This is end of the first semester of a new Unit of Study, Arts7000: academic communication for postgraduates. Designed to support both international students and locals who have been out of the education system for some time, the main body of the cohort was comprised of well-educated, middle-class mainland Chinese. I had developed expectations during the planning stages of this program about what I might learn, what the students might learn. Some of these were confirmed and others not.
First, a little history: three years ago I was invited to provide one-on-one language support, on a casual basis, for some of the postgraduate students in the Department of Media and Communications (MECO). There were grammar issues. In some cases the markers could not interpret the students’ meaning at all. I was installed in the office of a colleague for a few hours a week. Students would bring in the papers they had been assigned and we would work through them together. Two came, then three, six, twenty…just past the middle of the first semester I found that I had to put up consultation schedules a month ahead. The following semester my hours were increased, and so it went. It became clear that there was a need for a much broader program than this. As well as problems with reading, and writing, listening and speaking, these were conceptual misunderstandings, and often loneliness. People in MECO, English, Linguistics and Teaching and Learning, and others began to discuss the possibility of a new unit of study for international postgraduates across the arts faculty that would include a focus on the requirements of various academic writing styles, that would address cultural differences in pedagogical styles and that would also include a pastoral element. Out
of this thinking emerged Arts7000.
What I thought I knew
Having worked with international students for some time and having conducted a diagnostic test at the beginning of each semester for three years, I knew that cultural differences in teaching in learning would arise and have to be approached with sensitivity. I was wary of universalising concepts to do with academic writing that needed rather to be considered within cultural and historical context - as Alastair Pennycook insisted back in 1994.2 I knew to expect that in terms of writing itself, I would find weaknesses in information retrieval and processing; that there would be many instances where students would fail to identify the most relevant information; that there would be frequent misuse of citation methods and instances where grammatical problems would interfere extensively with students’ ability to express their often quite strong ideas with any clarity at all. I was prepared for the likelihood that many students might not recognise the genre appropriate for tasks set. I knew also that I would have to keep a weather eye out for plagiarism. At the same time I was watching myself for what has been described as ‘language prejudice masked by the criteria of “language and style”’.3 My understanding of ‘language prejudice’ is an inflexible attitude towards English usage. I felt I had been cautioned against making assumptions about how texts should be constructed based only upon my own cultural expectations. Thus I set about planning a program that would clearly lay out generic differences between a range of assessment tasks likely to be set across the Arts Faculty, that would involve a great deal of individual consultation, include continual revision and provide unconventional tasks, tutorial discussions and exercises.
What I experienced
Perhaps the easiest way to review this semester is via discussion of ideas that came up during consultations with students, and by looking at the results of some of the assignments: the keeping of a reflection journal, a short piece of critical writing and an essay.
I wanted the students to keep reflection journals for two reasons: to give them practice with critical analysis and reflective processes, and to monitor their progress academically and attitudinally - essential feedback for me. Students were encouraged to comment in their journals on points raised in reading or during tutorials
In the first lecture we looked at practices for successful learning and at different levels of scholarly and professional understanding that may be achieved. We discussed teaching and learning strategies. I stressed that good teaching demonstrates how to look at ways of thinking and how to articulate your thoughts, rather than advocating what to think, and that successful learning means understanding the why and how of an issue, an argument, an idea.
This was inadequate for some. One student entry for that week read: ‘Louise will tell us what to think.’
In week four I delivered a lecture on academic honesty, the necessity of correct attribution and the consequences for failure to do this; in the tutorial we discussed strategies for avoiding inadvertent plagiarism including note-taking techniques and how to summarise and paraphrase effectively.
This too was inadequate for some, or so I discovered after reading one student’s entry that week: ‘Summaries need to be referenced, but paraphrizm [sic] is used when someone need to copy other’s work.’
After the lecture on critical analysis however, I found that several students were delighted at the discovery of this new concept. One Chinese student enquired uncertainly, ‘So we may criticise the arguments in articles by professors?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘You may.’ Later, in another’s reflection journal I found: ‘This critical analysis is very difficult for me. I always believed the professor’s article’.
The next assignment was a short piece of critical writing. The students were required to review an article, which proved to be a useful focus for many of them. An interesting discovery during the marking of these papers was one that raised both language and conceptual issues: I was shocked to find that many of the students had very few positive comments to make about the article I had provided for them to review, written by an emeritus professor from an American ivy league university. When I asked the reason for this pervasive negativity I was told, ‘But you asked us to criticise his article’. The notion of ‘positive criticism’ was as new as the idea of criticising professors at all. When this misconception was cleared up we were all much happier, as they had felt very uncomfortable finding fault with the work of this esteemed gentleman.
The students were also required to write an essay. I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I understood about culturally specific structural and aesthetic conventions and I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, but I also had to make clear the way academic writing is done here. My concerns were articulated beautifully by a student, again in a journal entry: ‘Before I came to Australia I never heard about the “Topic Sentence”. In my logic, if I write the main point at the beginning, readers will not be interested in continuing to read...When I write in Chinese, always try to extend the sentence and put in more adjectives for making the sentence graceful…’.
