In recent decades, national elite universities have evolved into international mass universities, prompted by wider global transformation processes and internationalisation politics (Lillis 2001). Increasing numbers of students attend international study programmes abroad and contribute to a diverse migratory landscape. The increasingly varied motives and affiliations that characterise migrants in modern societies are captured by the concept of ‘superdiversity’ (Vertovec 2006, 2007). In terms of international higher education, the temporary bringing together of students with different social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds creates new kinds of ‘educational contact zones’ (Pennycook 2007), making a complex interplay possible between local and global scales (Brandt and Clinton 2002).
One aspect of these new educational contact zones that has tangible significance, but has received relatively little scholarly attention, is the diversity of literacy experiences and norms that students and teachers often bring to international study programmes. In addition to their different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, students often carry a variety of educational histories into international study programmes, comprising different fields, concepts and representations of academic knowledge – the latter including students’ own oral and written knowledge production. From the perspective of academic literacy studies (Lea and Street 1998), this diversity of students’ educational and discursive experiences may be understood as a significant but often overlooked educational potential in diverse study programmes, enabling students to reflect upon and deepen their conceptual understandings and positions, along with their skills in communication and argumentation.
As linguistic ethnographers and university teachers with increasing involvement in international study programmes, we are interested in exploring this potential from both a practical and wider theoretical view. In this article, we investigate students’ experiences with and perspectives on academic literacy practices in an international master’s degree, Anthropology of Education and Globalisation (AEG), which is managed and taught by our close colleagues at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.1 Based on extensive qualitative interviews with eleven first-year AEG students of diverse national, linguistic and educational backgrounds, we emphasise students’ individual experiences and perspectives, thus diverging from more institution- based approaches to student writing and acquisition (Hammershøj 2008; Hutchison 2005; Massey University 2012).
As suggested above, we approach international study programmes like the AEG as temporarily situated, ‘local-global’ discourse communities in which students’ and teachers’ academic understandings, experiences, expectations, language and literacy backgrounds and learning preferences are brought together, negotiated and relocated. Emphasising the literacy aspect of students’ educational histories and experiences, we explore how the AEG students understand and position themselves in academic text production, and how students co-construct a version of academic literacy through a relocalisation of discourses and beliefs about academic literacy and languages. This focus is motivated by a wider interest in how academic literacy is negotiated and relocalised in international study programmes.
Academic literacy and diversity
Diversity in academic literacy in the context of international study programmes has been approached from different perspectives. The contrastive rhetorics tradition has explored differences between the academic written discourse patterns of native and non-native English speakers, emphasising cultural differences with the main purpose of teaching non-native English-speaking students the appropriate way to produce academic texts in English. In recent years, this tradition has been heavily criticised for approaching languages (and academic cultures) as homogeneous and bounded entities, for constructing and naturalising academic literacy as a given and already there, for portraying non-native writers in a negative light, and for not directing research attention to the discourse practices of the study programme (Lea and Street 1998; Mariou et al. 2016; McCambridge and Pitkänen-Huhta 2012).
Another tradition, which could be called acculturation studies, prompted by the increasing number of ‘non-traditional students’ enrolled in Western universities (Lillis 2001), has pursued general traits in students’ acquisition of academic literacy. Approaching academic writing as a relatively fixed genre, this tradition seeks to identify, describe and teach students the perceived norms of academic literacy in order to reduce students’ uncertainty about the demands of academia and in order to make the students successful writers of academic literacy (for example, Rienecker 2007). This approach has been criticised for, among other things, reducing the institutional power relations, tensions and changes that frame academia and academic literacy to static and unquestionable demands of a given genre, and for reducing students’ learning process to predictable and uncritical ‘steps’ (Clemensen and Holm 2017).
In this article, we draw on a third tradition, academic literacy studies, approaching academic literacy as a dynamic communicative process always unsettled and negotiated by the ongoing interaction between students and teachers, and by changing political aims and demands on academic literacy. In this tradition, academic literacy is seen as a local, situated practice, inherently related to the social and institutional contexts in which it appears (Chandrasoma, Thompson and Pennycook 2004; Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2003; Scott 1999; Starfield 2002). Academic literacy practices are understood as constantly in the making and as embedded in regulations, conventions, power relations – and desires – and negotiated by actors in asymmetric power relations (Clark and Ivanič 1997; Lillis 2001). New groups of students and teachers, new academic theories and concepts – and quite often also New Public Management-oriented detailed regulations of universities, study programmes and academic literacy standards – all lead to fluctuating communicative practices that impede the settling of a fixed academic genre.
Academic writer identity
A pioneering study in the academic literacy tradition is Lea and Street’s (1998) examination of higher education in England. In their analysis, the authors describe the academic world as characterised by a number of different communicative practices, including different understandings of academic writing. Through detailed text analysis, they illustrate how different academic disciplines promote a variety of text genres and ways to talk about themes that do not always correlate. In order to commit and find his or her ‘voice’ in the university’s muddle of (power) positions and invisible agendas, the student, according to Lea and Street, must acquire knowledge of these different practices in conjunction with the specific conventions for their use. This acquisition process is to some extent specific for each individual student, engaging his or her particular educational history, writing skills, interests and tastes. Against this background, writing can be seen as always involving some form of identity work, allowing the author to position herself in relation to the textual conventions she associates with that genre, whether it concerns personal letters, newspaper articles or academic texts.
This identity perspective has been related to academic text production by Ivanič (1998) and Lillis (2001, 2003), centring on the concept of writer identity. Ivanič (1998) has developed a cross-cutting research design aimed at uncovering ‘the nature of writer identity’ (Ivanič 1998: 113), based on an empirical study of students’ experiences and perspectives. The concept writer identity connects the personal, discursive and structural aspects of writing, including academic writing. According to Ivanič, the process of writing thus evokes three interconnected identity aspects within the writer, (1) the autobiographical self, that is the private and professional life experiences which the author brings to the writing, (2) the discursive self, that is the self-image which the author consciously or unconsciously draws of herself in the actual text, and (3) the self as author, that is the authority and independence with which the author communicates her message through the text (Ivanič 1998: 24ff.).
Lillis (2001) has conducted lengthy case studies of three students’ identity processes in relation to academic text production, including individual life-story narratives. The case studies are based on a heuristic for exploring student writing, in which the student’s meaning-making in writing is explored by asking questions (a) about authority: who can you be, who do you want to be? (b) about authorial presence: how can you say it, how do you want to say it? (c) and about authorship: what can you say, and what do you want to say? (Lillis 2001: 51). The concept ‘writer identity’ and Lillis’ orientation towards authority, access, regulation and desire have been useful in our analytical search for patterns and clusters across the interviews we conducted.
Inspired by Pennycook (2010), we understand the dynamics and negotiation of academic literacy as a relocalisation rather than a recontextualisation, as the notion of recontextualisation tends to reduce locality to a context. If language (and literacy) is theoretically understood as a product of the relation between language, locality and practice, and as a phenomenon emerging from the activities it performs, it brings locality into focus and makes possible an understanding of language practices as co-constructing the space in which the practice is unfolded. Rather than thinking of students as operating within a given context, we approach the AEG participants – and other students – predominantly as actors co-creating a space for academic literacy (and learning) in a study programme. When talking to us about academic literacy in relation to the AEG, students make sense of the phenomenon and the social reality they associate with it, thus creating their discourse of academic literacy in that particular space.
Echoing Hymes’s (1977) sociolinguistic notion of speech communities, we perceive study programmes like the AEG as a temporarily situated ‘local-global’ discourse community reflecting global transformation processes and superdiversity. To be a member of this discourse community students have to position themselves and to negotiate and establish a writer-identity. In contrast to Lillis (2001) who understands the academic discourse community in relation to a context of situation and a context of culture, we thus approach students’ negotiation of academic literacy as a relocalisation (Penny cook 2010).
Anthropology of Education and Globalisation (AEG) is a two-year Master’s programme based in Copenhagen, ‘designed for students seeking an advanced training in anthropological approaches to educational practice and process in settings as varied as educational institutions, workplaces, and civil society’2. Initiated in 2012, the programme attracts bachelor students from Denmark, other EU countries and the rest of the world – including North America, Africa and Asia – with a generally quite even distribution between these three categories. Of the annual sixty to ninety applicants, about thirty students are admitted, and these thirty students comprise a variety of educational backgrounds: 30–40 per cent of students have a teacher qualification and/or educational degree, another 30–40 per cent have some or extensive experience with anthropology, while the rest have some other degree in the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities, like literature, language studies, sociology or political studies.
Our interest in students’ perception of academic literacy in this specific programme was evoked through our daily work as teachers and linguistic ethnographic researchers in the department offering the AEG. Apart from easy access to international students, the AEG offered an extensive involvement of students in so-called facilitated study groups. These are formally established and structured by AEG teachers as an integrated part of the programme with the aim of enhancing students’ learning and well-being3. According to Adriansen and Madsen (2013), facilitated study groups rest on the theoretical premise that student learning is self-directed and that individuals exercise their own intelligence, choice and interests. In line with this premise, AEG teachers instruct the members of each study group to appoint a group facilitator within the group and to allow different members to adopt this role during the semester. In contrast to what the authors refer to as unstructured study groups, the practices in the facilitated study group – presentations, readings, discussions – are clearly structured through a number of fixed techniques (Adriansen and Madsen 2013). Participation in the study groups is compulsory and their activities are an integrated and scheduled part of the study programme.
The firm establishment of study groups on the AEG in combination with the week-long introductory programme to the AEG that has the establishment of a ‘team-spirit’ high on the agenda allowed us to assume a relatively close familiarity among students across their respective cultural, linguistic and educational differences and a feeling of belonging to a special, international discourse community. In the virtual as well as in the physical introduction to the programme, the AEG is presented as a unique combination of anthropological approaches to educational practice in a globalised world4. The learning ideology and the ethos of the programme promoted by the teachers create a strong institutional framing for the students.
We recruited participants by presenting our research project on a visit to the full class in January 2017, followed by a collective invitation through email. Eleven students accepted, and individual interviews were conducted by the authors in early spring during the students’ second semester. Pursuing students’ personal reflections on and experiences with literacy practices, both previously in their educational history and currently on the AEG, we followed a semi-structured interview guide, asking mainly descriptive questions, like ‘Overall, how do you experience the ways of talking about and working with texts at the AEG?’, ‘How do you experience ways of interacting and cooperating among students yourselves e.g. in class and study groups?’, ‘How are these ways of talking about and working with texts similar to or different from the study environment you have previously been part of?’, and ‘If you look at the past 6–8 months at the AEG, how has your own process been in terms of responding to the textual practices and expectations prevailing here?’.
Interviews lasted forty to sixty minutes and were subsequently transcribed. In our analysis of this material, we have sought to bring out students’ individual experiences and reflections, while at the same time identifying general patterns. We see the interviews in which we interact with the students as co-constructed between the researched and the researcher (Kvale and Brinkmann 2015), and we take the interpretations of practice that students share with us as narratives found both in the students’ lives and in ours (Coulter and Smith 2009). In the process of condensing students’ perspectives on academic literacy – their writer identity – from among their activities and experiences on the AEG, we were inspired by Lillis’ (2001) heuristic and Pennycook’s (2010) notion of relocalisation.
The students we interviewed brought a variety of educational and professional experiences to the AEG. They all carried a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences and/or humanities – a requirement for joining the programme – providing them with experience in common academic practices, like explaining theoretical concepts, generating research questions and discussing their theoretical implications in analyses of tangible issues. But when asked about employing these practices on the AEG, students’ experiences seemed to vary quite a bit. Some students thus described their writing process during the first AEG exam (Module 1) as ‘super comfortable’ or ‘relaxed’, like Maggy and Michelle below:
In the first paper, I wrote on the use of evidence in anthropological texts. And because of my background in Literature and Literature Analysis, I felt super comfortable doing that [laughter]. I actually picked that question because … it was easier. I actually didn’t know how the assignment went until I got the feedback. But it was good. (Maggy, 27 years old, from the U.S.A.)
In the first paper, I did it a bit more, like … relaxed in a way, I think I did it more ‘pretty’. Like, it was cool to read, I enjoyed more doing it, but I think it was a bit more superficial. Like, I used less [theoretical] texts, I put normal paragraphs, and I didn’t go that deep into the texts. (Michelle 23 years old, from Spain)
These two students both emitted a sense of confidence and familiarity with the assumed expectations of teachers and the programme, making considerate textual choices on topic and writing style. Others depicted their early writing experiences on the AEG as more conflicted:
The focus here is on concepts. And I’m a bit stressed about the more theoretical way of doings things. On Ethnography, things were more like, ‘don’t use your own ideas, just take what others wrote. Show what others have written about it, and then conclude that’. Here it’s like, ‘come up with a new framework for looking at things’. So it’s much more, you have to think about things yourself. It is cool to be pushed like that, but also scary when I’ve been used to doing things this way for four years, and then having to do it differently. (Sara, no age given, from Denmark)
Coming from sociology, I would never write on other people’s empirical [data], unless I was just doing maybe a literature review. That was very strange. So I kept writing a theoretical argument, how these theories work with each other or are in conflict, and then somehow trying to fit in the empirical instead of … My anthropological friends kept saying, ‘you have to work from the empirical, why do you…?’. (Jane, 30 years old, from the U.S.A.)
[On the AEG] we’ve had to write in a particular way – especially now [on the second semester] when we’re about to write a very theoretical, discussion-based paper, taking a notion and discussing that and [theoretical] history. And that is very different from the way we did it in teachers’ college where the starting point was practice, I think, and then we would link theory to practice to, like, make action plans. Here it is not like that, and I feel my ‘practice brain’ having a hard time getting used to that. (Tina, 25 years old, from Denmark)
Interestingly, Sara, Jane and Tina all ascribed their current writing challenges to their previous training in disciplines other than educational anthropology – here ethnography, sociology and teaching – associating these disciplines with distinct literacy norms that somehow deviate from the one promoted on the AEG. The perception of a specific – but not completely evident – AEG-literacy norm was expressed by students across our interviews, including the more confident ones, generally associating it with the expectation of a theoretically strong and independent discursive self. Some students, like Johanna below, explained how this apparent expectation was not to be confounded with an opinionated or normative discursive self:
In the first [AEG] paper, I slipped a little bit into the normative at the end, and I should avoid that, I learned [laughter]. I think it’s because I never wrote in the anthropological way, and I didn’t really understand at that point that we just use the concepts to give one perspective, and not, ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’. This is just one way to look at it. (Johanna, 25 years old, from Luxembourg)
It [writing AEG papers] is still very difficult, and I find difficulty in writing. Like, how do we write a paper like that? Until now, I have been avoiding saying [writing] my own things because … not because I’m afraid of saying what I want, but because I want to go to the more safe path. So I will just try to find these theories that will kind of support my opinion, but I will always refer to someone. Just because I wanted to make it more safe. (Agata, 24 years old, from Greece)
I’m not used to putting myself in it [a paper]. I’m always, everything is just referencing back to cover my back all the time. [On the AEG] you’re definitely expected to be more present, not only by speaking during lectures, but also in your writing. For me, that’s fucking scary, excuse the swearing. It becomes, if there’s something that isn’t right, or you get something wrong, it becomes much more personal and more a critique of you than of the material. (Beatrix, 27 years old, from Hungary/Sweden)
Many of the students interviewed thus expressed a basic insecurity around writing papers on the AEG, concerning both teachers’ expectations in terms of textual format and positioning, and their own abilities to meet these expectations. Some students, like Johanna, revealed having been reproved for being normative or opinionated, while at the same time being urged to appear more assertive and knowledgeable in their texts. Others, like Agata and Beatrix, explained how they seek to apply ‘safe paths’ and ways of ‘covering their back’, making frequent theoretical references while toning down their own personal perspectives or voice. As Beatrix experienced at a recent exam, this strategy might also be subject to teachers’ critique, urging her to be more visible and assertive in her writing:
They told me I didn’t push the analyses far enough. Which I know from my bachelor’s [in social anthropology], that was always one thing I would fall on. And actually arguing for something or against something in more detail and more specifically, daring to think that I have got a contribution to make. They [AEG examiners] would say, ‘be a bit more assertive in what you say and what you write, be more confident with the fact that your ideas might be good as well. And quote less’. I quoted too much. So a lot seemed to be more of a confidence issue. (Beatrix, 27 years old, from Hungary/Sweden)
Feelings of insecurity and confusion around students’ academic writing could thus be linked to a general understanding of a distinct, but seemingly ambiguous literacy norm promoted on the AEG of being assertive yet not opinionated, theoretically grounded yet not too extensively.
The fact that some students experienced this writing practice as more challenging and opaque than others may be discussed through Ivanič’s concept of writer identity. From this perspective, experiences of insecurity and confusion around academic writing like the ones expressed by Sara, Tina, Jane, Johanna, Agata and Beatrix above may be explained as a clash between students’ autobiographical self – the personal, educational and professional life experiences each of them brought to the study programme – and the confident, independent and theoretically knowledgeable discursive self they perceived as required by teachers and the programme. Students might perceive this clash quite differently, in some cases causing a regular crisis of identity, both personal and professional, while in others evoking curiosity as well as defiance.
A broad tendency among all the interviewed AEG students, including the more confident and ‘relaxed’ ones, however, was the experience that their writer identity was in motion, challenged and spurred by the new types of exam formats and theoretical approaches presented to them on the AEG, as well as by the variety of academic experiences represented by different students in class. This was also visible in the generally very inclusive approach among students to the various academic disciplines represented in class, which we elaborate in the section below.
While students tended to perceive their disciplinary backgrounds as distinct and somewhat contradictory discursive domains, many of them emphasised the disciplinary variety among them as a positive aspect of the programme, enabling meta- and cross-disciplinary discussions and exchanges both in plenary and smaller group exchanges:
We [AEG students] are all from different fields, so we are all kind of constantly analysing ourselves and thinking, ‘Why do I look at it this way, and you look at it this way?’. I am way more reflective and reflexive than I would have been in my other studies, so I think it’s added to who I am as a researcher. (Yasma, 23 years old, from Morocco/Spain)
When I write my papers, or when we discuss things in class, I often pair up with these two in my class that do have a background in anthropology and think very much in the way of anthropology, always breaking down the dichotomies and the binaries and blending everything and putting everything on a spectrum. And also, they are kind of fascinated by me [with a background in sociology], ‘cause I think in a completely different way than they do. At first, we kind of clashed, but then we really came together because of our different ways of thinking. (Jane, 30 years old, from the U.S.A.)
Coming from Educational Science [at DPU] has actually been interesting, because when I wrote a paper with someone from the U.S., I had this lucid ‘DPU recipe’ for writing an assignment, while he had a much more essayistic approach. And then I actually got to lead the discussion, because it was like, ‘This is DPU. I know how we do things here. This is how it should be phrased’. (Clara, 24 years old, from Denmark)
As Jane and Clara’s examples indicate, meta-disciplinary exchanges had appeared both in class discussions and in students’ collaborative text production, allowing them to explore and discuss each other’s practices and perspectives. Clara’s account above of her educational background providing her with an ‘expert role’ in the collective paper writing with an American co-student, in spite of him being a native (and thus presumably better) English speaker, was interesting in that it underlined the presence and subtle negotiation of different knowledge parameters and discursive practices in the students’ interactions and attempts to establish themselves as educational anthropologists. This quote again revealed students’ tendency to associate their own and each other’s disciplinary and institutional affiliations with particular literacy norms and proficiencies, as discussed in the section above.
This tendency seemed to reflect a more profound understanding of academia as a place marked by a rather strong, homogeneous and identifiable academic literacy norm within specific disciplines in specific institutions. Based on this understanding, students could be said to relocate their academic experiences and search for the right ‘AEG-way’ or ‘DPU-way’ to write academically. It should be noted that the students’ relocalisation of experiences and reflections on different approaches to academic literacy were interdisciplinary and institutionally oriented rather than towards perceived national differences. The interviewed students were thus quite aware that their understanding of academic literacy was on the move – that they had to adapt to their interpretation of the norms and values embedded in the academic literacy of the AEG, leaving previous types of institutionally valued academic literacy behind.
Study-group participation was compulsory during the first AEG module, composed and closely facilitated by teachers; but even as a voluntary practice, practically all students seemed to have embraced the collaborative model at the time of our interviews with them (early in the second semester), forming and engaging themselves in groups of their own:
In my previous [teacher] education I would trust only myself or notes from someone else. But now, even if I don’t know something, I trust my group. There were some people [theorists] that we really worked on well, so if I couldn’t understand something, I had that security that, ‘Okay, maybe he or she understood, so maybe we can clarify that a bit’. (Agata, 24 years old, from Greece)
Here I feel more responsible of being a student. We’re working together, and we have to be precise and as thorough as possible. Because we have this reliability thing between us. (Yasma, 23 years old, from Morocco/Spain)
Working together in groups was a new experience for me. I had to learn how to use it in a productive way, but I do enjoy it now. From the beginning I have felt that it was more collective – more like a collective learning experience and focusing on what we are learning as opposed to a means to an end … Sometimes it’s harder when you work with other people, but I kept an open mind by really listening to what people with other backgrounds are saying, and I learned so much. I knew nothing about European politics before, and Europeans know quite a bit about U.S. politics. I learned how to shut-up, I think. So the best advice [for future AEG students] is, ‘keep an open mind and use your peers’, because this is something I would never have done in the U.S. (Rebecca, 24 years old, from the U.S.A.)
In this active choice to collaborate, and in their generally quite inclusive approach towards the programme and class, we perceived an effort among the AEG students towards creating a mutual educational and discursive space. The relocalisation of their different experiences of and approaches to academic literacy were, on one hand, marked by a quest for an identifiable literacy norm, and, on the other, by a high level of meta-reflexivity in regard to literacy and the creation of learning spaces in a linguistically, culturally and professionally ‘superdiverse’ educational contact zone.
