Instructors of first-year writing courses for multilingual students aren't going to come away from Ilona Leki's report on her 5-year study of four L2 college students with a particularly high sense of their own role in their students' academic lives. As Leki notes in her conclusion,
The personal backgrounds, proclivities, desires, and talents of the students and the wide differences in requirements from course to course that they encountered translate expectations of making two or three L2 writing courses central in their academic lives into pure hubris. (283-4)Of course, Leki is drawing conclusions based mainly on her longitudinal studies of four students; one might quibble with the generalizability of her results. But what her study lacks in breadth, it appears to make up for in depth. She has been able to capture a lot of moments in her subjects' lives as students, and therefore see some of the changes that they go through (arguably, Jan, a business student, goes through the most dramatic changes). She can use this to reflect on what worked for them, what didn't work--and overall what use they made of their education.
One of the problems with L2 writing classes, in Leki's view, stems from how they are often tied in to the interests and ideologies of L1 composition and English departments. This results in students being taught to write in genres that they might never use in other classes (such as "belletristic or argumentative/persuasive essays" ) and training in inventional techniques that might end up being irrelevant to students' needs. (Leki argues that the inventional techniques one of her subjects learned weren't useful because in most of her classes, the student wasn't being asked to draw on her own experiences or knowledge in her writing--she was being asked to write about what she was in the process of learning .) The association of L2 writing courses with their L1 counterparts also can potentially do a disservice to L2 students, Leki argues:
[P]art of the rationale for granting credit for L2 writing courses has been that these courses are the equivalent of 1st-year L1 writing courses. Being parallel to 1st-year writing has meant in essence applying 1st-year composition values, standards, and methods in L2 writing courses, including privileging English department genres. Atkinson and Ramanathan's (1995) ethnographic account of two writing programs, one L1 and one L2, demonstrates the potential injustice of requiring L2 students' literacy education to be dominated by L1 interests. (253)
More fundamentally, Leki's study calls into question the very conception that compositionists (L2 or otherwise) have of writing as being central to college students' academic experiences and growth. Judging from what she found from her interviewees' experiences of writing in a wide range of courses, writing assignments were only very rarely and in only a very broad sense important to their learning experiences. A lot of the time, assignments were ill-defined (particularly in humanities courses)--sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible to international students. At other times, emphases in the instructions on grammatical accuracy or page length led students to worry more about fixing the grammar or filling out the required number of pages than about saying something. And in other cases, the way that course-assigned group projects were conducted resulted in L2 students doing little or none of the writing for the assignment. (Jan, the business major in her study, contributed only one page of text to his group's 250-page [67 pages of text, plus appendixes and figures] marketing report ).
In one case, however, the writing load was overwhelming for one of her subjects. Leki describes the experience of Yang, a Chinese nursing major (who despite having been a practicing pediatrician in China was forced by circumstances to go through an undergraduate nursing program in the US). Yang's expertise in medicine was only occasionally validated by the nursing faculty (in fact, one professor disdainfully likened her Chinese medical degree to a chiropractor's degree), and her English difficulties were sometimes seen as signs of professional incompetence. Due in part to her difficulties with English, Yang had great difficulty managing the writing load she had as a nursing student--particularly with the Nursing Care Plans that she had to write during her clinicals. Whereas native English-speaking nursing students were able to complete writing NCPs in an hour or two by the end of their time as students, Yang continued to struggle with them, partly out of fear of incorrectly paraphrasing information or making grammatical or usage mistakes that would harm her chances of finishing the program. Yang's approach to completing NCPs and avoiding mistakes involved copying technical information verbatim from medical texts, a process that Leki notes "was not only acceptable to the faculty but even tacitly encouraged" (93). Yang saw this all as busy-work that was taking away from her (and her classmates') opportunities to learn. Leki concludes that at least in this case (or concludes from this case), L2 students need to be given time to learn and writing assignments should be carefully constructed to give students that time. Teachers of L2 students need to recognize "that writing in an L2 is dramatically more time and energy consuming than in an L1" (259).
For these reasons, what is often taught and required in first-year writing classes doesn't appear to Leki to be all that useful to L2 students. In the end, however, Leki doesn't conclude that instructors of L2 writing have no reason for being; she suggests, rather, that L2 writing classes "can be used to make space and time for students to explore the world into which they have stepped by, for example, examining and making a start at responding to the literacy demands across the curriculum" (284). She also recommends that L2 writing teachers give students an opportunity to address the challenges they face as L2 students, such as when their cultures are "essentialized by professors" or when they are "not selected for group work." Leki suggests that
[u]sing their developing L2 literacy skills as tools to work toward analyzing such situations, including their hidden ideological dimensions, and developing possible solutions communally not only honors their intellect and experience but also might make L2 writing classes be remembered for more than only the use of the comma. (285)This is perhaps also a justification for keeping L2 writing courses separate from L1 courses--they can act as "safe houses" (as Mary Louise Pratt would call them) for multilingual--particularly international and immigrant--students to work out ways of dealing with the academic and social challenges and demands that they face and will continue to face as university students.