My name is Shyam Sharma, and this is my personal blog alongside a professional portfolio. Linked on top are portfolio pages, and on right are links to some of my professional networks. Blog posts are below, with the latest entry on top. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments through any of the venues. Thank you.
While attending a talk on campus (at Stony Brook University) this afternoon, given by Elana Sohamy, an Israeli scholar, I had a moment of despair.
The title of her talk today was “multilingual testing” and the backdrop of her presentation was the monolingual regime of language testing and its effects on multilingual language users across the world.
As teachers of language and writing/communication, we keep saying in theory that language learners take 3-5 or even 9-11 years to be fluent and accurate in a new language, depending on where and how they learn. But in practice, we continue to resort, very quickly and thoughtlessly, to the logic of pragmatism, of institutional policy, of the need to make sure that our multilingual students can perform in English.
Here’s the problem with our dead habits and thoughtless embracing of the current monolingual testing regime: Usually, monolingual tests don’t predict overall academic performance by multilingual students, simply because the tests confuse language proficiency as a predictor of a lot more than just language proficiency that academic transition and success involve. It would be nice if, for instance, a TOEFL score of x predicted whether a graduate student is able to listen, read, speak, and write well enough to be a successful graduate student in, say, a graduate program in ecology. But it doesn’t.
Two students with the same TOEFL score (even with similar academic records from the same education system) regularly perform significantly differently, and often, students with much lower TOEFL scores perform better than with much higher scores. Why? Because academic performance is a matter of process involving a lot of factors–grit, support, psychology, personality, content knowledge, and a lot more.
While TOEFL is not as bad as GRE, I must add, the company selling this product back-peddled a few years ago when it ignored that adding the spoken test (as it is administered by using an underdeveloped technology of speech and accent recognition) makes the test even less valid. TOEFL’s test of writing skills is as much of a joke as SAT writing test is: it rewards certain semantic, syntactic, and rhetorical tricks that do not constitute good writing in college/university. And while its listening and reading passages are based on quite authentic classroom situations, the validity of the overall score is significantly hampered by the outdated view of language proficiency that the test is based on. Those who make these tests are still unable to understand how multilingual English speakers around the world perform sociolinguistically in academic and other contexts.
I heard today that ETS is starting to respond to the basic idea that multilingual English speakers should be assessed in terms of how they draw on more than one language to achieve communicative goals. But the company’s primary goal of efficiency for itself trumps the principles of validity and effectiveness. And this is to say nothing about the blatant lie about universality of the content on which the tests are based, the egregious amount of money the test fee translates from US dollars to some of the local currencies, the intellectual insult for students with learning disabilities, and many more issues.
Sohamy showed that immigrant students scoring in the 60th percentile when tested in L2 only were able to score in the upper 80s when the questions were provided in both L1 and L2. This means that when educators allow learners to start academically succeeding while still having some “issues” with their language, they learn English much more effectively in the process. This is a no brainer: when I start a semester, I tell my nonnative English speaking students in class that they “shouldn’t worry about [their] language” and instead “focus on doing the research, coming prepared to actively participate in class, drawing on [their] prior knowledge, being excited about learning and sharing ideas.” To teachers, it’s really a no brainer: It is possible to not put the cart of language learning in front of the horse of the process of education. It is possible to not follow the backward logic of ETS — of treating language as something that you learn “before” you join the learning party!
Gatekeeping is necessary but it doesn’t need to be so outdated and invalid. Assessment is necessary but it doesn’t need to be decoupled from learning and teaching.
Now, some readers may object: “I have to make sure that students I admit have a certain level of language proficiency.” Well, there are two significant problems in that “pragmatic” stance. First, someone who scored well on the TOEFL may have been linguistically privileged and proficient, but there is no guarantee that he/she is academically capable or committed. TOEFL doesn’t measure subject knowledge, and, again, it doesn’t measure grit. Second, one could say that admission officers look at academic transcripts in order to review the applicant’s academic caliber. Guess what? Academic transcripts from different countries (and even from different academic systems from the same country) cannot be compared–which is one of the reasons people turn to TOEFL in the first place. Back to square fifteen.
