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Writing Across Languages, Disciplines, and Sources: Second Language Writers in Jordan

Abstract:This article examines how World English speakers negotiate the complex landscape of global Englishes when writing academically from sources and challenges many assumptions that research and lore suggest about these writers' experiences. The data, culled from interviews with native-speaking Arabic graduate students and scholars from across the disciplines who live and work in the Middle East, suggest that mastery over standardized English is not a prerequisite for advanced academic writing in English. Instead, study participants pointed to the importance of other factors in learning to write effectively from sources: quality mentoring, collaboration with both native and non-native and expert and non-expert colleagues, interactions with global academic social networks, and previous educational experience with authentic tasks in their disciplines.[1]


In the plenary address at the Ninth International Writing across the Curriculum Conference, McLeod (2008) brought to our attention the internationalization of higher education and the position of English as a Lingua Franca, calling on us to open a dialogue with our international colleagues about WAC. This is especially important in light of studies suggesting that multilingual writers working outside the traditional "center" of English (i.e. the West) are or will soon be the majority of the world's English users.

A. Suresh Canagarajah (2006) has reviewed studies on English users and found that some researchers estimate that so-called second-language (L2) speakers of English have outnumbered first-language speakers for over twenty years, and even a "conservative" claim estimates that "multilingual users of the language [English] will be about 30 million more than the 'native' speakers'" in 2050 (Canagarajah, 2006, pp. 588-9).  This increasing number of second-language English speakers has led Swales (2004) to argue that we can no longer assume that English academic writing will adhere strictly to the expectations of a native-speaker audience (pp. 53-59).

Despite their growth in numbers and the predictions that their Englishes will become more widely used and, perhaps, widely accepted, these writers face challenges in writing and publishing their research. Many recent studies in composition and applied linguistics have pointed to the disempowerment that can accompany non-native speaker and outer-circle status. Canagarajah (1996, 2003) described the poor material conditions in which scholars outside the perceived center of academic research (the West) work and the effects of these conditions on these scholars' writings and professional lives. These periphery scholars, as Canagarajah refers to them, must negotiate many difficult economic, social, and political forces. Mary Jane Curry and Theresa Lillis (2004) have argued that periphery scholars are also challenged by demand to address multiple and "relatively distinct communities" such as local journals published in their home languages and international English-language journals (p. 681). After reviewing studies on the publishing experiences of periphery scholars, Sedef Uzuner (2008) has suggested that "international publication is more of a challenge to multilingual scholars than it is to others who are endowed with economic, cultural and symbolic capitals, and thus able to respond to the demands of the core academic discursive practices with relative ease" (p. 261).

More specifically, researchers have argued that one of the fundamental tasks of academic writing—incorporating outside research—poses problems for second language writers. Synthesizing, paraphrasing, and citing sources seem especially difficult for second-language writers.  Instructors may assume that the cause of this difficulty is a language barrier—lack of fluency—or, as some research suggests, the cause is a knowledge barrier, as these writers may work within a culturally different rhetorical frame for citation and may lack familiarity with native-English speakers' citation expectations (Bloch & Chi, 1995; Deckert, 1993; Fox, 1994; Pennycook, 1996; Sherman, 1992). 

While fluency and comprehension of reader expectations clearly do affect a writer's ability to use sources, the connection between these two problems and a writer's non-native speaker status is less clear.  Not all non-native speakers have trouble—or perceive themselves as having trouble—with fluency and reader expectation. In addition, L2 periphery writers may define fluency and reader expectations differently than native-speaking writers from the "center."  Periphery writers are often not composing for an idealized and monolithic native-speaker audience. In fact, the very definition of such native-speakers has been called into question recently. According to Braj. B. Kachru (1992), people who live outside the "inner-circle" of "traditional cultural and linguistic bases of English," such as the United States and the United Kingdom, are changing the very notion of native speaker (p. 356).  Kachru has argued that the number of Englishes worldwide is growing and that the outer circle is expanding.  In "outer-circle" countries that "have passed through extended periods of colonization," such as India and Nigeria, people have nativized the English language—changing it to meet their own needs (Kachru, 1992, p. 356). In his thorough study of the linguistic category of native speaker, Davies (2003) defines a native speaker not only linguistically but also socially and psychologically, suggesting that the definition may vary depending on context.  Leung, Harris, and Rampton (1997) have argued that linguistic affiliation is dynamic, rather than static, reminding us not to reify the category of native speaker but instead to follow Bhabha's concept of identity as a process. According to Leung, Harris, and Rampton (1997), current terminology for language affiliation inadequately describes the complex situation of their study participants, mostly immigrants' children who speak multiple languages and identify with multiple cultures and defy simplistic categories. These students were constantly switching their identity affiliation depending on the context and circumstances.  Similarly, Canagarajah (2001) has demonstrated that "the discourses of post-colonial subjects are multiple, hybrid, and overlapping" (p.121).

This article offers a case study of academic writers from the periphery, examining how they negotiate the complex landscape of global Englishes when writing from sources. What conditions constrain and/ or aid periphery scholars' abilities to produce research writing that they deem successful (or that is deemed successful by their supervisor/ publisher)? How do second language graduate students, professors, and other researchers across the disciplines perceive their ability to incorporate source information?

