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Teaching Writing in a Multilingual Environment

We invited faculty to participate in an exchange of ideas in the inaugural issue of the zine on the topic of teaching writing in a multilingual environment. The topic was the following:

"Queens College is an extraordinarily diverse and multilingual environment. As teachers, we engage students as readers and writers. In teaching in such a multilingual context, we are inevitably faced with interesting, sometimes perhaps even perplexing, challenges and opportunities. With specific reference to your work with students as readers and writers, please reflect on the challenges and opportunities of working in a multilingual space in your own teaching practices and experiences at Queens College."

Roberto Abadie, Writing Fellow
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a university whose students were literate, proficient writers. These students impressed their professors as articulate thinkers and enthusiastic disciplinary learners. Conveniently, these students were also respectful of the authority of the professor as they were of the canons and conventions in their disciplines. Now, academic teaching has slipped into a different reality punctuated by widespread illiteracy among students, who unable to articulate the most basic disciplinary conventions in their writing, show a cynical or instrumental relationship with their professors and elected disciplines. This could be, in a nutshell, a representation of a mythical past in which literacy practices among students were seen as unproblematic and the role of college education was apparently internalized and unchallenged by students. I won't discuss here the connections or disconnections with this myth from ¡§reality." What seems clear is that we now have at Queens and at CUNY at large, a different student body than we had thirty or forty years ago -- and even five years, one year or one semester ago. Students are more multicultural and more diverse than they were at any time in our past. They come from different countries, different cultures, different ethnic groups and different class positions than the more homogeneous, white, male, working-class students CUNY supported and nurtured historically. In particular, this multiculturalism poses new challenges to Queens College and to the CUNY system. How can the university continue to play its historically progressive role in this new social context? In particular, how should faculty and writing fellows deal with the issue of multiculturalism on the campus through this zine and many other sources? I am comforted by the fact that there is probably no single answer to this issue¡Xso complex and multifaceted. I hope, however, that through this zine and our periodic interactions among faculty and writing fellows, we will continue a dialogue that will lead to more questions and more openings on an issue that not only is here to stay, but also, judging from the census data of the United States and New York City, will be more pronounced in the years and decades to come.

Rhona Cohen, Writing Fellow
Recently, I was asked by a colleague how I might respond to student writing that argues ¡§God's will" in an opinion paper and in an ongoing online discussion about the recent decision in France to ban religious garb in their academic halls. In this communication, my colleague flagged the fact that this student is multilingual and that there were many grammatical issues that ¡§interrupted" her reading. While I understand that my colleague wants this student to learn how to use other discursive strategies, and even agree with this aim, I also appreciate this student's desire to use a familiar discourse to argue her opinion in an attempt to persuade her audience. Certainly the goal of theological writing, and perhaps even more so of the sermon, is to persuade a listening or reading public of an opinion. And so, as teachers, we find ourselves again in the always interesting though sometimes scary position of translator. The trick will be to use this student's choice to discuss audience, to examine different rhetorical stances, to coax into everyone's consciousness the choices that writers make all of the time. In this instance we have an opportunity for growth or the possibility of ¡§interrupting" that growth by focusing on those elements that we see as unarguable errors. Language is so malleable, and in any classroom that encourages writing, the chance for ambiguity increases exponentially. Sure it might be easier to look at grammatical and syntactical choices as errors, to assign blame, rather than to look to student writing for the chance to broaden our own thinking about our disciplines and our own writing. But when we do, we miss an opportunity that, as scholars, we embrace in other settings. Maybe when we as teachers show angst about teaching in multilingual settings what's really making us uncomfortable is the ambiguity of our own discursive practices and desires.

