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International students face a particular set of problems when coming to study in America. Beyond the commonly noted language barriers, I have learned this semester that the cultural and rhetorical frameworks of some instructors play a large role in shaping the positive or negative experiences had by these students. As an optimist, I had never considered that the simplest choice made by a teacher could so drastically affect one of her students. And even more so, I hadn't really considered that unannounced teacher biases would be so visibly detectable to a student from another country. To both these issues, I will relate a couple of anecdotes:
I thought my writing center appointment with Yashvant would be like any other I’d had with a freshman composition student; we’d talk about the rhetorical triangle. We’d cover the basis of writing analytic essays. Maybe we’d go over some grammar concepts—All of this I was expecting and prepared for. Never would I have imagined that we would actually spend our 45 minutes discussing the workings of the American political system.
It turned out that Yashvant wasn't having trouble with the rhetorical analysis portion of his assignment. He knew precisely how to objectively analyze an object, and, for someone who hadn't been in the country for more than a couple of months, he had an amazing command of English. What had brought him to the writing center was his need to understand the context of his objects of analysis. Yashvant was told to choose a campaign as from the 2012 presidential election and analyze it, and therein laid the problem: He didn't know who Mitt Romney or Barack Obama was. He didn't know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. He didn't know how American government was set up or how election systems functioned. And these gaps in knowledge made him feel that he couldn't write the paper. And this feeling of inability had taken him over. He told me that he felt he had been set up for failure because he didn't possess the same assumed knowledge that his classmates did. Even though many of them may have not been politics aficionados, they at least had some rudimentary knowledge of the governmental system; and this gave them the edge. In that moment it was clear to both of us: the assignment had been designed for an American student, and Yashvant was just supposed to deal with it.
Now, I do not believe that the professor who gave this assignment knowingly created it so that international students would struggle. But I also do not believe that the professor was thinking too clearly about the rhetorical context in which he/she teaches. I believe that to successfully appeal to the widest range of students, a clear audience analysis is in order. In this case, it seems that no such analysis was present and, unfortunately, it was to the detriment of a very bright, determined young man.
In thinking about the challenges confronted by international students, I must also relate the story of a friend I mentored in the writing center. Anna is a Korean-born graduate student in English literature and a very fine writer. The first time we met, I will never forget the tears that streaked her face as she explained that her grammar had to be flawless. Perfect. No exceptions. She explained that the inherent bias of her professors toward non-native English speakers dictated that her syntactical performance be of the highest standard. This was her only recourse to convincing her profs that she deserved to be here, studying in America. Again, the audience analysis deficit rears its ugly head. Anna’s professors had failed to consider the situation of one of their students and had caused the terrible grief of a fine, talented student.
Now, I know some might think it a strange assertion to recommend to instructors that they think of their students as their audience, but that’s just what they are. To successfully teach a student (or persuade them to follow you in their quest for higher knowledge), identification between the rhetor (teacher) and the audience (students) must take place. If instructors realize this and embrace it, a bright future will certainly lie ahead for all of their students, American and international alike. And specifically in the case of our international students, I hope teachers remember that instructor framework can make all the difference in a student’s reaction to her time in the States. To this I say, “Teachers, remember your audience. Remember your students. Consider all of them.” If we can keep this mantra in mind, we’ll be able to better appreciate the truly great things our students can do.