Wednesday, November 7, 2012

It's All in Translation

Dark and foreboding view.

Yet again, our Pro. Sem. Reading has left me feeling conflicted and inadequate.

Based on my own experience in a French Literature class (not to mention the maze of puzzling acronyms in these articles), I imagine that it’s incredibly bewildering and frustrating (but sometimes possible, or at least not entirely unrewarding) to take a freshman composition class as an ESL student. I have students in my class who seem to be struggling to understand instructions and class discussion. Sometimes they struggle actively and sometimes they just sort of disengage from the class dialogue. Occasionally (and this will make me sound like Zamel’s Unhelpful Art History Professor) I wonder if students are deliberating misinterpreting things they don’t want to hear (for instance the fact that they may not use Google to find secondary sources). But I don’t have any background or training in ESL instruction and I’m not sure how to help these students. If I were an Ideal Superteacher, I’d be fluent in all of my students’ languages and I’d facilitate a multilingual discussion about the ways that language ideologies shape rhetorical practices and then they’d all write brilliant papers that I would grade and return immediately. Sadly, I’m working with a more limited skill-set and I feel more like I’m struggling to herd a varied group of students through the assignments on the common syllabus before the semester ends.

In some ways, though, I already feel like a translator; I’m helping my students interpret and master academese. We spend a lot of class discussion time taking apart terms that the e-text explains only briefly. We brainstorm synonyms for analysis, argument, discipline, and rhetoric. They’re gradually starting to use these words (and mean and understand them) when they talk about their own work. But sometimes I’ll use a word for weeks before I realize that I’m confusing them with it (for example, I’ve just decided we should talk about ‘conventions’ on Friday). I feel a bit like a diplomat trying to convey messages from the Common Syllabus/Rhetoric Department/Big Scary World of College Writing to my students. It’s a big responsibility and I’m not sure that either side would think I’m doing a good job (and I feel guilty because I don’t seem to have a way to convey my students messages back to the People In Charge). So, yes, I agree with Zamel’s assertion that a pedagogy designed to benefit ESL students (one that encourages students to explore and reflect on new meanings/concepts) would benefit all students, but I don’t feel we have the time or know-how to implement one for Rhetoric 105.[1]

[1] Zamel, Vivian. Strangers in Academia: The Experiences of Faculty and ESL Students Across the Curriculum. CCC 46.4/December 1995. p.519.

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