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

Opportunities created and denied by instructor practices

Even within writing courses where sincere efforts are made toward creating egalitarian learning, it is the instructor who exerts the most power and sets the baseline standards for student engagement (Miller). This begins with the founding documents of a course. Syllabi are by necessity skeletal in nature and cannot address unexpected developments in context. The inclusion of fewer details may encourage cooperation, but it inevitably leads to confusion and miscommunication in certain circumstances (Smith and Razzouk). Conversely, more specifically detailed syllabi may lead to student resistance (Boice; Richmond and McCroskey). The syllabus for this section of WRIT 102 responds to the needs of some students, particularly international learners operating in a second language, for explicitness:

Participation in class discussion is extremely important and constitutes a large part of the learning process. There is a saying that people learn by doing, not simply by listening. By participating in class discussion, you are “doing,” and therefore learning more than if you only listened. Therefore, participation will account for at least 20% of your final grade. This participation is counted, however, in two ways:

1. Quizzes: These will not only cover the material for that day’s reading, but will also cover reading and discussions from the previous class. What this means is that those who listen attentively and take notes will get credit for this kind of participation [instructor’s emphasis]. These quizzes will be worth 10% of your final grade and CANNOT be made up.

2. In-class Participation: Leading class discussion during presentations, responding to your classmates’ comments, being present for peer reviews, workshop activities and generally being an active member of the classroom community constitutes in-class participation [instructor’s emphasis] and is worth 10% of your final grade. However, disruptive behavior or failure to engage with the assigned reading will mean that you forfeit your participation grade.

Verbal classroom participation is clearly privileged above all other forms. Elise’s definition of participation mathematically equates quiet engagement with speaking by awarding points partly on the basis of listening—apparently an accommodation to those who are concerned about their language abilities or who may experience increased anxiety in large groups—but the activities allowed and initiated by the instructor convey other messages, a number of which may work against international students.

The syllabus's emphasis on verbal participation is primarily concerned with how well student behavior aligns with explicit and implicit concepts of professional conduct (Critel, this collection) and with work outside the class, but it also alludes to the instructor's role outside class time. Elise offered regular open office hours and office appointments at other times, fully expecting her international students would make up a significant portion of these office visits. She also reviewed one draft of each project (such as the close/critical reading and the creative/critical application project) but provided only content feedback with little or no commentary on language errors. She considered her tolerance for language variation to be higher than those of some of her colleagues and added that student’s previous ESL courses and campus resources such as the writing center should be sufficient for their success in WRIT 102.

One contradiction between the syllabus and actual practice is in the nature of the quizzes. Although the quizzes were framed as a form of participation, questions in all seven of them were multiple-choice format. In other words, rather than eliciting new ideas from students, the quizzes emphasized information that could be learned entirely outside the class with little or no interaction among students or with the instructor. However, Pine indicated that these were the easiest part of the course, an additional incentive to completing reading assignments and a way to help accomplish the first essential step of any reading discussion: understanding what is on the page before responding thoughtfully to it.

Lectures and class discussions offered other important divergences between stated beliefs and classroom practices. In her first interview for this study, Elise described her general policy for WRIT 102 and all other courses: “There’s only so much that I can provide on my own, in a way that is meaningful to them . . . so planned lecturing takes up only a quarter of speaking time in any given session. Students figure out that they need to fill the quiet spaces that I make, and they know the kinds of speaking that are valued.” If students are not actively offering questions and comments at the end of her lecture, she poses one or two prepared questions to prime the conversation. In a first-year class like WRIT 102, Elise finds it important to give students practice as early as possible in being contributing members and not merely receptive audiences. She does not generally feel cultural differences are the main reason behind a lack of contributions from international students in light of her experience with domestic students who can be just as silent.

Fig. 1. Pine reflects on differences among instructors and different teaching styles, and one of the challenges in compelling international students to speak in class. Click here for transcript.

As the semester progressed, though, Elise realized that trusting class discussions to succeed with little or no scaffolding on her part—not offering guiding questions or comments to elicit student responses and to move student understanding toward key points—was not a sustainable strategy. She described the class as “quieter than any I can remember,” and not along any clear domestic and international dividing line. She suggested it might just be something unexpected about the class dynamic and the students involved, and she was quick to point out that many had been making valuable contributions once they were directly pushed to share their thoughts. Consequently, she more frequently prepared questions ahead of time, trying to make just enough to fill the class time. When we observed the class late in the semester, the questions brought in by Elise about the novel 1984 made up at least half the open exchanges; at first, the students offered their insights grudgingl, but, as time went on, showed increasing confidence and sophistication. However, Elise remained the focal point of the discussion.

