Supporting MIT's International Graduate Students: Communicating Within and Across Cultures
In her piece in the March/April issue of the Faculty Newsletter, Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook provides an overview of the impact of Homeland Security’s SEVIS system on international student applications and visas to attend MIT. She touched on two central pillars of our culture. First, international graduate students are valued partners in our mission to work with educators and researchers across national boundaries to address the world’s major challenges. Second, MIT is committed to providing an excellent educational and research environment here in Cambridge for all members of its diverse student community.
Another defining feature of MIT’s culture is the assumption that all graduate students will contribute to MIT’s intellectual and creative environment in a variety of ways, such as challenging the status quo, collaborating in research, publishing, interacting in seminars, and teaching undergraduates. Adequate English communication skills are essential for engaging in these activities at MIT and beyond.
MIT currently has 2212 international students enrolled. Table 1 provides the number of students from the five countries with the largest representation. This information encapsulates the range in English proficiency of our international student population. Many speak English as a second (or additional) language (e.g., Chinese, Korean, and French students); a substantial number are functionally bilingual or native speakers, like those from India and Canada.
Regardless of mother tongue, many international graduate students engage assertively and successfully in the communication culture here starting in their first semester.
Others, however, struggle to understand and participate effectively in MIT’s intellectual environment. A variety of linguistic and cultural factors can determine whether someone is an effective communicator, in general, and whether students can adjust easily to MIT’s communication culture:
How do we help international graduate students participate in the communication culture here?
There’s no question that MIT’s entering international graduate students are expert learners who have studied hard to meet the requirements of admission. But they, and their advisors, are frequently unaware that the English test-taking skills that allowed them to succeed in the TOEFL test and the GRE may be inadequate for the flexible, interactive production of English required in this lively educational and research community.
The first step is to ensure, in a timely manner, that students who need help know that they need help. The English Evaluation Test (EET), administered each semester by the English Language Studies (ELS) group in the Foreign Languages & Literatures section of the Humanities Department, provides each student and advisor with an assessment of the student’s English skills.
Since 1984, the Committee on Graduate Student Programs (CGSP) has required all entering international graduate students whose primary language of instruction from the age of six through high school has not been English to take the EET. The EET focuses on academic English and is composed of three parts that measure comprehension and production: a multiple-choice assessment of listening and reading comprehension, as well as accuracy in sentence structure; a writing task; and an interview. The test identifies weaknesses in discrete areas of English that may contribute to problems with some aspects of a student’s course work, teaching, or research.
Students do not “pass” or “fail” the EET. Rather, the assessment provides them and their advisors with predictive information to inform subject choices on Registration Day and decisions about teaching and research assistantships. (See EET FAQs at web.mit.edu/fll/www/languages/EETFAQ.shtml for more details.)
Course Offerings in the English Language
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The curriculum for writing instruction and practice throughout the three levels in the ELS program is designed to develop and strengthen those skills identified as most important in an extensive survey of American professors. (Source: M. Rosenfeld, R. Courtney, and M. Fowles. Identifying the Writing Tasks Important for Academic Success at the Undergraduate and Graduate Levels. GRE Board Report No. 00-04R.) Students should be able to:
The advanced ELS workshops (21F225, 21F227, and 21F232) are best suited to students who are managing relatively well in MIT’s communication culture, but who wish to fine-tune accuracy in writing or listening and speaking; build more fluency; and develop confidence. These subjects are most helpful to students who are already engaged in research activities at MIT, i.e., students who have been at MIT for at least two semesters and have finished much of their coursework. Interestingly, the advanced subjects regularly attract bilingual students who seek instruction, practice, and feedback in academic speaking and writing, even in the absence of EET recommendations. In fact, the relative scarcity of graduate subjects in academic and professional communication Institute wide has occasionally resulted in American students asking permission to register in one of these advanced ELS workshops.
The writing workshops provide motivating contexts in which students learn and practice strategies for audience analysis, document design, and tone. They can write about their own work in various conventional forms such as memos, proposals, journal articles, research reports, and theses.
The Advanced Speaking & Critical Listening Skills workshop (21F232) focuses on effective communication in meetings, seminars, classrooms, poster sessions, conferences, and corporate contexts. Many activities in class are recorded onto DVDs, allowing easy, frequent, and timely analysis and feedback. A major component of 21F232 is the study and practice of the interactive teaching and mentoring expected of a recitation TA. As part of the workshop, the course instructor visits the recitations of students in 21F232 who are currently TAs, records their teaching, and meets with them to discuss the recorded session.
Another option for students interested in working on their teaching skills is a three-unit Workshop in Strategies for Effective Teaching (21F230), offered each IAP. It provides most of the instruction, materials, and practice that are covered in the teaching unit of 21F232.
Aside from taking formal subjects in the ELS Program, MIT provides two other ways to study academic English. First, the Language Learning & Resource Center (LLARC) in Building 16-644 offers free access to an excellent collection of materials for self-study, from low-tech options (textbooks, cassettes, and videos) to interactive DVDs and computer programs. (The Center’s catalogue and schedule are available at llarc.mit.edu/home.) In addition, the Writing & Communication Center in Building 32-081 offers free, individual consultations on any kind of speaking or writing task at any stage in its development. Tutors there do not edit students’ documents; they work with students to strategize, analyze, and improve them. They are also available to help students
plan and deliver presentations. Any member of the community, including family members, may take advantage of the material and expertise available in these two centers.
MIT’s goals are ambitious, and the world’s challenges are, indeed, great. To succeed, we need to tap the intellectual rigor and creativity of every one of us. Confidence and facility in English, as well as familiarity with academic communication norms, will go a long way toward enabling all of our international graduate students to contribute fully as members of our Cambridge community and as partners in our international mission.
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