Monday, May 23, 2016

Monday half-formed thoughts and frustrations

I have been keeping a journal on my computer(s) for about 10 years; I started it in the context of trying to work on my dissertation, and I call it "Thoughts and Frustrations." It has been useful to me in working out various issues, writing-related and otherwise, so I've kept up with it fairly consistently over the years, except for a few months when I tended to journal more by hand than on the computer.

I mention this because I've been thinking some about what I would be doing in next semester's ENGW 1102 (First-Year Writing for Multilingual Students) courses. Typically at the beginning of the semester, I ask them to write a journal about their hopes, expectations, goals, and fears (!) regarding the class. Often, students will mention in those journals their frustration over how long it takes them to write as compared with their native-English-speaking classmates. This is even true for students whose writing seems pretty fluent to me. I get responses like, "It usually takes me two hours to write what my American classmates can finish in 20 minutes." Whether this is true or not, it has led me to think about how I can help students become more fluent in their writing. For the coming semester, I'm going to try requiring students to keep journals as a way of building up that fluency. I was fascinated by some things that Mike Edwards wrote about a few years ago on his blog Vitia regarding a pilot course he was teaching that in part required students to use the 750 words website to write 750 words every class day for a semester. He was teaching U.S. citizens, I presume (he was teaching at West Point at the time), but I think this kind of experience would be even more helpful for multilingual students (actually, I'm making the assumption--possibly false--that all of his students were native speakers of English). (I'm also tossing around terms like "native speaker" that are themselves problematic, but I'm just going to use this kind of shorthand here rather than complicate things. These are "half-formed thoughts," after all!)

I don't think I'll require students to use that website, but instead I'm going to ask them to set up a Google Doc to write their journals. I'm going to ask them to share that doc with me, too, because there are journal entries on particular topics that I will sometimes ask them for. I probably won't require 750 words a day, either--probably 500 instead (though they can write more if they wish). But I hope that I'm being faithful to at least one idea that Edwards mentions--that "writing has become almost like athletic performance: it’s a matter of getting it done, putting in the practice, and pretty soon, practice translates into improvement."


Speaking of practice and improvement, I've been struggling with a paper that I've been working on--the "second project" that I mentioned the other day. I have written a lot in my "thoughts and frustrations" journal about some ideas that I want to try to address in the paper, but I'm finding that it's really hard to figure out how to actually incorporate those issues into the paper itself. It's not just (as I said before) about hating to write conclusions; it's more that I feel the new ideas are taking the paper in a direction that I hadn't originally intended, and I'm struggling with the feeling that I'm losing control of the paper. I have to decide whether losing control of the paper is something to be avoided at this stage or something to be desired...


I had planned to write a review of Hsiao-ting Lin's Accidental State on this blog, but I see that there's already a good review of it at I might still write down some thoughts after I've finished the book (which will be after I finish the abovementioned paper). There are a few things in the book so far that I have some issues with. As the reviewer, John Grant Ross, notes, Lin doesn't spend too much time on the February 28, 1947 massacre. I don't have my copy of the book with me, but I also recall that Lin refers to the massacre/incident as a "riot" (or "riots") at one point. I realize that riots were part of the whole incident, but referring to the whole series of events by using the word "riots" kind of whitewashes the acts of the KMT soldiers--both their indiscriminate and "discriminate" acts of killing.

[Update, 5/25/16: Here is the actual quote, from Accidental State:
On the whole, although it cannot be said that economic conditions improved forthwith under Wei Daoming's administration, the situation did not become appreciably worse. Around mid-1948, as one political report by the British consular staff on the island specified, with Wei's skillfulness and diplomacy, the political situation was calm and no discontent had been permitted to become vocal, thus furthering consolidation of Chinese rule on the island. The new economic measures imposed after the riot, notably the lifting of Chen Yi's state socialism, were originally intended both to pacify the native Taiwanese and to fulfill the ambition of making the island a model for the mainland Chinese provinces. It was thus historically accidental that those post-traumatic measures inadvertently laid the foundation for the subsequent formation of a Nationalist island state and unwittingly sowed the seeds of Taiwan's free market economy. Despite some positive signs coming out in the field of post-Chen Yi Taiwan's domestic affairs, in diplomatic terms, the riot, coupled with a worsening situation on the mainland, had inevitably brought about a gradual shift of American policy toward the island. Such a change of policy, in retrospect, played a crucial part in the subsequent development in China's domestic and regional politics. It was also fatefully entwined with the making of Nationalist China on Taiwan. (56, emphasis added)
I'd also note that twice, when Lin refers to a source related to 228, he calls it "one piece of contemporary scholarly work" (42) and "one scholarly work" (55). In both cases, he's talking about Lai, Myers, and Wei's A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947 (Stanford UP, 1991), a work that could at best be called "controversial" (it has been called worse!). Perhaps Lin is referring to this book in this way because the authors (at least Myers) also worked at the Hoover Institution, but it is at least curious, considering that I haven't yet seen him refer to any of his other sources in this way.]

[Update, 7/22/16: I wrote a more recent comment on the representation of the White Terror in Accidental State, available here.]

