Supporting Our International Students

Every time a student sits down for us, [s]/he has to invent the university for the occasion – invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.

David Bartholamae (1985, p. 134)

I began teaching at Canadian post-secondary institutions in the early 2000s. I was pursuing graduate degrees in Education at Simon Fraser University (SFU), the university where I had obtained my undergraduate degree in English Literature a decade earlier. At that time, both Vancouver as a city and SFU as an institution were seeing an increase in populations who identified as English as an Additional Language learners (both L2 and L1.5) and I was fortunate to be a student and faculty member at an institution that was taking concrete steps to support the growing diversity in the student population.

While my graduate work in Education focused on literacy practices, I actually began my teaching career with an online Children’s Literature course that was cross-listed in the Faculty of Education and the Department of English. When I started my doctoral program in 2005, I moved to face-to-face classrooms and taught a myriad of different Education courses ranging from a first-year survey course to an upper level multimedia curriculum design course. But in 2006 my life would change dramatically when I was assigned to teach a section of the Foundations of Academic Literacy course, a course created for students who met the university’s standards for admission but were flagged as a risk to fail on the literacy scale (particularly with respect to university reading and writing).

Simon Fraser University’s Foundations Course

The Foundations course at SFU emerged from far broader institutional concerns with writing instruction. Recommendations had been made by an Ad Hoc Dean of Arts committee in 1985 to enhance literacy skills at SFU (Strachan, 2008). In the 1990s, SFU began taking steps to develop a more comprehensive post-secondary education package for its students. Critiques of students graduating with poor communication skills were growing (Smith, 2006). In response, SFU took on the monumental task of changing its graduation requirements to ensure that students would leave the institution with an education that encompassed writing, numeracy, and breadth subject areas. These were approved in principle in 2002 (Simon Fraser University, 2003). For the written requirements, the university required that students complete six writing intensive credit hours (3 lower division credit hours; 3 upper division credit hours). Writing intensive courses were developed in all disciplines, had very specific criteria, and were denoted with a W in the academic calendar.

It was recognized that due to the rigor of the writing intensive courses, there may be students who did not have the ability to successfully complete the W-courses. In response to this acknowledged need, the Foundations of Academic Literacy (FAL) course was created for students with unsatisfactory scores in either English 12 or the LPI test. As Strachan (2008) notes there was a reluctance to turn away students who showed an exceptional talent in science and math but needed help in writing. The FAL course was offered at the same time as the first W-courses were offered at SFU.

My first section of FAL was a summer section with seven students, most of whom were international. It was a huge learning experience for me and one that sparked a passion. In fact, I was inspired to shift my doctoral research to studying foundational writing and student narratives.

One of the things I learned quite quickly though teaching the SFU FAL course was that students in that course often needed not just writing instruction but what Ivanic & Lea (2006) identify as instruction that introduces students to the “complexity of codes and conventions that students need to negotiate to become accomplished players in the academy” (p. 12).

One crucial aspect of Academic Literacy is the move away from viewing composition and foundational writing as deficit. Indeed, “Academic Literacies’ pedagogical approach is to not view students’ experiences through a lens of deficit learning but instead to focus on the students’ learning experiences and their acculturation to university life” (Shaw, 2009, p. 27; Ivanic & Lea, 2006).

Academic literacy focuses on three interconnected subjects: study skills, “academic socialization,” and literacy (Lea & Street, 2006). It emphasizes the whole student and places greater emphasis on self-reflection than traditional writing courses have done (Andrews & Thomas, 2008); its focus is on the socialization of the student to university, concentrating on the student’s developing identity (Ivanic, 1994; Ivanic & Camp, 2001).

This was the approach that shifted my practice as an educator and formed the foundation of my own approach to teaching writing at the university level.

A New Experience

In April of 2008, I left SFU and the FAL course to relocate to the Okanagan Valley and write my doctoral thesis. I had originally planned to just analyze my research (a qualitative research study which focused on the FAL course) and write my thesis but I felt a calling to teach and by September of that same year I found myself teaching outside my comfort level: in a newly formed School of Engineering in Kelowna. I was hired to teach an Engineering Communication course.

As an academic literacy scholar from a Faculty of Education, I was rather miffed when my new institution had labelled me as a technical communication expert. I should not have been so surprised. As Graves & Graves (2006) note today’s Canadian writing programs tend to evolved from “the specific local condition of the university and the students the university seeks to educate” (p. 1). Composition studies now encompass all forms of writing instruction at the post-secondary level, including numerous subcategories such as: first-year English composition courses, communications courses, technical writing courses, foundational writing courses, rhetoric courses, and graduate level writing courses. The instruction can be delivered via any number of disciplines including (but not limited to): English, Communications, Engineering, Business, Continuing Studies, Education, and through interdisciplinary writing courses or centres.

Over the next few years, I would bounce around sessional postings in Engineering and Management at one institution and also teach business writing courses at another. In total I have taught thirteen (13) different writing courses across two institutions and five different units since 2008. Most of those courses I have taught multiple times.

