Communicating in English in an internationalised university

Yesterday I attended a seminar on internationalisation, discussing issues of communicating in English with international students. It revealed much more useful than ever expected. I storified the tweets for this session, and the debate has gone on until later hours at night with some of my colleagues.

The seminar speaker, Chris Bishop, is a Learning Enhancement Tutor for the Dean of Students’ Office, here at UEA. Chris works a lot with international students with the aim of supporting their academic writing.

First of all I loved how he framed academic writing itself:
The conventions surrounding academic writing indicate ‘an institutional practice of mystery’ (Lillis, 1999:12)
I could not agree more.

Chris’ talk highlighted how frustration emerges on the two sides of the pond as both international students and their teachers react to coursework and feedback. Expectations of teachers are very high. More than that, expectations might be very biased: are we stating the norm when we comment on our students’ writing? Or are we just stating what our personal preference is?

Providing feedback on somebody’s writing and ways of expressing herself puts us in a position of power. We can easily hinder student confidence, which is never for the better.

International students are aware that their English is not great. Our task is not reminding them then, but to help them making the best they can of the skills they have, and those they can acquire.

My own contribution to the discussion, based on my personal experience, is the following:

  • International teachers might make as much damage as the natives. When I started teaching in the UK I was rather strict with language, and the feeling was: if I managed to learn and master this, you should do too. It took me time to revise this, and nobody ever taught me.
  • International students ‘absorb’ English like a sponge. Most certainly I did. Problem is that, in an international environment, one absorbs whatever s/he is exposed to, which might be grammatically/idiomatically correct or not. It took me ages to correct ways of expressing myself that I picked from others, and that I found out being wrong, or imprecise at least.

As I emailed Chris after the session, I must say that my appreciation for his work has increased exponentially. I mainly fight battles on one front in my teaching. (Hopefully with the students and not against the students). But it has become evident to me that, in his line of duty, he has to fight battles simultaneously on two fronts!

We need to keep discussing on these topics, and raise awareness about the issues of working in internationalised academic environments. We need to find new ways and some sort of consensus on how to assess the work of our international students, on how to compare it to the work of native speakers. We talk a lot about managing students’ expectations. But who manages ours?

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