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Writing projects and other frustrations

Since I turned in my grades on May 2, I've been trying to get started on some writing projects for the summer. I'm not teaching this summer, thanks in part to the pay raise that came with my "upgrade," so I decided to make use of my time to read and write--and more generally, to think about life directions at this stage. As my old friend ERG reminded me a few months ago, we've been teaching college students since 1990--over half our lives!

I've completed one mini-project so far, which was to write a few posts here about the writing assignments we worked on in ENGW 1102 (First Year Writing for Multilingual Students) this past semester. In case you missed those posts, they're here, here, and here. (Sorry, but I read something on a writing website that said you should link to your previous blog posts whenever possible!)

The second project that I'm currently working on is a revision of a paper I presented at the Boston MLA conference about 3 years ago; I hope to get that done soon so I can send it to a journal for review by the end of this month. The revision work has been a bit slow going, though, partly due to some confusion about how to end it (I hate writing conclusions!) and partly due to the general lethargy I'm feeling as a result of hay fever. This month has been terrible so far for pollen. So far I'm celebrating little victories like finding my copies of Cold War Orientalism and The Rhetoric of Empire, which I thought were lost after our move last year. Now that I've given myself a deadline, however (the end of the month), I hope that I will work harder on my revisions.

Finally, I hope to develop and work on some sort of writing project in response to the recent death of my father. He passed away in April after a short stay in a hospice, and I've been experiencing quite a mix of feelings since then. After we came back from the burial, I located a CD of interviews that my brother had done with my parents starting in the mid-1990s. I had never listened to them before, and I started listening to one of the interviews from 1995. I was surprised at how my father sounded back then--very different from my more recent memories of talking with him. I want to listen to the interviews more and think about what I might write about him--possibly using the interviews in the process. Maybe it will just be some blog posts about him, but maybe it will be something more developed or "formal." We'll see.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

FYW Assignment: Responding to the university's academic plan

I've been writing about the assignments that I tried out this past semester in ENGW 1102, our writing program's first year writing course for multilingual students. In my first post, I briefly described the "English and Me" (English and I?) assignment, in which students wrote about their relationships to the English language(s). In my second post, I discussed an assignment for which students defined the concept "international students." In this post, I'll describe the third assignment, which was a collaborative response to our school's academic plan for 2025.

As I was preparing this semester's syllabus, I saw that the university was in the planning stages for an academic plan that included emphases on "the global university" and "diversity and inclusion," among other "strategic themes." I was interested in how I could give students the opportunity to be involved in that conversation, given their positions as multilingual and/or international students who were also mostly first-year students. After thinking about various options, I decided that the best choice would be to ask them to join the discussions on the "strategic theme" page of their choice. I assumed (correctly) that most students would choose to participate in the "global university" or the "diversity and inclusion" discussions. So that those discussion boards wouldn't be overwhelmed by the comments of 30 students, I decided to have them work in groups on their responses. I also left open the possibility that groups' responses would be combined if they were very similar in content or emphasis.

My assignment consisted of two parts, which I'll quote from here:
1) You will write a response that you will post on the appropriate section of the Academic Plan website, and 2) You will write a longer discussion of your post and the Academic Plan that you will post on Digication (along with a copy of the response that you posted to the website).

The posted response could vary in length depending on what you decide to do, but it should be an original contribution to the discussion (in other words, it shouldn’t be a repetition of others’ posts or an “I agree” statement). ...

The longer discussion could be written as a memo to the class that explains the context of your response (what aspects of the Academic Plan or what comments others had posted that you felt called for your input) and describes how you developed your response.
By requiring the longer discussion, I asked students to make sure that they had read the previous comments carefully to determine how their own ideas might fit into that discussion. For the first draft of the assignment, I asked them focus primarily on the "longer discussion" and to "summarize and quote from--and respond to--what [their] sources say." By "sources" I primarily meant the other comments on the Academic Plan website, but I also encouraged them to bring in other relevant sources. Once they had laid out the context for their responses, for the second draft I asked them to write out those shorter responses along with the longer discussions.

Students seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity to have a say in the direction that the university would be taking during the next ten years, though there was the expected amount of skepticism regarding how much effect their responses would actually have. One thing that came out of the process was that we all learned more about what services and programs the university had in a number of areas, such as study abroad programs, international internships and co-ops, services for diverse students, etc. We also debated how well these programs and services were publicized and what could be done to publicize them better. (Some students, for instance, felt that sending out more emails about particular study abroad opportunities would be good, while others felt that the school sends out too many emails already.) Some students felt that the university was doing a good job already with the programs and services it provides, and that the problem was that students weren't taking advantage of those opportunities.

One problem with this kind of assignment, of course, is that it's not really that repeatable. Since the Academic Plan is supposed to be finalized in the fall of this year, it's not likely that students in my future classes will have the opportunity to take part in this kind of university-wide discussion about the school's future. Perhaps, however, other similar opportunities will come up for future students.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

A Pail of Oysters in paperback

Just a note to mention that A Pail of Oysters is now available for pre-ordering in paperback. You can pre-order it at the Camphor Press website, or you can get it at While you're at Amazon, consider writing a customer review--there are only four up there now...

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.