Backgrounds notes

This post is based on parts of the preface to my book on international graduate students.

Since I had landed in the city of Louisville in Kentucky about a month earlier, along with my spouse, in fall 2006, I had been feeling as if my ability to navigate any physical space and social system had somehow become impaired. From finding transportation for getting to essential places to figuring out a way to call home, and from understanding basic academic concepts and practices like “course registration” to reading about “tutoring” at the writing center (where I would start working), every step in the transition process had been overwhelmingly new.

But when classes began, I had started feeling more comfortable. As I walked into the third and final class meeting of the second week, I was actually feeling jubilant about a grand achievement I had just made, albeit largely out of luck. Having learned about something called the Student Housing Office earlier that week, I had visited it and been offered an on-campus apartment where a student had just vacated a unit (a rarity at that point in the semester, I was told). Moving into a building that was well furnished and located right across from the Writing Center where I had started working as a tutor was a relief for an international student who came from the Nepalese capital city of Kathmandu, an overcrowded place where basic amenities were becoming increasingly inaccessible after a violent conflict for a decade and dramatic internal migration. So, having taken care of accommodation, transportation, work permit, and the like, I was truly ready to enjoy the university as an MA student and teaching assistant in English and Writing Studies.

It was when the professor of one of the three graduate seminars I was taking started describing the instructions for the first major assignment that it dawned on me that I hadn’t really thought about academic transition. Here I was, having studied English all my life and taught it for more than a decade, unable to understand an assignment about a language item in the context of teaching writing (I had done the reverse before but that didn’t help). The instruction seemed simple on the surface: to pick a topic from two different handbooks, compare how the authors approached it, and develop one’s own best way of explaining it to students. The idea of making my own pedagogical decision by assessing different teaching materials and methods makes sense today; in fact, I think that it is a great exercise for tutors and teachers of writing. But it seemed pointless to me at the time. “Why make a big deal about how two books describe something” I asked a classmate, “instead of explaining it as the author does in the text you use?” Where I came from, curriculum meant textbooks and pedagogy usually meant lecture. My colleague seemed to better appreciate the task: he seemed to not only have a better grasp of stylistic and rhetorical nuances in his primary language (though I probably had more grammatical knowledge), his familiarity with academic concepts and the conventions and genres of writing also accorded him much greater confidence. My confusion didn’t seem to make sense to him.

I did my best and submitted a draft, which repeated a few rather vague points about the importance of “consulting different kinds of teaching materials” (which the assignment instruction already assumed). And I hoped that the professor would help me revise substantially. To my surprise, her comments focused instead on linguistic and stylistic idiosyncrasies in my writing, challenges she apparently wanted to help me overcome first. I could appreciate the underlying generosity even then, but I remember being upset about her focus on the deviations from standard edited academic English in my South Asian variety and perhaps some errors. Even as the course moved on to increasingly complex readings and assignments, the professor’s approach to helping me remained the same, and I continued to find it discouraging. I didn’t want surface errors to obscure the more significant challenges that I was facing, such as with understanding the discourses, genres, contexts, and research skills that I needed for writing more successfully at the graduate level, in a new discipline, and in a new society and culture. Luckily, the same professor remained, throughout my time at the university, my go-to person for any questions about education, society, and culture. Her willingness to mentor me in the broader process of my academic transition was far more useful than the (unproductive) attempt to help with my odd wordings and syntaxes in my writing, which I knew would gradually disappear if I didn’t lose the desire to learn and confidence to keep writing in the first place.

Six years later, when I started working as a faculty member at another large public university, I kept coming across international graduate students who faced even tougher challenges than I had. Many of them had good command of the English language but were daunted by the type and level and variety of writing skills they were required to demonstrate, often right upon arrival. Others were confused by social and cultural issues undergirding research and scholarship in their disciplines. Some were lucky enough to have faculty advisors who both had the skill and time to guide them with their writing, but others learned the hard way over time. …

The result of a three-year-long research project, involving visits to twenty universities of various types and sizes across the United States and data collected from many others, this book primarily speaks to teachers, scholars, and administrators of Writing Studies who provide or want to develop support with (or related to) writing or communication skills for international graduate students. Beyond discussing themes about effective programs and practices, including political and social issues affecting international students, the objective of this book is to offer new perspectives toward new conversations.

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