February's Talking about Teaching forum focused on PSH's rapidly changing demographics, especially in terms of increasing enrollments of international students. We began the meeting with briefly looking at the demographic data, focusing on the period between the Fall 2011 semester and Fall 2012, when the increase of international students on campus was the steepest.
The general demographics of these students on campus are roughly consistent with national trends. The three main groups of students are arriving from China, India, and South Korea. This meeting was one of the first to begin understanding how these changes are impacting teaching and learning in the classroom. Maida Muslic-Kovar, Ana (Patty) Aguilera, and Donna Howard were present to add their insights and to listen to faculty concerns. We used large and small group discussions, and solicited individual written responses to the following three questions:
• What are you observing in your setting?
• What is your biggest emerging question?
• How do international students benefit your class?
Highlights from the forum
We often do not ask the question, personally or as an institution, about the benefits of having international students in our classrooms/other settings. The value of a diversity of perspectives was a common response in our meeting, and different disciplines had specific insights about the positive impacts in their classrooms. Generally speaking, reflecting on this question is a good place to start and may lead to ideas about how to better engage international students.
By far, the top question(s) are coming from the humanities and social sciences regarding the process of grading written and presentation work. Should international students be graded differently, and how? Is there a way to create a more discerning system of assessing reading and writing skills? Our group was far from a consensus on this question, and this may be a good topic to explore from various perspectives in a future workshop.
What became clearest during our forum is the need for a mechanism in place for pre-arrival advising or better assessment of students' needs. Some implications of this gap are that many are unaware of entrance-to-major requirements and regulations. There are some students who arrive not knowing that they will spend two years in Harrisburg, or that they may not get into certain programs at University Park. There is a need to do our own assessment of the students' English abilities prior to arrival. Several faculty members across all disciplines are asking whether there will be institutional support to hire support staff and ESL professors in tenure-track positions who will work within the School of Humanities to provide ESL-based classes in writing, speaking, and research. Several participants in the Talking about Teaching forum mentioned the importance of these questions being discussed in the Faculty Senate.
Finally, there was a critical conversation about the problems with well-intentioned curricular and co-curricular programs that only target international students, treating them as different or special in some way. The question was raised: How can we personalize our instruction instead of categorizing students? I will end with the wise words of a teacher and author whom Janice Smith pointed me to after this session: "There will always be a need to address different students' needs, because different students are always going to have different needs" (Lois Leveen).
Check out these stories told by PSH's international students: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8JOi8Ko2Zj4F5rU0qchietdo_n7BUhrc