Is she is or is she ain’t cheating? When EFL academic writing far exceeds speaking ability

Difference between EFL oral and written language skill raises ire of suspicion. Image by hobvias sudoneighm (2004).

When I was a doctoral student, an EFL classmate spoke English poorly.  I had difficulty understanding her.  I assumed she needed help with academic writing.   As I found myself wondering how she’d get through the program, I offered to help her with her writing.  I thought I’d  correct English language problems which were so clearly evident in her speech for her.

She gave me the first two chapters of her research proposal to check.  She wrote much better than me.  She wrote better than most of the students in the Ed D program, native and non-native speaker alike.  Her writing was so clear, flowing and economic, she had one, only one, misplaced sentence in the entire first chapter.  I couldn’t find much wrong with it.  Not only was her scholarship comprehensive, but she captured  lively scholarly debates in a compelling, authorial manner as befits a researcher with command of not only the literature, but the language.

Yet her spoken language skills so lacked fluency she told me she could not take up a problem with administration because she didn’t have the oral command in conversational exchanges.  Writing teachers assume writing springs out of a strong oral foundation for both EFL and non EFL writers.  Writers who speak to others about their academic writing, write better.

An emeritus professor of economics once remarked to me that Scandinavians speak the best English, in his opinion, better than the English of native speakers.  They derive a greater command of English than native speakers because of the advantage of studying English as a foreign language.  He assumed language study improved the quality of spoken English.

I’ve noticed the particular way an English professor speaks.  English professors somehow come to speak a vernacular of English related to their milieu as much as Eliza Doolittle does in the play My Fair Lady.

With this is mind, I wondered, was my classmate cheating?  Was she getting help or paying for help to ghost write her stuff?  On the other hand, knowing her limited finances, I don’t think she or 99% of students could afford to hire a ghost writer of the caliber represented in the research proposal.  Besides the topic of the research proposal was original, unique and specific to the literature.  So the writing just had to come from her.  This is baffling considering the supposed support oral language skill provides to writing.

Even though writing allows for endless revisions, edits and polishes unlike spontaneous oral language, oral language develops ahead of writing.  How many writers, EFL or native speakers, write many levels better than they speak?  Can a writer struggle with speaking English and still produce really good academic writing without cheating?

Some EFL writers, like Joseph Conrad who chose to write in English instead of his native Polish or  fluent French, write well enough to get studied in English lit courses.  Unlike French, Conrad spoke English with a heavy accent.  Bertrand Russel observed:

He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner..”

Conrad spoke English well enough to believe he could author literary works.  Like a truly consummate writer and linguist, he also appreciated the particular affordances of English in comparison to the other languages at his beckon.  Conrad proves literary greatness, or great academic writing for that matter, can come from an EFL writer who may speak a heavily accented English.

Even with his heavy accent, Conrad fails to explain the big disparity between oral and written expressive language ability in my classmate.  A mismatch between oral and written ability raises suspicion of cheating.  For example, a Latina college student got accused of cheating for using words like hence and unscathed in her writing.  She wasn’t cheating.  In this case, blame the instructor for prejudice and stereotyping.  Yet, if the use of a few words not considered by the accusing instructor to populate the lexicon of Latina English speakers raises suspicion, how can an instructor reconcile struggles with conversational expression and superb writing without suspecting plagiarism?

Some Canadian university teachers who responded to this tweet attribute problems with speaking to cultural differences, like submissiveness to teacher authority.   Clearly my classmate wanted to speak but knew she lacked the conversational ability to do so.   Besides, assumptions about cultural influences inhibiting expression, let instructors overlook the difficulties and questions well written work coming from a non-fluent speaker ought to suggest.

Do EFL students need encouragement to adopt Western cultural teaching norms when speaking?  Does anxiety over spoken language ability keep students from speaking?  Should a student who writes well, but speaks poorly be admitted to a doctoral program?  Should admission criteria include assessment of spoken language if the program requires fluid speaking ability to achieve its outcomes?

In the Journal of Second Language Writing (March, 2017 ), a study entitled Writing Academic English as a Doctoral Student in Sweden concludes that it is important to support doctoral students in their journey into bi-literate academic writers, rather than focus on the notion of the privileged position of the native speaker.  Agreed.

It is important not to make assumptions to constrain or lower expectations of the quality of writing an EFL academic writer produces.  It is also important to support doctoral students in their journey into first-rate, bi-literate academics by also addressing the expressive, oral language acuity necessary to thrive in a program and in an academic community.  It is important to assess in congruence between academic writing and speaking ability as easy, fluid, dynamic speaking ability seems like a necessary prerequisite for academic writing, and a red flag for difficulty which may lead to cheating.  But maybe not.  Maybe EFL academic writers in doctoral programs glean their writing models from academic texts.  Maybe academic writing flows from the study of writing in academic texts, not from oral command.