A similar approach was visible in students’ general approach to the various languages represented in class. Some students described how the all-English policy in a class of mixed linguistic repertoires had brought certain challenges, for example in terms of group communication, writing papers and speaking up in class – but they all ended up underlining both the social and professional advantages associated with the linguistic diversity in class:
Everyone has different command of English, and I would say that mostly, people are really good. But some are better than others. It’s awkward sometimes when we are having a conversation, and sometimes people are forgetting a word in English and look at me and ask about that word. And I think it’s helpful if I do volunteer, but I also have to remember it is not my place all the time. And I have to remember it is not always helping. I am learning words that I did not know. One German student is googling words, and it’s fun. And next time, I will use that word. (Rebecca, 24 years old, from the U.S.A.)
[At the beginning] it was very tiring speaking English all the time, but I wasn’t the only one in class because we’re so international, and that’s nice, ehh, so I have a few friends who speak German as well. So that was a good break from time to time. The Americans speak very fast, and in the beginning I was like, ‘oh, I don’t understand’. But then I was like, ‘no, but you can ask’. And they are just like, ‘oh, I’m so sorry. I can just speak English, and you speak five languages’. Johanna, 25 years old, from Luxembourg)
I think it [being in a linguistically diverse group] actually improves the ones who are not used to speaking English academically. Of course, we talk more casually in the study groups, but when we prepare presentations, we switch to a more academic language. (Yasma, 23 years old, from Morocco/Spain)
I and another student from the U.S. who have English as mother tongue have been talking about that maybe we could peer-edit each other’s papers. It’s mostly that we want to help and so. And a couple of people handed in their paper and got my paper. And I appreciated very much the feedback that they gave me. A lot of the time it wasn’t on language but on structure, and a lot of the feedback I was given was on language. (Maggy, 27 years old, from the U.S.A.)
These accounts indicated a positive awareness among students of the multilingual resources represented in class, including tangible suggestions on how to exchange and benefit from these resources across students’ varying backgrounds. At the same time, the quotes revealed how English tended to dominate all plenary interactions both in and outside of class. Part of academia’s traditional power is to administer and naturalise a monolingual practice or what is called a double monolingual practice; typically the dominant local language and English. This naturalisation process generally involves a silencing of other languages and dialects, which may be beneficial and even necessary for the running of the large international, multifunctional organisations that most universities comprise today, but which may at the same time impede the full educational participation and flourishing of the large cohort of students whose linguistic resources deviate from the promoted linguistic norm.
As Rebecca’s remark above indicates, there did not seem to be much space for an appreciation of multilingual resources in the daily practices of the AEG, neither in nor outside of class. What did seem to be present was rather an implicit silencing of these resources due to the rather naturalised monolingual practice of the programme. This gave us reason to ask if other languages than English function as an ‘othering’ device on the AEG? Our interviews did not tell us explicitly whether students would appreciate a deviation from the rather naturalised monolingual practice, but the monolingual habitus of an international study programme with multilingual resources could be an interesting issue to bring up with both students and teachers in future classes. As noted by linguistic ethnographer Canagarajah (2013), the increasingly diverse cultural and linguistic landscape of international study programmes calls for new approaches to higher education (see, for example, Garcia and Li 2014; Makalela 2016; Mazak and Caroll 2016).
Contrary to what we might have indicated in the analytical sections above, the interviewed students generally seemed to place little emphasis on the national, cultural and linguistic diversity among them. Instead, when asked to describe their overall experience of the AEG programme, many students underlined the similarities and experience of unity among them, mostly linked with the mutual emotional experience of living and studying in a new way in a new environment:
We are a really great batch of people, and I have spoken to several people about why it works so well. I feel comfortable speaking to everyone and I feel a shared sentiment. And it is a very forgiving group. We all recognise that we are from different backgrounds, and usually it is not a problem. There is a lot of similarities. (Rebecca, 24 years old, from the U.S.A.)
Many [students] were really insecure at the beginning, so we have a very open process now. I like to get feedback on my writing from other students, so I’ ll deliberately pair out with someone who’ ll do that. (Beatrix, 27 years old, from Hungary/Sweden)
At the beginning [of the AEG], I thought it [teaching] was very fast. A lot of new concepts and words and authors, and everybody was like, ‘wow!’ [laughter]. I talked to people, and they said, ‘you’re not alone. It’s fine. We’re going to do that’. (Johanna, 25 years old, from Luxembourg)
This emphasis on experiential and emotional commonality rather than on cultural and linguistic differences among students might partially be ascribed to their extensive involvement in study groups, but it could also be read as a more general trait among this generation of students, most of whom were born in the mid-1990s. In the interviews, students displayed a general concern with their current, mutual role as ‘international students’, rather than with their respective national identities. This concern was visible, for example, in their shared orientation towards a global educational and job market, both currently and in their imagined futures. When asked about what attracted them to the AEG programme, many students thus mentioned the possibilities of studying and eventually working abroad as central factors, in most cases overriding the content of the specific programme:
I just wanted to come to Denmark. I thought I would maybe like to work for something like the UN or UNICEF or something, kind of NGO-type thing. So I thought maybe I would find something that helped me towards that. And then the AEG was one of the programmes I could actually get funding for. (Jane, 30 years old, from the U.S.A.)
