Sincronía Verano 2005

Keeping students from success

Xochitl Soriano

Universidad de Guadalajara

Being an academic writer is not an easy task; however, any person who aspires to a college education has to become one in order to succeed in this highly competitive world. One of the first rules is to acquire the language of the academy which requires students to do critical thinking and argumentative writing (terms which sometimes are completely unfamiliar to students). In order to prepare students for this kind of work and language, they are required to take English composition classes. However, sometimes due to their socioeconomic, cultural and educational background, many students have difficulties making the transition from their particular language variety into academic language. To make matters worse, sometimes the attitudes and methodologies used by faculty to teach are not the most suitable for every student. In this paper I want argue that faculty and writing centers need to realize that the lack of familiarity and knowledge of academic language, difference in cultural backgrounds and a non-directive approach to teaching and writing does not work for all students (especially ESL) and that this only keeps them from really succeeding in the academia.

Grimm (1996) argues that the "belief that the ability to speak and write correct, standard English guarantees access to professional positions and economic success has structured literacy teaching for many years"(16) . But what is standard language? According to the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics

the standard variety of a language [is the one] which has the highest STATUS in a community or nation and which is usually based on the speech and writing of educated speakers of the language. [This] variety is generally used in the news media and literature, described in dictionaries and grammars and taught in schools and to non-native speakers when they learn the language as a foreign language. (351)

Lippi-Green (1997) provides some similar criteria declaring that standard language (English in this case) is the variety spoken and used by the educated, specially the written form. Therefore, since standard English is the language of the literate, and the purpose of going to college is to pursue higher education, students have to learn to use correct spoken and written academic language.

Academic language is the variety used by academics. Elbow (1995) observes that academics read "knowledgeable books, [discuss] important issues with fellows, figure out hard questions" (p. 72). And they write about what they do. In the same way that academics read each other’s work and write about important issues, students are required to read and write about the academy’s "good published writing, important works of cultural or literary significance; strong and important works" (p. 73). That is how the academy works, and that is what composition classes are supposed to do, teach students to understand these texts, "think independently and critically, [..]and present their thinking in culturally accepted forms of academic discourse" (Grimm, 1996:6). Grimm (1996) quotes Donald who argues that this is " both essential and impossible [because it] boils down to the demands that young people be taught, first to fit into some social role and function that requires recruits, and, second, to think for themselves" (quoted in Grimm, 6). In other words, it is very hard for young people to try to function within the academic world which expects them to think by themselves. But what do composition teachers really do and expect from students?

Elbow (1995) argues that in his classes, he favors writing over reading. He emphasizes this because he wants his students to experience themselves as writers. He encourages them to trust language, to feel free to express themselves and "take their own ideas too seriously" (80), rather to honor what others have written. He insists that he believes that students usually know more than what they can write, and it is his intention to make them put all that knowledge into written words by making them trust in themselves. He favors a non-directive approach where students have to develop writing skills by themselves. This is a very useful technique for people who have been exposed to this kind of instruction but not for every one, especially for those students whose socioeconomic, educational and cultural background is completely different from that of the academics. People in the academy make this cultural assumptions, expecting that all students have the same linguistic and cultural background, and that they would be able to communicate as equals (Lisle & Mano, 1997; Latarell, 2000).

David Bartholomae (1995) disagrees completely with Elbow saying that it is not fair to let students pretend that no one has ever written about the topic they are writing about in composition class. He prefers to teach in the traditional classroom setting where he has his students work with texts that were written by important academics. He insists that giving students the freedom to write is very romantic but it does not work in the academy. On the contrary, he thinks that by teaching students the conventions of the writing that is done in the academy, teachers give students the power to succeed in this difficult world. According to Jamieson (1997), Bartholomae argues that before students start writing in academic terms, they first need to know what the academy is and what it expects from them so that they can "join its conversations" as well as "reinvent themselves as writers who have something to say to that audience and a voice in which to say it." (152). My own experience in the academy makes me agree with Bartholomae’s ideas of reinventing myself as a writer.

I am a graduate student who comes from a very traditional educational system whose experience in writing within the American academy conventions was extracted from ESL writing books. As a not so new pseudo-academic writer, ( I use the term pseudo-academic, because I am still struggling to decipher what it really is that the academy expects from me) I find that every paper I write is a new attempt to find out if I finally have learned to communicate with American academics in their own terms. However, I have found myself with the frustration of not being able to express my ideas in the language I am expected to. But what is wrong with me and thousands of students who face these frustrations? What is keeping us from really reaching the American dream of success? After all, many of us are educated international students with an excellent command of the standard English language, which is the one used in the academy.