We’re confusing pedagogy with policy, process with desirable proficiency, outcome with entry level proficiency, and our own bias with the need to rely on a system that we admit is flawed but seemingly without good alternatives. What if start by thinking outside of these easy frameworks? What if we start by embracing what Elana Sohamy called “critical language testing”–testing based on skepticism toward established regime that are not in the business of fairness and sophisticated thinking. What if we can adopt parallel regimes, including ad hoc approaches, that we can use in order to challenge ourselves?
What if we can ask all the ten students whom we want to admit to our doctoral program to call us on Skype, Hangout, Viber, or Facebook phone and have a twenty minute conversation each, in order to use our own conscientious judgment, instead of a TOEFL score?
Reposted from Transnational Writing blog
When reading the increasingly rich scholarship on translingual, transnational, and transcultural issues in the teaching of writing, I can’t help thinking that these terms, too, will soon be replaced by newer ones—criticized as insufficient, rejected as counterproductive, avoided as too political or impractical. As scholars have started emphasizing (at conferences, calls for proposals, and publications), if our discourse aboutteaching translingual skills, promoting transcultural/cross-cultural communicative competence, and incorporating transnational/global issues into the curriculum remains too abstract for too long, I think that it will backfire. We must complement the necessary theory-building with concrete pedagogies, practical applications, and accessible language if we want to engage fellow writing teachers, members of other disciplines, and administrators in conversations about curriculum and higher education at large.
Fortunately, in the last few years, it also seems that when we return from conferences to classrooms, we have started testing, adapting, and developing more concrete strategies for teaching the above skills and knowledge. In this post, I would like to share a few activities, assignments, and teaching ideas that were inspired by professional conversations in our field. Taken from two specific courses I teach, one in the Writing Program and one in a different department, these are works in progress and I would appreciate your comments and feedback on them. Continue reading
Reposted from Transnatioanl Writing blog
In part 1 of this post, I shared assignments and activities that I use for teaching and promoting translingual skills, incorporating transnational issues, and fostering cross-cultural communicative competence in an undergraduate special-topic seminar titled “Global Citizenship.” In part 2, I would like to share how I try to do the same in a more more conventional first-year writing course, titled “Intermediate Writing Workshop,” one that is required of all students across the university. The lack of curricular space makes it relatively harder to achieve the same goals in mainstream writing courses, but I have been inspired by how well students have responded so far. Continue reading
In this post, written for my department blog, I share a number of specific teaching tips for helping international students academically transition and succeed better/faster.
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Part II: Specific Suggestions
In the first part of this post, I highlighted some general difficulties that international students face during their academic transition, focusing on the challenge of understanding/embracing new ideas, assumptions, and approaches about learning and teaching in a new academic system/culture. In this follow up entry, I list some specific suggestions for helping int’l students with their academic transition and success.
Encouraging International Students to Learn about the Big Picture Continue reading
Published in Republica on January 4, 2015
Freedom of Speech The title of an article in an American newspaper reads: “Last Week French Officials Stood Up for Offensive Speech. This Week They’re Arresting People for It.” The understandably complicated response of French government to the terrorist attack in Paris last month is an interesting case from which we can learn how seemingly universal principles and values—such as the “freedom of speech” in this case—are actually contingent on specific cultures and complex sociopolitical issues.
This is a reblog of a post that I wrote for RhetComp@StonyBrook, a blog that I started and facilitated for a year (2013-14) for the Program in Writing in Rhetoric at my university.
- – – – – – – – REPOSTED FROM RhetComp@StonyBrook – – – – – – -
Part I: The Big Picture
Moving from one academic context into another, including in the case of academic disciplines and even levels, can be challenging for any student. But transitioning from the educational culture of one country to that of another altogether can add a whole new set of difficulties. In this post, I would like to highlight how significantly difference in educational practices affect international students’ academic transition and success. Continue reading
“How many of you are ‘international’ students?” I asked one of my college writing classes the first day of semester some time ago.
About a third of the twenty or so students raised their hands, including some that were half-raised, so I paused to ask what that meant.
