“The fastest-spreading language in human history, English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide—that’s one in every four of us.” (Harvard Business Review).
The English language is being written and spoken in rising numbers the world over. The number of college-level students has doubled since the year 2000, and many of these students move from non-native English-speaking countries to study at institutions with English as the primary language of instruction.
These students will invariably be tested by TOEFL or IELTS or even custom language assessment tools offered by individual institutions in order to assess linguistic facility prior to acceptance or as part of a successful admissions program. Other institutions offer gateway courses designed specifically for English language learners to ensure an adequate footing in the academic language of instruction prior to completing major coursework. While the details may differ from institution to institution, the general premise remains the same: students want to study English; institutions want international students; but sometimes the desire on both parties – students and institutions – outstrips the capacity to elevate student fluency in order to ensure success.
While these students will be able to display enough linguistic fluency to pass the requisite tests for admission and enrolment, they may well be unfamiliar with the various generic expectations of writing at the academic or scholarly level.
What broke my heart as I stood at the front of classrooms where I would have a mere 12 weeks to teach a set of novels or poetry from the Renaissance to the 21st Century, was that many of these bright, capable, and interesting international students who had worked hard to master the level of English that the various international tests and standards set for them nonetheless did not have the cultural training in the specific kinds of critical thinking skills that are routinely required in humanities and liberal arts courses in the English-speaking world.
What I began to see is that the students who had the good fortune to go to good schools, come from families where English was spoken at home (by college-educated parents) were far better off than their counterparts who – through no fault of their own – may have been subjected to an education system that reifies memorization rather than analysis or a deference to authority rather than critical engagement. In these cases, it did not matter whether these students had hard won English language proficiency scores if they did not have the habits of mind that trained them how to ask questions of a text, how to debate ideas, or (gasp!) how to question the professor at the front of the room.
To me, long a scholar of culture, diversity, and equity, the issue that I faced in my literature classes with well meaning but under qualified students was an example of a systemic problem. Sure, it has long been noted by many people smarter than I am that a student’s personal circumstances – family life, socio-economic status, etc. – can have a profound impact on her success scholastically. However, I never lived this so much as I did as when I stood in front of those undergraduates with ideas in their heads, but without the critical capacity and cultural training to shape those thoughts and ideas into the types of scholarly prose that other students began learning as part of their middle school curriculum.
So what to do?
Rather than lament the state of the academy today or agitate for change from within – both completely legitimate options – I decided to leave the academy altogether and join the choir of “quitlit” professors who leave tenure or tenure track.
In my case, my decision to leave the professional academy was directly related to my desire to try to demystify the cultural conventions of the academic essay using technology. Rather than leave edtech up to the venture capitalists and start up founders with an eye on student data and the bottom line, I decided to build software that would give students – no matter where they came from – a leg up when it came to scholarly writing. Sure, they would need to be intermediate English speakers and writers for my software to help them, but it would be the element that made the difference between success or failure for a student far from home.
At least that was the intention. I now know much more about agile development process, scrum methodologies, both user experience and user interface design, prototyping, minimum viable products, and, yes, fundraising, than I ever thought I would need to know as a literary scholar with a nice job for life.
What I see now as an entrepreneur who worked for free for three years to get this product off the ground, who has put in all her life’s savings into this product, and who truly hopes to revolutionize the way students write, is that the same problems with equity in the English classroom are those in the start up entrepreneurial space as well.
Those business owners who have deep pockets and connections will invariably build businesses that are more successful than those who may not have those same advantages.
What this means is that in the edtech space, we may not always see the very best tools rise to the top in the same way that in an English class, we may not always see the brightest students rise to the top. Without meaningful systems and structures in place we may well find the future of the technologically advance classroom not that dissimilar from the past classroom where those with advantages retain those advantages and those without the advantages work damn hard.
My advice to students, educators, administrators, entrepreneurs, founders, and funders remains the same: if you have advantages, use those to help others, and maybe, just maybe we can work towards levelling the academic playing field.
Note: Originally published for EduTech Asia 2018. Click here for original posting.
Useful samples and examples: