Resisting Teaching: 
Stories of International Students in the Writing Centre

By Roberta Lee

Before she completed her studies at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, Joyce, a Marine Biology graduate student from Indonesia, was able to articulate how she had felt in her first year:

You feel like you're the stupidest one in the class, that you don't know what's really going on, that you don't understand even how to ask a question.
At the time, I still afraid to ask the professor even though I know it's right to ask him and things like that. I accept that concept. But to use it myself it's not the way I've been trained, not the way I am used to be! So it's hard for me to do exactly. Even at this point, I cannot go up to a professor and say "I don't understand this." I will just work until I break my head!
Language is a culture itself. It's to do with your brain, your way of thinking, and also your feelings. Any expression out of language has a power. So if you don't have that language, you don't have the power. You have your mind but you cannot express it. It's as simple as that. I find my first year with the language I feel really, really . . . powerless! I cannot express; I cannot think; I don't understand; I cannot ask a question about what I don't understand. You feel like child, like you need to be carried every time.
But are Joyce's thoughts and feelings utterly foreign to those of us who are native North Americans? I am reminded of the famous passage at the beginning of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel:
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth . . . . Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
Jane Urquhart comments that "we Canadians are, after all, a nation composed of people longing for a variety of abandoned homelands." And Carol Shields sees our search for a place where we belong, our longing for home, as the human condition. I certainly see many Canadian students who "feel like strangers and alone" in the alien world of the university. Therefore, although I am focusing on stories of international students in the Writing Centre, my purpose is to show how their voices can enlighten us about our common humanity, about the nature of true dialogue, and about the dynamics of teaching or, rather, resisting teaching.

When international students are asked to respond in writing to North American texts, they are often silenced by demands for correct grammar, by unfamiliar contexts, and by unfamiliar arrangements of ideas.

Anna, a nursing student from Iran with two small children, dictated her writing assignments to me during her first year. She clearly had an excellent mind and a big heart. As she began to find her style and write on her own, the beauty and strength of her personality began to emerge. After several months of hiding out at Hestia House, a home for abused women, she was appointed to its Board of Directors. Anna has taught me not only about courage and endurance but also about the connections between language and power. Recently, however, when we were discussing a draft of her paper on the health problems of single-parent immigrant families, she remarked: "I still can't express what I want to say. I grew up in my country with everything. I know the basis there. I still always think I must be missing something. Those missing parts sometimes make me feel like I have a deficiency."

Our dialogue in the Writing Centre consists of mutual questioning. I concur with Tilly Warnock, who said "I don't believe my cultural literacy is more necessary for students to have than their cultural literacies are for me . . . . I want to engage in . . . literacy lending with students, not just culture-transmitting; I want to engage in the conversation at hand so that we both may learn...."

Rose, a brilliant young science student from Taiwan, taught me the importance of memory as well as some new techniques for memorizing. I showed her how to be more selective in reporting her memories, as well as how to stop memorizing every word in her textbooks so that she could take time to sleep again at night.

Sam, a bombastic young man who was born the year of the dragon in a cold northern Chinese city, was instructed to summarize a journal article in the field of economics but was unable to understand its context. The subject was the effect of ideology on free-riding and contributions to the public good. We discussed the literal difference between a free ride and a free lunch and then the figurative meaning of both. When he became aware that the conclusion of this complicated experiment was simply that ideology does affect contribution to the public good, he collapsed in laughter. "Of course!" he chuckled. "When I was a little boy and it snowed, we all went out and shoveled everywhere, all over the city." In this case, I helped William to understand the context of the experiment, and he helped me to understand how inadequate that North American context was.

When Lin Sun, a business student, was asked to write a paper on her career goals, she focused on creating a balance between family and business, sprinkled her writing with delightful aphorisms, and declared that her ultimate goal was to be able to look after her parents in their old age. I confess that I was so moved by the beauty of her words that I simply could not warn her about the possible response of her professor which indeed was, "you did not address the question."

Tom, an economics student from Hong Kong, confessed that his TOEFL score was originally very low. When a professor praised him for his dramatic improvement, he said to me, "You did it." I replied that together we had uncovered his intelligence, that his professor was not referring to fewer grammatical errors; he was referring to the clear, logical development of his ideas. We talked about the relationship between reading and writing. "When you write about a text," I explained, "you chew it up and digest it." I later thought of the prophet Ezekial, whom God told to "eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it."

Conversations with Tom often seemed to involve pictures. One day at the beginning of our meeting he asked me about the expression "be right back." He had heard it as "ride" back, because he had the mental picture of a person riding back quickly on a horse. Tom helped me to avoid a formulaic view of writing and to remember the importance of creating pictures in readers' minds. He told me that before he had started the paper we were looking at he had literally drawn a picture of what he called his "destination," then worked back step by step and forward step by step.

Later he brought in several drafts of an analytical paper about a particular business in Hong Kong. In the first five or six pages, he recounted a long history of the company, which had changed hands four or five times. When I suggested that he limit his discussion to the company's immediate predecessor, he maintained that the other history was crucial to understanding the present situation. He helped me to see precisely why it was important; I thought about how often history has been utterly disregarded in our culture. We discussed some ways for him to make the arrangement of ideas in his paper comply with a North American arrangement of ideas, so that it would be culturally acceptable to his professor.

Last week, Tom arrived for an appointment without anything in writing because his computer had been bitten by the love bug virus. We talked for an hour about his thesis on the Asian crisis in Hong Kong. At the end of that time, which seemed like mere minutes, he exclaimed, "Do you know, for this whole hour I have not once translated from Mandarin." At that moment, I understood in a new way Voloshinov's words: "In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers: that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding."

Now, let me tell you more about Joyce Dangeubun, our first speaker. She entered the Writing Centre in early September, 1990. After a few words that were difficult to understand, she began to communicate with me completely through tears. That night, at a meal in our home, her story began to unfold. She was the second oldest of eleven children. Her father, an educator who had been raised in Sather, a remote village on Kai Besar, was murdered in 1983, and her mother, an uneducated woman, was going to school with her youngest children in order to keep his dream alive that all eleven would receive a higher education, especially the girls -- especially Joyce, his favourite.

Although she made typical grammatical errors, I observed right away that Joyce was a fine writer. When I inquired, she quickly confirmed what I suspected: yes she was a published writer in her own language. However, at one point when she was writing her thesis, she faced a formidable barrier. "Discuss!" her thesis advisors shouted in various ways. She tried to please them, but over and over again she failed. Over and over again, they expressed their growing frustration with her. Finally together-- we realized that what they wanted was something Joyce strongly resisted giving. "In my culture," she said, "we allow the readers to draw conclusions; we do not do it for them. I cannot insult my readers in that way!"

I think Northrop Frye would have thrown his weight behind Joyce. He argued that "the teacher is often a man (or woman) who shows his qualifications to teach by refusing to answer questions, or by brushing them off with a paradox. To answer a question . . . is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is asked."

I must admit, however, that I responded, "Joyce, you don't have to believe in it just do it so you can get your degree!" Together we figured out how she could do what her advisors wanted her to do.

When Joyce returned to teach at the University at Ambon, she wrote that more and more students were choosing her as a thesis advisor. "I am teaching them to ask questions," she wrote; I learn that from Canadian students. I am also treating them as equals; I learn that from the way some of my Canadian professors did not treat me."

In September 1998, Joyce returned to the Maritimes to begin work towards her PhD at Dalhousie, under Dr. Robert Scheibling. Shortly after she arrived, she sent me an e-mail, with these remarks: "I am still trying hard to adjust to this weather. I thought I am ready for the cold, but actually I don't. Today is very bright sunshine, but cold. When I woke up this morning, opened the window and felt the cold air, I am starting to look forward to tomorrow, expecting that tomorrow will be warm (and I am worry that I will be disappointed, because it is so unlikely that tomorrow is going to be warmer than today). However, I think the tomorrow feeling will help a little bit in creating the warm weather.'"

In August, 1998, after completing her course work and defending her thesis proposal, Joyce left for the village of Sather, where her father's parents still lived. Her research involved finding ways to seed intertidal fishing grounds with snails, which would be harvested for their "mother of pearl" shells, used in the manufacture of buttons. When Joyce described how she constructed her hatchery in a village with no electricity, no vehicles, no technological equipment, she could not contain her delight. "The school children all helped me," she exclaimed . " Their teachers came with them, and we all worked together."

I think that this scene would have made Lave and Wenger catch their breath: they pointed out that a "community of practice" implies "participation in an activity system about which participants share understanding concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities" (1991, p. 98).

At Christmas that year, Joyce's brothers tore down the substantial structure they had built according to their custom over their father's grave. Their grandparents in Sather had requested that their son's body be returned home before they died. A large group of extended family members transported the body to the village by boat. The boys built a new shelter at the new grave site. The grandmother and grandfather, satisfied that their son's body was now home, both died within a few weeks.

Joyce returned to Dalhousie for more work with her supervisors. Her plans to continue her work in Sather were delayed by the violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Ambon as well as Tual, where her mother and other family members were living precariously in the midst of extreme violence. In late August, 1999, Joyce decided to return home, believing that the violence had subsided. She assured Dr. Scheibling that she would take a long ferry ride around Ambon to Sather, where she would be safe. In the early morning hours of September 18th, a gang of Muslim men entered Deck IV and attacked Joyce and her two brothers and two sisters, who were trapped in the narrow confines of their economy-class berths. Joyce's brothers and sisters watched the men stab Joyce with knives and drag her off into another room. She was never seen again; witnesses reported seeing four bodies being thrown over the side of the ferry.

Bob Scheibling wrote these words about his relationship with his student:

From time to time I suppose we all question the importance of what we do. Academics, such as myself, have much cause to consider this as we are constantly being evaluated by students and asked to justify the significance of our research to funding agencies. In Joyce's case, however, I was certain that what I was doing was right and important. Joyce was already making a difference on a small island half a world away, and I firmly believed that her work held great promise for influencing the lives of many in similar situations.
Lest anyone misinterpret my role here, this was very much Joyce's show. I was providing what advice and guidance (mainly technical) that I could, but Joyce was the one who was making it all happen . . . . What distinguished Joyce was her commitment to a project that was so personal: her determination to pursue scientific truth was inextricably bound, in a spiritual sense, to her goal of improving the life of her people. I was proud to be her academic supervisor. Because Joyce would make a difference, by extension I might make a difference.
I suppose it could be said that Joyce's burial at sea was appropriate for a Marine Biologist. But I am certain that her family will always suffer because her body did not return home. One of Joyce's close friends has responded to their cry with a poem:
She once taught me
that the careful
plotting of ink
can alter the script,
and mark the life.

So I will write a poem
of fresh painted graves
shaded in a canopy of leaf,
of bones laid out
in damp soil,
each in its delicate place.

I would like to give Joyce, my student and my mentor, the last word here: "Language is a culture itself. It's to do with your brain, your way of thinking, and also your feelings. Any expression out of language has a power."


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