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Academic culture shock

December 05, 2006

Hello again,

I have recently been helping a post-graduate student with her thesis. Despite having spent many years in the UK education system, her written English remained woefully inadequate. However, what was more of a shock ...

... from her point of view was that she received little or no support from her university supervisor and had very little idea of how to structure a thesis, how to analyse data and how to present a coherent argument. She was not surprisingly somewhat bitter about having had to pay a large annual fee as a part-time student in return for so little tution and advice.

There is I think a very serious issue here. British universities undoubtedly see overseas’ students as cash cows. They sell aggressively in the overseas’ market, knowing that for many countries holding a British degree is still prestigious. I wonder to what extent these university departments are selective: certainly it seems that many students do not have adequate language skills to cope either with taught courses or research projects. But I am sure that they do not understand either the extent to which they need to be independent and self-motivated. Even where lectures and seminars are provided, there is seldom any compulsion to attend and most serious study needs to be done alone.

There is it seems to me an enormous gap in the provision of ELT for bread-and-butter purposes, where the need to communicate takes precedence over accuracy and the kind of language and study skills needed to survive on a university course. Teacher training does little to prepare teachers for EAP and, many teachers who boast merely a training certificate obtained after four weeks, will not be up to the job of providing the rigorous skills training needed. As to the universities, although they usually have language centres, it is arguably too late for the students if the training is provided once they begin their academic courses.

Alas, this is the all-too familiar world of rip-off Britain.

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  1. Rita Ricardo Says:

    I just recently helped a friend to "edit" her end-of-degree project paper. She is a very intelligent person, born and raised in the USA, so one would expect her not to have the kind of problems you described in your entry, and yet, there she is: needing guidance as to how to write her paper, how to do research, and how to defend it. Her MA program (and her undergraduate) did not prepare her for this, and her advisors have not been of help. I responded to your article with this story because, whereas I agree with you in that there is a rip-off in American Colleges getting foreign students into graduate programs, there is I believe something more fundamentally flawed in an education system that does not prepare its students in the basics of reading, interpreting what is read, discussing and writing. Education is failing and natives and foreigners pay quantitatively and qualitatively a different price for a systemic, yet all too human failure.

  1. elisabeth crilly Says:

    Unfortunately, this situation holds true for native speakers and is sometimes even worse. I have anecdotal evidence of the inability of teachers and even principles within the British State system to spell or construct a sentence correctly. It is not surprising to find that Anglo-Indian families are sending their children to India for a decent education. I have, personally, been present at European Youth conferences where the British students were the least articulate-users of the English language. Yet, I have been told by British teachers that they are required to follow strict and uniform guidelines in teaching, whereas, we know that different approaches and techniques are needed for the various intellingences.Has anyone a solution?

  1. Anthony (Tony) Hopkin Says:

    Dr. Hall's article on Academic culture shock is bang on the button! Thinking back on 15 years of working at the higher degree level in a UK University (1977-91 and 20 years in others)brings back much of what Dr. Hall writes. As an administrator, supervisor, examiner and course tutor on MA/Ed/Sc and Ph.D. programmes, I learned that the most common cause of failure was the dreaded 'under-supervisionitiss'! This was compounded by the marked lack of the English language and research support programmes that are a feature of the US system. My institution did work to remedy these defects but, for overseas and UK students, what mattered in the end was the supervisor. Too few of those entrusted with this job had the cluster of skills, professional competencies and commitment needed to provide effective supervision.

    But there is worse to come! Since early retirement in 1991 I have plied my trade outside the UK. Currently I am working in a university context where supervision of students doing higher degrees through the medium of English is largely in the hands of academics, highly skilled in their subjects, with a wide range of competencies in English. Again I am working in this field with a faculty that is attempting to provide the support services - albeit limited - that Dr. Hall identifies. However, this does not make up for the deficiencies of supervisors, who suffered assorted regimes when doing their own doctorates. An obvious remedy is to adopt a realistic approach to the demands of supervision by insisting on providing training programmes for supervisors. However, convincing newly qualified Ph.D. holders (and university administrators) that this is necessary is a thorny task.

