Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Keep Calm and Speak English, By Yuyang Yuan (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

My research concerns how the evaluation mechanism shapes the diverse student body into the normalized image of “U of T students”. A question that I asked my interviewees was “which part of the rubrics of the writing assignment do you struggle the most with”. To my surprise, no one was primarily concerned about language, even though many of them are international students whose first language is not English. Students struggle the most with meeting the word limits and keeping everything on point to make a good argument. It’s about the hardcore skills of thinking and writing, not language itself. 

Nevertheless many students do feel uncomfortable or unconfident about using English to write essays and to navigate on the campus. “I could explain it clearly in my mother language, but I could not do this in English,” said Sally, a second-year philosophy student, who made a huge effort to improve her English. For example, she always explains philosophy theories in English to her friends, until her friends could fully understand what she was saying.

For her first philosophy essay at U of T she got an unexpectedly low mark. For the second essay, she went to the writing center and carefully edited her language. The instructor encouraged her and helped her patiently. “That’s when I felt I’m welcomed by this place even though my English is bad.” This essay had a much higher mark compared with the last one, but still unsatisfying. She then discussed with her native speaker classmates and found they had similar grades. “Then I know it’s not my problem of language, but my writing skills and my understanding of the course material.”   

Like Sally, many non-native speaker students constantly compare their English use with that of the English speakers. When we discussed the practical steps of essay writing, including the understanding of essay topics, the problems that appeared in writing and editing, many interviewees would add that “my classmates/teammates who are native speakers also think in this way/ have such problems”. Even though these students are not that uncomfortable about using English in their writing assignments, it seems like they still need to affirm that their problems are not caused by English, and thus justify their sense there are other problems with their course work. 

Again, to my surprise, when I asked a TA for an introductory-level anthropology course about what’s the part of the essay that she would avoid evaluating, her answer was the English language use. “Since many students are from ESL programs or just started using English to study, it’s unfair to grade them based on their English use.” As an international student and a non-native speaker who is nervously interviewing people in English for just the second time, at that moment, I was relieved and felt what Sally had felt in the writing center: being included, as I was no longer an outsider who needs to constantly be aware of my English skills to justify that I could have a place in this community. 

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