My “GWID” conundrums

by Shyam SharmaNew Student Convocation Saturday, August 31, 2013.

When I taught the graduate-level writing in the disciplines (or “GWID,” as I call it) course last spring, which had a lot of nonnative English speaking (NNES) students, I faced a lot of conundrums. How much time should I allocate to help students with basic writing skills in an advanced writing course like that? Especially when NNES students seek help with their “language,” should I insist that they instead learn how to situate their writing at the advanced level and in their specialized research/scholarship? Should I challenge them to focus on higher-order issues in their writing even when they tell me that their advisors recommended/required the class to help them “fix” what are essentially lower-order concerns? Am I missing something because I am looking at things from my own discipline’s/profession’s perspective and failing to appreciate other points of view as much as mine?

When teaching the graduate course, I also started becoming aware of an even more challenging issue among international graduate students, especially in the STEM fields. International graduate students not only struggle with clearly articulating their ideas but also with reading effectively and efficiently. As I demonstrated in a lecture/workshop at the University of Florida at the beginning of November (a workshop that drew largely on the graduate course from spring), many NNES/international graduate students’ inability to clearly articulate and effectively organize their ideas often comes from not being able to read large amounts of texts quickly and effectively, not understanding the scholarship on the topic, and not being able to develop their own response to and position on the subject. This blog post is an attempt to share some thoughts based on the first of the two lectures that I did in Florida, about the “reading-to-writing connection” that international graduate students in particular find challenging.

To get started, I shared three personal experiences with the audience (about 150, mostly international, students):

  • I had just joined a U.S. university when one of the professors gave a 4-page handout to the class and asked them to read. To my shock, my classmates, all local students, “finished” reading the handout in 5 minutes, and they were ready to start talking– when I was still reading the second paragraph!
  • Toward the middle of that same semester, a colleague at the Writing Center where I worked excused himself to go to print about a 100 pages of reading for class, a few hours before class. That day, I observed if he had anything to say in class—and he had a lot! So, he had evidently read the articles.
  • At the end of that semester, another colleague said that he had found 20 articles which he said he would “read tonight and start writing the final paper” for one of the courses we were taking!

How did the local students, I thought as an international student new to the system here, read 4 pages in 5 minutes, prepare for class that had a hundred pages to be read in a few hours, and read 20 articles in a day? I remember wondering if I was not as “intelligent” as local students, if my educational background was deficient, and so on.

Today, when I teach international students, especially at the graduate level, I pause to help them with very basic things like how to read strategically and efficiently. I have a strong urge to not compromise the main objectives, demands, and rigor of the course. Instead of lowering the stakes, I go one or two steps down the ladder of complexity, so to speak, in order to help students with basic skills. Once students have gained some confidence, I challenge them to meet the same standards as local students. Dedicating up to two class meetings out of fifteen or sixteen for addressing the two sticky issues of reading strategically and making the reading-writing connection is worth the investment—and some initial resistance from students themselves.

International students from many national/cultural backgrounds can quickly lose confidence when they find out that they have to read hundreds of pages. With that in mind, I used the following attention-grabber from a promotional flyer by the UF Graduate Student Council—which was instrumental in organizing the workshops (involving eight other university organizations/units such as the Graduate School, International Services, and the School of Education)—leading up to my visit: “How can you read 20 journal articles in 4 hours?” The following is how I answered the question, while I also addressed specific reasons/causes why international students fail to read quickly, effectively, and productively (in terms of reading-to-writing connection).

First, international students may not be aware of the distinctive purposes for which they’re asked to read the wide variety of and large amounts of texts by their professors. If, for instance, a new graduate student has never read to “prepare for class,” she is likely to struggle doing this. Local students know that they will be asked to “respond” to texts in class: they are used to expressing their reactions to what they’ve read, disagreeing/critiquing, and making text-to-self and text-to-text connections. In fact, local students are also aware that most readings and discussions assume text-to-world connection, which the international students are less able to do. International students tend to read all texts in the same way and in all contexts. To make matters worse, when they struggle to make the connections mentioned above, they further focus on (and worry about) whatever they don’t fully understand. Instead of reading to fulfill the key purpose—such as identifying the main argument and coming up with one or two responses for class discussion—international students tend to pay attention to all details without purpose or priority.

