English MATTERS — SPRING 2012

Going International:
Getting Ready to Write through English 108

by Professor John Webster

Three hundred students walk into their new classrooms on a late August day, most having been in the U.S. less than a week. As you talk with them in that first class hour you see that many struggle even to understand you, and find it next to impossible to respond aloud. You wonder what strange mixture of courage and innocence has led them to cross that ocean to get here, and how they will ever survive at a first-line American research university.

Then just three weeks and a day later you get to class early—your students are already there, buzzing about the work they’ve done over the past week. Each of them is excited about what is about to transpire: the annual English 108 Research Conference. For most it is their first public speaking presentation in English; for some it is their first public speaking in any language at all. And then the conference begins, and group after group holds forth on topics ranging from the “Freshman Fifteen” to “Students, Motivation, and Suicide.” They’ve done their research, they’ve assembled their PowerPoints, they’ve memorized their remarks— ”No reading your scripts!” they have all been told.

These were last fall’s students in English 108: Writing Ready—Getting a Start on Writing in College. Offered in the UW’s Early Fall Start intensive mini-term, immediately preceding Fall Quarter, English 108 was created eight years ago before the UW’s current surge in international student enrollment. Various administrators had asked us to create a remedial English grammar course. Their students couldn’t write, they said. One instructor even declared that he had received papers that “had no verbs!”

That sounded dire, but Professor Anis Bawarshi and I responded that (as surprising as many find it) research shows that remedial courses in grammar don’t actually work. So rather than reinvent a bad solution, we offered instead to create something new. The result, offered for the first time in 2004, was English 108. We based the course on a few observations about struggling first-year writers:

For success, any course would have to address those issues. Beyond those observations, however, we added one more: At a research university, effective writing depends upon learning new things in order to write about material that even a student’s teacher may not fully understand.

From these four points a curriculum emerged. English 108 would ask students to write a lot, in easy and familiar ways as well as in academic ways. It would begin with accounts of what and how students had written in their K-12 lives, and it would gradually introduce them to the UW library, where each would do a research-inquiry project. Finally students would also write about their own growing understandings and challenges as writers. This last kind of writing, what education gurus call “metacognition,” is central to helping students gain confidence. Until they can assess for themselves their progress as writers, they have little chance of building confidence enough to overcome the emotional resistances they have to writing in the first place.

And so the course began. Starting with 40 students in 2004, enrollment grew gradually until in 2009 we had 160 students— at which point a surprising shift began. Though about 25% of our enrollment had always been English language learners (ELLs), in 2009 the number of ELLs rose to 40%, and then rose again in 2010 to 75% of our total enrollment. We had been located by a whole new group of students, international freshmen, primarily from the People’s Republic of China—and they seemed to very much like what they found. With the steady help of faculty colleague Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, we responded by expanding our offering each year, but in spite of our efforts we could not meet demand. Last year signups surged so much that we closed enrollment two months early with a total of 300 students—up 100 over the previous fall—of whom 270 were international—250 from China alone.

This shift has obviously changed the character of the class, but even with all these new students, we have decided to stay with our underlying curriculum. Though we obviously want our new international students to progress from the strong high school English they already have to fluent and college-capable English, we haven’t supported them in this by radically changing our curriculum. Instead, we have stayed with what we thought made sense for all of our students in our original plan. Result? Our classes—and our students— have thrived.

So, yes. Working with a staff of outstanding teaching assistants, I have experienced what it is like to leave class that first day wondering if the students I’ve just met could possibly succeed. The hill seems so steep, the road so rocky. But three weeks later there they all are, amazing their teachers and themselves with their conference presentations, showing why the university has had the confidence to bring them to our campus in the first place. What a rich environment our new students have made of our classrooms! What a set of cultural and personal resources they provide our own Northwest natives!

We don’t yet know what this year’s enrollments will be, but we have expanded again, and we will be ready for whatever blend of nationalities shows up. We do know that our international students have turned out to be quite successful as undergraduates; their grade point averages have tracked close to their native-speaking counterparts. And we take pride that so many of them have been able to ease their way into this success through their time with us in English 108.

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