Conversing with the International Students

Lisa Exey '92

My job as a writing consultant at a college with a significant number of international students offers challenges in the field of writing. Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a liberal arts school with a student body population of twelve hundred. Sixty percent of the students originate from Iowa and the remainder represent thirty-five states and thirty different countries. The international students make up ten percent of the student body, but they account for over thirty percent of our writing center conferences.

This year, over fifty percent of my conferences have been with international students from Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, India, Panama, and Pakistan. Many of these appointments have been strictly conversational where we talked about the assignments or the ideas they would later use in their papers. Conversational conferences are more relaxing and successful in originating ideas because there is less pressure involved for both the student and the consultant. Neither of us has to worry about being so precise with grammar and language.

Although openly conversing with an international student is my favorite type of consultation, many of my conferences are dominated by the students' existing texts. Frequently when an international student brings in a paper, what the student really wants is a proofreader. Sometimes proofreading is not a bad alternative because the organization and content of the paper are already sound. However, when a student brings in a paper that is disorganized and lacking in content, proofreading becomes either an irrelevant issue or a more difficult task. I encountered this situation when a Japanese student brought in an application for graduate school and asked me to "proofread it."

After having initially read through his materials, I realized that he had not answered the questions. For example, he was asked what academic and professional achievements had been most influential in his self-development. His answer was coming to America and playing soccer. Had we had the opportunity to discuss the questions before he answered them, we might have been able to explore different possibilities for responding. Although we talked briefly about each of the questions and how he could improve his responses, we never moved beyond the text he had written. In addition, he had many grammatical errors, as evident in the passage quoted below.

After finishing the second year at Chuo University in Japan, I transferred to Coe College in Iowa. When I first came to America, I was very embarrassed with English. I had much difficulties in speaking, hearing, reading, and writing English. However, as I study here, I have overcome the difficulties, and, now, I can compete with other American students in regular courses.

I wondered how I should help him with his English without doing it for him. It was his application essay, and I wanted it to be a reflection of himself and his understanding of the language. But I also wanted him to be accepted. He sat in front of me asking, "Do you think I'll get accepted? Does it sound good enough?" Looking back, I now realize our conference could have gone two directions: I could have taken this opportunity to teach him about some of the rules governing the English language and asked him to totally rewrite his essay; my second option would have been to serve as his proofreader/editor by cleaning up his essay. I decided to become his proofreader/editor. I suggested places where he needed articles, identified passages that could be expanded or reworded, and pointed out spots that could be made clearer to the reader.

After he left, I wondered if I had really helped him. I felt paralyzed by the demands of the situation and ended the conference feeling dissatisfied. The main problems of the paper had still not been resolved; they had not even been discussed. Had we conversed before he began, perhaps he would have realized that a piece of writing must go through multiple drafts before being considered a final copy. If I had the opportunity to do the conference again, we would have talked about the questions first to help in understanding them. Setting up several meeting times would also be beneficial, for we could have discussed the essay in our first conference and progressed to working on the grammar in our final conference.

This consultation reminds me that although sometimes we are asked to serve as proofreaders, we are also held accountable for pointing out to students the fundamentals of writing. It is up to us, as consultants, to remind the students that the writing process is often more important than merely producing a finished product. A successful writing experience frequently needs to begin with just a friendly conversation.