3rd International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training (ICDDET), 3-4 April 2017

Please also see tweets of the conference at #ICDDET. Some great Canadian representation attended and spoke at the conference.

DoctoralWriting SIG

By Cally Guerin

The International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training (ICDDET) is gaining momentum with its third conference in the UK held at Stratford upon Avon last week. As in 2015, this conference draws together perspectives from (primarily) the UK, Europe, North America and Australia. The doctorate is an international qualification and it was encouraging to see how speakers from all these regions are consistently on message: doctoral education needs to be thinking about what happens to our researchers beyond graduation.

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Canadian Graduate Student Unions Must Respond to Recent Grad Ed Policies to Remain Credible

What makes a graduate student union different from an undergraduate student union or a community college student union?  If it is advocacy on issues found only in graduate school, then where is grad ed advocacy?   Unfortunately, grad ed advocacy got left out decade over decade in Canadian graduate student unions.  With Canada’s two biggest universities started toward grad ed reform, how can graduate student unions step up their advocacy game in grad ed?

With prominent Canadian universities initiating grad ed reforms, grad student unions need to step up their grad ed advocacy game.

The two top universities in Canada, the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia took substantive new directions for grad ed without significant input from their grad unions.   Grad unions ought to have seized upon opportunities to give union-made input to grad ed reform initiatives save their advocacy efforts leave out grad ed.

The University of Toronto wants to change grad ed with graduate professional development modules.  Grad degrees at UT may recognize and perhaps require completion of graduate professional development (GPD) modules, which are now entirely voluntary and not integral.  The School of Graduate Studies wants grad programs rethought to integrate graduate student skill development via professional skills training modules with grad programs.   On the radical change of adding more requirements to get a grad degree at UT, UTGSU has no policy or opinion or record of discussion of it in official minutes since admin came out with the GPD plan in November 2016.

UTGSU members sit on a university Graduate Education Council, but lacking in-house grad ed policies and advocacy initiatives developed through the GSU, initiatives come down to grad students via administration.  Surely the UTGSU could do better in a core area of concern to students, namely education practices.  Surely union members expect a robust advocacy for grad ed, not just passively sitting on a university committee to endorse and vote on administrative initiatives.   While the union organizes for divestment, queer, trans, decolonization, race and equity causes; all important social justice initiatives, basic bread and butter aspects of grad school get left out.  Oddly, the UTGSU graduate students’ union, like every other grad student union in the country, lacks a robust grad ed lobby.  (In fairness, Canadian student unions in general fail to lobby for better education practices).

In addition, the school of graduate studies at UT published two new brochures on time to completion (TTC), but the union has yet to push for implementation of new TTC guidelines.  Publication of time to completion for every program is now recommended.  Where is the union response?  Where is union action?  TTC provides better information to incoming students and a potential advocacy point for the union to push for better grad ed practices.  Time to completion and attrition are not mentioned in UTGSU executive minutes in 2016-2017, nor is there a UTGSU committee, officer or caucus expressly devoted to grad ed advocacy.

A similar story holds for the UBC Graduate Students Society (GSS).   In 2014, UBC sent a memo of ‘best practices‘ to deans, principals, heads and directors for external review of academic units.  The memo envisioned an important role for the student society, yet the UBCGSS can’t act on the memo as grad ed advocacy fails to be a core business function of the society.  A push from the society to lobby for implementation of these best practices could be part of their new five-year plan.

Arguably, the UBCGSS, neglected meaningful grad ed advocacy for its entire history.  Working to see best practices implemented would have represented a new direction for the GSS when it came out in 2014.  From a scarcity of attention to grad ed over the years, grad student reps face challenges in fleshing out grad ed advocacy as new initiatives come from administrations.  Change is hard.

Sadly, the GSS is now suffering fiscal challenges and asked its membership in a referendum for a more money.   I’ve asked the GSS several times for the results of the referendum vote which ended on March 10th, and although my request is acknowledged, no answer is forthcoming.  Starting up a robust grad ed advocacy initiative for the society can still be done to fulfill the five year plan, even with reduced resources, but they’ll need agility, focus, and outreach like Monfils.

Well meaning grad student unions in Canada have established certain arenas of advocacy; housing, tuition, fees, taxes, social supports, social justice initiatives etc.  Grad ed got left out.  Grad ed changes are finally bubbling out of UBC and UT.   The quality of education in grad school is of utmost concern to grad union members.  Grad students are in university after all for the education.  While almost all student unions, advocate for equity, divestment, lower tuition etc., a grad student union must put the grad education aspect of its advocacy foremost on its agenda. Otherwise, why bother with the extra administrative costs and duplication of a grad union.  Indeed some Canadian student unions, merely elect a rep for grad studies and lobby en mass, grad and undergrad together.