My idea was to come to Denmark and get a PhD, because it seems easier [than in Spain] to get a PhD position and working with something relevant. (Michelle, 23 years old, from Spain)
[Prior to entering the AEG] I had this dream working for an NGO and ‘saving the world’ [laughter]. I would still like to work abroad and make a difference, but maybe not by building a school in Africa, like I used to think. (Clara, 24 years old, from Denmark)
With this widespread orientation towards their shared identity as ‘internationals’, it was notable how students were apparently often asked by teachers in class to report on local conditions prevailing in their respective native countries and regions, supplying plenary discussions with historically and geographically specific cases. This approach has obvious educational potentials, perhaps particularly in the field of anthropology which ascribes core epistemological value to locally anchored experiences and conditions. However, as Sara and Maggy explained to us, by consistently asking students to supply the class with information from their respective countries and regions, teachers unintentionally positioned them first and foremost as a kind of regional representative – accentuating national, cultural and linguistic identity aspects of individual students – rather than as a collective of young international academics exploring themes and concepts of educational anthropology, as well as their own aspiring professional identities:
[In class,] much of the reading is related to Danish [culture]. I cannot say how many times we have talked about ‘fællesskab’ [communion ship], ‘dannelse’ [education/Bildung], and ‘hygge’ [cosiness]. And all of the Danish students suggest the same examples and the same ideas. And the South Korean student then becomes our Asian example. (Sara, no age given, from Denmark)
A lot of the times when we’re called on to participate in class, it’s because the teachers want to utilise our diverse backgrounds. So in some cases, I’ve felt like we’re more material for … So rather than being … and this certainly didn’t happen in my last university experience … Sometimes, I think we’re called on as a kind of ‘case studies’. For example, ‘What does democracy or education mean in the place where you come from?’ That’s a great form of participation, because we get all these different notions of democracy or education up on the whiteboard, and we can see how diverse they are. But it’s different than being asked, Okay, what do you all think about this text? What does it mean? (Maggy, 27 years old, from the U.S.A.)
These reports indicate the existence of two somewhat contradictory understandings of internationalism represented in the AEG. In class, this concept seemed to be presented as an encounter of separate national entities, including ‘Danishness’ as described by Sara above. But among the interviewed students, internationalism seemed to be understood primarily as a phenomenon transcending national entities, thus understanding themselves as transnational subjects (Canagarajah 2013).
Conclusion and discussion
Overall, our analysis reveals a widespread understanding among students of the academic literacy promoted on the AEG as a particular genre, including a distinct way of employing theory and expressing their individual voice. This genre-based understanding of academic literacy is what Lea and Street (1998) call a ‘study-skills approach’ and implies a concept of academic textual production as a set of established technical skills that should be acquired in order to create a product of a particular character. As we have shown, many students perceived a significant difference in the literacy norms and demands promoted on the AEG compared to their previous educational experiences, including their bachelor studies. These students were challenged by the academic literacy norms of the AEG and are – apparently not reluctantly – on the move towards what they perceive to be the norms of the AEG.
Whether or not this understanding of academic literacy was shared or promoted by teachers, we note that students had not been urged to question it during their first AEG semester. At the same time, students’ learning processes seemed to benefit much from, for example, the cross-disciplinary negotiations of different knowledge parameters taking place both in plenary and smaller group discussions. This cross-disciplinary knowledge base and the fact that students were on the move, relocalising their experiences with academic literacy and languages, seem to constitute a potential for a more general discussion on the production and representation of knowledge in academia.