To answer these questions and learn from the experiences of academic writers from across the curriculum outside the West, I undertook a study of scholarly writers in the Middle East. I traveled to Jordan, where I had taught English years earlier, to interview academic writers about their experiences with English.  Similar to many other countries in the region, Jordan has seen English grow in importance not only as an international language but also as a language of communication within Jordan among Jordanians (Hamdan and Abu Hatab, 2009).  English's position as an important language for economic and intellectual life in Jordan results from the current globalized economy, close ties with America, and the vestiges of earlier British colonialism, facts that position English-language writers in Jordan in the type of peripheral and hybrid space that Kachru, Canagarajah, and others have described.



Table 1: Participants by Discipline

Biology 8
Education 4
Archaeology 3
Engineering 3
Architecture 1
Comparative Literature (English/Arabic 1
Geology 1
History 1
Management Science 1
Urban Planning 1

I located academic writers to interview through friends and contacts I had made at the University of Jordan while teaching in Amman five years earlier. My focus on graduate students and expert researchers aimed to fill a gap in composition research, which has traditionally focused on the writing practices of undergraduates or of graduate and professional writers working in the West. Interviewing these advanced academic writers also provided me with a breadth and depth of data, as they described their writing practices from early in their academic careers to the present day. While I studied only one small group of writers in one small country, their individual experiences span cultures, continents, and countries and offer insights to the changing nature of academic English across disciplines and how we as researchers and teachers can best respond to this.

I tried to find a small group that represented a diversity of fields, gender, age, and class. In total, I collected interviews from 24 participants who represented a wide variety of disciplines and levels of advanced higher education-15 female and 9 male (see Appendix A for additional demographics information). The fact that the majority of my participants were female was likely due to my own position as an unmarried female researcher in a fairly conservative Arab country.  Interestingly, all but one of the males were professors or researchers. I am not sure why I found so few male master's students. Perhaps young male master's students were uncomfortable meeting one-on-one with a single female.

In my sample, there is a noticeable lack of Ph.D. candidates. This reflects the dearth of Ph.D. programs in Jordan, where a higher education system did not exist before the 1960s.  I did, however, speak to two master's students who were applying to Ph.D. programs in other countries.  As all participants had or were working on advanced degrees and most had conducted their own research projects, they seemed eager to help another researcher by participating in my study, even though I offered no tangible compensation.  Often, after interviews, participants would provide me with contacts for additional participants.

Table 2: Participants by Highest Degree Program

Master's degree in process 10
Master's degree finished 3
Ph.D. degree finished 11

When I began my study, I invited writers to participate in the study based on these criteria:

Although I had originally planned to interview only participants who were affiliated with universities, I discovered that some private sector workers in Jordan continued to engage in scholarly writing. Dr. Yusef, a researcher in medical sciences, is a good example: he held a doctorate in biology and had worked and taught at a university in the United States. At the time of the interview, he was a director in a private hospital in Jordan, where he read and incorporated scholarly medical research into his reports. During our interview, we discussed Dr. Yusef's past academic writing and the more hybrid academic/ professional writing he was currently composing.

In the end, the majority of the participants were affiliated with a university: eleven students, eight professors, and one instructor. Two of the students who were earning master's degrees were also teaching in the public schools. Of these 21 university-affiliated participants, all but three were affiliated with the two large public universities in Jordan: Jordan University (the flagship institution) and Yarmouk University. The three participants not associated with a university included a geologist who worked for Jordan's agency for natural resources, an historian who directed a non-governmental organization focused on education, and a researcher and director at a medical center—Dr. Yusef.

Interviews: Collection and Analysis

To collect detail-rich data, I conducted semi-structured interviews (see Appendix B) in English. I began by asking participants to describe their academic history and then moved on to questions about their past and present academic writing; their attitudes towards English; and, finally, their attitudes about and experiences with source use. Many other studies have also relied on interviews of multilingual writers to discover their concerns about and experiences with academic writing (Leki & Carson, 1997; Flowerdew, 1999a & 1999b; Pecorari, 2003).

After collecting interviews, I then transcribed and analyzed them with techniques from Strauss and Corbin's Grounded Theory (1998), allowing categories and codes to emerge from the data. My data analysis began with reading interview transcripts and writing memos in response to them. In my analysis of the interview data, I looked not only for patterns among the data but also for the distinctive qualities in each subject's responses, working towards a realistic representation of the participants' perceptions and experiences.  As I wrote memos and compared them within and among interviews, I paid attention to repetition in participants' comments and repetition in my responses to their comments.

In this article, I use pseudonyms when referring to participants unless they requested that I use their real first names. Those with Ph.D.s or a great deal of expertise are referred to as Dr., followed by a first name (professors are sometimes referred to in this way). In the excerpts from the interview transcripts, I have deleted filler words (such as "um"). 

