of learners in mind. This does not mean making the curriculum simpler and easier for understandability of diverse audiences. What it does mean in practice is creating lessons that engage a wider variety of cognitive approaches and that are more explicit about the contexts of reading and writing. In any mixed American classroom, domestic students will always be a majority, and their important role should not be left to chance or gradual evolution. At least in the early weeks of a class, instructors will very likely need to actively organize students into mixed pairs and groups, until the act of speaking and working together is more comfortable.

Regardless of the range and effort brought by instructors, it is finally the responsibility of students to take control of their own participation patterns. Pine's strategy of preparing questions and comments in a notebook or in an online forum to share ahead of time is particularly useful as a bridge between the prepared aspects of the short presentations of Elise's class and the spontaneous nature of full discussions; within the organized framework of a student's initial contribution, follow-up questions and comments are easier to understand and address. Students can also make regular entries in writer's journals noting the strategies they have employed or avoided, their successes or failures with these strategies, and how participation influences the quality of their writing. Such private entries can serve as a basis for more formal reports of group work activities, which offer instructors another perspective on their students' interactions and alert them to the need for their own involvement.

While these approaches are well-suited to the needs of L2 international learners, they can also be adopted by domestic native speakers who are encountering their own difficulties. Many of the efforts meant to give attention to the unique needs and expectations of non-native students can, through principles of universal design for learning (Rose and Meyer), become instruments for making writing classrooms more supportive of diverse engagement.

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