George Mason University vertical bar Valuing Written Accents: Non-Native Writers in the U.S. Academy

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Critical Thinking

Conceptions of “critical thinking” are as diverse as the countries and cultures that students came from. Many of the students who grew up with rote memorization see that approach as more beneficial than the American system which emphasizes the individual and expects students to take an analytical stance. It is more impressive to mimic the scholar’s ethos than to assume and imagine your own. Ayesha, from Pakistan, on the other hand, didn’t see mimicry as respect for the scholars, but rather blamed it on the inadequacy of her teachers. She told us that they “say ‘just memorize it’ and write it down so that they don’t have to put much effort into reading each student’s individual writing. So I would say, for their own ease they just give us a paper and tell us to plagiarize this.  It’s really funny.”
What’s particularly interesting about Ayesha’s statement is that she may not have called it “plagiarism” if she hadn’t moved to the American academy. Also, it raises the question of whether her teachers are encouraging the mimicry of scholars without in fact explaining its benefits to the students. So, perhaps the students in that school system are left thinking that they are always doing busy work that will be easy for their teachers to grade.

This divergent definition of critical thinking is at the heart of the non-native English speaker’s relationship to citation. The mimicry approach that many students are used to lead some to paraphrase their research without necessarily citing it. This happens partly because they are not familiar with the concept of plagiarism as it is defined in the American academy and partly because they have not learned howto engage with the scholars because it is not common practice in their education systems. 

It is important to acknowledge that not all of our informants had hesitations about including analysis and opinion in their writing. Our Spanish speaking students (both South American and European) are very familiar with the concept of plagiarism although they told us that don’t have such serious repercussions as we do in the American academy. Our Columbian informant, Diana, defined “good writing” in Columbia as “[being] original and creative”; she said she feels like the assignment prompts in her North American classrooms are too restrictive and don’t give her enough freedom to develop her ideas. Although most of our Spanish speakers did say that their system is “more or less” what it is in the U.S., they too had more in-class writing exams than take-home essays, reflecting once again a varying definition of “critical thinking” whereby memorization might serve as the barometer for sophisticated and successful thinking. 
Several of our informants perceived creative exercises like reflective and personal writing— and by personal they mean opinionated— as an integral part of American writing pedagogy, but not an approach that was taken in their native countries. Many stated that they were often given a very specific essay question for their in-class writing assignments. They expressed that those in-class assignments were regarded as proof of studied knowledge versus discovery, analysis and interaction with knowledge. Several of our informants appreciated the openness of the American system because they felt that it was liberating and sparked their inherent curiosity; these informants clearly connected this approach to the American definition of critical thinking.

~On memorizing texts in her native country:
Word for word.  And it was normally not considered good to move away from the text, you know.  Your own expression was, uh, you know, not really accepted, you know… It was not really acceptable.  Unlike here where, you know, there is a lot of emphasis on your thoughts, your expression.

~Here, when you start the program, there’s certain experiences you have when you start reading any topic, but then you were never taught in India. You seem to agree with what the text is saying but you never pause to say “Ok, why am I agreeing with the text?” So, the programs here after one semester, two semester, when professors say they are looking fort critical thinking, [they ask] “Why am I agreeing with the text?  Why am I agreeing with the author?”

~The patterns of schooling are completely different from here.  They say that this is the text you have for your exam, so what we do is go line-by-line, practice writing from the text and we produce it in the final.

~In graduate school there is not so much memorization; there is a little bit more comprehension. You change the way it is expressed, but the content remains the same, you know, it’s not your personal opinion.  It’s only how you express the comprehension. 

~When I was growing up—things have changed in India—you know the early 70s and early 80s, when I was really in school, critical thinking was not part of the curriculum.

~Well, here the writing is a lot different.  When you write an assignment they look for critical thinking; they look for clarity; they look for a structure to the essay, and of course a lot, a lot of research.  One wonderful aspect of the school here is you can write whatever you want, as long as it makes sense… It’s okay though, you know, you can apply a concept to any thought you have, to any experience you have as long as you can express it well.  That’s what they are looking for in papers here.  They are not looking for other person’s thoughts.