English Level in Expert Writers

Despite their need to write and publish in what they deemed a second language, many participants with experience and expertise felt confident about their ability to write with and document sources in English for their intended audiences. Dr. Hasan, a professor of chemical engineering, described reviewers' comments on his submissions to scholarly English-language journals as generally positive. When he received comments about issues that he characterized as L2 problems, he perceived them as of little consequence: "We had two reviewers that were very supportive and said this is a major contribution. Just change some of the English, final changes in English…It was nothing substantial within the article content." Dr. Yusef also described the types of errors in one of his first articles, as well as help his advisor (a native-speaker) gave him, as very minor and the article overall as successful:

Yes, things like that…. How to connect two sentences, two phrases together. These things. How, you know, using "however" or "on the contrary." You know things like that. That it needs a native speaker to understand the difference. When do you put "thus" versus "something else." So…these things are a different level of understanding, a better command of the English language. But now I'm better even at that, a lot better. But he [the advisor] changed a lot of those…. I was in that article very detail oriented, so he is a master in abbreviating things… but that was my first attempt; I'm talking about my first attempt….He [the advisor] was so proud of the article I wrote…he circulated [it] to all the people in the department.

In an article that he submitted for publication in an English-language scholarly journal, Dr. Munir, a professor who specialized in teaching English as a second language, also received comments about minor language issues and a few missed references, but, perceiving these as unimportant errors, he was happy that the editors caught them: "The major comments were about having some of the references inside the document which were not mentioned in the list of references at the end, and that was perfect, that was true, that was my mistake. And other comments were related to editing things."

Like Drs. Hasan, Yusef, and Munir, most professors who were trying to publish described language errors as minor editing issues and as irrelevant to the substance of their writing. Often, participants perceived their errors as part of any writer's, native or non-native speaking, composing process. Dr. Samir, a geologist, described an exchange with a native-English speaking colleague to illustrate how he saw himself on equal par with native speakers in his writing:

I will tell you a story when I was student in the UK. One day we were in the computer lab, and [a] Ph.D. student was sitting next to me. I've seen one of his chapters with many alterations. I said to him, "I thought that only I have these alterations because I am non, I am not a native speaker." He told me "No. Your English is better than mine. You know? And all the students have the same comments."

Because they felt confident with their English, participants often sought readers for their drafts who were experts in their content, not experts in English. In fact, some participants did not seek native speakers for help. Others saw themselves as the language expert for colleagues with less proficiency in English. Dr. Huda, an archaeologist, told me that she played this role for some of her archaeologist and anthropologist colleagues (Dr. Huda's comment also suggests that this claiming of authority has little to do with gender and that the male participants were not simply claiming authority to save face in front of a female). 

Even participants who described their English level as low suggested in other comments that their English was nonetheless at a high enough level to present and publish their work to the international scholarly community.  Dr. Dima, a young water scientist, used the word "simple" to describe her English level but also admitted that this was not a problem for her: "Of course I do not have perfect English; it's not my native [language], but I can read, it's not very difficult, at least at my field, to, to make your points clear… with simple English; you don't really have to go into very complicated… sentences." Dr. Dima may have been modest in describing her English ability, but she also told me that she had published in top English-language journals in her field, as had Drs. Hasan and Samir.

The participants' confidence in their ability to write and publish for an international English audience challenges some previous research that has suggested that non-native English speakers (NNES) perceive themselves as at a disadvantage. In a study of Hong Kong scholars who wrote in English as a second language, Flowerdew (1999a) categorized the many obstacles these writers see themselves facing, including difficulty with "facility of expression," vocabulary, qualitative research, completing the writing process in a timely manner, L1 interference, and writing introductions and discussions (p. 254). To some extent, my research validates these findings, as at least one participant described having trouble with each of these issues. However, the difference between my study's participants and Flowerdew's seems to be in degree. The professors in my study who had published or were trying to publish mentioned these difficulties, yet overall still felt confident in their English and in their ability to publish in scholarly journals, while Flowerdew (1999a) argued that his study participants faced problems in publishing in English when compared with native-speakers.

English Level in Novice Writers

Although professors rarely saw their English proficiency as a significant obstacle, confidence in English was lower among graduate students. For example, Aliyah, a master's student in chemical engineering, believed that her second-language status affected her ability to paraphrase and avoid plagiarism:

If it is your language okay, that's fine; you can play with the words, but if it is another language, you need to take the sentence complete because you don't have the ability to make a very powerful sentence just like that. Maybe you don't have the ability, so you need to take it just like that. And when you take it just like that, many people, they said I am sure this was taken from my article, my paper, and you shouldn't do that…it is not a words, but sentences and paragraphs.

Novices also had much more trouble synthesizing and organizing information than their expert counterparts, and these issues were often of more concern to them than standardizing their English. Rana, a master's student in education and English teaching, described the writing issues that her professors wanted her to address, and the most important ones were not uniquely L2 issues. Instead, she characterized them as challenges all writers, especially novice academics, confront, such as organization:

Well they started… to tell… [me] that this idea can be misunderstood by others can be reorganized in other words in order to be clear for everyone. This order can be organized in some way that reflects your understanding of the problem… ideas can be organized in this way or in another.

Rana did not distinguish writing problems and advice in terms of the native/ non-native speaker divide. Rather, she sought professors' (experts') suggestions about how she presented and organized content. Rana described her other writing challenges as problems that confront all writers, not only L2 ones:

I think the main… difficulty in order to have a… good and well-written thesis or a research you have to have a good idea of what you want to… write. Then comes the difficulties of language, structuring, organization and how… you want or how can you convince the reader that something is bad or something has happen[ed] and how can you convey your feelings through your writing. This is very difficult.

In fact, Rana rarely framed her most significant problems in terms of language but instead in terms of interpersonal problems with mentors and with the teachers who neglected her and her work: "You're (her advisor) not providing me the clear ideas [that] we… shared at the first meeting we had, so what did I do? What should I do? …How can I go in your mind and understand your ideas?"