I defended my doctoral thesis in November of 2009 to very positive feedback. I produced a subsequent peer reviewed article and presented at a cluster of national conferences. But I had left graduate school and now found myself working in sessional positions with no funding opportunities for research. And I was teaching in a different area: professional communications. I began to do readings and research in how to be successful in teaching those topics and my foundational writing work was moved to the backburner.

At the same time, however, I began to see more and more international students in my courses at my institution. The international student population was growing and many of those students were also struggling in my classes. An inordinate number of the cases of academic dishonesty were committed by international students. Likewise, many failed grades in my courses were assigned to international students. Ironically, these students were often the most proactive in their studies. They would come to office hours and we would work on their writing but I did not have the time or resources to help them enough.

In 2017 I was hired to teach three sections of a first-year composition course. I had many students utilize my office hours (so many that line-ups started to be formed as students waited to speak to me and faculty members started to make comments about “how popular” I was, and not always in a positive tone). One student in particular stood out. She came to my office hours twice a week. She was an international student from China and her English abilities were very weak. But she kept coming, producing multiple drafts and seeking my feedback. Admittedly, there were times when I was irritated to see her at my door again due to the fact that there were other students waiting to see me as well. But something quite amazing happened by the end of the term. She brought yet another draft of her research paper to me and we went over it. Suddenly I felt my eye pricking with tears and I looked up at her. “Your writing has improved so much this term,” I told her. Her own eyes were also overflowing with tears. She knew it, too. And I felt that a small miracle had happened in that course for this one student.

But the success of one student could not compensate for the others whom I didn’t help to the best of my ability due to a lack of time and energy. And I became more and more convinced that we needed to offer more supports to our international students.

Hoping to be able to impact the international student population more, I applied for a tenure track position teaching in a program created just for international students. I was keen to be able to work towards creating and delivering supports that would continue to address the international student population. At the same time, I was hired to teach a graduate level Engineering Communication course . While I hadn’t originally expected the international student issues to be apparent in the graduate course, the first class opened my eyes to the fact that international student supports were also needed at the graduate student level. Of my 25 students, 21 were international. This continued in the next three semesters I offered the course.

The Plight of Writing Instructors

I should footnote here that my struggles to provide support to international students were amplified by my own position in the academy. Since leaving my doctoral program I have filled a number of contingent and contract positions. The growth in contingent faculty is a well-documented phenomenon in both popular and academic literature (Miller, 2015; Vose, 2014; Webber, 2008; Faran, 2007; Rajagopal, 2002). I had applied for three different tenure track positions at my new institution over the years and, despite my credentials, publishing credits, and teaching history and despite being short-listed for each position, I had been unsuccessful in securing a more permanent position at the university. My research portfolio was strongly impacted by the lack of security in my job position. For several years I would find full-time employment in September but then have no offers for January or summer sessions. This meant I was forced to look for work at different institutions and seek contract writing assignments and workshop opportunities. My family had relocated and settled quite well into the Okanagan valley and my husband’s career was flourishing so I was not seeking opportunities outside my locale. This significantly hampered my progress as an academic.

I state this here not to whine about my plight but to highlight a situation that is all too common for composition and foundational writing faculty. In fact, at my institution only one tenure-track instructor focuses entirely on composition in the English department and only 3.5 at our entire campus (the other 2.5 are in the School of Engineering). The rest of the faculty who are teaching foundational and composition studies are contingent faculty members (either sessional or 12-month lecturers). Many are not entirely qualified to teach these courses, as they lack the training in foundational writing, EAL, and composition instruction; some with only Master’s degrees in English Literature or Communications. This greatly impacts our international student success but also impacts faculty who at times feel under prepared and overwhelmed with the supports needed in their classrooms. I have been told by sessional instructors teaching composition that they “hate” reading student writing. This is problematic but not unique to my institution. The fragmentation of post-secondary writing instruction in Canada has been well documented (Shaw, 2009) and contributes to the overabundance of contingent faculty within the discipline.

While administration and tenured faculty across the institution recognize the need for comprehensive writing instruction, they often lack the level of expertise, themselves, to recognize what is deemed an expert in the field of composition. This means sessional instructors can be scholars from other disciplines (often literature but also other areas of the humanities) that can appear to fit the mold for composition instructors. If a tenure track position is created within a unit, the hiring committee is typically made up of experts in their own field and they will often be at a loss for what to look for in a writing scholar. This can mean a less experienced new doctoral graduate in a closely related discipline (like literature) can beat out an expert composition scholar for a tenure-track position. It can be difficult for researchers from different fields to recognize the expertise of a seasoned sessional instructor, who has been unable to do research for years because of her position. In these cases, the new scholar appears more appealing; graduate students are actively involved in research and publishing and often have the funding from supervisors to go to conferences. This can look bright, new, and quite impressive on a curriculum vitae.

The struggles of contingent faculty are familiar and include (but certainly are not limited to): job insecurity, heavy teaching loads, lower pay, limited office space, ‘emergency’ hires, and the inability to engage in research (Austen, 2011; Hoffman & Hess, 2014; Eron, 2014; Cardozo, 2017). I have experienced all of these things.

