One of the most profound recent changes to Canadian higher education seems to have gone little noticed: namely, the increasing numbers of students on campus whose native tongue is not English. Some of these students may be first-generation Canadian or landed immigrants, while many come from other countries. Most universities now have departments dedicated to the recruitment and retention of international students and are busily criss-crossing the globe in search of new customers.
Governments and senior administration in universities have been successful in persuading Canadians that “internationalizing” the campus is a positive development for all concerned. Yet, there is a dark and worrying side to this that is felt most acutely in the teaching of the humanities and critical studies. There is no sugar-coated way to say this: many of those who are welcomed at our universities are simply unprepared for the rigours of the university classroom.
It may be that they possess insufficient abilities in English or that their academic and cultural preparedness is not up to speed. Either way, their presence fundamentally changes teaching and learning, to the detriment, we believe, of all involved: students fluent in English, instructors, and the students who don’t speak English well or don’t understand the Canadian academic context. For who enjoys being thrust into circumstances for which one is ill-prepared or, conversely, over-prepared? It is a lose-lose-lose scenario.
We have both taught graduate courses where a significant portion of the class consists of ESL students. Layers of common cultural and historical understanding that serve as a foundation for graduate discussion disappear from beneath one’s feet. When teaching a class with a large ESL enrolment, faculty cannot balk, but are pressured to adapt and adjust their expectations.
Instead of engaging students in disentangling the nuances and subtleties of a particularly important passage from the assigned readings, one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers: articulating slowly; avoiding any conjunctions and non-standard English; writing simple terms on the board. You teach to the needs of your class, and when three-quarters of the class are struggling with reading comprehension and basic vocabulary, that’s the object of your teaching.
Humanities and other teachers who are expected to address and balance the needs of such students with those of lifelong English speakers are not grammarians or intercultural mediators: they are subject-matter experts. And the kind of expertise required is manifold. Each culture brings with it set genres of writing and rhetoric, and many of these may be quite different from the pared-down logic and style of a research report or even a textual analysis. And, while universities provide writing centres and other institutionalized assistance for undergraduates, there is nothing comparable for graduate students. Indeed, the sorts of expertise and infrastructure for addressing the writing needs of ESL graduate students – whether of a mechanical and practical nature, or a more subtle and nuanced kind – range from inadequate to non-existent.
Qualified students can hardly be blamed if they slouch in their seats and study their shoelaces, as the professor iterates, yet again, something they learned in grade school. Conversation and dialogue – what the Greeks called the dialectic and which forms the core of the graduate school experience in the humanities – should inspire and stimulate students possessing the requisite abilities with the language. Yet it is impossible to engage students in any meaningful and rigorous exchange of ideas if their minds are focused on vocabulary and pronunciation.
Insofar as ESL students contribute to and benefit from the pursuit of academic priorities proper to Canada, fine and well. But insofar as such students are academically or linguistically unprepared to enter the broad cultural debates that animate the educational conversation, their presence in the graduate classroom and in some cases, their receipt of Canadian credentials, occurs to the detriment of the Canadian students and institutions. It is a form of intellectual and professional duplicity. And we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Given our experience, we believe that Canadian universities need to rethink their enthusiasm for non-English-speaking students. They are indeed a ready source of revenue; but it is a rare thing in this world that one gets something for nothing. In our view, the money brought in by foreign students has extracted a great price.
Norm Friesen holds the Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University. Patrick Keeney is an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University.
Read Deputy Editor Léo Charbonneau’s reaction to the comments posted below.
Also, an ESL student has written a response: An (ESL) student’s perspective on internationalizing the Canadian campus.