Rana's concerns are those of any novice who has to negotiate a relationship with a busy mentor. Comments such as these also support research suggesting that L2 writers often undergo a writing process in their second language similar to the one in their first (Hall, 1990; Matsumoto, 1995). Part of the process of developing as a writer includes working through content knowledge in writing. Ackerman's (1991) quantitative study of graduate student writers revealed a connection between prior knowledge of content and higher quality writing, a connection that my study seems to confirm.

Source use as a Situated and Rhetorical Practice

Although writing handbooks often present citation as the transparent practice of ensuring that readers can follow the tracks of the research process and of giving credit to the author of a source, research reveals that source use and documentation are complicated and socially situated literacy practices. In his analysis of research articles, Swales (1990) found the genre, and its citation practices, highly rhetorical, even as the genre tries to conceal its rhetorical nature. Swales (1986) has also argued that the rhetorical reasons behind how and why authors document sources are so complex that no one explanation or "categorization of citations" can work for even the most seemingly clear-cut of references (p. 49). Buckingham and Neville (1997) have argued that one of the primary purposes of citation is neither to attribute sources nor to allow readers to follow a writer's research process but instead to invoke the "colloquy" of the discipline and demonstrate how the author positions herself within the discipline's discussions and debates, a rhetorical move difficult for novices who are still learning disciplinary knowledge. Similar to all literacy practices, citation is ideological, reflecting the epistemology of the discourse community in which it is written and read. To cite correctly in a discipline requires a writer to think within the framework of that discipline's belief system. The very choice to cite or not is a rhetorical move embedded within the social context—and hierarchy—of a discipline: the more authority writers have in a discourse community the more likely readers within that community will believe writers without the support of outside sources.

As novices, many master's students lacked the experience to write from sources with knowledge and authority. For Aisha, a master's student in chemical engineering, writing from sources was difficult because she couldn't imagine rephrasing ideas in a "better" way than the original:

You have to go back to books, and the hard thing is that you have to understand the process very well and to write it once again in your words. How difficult that is because when you read a book, scientific book, you say, 'oh, this sentence cannot be in a better way than what it is, and how can I change it?' It's right here in a better way. This is really hard.

Unlike Aliyah, Aisha never mentioned her non-native status as the obstacle to rewriting it in a better way. It's not that she lacked the knowledge of English to understand the original or even the vocabulary to rephrase the original; instead, she lacked the ability to write it "better," as she was tentative in her knowledge of the field.

Experience writing for a discipline-specific audience distinguished the participants who felt successful in their source use from those who didn't. This finding confirms Swales's (2004) earlier observation of L2 academic writers from across the globe. Swales judged that the real divide is not between native and non-native speaker but between "senior" and "junior" researcher (p.56). This is not to say that other factors do not shape writers' work, as Swales (2004) has stated:

Rather, I simply wish to recognize and reflect certain emerging realities in today's research world. These suggest that what counts for academic success in research environments (beyond of course individual ability and determination) are levels of experience, support, and networking, as well as location in the center as opposed to the periphery, rather than having the world's leading research language as a mother tongue.  (p. 58)

In all aspects of academic writing, including source use, the border between L1 and L2 was not the line that defined a writer's success. Instead, as Swales theorized and the participants' comments confirmed, expertise in conjunction with the context in which the writers worked determined the writer's success.

Field of Expertise: Hard Sciences Versus Humanities and Social Sciences

Another factor that contributed to researchers' ability to write effectively from sources was field of expertise. As this study's sample was so small and drew more from social and hard sciences than from the humanities, it is difficult to draw specific conclusions about the relationship between field of expertise and ability to write from sources. However, the data suggest that it is easier for researchers in the hard sciences to write effectively from sources in a second language than for researchers in the humanities or social sciences. Although the expert participants in the humanities and social sciences with whom I spoke were very confident in their ability to write and publish and showed writings and publications to validate their confidence, they had also studied more in English than their counterparts in the hard sciences. For example, the historian, Dr. Leila, described English as becoming her mother tongue after using if for so many years as her primary educational language beginning in elementary school. In addition, two of the social scientists studied the teaching of English as a foreign language; thus, they had focused on English early in their college careers and had a personal preference for it.

The fact that the participants from the hard sciences had not focused on English yet managed to write and even publish internationally in it highlights the different expectations for language in the different fields.  This is not surprising, as Bazerman (1988) has argued that research articles in the hard sciences may require a narrower scope of content and of vocabulary than articles in the humanities and social sciences. In his comparison of three research articles (one from the sciences, one from the social sciences, and one from the humanities), Bazerman (1988) demonstrated that writing in the hard sciences often refers only to very closely related research literature and assumes that readers have more prior knowledge and more shared assumptions than writing in the social sciences and humanities, which assumes a broader knowledge and which draws from a more diverse body of literature and vocabulary (pp. 33-48). In a sense, the language of social sciences and humanities is even more inflected by culture because it often addresses culture directly, while the language of science affects objectivity. It is not surprising that one of the participants who reported struggling most with issues of voice in her English-language academic writing was a junior researcher in the social sciences, Rana. Rana admitted that integrating her ideas and voice in English academic writing was difficult: "Since I am writing in a foreign language…, since it is not your language, it would be difficult to present your ideas rather than… the way you present the ideas written by others." The difference in field also helps to explain why a master's student in biology, Luma, had such a different response. Luma reported that improving her source-use practices in English was simply a matter of reading and practicing more: "I have difficulties in reading, understanding and writing in my way. To represent it in my way, also, but I can cover it by reading more and more and more, so it's become so easy for me to… writing now in English and talking also in English than before four years." Rana had more than Luma's four years of  experience in practicing English in her discipline (Rana had taught English to school children and studied English intensely as an undergraduate), yet Rana still had many doubts about her ability to write effectively in it for her master's thesis. Luma, on the other hand, described writing in English as "so easy." Differences in disciplinary expectations help to explain why Rana, whose social science readers likely expect more variety and a larger scope in vocabulary and knowledge, had less confidence than her biologist counterpart.

