Author Archives: Gabriel Edzordzi Agbozo

Graduate Students Preparing for the Fall (Part 2)

Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

In this final part of our series on preparing for the fall semester, two international graduate students — Meng-Hsien Neal Liu, and Joan Jiyoung Hwang — share how the ongoing pandemic and the recent national debate on international students in the United States has affected their lives and their work. While Liu focuses on syllabus redesign for online teaching, Hwang reflects on the challenges and rewards that international students experience not only during the pandemic but more broadly.

Meng-Hsien Neal Liu
Ph.D. English/Writing Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This unprecedented global pandemic has mournfully thrown many international graduate students, myself included, into a welter, as we navigate through drastic change of our professional and personal settings, routines, obligations, and even prospects. These sudden changes have continued into the present period, with some universities keeping classes online for Fall 2020, some offering in-person instruction, and the others opting for a hybrid model. Undoubtedly, each of these curriculum delivery methods poses different kinds of challenges to administrators, staff, faculty, and students, but as a graduate student who juggles teaching, research, and coursework, I find the emotional and physical labor exacted on me particularly taxing. Although my institution aims for a hybridized delivery for the coming fall term, the first-year-composition class that I am teaching in the Fall 2020 at my institution will be online. As I am now revising my syllabus, several critical, yet fruitful questions about pedagogy and social justice emerge. These questions help me to critically deliberate on my role as a graduate teaching instructor in the climate of uncertainty.

Adapting my in-person writing class syllabus into an online version presents itself with a wide array of local and perhaps far-flung questions that I need to consider strategically. For example, how should I facilitate peer work synchronously and asynchronously? How do my students coordinate their peer reviews when they are not able to meet in person, when they are in different time zones, or when some do not have reliable access to the Internet? What if some students do not have personal laptops to do the work at home or in dormitories? What if some students cannot work for a long time on their computers due to their physical conditions, such as their vision or ability? What are some topics that are amenable to online migration and thus deliverable through an online facilitation? What are some topics that need to be omitted or changed? For instance, my first-year composition class is typically themed around language ideology along with some discussions dedicated to gender, race, class, and ethnicity. How should I create a “safe” (virtual) space where my students and I could be encouraged to engage in meaningful discussions about linguistic imperialism, ideology, and domination without fearing our words will be decontextualized? Or should I just change the theme of my writing class and go for a more skills-based composition class so that I could “play it safe”? Do I still want my students to undertake original research projects (e.g., conducting interviews) when campus resources might be hard to access? How can I motivate my students to continue applying themselves to honing their academic literacy, provided that they faced mental and perhaps physical, disquiet? On that note, how can I assess their performance meaningfully, when they might have to de-prioritize their academic work due to living, housing, or food insecurities? When students miss several synchronous meetings, should I still strenuously enforce the draconian institutionally-mandated attendance policy and take off points ? Some of these questions have been extensively discussed since the outbreak of the pandemic, but I foresee that this situation is going to be slightly more glaring for my incoming freshman students (and for us instructors), as students themselves will be exploring their first (full) semester in college in an unorthodox fashion — virtually. They will be entering into uncharted territory and need to forge interpersonal relations and affiliations with their instructors, teaching assistants, classmates, friends, advisors, majors, departments, or colleges on those little Zoom chat windows and boxes. Therefore, I made it a point to bear those questions in mind as I redesigned the syllabus.

That said, rather than feel downright saturnine about the upcoming fall semester; I do believe that there is one overarching theme that can salvage us from the narrative and the spanned time of uncertainty. To wit, that is humanity. The pandemic, however devastating, highlights our graduate teaching instructors’ need to be more humanistic, empathetic, and sympathetic, because we, along with our students, are collectively experiencing this unparalleled historical moment. Coupled with the recent civil unrest and the federal visa restriction targeted at international students, the pandemic has disrupted the normalcy of many people’s lives, but as we are readying ourselves for the fall semester, I am convinced that first-year-composition classes can functionally serve the critical role of helping students to theorize and discuss their thoughts regarding social justice and equality, a necessary, if not imperative, outlet that could endow students with anchors to stabilize themselves and obtain countervailing power to contest debilitating discourses.