Interestingly, half the questions Elise posed during the observation were highly structured in an IRF (initiation, response, feedback) pattern, customary in classroom talk as a means of eliciting and, if necessary, correcting understanding (Cazden; Gibbons). Her IRF questions encompassed accuracy in reading as well as the logic of students’ interpretations. Both international and domestic students were observed to be more responsive to these kinds of questions. This formalized patterning of questions had a dramatic effect on the perceptions of Pine and potentially on the other students: although analysis of observational field notes showed Elise was responsible for about 40% of all open speech during the observed class, Pine’s rough estimate was 70%, creating a perception for her that there were few chances for students to join the discussion. The form of instructor speech is obviously a vital characteristic to consider.

Recognizing the potential difficulties of open speech in class, Elise allowed students to do up to two short presentations at the start of class as an “escape hatch,” a more formalized and focused way of demonstrating engagement with the material. Elise found that the lack of spontaneity and exchanges among students made presentations a less than ideal substitute. With the international students of WRIT 102 becoming the most frequent users of the short-presentation option, she was also concerned about how they called undue attention to their international/L2 status. Because the presentations were more formal and prepared, Elise continued, "the presenters are doing more speaking at the class than speaking with the class, setting up another barrier." Elise commented that “it ends up being inferred that these students are using it as a crutch for language differences."

When discussing the balance between her speaking in class and students’ participation, Elise cited a regular reliance on group work. None of the major projects were done collaboratively, but she frequently turned to small student groups during class time to conduct close readings of passages and to help planning and reviewing of projects at different stages. Beyond alleviating anxiety and language difficulties for some students, Elise was also motivated by a desire to shift attention away from her as the instructor. Since the international and domestic students almost never mixed voluntarily, she contemplated creating mixed groups for them later in the semester, but withdrew out of the realization that it would almost always result in one “token international student” for each group. By encouraging mixed collaboration, she would unnecessarily shine a spotlight on the students’ outsider status. She compared it with previous classes in which only one or two international students had enrolled, where they and the domestic students worked together without hesitation. Pine had similar recollections of her nonwriting classes, finding that domestic students were more welcoming in such cases.

Upon examining the complex ways in which an instructor's behavior shapes and is shaped by interactions with their international students, the need for explicitness becomes even clearer. Elise arguably went further than other instructors in a similar position to clarify expectations, but that explicitness may not have been sufficient for learners from all cultural backgrounds, especially in regard to outlining her own expectations and behaviors. Anything nearing a complete description would be costly to an instructor's already limited time, and it would likely turn a syllabus into an inaccessibly ponderous document. However, offering descriptions of instructor and student expectations at various points throughout the semester and not in a single document like a syllabus—and doing so on an as-needed basis—might alleviate some of that burden.

Elise's practices reported here also lead to several useful subsequent questions:

  • How can instructors "front load" information on expectations of student participation at the start of the semester? Can explicating these expectations be done in a way that will not overwhelm students and will, in fact, be retained over time?
  • Elise's minipresentations gave international students opportunities to share thoughts on prior content after class conversations and other activities had been finished and the material had become a little less relevant. Perhaps presenting on future materials would be more valuable to all students. While maintaining the prepared aspect of presentations, presenter contributions would more likely be unique, not echoing the contributions of others. The presentations could also serve as the starting point for discussions, placing these students—international and domestic alike—into more influential and confidence-building positions.
  • As Critel (this collection) pointed out, syllabi far more often relay expectations of student behavior and little in the way of instructor behavior. For students coming from outside United States academic culture, would more information about instructors themselves also be instructive? Such information may help students to better understand how their behaviors will lead to particular responses.
  • Although public speaking is not the only valid form of participation in Elise's WRIT 102 class, it plays a central role. What is the impact on second language learners when an instructor prioritizes this traditional form of participation? How is it related to but distinct from issues faced by first language users who are uncomfortable with speaking in large forums? How can instructors prepare ahead of time to accommodate these students?

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