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


Collectively, these findings create a portrait of a mainstream United States composition classroom and the beliefs, abilities, materials, and behaviors that contribute to participation or lack thereof by international students in that setting. The multidimensional quality of participation in even a relatively small class such as this section of WRIT 102 confirms the continuing need for contextualized understandings from ecological perspectives. This intricacy undoubtedly contributes to difficulties encountered by the instructor and students in creating the most active, inclusive, and respectful circumstances possible.

The study highlights important rhetorical and pedagogical aspects of participation in mixed writing classrooms. Arguably the most important is that international/second language students are welcome to contribute their own unique perspectives and ideas but within the framework of United States ways of participating. The instructor in the present study was aware of anxiety, language ability, and cultural barriers working against international-student participation in WRIT 102, but to an extent she still expected they would generally follow the same patterns of engagement as their domestic counterparts. Activities such as quizzes and “make-up” presentations were offered as inferior substitutes to open, voluntary speaking, both explicitly in comparison with the syllabus statement on participation, and implicitly through the instructor’s adjustments to the lack of spoken engagement. Of the six categories of participation identified by instructor participants in Critel's national survey (Critel, this collection), those most concerned with language production (predominantly speaking but also writing) became the dominant concern when focusing exclusively on international students. Domestic students implicitly embraced the language standards by not helping international students to participate, leaving them to be judged as not adequate. Pine also expressed disappointment with the domestic students not being more engaged with their international classmates and not offering opportunities to use and develop English. This echoes the arguments of previous scholars (Horner and Trimbur; Matsuda, "The Myth") that United States writing classrooms are founded on an implicit requirement that all students will already have a native-like mastery of the English language and United States cultural norms.

Such underlying beliefs can be challenged only when both instructors and all students involved make an effort to reach out to one another. These beliefs may increase unwillingness on the part of instructors to compel their students to speak out, rather than waiting for voluntary contributions. By this logic, if all students have earned their place in WRIT 102, they will all be on the same cultural page and will all be equally aware of the need to participate and equally capable of doing so. A lack of experience with cultural and linguistic diversity—not a problem encountered by Elise, but one that was the case with both the domestic and international students of WRIT 102—would be expected to make reaching out more uncomfortable. Even Elise, with her prior experience, was generally unwilling to intentionally place international students in a position of having to contribute, or to give clear guidance on how domestic and international students should relate to one another. Without such guidance, operating with the expectation that students will figure out on their own how to appropriately reach out, the natural tendency to stay with one’s own will be confirmed and reinforced. Homogeneous groupings may quickly solidify as the norm of a class.

Instructors enhance international-student engagement not only through active outreach but also through the forms of speech they use in lectures and discussions. As Pine and Elise both realized, more structured forms of instructor speech, including IRF-patterned speech, can provide advantages and liabilities. Regarding a familiar pattern of classroom discussion, students may find responding more comfortable, and they may find the English more comprehensible. Nevertheless, if it is not paired with more open-ended forms of discourse, it can quickly generate a perception that classroom talk is to be primarily guided by the instructor, thus inhibiting spontaneous classroom talk, as noted by Courtney B. Cazden and Pauline Gibbons. More balance between structured and open-ended classroom talk, done in a sustained way from the beginning of the semester, would communicate to both domestic and international learners that the discourse of the class is meant to be inclusive.

Beyond interactions among instructors and students, the texts of a writing course provide an important foundation for participation. The explicitness of syllabi, project descriptions, and other instructor-created content was expected to be a contributing element prior to the study. However, the present study offers a chance to glimpse how literary and academic texts play a part in participation. In her interviews, Pine noted that she found the content of the reading assignments to be more accessible to her because their story contexts were explained and discussed explicitly in the class. In other writing classrooms, when the cultural and historical contexts of class readings are not discussed openly, it may alienate international students and push them away from being actively involved.

It may be useful to conceptualize face-to-face and online interactions and written texts on the part of all students and the instructor as performances (Critel). In this study, domestic and international students alike could be said to have performed for their respective groups. Verbal exchanges tended to be focused on the instructor or peers of the same nationality, and neither domestics nor internationals seemed to use language in ways that would have made it more accessible or interesting to the others. On the international side, the tendency of Pine and her fellow Chinese students to keep conversations among themselves in class created a self-sustaining loop in which their performances were tailored primarily for themselves. An instructor hoping to encourage both sides to interact more frequently and productively might frame her work by asking "What kinds of performances would elicit the preferred response from the other side?" before considering strategies for encouraging students toward those kinds of performances. Input from the instructor on how to perform in a productive way for both domestic and international students would therefore also be welcome.

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