THE BLOG

International College Students: New Issues for a New Normal

02/14/2012 03:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2012

The American university is changing. University educators, researchers, administrators, and students are all adapting to the rapid influx of international students. As the university changes, there are of course new issues. The growing number of international students carries with it a set of concerns for us as administrators and instructors. This is particularly acute for those who, like me, teach in fields related to language and literacy.

I am a doctoral student at Purdue University, where I study rhetoric and composition, a subfield of English concerning the study of writing and argument. (It's important to say that all opinions here are solely my own, and should not be associated with the university or any of its departments.) I also teach introductory composition. Even in the context of a globalizing American university system, Purdue is an outlier in the number of international students enrolled. There will always be differences in the number and percentage of international students at different universities, of course, but it strikes me that this broad movement towards a truly international American university system represents a new normal. This dynamic benefits American collegiate education writ large, as it does Purdue specifically, but as in any major change, there are growing pains.

It's no violation of student privacy (or FERPA) to tell you all that 15 of my 20 first-year composition students this semester are international. I am both pleased and challenged by such diversity. Many international students speak English natively, but in large numbers international students are coming from countries such as China, India, and South Korea. As both a researcher of composition practices and a teacher of composition, I am compelled to ask: what new issues arise from the influx of non-native English-speaking students into the writing classroom? What's the best way forward to better serve them and their domestic student peers?

Students, instructors, and administrators all have legitimate interests that influence pedagogy and policy, and these interests don't always align perfectly. University personnel often debate the proper level of proficiency in English that students must demonstrate before gaining admission to a given college or university. What test or tests best measure that proficiency is also contested. This is particularly acute given the fact that departments and schools may be pursuing students who are talented in individual disciplines but lack the English proficiency necessary to gain admission to the university. Unfortunately, brilliance in subjects like math or music doesn't preclude a lack of fluency in English. Administrators struggle to balance these concerns in a context of limited resources and funding, making remediation and support systems difficult to implement.

Further complicating the picture is the concern that international students may be falsifying their academic records. While I don't consider the current data sufficient to properly assess whether this is a real problem, many instructors and professors I have spoken to online suggest that some of their students don't possess the level of English fluency their test scores would indicate. In voicing this fear, they are touching on a broader concern, which is that writing and literature instructors may become de facto English language teachers, when that is neither the role for which they are trained nor the position the university has hired them to fulfill.

Here's a good example of competing interests between educators and students, which I myself have encountered in my own pedagogy. In composition studies, we tend to prioritize "global" issues in writing -- that is, issues pertaining to argument, structure and organization, flow of ideas, etc. -- over "local" issues in writing -- that is, issues like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and conventional idiom. We prioritize in this way for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there is a general belief that addressing global concerns will ultimately be of greater benefit to students, as the ability to express ideas and make a compelling argument is of greater value than achieving formal "correctness." We also have a practical resistance to spending class time on local concerns: a robust set of empirical data suggests that the benefits of structured instruction in these areas are limited, particularly in the collegiate context. Finally, many instructors avoid addressing local issues out of a fear that too much class time is already devoted towards remediation, leaving insufficient attention to the academic composition skills that are essential to collegiate success.

For many international students, however, this resistance to addressing local issues can be a point of frustration. While marking and addressing local errors is important, I often will take a minimal approach to this kind of error correction in my grading, for domestic and international students alike. I often let repeated minor errors go, after an initial marking, out of a conviction that continually marking the same errors will frustrate students, and ultimately do more harm than good. I am particularly sensitive to local errors that occur due to a lack of native fluency in English. For example, the use of the article (a, an, the) is often difficult and frustrating for speakers of Japanese, Hindi, and most Chinese dialects, none of which utilize the article themselves. (To better understand the difficulty of using the article correctly, try this thought experiment: explain, in a consistent and rational way, why and when we say "German people" and why and when we say "the German people.")

To my surprise, several of my own international students in the past have asked me not to skip over these kind of errors. Their rationale is simple: they want to be perceived as educated people, and writing free of formal errors is a part of that. This is a totally reasonable desire, and I take it very seriously. I also have to balance that desire with what I perceive to be the greater interests of the students; with the needs of my class; with the goals, means, and outcomes of Purdue's introductory composition program; and with the requirements of the university and its many constituent academic departments. Balancing these various concerns is an exercise that would be familiar to most college instructors working today.

Despite these and other thorny issues, there is no question in my mind that the increase in international students benefits all involved. International students survive a brutally competitive admissions environment, travel thousands of miles, and leave the comfort of home for a strange new culture due to a simple reality: a diploma from a major American university grants them greater opportunity both at home and abroad. Educators gain invaluable hands-on experience with a diverse student base, contributing to their practical pedagogy. Universities enjoy the presence of many brilliant and committed students.

For their domestic peers, the benefit are clear. I see them myself every day. The globalization of the university, after all, mimics the broader globalization of human society. Working with international peers cannot help but benefit domestic students as they navigate in a global economy. The interactions American students have with their international peers are not always easy, and the struggle to achieve genuine communication can be frustrating. But this struggle represents the best kind of education, the kind which both practically benefits the students and contributes to the cause of a truly liberal education.