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 existing studies show that the nature of L2 student participation is complex, involving student identities, language competency, and motivation to biases of L1 peers and instructors and curriculum factors. Thus, understanding L2 student participation calls for a contextualized and holistic investigation of the social, cultural, material, and institutional contexts of a classroom from an ecological view of how all these factors interact with each other. By taking such an approach, we understood the need to go beyond written-project texts and course materials and even beyond the verbal content of participation (Kramsch) and to look into relationships with different kinds of individuals and groups in the classroom, social and academic experiences outside the classroom, and language and teacher training. Within such a methodological approach, this chapter investigates L2 students’ participation in a United States college composition course that served predominantly Chinese ESL international students. In this chapter, we use the terms ESL, second language/L2, and international on an interchangeable basis.

Participants and Context

Context: The Class and the Instructor

This case study was conducted in one section of a first-year writing class at a large, research-oriented midwestern United States university. Unlike at many other American universities, most undergraduates were required to take two semesters of first-year writing; as the second-semester requirement, WRIT 102 offers a stronger academic emphasis than its first-semester predecessor and greater attention to critical reading, including literary works. WRIT 102 is also unique in that it is the only second-semester writing course available to L2 learners at the university: most L2 students enter WRIT 102 after having taken one or two semesters of ESL-only composition, making the course their first mixed L1 and L2 writing class. Six of the twenty-five students in the section of WRIT 102 that was studied were international students from the People’s Republic of China.

Despite the relatively centralized curriculum, the small class size of each section (twenty-five students) makes the relationship between the instructor and students crucial to the learning experience. The instructor (going by the pseudonym of Elise) was an assistant professor in the English Department’s American Literature program. Elise had been teaching in the department for several years and had experience working with diverse second language writers during her doctoral work and afterward at this university, but this was her first semester teaching WRIT 102 with substantial international representation. As a doctoral student, some of her mentoring as a graduate instructor in composition included guidance on working with second language learners. In the past, she had recognized the growing international-student population at the university and had invested time in several department-sponsored workshops on effective teaching of L2 students in mixed classrooms. By her own assessment at the beginning of the study, though, Elise was “still very unsure about the leap from abstract ideas to specific students in the classroom and specific papers.” She added, “I am going to see a lot of new things [this semester].”

The Participating Student

After finding an instructor, Elise, who would be willing not only to open her class to us but also to become a participant of this study, we started to recruit international students in the class who would be interested in participating in the study. Upon receiving a list of six international students’ names and their contact information from Elise, we reached out to them on an individual basis via e-mail. Although we had responses from multiple students, we selected one student, Pine, for this case study due to the scope of the chapter. By looking at a single student’s participation in WRIT 102, we aim to contextually understand the experiences and meanings she ascribed to participation rather than find general patterns across multiple students’ participation. The reason we chose Pine is that she was on collaborative terms both inside and outside the class with all the other Chinese students for WRIT 102 activities and shared her experiences in more detail than did other students.

At the time of the study, Pine was in the first semester of her sophomore year, having completed ESL composition studies. In this course, her grades were strong, like those in her other courses. Majoring in sociology, she knew she was the only international student in the major and that much of her upcoming coursework would require significant interaction with domestic students. Much of her social life on campus involved only fellow Chinese students; making American friends had proven hard. Pine also stated about WRIT 102 at the time, “I heard someone say this class was really a challenge.” She further explained that many of her fellow Chinese students felt likewise since the course is more demanding than ESL composition courses that have smaller and relatively scaled-back writing projects. In addition, there is a sudden expectation to work with native English-speaking domestic students in a more engaged way.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data includes multiple domains of data. Interviews with the writing instructor focused on how considerations of second language students are taken into account in syllabus and project design, selection of course readings, feedback on writing, grading of assignments, and planning and managing of classroom activities.  Student interviews focused on expectations of the course, successes and problems encountered with the work of the course, and interactions with domestic students in the class. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, and notes were taken throughout the interviews; due to her concerns about potentially distracting attention from and overshadowing the voice of a single student, Elise elected to not make clips of her interviews associated with the chapter. Samples of student writing in major projects were used in the interviews to prompt recollections of participation and how that participation (or lack thereof) contributed to Pine's work (Polio; Prior) but were not made available for distribution. One class meeting during the second half of the semester was observed to get a sense of the class interactions. The day’s content focused on a close analysis of selected passages from the dystopian novel 1984. This particular session included elements of lecture, interactions between the instructor and students, and group work involving domestic and international students.

Employing analytical codes such as acknowledgement of ESL students in the curriculum, support for and constraints on participation, and types of participation, we did a content analysis to identify ways in which international students are represented in the syllabus and projects, course readings, involvement in class discussions, group work, presentations, one-on-one contacts with the instructor, and other activities of their classroom community. The syllabus and project descriptions were subjected to rhetorical analysis (Fahnestock and Secor; Selzer) for potential areas of future participation; kinds of participation likely to offer particular linguistic or cultural challenges to L2 students were noted. Initial interviews with the instructor and student were used for confirmation and to identify likely additions. Later interviews and the observation were used to determine whether those categories were offered, used, not used, and/or blocked.

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