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 international students

Pine expressed a strong advocacy for her own academic success, but rather than creating new and unique opportunities, she (along with other international students, according to her account) was more likely to use opportunities created for her and to use them frequently and actively. The most obvious occurrence of this was Pine’s use of the instructor’s open office hours to ask questions that were more complex and potentially riskier to pose in the classroom. For every once-a-week session, she was the first in line to speak with Elise, and she frequently set the agenda for most of each meeting by preparing questions ahead of time. Of the openness she felt in office hours, Pine compared it to the lack of anxiety she felt in ESL writing contexts, vividly reflecting Critel's argument (this collection) that student performance is done very much for the benefit of fellow students as well as for the obvious benefit of the instructor: “In those [ESL] classes, it was almost all Chinese, so no one would think bad of me. But it’s mostly Americans in WRIT 102, so I think there will be bad opinions of me most of the time. In office hour, all the students are me, just me, and the professor is okay, too.” Pine expressed a less satisfied opinion of office hours later in the semester, though, when Elise began to impose fifteen-minute limits, in order to accommodate other students. Elise also cited a need for student writers to develop a degree of independence in their work, even if their language needs persisted. Pine indicated that one other Chinese student in the class may have started following her example of routine office hour visits during the second half of the semester, but she was not certain of it. However, she was certain that five of the six other Chinese students had turned to e-mailed questions, sending three or four questions a week on average compared with one or less per week from the domestic students.

At the time of our observation of the class, it was clear divisions between domestic and international students in the class were deeply entrenched. Neither side showed an active interest in engaging the other. The six Chinese students sat together in one corner of the classroom, and conversations among them on the day of the observation and throughout the semester were usually conducted in Mandarin. Although Pine seemed to realize the loss of a language-practice opportunity and the reinforcement of isolation between international and domestic students, working in Mandarin felt more natural and helped her meta-level understanding.

Fig. 3. Pine observes that the national and linguistic makeup of her fellow students can be a vital factor in the ways she participates in class (note: audio was edited to keep names anonymous). Click here for transcript

As the chapter discusses elsewhere, language was also thought to be a criterion in choosing the multimedia option for the midterm creative project. Pine acknowledged it would have given L2 writers like her a chance to circumvent some of the linguistic challenges of writing. Nevertheless, none of the international students used this opportunity. For Pine, a traditional essay would more effectively allow her to improve her English than would a visual or audio project. According to Elise, this choice did not distinguish Pine or the other international students, though, as their preference for traditional essays mirrored that of the domestic students, among whom only one selected the multimodal option.

Elise’s openness to student choice on this project, the spaces she made for student input, and her apparent receptiveness to the international students gave Pine reason to trust that she would find genuine opportunities to collaborate. Pine specifically cited a late-semester one-on-one conference in which she was able to give multiple suggestions to the instructor, some of which were adopted by the instructor in a revised rubric on the language and style component of a grading rubric for the final project, a paper on personal utopias and dystopias; several days later, the rubric delivered to the class omitted references to “personal voice,” an idea Pine had found “so vague that [it] could be anything.” Pine went on to contrast this episode with moments of negotiation in the classroom over the standards to be included in project rubrics and scheduling deadlines. She reported that these moments were like competition with the domestic students, when expressing themselves became far more daunting for international students. Pine and her fellow Chinese students never volunteered their opinions on these matters, especially in the face of passionate input from the domestic students. On occasions when the instructor began asking the Chinese students directly for their comments, their input was taken up infrequently whenever it conflicted with common opinions among the domestic students.

Whether or not a culturally and linguistically mixed writing classroom is fortunate to have students on both sides who are willing to actively reach out to the other, it is evident that the instructor is the only individual in the classroom who is positioned to facilitate interactions between them. In situations like the one encountered by Pine and her fellow international students, such explicit and intentional involvement would be essential. Part of that process would necessarily involve an openness to a wider variety of student behaviors and strategies, and discussing the value of those different strategies with all students. A few additional reflections:

  • The international students in WRIT 102 were from one country. What would the dynamics among international students be like in more diverse, multinational and multilingual settings? Would they still be willing to engage among one another, and to do so in English?
  • Explicitness is a key principle in teaching for those who may be culturally unfamiliar with the discourse of a classroom. How would students like Pine and her colleagues respond to a list of strategies for participation, prepared ahead of time by the instructor?
  • An important objective of participation is to give students chances to express and develop their voices. Matsuda ("Voice") illustrates not only that elements of voice can be analyzed and described to some extent (a clear rebuttal to those who see voice as an "ineffable quality") but also that different languages and cultures take advantage of different linguistic and non-linguistic affordances to construct it. What, though, is "voice" exactly?
  • If an instructor artificially creates mixed domestic/international-student groups initially, will international students become more willing to interact over time?

[Go to "Opportunities created and denied by domestic students"]