One of the best activities I’ve used for helping international students understand the idea of “reading by purpose” is to let them read a news report and ask them to simply “get the main idea” and (if they also want to go beyond it) see how the reporter answers simple journalistic questions such as what, when, where, how, and why. I tell them that when they only need to read for the main idea, they should NOT worry about all the details (which surprises many students because they’re used to being “caught” by teachers and exams for not having digested all the details).

Second, many international students find reading difficult because they don’t try to understand the author’s objective (what the author is trying to “do” with the text)—which happens because they tend to be worried about not understanding the language and the details. Especially as they go deeper into the body of the text, they fail to focus on how the author develops the main idea and makes important logical connections; again, they instead try to understand every single statement and every single supporting detail.

Teachers can help students address the challenge of understanding the author’s objective by showing them how spot any explicit statement of it. Beyond that, teachers should also help them map the development of the main idea of the text—either by annotating the text or writing an outline when they’ve read it.

Third, many international students struggle to read quickly and effectively because they may know little or nothing about the social/cultural, economic, disciplinary, and political contexts of the subject/topic at hand. And because they don’t understand the larger setting where the text is situated—the ongoing conversation, the social relevance, the cultural perspectives—they struggle to understand the objective, main idea, and details more than their local counterparts. International students may also not have prior exposure to the genres of text they need to read.

Teachers may not be able to “teach” international students the broader context of everything they have to read. But they can show them how to deduce the context: they can do this to some extent by paying attention to the cues about the context. Teachers should, however, tell students not to worry too much about this (it’s a long term goal), because it may be impossible and/or unnecessary to understand enough about the context in the short run. In the case of genre-awareness, instructors can make a big difference by simply pointing out the characteristic features of the genres. When students know what the type/genre of a text is, they can better understand the overall idea, better follow the organization of details, and appreciate the style of writing. In short, being aware of where they might struggle will help them learn skills and strategies in those areas.

Finally, NNES graduate students struggle to understand the genre features and rhetorical moves that authors make in their writing. For instance, when reading the “methods” section, they may not be able to distinguish the main ideas about the process from the rest of the details in the section. They may even read the conclusion in the same way as they do the discussion because they are not yet familiar with genre moves and rhetorical moves in sections like these. A student I was helping recently was not even looking at the titles of sections and subsections; he also tried to read the verbally-explained section of what was visually presented, the latter of which he could have understood much more easily. When students are lacking confidence in their reading abilities, they don’t “skip and dip” as necessary, not only because they don’t what to skip and when to go deeper, but also because they don’t want to do so; the fear of missing important ideas prevents them from distinguishing between more and less important ideas in the text. Encouraging students to spot important ideas, pay attention to signal words, and write notes while reading can help them overcome anxiety and read more effectively.

I did a second lecture another day that focused on the process, product, and politics/dynamics of academic publication (which I hope to share in another blog post soon). But even in the “reading strategies” workshop, I highlighted the importance of reading-to-writing connection in the US education system throughout the event. I segued into the second half of the workshop by describing the practical technique of “reading” 20 articles in 4 hours, which involved a four-step strategy: 1) label texts by relevance after a quick, initial review 2) read just the abstract and introduction to get the main idea 3) read only a small number of articles fully, doing so strategically, and 4) read even fewer, and most relevant, sources with a pencil/pen in hand in order to make the reading-to-writing connection.

International students very often come from cultures and academic systems where they were not required/encouraged to respond to what they read. Consequently, many of them take a lot of time to develop the basic ability to “react” to texts/authors. Second, many of them learned to respect the author/ity of texts and think that they don’t have anything significant to say in response. Third, even when students overcome that hesitation, they take time to develop the habit. Therefore, it is very important that we help international students practice/develop skills and confidence to respond to texts, to express their opinions, to develop their own voices.

