Creating and Sustaining International Connections: exploring the learning opportunities for Studying Creative Understandings about Teaching and Research for Equity and Access

Between policy and vernacular literacies

Adult literacy workers in Canada tend to be white, middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual women; they are, in most parts of the country, demographically different from students who attend the programs. What does it mean that they are outsiders to the students’ vernacular practices? The frustration that practitioners feel in inhabiting the gap between policy and practice is quite different from that of colonized subjects whose literacies and languages are erased or occluded by the imposition of dominant literacies and forms of education (Franchetto, 2008; Ho'omanawanui, 2004; Thiong’o, 1986; Thomas, 2007). As foreigners to the students’ practices, do adult literacy teachers believe their role is to support learners in acquiring the dominant literacy as an additional set of practices? In ESOL training in Canada teachers are expected to consider how language teaching is connected to acquisition of cultural norms; they are asked to think about whether their aim is to assimilate students or to offer language tools the students can use to function within the dominant cultural and linguistic context. In adult literacy training, on the other hand, these discussions do not occur. Materials for paid and volunteer practitioners routinely define literacy in terms set by the OECD surveys and reiterate the claims that a quarter of adults ‘do not have the literacy skills they need to meet the demands of modern life’ (Community Literacy of Ontario, 2009). By asserting that learners’ vernacular literacies are not acceptable, perhaps policies deprive practitioners of language to describe the work they do supporting learners to negotiate diverse literacy practices. Perhaps if adult literacy workers paid more attention to how the OECD discourse has colonized other ways of knowing and other literacies the field could imagine how to avoid being trapped between vernacular and policy literacies.

Between policy and structural inequalities

I am curious about what role assumptions about the benefits of ‘progress’ play in the OECD literacy discourse and in ideas that maintain racialised hierarchies. In the current market model of education, literacy ‘takes on the commodity form, gaining exchange value through equivalences’ (Kell, 2001a, p. 206). Do policies that treat literacy as a form of currency make it impossible for practitioners, and other social justice advocates, to talk about the fact that this currency does not have equal exchange value for all users? Heron argues that in white settler colonies such as Canada discourses of development occur within a ‘national story…of colonial and imperial innocence’ (Heron, 2007, p. 37). Her work allows me to ask how Canada’s national story of innocence might make it difficult for white subjects to see how we are implicated in practices of domination, including practices that entrench particular literacy practices as ‘normal’ and more valuable than other practices. A national story of innocence makes it difficult to examine how social exclusions are produced, and how each of us participates in or benefits from these exclusions. The national story of innocence may also explain why so many white literacy workers believe that the government would, and should, enact policies that support literacy work as a social justice endeavour.

Naming the traps

To understand how policies reproduce systemic inequalities and reduce the spaces in which adult literacy educators can act, I draw on Foucault’s insights about modern power. He uses the term bio-power to name processes that ‘brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life’ (Foucault, 1978, p. 143). He argues that capitalism would not have emerged ‘without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes’ (pp. 140-141). New forms of power emerged that could make optimal productive use of the population; these forms of power relied on norms and hierarchies to ‘distribut[e] the living in the domain of value and utility’ (pp. 144).

Perhaps measures of literacy, such as the OECD surveys, are being used to articulate norms and to reassert hierarchies among subjects in the interests of maximizing the productive potential of the population as a whole. Taking this perspective makes it possible to see how market logics have been used over and against effective pedagogy. It also reveals how policies framed on the level of aggregations cannot but ignore ‘the particular interests and aspirations’ (Foucault, 1991, p. 100) of the individual subjects who struggle with dominant print culture.

Around the world, adult educators need to find creative new ways to highlight global inequities in ‘economies of literacy’ (Blommaert, 2008) and to unsettle long-standing patterns of dominance and exclusion. We can start by asking about the origin of our belief that literacy will lead to social inclusion, and that government policies will address inequities. We can also ask how we ourselves benefit from social relations that privilege specific culture- and class-specific literacy practices. But perhaps we also need to ask how we can work towards a world in which it is much more common to ask whose literacies are de-valued, and why.

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HE educators teaching international students: questions of purpose, participation and the need for reflection

Jeannie Daniels, La Trobe University, Australia

Introduction

Internationalisation of higher education is big business, and universities in Australia have become part of this process along with educational institutions in many other English-speaking countries offering a western-style education . Yet, despite the growth of this phenomenon and the accompanying body of literature informing its development, challenges remain. This paper presents a framework for investigating some implications for educators and their practices when international students come to study in an English-language university in Australia. It discusses the challenges to socially just educational provision in light of the changing purposes of tertiary education and the different expectations and aims of participant groups. There are four main stakeholder groups involved in developing and sustaining international education collaborations – governments, institutions, educators and students; however the focus here is on educators and some of the difficulties they face in creating mutually beneficial connections within the educational environment, with their students, and for their practices.

The challenges that accompany internationalisation of the student body and curriculum have wide relevance. While not all countries pursue or experience internationalisation of education in the same way, there are some commonalities identified in the literature that can be explored positively together, although the eventual outcomes and approaches to them may differ. While pedagogical and language concerns in the international classroom are addressed in the literature, these are documented from the student perspective ; what are less known are the challenges faced by the educator in responding to these named issues, including the broader cultural differences that operate within them.

The Australian context

The perceived status of a western-style education and degree, along with a more mobile student population, has attracted many students from countries where English is not the first language, to study in Australia. While the majority of these students come from mainland China and India, a large number of other, mostly Asian, countries are also represented .

Given Australia's claim of being ‘the world’s most diverse multicultural society’ (Victorian Multicultural Commission 2009), welcoming international students into the educational system seems a natural consequence of such diversity. This phenomenon is actually not a new one, however, having begun in 1950 with the Colombo Plan and its aim of encouraging development across the Asian region. Since then, an active student recruitment programme in place for over two decades has seen some universities becoming quite financially dependent on the business of educating these students.

