By Susan Carter
I’m processing the ideas I heard at a one hour seminar on how academics can better support international students here in New Zealand, and considering how comments from it are relevant to doctoral writing. Ten international postgraduate students attended, along with about as many academics.
Two questions governed talk:
• What are the main challenges to international postgrads?
• What could academics do better to support them?
The academics were invited to speak first by the chair (along the lines of seeing whether they had it right according to the students), and quickly identified financial, cultural and language challenges as the main challenges.

Those are broad terms that the talk nuanced more carefully: cultural challenges included different learning cultures, how hard kiwi jargon is to understand and how hard it was not to shake off a sense of alienation. Our own culture is always invisible to us, so it is easy to see cultural difference as appending to the international rather than ourselves. The issue of a sense of alienation tallies with Sara Cotterall’s findings that the departmental ‘community of practice’ in practice is often less cosy, perhaps invisible, for international students (2014). It’s hard when you are an insider to see how discomforting a group is to an outsider. We need to be more consciously aware.

One academic commented that international students are much better at time management than local students—meeting deadlines and finishing within time seems not to be a challenge, despite all that writing in an additional language. At the statistics for completion at both the University of Auckland and the University of Adelaide confirm this—we suspect that it is generally true. However, a student made the point that although academics feel relaxed with international student progress, it has a serious down-side.

International students, she said, complete well because they are very task-focused and culturally programmed to meet deadlines. (And maybe they feel a little less comfortably at home in some social situations that are fun for locals.) Domestic students spend more time with social activities that slow them down. But when it comes to finding jobs after graduation, domestic students have the advantage. After more fun socialising, they have better networks, and networks of live relationships are often what leads a student into employment.

So international students are driven by fiscal reasons to finish fast, and perhaps also come from learning experiences that were more rigorous than those of most of our local students, and this is terrific in terms of impressive output. But academics need also to be teaching doctoral students how to be independent academics and researchers, and this, ironically, includes learning how to work interdependently. That is possibly something where any cultural mismatch between local and internationals students gives locals a significant advantage.

Could this need for networks be factored into doctoral writing, so that writing and writing feedback exchange amongst peers is done more collegially? If academics aim to foster a postgraduate community of practice, maybe they could be a little more emphatic about establishing that doctoral writing is best done with collegial support through regular seminars and peer review of doctoral writing. Claire Aitchison’s inspiring recent post offers a bundle of great suggestions for making writing social.

Somehow, a culture needs to be established that genuinely includes international students. Academics need to find ways to make talk and writing feedback homely for international students. There are many ways to do this, including drawing on volunteers from outside of the university. If you can create places that are less pressured than the supervisory meeting where writing feedback can be given, there are benefits at so many levels. It is not just about English grammar: it is more to do with making community and showing the benefits of professional interdependency. As they talk about writing, and write together, international students will also be developing those relationship-building skills in English language.

I’ve felt that the impressive completion rates of international doctoral students raises questions about why those with English as a first language are somehow unable to quite keep up. Why can’t locals do it too, at home, in their own language, and surrounded by family and friends? Now I am seeing this phenomenon differently. It throws more importance, I think, on all those collegial writing practices that Claire summarises as a way of making it more likely all students will build networks at the same time as they write a thesis.

Cited works

Carter, S. (2009). Volunteer support of English as an Additional Language (EAL) doctoral students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies Vol 4, 13-25.
Cotterall, S. (2014). The mythical community of practice. In Carter, S. and Laurs, D. Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students: Practice and Pedagogy. Oxon: Routledge.