Learning to Use Sources Effectively Across Disciplines

Meaningful Tasks

Participants said that they learned best when they felt that they could contribute to the conversation, in part by responding to the sources that they used in their writing. Geisler (1994) has described the development of academic literacy as moving from understanding texts as autonomous to thinking about them as rhetorical and about writing them as a rhetorical process. Participants' experiences confirm Geisler's theory, demonstrating that being able to respond to, and sometimes criticize, texts about which they write is an important step in scholarly development. Dr. Huda answered my questions about learning to write from sources by describing a pivotal moment in her education that reveals the importance of meaningful tasks and critical engagement with texts. She began by telling me that she was a quiet, nervous student who never participated in class discussion when she first began her Ph.D. studies in the U.S. but that she overcame her nervousness one day in a theory class when an article by Levi-Strauss angered her so much that she had to speak up:

It was about, it was an article. I still remember it. It's… written by Strauss, Levi-Strauss… about the Berber house in Morocco, and he was describing the Berber house, and while I was reading… the descriptions [were] almost the same as the Bedouin way of life, which I know very well. So the… structuralism way of putting things together to prove his theory, he was making a lot of mistakes… And he wanted to prove that the women there were really living in a very bad conditions…but by the end of this article I discovered that he wasn't, he interviewed only one man, and from this one man he took all his idea and put it in the article, and there are other things [that] indicate in the article that the women were the, one the ones who were, who were having the economy of the house… And things like that… So I went to the class the second day. I listened to everybody, and everybody was like everybody was saying how good this article is and stuff like that, and…how the structuralism could be applied really well… I was listening until they finished and then I raised my hand. When I raised my hand, my professor he was like, he couldn't believe that I raised my hand after two months… And I said, okay, and I started… and I was really mad about everything, and this is the first time I spoke in the class. And from there, I started speaking…even though my, my professors used to all the time since I got to Arizona, they were telling me "speak up, speak up," they were always saying that, but always I had, I found it hard until that day when I got really angry.

Dr. Huda's vivid recollection confirms research, such as Geisler's, arguing that readers engage with texts once they view them as open for debate, an activity that often coincides with students' ability to relate the content of the text to their lives.

Throughout the interviews, participants referred to the importance of feeling invested in their research topic and believing that it benefited a community to which they belonged.  Badr, a recent graduate of a master's program in comparative literature, emphasized his need to contribute something new to the academic discussion in his discipline. For his master's thesis, he had written a comparison of Moby Dick and an Arabic novel that contains many references to the sea. The Arabic text had never been translated, and Badr found little research on it. As a result, he felt his analysis of the text and his translations of it were meaningful contributions to his field: "Just you want to find something that you can contribute. You must have your sort of contribution, right, and something novel. Right, something new."  Badr's use of sources reflected this investment. He described looking for texts from different time periods, incorporating texts from different and often contradictory standpoints in order to "enrich" his thesis and present a "complete image."

Tardy's (2005) case study of two NNESs who acquired knowledge through "high-stakes tasks" (p. 329) outside the classroom, including conference papers, reinforces the importance of meaningful and authentic tasks. Other scholars echo this conclusion, arguing that writing instructors of L2 students should develop activities that ask students to behave and think as academics working in the disciplines who draw on their own knowledge and experiences to engage critically with texts (Arndt, 1987; Blanton, 1998).  Flowerdew (2000) has argued based on a review of literature and his own case study research that "the sort of knowledge that is required in order to be accepted by the discourse community in scholarly writing is not usually acquired in the formal setting of a classroom" but instead is learned and maintained through participating in the discourse community—which, for professors, often means contributing to scholarly journals (p. 131).

When I asked participants to describe how they learned to integrate sources in literature reviews, many participants talked about their master's theses, the first meaningful and high stakes task in which they participated. Dr. Hasan explained:

But when it comes to the master's thesis, it was really difficult because if you have 150 references, and you want to summarize in less than 20-25 pages or what those people did in relation to what you are going to do, and what are the venues or opportunities for future research based on this literature, rather than your work. Then it was really difficult, but it was an eye opening experience that you need to sweat before getting something done.

Other participants' experiences confirmed Dr. Hasan's belief in the importance of struggle and "sweat" in learning academic writing. In Rana's case, I saw this first hand as we worked on her literature review together. During one of our three meetings, Rana described her trouble in organizing her literature review:

I think that he [her advisor] wanted… to have a… classification for our study. I did not find, or can't find, how can I classify these studies [in the literature review]? I put it I, I ordered chronologically, and he said that this would not reflect your understanding of your studies. Try to classify it with another class, with another classification. I did not. I can't find. Because the most important things they focused on is the chronological development of research on this area.