While there are some common aims amongst the various stakeholders, Marginson notes that the priorities informing their positions differ markedly, creating potential conflict on a number of levels. He explains that ‘doggedly persistent differences’ (2006, p.2) exist between education systems and individual institutions, a situation that can equally be applied to educators and the students they teach (see for example .

Differences in purpose and aim amongst the participant groups impact on the structures and the effectiveness of these international connections. They impact too, on the confidence of educators to do their work well. More obvious student needs, such as those relating to language differences, are well understood by educators; less so are the implications to student-teacher relationships of cultural, social and personal levels of loneliness , or Rizvi's (2010) even broader contextual framework of pedagogy, cultures, knowledges and expectations.

Points of difference in these international exchanges can be complex, yet educators are expected to respond to this complexity of student needs, while already operating within an – at times – unsupportive environment shaped through policy decisions. They must also contend with institutional expectations of successful participation and completion of their students.

Educators in the Faculty of Law and Management at La Trobe University in Victoria currently work with substantial numbers of international students. Of the 6000 undergraduate and 2000 postgraduate students 35% are international – from forty different countries – and comprise 72% of the university’s international student population.

In my role as Academic Language and Learning lecturer working with both students and staff in this faculty I identified a high level of confusion and frustration amongst teaching staff: one young female lecturer related feeling overwhelmed when, in her first lecture, she found herself looking into ‘a sea of almost completely non-Anglo student faces’. This educator has a keen sense of cultural differences and of student equity, yet wondered how she would be able to address the expectations and needs of all her students, given her students' non-western educational backgrounds.

Students’ English language fluency is a major area of contention. Students currently are admitted with an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score of 6.5 or 7.0; this is classed as Competent to Good, and is an average of the reading, writing, speaking and listening scores. The result is that many students may read capably in English, but write at a much lower level than is acceptable for academic work. Students may also have a good level of aural communication in Standard English, but some teaching staff, too, come from countries other than Australia so that students are exposed to English spoken with many different accents, including Australian, Kenyan, Iraqi and Scottish.

Many students come from Mainland China to complete their final undergraduate year here after studying in their own country at an affiliated college where only Standard English is spoken and little is taught about western style-educational practices. These educational cultural differences are evident, with Chinese students tending to congregate in peer groups, their preferred learning style (and probably also a strategy that lessens their linguistic and social isolation). Educators are baffled when students claim never to have written an essay using citations – these not required in certain educational cultures – or to have presented orally to an audience. Attitudes of staff to such differences vary, with responses ranging from accommodation: ‘well I do try to allow for their language needs' to complete frustration: 'these Asians...they all sit together in a corner. They just don't say anything - not in English, anyway’.

Most educators that I speak with do care about their students, want them to succeed in their studies, and want to teach them effectively. Many, it seems, are unsure of how to do so. My impression has been that much of the process of internationalisation of education has happened to the teaching staff. They have been offered little preparation and support to enable them to accommodate these student characteristics, which can be very different to those of domestic Anglo-Australian students.

As part of my work to develop staff capabilities, I explored ways in which these educators could develop a reflective approach towards addressing their concerns, in order to re-shape their practices in a way that would accommodate the changing environment and satisfy their own professional needs as well as those of their students.

Educators' perceptions - a small research project

This section describes a two-part research project of which the first part involving collecting data from a questionnaire disseminated to teaching staff. I formulated a set of questions that emerged from my work-related and less formal discussions with teaching staff, and that I felt responded to the challenges that seemed to be present in their current work environment:

  • How do educators re-shape or adjust their practices in response to changing student demographics?

  • How can educators offer an educational experience that responds to international students' desire for a western-style education, yet at the same time address quite pronounced cultural differences within the classroom?

  • How do they respond to/contribute to policy and institutional demands on them to participate in these international collaborations?

From these questions, the questionnaire was constructed and distributed to twenty-two teaching staff within the Faculty. (The questionnaire format was selected due to known time constraints of educators during teaching periods; this format would facilitate quick and easy completion and therefore I hoped to obtain a reasonable response).

I wanted to know what teaching staff thought about teaching international students, and how effective the former felt they were in their teaching. For example, were they clear about their purpose in teaching international students? Did they know what their institution’s expectations were? In addition I aimed to introduce the concept of fairness. I already knew that some educators felt that institutional and government policy decisions were impacting unfairly on them – did they think about the student perspective? If so, what were their thoughts?

Finally I felt it would be important for them to consider some consequences and implications of what they had identified. This reflective aspect is an important one, as it introduces the notion that participants first of all need to engage with their experiences before they can begin to make sense of them . Reflection is about understanding what is happening or has happened, and taking charge of the experience and feelings that accompany it. For Boud it means returning to experience, that is, remembering ‘how it was experienced at the time’; recognising the feelings that accompanied the experience; and re-evaluating that experience, and involves:

relating new information to that which is already known, seeking relationships between old and new ideas, determining the authenticity for ourselves of the ideas and feelings that have resulted, and making the resulting knowledge one’s own

From the questionnaire data I identified the four following problematic areas; these were rated significant by more than 50% of the seventeen eventual respondents.

  • lack of common purpose - feeling isolated, they were acting alone;

  • lack of support- no acknowledgment of the difficulties by senior administration;

  • lack of clarity of aims - not sure what they were doing, feeling their way, just surviving;

  • lack of understanding - this was about not being able to identify the problems, or not knowing what to do about them.

Identification of the issues formed the first part of the research project, and the findings will subsequently be used to design Cultural Development in Practice workshops for staff.

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