Dramatic Changes for International Education

Distinguished Professor Lynette Hunter with students on the Wyatt stage

Distinguished Professor Lynette Hunter works with students on the Wyatt stage

For international students new to the U.S., linguistic and cultural barriers can make it challenging to speak up in class, and lectures may leave students with many unanswered questions.  As the number of English as a Second Language (ESL) students at UC Davis begins to grow, the campus is developing new ways to help them succeed and participate more fully in academic life.

Dramatic Arts 5 (DRA 5) is one of three general education (GE) courses taking part in a new program developed by the Office of Undergraduate Education to enhance learning for ESL students. Because all UC Davis students must take a range of GE courses, the program aims to support classes that will count toward graduation.  Each course offers paired linguistics sections known as LIN 98s in which 15 students meet twice each week with an instructor.  Using the materials of the GE course, students learn to master pronunciation, presentation and discussion skills.  To practice and strengthen their lecture comprehension strategies, students revisit small segments of video recordings of the GE lectures.   Course TAs are also trained to encourage participation by international students.

“Black Fingernails:” a student from Beijing makes his directorial debut

First-Year student Ming Qiu seated in Wyatt stage, gesturing animtedly.

The assignment:  take a news story and interpret it through the lens of genre – romance, mystery, sci-fi, or thriller/horror.  Last fall, Ming Qiu, a first-year physics major from Beijing, made an impressive film production debut with “Black Fingernails,” a short thriller based on the LAX shootings.  Incorporating generic elements of anticipation, suspense and terror, as well as a romantic subplot which fuels a lover’s repeated attempts at revenge, Qiu’s moody piece was selected in online voting by his DRA 5 section as their best representation of the genre. 

Working with limited time and resources, Qiu skillfully used tropes such as a handwritten diary in which the murderer describing his feelings and motives, even noting the weather (rainy and cloudy) to evoke mood. Carefully selected piano music, a romantic scene in (SPOILER ALERT) heaven, and a surprise ending completed the five-minute iPhone film. 

After a screening in Wyatt, Qiu and his classmate Fiona Ke fielded questions from the class.  Asked whether their film blended both thriller and romance, Qiu argued that the romantic storyline was secondary.  Both Qiu and Ke appreciated the opportunity to practice spoken English, which helped them prepare to give presentations for other classes.   Asked whether he might consider changing his major to film studies, however, Qiu replied that while he might continue to make movies for fun, for the time being he would stick with physics.

Overcoming Barriers through Performance

A popular GE class, DRA 5 attracts students from all across campus to the Wyatt Theatre, a Shakespearean roundhouse with distinct UC Davis character. Classroom discussions on topics such as genre, history and performance alternate with dramatic exercises and opportunities to try out the stage, which makes DRA 5 a good fit for the program.  Speaking a new language can feel like a performance: you have to think about what you want to say, how you’re going to say it, how it will be heard, and how to incorporate nonverbal communication. DRA 5 provides a unique opportunity to learn these techniques and practice them with a large group.  “In Beijing we study English for about seven years in school, but it is focused on reading and writing skills.  We don’t have much opportunity to practice speaking English in China,” said Ming Qiu, a first-year student who took the class last fall.

An International Exchange of Ideas

Taught by Distinguished Professor Lynette Hunter, the class centers on themes of migration, immigration, and crossing boundaries, which have enduring significance in California’s history and personal relevance for many UC Davis students.  Having a large number of international students – about 30 of the 90 students enrolled in fall quarter were from outside of the U.S. – broadens the scope.  Teaching and learning can go both ways, with Californian students learning more about the world’s cultures from their international classmates.  Hunter encourages such exchanges, for example by having students write paired blogs, matching each international student with a native English speaker.   She also uses a Facebook page to post stories from around the globe and ask questions about how performance can change the world:  one post featured a controversial television ad from India featuring second marriage.  Technologies including YouTube and Skype make the course’s global emphasis more present and accessible.

“Facilitating the exchange of ideas benefits all of our students,” said Carolyn Thomas, interim Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.  “We learn about the world through encounters with our peers.  That’s why it’s critical to create classroom settings that encourage international students to share their perspectives."

Supporting a Broad Range of Classes

Bringing ESL under the administrative umbrella of Undergraduate Education has allowed Thomas' team to extend the scope of linguistic support to a broader range of classes, beginning with targeted GE courses.  “It’s rare for a university to invest deliberately in improving oral communications skills for international students,” said Dawn Takaoglu, Coordinator for ESL and International Student Support.  “That's what makes UC Davis’s program special. Students learn skills that are valued in the US:  the ability to present their own arguments and to interact in an academic culture that values active discussions.”

According to Takaoglu, another successful paired course was Introduction to Economics (ECN 1B).  With many international students majoring in economics, the course filled three LIN 98 sections in winter quarter.   Although final grades have not been recorded at the time of writing, preliminary results show that the teaching enhancements have been very successful, with all of the co-enrolled international students successfully completing the course, a distinct improvement over previous years without the LIN 98 pairing.  Students reported that learning to give presentations with confidence, to recognize the academic vocabulary needed to understand and discuss concepts, and the rules of classroom discussion were especially helpful. 

The new program will continue in the fall, with the Office of Undergraduate Education currently considering which courses will be the most beneficial and attractive for international students.  Enhanced courses are one of several new academic programs being offered to international students.  Summer Start, a six-week program offered during Summer Session II, will be offered for the second time this year, from August 3-September 13.  Combining intensive, for-credit language courses with campus orientation and local and regional excursions, Summer Start offers ideal preparation for the transition to UC Davis life for first-year international ESL students.

Please visit the ESL & International Student Support and Summer Start websites for more information.

On the UC Davis home page: Student Chris Ubando talks about how a story can change during the Understanding Performance class. Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo

Contact:  Sharon Knox


Office of Undergraduate Education