Brownlee (2015) notes that contingent faculty are more likely to be specialists in the humanities and arts. At the same time, women or minority groups are also more likely to fill contract positions rather than gaining tenure track status (Webber, 2008). In the second week of April 2018, a colleague and I organized a community workshop day for instructors who teach writing at our institution. Of the 10 participants, only two were men (one of whom belongs to a minority group) and seven of the participants were contract faculty members. Many had been contract employees for a decade or more and there was some half-hearted joking about making “Ten Year” buttons for those who had reached that milestone.

Faculty who teach writing and technical communication are in one of the worse positions in the academy. There are thousands of contingent faculty members across the country who are teaching writing at all levels of post-secondary education (La France, 2015; Mendenhall, 2014). Some of us are doing so because we love working with novice academic writers but there are many others who are teaching first year composition courses because the enrolment in literature-based courses has dropped so dramatically, the only way to secure a job as an English scholar is to teach writing courses even if literature is your area of expertise.

Student Supports

The 2017 study by Rabia cites culture shock as one of the primary challenges international students face. Rajasekar and Renand (as cited in Rabia, 2017) “identified 14 factors that contribute to culture shock: communication, dress, ethics, individualism/collectivism, food, language, structure, perception, power distance, religion, rules, time orientation, traditions, and weather” (p. 132).

Rabia (2017) also states that “officials at universities … must invest in proper aid for international students in order to ensure a positive educational experience” and that “… international students should continue to attend writing workshops in their majors throughout their undergraduate degree programs in order to be best prepared and comfortable in writing in their field of study” (p. 137). I’ve taught first and second year writing courses at my institution and have been asked by students (domestic and international) each term if there are more writing courses these students can take. But there aren’t. We just don’t have them. And while this could be put down as anecdotal evidence, an ethically approved study a colleague and I did in 2010 found that students desire more writing and communications courses during their degree program.

Results of the 2010 Writing Survey

In 2010 we designed a 12-question survey. The survey was delivered through the LMS in used at that time (WebCT Vista) and was open from January to late March of 2010. All 7,076 students registered at our campus at that time were invited to take part in the survey. A total of 1,035 students completed the survey, which was approximately 15% of the student population at that time. Only 4.7% of the respondents were international students (at that time the international student population at our campus was 510 students). However, 11.6% of the respondents indicated that English was an Additional Language for them.

One of the questions asked if students would be interested in a for-credit discipline focused second or upper level writing course. 53% of the students (N=926) surveyed indicated they would. But, other than the second year Engineering tech comm course (which was, and still is, a required course for students in the BASc Engineering program), no composition or communication course that focuses on writing has been consistently offered.

In 1995, Henry Hubert predicted that “[w]ith the demand for rhetorical excellence within the student population, industry, and government, university administrators will increasingly search for means to meet expectations” (p. 388). We have yet to see this happen at our institution.

The great irony and frustration is that both students and future employers across disciplines are asking for more writing-based courses and have been for years now. In fact, the need for a broader first year writing curriculum has been recognized at the post-secondary level in Canada for more than 150 years; however, while the need was acknowledged as early as the 1850s there has been a reluctance on the part of universities to develop wide-reaching composition programs (Hubert, 1995).

International Student Supports: A Growing Need

International student enrolment in Canada has increased over 200% between 2000/1 and 2013/14 (Sa & Sabzalieva, 2018). At our institution, in 2016/17, 23% of our students were international (Redish & Mathieson, 2017).  In 2018 we were ranked the 24th most international university in the world by Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings.

International Student Success: A Sense of Belonging

Nel Noddings (2003) noted that individuals’ need for recognition is fulfilled by community. The lenses with which one views writing instruction can have an impact on how students perceive themselves as writers and participants in the academic community. All our students, but our international students in particular, need to learn how to participate with authentic voices in a Canadian academic setting and feel that they not only have a right to be here but also belong at our school.

In addition, we need job security and support for our writing instructors. Murmurs of writing instruction being remedial have been prevalent at our campus for years. As writing instructors, we need to shatter the illusion of a standard language ideology which is focused excessively on grammatical correctness (Lippi-Green, 2011). Instead we need to support our international students in developing strong academic literacy skills but in order to do so instructors, themselves, need support and, depending on their background, training for teaching our increasingly diverse student base.

For all first-year students, but particularly for our international students, it is imperative that they feel seen and heard within our community. An academic literacies approach recognizes this need. Foundational courses are a step in the right direction but they are not enough. Additional supports (such as EAL specific tutors for our Writing Centre) are desperately needed. In addition, it can’t be expected that any students (international or otherwise) will receive enough writing instruction and support in a 13-week term to last them for four years of study. Discipline specific writing instruction at the upper level would do much to enhance our graduates’ communication skills. For our growing international student base, ongoing workshops or courses on academic literacy are imperative.

Our international students bring so much to our campuses. Their intellect and worldviews add depth and richness to the academy. But I question how much we are supporting these students? Can we do better? I hope we can.


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