Susan Croll, Psychology
Teaching writing in a multilingual environment presents some interesting opportunities, as well as a number of challenges. I have found that, while native Americans have a greater fluency in writing, it is often those who learned English as adults who are most cognizant of the rules of grammar. During writing exercises, I will often pair students who are native speakers with those who are not, and will ask them to edit one another's writing. Those who are native English speakers can help the non-native speakers with their fluency and phrasing, while the non-native speakers can identify violations of grammatical rules. By working together, all students receive both advantages. In addition, I try to encourage students to read their work aloud. I find that doing so helps native speakers to recognize awkward phrasing, and non-native speakers to practice reading and speaking English in a formal context.

Jennifer Eddy, Foreign Language Education, Secondary Education and Youth Services
I am happy to respond to this question because it bears great significance on the course I teach called ¡§Language, Literacy and Culture." This is a required course for all secondary education candidates. In the course, we discuss issues of diversity, social justice, multicultural education, and literacy across the curriculum. Taking a fact-based, informational style approach alone will not affect the level of understanding I believe we are hoping for in teacher candidates. We examine multiculturalism and our view of the world by looking at our experiences, knowledge, and expectations through our own cultural lens. Candidates need to examine this lens and acknowledge different perspectives. In this way, they can also see pedagogically there are multiple ways to approach a subject, a problem, and that culture is not static and fixed.

In the course, I use various techniques to encourage reflective writing. Students need to respond to issues such as censorship, prejudice, immigration, multilingualism, and diversity. They are encouraged to write from their experience and apply what they learn to those experiences. Students write reflective essays in response to readings, film, discussion, case studies, and cross-cultural awareness simulations. They also develop lesson plans that address all learners, using different tasks and assessments as evidence of understanding.

I have teacher candidates of every cultural background in this course. I find it to be a very enriching, engaging course because of the diversity of the students. Their response to issues is genuine and their depth of understanding greater than what I see in their writing and responses to readings in class.

Hugh English, Director of College Writing Programs
What happens when we start to name language differences differently, when we shift our understanding of our social context away from thinking of English with many ESL language users and toward seeing the extraordinary opportunities and challenges for teaching and learning in a multilingual environment?

We might start not merely to think about standard English and the many--locally and globally-- who are ¡§deficient" in it, but rather to think about the multiple languages of our teaching and learning environment within which we communicate primarily, but certainly not exclusively, with a shared set of historical English language conventions. Here we have a close parallel, then, to thinking about how there are also multiple literacies and the many ways of reading, writing, and speaking about written language that we call ¡§academic" are only some relatively privileged, context-specific ways with words among many. In the former case, we begin to see all of our students and colleagues for whom English is not a first language as contributing to the social diversity of teaching and learning at Queens College; in the latter case, we can see our students not as ¡§deficient" in literacy--in any general, singular, absolute, or historically and socially abstracted sense--but rather as unfamiliar with some particular ways with words, even while they already regularly engage in other multiple and varied literacies.

Can we effect this kind of change in attitude toward all of those milling around in our local/global tower of Babel, a change toward valuing, listening to and appreciating this richness, which is of course the richness of our planet's and species' cultural and biological diversity?

Certainly, we still need to find ways to introduce our students to standard American English (or, better: edited standard American English); to help them to practice using our particular lingua franca and our varied conventions; to understand the intellectual and communicative opportunities of a shared language, while still valuing the richness of language and literate variety; and to understand explicitly how language differences are themselves related to social power (i.e., why it matters, in many contexts, to know and to use the standard dialect). How do students learn to use edited standard American English? Through repeated and extensive practice in reading and writing; through learning a repertoire of writing processes and practices, including editing and proof-reading; through teachers' helpful responses to their writing, especially when those responses are themselves based on an understanding of the different, yet related, registers of developing thinking and communicating in the standard dialect; through an introduction to how writers use a good handbook (I prefer Janice Peritz and Elaine Maimon's A Writer's Resource (McGraw-Hill, 2003) for a variety of reasons, including their frequent inclusion of tips for multilingual students throughout their helpfully divided sections on editing (Clarity, Grammar Conventions, and Correctness); and through working closely with teachers and tutors not ¡§to learn grammar," but to learn the particular patterns of error that they make and to learn a wide variety of syntactical, diction, grammatical, and rhetorical choices as responses to those patterns of error.

