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Chinese Student Writing at American Universities: One Teacher’s Reflection

June 18th, 2012 by · Leave a Comment

After teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for the past 19 years and working with students in English Composition classes for the past 12, I have seen a lot of writing. Of course, every individual has his or her own style, but we do teach certain styles of rhetoric and attempt to clarify reader expectations to give students (here I’m talking Freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University) the tools they need to express their ideas in an effective and thought-provoking way.

The goal is not not just to teach them how to construct “correct” sentences, but to “create” through their writing pictures for the reader that help him or her really “see” what the writer is trying to say; to use critical thinking skills to examine issues more deeply. This is why I find Catherine Powell’s opinion piece in the Hopewell Journal so interesting – she is seeing what I’m seeing, but from the perspective of an American writer in China.

In my class (typically 90 percent Chinese), we read articles and discuss the points the author is trying to make. Then we discuss the students’ perspective on the issue. Finally, we write an essay where the students discuss themselves in relation to the ideas in the readings. Throughout the semester, my students have problems understanding that I want them to use their own experiences to demonstrate their points, that I want them to give as much detail as possible to bring the reader into the experience so that he/she can see the link between the ideas from our readings and the students’ lives.

In her opinion piece, Catherine says about her assignment, “We were supposed to put our true feelings into it…I wrote an actually true story about going to an amusement park and being too chicken to go on a roller coaster, and how my sister shared her bravery with me by telling me all the reasons why I shouldn’t be afraid. My teacher gave me 26 out of 40, saying that my examples weren’t relevant enough.” Based on what she says here, I’m guessing that in my Freshman composition class, this would have been a good essay. From what she describes, I can also understand why I get what I get in the class at the beginning of the semester – essays that try to come to some grand conclusion that has “meaning” that the reader can take away with them to make their lives better.

To me, it seems like the Chinese writers attempt to teach a lesson with their writing. But what I’m looking for is deeper thought – a demonstration of critical thinking that shows the student not only understands the ideas that we have been reading about but can extrapolate from them and relate them to other situations. Above all, in the programs I teach, we aim for demonstration of understanding and of critical, original thinking.

As we move closer to the Fall semester, I will continue to explore the differing expectations of composition teachers in the US and in China in the belief that by pointing out how teacher expectations differ, I can better help my students become “good” writers in US academia.

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