Many of us are literate in our native language and culture and we have decided to pursue higher education in the United States. The fact that we are well-educated and that we know how the academy in our own culture works does not mean that the American academy works in the same way. While we might be used to reading complicated literary, scientific and academic pieces in our own language and sometimes in English if required for our work, we are not automatically prepared to function within the conventions of the American academy.

To make matters worse, many of us were educated within a very traditional and strict educational model, which is not the educational system used in the United States. In the traditional model, students expect to get knowledge from the teacher. In this system, teachers know everything and the students are considered to be like a blank page which teachers fill with their knowledge. On the contrary, the American academy bases its instruction in a more individualistic approach where students are expected to take responsibility for their own knowledge and actions.

Being able to take responsibility for their own knowledge is one of the most difficult changes many international students experience. Students not only have to learn to write in academic terms in a second language and culture, but they also have to redefine their roles as students and meet the expectations of the teachers. Unfortunately, many times no one takes the time to explain to students that what worked well for them in the past, will not work in American academy.

When writing academic papers, international students not only face the difficulties of a new genre of writing, but they also have to deal with the command of the language and interference of their own mother tongue. Many teachers, when reading and grading papers written by international students, have problems understanding their ideas due to confusing sentences and different organization. Some teachers concentrate on grading only the grammar, forgetting about the ideas or content of the paper. Others ask students to take their papers to the writing center and have their papers edited and fixed. According to North (1994), the idea that academy and students have of the writing center is a "fix it shop" and a "skills center" (22). Unfortunately, writing centers do not see themselves as that. Their function is to help students become better writers, not fix papers (North, 1994; Brooks, 1995). Tutors are trained to ask student writers the right questions in order to help them self-edit their papers, find a way to organize their ideas better, write better arguments and supporting details, etc. Students have to take responsibility for their own papers (Brooks, 1995).

But how are international students supposed to learn self-editing techniques when many times they do not understand what the questions the tutor asks or the comments the teacher writes on their paper mean? International students have different issues when writing than native speakers. Therefore, the techniques to help them should be different. Talking with some of my international student friends, they have experienced that professors assume that international students are lazy or are incapable of writing decent papers, but they do not understand that instead of making wrong assumptions, and being indirect in their responses to their papers and see if students understand, they should just tell them what is wrong an what is expected from them. The same could work for writing centers.

It would be more helpful for students if tutors in writing centers would share some of the cultural knowledge that they have. Many students see peer tutors as a cultural source. I am not implying that this should be the case for all students, but when tutoring, tutors have a pretty good idea of what is wrong with the paper they have in front of them. This is a difficult position for tutors because they are trained not to be directive and not to write on students’ papers.

So in behalf of all international students who are lost in this difficult and competitive American academic world, I would ask the people who know how to play by the rules (writing center tutors, composition class instructors and members of the academy), to enlighten international students and to share a piece of their knowledge in order to make them part of the successful people who have achieved the American dream through higher education.


Bartholomae, D. (1995). "Writing With Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow."College Composition and Communication, 46(1), 62-71

Brooks, J. (1995). "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work." In C. Murphy and S. Sherwood eds. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. (pp. 83-87) Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins.

Elbow, P. (1995). "Being a Writer Vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict of Goals." .College Composition and Communication, 46(1) 72-83.

Grimm, N. (1996). "The Regulatory Role of the Writing Center: Coming to Terms with a Loss of Innocence". The Writing Center Journal, 17(1), 5-23.

Jamieson, S. (1997) "Composition Readers and the Construction of Identity." In J. Butler, J. Guerra, and C. Severino (eds.) Writing in Multicultural Settings. (pp. 150-171). New York: MLA.

Latterell, C (2000). " Descentering Student-Denteredness: Rethinking Tutor Authority in Writing Centers" in L. Briggs & M. Woolbright. (Eds.) Stories from the Center" Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center (pp. 104-120). Urbana: NCTE.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge.

Lisle, B. & S. Mano. (1997). "Embracing a Multicultural Rhetoric." In J. Butler, Guerra, and C. Severino (eds.) Writing in Multicultural Settings. (pp. 12-26). New York:MLA.

North, S. (1995). "The Idea of a Writing Center". In C. Murphy and S. Sherwood eds. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. (pp. 22 - 36) Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins.

Richards, J., J. Platt & H. Platt (1992) Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Malasya: Longman.

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