You’re an undergraduate, there are 20 minutes left in class, and you’re starting to fall asleep. Maybe you stayed up late studying for a final or finishing a paper; maybe it’s right after lunch and you’re slipping into a food coma. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the bell doesn’t ring for 20 minutes and you’re starting to doze off. What do you do?
The answer is, it depends.
It depends on whether you’re in the U.S., where sleeping in class is the ultimate insult to the teacher, or whether you’re in China, where students have been known to carry little pillows for situations exactly like this.
See, what students in China do is put their heads down for five minutes, catch some Zs, and then remain more alert for the final 15 minutes of the lesson, taking in as much as they can.
What do American students do? Generally they let their heads bob up and down for 20 minutes, trying not to fall asleep, missing the entire remainder of the class, but not fully falling asleep, either.
So you tell me, which approach is better?
The answer is clear to me, but I’ve spent the last 10 summers teaching in China and running language programs there, and I have to say there is something downright sensible — and almost endearing — in the Chinese way. Every spring when I’m training U.S. teachers to go to China, I give this example and ask them to be sensitive to the cultural differences they are going to experience in Chinese classrooms.
Likewise, I use this same example with newly arrived Chinese students at Ohio State University, where I have taught English for 20 years, and where I have had a front-row seat to the dramatically increasing numbers of Chinese students arriving on our campus. I couldn’t be happier that we have almost 2,500 undergraduates from China, and I’d love to see 2,500 more international students ... from China, India, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey, etc.
International students bring with them unique perspectives on the world and can be a great resource for domestic undergraduates. I ask you, what better way to help internationalize the curriculum in Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business than with a few of the 1,200 Chinese undergraduates studying business sitting alongside domestic students in every class? Imagine a class on international business with no international students. Sure, these students are paying tuition to us, but in an alternate reality, I sometimes imagine a scenario where we pay students from abroad to come to Ohio State to internationalize our programs.
But for all the benefits, international students also bring along with them specific needs that we must address. Faculty members at Miami University, in Ohio, state this nicely in an opinion piece published earlier this month in the Miami Student titled, “Faculty members disagree with anonymous letter.”
“The University needs to recognize and support the ongoing needs of international students and to do a much better job of welcoming those students and encouraging them to become full participants in the life of the campus and the community,” the letter from Miami faculty states. “Collectively, we are not yet where we should be.”
These words could probably be said about nearly every college and university around the U.S. that has followed the trend of admitting dramatically increasing percentages of Chinese undergraduates. Kudos to these faculty members at Miami for having the courage to say them, in their response to an unfair, unkind, and unsigned letter to the school newspaper that described the “displayed English literacy” of Miami’s international students as “abhorrent.”
It was unfair of the author of the anonymous letter to compare the international students at Miami to “dead weight” and it was unkind to imply their English skills were somehow repugnant (the word that came up most frequently in various dictionary definitions of abhorrent). But maybe the anonymous author was on to something when qualifying his or her assessment of students’ English literacy skills with the word “displayed.”
What I have found in working with Chinese students closely for the last 10 years is that it isn’t typically the case that they don’t know enough language -- they just sometimes struggle with knowing exactly which words to say, when to say them, and why they are saying them. They struggle to put their communication skills on display, and remedial ESL programs aren’t going to help them.
In Shawna Shapiro’s 2011 article, “Stuck in the Remedial Rut: Confronting Resistance to ESL Curriculum Reform,” she neatly articulates the future for competency-based, university-level courses for international students. ESL teachers around the country need to reframe the task at hand from remediating student deficiencies to helping students navigate their daily communication tasks so they can participate in their education.
Maybe students don’t contribute to group discussions because they’ve never been expected to do that before in a classroom setting and don’t find it important or valuable. Maybe they don’t network with peers or upper-class students because they simply don’t understand how or why it is necessary.
So then the question becomes, what can faculty do to help international students understand ways to use their language to participate actively in the educational process? I’d like to share several things we are doing here at Ohio State to increase the likelihood that our international students will succeed.
First, we have created a three-week Summer Intensive Language Program that we offer immediately before the autumn semester. This is well-timed because students can enter in the 30-day arrival window permitted by U.S. visa regulations, and it also helps them get settled, adjust to jetlag and familiarize themselves with the campus. But most importantly, we spend three weeks using culture-based communication activities to ease students out of the mindset of the Chinese educational system and into the mindset of the U.S. one.
Next, we have embedded a two-credit-hour intercultural communications course in the curriculum, initially for the international undergraduate business students and now for international undergraduate engineering students. I am also teaching a section of this in our social work program for newly arrived Chinese graduate students, who have to do field placements next semester and need to have the cultural training necessary to succeed.
The cultural training that we use for all these task-based courses is based on theories of student engagement, involvement, and participation. We also use David Livermore’s book Leading with Cultural Intelligence, which teaches how to bridge cultural gaps.
The first assignment in these classes is for the students to knock on the office door of all their instructors and introduce themselves. Simple, right? But it’s absolutely never done in China. Another assignment is to ride campus buses and ask people what their major is. These assignments might push students a little further outside their comfort zone, but these tasks also show them how easy it is to make connections with fellow Buckeyes.