We will do more to teach such rhetorical consciousness of ways with words with our multilingual students through understanding and valuing our tower of Babel than we could ever do through simply assuming the naturalness of our ¡§standard" language. As Patti Smith affirms in "Land": "(at that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after)/(they knew what they were after)" (Horses, 1975).

Duncan Faherty, Director of Composition, English
Most of us who teach at Queens are aware that our student body is one of the most diverse in the nation. Indeed, many of us have struggled to develop strategies for teaching students from many different cultures and with wide-ranging levels of ability. Yet, I wonder if we work hard enough at making our students engage with the diversity of the academy itself: do we, in fact, fruitfully underscore the manifold ¡§cultures" of the academy for our students? Our own disciplinary conventions can seem so natural to us that we often fail to recognize the difficulties others have when trying to ¡§discover" them. Queens is a multilingual space in many different ways, and as a result we have a unique opportunity to challenge our students to interact with the poly-vocality of the academy itself in really interesting ways.

We have to be careful not to be so grounded in our own disciplines that we lose sight of the possibilities of a diversity of ways of reading and writing. We must actively try to provide our students with tangible lessons in the value of redrafting, rebuilding, and revising. We must do this in all of our classes, so that our students understand that there is no such thing as one academic discourse. The challenge we face as teachers is how to model the potential of such academic multilingualism for our students. We need to pay even closer attention to writing and reading practices ¡V to the processes by which students construct knowledge ¡V not just in Writing or Writing-Intensive courses but in all courses. Rather than soliciting manufactured responses, or prompting students to replicate a few prefabricated examples, we need to encourage them to see their work as an element in larger webs of thought.

Many teachers think that the frontier between their students and themselves is so expansive that the rhetorical situations they confront lack a common denominator. While there are differences in the two positions, it is more fruitful to recognize points of intersection, beginning with the fundamental truth that all writing involves negotiating difficult terrain. Moreover, I think we need to make clear the possibilities of different approaches when surveying an intellectual issue. To put it another way, we need to invest as much time and effort in thinking and talking about the production of texts (the different lenses that we might employ at disparate moments in time) as we devote to their consumption. Means are more important than ends; what we learn along the way trumps the telos that we pursue.

It is essential that students do as much writing as possible, that they write in response to different kinds of rhetorical situations, and that they begin to understand how to use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating. We need to provide our students with a grounding capable of supporting a lifetime of redrafting and revising. For that to happen, we need to communicate the richness of poly-vocality, and to recognize that revision is the heart of the matter. In other words we need to help our students understand the complex diversity of academic discourse and to embrace the possibilities inherent in our expansive curriculum.

Elaine Klein, Linguistics & Communication Disorders
While multilingual diversity is a central part of my role at the college -- as I am a linguist -- the diversity that has probably had the greatest impact on my students' reading and writing is that of their English dialects. Many students write with the informality of their spoken, conversational dialects, and are challenged by the requirements of an entirely different genre expected in academic writing. Similarly, in this internet, video age, new dialects are emerging that are quite interesting, but often conflict with what is required in the college classroom and I wonder whether, as academics, we need to be more attuned to these changes than we are. Add to this the layers of multilingual and multicultural differences that exist at Queens and it's a tower of Babel that can offer exciting challenges for literacy, particularly thinking and rhetorical styles that vary from culture to culture.

Wasi Mekuria, Writing Fellow
Working as a writing fellow and interacting with both faculty and students who are multilingual has been an interesting context for exploring the ways that having access to different forms of ¡§knowledge making" can enrich the writing culture at Queens College. I consider the ability to negotiate between various cultural conventions to be an opportunity for stimulating the imaginative possibilities in the discovery and generation of ideas. Within such a learning environment, imagining the path to knowledge, as an uncharted terrain can also be a useful pedagogical tool for incorporating eclectic teaching perspectives to aid in the cultivation of the creative process.