In particular, helping international students to make the reading-writing connection can go a long way because there is a huge difference between reading passively (just to “fully understand”) and actively in order to develop one’s own ideas and position on complex disciplinary, professional, or social issues especially while adapting to a new society/culture. Luckily, there are simple but powerful tools and techniques for helping international students make text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections while reading scholarship in their disciplines. In Florida, I showed the four-column note-taking method of generating ideas from reading. Column 1 in a table (such as an MS Word table) contains the name of the text and the author (or a works cited entry); column 2 contains a brief summary of the text, with a few juicy quotations (with page reference); column 3 contains planning notes describing how the reader wants to use the source (this is the place where inference and invention of new ideas happens); and Column 4 contains ordinal numbers corresponding to the sections or chapters in the text that the student is planning to write (this way, simply sorting the table by the last column can created an organized set of notes.

Writing teachers can also help international students to make the reading-writing connection by asking simple questions. For instance, where can ideas in the texts be applied in life and society? What would be broader implications of what the texts say? What gaps can you see in the text? Why do you (dis)agree with the author, or how else would you look at the issues? It is very common in American academic discourse to “find a gap” or even to “complicate the issue” by adding something new of one’s own, even while one is still a student.

International students need a lot of simple, bridging activities because underneath even our simplest demands are larger cultural and epistemological differences such as whether learners are viewed as “knowledge-makers” or not. Fortunately, writing teachers are well equipped and positioned to translate complex issues and assumptions of a new academic culture into simple activities like the above. And those simple activities can help international students overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The above approaches would also benefit our local students because they too are new to the college/graduate level of education, whose values they’re not familiar with. Also, they come from a different social/professional environment, they change disciplines, and so on. The first step is to realize how difficult even the simplest looking demands can be when students are new to our system of education.

5 thoughts on “My “GWID” conundrums

  1. Shyam, Thank you for these practical ideas to help our international students adjust to the rigors of college-level writing. I find the more prewriting work I do with them, (and now I will do pre-reading work), the faster they adjust to meeting the demands of the formal academic essay.

  2. MaryAnn, Thank you for the comment.

    Yes, it is extremely helpful to go down one step to pick up international students, even when they are the brilliantest scholars of their discipline.

    In fact, I sometimes want to take back my assumption that international students are normally “talented,” because many of them not just struggle with the academic terms, conventions, and skills but also with content. The particular research areas, questions, methods, and theories of the field that they encounter here may be new/unfamiliar or difficult for a variety of reasons. I remember two chemistry doctoral students–one from Ghana and the other from Norway–who studied solar energy and saying, “Hm, your chemistry is vastly different in your respective countries, right?” Even in the field of science and technology, foundational knowledge that students gain at the secondary and college levels before they come here could be very different (so students can’t read quickly and effectively).

    As writing teachers, we can pause to help them with two fundamental skills: reading and writing. With both these skills, we can and must go beyond general to situated abilities. We need a GWID pedagogy to start recoupling literacy skills with disciplinary context/work in the case of graduate students 🙂 Thanks again.

  3. A fascinating read, Shyam. I have found having students annotate texts is crucial for getting them to begin forging their responses and “voices” towards what they read. By having them ask questions in the margins of an article or text or jot down their opinions towards what they are reading as well as memory-notes for main ideas, etc… , I have seen it is a very helpful step towards making them active readers and not just passive one. Your 4-column note-taking method was also very interesting for me to read about. It is true that international students get stuck on the “cellular” level of reading–reading phrase by phrase or sentence by sentence–because they are afraid to miss anything and then struggle, as a result, to take away a fuller sense of the text’s purpose or main threads. Your point about how certain cultures may not encourage the perception of learners as “knowledge-makers” was food for thought for me as well. Thanks so much for sharing this. It is very practical and extremely informative. –Alexandra

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