After my last interview with Rana, we discussed her troubles with reorganizing her literature review. I suggested that she group studies on similar topics together, rather than studies performed at similar times.  She said she had tried this once, but it hadn't worked; she couldn't find a logical way to classify the studies based on topic. After reading her literature review, I agreed that many of the studies overlapped in terms of topic, but after she talked through different ways of organizing them with me, she finally found a method based on topic rather than chronology that satisfied her.

My discussion with Rana's about her literature review illuminated for me the complexities of Rana's language negotiations. Although Rana worked to write "correct" English-language prose, she was primarily concerned with meeting the rhetorical needs of her local audience—her professor, a second-language English speaker who focused his comments not on standardized correctness but on content and organization. This case demonstrates how representing periphery academics as having a writing process defined primarily by the writers' ability to produce idiomatic, standardized Anglo-American English paints an incomplete picture and ignores the variety of ways these writers define effective English.

Mentoring and Building a Social Network

Participants often described strategies for writing from sources that they had learned from mentors, usually their advisors. Dr. Hasan described how he writes summaries for all the articles he reads, a technique he learned from his advisor. First he decides "which are the main ideas that I think that this article features, or some sort to reference to what's inside the article that I think is interesting or needs to be elaborated or thought more about it. This was when my advisor's help was very good. The other thing is to split the articles themselves into different areas." Mentors helped not only by giving advice but also by encouraging students to act as the final authority in their writing. Aisha's experiences illustrate the importance of helping student writers to maintain ownership of their texts. She described how one of her thesis readers had told her to use more verbs and make her sentences shorter; she said that although this was a good recommendation, she didn't find these suggestions particularly useful because they "ended by writing the sentences by him." She preferred when advisors, such as the one described below, left the final decision to change the text to her:

That was really great because first he believed in my writing. This is important. When he wants to change my writing, he gives me the choice: either I change it or not. Which means my sentence is correct, but I can write it in another way if I wish…My supervisor actually, he wrote a sentence beside mine and he's telling me if I would like to change it I have to press this button because it was edited by computer. If not, I have just to press cancel…and it will be deleted, and I will keep my sentence as it is. I like this way. I like this way because this gives you a feeling that this work is a sharing.

Aisha's comments suggest that leaving the final decision to her was an effective approach: she saw this technique as "sharing" the writing process with her advisor, rather than her supervisor dictating the one correct way to write. Not only does the approach appeal to motivated and self-confident students such as Aisha, it also promotes a rhetorical view of writing—what's right may change from situation to situation—and helps a novice writer to move from the role of a student following a teacher's rules to one of independent scholar. 

Much of the participants' academic writing development occurred in the context of the type of "academic social network" that Ferenz (2005) has argued helps L2 students acquire advanced academic literacy (p. 345). Ferenz (2005) has described the value of discussing in the target academic language ideas and texts with graduate students and professors outside of class and the importance of meaningful and specific responses on writing from mentors—activities that allow students to build social networks with colleagues from their discipline. The importance of participation in a social network outside of formal classrooms should come as no surprise, as our ability to use a discourse relies more on acquisition through practice and exposure than on explicit teaching (Gee, 1989a & b). The data from professors suggest that building this social network not only helps students master English for their discipline but it also facilitates their professional advancement; many professors in my study still relied on former supervisors and colleagues to respond to their research, collaborate with them, and assist them in assessing sources and research equipment.

Student participants sometimes looked to people other than their supervisors for guidance and mentoring, a phenomenon that again points to the need for an academic social network. Rana mentioned a professor who shared similar research interests as someone who had helped her a great deal, and Abeer received mentoring from across the globe, communicating with a retired scholar in her field who lived in Oklahoma. Mentors such as these had the potential to do more than help students improve their ability to write from sources; they provided students access to difficult-to-find sources. Abeer's mentor in Oklahoma sent her articles and pointed her to other relevant sources, and Aisha was very thankful for her lab research advisor in Germany, also an L2 speaker of English, who recommended and quickly located important written sources, as well as materials for her lab.

Rana's struggle with her literature review, as described earlier, reiterates the importance of a social network when a mentor is unavailable to help. Although her mentor suggested that she use a different organizing logic for the studies in her literature review, he didn't offer a specific suggestion on how to connect the studies. I am not sure why her mentor neglected this. I suspect that he was too busy with his heavy teaching load and research expectations to spend the time discussing different options with her. However, during our interview it was clear that Rana wanted to share her ideas with someone in her field. With my background in second language education, Rana's field, I was an appropriate peer, part of her "network." Our discussion of her literature review reminded me of a typical writing center session, with me acting as a peer tutor, listening as she created categories and fitted paragraphs she had written into them. Having the opportunity to talk through ideas in English with someone within her discipline and building a connection in her academic social network helped Rana revise her literature review in a way that satisfied both her and her advisor (I learned later that her literature review was approved).

