Oregon State University

Generative Empathy: Internationalizing Writing across the Curriculum

Generative Empathy: Internationalizing Writing across the Curriculum

 By Andre Habet

It is impossible to specifically characterize all Multiple Language Learners (MLLs) in Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) due to the innumerable variations between cultures, languages and individual identities of those students. Composition scholar Ann Johns notes that MLLs vary in their proficiency levels in their first languages and in English, in their professional aims and literacy theories, and in their academic expectations” (Johns 142). Even in cases where MLLs possess high proficiency in English, their cultural backgrounds or values may be considerably different from those of North American academic cultures. These differences potentially hinder MLLs’ engagement in class, particularly when professors use Americentric examples to explain concepts.

With the goal of a revised, more globally situated curriculum in mind, I recommend that WAC faculty reflect on the needs of MLLs when designing courses and related materials. This consideration involves instructors analyzing their own behavior, assignments, activities, and other course documents for qualities that might make it exclusionary to non-American multilingual learners. Such a task is complex and requires a deep level of reflection and scrutiny since “what is everyday and commonplace to [faculty] may be an alien company, concept or action to international or American students in their classroom,” but it’s a task that can be accomplished if instructors utilize their own rhetorical analysis to make their course materials less Americentric. While some faculty might see such difficulties as little concern to them and the native English speakers in their classroom, “these [international] students coming…from around the globe to get an American education and an American job deserve more than just [learning to succeed professionally]” (Cohen 69). Providing an in international student with the opportunity to fully engage in the course is part of the job of teaching, and the fact that that job potentially requires more nuanced attention and awareness in order to include them simply does not function as a good excuse to ignore a substantial portion of many universities’ student populations. However, I also want to ensure it is understood that greater empathy in course design does not mean holding MLLs to a lower standard than native speakers since such treatment can actually impede a student’s writing development. WAC faculty can take heed of the ways in which their colleagues in ESL (English as a Second Language) work to make the language and concepts of course documents comprehensible by MLLs. Instructors need to take responsibility for decisions in assignment design that may add to students’ writing difficulties. In doing so, we can model for students the degree of thoughtful awareness we would like them to bring to their own writing.

So far it may seem as if I recommend leaving the task of teaching multilingual learners exclusively in the hands of WAC faculty, giving WAC administrators one less job to take on. However, what I instead recommend is that WAC programs model empathetic course design in documents WAC administrators provide for WAC instructors’ use. By such modeling, WAC faculty can note the seriousness with which WAC administrators view the responsibility of making WAC more inclusive to MLLs, and also that making incremental changes to course design can be done in a way that does not destroy existing models, but reconfigures them in slight ways.

To show how WAC administrators might model tinkering for WAC faculty, I decided to do an analysis of Oregon State University’s (OS) Writing Intensive Curriculum’s Writer’s Personal Profile (WPP), and make recommendations for minor revision that can open the WPP to international students many of whom are MLLs, who now comprise 11.1% of OSU’s student body as of Fall 2014 (Enrollment Summary 1). Analyzing the WPP is beneficial since it is the first occasion when students are surveyed by WIC documents at OSU prior to the start of their WIC class (a discipline-specific, upper-level writing course). As its designers Tracy Ann Robinson and Vicki Tolar Burton note, the WPP lays “the groundwork for [students’s] self-evaluation of their writing progress both during and at the end of the term” (Robinson and Tolar Burton 1).

While many of the WPP’s questions already open themselves to be understood and relevant to multilingual international students, we can still take note of the ways that some questions can be improved to make MLLs feel a greater sense of inclusivity. For instance, Question 4 of section 1 ‘Your Current Writing Skills’, asks students whether they have already taken WR121 or its equivalent at OSU or a number of other options (“Writer’s Personal Profile” 1). The list, while already extensive, excludes an option for students from other countries who may have fulfilled WR121 credit in a post-secondary school system not typical in the United States, such as the sixth form model that is popular in the UK, and successfully transferring those credits here. Minor tinkering with the answers could add an option that states “I have taken WR121 or the equivalent in a non-US institution.” This would show international students that their backgrounds were just as relevant and of interest to WIC than those of their American peers.

Revisions to the WPP that would make it more inclusive to MLLs could also offer NES an opportunity to reflect on their own position in a globalized, multilingual context. Consider question 12 in the ‘Writing and Your Career,’ which currently assumes students’ careers will require writing in English as opposed to other languages. It prompts students to ‘list the career field in which you expect to seek employment after you complete your undergraduate degree,” and provide information about their “Intended career field,’ ‘Specific job position and/or employer, if known” (“WPP” 3). While learning this information provides students with reflection on their professional ambitions that could aid them in their goal-setting for the WIC course, it could also prompt students to consider the languages they are most likely to use in that job. This would not only benefit multilingual learners of English, but also Native English speakers who may be unaware of the global market in which they might later operate, and provide an opportunity for them to consider the necessity for expanding their multilingual skills.

This brief overview of suggested changes to the WIC Writer’s Personal Profile, while just the start of tinkering with the WPP, could lead to greater work that can benefit both multilingual learners and native English speakers. It would help them and their instructors recognize the diversity present on OSU’s campus, and also the need to interact with a global culture now that we are here, and no longer in an insular American world.

 Works Cited

Cohen, Samuel. "Tinkering Toward WAC Utopia." Journal of Basic Writing 21.2 (2002): 56-72. ERIC. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. 

D'Alessio, Diane, Riley, Margaret. “Scaffolding Writing Skills for ESL Students in an Education Class at a Community College.” WAC Journal 13 (2002): 79-89. Enrollment Summary- Fall 2014. Rep. Oregon State University. Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. 

Johns, Ann M. "ESL Students And WAC Programs: Varied Populations And Diverse Needs." WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs. . Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, (2001) 141-164 MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Lee, Debra S. "What Teachers Can Do To Relieve Problems Identified By International Students." New

Directions For Teaching And Learning 70 (1997): 93-100. ERIC. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Robinson, Tracy Ann and Vicki Tolar Burton. “The Writer’s Personal Profile: Student Self-Assessment and

Goal-Setting at Start of Term.” Across the Disciplines 6 (2006). Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Zamel, Vivian. "Engaging Students In Writing-To-Learn: Promoting Language And Literacy Across The

Curriculum." Journal Of Basic Writing 19.2 (2000): 3-21. ERIC. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

Sat, 07/18/2015

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