~When you are writing an essay you don’t go like following some certain rules or regulations whereby you have to have introduction, thesis, conclusion, body. In Hausa you don’t have to do all that.  What is more important is the ideas that you are putting on the paper. That is what is more important.

~I am taking Business, I am taking History, Geography, Sociology my courses…all my courses, even back home, the content, everything you teach me I understand, everything you teach me, philosophy, psychology, everything I understand it, because back home education is very important. We study a lot of hours, not like here two hours you finish the course; back home from morning till 4:00pm,  teaching, one class, teaching, teaching, teaching.  We have a textbook. Like when my husband come here, he says the doctors here they don’t know anything and I say “why do you think?” and he says because those medical terminology you have to cram them in your head you know.  For example, I say if I know how to write, the American system of education is very easy. For  example, they ask you about politics; in the British system, you have to cram and memorize the definition of politics and you have to say “politics is so, so, so and it started on this, in so so country,” define it and use your source.  You have to memorize it.  In the American system, the teacher asks you “what is politics?” You don’t have to say politics is defined by so and so person. No. You say “oh… politics is some kind of government, elected government; America we have president, the senate, the past” and as soon as he [professor] understands you have the concept, you are fine to go.  But back home you have to understand and memorize what is this.

~On writing in the U.S. academy:
It definitely does encourage free thinking, free writing; you know you create your ideas.  By the British you have to go certain rules and regulations.

~On advice she would give her younger siblings in Nigeria to prepare them to write in the U.S. academy:
I said everybody has to read this book and when you finish you give to your sister, you pass it over, get used to the habit of reading and if you can read it, take a piece of paper, I don’t know how to do it, but I don’t want what happen to me to happen to my sister. I say, when you read, write… Write a part from what they learn; let’s say you read two pages and you ask yourself what you read…sometimes you read and your mind is somewhere else you don’t understand….

~We can say the classes [in Thailand] are teacher-centered because when we walk into the classroom, we expect that today the teacher will tell us. We just listen, just like the lecture, to the teacher, to what they want to tell. It’s like that. But it doesn’t mean it’s like that all the time because sometimes the teacher does ask the question but it’s like we were trained not to be active in the classroom, so not much discussion. Just listen and then doing homework like that in the classroom. But nowadays there is change. They try to have the children-centered class, have the children speak up to show us the idea. This is what the American system does, right? So that means the student have to show the idea, have to speak out, and they are independent and they have to study more and more.

~When I studied when I was young, I remember I dislike the multiple choice tests because I have to remember everything. I like the reading and finding the idea and then coming on the topic or something like that. So I did quite well for the essay in Thai.

~The main difference between writing in English and in Spanish is not the grammar and the structure and the subject and the verb and the complement.  That’s something that’s still the same thing in Spanish.  But the structured thinking, and the process of how you think is the difference.  Because I can write something in English that it makes sense, like grammatically, but it has no sense here, because they have a different structure of thinking.

~Here it’s very structured and very organized and sometimes I think that too much structure maybe don’t allow students to think really, because everything is on the paper and you have to follow it and sometimes I feel like, “stop it,” I want to do something else but I can’t because it’s off of the rubric.  But they’re very organized here and they have everything written and everything’s described as you have to do it and what you should do, set page limits, and points for your grammar and points for the rules and points for the creative ideas and how many ideas do you have to add to your paper and how many weaknesses and strengths do you have to mention.  It’s very, very, very specific…

~Well France was really different from Spain, for instance, because they really focused on the writing.  For instance, in language school, it was not like in Spain because there we learned pretty much the history of the Spanish language, also grammar and syntaxes.  But in France it was all about writing and writing arguments.  And that was kind of a shock for me because in Spain they didn’t really teach us how to write, they just gave us basics of grammar and theory of language, but we did not have to write papers for class, for instance.  I mean maybe one or two a year, but it is not common at all…  In France.  they really focused on the writing, like the US.  They didn’t care about the grammar because you were supposed to know it already.  They usually gave you assignment, article, or part of a book and then you have to write an argument about it, using a lot of the structure.