The different interpretations of internationalism experienced by students can be read in the same way – as having substantial potential for highly relevant discussions on the possibilities of what an international study programme is intended to be, what it is experienced to be and what it could be. The same could be said about the complex language issues created by the encounter between a rather monolingual habitus and a multilingual group of students. With respect to this issue, it seems relevant to discuss translanguaging as a pedagogical stance and set of practices, allowing teachers and students to draw on all of their linguistic and semiotic resources as they learn and teach at the study programme and to develop a range of practices that draw on an individual’s linguistic and semiotic repertoires (Canagarajah 2013; Mazak and Caroll 2016). The development of translanguaging practices in higher education is a rather new research field; but the superdiversity of international study programmes makes it highly relevant to reconsider their perceived monolingual habitus. Understanding an international study programme as a contact zone opens the way for a translingual perspective that treats diversity as the norm and accordingly gives priority to the development of translingual negotiation strategies and practices (Canagarajah 2013).
We believe that a way forward could be a joint investigation among teachers and students of the social practices around academic text production and of the concept of translanguaging. This has the potential to open up a broad linguistic ethnographic curiosity and offer students and teachers a point of departure for a discussion of the production of academic texts. We are aware that the presence of specific expectations of academic literacy and the asymmetric power relation between students and teachers do not disappear through an orientation towards a translingual-oriented dialogical practice. Our argument is basically that it might promote and enhance students’ learning processes, their awareness of multilingualism as a condition in an international study programme, and their understanding of academic literacy – not as a given – but as a historically situated phenomenon subject to change, and constructed – among other things – through a relocalisation of the students’ linguistic and semiotic resources.
In the Nordic countries, higher-education programmes conducted entirely in English are usually termed ‘international’, testifying both an orientation towards a global labour market with perceived generalisable requirements and a naturalisation of the hegemonic position of English within academia as the international lingua franca. These programmes tend to attract students from around the world as well as from the country offering the programme itself.
See Adriansen and Madsen (2013) for a general introduction to the concept of ‘facilitated study groups’ as employed on the AEG programme.
Brandt D and ClintonK. (2002) ‘Limits of the local: expanding perspectives on literacy as a social practice’ Journal of Literacy Research 34 no. 2: 337–356.
ChandrasomaR.ThompsonC. and PennycookA. (2004) ‘Beyond plagiarism: transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality’ Journal of Language Identity and Education 3 no. 3: 171–193.
ClemensenN. and HolmL. (2017) ‘At lære sig “de kloge damer’s” sprog: studerendes perspektiver på akademisk skrivning’ Dansk Universitetspædagogisk Tidsskrift 12 no. 23: 37–51.
HutchisonH. (2005) The Good Writing Guide University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/documents/GoodWritingGuideAnthro.pdf (accessed 14 August 2017).
LeaM. and StreetB. (1998) ‘Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach’ Studies in Higher Education 23 no. 2: 157–172.
LillisT. (2003) ‘Student writing as “Academic Literacies”: drawing on Bakhtin to move from critique to design’ Language and Education 17 no. 3: 192–207.
MakalelaL. (2016) ‘Translanguaging practices in a South African institution of higher learning: a case of Ubuntu multilingual return’ in C.M. Mazak and K.S. Caroll (eds) Translanguaging in Higher Education. Beyond Monolingual IdeologiesBristol: Multilingual Matters11–28.
MariouE.Bonacina-PughF.MartinD. and Martin-JonesM. (2016) ‘Researching language-in-education in diverse, twenty-first century settings’ Language and Education 30 no. 2: 95–105.
Massey University (2012) What is academic writing? http://owll.massey.ac.nz/main/academic-writing.php (accessed 4 December 2017).
McCambridgeL. and Pitkänen-HuhtaA. (2012) ‘Discourses of literacy on an international Masters programme: examining students’ academic writing norms’ in A. Pitkänen-Huhta and L. Holm (eds) Literacy Practices in Transition: Perspectives from the Nordic CountriesBristol: Multilingual Matters165–186.
RieneckerL. (2007) ’Skrivning og kunnskapsbygging i høyere utdanning – hva vet vi, hva trenger vi å vite?’ in S. Matre and T.L. Hoel (eds) Skrive for nåtid og framtid. Skriving og rettleiing i høgre utdanning Vol.2Trondheim: Tapir32–45.
ScottM. (1999) ’Agency and subjectivity in student writing’ in C. JonesJ. Turner and B. Street (eds) Students Writing in the University: Cultural and Epistemological IssuesAmsterdam: Benjamins.
StarfieldS. (2002) ‘“I’m a second-language English speaker”: negotiating writer identity and authority in Sociology One’ Journal of Language Identity and Education 1 no. 2: 121–140.
VertovecS. (2006) ‘The emergence of super-diversity in Britain’ Working Paper ESCR Centre for Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS) Oxford: University of Oxford.