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 materials and assignments

Considering that the majority of work in a writing class centers on its major projects, what does and does not count as meaningful participation is inextricably tied to those projects. Beginning with a critical reading of a major work as the first assignment, the course projects next moved to a cultural and historical interrogation covering multiple texts, a “creative/critical application” of a theme from any earlier point in the semester, and then an engaged reflection on the semester’s body of work. The full descriptions for the projects outlined the necessary work for each project, in very specific detail, but by the third project, the level of detail dropped off noticeably. Although the open-ended nature of the third project (in which students were allowed to choose their media) may have partly motivated this change, this lack of detail was seen across all project descriptions and continued after the third project. Elise described this as a response to students who had been in the class for nearly two months, who would in most cases be more familiar by that point with ways of writing in the course, and who would know to draw on the minor activities and class discussions in their major work. Pine, however, reported that she and her Chinese classmates were forced to rely on one another and on office-hour visits with Elise to clarify and strategize for these later projects.

The semester's third project offered a glimpse of the role of technology in participation. The project was intended for students to “design their own creative project within broad parameters set by instructor, experimenting with creative forms, multiple media, or alternative genres" and to create texts “written for an audience outside the academy.” Students were provided with a choice of modes utilizing any combination of digital or nondigital technologies. Elise initially expected international students would use a multimodal approach to bypass language difficulties. However, the international students all opted to write traditional papers. Elise speculated that the added dimension of having to learn new technologies may have contributed to their decisions, but responses from Pine point to the strong desire for more English-language writing practice.

Fig. 2. Pine responds to a question about course materials and how they did not prepare her for participation on the day the class was observed. Click here for transcript.

Among all class materials, the most difficult to access for Pine was often the class readings. Unlike her past ESL-writing-class experiences in which reading requirements were restrained, WRIT 102 included two writing textbooks rather than just one in addition to three full novels, two ten-page cultural studies articles, and two movies. The length and linguistic richness of the material resulted in “the most demanding [reading] I ever had,” in her words. However, she was proud of the fact that she was able to get through at least one-half of the last novel before turning to other forms of support, such as online summaries and commentaries, in order to fully comprehend it. She also showed appreciation for Elise’s choice of science fiction, such as 1984, and other novels, which offered contexts and situations that did not exist in the world and were therefore “foreign to everybody” in the class, international and domestic students alike. By contrast, the movies were far more accessible, especially since one of them was an established hit in China before Pine began her Stateside studies.

The course Web site was one resource with potential for more comfortable, fully interactive participation than the face-to-face classroom, but it was not used extensively. In her first interview, Pine was enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging with her fellow students in the online forum. “We used these in my past English class and in a sociology class,” she said, “and it makes it so much easier to get language right. When I have time to get language right, I feel better, and I almost can’t see my accent. On a forum, they also can’t see me as Chinese.” Pine counted on this as an important tool that would help her meet the challenge of working with native speakers. Contrary to her expectations, she quickly found the forum would instead focus almost exclusively on the instructor’s questions, with students posting and then receiving feedback from her and with no substantial conversationsamong students. “I guess students could write when they wanted to and answer who they wanted to,” Pine added, but neither international nor domestic students were encouraged or required to experiment.

Accessibility is a crucial theme emerging from the creation and presentation of materials. Even within writing courses based on a framework oriented very much toward United States cultural and linguistic norms (Horner and Trimbur; Matsuda, "The Myth" ), international students who are unfamiliar with the basic norms are capable of understanding and using materials and participating in interactions, if they are granted sufficient time to engage with the discourse of those materials. Readings, projects, and other resources can be more accessible to new student populations, if the conditions for comprehending them are provided. In addition, the relevance of materials can contribute to their overall accessibility. Related thoughts about materials:

  • Elise's joke about making material "foreign to everybody" begins to suggest how instructors working on principles of universal design for learning can choose readings and other texts challenging and interesting to both domestic and international students, while at the same time addressing the more concrete need for less linguistically complex work on the part of some L2 students. Instructors may also weigh the novelty or "strangeness" of a text alongside its linguistic difficulty.
  • International second language students such as Pine can obviously handle projects that demand higher-level writing, when they are granted more time to work on them.

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