One student responded: “I was born here in the US but studied in Korea, and my English is not good.” Her father had been a scientist working in the US but the family decided to live back home after some time, eventually sending their daughter back for higher education. A second student had migrated to the US from the Caribbean while he was in middle school but he said he still had concerns about language fluency in general. Yet another student had come to the US more recently but was fluent in speech; instead he was worried about his writing skills. None of these students were on student visa status in the US.
At this point, two additional students decided to join the conversation, and one of them said, “I am NOT an international student but a lot of people think I am, because I ‘look like’ one.” Continue reading
In part I of this post, I discussed the difficulty of “defining” international students. A brief recap: because the word “international” is basically borrowed from the visa section of the International Center, it often means little or nothing when we want to use it for fine-tuning teaching (or for placement purposes). In this post, I describe one main strategy that I use for addressing the challenge.
When I gave up on the term “international” as a convenient way to figure out who needs catching up, I started designing a series of assignments that could help students identify their own challenges. The assignments allow students to study and make explicit the implicit assumptions and expectations of the course and academic work at large, to become aware of their weaknesses and their strengths, and finally, to write about the experiences and knowledge from their past. Such assignments also help students develop a metacognitive knowledge alongside the academic skills that they learn in order to succeed in the new system.
Before I discuss that pedagogical approach and activities and their benefits, however, let me quickly describe a research project that serves as a feedback loop to the pedagogy and helps me address the necessary but flawed logic of deficit, the persistent need to provide additional academic support to the stunningly diverse group of students called “international students.” Please skip to the “teaching section” below if you’re more interested in it.
Translating Success: The Research Project
This is a participatory action research that I started in spring 2013. Hosted at www.translatingsuccess.org, it is based on the idea that because “international” students are a very complex and diverse group of learners, they as individuals can best describe their needs, abilities, and progress. Continue reading
International graduate students accepted in US universities are arguably the best products of the academic systems in their home countries. However, when it comes to translating their prior academic success, these students still face an uphill battle.
Especially for students in the STEM fields, academic transition can be challenging because their academic disciplines and programs cannot afford the time and priority toward helping the students develop a broad enough range of academic and professional “soft” skills.
In this blog entry, I highlight some of the causes and consequences of academic and professional skills gap among international graduate students especially in STEM. Let me try to do so by using my personal experience of academic transition and my professional experience of working to support other international students navigate and succeed in the US academy. Continue reading
Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow. – President Dwight Eisenhower, State of the Union Address,1958 
. . .after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation. . . . This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. – Present Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2011 
“STEM” is perhaps the most popular academic buzzword of our time, as well as perhaps the most popular academic term in US politics and policy. But in the debate about the shortage of engineers and scientists in the US, primary attention is given to the issue of demand and supply, and (unfortunately) a more critical issue is often left out. The issue of the quality of education received by our future scientists and engineers is overshadowed by the discussion of their quantity. The undue emphasis on numbers has created the worst blind spot in the discourse of STEM crisis from a global perspective: we’re competing to produce “more” scientists while forgetting to ask if we’re producing the best scientists. This question of quality has to do with academic success, professional development, transfer of skills from academe to the professions outside, and adaptability to changing and increasingly globalized workforce.
In order to produce well-rounded scientists and engineers who are locally successful and globally competitive, US universities must address the bottle necks, blind spots, and speed bumps along the path of academic and professional development for STEM students. And in light of the fact that “foreign-born” students outnumber their local US counterparts in the STEM fields, they must also pay attention to the challenges faced by this majority–especially at the graduate level.
Return of the Term: The term “Sputnik Moment” came back to currency when President Obama used it for suggesting that the US is facing a similar challenge from rapidly advancing countries against staying ahead in science and technology. But while the metaphor helped to draw tremendous attention–leading to a number of Congressional hearings, a flurry of media reports, and conversations within universities–the conversation did not reach far enough into issues of education. Personally, I found return of the metaphor fascinating because I was finishing up my dissertation on engineering writing, focusing on the academic and professional development gap among engineering students. Continue reading