Other Source-use Strategies: Cumulative Reading and Models

According to the participants, through the guidance of mentors and engagement in high-stakes, meaningful tasks, they acquired academic literacy in English and learned specific strategies for writing from sources. Many participants described their approach to source-use as a matter of constant and cumulative reading on their research topics and of organizing new information. They read and kept summaries of articles and spent time classifying them. Many professors described doing this on a regular basis, while master's students began to do this only when preparing for writing their theses. Dr. Hasan described his transition from a master's student to a professor in terms of using sources:

You need to be able to summarize and find what's common, find what's different between all those publications and try to write it in your own words... which was really difficult because in the bachelor's degree we, we are used to writing reports but it's mostly lab reports. It is some sort of a 15, 20 pages document, and most of it is written in the lab sheets.

Like most of the other participants, Dr. Hasan could not articulate exactly how he learned to incorporate sources successfully. However, again echoing most participants, Dr. Hasan described writing and rewriting drafts with feedback from mentors in his field and improving more and more as he did this until he needed the mentor's support less and less. Basima, a master's student in education, believed that reading widely in her field improved her thesis: the more she read, the more she understood the topic:

When you understand the topic, this… will give you more to be, to generate more information, to elaborate by your own, using your own words. Because I read a lot, I understand the topic, so I can write now. Understanding the topic is an important thing. Knowing what to write, what you want, what is the purpose of writing. This is the important thing.

When asked how they paraphrased, the writers all emphasized the importance of reading and re-reading sources. In most cases, participants talked about it in terms of reading multiple sources, not just the ones that they might need to cite. This suggests the need to understand a source within a larger context before paraphrasing it. Rana described her process: "First of all I read them, all of them. I get the general overview and start to, to formalize the new ideas and structure them in my own words." Aisha's description echoes Rana's but emphasizes even more the importance of reading sources in a larger context:

For each topic, if I want to speak for instance about splattering, I really read about it in all the cases. I read four to six books about the same topic and I mix the sentences that I want from all the books. Depending on the information that I need, the process or method explanation, the building of the structure of the sentence of the sentence, um, yeah, depending on several things. And depending on the reference that I would like to refer to because some references in this point is more important than others. And I mix them in one paragraph and structure them again using my own words.

Although the strategy of constant and cumulative reading may seem obvious to people engaged in academic research, it is not obvious to beginning master's students. The need to read widely also suggests the importance of acquiring the cognitive processes of a discourse community, education in Rana's case, by exposure to and immersion in its literacies. Thus, to write like a teacher-researcher, Rana first needs to learn to think like a teacher-researcher in part by reading widely to acquire the appropriate patterns of logic and rhetoric.

Besides mentoring, authentic tasks, and cumulative reading, participants also found models useful in learning to write from sources. Although Dr. Dima wished she had had a class or a mentor to help her learn to use and document sources correctly, she learned what she needed by following a model—an article published in the journal to which she planned to submit. Although this strategy worked, she described the process of following a model as "difficult":

So the first time, it, it was… hell… It is complicated… and it is different also from one journal to another that you sometimes, you have to… have good eyes to check everything. And to compare, okay, those they have to be between brackets, comma should be here and then for this reference it should be written this way.

Although she learned through models, I can't help but suspect that with a mentor's help, this process would have been much less "difficult." Models for source use seem to vary depending on context. Many master's students described finding models for theses and literature reviews in the theses written by previous years' students in their department: "If I find articles, I will choose and read and take something if it is necessary for my study. Sometimes I go to the library, I go to thesis center, and I start, even if these are not of my concern, to… read. I ask, this is about teacher training?... I have some look about the thesis and how it was written" (Rana). By using other second-language speakers' writing as models, participants again remind us that composition's privileging of idiomatic American or British English does not always serve writers who compose for an audience of other multilingual periphery writers.

Conclusion: an Argument for WAC for Writers of World Englishes

The findings of the study challenged many of the assumptions research—and lore—suggest about periphery scholars' attitudes about and experiences with English. Participants focused less on their second-language speaker and non-Western status when discussing writing from sources and more on their level of expertise and on the expectations within their specific fields. Participants, graduate students, and full professors often described their English-language level as the least of their concerns. Instead, they talked about the challenges they faced learning the new genres of their fields. Their responses also suggest that differing expectations for writing in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences affected how they learned to use sources. Despite these differences, however, participants across the disciplines seemed to share much in common in terms of their learning processes. Across disciplines, participants described learning to use sources through tasks that were meaningful personally and within their chosen fields. And while they discussed course work that helped with this learning process, they spoke more, and at more length, about learning these practices through relationships with mentors in their fields. The findings also speak to the complex nature of linguistic identification and disciplinary expertise in a World Englishes context. Participants identified both native-speaking and non-native speaking writers as mentors, looking often to non-native speakers as experts in their fields and seeking their help to write for an audience of other non-native speakers, both locally and internationally.

Overall, the study results suggest that in a world of trans-global culture, the line between native and non-native becomes less important than the divide between expert and novice, or, as Swales has termed it, junior and senior researcher. According to the participants, the language of communication may be English, but the community is international, and native-speaking status is not taken for granted, nor required to attest to the quality of research. The participants who published described journal editors who were not concerned with L2 "errors," as long as the research was solid. While some early research (and much lore) attributes multilingual and multicultural students' struggles with source use to cultural differences and language barriers, my research suggests that other factors are equally, if not more, salient. Similar to any writers, multilingual writers need experience with the language and rhetorical expectations to write effectively from sources. And the language with which they need experience is not necessarily the English spoken and written by "center" or "inner-circle" scholars.