Barbara Simerka, Hispanic Languages & Literatures
For a faculty member teaching in the department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, teaching composition in a multilingual environment entails two separate considerations. First, the Hispanic Lit in English translation courses that I teach mirror most writing courses across the college, in that students write essays in English, an idiom that is the heritage language of barely half of the students in most classes. As a speaker of Spanish who previously taught in a bilingual university community in TX, I had been proud of the strategies that I had been able to develop to help students whose writing challenges often stemmed from ¡§interference" of Spanish. Because I was well acquainted with the linguistic differences, it was easy for me to function as trouble shooter. However, at Queens College, many of the students speak languages with which I am totally unfamiliar, so that form of diagnosis is impossible. Instead, I have learned to let the students serve as my guide, as they explain the interferences and help develop their own strategies for meeting their greatest challenges. After two years at QC, I am starting to believe that this approach, which empowers students to take a more active role in their own growth, is actually more effective in many instances.

The second consideration is teaching writing intensive courses within a ¡§foreign language" department, where students will write in a language other than English. Some may question the benefit of such a course if the goal of the writing program is for students to write well in English. Here, it must be emphasized that writing ¡§error free" prose is only one aspect of the writing curriculum. Many other goals, including the development of research strategies, organization, and critical thinking skills, are applicable to all writing situations, in any idiom. I believe that allowing students to pursue writing fluency in two languages is an excellent way to support a diverse community of students.

One of the greatest challenges facing this approach to writing is to provide resources so that writers of many languages will benefit from a level of support comparable to what writers of English receive through the Writing Center. Within the ¡§foreign language" class, multiculturalism presents a unique face. Students pursuing a major in a language may have been born and received their secondary education in a country where the target language is spoken, or they may have been born in the US and speak the language at home, or they may be students of any nationality who wish to study a language and culture different from their own. Each of these groups faces its own unique set of linguistic challenges, which a multicultural college must seek to address. These are just a few of the challenges that we must address in order to best serve the needs of the Queens College community. However, I must also emphasize the benefits of studying writing in such a diverse environment. The experiences students gain in writing classes, as they workshop their ideas, compare strategies and techniques, solve problems, and gain trust in fellow members of the collaborative classroom, are a living and breathing example of the ideal of multicultural communication.

Zhigang Xiang, Computer Science
Being a member of the computer science community, I use programming languages to specify the logical steps for a computer to process information, and I use English (an example of the natural languages) to explain the scientific underpinnings of programming to my students. One of the challenges in reading, writing, and discussing computer programs is that we have to think in such a mind set that is both rational (for analytical reasoning) and algorithmic (to mimic the computational process). To this end, the effective use of languages to articulate problems and ideas is an integral part of our study of computer programming as well as other areas of computer science.

The deficiency in English certainly has negative impact on our "non-native" students, as it will take longer for them to read an exam question and to write down a verbal answer - and there is no way to make up this lost time. However, this impact is relatively limited because we use English mostly to the extent that we can convey the scientific contents in a way that is as clear and as straightforward as possible. There is virtually no "reading between the lines," no culture-dependent material, etc¡K. Most (if not all) of them can follow along, and adapt to this type of "technical English" in one semester or two (just enough to handle lectures and course work), long before they can write a smooth letter to ask for a change of grade

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Volume 3

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Volume 1, Spring 2004 ( Download pdf file, 1,620 KB)

From the Editors
Teaching Writing in a Multilingual Environment
Queens College Writers at Work: Murphy Halliburton
Queens College Writers at Work, Rikki Asher and David Gerwin
Simplifying Writing Across the Curriculum: A Review of Art Young's Teaching Wring Across the Curriculum