Joan Jiyoung Hwang
Ph.D. Writing & Rhetoric, George Mason University

It’s no longer a visa issue; it is our life.
Frankly, I turn my eyes away from any news headlines related to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. I know it relates to my family and me one way or another, but my heart already hits bottom without even reading the contents. Any news cannot be good news for foreigners. On July 6, 2020, when news headlines on TV and on the internet were plastered with these two words, “ICE” and “international students” , my mind was blown away and I could not resist, this time, scavenging for any piece of news about this topic.
Holding a student visa or F-1 visa status was an honorable, legitimate entry ticket to the U.S. higher education after years of preparation, family support, and the careful juggling of financial investment and loss of opportunities. I am sure all international students remember the celebrations and congratulations they shared with their families, friends, colleagues, and excitement when their passports returned by mail with a student visa stamp. Ironically, however, the emblem of celebration, pride, and privilege turns into a label of exclusion as soon as our lives as international students start. We start being called visa students, multilingual writers, or foreign students.

When I tapped into the job market, while pursuing my doctorate degree, with my master’s degree earned in the U.S, I encountered a common job application program that has a section asking applicants to answer “yes” or “no” to a question if they need a sponsorship when hired. The first time I read this question, to be honest, I did not get it. The disability section has disclaimers that the information will not be disclosed and not used as discrimination against applicants but only for the purpose of providing necessary accommodation; the sponsorship section has no such disclaimer.

Being a graduate student, especially being an international Ph.D. student, is not just running a life as a full-time student. We have family, and our children go to school and grow up here. They make friends, participate in community sports clubs, compete with their friends in local competitions in band and sports, and volunteer just like any other youths with citizenship or legal residency. During their parents’ 6 to 8 years of graduate studies, if advancing into a doctorate degree, our children’s identities, cultural, ethnic, and communal, shape and develop here. The most critical time of their life takes root here, beautifully growing into valuable cultural capitals. The student parents build their companionship with their colleagues, faculty, and students, and their spouses stay connected with their neighbors, local churches, or any other affiliation of their interests and values. The entire family becomes a part of the communities. Following their parent’s work and study, my children, both in high school, have now spent a total of 70% of their life here in the U.S.. Still, their legal status is an F-2. Suppose I am not hired by any employer willing to sponsor me after my degree conferral. In that case, my children need to change their status from F-2 to F-1 when they start college in the U.S. and inherit the status of a non-immigrant student visa holder, exempt from all college benefits their friends and peers enjoy or compete for.

Being on a full-time graduate teaching assistantship, I take six credits of coursework and teach two three-credit courses each semester with tuition waivers and a decent stipend. This is an amazing equal opportunity for international graduate students and another source that attracts many capable international students to U.S. education. However, more than the tangible equality— this never means than the material conditions matter less —the personal and professional growth that I have experienced being a part of the amazing academic community of faculty, staff, and peers in my program is something I would not want to forfeit but instead continue to belong to as my second home. International graduate students live with this fear that someday, we might have to involuntarily opt out of this community, displaced from years of personal, professional, emotional, communal attachment, if the label, once a gracious entry ticket to the prestigious higher education in the U.S. and now a tag of non-immigrant status, doesn’t change into a temporary work-visa or an employment-based green card.

The student status of a non-immigrant goes beyond studentship; it is a life rooted and growing in a new land. It is not something that can be uprooted and transferred back across the borders at the mercy of policy upheavals. I hope legal, systematic consideration can be made for international graduate students’ resident status and employment after their degree. Once they receive the doctorate degrees, their stay should not be considered a matter of visa, but a matter of sustainability, the sustainability of a person as a scholar, and of a family as community members and research community that invested and nurtured the international graduate students.

GRADUATE STUDENTS PREPARING FOR THE FALL (PART 1)

Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has meant that universities undergo shifts in the coming fall semester. The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities asked for reflections on how graduate students are responding to and navigating the challenges that this drastic change brings. In the first of this two-part series of blog posts, Dina López and Amir Hussain reflect on how they are preparing for teaching online. Below are their reflections.

Dina López
Ph.D. Student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University

Today, July 1, 2020, marks the end of my first year of teaching First-Year Writing and the first summer session of a sophomore-level Introduction to Technical Writing as a graduate part-time instructor, or GPTI. The summer course ended on a nice quiet note; however, I was very relieved to see this day come. In the spring semester, which had exhausted me physically and mentally, my first-year students had been frustrated with the first-year writing requirement. It was a very expensive box to check on their list of non-degree related courses. Most of the time I felt as though I were walking a fine line between student, counselor, substitute parent, and doormat. Going online mid-semester made a lot of the complaints seem to disappear in the Zoom classroom; however, one effect of the pandemic was that some of my students returned home to difficult situations. Many returned to environments that exacerbated their mental health struggles and interfered with strategies for navigating the first year of college. For the rest of the semester, we all just floated on down to the last day, glad it was over.