~The problem in Spain is that people don’t really focus on the writing, not as much as they should.  So with some professors you find that they just give you information, information, information.  They don’t follow any order; they just put it all together.  That is a problem with our education system I think.

~One doesn’t remember theory that is learned for a long time, whereas one always keeps skills such as writing and public speaking.  So that is why I think it should be focused…most of my classmates graduate and they have passed the law and the theory, but they don’t know how to express it, they don’t know how to write an opinion.

~In France, I had quite a lot of reading and I have to write about the reading.  In Spain, we also have to read some books and we have some quizzes about what we read, but we didn’t have to actually write papers about what we have read.  And in the US, yeah we also have a lot of reading, way more than in France and in Spain.  Like every single day, at least in the school I attended, we had to read about 40-50 pages.

~Here, I am taking some classes that are not really law classes, but have a lot of ethics involved, a lot of morality.  So here you have more chances to develop your own ideas rather than there.  Because you can’t really talk much about law, you can’t really give your opinion because you don’t have enough knowledge, so you are compelled to use sources all the time and to cite authors and kind of analyze all of the opinions.  Here you have more leeway.

~Here, classes focus more on practical skills such as writing, public speaking.  For us, in Spain, it is all about studying and passing your final exam.

~There is a wrong conception in the Spanish teaching, I think, that focusing on the structure of the language, the grammar, the syntaxes, instead of knowing how to write it well is enough.  I think even some professors consider that their profession would be better regarded if they focused on such technical things of the language versus development of the idea, creating one, writing it, you know…like my father is a Spanish language and literature teacher and he complains about that all the time.

~I have never had problems with speaking in class, but it was kind of difficult for me to get the ideas from the readings, then discuss them, develop them in class, and then develop your own ideas in a paper. That was really challenging; it was the most challenging thing, I think: the analysis and how to express your ideas in a paper with such a rigid structure. Because I tended to make the analysis too broad and here they are more narrow, like right straight to the point.  You have to make three clear statements and sometimes that is difficult to make.  Most of the readings that I have are about philosophy, psychology, so they are more abstract.

~Journalism major is very connected to the politics; there is a lot of issues that deal with politics, or cultural background, or some historical issues.  So if I don’t know when like…African American people get freedom, or how they get it, or about women’s rights in United States, or gay and lesbian movement, I don’t know when they start or how they developed.  I am taking a Woman and Media class right now…we learn so many women impact media areas; I don’t know any.  Teacher gave me the list of the women to pick one and to do a presentation at the end of the semester.  I don’t know any of the names on the paper so I look up the internet and search each different people and I found one people I think is interesting.  That is the hard thing; even though I can learn what they did during their life, I don’t know anything of American historical issue.

~I think people would look too critically, feel too personal when you’re writing here; back in my country, it’s more objective. Particularly academic writing is more objective. Not so subjective; you don’t bring your personal opinion. People don’t care about your personal opinion; you just analyze the data in a more clinical fashion back home. You write in the third person; you would never insert “I” into an academic piece. Ever. You’d always write in the third person. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

~I think the way you write is not necessarily the language you learn but the values and beliefs and the cultural norms that influence the patterns of thinking that then influence the writing. It’s not what you learn to write that influences your writing. It’s more the culture that influences the way you think that influences the way you write.

~I think by saying Middle Eastern people write in circles or Russian people… or English write straight through, those are, I think, American stereotypes or Western stereotypes. It’s more the way you think, more the things you believe, values and judgment.

~I think the fact that ideas when disseminated become your ideas when you think about it, when you analyze it. I think it’s the way we’re brought up. You sit and you learn; all of the learning comes from wisdom from parents and people in the community. And when you hear it and hear it and hear it, it becomes your way of thinking too, to an extent and there’s no clear distinction between what that person said and what you thought because it becomes embedded in you in terms of processes and you’re thinking is completely molded by other things. In that aspect, I agree that there’s no formal way of saying so-and-so said it because it becomes common knowledge.

