Navigating US Academy

My personal experience as a student and a writing instructor at multiple sites in the United States and abroad tells me that transnational writing scholars and instructors are uniquely positioned to teach writing to a diverse body of students in the US higher education.

I am currently a full-time faculty at California State University, Northridge—a public institution located in Los Angeles. Before moving here in the Fall of 2014, I was a graduate student at Syracuse University, a research university in upstate New York. All my pre-doctoral education, however, was completed in a small South Asian country, Nepal. As an international multilingual student, I was one of the millions of international students in the US and one of the thousands at Syracuse.

In my early years as an international graduate student in a school in Louisiana (for a semester in the Spring of 2008) and then at Syracuse after that, I struggled to step up and participate in group discussions or seminar-format classes. I still remember that I never spoke up except as an in-class presentation leader in the first composition practicum I had to take in Louisiana, not because I had nothing to say, but because I could not follow the conversation and identify the right time to intervene or take turns, partly because I was not yet accustomed to an American accent and seminar class format. That had a direct impact on my grade, and overall performance in the class, and perhaps even on my learning. Even though the course instructor had forewarned me about the impact of my non-participation in the final grade, I remained silent the entire semester. In other lecture-based classes though, I could do pretty well because that format was something I was familiar with, and it did not require regular participation in conversation other than during occasional group projects inside and outside the class.

I should mention here that my story is not unique. Like me, many international students struggle to participate in class discussion, and group work not because they are incapable or deficient, but because US discussion-based classroom is different from that of their home countries. In their home countries, many of them are systematically discouraged from speaking up in classes. In lecture-based British model classes, particularly in Asian and African countries, speaking up or expressing different viewpoints in the class is often interpreted as disruption or, even worse, as a challenge to the teacher’s authority in the class; therefore, maintaining silence in the class is seen as a virtue.

Another challenge I faced as an international student was composing assignments in the style expected in the US academy. I had done a number of term papers and an independent study in my Master’s degree in Nepal, but those projects were not necessarily thesis-driven and based on appropriate source use. So, when I was required to produce thesis-driven argumentative essays with proper source documentation all at once, I struggled to meet the demands. It took me few years of training and immersion in the American academic system before I could compose something close to what professors saw as persuasive academic writing.

So, my cross-border academic journey has been characterized by learning by trial and error, and frequent intercultural, inter-linguistic and inter-academic adaptations. As a degree-seeking student away from my place of origin, I have been to the classes where the student population was very diverse, and I have also been to the classes where I was the only international student. As a writing instructor, I have had a similar experience.

I have taught classes with really diverse student bodies, and I have also taught classes with few international students or none at all. I believe that my positionality speaks particularly to the position of many international students in American higher education. My ‘double vision’—as an outsider and an insider in relation to the American academy—, however, can inform the struggles and challenges both domestic American and international students face in engaging various issues associated with writing in multiple mediums, for multiple audiences, and for multiple purposes. Based on my experience of schooling and teaching in multiple academic sites (Nepal, Louisiana, New York, and now California) and in multiple academic systems (British and American), and my reading and research into diverse but closely interconnected fields of globalization, intercultural communication, media/new media studies, literacy studies, World Englishes, and rhetoric and composition, I can say that there are plural forms of academic writing; there are multiple ways of organizing ideas in academic writing; and there are multiple forms of old and new media writing. Similarly, I can attest that writing is done in multiple languages and English varieties, and now increasingly in multiple media and modes, and that writing now crosses borders and cultures like never before.

In light of this quick overview of my experiences, it could be safe to say that the transnational writing instructors and scholars possess critical knowledge, and can serve as valuable resources within and outside the diverse writing classrooms. They can help students negotiate cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication challenges; they can bring into relief the situated nature of writing; and they can discuss the expanded notion of writing with students–how writing is understood differently across cultures, how it is taught differently across institutions around the world, and how it has evolved with time and technology, but differently across regions of the world. In addition, these instructors can recognize the different writing needs of students, and respond promptly with appropriate resources, which can help make their writing better and effective. Such a scaffolding can also result into students’ understanding of writing across borders and their genuine appreciation of diverse modes of communication.

Santosh Khadka, PhD

California State University, Northridge

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