These assignments lay the groundwork for student engagement with instructors and classmates, and are complemented by other tasks, which include practicing how to lead a team meeting and building a LinkedIn profile to start networking. These are all activities that domestic students would benefit from as well, but for the most part, domestic students admitted for undergraduate studies at OSU have already experienced collaborative coursework in high school and participated in extracurricular activities that promote engagement, involvement, and leadership -- so this is more likely to come naturally to them.
Most Chinese students don’t benefit from attending high schools that promote these values though: the overriding consideration for every student, teacher, and parent in the Chinese educational system is the GaoKao (高考), or National College Entrance Examination. Almost everything a student does from first grade through senior year is geared toward this test, and the score on this test alone determines where a student will have the chance to pursue higher education. No college essays, no extracurriculars, no letters of recommendation. Just a test.
Is it any wonder that when Chinese students arrive at colleges and universities in the U.S., all they are focused on is their final exams? Classroom participation, group discussion, and working on teams are practically nonexistent in almost all Chinese high schools, which is why we owe it to our international students, particularly students from China, to develop courses -- either pre-enrollment/bridge classes or courses that are built into the curriculum -- to help them adapt to the expectations of U.S. higher education.
Otherwise, we might see them pulling out their little pillows and taking short naps in class when they start to get tired… and we would only have ourselves to blame.
Bob Eckhart is executive director of the combined ESL programs in the department of teaching and learning at Ohio State University. He has also managed the Wuhan University Summer Intensive English Program since 2004.
International Education Week, which begins today, aims to “prepare Americans for a global environment.” As part of this preparation, perhaps we should rethink the use of the word “international” as an adjective describing people.
Students and faculty members who came to American universities from abroad used to be called “foreign.” Today they’re called “international.” The shift was well-meaning. “Foreign” is “other.” Foreign quickly becomes foreigner. When I see foreigner on the page I hear: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” International sounds nicer, more democratic.
But as a binational student and now faculty member, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term. I’m not international – I grew up in two countries, not on a cloud between them. My Egyptian, Polish, and Japanese students and colleagues are not international either; they are foreign nationals living in the United States. There are people who identify as citizens of the world, but many newcomers and visitors to this country do not. (We make a similar mistake when we refer to people who enhance diversity as themselves being “diverse.”)
Why does it matter? Because language matters. Because there is a difference between “non-American” and “international,” and blurring the distinction whitewashes something important.
What, after all, is the mission of international education? Recently, I’ve been involved in a series of inspiring conversations about the future of international education at my school -- a place that is deeply committed to fostering a global perspective. These conversations have led me to fresh understandings about the transformative potential of cultural exchange and of my role (and perhaps responsibility) as a binational academic.
During my undergraduate, graduate, and early teaching years, I devoted much of my energy to figuring out how to be a polite guest. Because I didn’t have a foreign accent I could “pass” as purely American, which relieved me of having to share my entire life story with every curious stranger. When my background did come up, I tried to answer questions honestly, but I was uneasy with the attention. I didn’t want to be the exotic outsider; I wanted to blend in.
Recently, I’ve begun to realize that in trying to assimilate I squandered an opportunity. I now believe that at its best, international education is part of a broader mission: a mission that at its heart is about honoring difference. Opening our doors to students, staff, and faculty from different cultural, racial, religious, economic, and national backgrounds, people of different sexual orientations and physical abilities, can transform all members of the community.
We begin to understand that our way is just one of many possible ways -- to structure a sentence, to deliver bad news, to tell a joke. We encounter attitudes about money, family and desire that complicate our own. We taste strange foods, get curious about customs that initially strike us as bizarre.
But this is just the first step. The deeper, more radical transformation that international education can spark goes beyond folkloric exchange. It happens when we step outside of our culturally determined default modes and connect from a deeper, more universal place.
Who would we be if we were born in a different time and place -- to a different family, a different race, a different nationality? When we bracket the aspects of our identity that have been chosen for us, who do we see? Tapping into this alternative version of ourselves can lead to a fundamental shift in perspective. If you have experienced this before, you know what I mean. It’s almost a physical sensation, a kind of quickening, a waking up to a quality of aliveness -- in myself, in the other person, in what Martin Buber called the I-Thou.
But this can only happen if we all cut loose from our anchors, if we’re all prepared to swim in the open sea.
When a Chilean student and an American student encounter each other on an American campus in this way, they are engaging in something that truly can be said to be international. But the Chilean herself is no more international than the American. She is a person who comes from a different place -- which can be difficult or exhilarating; sometimes it is both.
Referring to her as “an international” papers over the reality. It implies that she has shifted from being a person who comes from a place to being a person who inhabits the in-between, but that the American need not. The pearl of international education hides in corners of the university where Americans make the shift, too.
So what’s the answer? Should we go back to calling people from other places foreigners? Cosmopolitans? Non-American? Do we need a new word? Or is “international” too deeply entrenched to go away?
Language matters, but its meaning evolves; sometimes using a word imprecisely is the most effective way to convey meaning. Perhaps if we repurpose “international” to apply to all community members we can still salvage the intention behind the move away from “foreigner.”
JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” If I say: “I am an international,” will you?
Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond.
Prominent university says government's proposal to deregulate tuition will allow it to give scholarships to a third of its students; critics say Sydney's plan will help it cream students from other universities.