The first action is to recognize the need for more attention to go to the grad ed lobby.  Apropos of spring, grad schools are finally, at long last, coming to life and budding changes to grad ed.  This makes the lobby effort of a grad student union easier and more urgent.  If graduate schools have finally come round to embrace renewal of grad ed practices, then graduate student unions can as well.  Grad unions can organize and commit to policy development and lobbying initiatives in grad ed.  Unions must actively engage with administration.  Grad students’ insights and skin in the game make their policy suggestions solid gold.  A new golden age of grad union lobbying can shape the changes afoot.  Let’s get at it, then.


Canadian Graduate Student Unions Take Inspiration in The Impactful Advocacy of Economics Students

The Econocracy

If Canadian grad student unions ever embrace their role to lobby for better grad ed, they can take inspiration from the student movement which changed economics education, the discipline of economics and  maybe even world politics.

Canadian graduate student unions  (and undergrad student unions) can lobby for pluralism in economics education.  Three economics students from Manchester, UK set a model for the kind of analysis sorely missing in academic advocacy for graduate programs.

In their book, The Econocracy, the students review economics education in the Russel group of British universities to point out critical failures in undergraduate economics education.  Instead of learning to critique models of ‘the economy’ students learn economics orthodoxies, in a kind of indoctrination toward a ‘priesthood’.  The priest-like function of university trained economists using airless models of mathematical purity lacks both a heart and a connection to the real world.  Economics orthodoxies failed to predict, explain or care about the ravages of the global economic collapse in 2008.  The writers understand better than their Manchester professors:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists” attributed to Joan Robinson who taught economics to future Nobel laureates [page 157].

The movement to change economics education arose from a narrowing of the discipline in the 1970s.  Pluralism in economics calls for more critique of economics models, more connection to lay persons left out of the jargon and decisions of economists and more context in economics education in terms of history, ethics and psychology.

Although the UK suffered economic devastation from the global 2008 financial crisis, the writers of The Econocracy noticed their economics courses failed to explain or care about suffering the 2008 crisis brought on.  As students driven to understand via critique & connection & context, they went about learning the stuff not taught in their official economics courses, reviewing economics education and its failure to bridge a gap to the real world.

The fusion of the word economics with bureaucracy into the word econocracy sums up the power given to university trained economists in political decisions and governments.  Some economics students in the Manchester group studied economics to get an inside track on power at the highest level of decision-making.  The Manchester students noticed their ‘outsider’ status and rejected the closed off, elite, shut out nature of economics training offered to them.

Discontent with the quality of economics courses led to a lobby for better content and spun out to touch many influential economists, economics educators and other student groups.  Economics students internationally soon coalesced into the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics.   The many German chapters of The International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics are an influential force in economics within the country.  The Rethinking Economics organization also knits together many cells of student activism globally.

Students of economics helped to redefine the discipline so it better fits to reality and got luminaries like the chief economist of the Bank of England, a Nobel laureate in economics and Noam Chomsky onside.  Ignorance of an economics connected to real world threatens us all in decisions taken by politicians on the advice of a priestly caste of economists.  Pluralistic economics education makes for sounder, more inclusive political decisions.

The student movement stirred up economics education.  To broaden economics training and thinking, many university economics departments now offer a broader range of courses to provide a pluralistic perspective.  Accompanying the pluralism in economics movement, of course, is pushback against pluralism.  Graduate students in economics can pivot the discipline toward greater pluralism.

One problem with getting economics professors to offer greater pluralism is they can’t.  Training in the mono-culture of the existing discipline prevents pluralism from coming forth in teaching and breeds more mono-culture.   Embracing pluralism begins in graduate school, with new practitioners of economics who will broaden the scope of economics education.  Graduate students in economics can embrace pluralism with new pluralistic research and in teaching undergrads to critique, through context and connection.

Academic officers of Canadian graduate student unions please take inspiration in the activism of students of economics to question, influence and change academic programs.   Note one graduate student website, The Minskys from which new thinking about economics and economics education may take hold.  Canada has yet to catch fire with groups networked to reform of economics education.  Graduate Student Unions can network, introduce and aid students of economic to get in touch with international groups, projects, and new curricula.  This would be a good start on grad ed advocacy.

Graduate student unions in Canada have yet to respond to economics students critiquing economics education and get behind pluralism as a solution.   Advocacy from a graduate student union to embrace pluralism offers a proactive, positive solution to members who trust the union to look out for their economics education.  Academic officers in graduate student unions can take inspiration from the power of disparate groups of international students to come together and make change in their discipline.

Canadian graduate student unions must finally take on advocacy for better graduate education.  For example, the throw ’em in the deep end approach to graduate education which fails so many students somehow never makes it on the radar of Canadian graduate student unions.  With inspiration from the pluralism in economics education movement, academic actors for grad unions can expect success with their graduate education lobby too.

The Manchester students took an activist stance toward their economics education.  Instead of dropping out, they moved to the place of a curious, competent and critical student.  They had enough confidence and solidarity in each other to challenge orthodoxy in their education.  Canadian grad student leaders can certainly do the same and take heart in their success.