Monday, May 02, 2016

FYW assignment: Asking international students to define "international students"

A while back, I started writing about my approach this (past) semester to a first-year writing class for multilingual (mostly international) students. I described my rationale for asking students to write about their experiences as English learners and users and then mentioned that in a second class project, students would be writing about the concept of "international students." Now that the semester is over, I'm going to discuss and reflect on that assignment in more detail.

To prepare for the second assignment, we read a 2009 World Education News and Reviews article by Nick Clark entitled "What Defines an International Student? A Look Behind the Numbers." Clark discusses how different countries and organizations define "international students" and "foreign students" and how those different definitions affect how they count their student populations. This has implications for how the mobility of students around the world is tracked by national and non-governmental educational organizations.

After we read and briefly discussed this article, we got into a conversation about other ways in which international students are defined or characterized, including the kinds of words that we (or, rather, the students in my classes) often experience as being used in relation to international students. Words such as "diversity," "tolerance" (vs. "acceptance"--one student said, "I don't want to be tolerated!") came up, as well as concepts like respect for different cultures' ways of doing and being, universal vs. local knowledge and values, and stereotypes about international students (one big stereotype at my school is that international students are all rich). Then we talked about the assignment, which asks students to develop and convey their own understanding of "international students." As I wrote in the assignment sheet,
The first thing I’d recommend that you do is develop a plan for gathering sources that define, describe, or otherwise discuss international students. You might, for instance, survey or interview classmates (both “international” and domestic) to see what they think the term means or what images come to mind. You might consider why the term “international” is used and “foreign” isn’t. You could look for what comes up when you Google the term “international students.” You might look at the images used on university websites when you Google “international students” (vs. “foreigners,” perhaps). You might look at how the university’s website discusses international students or how it introduces services for international students. These aren’t the only types of sources you might go to, and you might not want to use all of them, but they’re a start. Think about where else you might find discussions of international students.

The next step, after gathering various perspectives, is to consider what meaning you want to convey about international students. Your task in writing this essay is not simply to echo others’ perspectives; you need to provide and support your own understanding of the term. You should include what others say, but you’ll need to respond to those arguments (see They Say / I Say for templates that will help you do that). Develop your argument, weaving in and responding to the other perspectives that your sources have provided.
I was trying to avoid two extremes with this assignment: one is the essay that defines something in a vacuum, ignoring both how the term is defined by others and (perhaps more important) the whole purpose or purposes for definitions; the other was the essay that simply repeats others' definitions without developing the writer's own perspective on the topic. We made some use of Graff & Birkenstein's They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, particularly the sections that discuss how the writer can respond to other texts and how the writer can emphasize the importance, the "so what?," of his or her argument. I wanted students to see definitions as arguments, and I think this assignment did do a good job, mostly, in getting them to think in this way (if they hadn't already thought in this way).

There were a couple of challenges with the assignment as I envisioned it and/or with how students interpreted it. One was that I asked students

to go beyond a traditional essay; you should use, where appropriate, visual elements (charts, graphs, images) to enhance your written discussion; you might also make use of some of the affordances of Digication and compose a multimodal text in which you include visual and perhaps even audiovisual (video) elements and even more interactive elements.
This suggestion/recommendation was an attempt to get students to write multimodally using our school's Digication e-portfolio platform. It wasn't entirely successful, partly because we were having enough trouble working out what we thought we could say about the concept of "international students" and the importance of defining the term anew. Most students who tried to do something with multimodal composing basically inserted images as examples of how universities "pictured" international students. Some inserted statistical tables or graphs. I think only one student tried including videos from YouTube, though that wasn't entirely successful, either, because he didn't really do anything with those videos. I'll have to rethink how much emphasis I want to put on the multimodal element if I use this assignment again.

The other challenge, as I've alluded to above, was working out what we (they) wanted to say about the concept of "international students" and how they wanted to answer the "so what?" question about defining "international students." One challenge related to this was getting them to see (and express in writing) the idea that different definitions might be more or less applicable or appropriate to different situations. While, for instance, the definitions in Clark's article might be applicable for people who want to compile statistics about student mobility, they might not be appropriate for other situations. That doesn't make them "wrong," necessarily (this was something that came up in early drafts when some students characterized the definitions as incorrect), just not useful for all situations.  I think most students seemed to be able to see and express this distinction by the end. The other part to this challenge was helping students to express their own purpose for (re)defining the term. Meeting this challenge required getting them to envision a different audience--going beyond seeing this as an assignment where I was the only audience (or at least the only one that counted). I think They Say / I Say helped with this, though I probably need to emphasize it more in class next time around.

