Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Comp/Rhet, "Integrating international students into society," and assumptions about the college student

My post this week is somewhat tangential to Neal Lerner's article "The Teacher-Student Writing Conference and the Desire for Intimacy," though it is in part informed by the article's portrayal of attitudes towards college freshman taking composition courses. Lerner's article asks us, in part, to think about the kinds of assumptions that have been made (& that we now make) about what our college freshmen look like, what their writing looks like, and surprisingly, how instructor assumptions about their students' upbringings affect the instructors' level of intimacy desired in their instruction. Lerner focuses on enrollment tension points, and attributes these moments of admittance "swelling" to the increased numbers of immigrant and poor, urban students (188). The anxiety over such a diverse group of students and the difficulties that the individuality of writing instruction often demands prompted universities to find ways to offer individualized instruction.

This anxiety echoes throughout the essay:

  • Samuel Avery, 1912: "This enormous influx of students has changed the general character of the student body... in the early days practically all college students came from cultured homes, or from homes animated by a burning aspiration for higher things" (188).
  • Burges Johnson & Helene Hartley, 1936: composition classes are "flooded with hordes who come from high schools overcrowded with students lacking the background of cultured homes and the tradition of good English speech" (193).
  • Neal Lerner describes the post-WWII composition attitude: "The goal was not necessarily to create meaningful relationships with students, but instead to deal with difference in the pattern established during the previous two enrollment tension periods" (196).
  • Lester Fisher & Donald Murray, 1973: "[T]he majority of the students were remedial, and they knew it. They were sent to us by their advisers. They feared writing -- they were scientists and agricultural majors, whites and blacks, athletes and wounded veterans; they were the bored, the angry, the apprehensive" (200).
Mourning the loss of the student body marked by "culture;" tradition and language usage; dealing with difference; lists of those on whom writing has turned its back. Finally:
  • Laurel Johnson Black, 1998: "Even in liberal classrooms, where difference may not be ignored or repressed but is 'celebrated' in thematic units on diversity, conferences still function to find ways to subordinate the personal experience and language of students to a dominant world view -- the teacher's" (203).

I don't know what to make of this, except to wonder, perhaps naively, if/how I am propagating this anxiety over difference in my own classroom approaches. I see my students struggle with ways of approaching difference, too, as some have decided to write about why international students don't try to befriend "the other students" on campus (I overheard some freshmen talking about wondering how UIUC helps support "integrating international students into society," as if they were ex-cons). How do we conceive of difference in our classroom? What are the markers of difference? Is freshman composition a course that teaches students how to fake coming from a "cultured home" where academic inquiry and "higher things" and "the tradition of good English speech" are valued? Do we help them find their own voice? What does that even mean; what does that look like? When talking with other comp instructors, how do we discuss the perceived mismatches between academic discourses and our students'incoming abilities without ultimately resorting to language that divides, separates, categorizes?

Also, this is funny, and even more tangentially related:

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