Personal Challenges in Curriculum Planning for L2 Learners

In my job at NYU Shanghai, I often engage in curriculum development tasks outside of the writing program. In the past two years, I’ve designed a professional writing course for the Silver School of Social Work and a scientific writing module for the First Year Science Program. Time and again, I run into two issues with the stakeholders. The first is the misconstrual of this work as in some way remedial. The second is the casting of L2 learners as somehow deficient—a view sometimes even held by advanced L2 users in positions of some authority.

Pushing against Remedial Views of L2 Learning

One of the greatest challenges that I face is the misguided notion that any course designed for L2 learners is somehow, necessarily, remedial. Pushing back against corrective views often feels like an uphill battle because those that hold it are often looking to make cuts to what they see as support courses. Or, they are attempting to wield their authority to recast what they consider to be a support class to one that is remedial and can therefore be cut from the course offerings and the budget. This is problematic because L2 learners at all levels of education often require additional educational support to help them make efficient use of their multilingual resources. It’s not remediation; it’s supporting student success through purposefully tailored educational interventions.

For example, with the Silver School, I often have to push back against notions that my L2 professional writing seminar is either (a) in service to the academic courses, which it was never designed to be; or, (b) is a remedial grammar course to “fix” all the linguistic errors, which it was, again, never designed to be. I purposefully worked with the original dean of the Silver School to create a course that was first and foremost focused on professional, written communication—which necessarily includes a more explicit focus on form and accuracy because they are critical aspects of the professional performance of self in text. It also focuses on professional communication, instead of academic communication for two reasons. First, it gives students a chance to engage with their multilingual resources and how to effectively deploy them in professional settings, which is the setting they will most often be used in as most of out students plan to enter the labor market after completing the MSW. Second, it highlights the importance of graduate school as a professional endeavor, one where the professors work with the students to construct a professional self that will give them access to their chosen discipline. It’s more of an apprenticeship and less of just education. When others want to view this work as remedial, I encourage them to think of their professionalization processes and their language acquisition experiences. I then invite them to engage with these experiences in relationship to the stated goals of the L2 communication courses. In doing so, I highlight how these important courses are serving a critical function in scaffolding student success and retention.

Resisting Deficit Views of L2 Learners

Often complicit with the issue above is one that sees L2 learners as somehow deficient. Some L2 writing and SLA scholars have correctly pointed out that when working with L2 learners, it’s very rarely a problem of deficit. It isn’t that the linguistic system is lacking. It’s that there’s an excess and students must learn to navigate these new systems and communicative demands in appropriate ways. The deficit view is a much harder issue to overcome, in part because it crops up so often in such unexpected and pervasive ways. Resisting the deficit view requires vigilance and an occasional firm response. A useful way to engage with people who hold the deficit view is to remind them of their language experience—this may include their monolingual experiences as they gained proficiency in a new register for a new purpose. As I work with academics, I often remind them that their journeys to professional literacy were not linear ones, nor were they ones of instant success. They were journeys of advances and regressions. They were journeys of struggle. Gaining advanced proficiency in an L2 is similar. I also work to remind my colleagues that are students are highly advanced L2 users that are engaging in exceptionally cognitively demanding tasks in an L2, and often having greater success than we might in our L2s.

It’s a weary fight, and one that crops up again and again in unexpected places. It can be tempting to give up the fight since it seems that you’re never really affecting people’s erroneous views. However, it’s important to treat all students ethically, even more so when they themselves are in power-under positions relative to administrative and instructional entities on campus. So, it’s important to keep pushing on and advocating for the ethical treatment of L2 learners on campus.

If you’ve faced similar situations, I’d love to hear your strategies. Perhaps co-cognizing can lead to interesting outcomes that can be shared with others.

Leave a Reply