“Who? Me?” — International Students, Pedagogically Undefined

Expert post by
Dr. Shyam Sharma


Writing and Rhetoric

“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 to 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.”
[If you’re on home page, click here to view the full essay]

Even more strikingly, the other student considered herself “international” because of her “family background,” her connection to the extended family abroad, and great interest in international policy studies as a focus for graduate school.

Then I gave up my original attempt to understand how many students were from academic backgrounds outside of US high school systems, or something like that, which even I hadn’t fully thought through at the time.

I had prefaced my question by saying that my intention in trying to find out how many students were “international” was to see who did not have the experience of US-style academic writing so far (this was a freshman class). I had studied about the complexity of language identity (Paul Kei Matsuda wrote about the “myth of homogeneity” of college students many years ago), and from teaching in Kentucky, I had learned not to simply ask students who is a “foreign” student–for that would be none of my relevant business.

However, even the attempt to find out who doesn’t have a US high school background turned out to be almost entirely useless. While I could go into more detail about my desire to understand which students needed academic transition support, I started realizing that in the much more diverse campus that I now teach, the very term “international” meant little for the purpose of assessing language proficiency, familiarity with general terms/concepts and assumptions that students need to know in order to effectively participate in US academe, and prior academic writing experiences.

I started realizing that the more closely we look at our use of the word “international” as a criterion for placement or pedagogy, the more bogus this term begins to look. It seemed to only work as a placeholder, a theoretical convenience, an administrative buzzword that was borrowed from the International Center (the visa section, not even the orientation office) and used without thinking too much about it. The term was almost useless for the sake of assessing language and academic proficiencies in the context fine-tuning my teaching.

The academe has been historically characterized by continuing attempts to define itself in terms of particular sociopolitical and rhetorical borders, and, more significantly, attempts to contain ideas, practices, and people within those “academic” borders. So, when new groups of individuals enter the academe, existing borders are affected in different ways. When a new group of people enters, the most common approach that the academe takes is to try to help the new group become a “legitimate” part of the establishment, often further reinforcing its existing borders. If it seems necessary to recognize the newcomers’ identity or discourse as distinct and “legitimate” as a new variety, the established borders may be expanded for accommodation. However, a peculiar problem arises when a new “group” is internally so diverse that the attempt at accommodation inevitably fails in practice and only serves as a convenience in theory or institutional policy.

International students are the third type: they are internally too diverse to be described in any meaningful way. And yet, they continue to be seen as a pedagogically relevant “group.” The strikingly awkward way in which that is done is to look at what they “lack,” even when it is evident that they come from extremely different educational, social, and cultural backgrounds–and many of them don’t lack what they’re supposed to (although some do) and many others only lack what the “locals” lack as well. With more than 819 thousand students coming from a larger number of places, with the rise of the middle class in Asia and other places, and with the levels of language proficiency and academic caliber diversifying among the “international” student body (if there is one), the very term is becoming less and less useful.

Of course, many international students need extra support with English language, academic skills, and social/cultural backdrops of the academic practices and disciplines here in the US. However, the attempt to define and describe (in research/scholarship, in pedagogy, and in administrative contexts) evidently needs serious rethinking.

In a follow up post, here, I focus on how I tackle this challenge in my classroom and in research.


This post is based on a research-focused version of a paper I presented at the CCC Conference in Indianapolis and a teaching-focused version at the RSA Conference in San Antonio.
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