    The key issue may be even more basic than this. Dare I say (this is delivered in my softest whisper) that if standards of teaching at the university level was a fifth as good as is commonly found in most primary or secondary schools, then the problems Dr. Hall identifies would be diminished. I have always taken perverse delight in telling my university colleagues that, unlike most of them, I have been trained and am qualified to teach. What is more, I practised my trade for more than a decade in schools before being inflicted on an intellectual elite! When will demands of teaching and its related component skills be given proper recognition in universities?

    Dr. Hall's succinct and persuasive piece warrants a very wide university audience.

    Tony Hopkin

  1. owen nair-Marshall Says:

    Dr. Owen Nair-Marshall(B.Arts, Grad Dip Ed MArts EdD
    says that if one only stops to consider the way we see culture and realise that the differences are huge then the question that needs to asked is How does a person from a different culture perceive ours?
    Some years ago I was doing a study in Malaysia at A small fishing village Bagun Dato when I realised that I was impinging on many of that villages traditional values. e.g I wore white at a funeral.
    I sent flowers also .. BAD BAD BAD!!!
    This unfortunately was what I had grown up with and was not applicable to another culture. It was then that the professor who was with me explained that"put yourself in their shoes.. not yours". A very important lesson learnt.

    I have always considered that we as humans have need to communicate and how that communication is done is the most significant part of the process. Where one has to determine the encoding decoding process and wants only to pick out grammatical flaws or syntax errors then perhaps it is us who have the flaws. Once we know what it is that is being said and communicated then we have reached the goal that was set out to be reached.

    It fine to say the thesis is not perfectly written. the question is does it communicate what it sets out to do.

    Assistance comes in may ways and many forms. yes the writing of a major piece of academic work is difficult for anyone.

    My further advise is to consult with your supervisor peri-commencement and ask what acceptable standard of written work are. also ask for recommended reading material on how to set out a Thesis /what is a research program how to evaluate and be self critical.

    Advice think about nearly all things if you don't you will come unstuck .

  1. Robert H. Toomey Says:

    From what I have seen during my fifteen years of teaching in Asia (Korea, Japan, and China), most people are taught English by non-native speakers, people who are poorly or improperly trained in teaching (crash course for TESL), and a host of other problems because there are few professional teachers with correct training teaching people to speak English in those countries. This leads to the fact that they cannot write English well. I have seen and heard many people falsey assume that one can write (and read) English without having to speak it. Most Asians want a western education, but they haven't been taught to be independent learners, and it is very normal for them, when they are failing, to blame anyone and everyone else. This is epidemic in these countries. Until these problems are solved, college professors will be blamed for the "inability to give support." I think the answer is that college professors should tell non-fluent speakers of English that they should have learned English correctly before they went to the university in an English speaking country.
    The problems lie in the beginning, not in the end. College professors are suffering the incorrect, inadequate shortcomings of the beginning and middle processes of non-native speakers learning English. Get the backpackers and the untrained teachers out of the classrooms, and get professional educators with a good curriculum in there.

    Bob Toomey in Beijing

  1. ezgi, ingilizce Says:

    I think most of the universities - not only british ones- around the world suffer from the same problem.

  1. Dennis Lowrimore Says:

    Were I still teaching univeersity students in China I would begin each term with a 4-6 week on phonics and learning to read before going on to writing and speaking. My last job in China was editing and co-writing phonics books. My partner and I voluntered teaching a neighborhood folks class of "Olympic Visitors English." After they complained they just could not memorize the sentence the Chinese teacher drill them on, we started over with the ABCs and phonics. They soon were able to use the sentences in real conversations. Dennis Lowrimore (15 years in China and Russia)

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