There were a few interesting points that came out of the students' writing, and I'm just going to list some of them to end this (already too long) post:
  • A number of students (probably more than I've had in previous multilingual sections of FYW) were either U.S. citizens or long-term residents. A couple were U.S. citizens, but because they had lived abroad for most of their lives, they were classed by my school as "international students" (something that might not have happened at other schools, as they discovered). I had mixed feelings about asking them to define "international students" because I was afraid that they would think I saw them all as international students (or worse, "foreigners"). But I think, on the other hand, that there's a value to asking them to do this because whether they think about themselves in this way or not, there are probably other people (such as domestic students, faculty, administration, etc.) who would view them as "international" in some way or another.
  • The students took some interesting approaches to defining the term. Quite a few focused at least in part on the distinction between "international" and "foreign," mostly because Clark's article does that. I didn't require them to focus on that distinction, though I think some students mistakenly assumed that it was part of the assignment. There were varying degrees of success in their attempts to make original distinctions between these terms, but a few did a very good job on this. One, in particular, looked at other collocations of the term "international" vs. "foreign" and pointed out the differences between characterizing a language as a "foreign" language and characterizing it as an "international" language, then extending that distinction to how students might be characterized as "foreign" or "international." 
  • We discovered that not everyone uses the terms "international students" and "foreign students" in the same way. (Surprise!) We found an article in the Boston Globe, for instance, in which the author uses the terms interchangeably, even referring, at one point, to "foreign international students." One of my students actually wrote to the article's author about this, getting her response that she wasn't distinguishing between "foreign" and "international."
I'll write later about the final assignment for this class, in which I asked students to contribute to public online discussion of our university's long-term academic plan.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Three new books in the former native speaker's library

The University of Hawai'i Press had an online book sale (in fact, it ends at midnight tonight, so get over there!), so I bought three books:
You can probably tell from the last two books that I'm planning to work on learning Japanese. I'm more interested in learning to read it than in learning to speak it, but I suppose I'll try to pick up on some spoken Japanese as well, if it helps me with my primary purpose. I'll start with the Remembering the Kana book and see where it takes me.

The first book, Islands of Protest, caught my attention because there's a story in there called "Taiwan Women," by Medoruma Shun, from 1983. But I think the other stories, poems, and drama in the book will also be interesting. Most of it is postwar literature, though there are a few earlier pieces.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Another new book in the former native speaker's library

Lin, Hsiao-ting. Accidental State: Chiang Kai-shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2016.

I asked my brother about this because he was going to AAS in Seattle. He ended up sending me a copy as a gift! What a great brother! Guess I'll be digging into it after the semester is over.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

New book in the former native speaker's library

Ong, Iok-tek. Taiwan: A History of Agonies. Trans. Shimamura Yasuharu. Ed. Ong Meiri. Taipei: Avanguard, 2015.

I probably won't get around to reading this until summer vacation, but it's high on my list. I found out about its English publication through a book review by Jerome Keating published in the Taipei Times, Feb. 25, 2016. Keating writes,
"Ong’s book is for those researching Taiwanese consciousness post-WWII. What makes it unusual is not just the historical content, much of which can now be found in other contemporary works, but the realization that awareness of Taiwan’s history and identity had reached a state of maturity in Japan by 1964."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Just found out today that as of the next academic year (2016-2017), I'll be a Senior Lecturer. As I told a colleague, this mainly means I'll have to order a whole new set of business cards....

Well, and the fact that I have a new title. One that sounds kind of cool (if I were in the UK). A couple of years ago I was chatting on Facebook with folks about the term "non-tenure track" and how it defined us in terms of what we aren't. We tossed back and forth some possible alternative titles. I suggested "reader" would be most apropos, considering that reading is most of what I do as a writing instructor...

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reminders for myself and for my students

Not sure any of my students read this blog, but anyway...

I am catching up on reading the reflective journals that my 1102 (First-Year Writing for Multilingual Students) students wrote after they finished the "English and Me" assignment. I asked them to think about the process of writing the essay--the challenges they faced, how they dealt with those challenges, and any other points that came up. Many of them mentioned the peer work as being helpful to their writing; they felt that getting responses from their classmates helped them think about how others were reading and interpreting (or misinterpreting) what they wrote. Nothing really earth-shattering here, but those comments and the comments about the value of drafting and revising are always something that I like to see. 

I mention this because I think this process worked well as I was working on the introduction to the new edition of A Pail of Oysters. I sent a rough draft to John Ross and got his feedback on it. Since I had never written an introduction to someone else's book before (and particularly the kinds of introductions you see to older novels), I wasn't sure how to write it. I got good feedback from John on how to revise it, and we went back and forth on it, also bringing in Mark Swofford (another of the co-founders of Camphor Press) later on in the process. In all, I have about 15 different drafts of the introduction from between last September and the end of January 2016. (I should probably tell my students about that!) Not all of the drafts are drastically different from previous ones, but they all reflect reworkings of ideas, sentences, etc. based on the feedback from the readers.

This process (as well as my students' reflections) has reminded me of the need to draft and revise and to get others' eyes on my writing as I'm working on it, rather than thinking that I need to give someone a "perfect" "final" product. It reminds me that while I might take pride in my work, I don't have to be so proud (or perhaps insecure!) that I won't show unfinished work to others.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Upcoming ICRT interview about Vern Sneider

I was interviewed last week for a program on ICRT (International Community Radio Taipei) called "Taiwan Talk." The subject was Vern Sneider and the new edition of A Pail of Oysters. That interview is going to be broadcast tonight at around 7:05 p.m. Eastern Time (about 8:05 a.m. Monday morning Taiwan time) and again at 5:05 a.m. Monday morning Eastern Time (about 6:05 p.m. Monday evening Taiwan time). You can listen to it live by going to ICRT's website and clicking on the link to the live stream. There'll be a longer podcast that will be available later at this link [Update: it's now available at that link.]

I'm not a great interviewee (haven't been interviewed that much, so I don't have a lot of practice), but Keith Menconi, the interviewer, did a good job trying to make me feel at ease, and I hope he'll do just as good a job at editing out my hedging, hesitations, and hemming and hawing! We'll know in a couple of hours...