Academic writing and my failure to grasp a learnable moment
My first job out of grad school was at a Chinese-Canadian partnership university. I taught academic writing, and for many of my students it was their first time writing essays in English.
One day a student send me an email to ask me about the differences between Chinese and English essays. He was worried that he wrote essays with a “Chinese mind” and felt that this made his writing difficult to understand. He ended by asking, “How could I write an English essay without my Chinese mind?”
I had learned all about this type of question in grad school, when we read about and then critiqued and dismantled and rebuilt the notion of contrastive rhetoric — the idea that rhetorical structures are culturally defined and therefore that learning to write in another language is complicated by the learner’s home culture. I remember criticizing Kaplan’s lines and arrows and feeling very strongly that this approach to teaching writing was wrong. I was pretty confident that I knew what I was talking about.
And yet when faced with this question that I knew so much about—this time in a real situation, with a worried student—I froze.
I wrote back to my student, telling him that it is definitely possible to write English essays with a “Chinese mind” and offering him some reassurances of his abilities. What I wrote at the end of the email is so embarrassing to me now that I was tempted to paraphrase: The most important thing to remember is to follow the rules that I taught you about how to structure a paragraph and the thesis statement. If you use this structure, you will be able to write a strong essay.
So, I fell back on a template. Essay template, teaching template. Maybe I was tired or sick or lacked confidence that day. Maybe I realized that what I was so sure of inside the walls of grad school wasn’t so clear inside the walls of a Chinese college where I was mandated to teach a very specific curriculum. And maybe that realization scared me so much I refused to face it.
Regardless, I failed to turn the question into a learnable moment, for both my student and myself. By answering his question more thoroughly and thoughtfully, I would have experienced that vital translation of theory into practice.
Later that year, as I got more comfortable and confident in my teacher shoes, I had some great conversations with students about the difference between Chinese and English essays. We talked about philosophy, especially relating to intellectual property and the need to cite your sources. I began to really question the function of academic writing and my role in teaching it. But by that point, the student who had asked me the question had moved on to the next course, and I never gave him a better answer.