~So this professor said you have to quote from all these articles; you have to. So then, with my first time I wrote it, he came back and said “no, you have to quote more from what I told you to quote.” So then I said, “how many do you want me to quote?”  So…he said “you know maybe…I don’t know how many.” And then the next time I wrote, just to tell you how confused I am, actually, I wrote a very nice paper quoting very nicely. Tons of them. And then he came back and told me, “very well written, quotes are excellently phrased, but I want to hear more from you, how you think.”

~[My teachers in South Korea] don’t ask you to put your own thoughts on anything… I mean about what we learn and what we have read, but not about our own opinions.  They don’t count as much. We don’t do critical thinking as much, and we just have to summarize or analyze things that we learn from classes.

~[In Bulgaria] we would have a class when our teacher would read a story, a short story, and she would read it twice and we were not allowed to take any notes and we had to recreate it. It’s like retelling the story in your own words. But no analysis. You could not put something in that was not in the story. You cannot interpret it in any way. It’s about paying attention to detail and learning to paraphrase a writer in a way. These are the first steps I guess, my first steps in writing by retelling stories. This is in English as well. Yes, they were using this approach to teach us to pay attention to details in English, in another language.

~In my native language…again it was mostly analytical. It’s interesting because it always comes back to me reading, to mimicking someone else’s writing. Because, if I had to analyze, say a book, I would take someone else who analyzed it or analyzed parts of it and then take someone else and see how they structured it, and in a way try to create, see what the general idea of what all that is and try to create my own way of analyzing it. I would put it in my own thoughts , but put it in a frame that’s suitable. So, reading was a big part of learning the frame of the discipline and fitting in your thoughts.

~American teachers don’t tell you this is wrong or your idea is not good. Basically, there is no right or wrong and back home there is. If you say the answer, they either say right or wrong, which is discouraging most of the time. Students’ questions are not that much welcome in class. If you ask a lot of questions, that means you don’t understand and it is bad with you. Because the teacher is giving his best and has given perfect explanation and if you don’t understand then that is your problem. The way they grade, as I said, it is either zero or ten.

~On her strengths in writing in English:
I can imagine a lot.  This is not what I say, but what my teachers said: I can use my imagination to something they would not imagine.  Because I remember there was a research paper, and we used to write it from a book, and I pulled out some of the stuff, and it was a strange topic, and I pulled out some of the stuff that the teacher did not even realize, and she was very happy with me.

~I would say that one of the weakness [in Pakistani academy] was the structure thing, and we were not allowed to use our own ideas.  We were not allowed to research on the topic before we write anything down.  And they were like small topics: your best friend, your best book, your favorite music, really small topics.  And they are still using the same topic.  They never change themselves.

~When I was taking my English class, for the final project, they told us to relate one of  the English novels with my major [accounting] and I was like “oh, how am I supposed to do that?” And it took me a week to research all the stuff and then I gave up and went to my professor and he said, “these are the four books, and you can choose any of these.”  He gave me “The Merchant of Venice” and then I relate it with usury, which is interest rate. I wrote on that and I was really surprised what I have come up with. I was really surprised what I come up with.  I was completely puzzled because at first I was like “there’s no way I can relate any book with accounting,” but I used so many quotes from one act, using them in different ways, relating them with the interest rate. We never used to do that back home.  And I really enjoyed writing that paper.  And I was so proud of myself, you know.  Even if I would have gotten a C on that paper, which I didn’t, but I would have been really proud of myself because it was a complete new experience.

~For the essay questions, they used to give us [in school in Pakistan] like ten essays and we used to memorize that.  We never used to get to put our own thoughts.  And one thing that I see here that we were never taught was reading.  The more books were read here, the more vocabulary increases, and we never used to; the teachers never used to give us books to read.  We only used to go through course books.  But my father and my family, they paid a lot of attention to this thing, and they made sure that we read other books besides the course books.

~In Pakistan, we would just write and they would never tell us our weaknesses “okay you are weak at this thing; try to practice in this area.” They would never do that. They would just think that the whole class is the same and if someone is writing the best essay ever, we are supposed to write the same way.  But over here, it’s just amazing how they teach you stuff and the processes. I was really amazed when the teacher first told me that when you put down your thoughts, before submitting the paper, you have to read it aloud and I was amazed how many mistakes I picked up the first time.