That experience made me a little concerned about preparing for the summer: I had only two weeks to frontload my course and prepare for a full online synchronous class, something I could easily adapt for fall teaching. Given this new set of circumstances, I decided to become an instructor/user experience (UX) researcher to learn how I could make this course useful to my students/users in a digital environment. I began by sending out a survey and looking at their general descriptions. Most of them were juniors or seniors. Several were taking full loads for the summer so they could graduate in December or May. Areas of study varied from computer science to sports management. Class introduction posts revealed that some were enrolled in the class for the humanities requirement: they were either genuinely interested in boosting their technical communication skills or just needed the three hours.
This combined knowledge led me to prepare my class for users who were, for the most part:

● Interested in the course for its content
● Mature enough to begin working in groups with a foundation of trust
● Going to be tired as we approached the end of the summer session

Armed with this knowledge, I carefully tailored the four-week summer course and placed the bulk of the reading
assignments and quizzes into the first two weeks. I threaded the objectives and goals of each unit into the next during class discussion and lectures. Sometimes I opened a space for discussion on how each of their projects would inform their own studies (again, threading the objectives), but the general daily pattern was the same so there would be no surprises during the fast-moving summer session. I now have a conceptual framework as I prepare for the fall: study my users to determine the scope of their learning needs and create a structure and skeleton for a course, so that on the surface the course will be fairly free of issues.

Amir Hussain
Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

When the Coronavirus pandemic started last spring, I was in Germany on an exchange year for dissertation research and language study. Universities in Germany, like in the United States, quickly moved to online learning. Since the semester schedule is different in Germany and since I continued distance learning in another institute after I returned to the U.S., I have now taken four months of a weekly language and culture course online. Drawing on this new online experience and on my prior teaching experience, I will briefly present several suggestions for graduate students trying to navigate and make the most out of an online course—whether preparing to take a course or to teach one online. While the overwhelming majority of graduate students have likely grown up with computers and digital technologies like smartphones or social media and are comfortable with and accustomed to them, it still takes a concerted effort to adjust to an online learning environment for the first time. Following are three tips:

1. Make it Synchronous

There has been discussion about both the advantages and the challenges of synchronous (or real-time) classes versus asynchronous classes, but my personal experience as a learner is that synchronous class sessions are crucial for getting the most out of an online course. Reading materials, written discussions, and assignments can of course be done asynchronously, but having the class meetings in real-time cannot be replaced as far as getting immediate participation, input, and feedback. The online sessions can be split into small synchronous groups for activities where students talk to each other. Still, I have found the bigger discussions and conversations that the teacher guides are particularly useful from a pedagogical perspective. In a language course, for example, hearing and seeing the language spoken correctly by the teacher is very important, and the synchronous sessions can provide a place for a question-answer conversation to unfold. A recent article titled “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom” from The Chronicle of Higher Education further discusses and presents useful suggestions for how online classes can “build community”; in that sense, synchronous class meetings become a place where, despite the distance, one becomes part of a community meeting for a shared educational purpose.

2. Make it Meta

One challenging thing I have found in my online classes has been adjusting to speaking to the computer screen and not being able to expect discernibly clear nonverbal cues that are important to human communication. Online discussion, for example, means there is a greater mediation or lag time for how one may be able to register other people’s reactions to what one is saying. For those taking their first online course—and I assume for many this would be the case—an opportunity to explicitly reflect on technology or more simply reflecting on something that one is finding challenging in the online environment can be useful. If teaching a course online, one suggestion might be to include technology and online environments into a sub-topic related to the course. In a humanities course, for example, a session on how to vet sources that one finds online or on how to use digitized primary sources for research would be very relevant for coursework and could be tied to discussions about online environments and/or digitization. Also, a low-stakes writing assignment (low-stakes meaning that the assignment is short and counts for a minor portion of the grade) could be designed—perhaps to take place within the first few class sessions—where the class is asked to explicitly reflect on their experiences and challenges with online learning.

3. Make a Presentation

My final suggestion is to have presentations—whether individual or small group ones will likely depend on the syllabus and the class size. In the first online class that I took in the spring, everyone was required to do a group presentation on a topic of their choice (but one related to the course theme) where each presenter had to speak for a certain length of time. We used a website I would recommend—padlet.com—to post our presentation materials online. This site provides a blank page where anything can be posted, including PowerPoint slides, images, or other website links that might be relevant for a presentation while making it synchronously available for anyone with the link to open on their personal computer. I recommend a presentation because I noticed that it makes a big difference going forward in the class—that is after one has presented online to the class, there is a sense of being more comfortable talking in the online environment in general. While some students might be intimidated by the thought of having to deliver a presentation online, having to give a presentation can surprisingly speed up the process of adjusting to online learning and its technologies. Needless to say, the sooner one acclimates to these things, the smoother the course and the overall online semester can go.