Finding the topic was tricky too. I needed to find something thatâ€¨ would be of relevance and engage the intellects and imaginations of students from disciplines across the faculty, from peace and conflict studies to strategic public relations, U.S. studies to Buddhist studies; something for anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, linguists, psychologists, political scientists...and I had to be able to mark it. One thing they had in common was English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. I was curious about their ideas regarding this apparently inescapable English monolith. Did people feel that it had beauty, or at least utility? Did they dislike having to learn a language – and effectively, by coming here, a culture - in which they may not be interested per se, but feel obliged to adapt to in order to enable them to succeed in their chosen careers either here or back in their countries of origin. The question I decided upon was: In a globalised world, the spread of English has adversely affected language diversity and cultural identity. Do you agree, partly agree or disagree?
In preparation for the essay task we devoted two hours per group (six groups in all) to debating issues through discussion and impromptu speeches surrounding the question. Until then the students had been responsive, but quiet; but this particular week every tutorial session went overtime. I came across an immoderate enthusiasm for the idea of a global language that just happens to be English. I also came across some fierce resentment that clouded all objectivity from students from various different countries, but from some of the Chinese students a particular attitude of China v The West emerged. I came across phrases like ‘forced to adapt to shallow Western values’, and comments on a concomitant lack of respect demonstrated not only by Anglophones but by their own countrymen towards those who were not able to read and write fluent English. This perceived derogation of the local language and subordination to English and through it, to U.S. culture – referred to throughout as ‘Western culture’ - had taken its toll on national pride.
When the papers came in, I was surprised by how mild some of them were, how toned-down the attitudes in so many cases. I consulted the Chair of Asian Studies, Professor Mayfair Yang, in the hope that she might be able to throw some light on this inconsistency. ‘They were so enthusiastic in the discussion we had,’ I insisted, ‘the level of critical thinking they demonstrated in the tutorials…’ Professor Yang reminded me that there is a huge difference between spoken and written communication, particularly in China. Once something is in print, one may be held accountable for it. Self-censorship must kick in sooner rather than later, for although China has become much more open over the last couple of decades, opinions that dissent from the mainstream must be continually and very carefully negotiated. Thus, critical thinking is developing though not actively encouraged, and people may speak critically (of the government) in social situations, but would of course never write it down. The habit is learned early. This idea may be seen to be reflected in the popularity in China of online socialising – here is a space inbetween speaking and acting, where identity is fluid. Here is the space for thinking and playing…but that is another article.
What I learnt
I already understood how tightly language and culture are bound together and this idea was illustrated over and over during this semester. One may not simply apply a layer of new grammatical and structural conventions over a way of thinking – of perceiving the world – and expect it to order itself into a consilient arrangement. There will bumps. There will be dents. Teaching has to take into account and accommodate cultural differences.
Some points listed by Mark Richardson of Georgia Southern University in his article ‘Writing is Not Just a Basic Skill’ are worth considering in the light of my experience with the first cohort of Arts7000:
‘the conventions of thought and expression in disciplines differ, enough so that what one learns to write in one discipline might have to be unlearned to write in another’.4
If so, then how much more complex it becomes when the conventions in which you have been taught are born out of a different culture of learning. Although some schools and universities in China, for example, teach Western-style essay structure, it is still a nation with an enduring tradition of conservation of knowledge (that is, ‘to relate and not to invent…’ as Confucius phrases it in Verse 1, Chapter 7 of the Analects) and one in which a newer form of authoritarianism is seen to place dutifulness and compliance before extension of knowledge – if not in the sciences, then certainly in the humanities.
‘writing is not the expression of thought, it is the thought itself,’5
which is to say, the thinking and the paper develop together. If this is the case, then the sorts of thoughts one is likely to have will depend upon one’s cultural literacy. We are not dealing here with a simple case of tidying up some grammar and laying down some rules for structuring different kinds of papers for assessment.
‘Teaching students grammar and mechanics through drills often does not work.’6
Here I must differ: it depends upon the background of the students. Those accustomed to learning through drills, repetition, even chanting - as many of my students have told me they indeed were – then it can be a relief and a pleasure to fall back for a while into this familiar territory.
‘Patterns of language usage, tangled up in complex issues like personal and group identities, are not easy to change.
Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes.’7
It is hard to learn a new discipline in a foreign language in an alien culture – but perhaps the culture could be a bit less alien. McKinnon and Manathunga argue for the recognition of multiple cultural literacies within the university, otherwise ‘a student’s capacity to contribute to the class from their own cultural experience is greatly diminished, as are their learning opportunities’.8
Many students commented on how useful it was to be in a class where all the students were from non-English speaking backgrounds. They felt less inhibited and much more inclined to offer opinions – particularly on culturally sensitive issues such as those raised by the essay topic mentioned earlier (on global English) than they would have done in a class comprised mainly of local students. Perhaps part of the role of Arts7000 is to provide a respite from that style of engagement so as to enable international students to talk and argue without feeling that their language skills are an embarrassment and their ideas somehow insufficient because of this inability to express themselves fluently.
Having said that, I also believe that it is important for international students to immerse themselves in the culture and language of their temporarily adoptive country in order to gain confidence in speaking and writing in English and to be able to grasp concepts taken for granted in an English speaking university.
Both apparently contradictory options have to be developed in tandem. Effective pastoral care is also essential, as is the development of a clearer understanding of the traditions underpinning international students’ learning styles (for example, the Chinese jiao shu yu ren – ‘teaching books and cultivating people’).9 Practical consideration of cultural perspectives will not only assist our understanding of the issues facing international students, but will also encourage a certain level of creative cross cultural fertilisation.