Mastery over standardized English is not a prerequisite for advanced academic writing: all learners in a discipline need a chance to grapple with the complexities of writing meaningful prose, including research-based prose, early on in their careers. Zamel (1995) has drawn similar conclusions about the needs of student writers in her study of over 300 faculty members and students. She argued that

What ESL students need—multiple opportunities to use language and write-to-learn, course work which draws on and values what students already know, classroom exchanges and assignments that promote the acquisition of unfamiliar language, concepts, and approaches to inquiry, evaluation that allows students to demonstrate genuine understanding—is good pedagogy for everyone. (pp. 518-519)

Like Zamel, I see much overlap in effective composition pedagogy for students who would describe English as a second or non-native language and those who would not.

Most significantly, the study has implications for mentoring and creating an authentic academic social network in a context in which L2 writers negotiate among multiple languages and Englishes. Effective mentors as described by this study's participants were both local and distant, native and non-native speakers. Mentors also included experts at the particular, often localized, version of academic English that the participants' unique situations required. In some cases, participants had multiple mentors, some native-speakers who lived far away and other local, non-native speakers. Overall, the study reminds us that World English users work within a dynamic academic social network, defining effective source use practices—and effective writing in general—for audiences much more diverse than an idealized (and outdated) one of native English speakers in the West.


APPENDIX A: Participant Chart

Name Gender Discipline

Highest degree
or current program

Most current
institutional affiliation
Country of study
for highest degree
Abeer F Biology MA (writing thesis) JUST Jordan Student
Aisha F Chemical Engineering MSc Univ. of Jordan Jordan Applying to Ph.D. Programs
Aliyah F Engineering MSc Univ. of Jordan Jordan Student
Dr. Ayman M Management Science Ph.D. Univ. of Jordan U.K. Professor
Badr M Comparative Literature
MA Univ. of Jordan/
Amman Univ.
Jordan Univ. Instructor
Dr. Bashar M Education/TEFL Ph.D. Univ. of Jordan U.K. Professor
Basima F Education/TEFL MA (writing thesis) Univ. of Jordan Jordan Student
Dr. Dima F Biology/Water Science Ph.D. Univ of Jordan Netherlands Researcher
Ghadda F Biology MSc (writing thesis) Univ of Jordan Jordan Student
Dr. Huda F Archaeology PH.D. Univ. of Jordan U.S. Professor
Dr. Hasan M Engineering Ph.D. Univ. of Jordan U.S. Professor
Dr. Imad M Archaeology Ph.D. Rural College U.K. Professor
Dr. Leila F History Ph.D. Educational Foundation U.S. Director, Educational Organization
Lena F Biology MSc (writing thesis) Univ. of Jordan Jordan Student
Luma F Biology MSc (writing thesis) Univ. of Jordan Jordan Student
R. Mai F Archaeology Ph.D. Yarmouk Univ. Germany Professor
Dr. Munir M Education/TEFL Ph.D. Univ. of Jordan U.S. Professor
Rana F EducationTEFL MA (writing thesis) Univ. of Jordan Jordan Teacher/Student
Rehab F Biology MSc (writing thesis) Univ. of Jordan Jordan Student
Sabreen F Urban Planning MA (writing thesis) Sharia University United Arab Emirates Student
Dr. Samir M Geology MSc National Resources Authority U.K. Administrator in government agency
Dr. Sulyman M Architecture Ph.D. JUST U.S. Professor
Dr. Yusef M Biology Ph.D. Medical Center U.S. Director at a Medical Center

APPENDIX B: Interview Questions

  1. What do you consider your first academic language?
  2. Do you prefer to write in Arabic or English? Why?
  3. Flowerdew (1999b) writes: "In this era of globalization, to publish in a language other than English is to cut oneself off from the international community of scholars, on the one hand, and to prejudice one's chances of professional advancement, on the other (124)" Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  4. A Linguist Hazem Yousef Najjar (1990) wrote that in "the Arab World, and in the sciences in particular, we find that English is the overwhelming language of scholarly publication." Do you agree or disagree? Why? There are lots of opinions about why there are so few scholarly publications in Arabic. Why do you think this is? Is it political? Economic? Geographic? Something about Arabic grammar/ rhetoric?
  5. What do you consider your first academic piece of writing in English?
  6. Can you describe it?
  7. What made it "academic"?
  8. What was the hardest part about writing this piece?
  9. The easiest part?
  10. Do you remember how you cited or documented sources? Did you follow a style?
  11. Can you describe the sources you used and how you used them?
  12. What kind of academic writing are you currently doing or have recently been doing? Can you describe your most recent piece of written scholarship in English?
  13. What was the hardest part about writing this piece?
  14. The easiest part?
  15. How did you use/ cite sources?
  16. If it was refereed article, what was the most negative/ least helpful comment you received from reviewers?
  17. The most positive?
  18. Have you ever written academically in a language other than English?
  19. What was the easiest part of writing the piece?
  20. The hardest part?
  21. What was the most positive/ helpful comment you received from reviewers/ graduate advisor?
  22. The most negative/ least helpful?
  23. Are there differences between using sources in English and using them in your other academic language/s?
  24. Can you describe the differences?
  25. Do you see any other significant obstacles to your ability to publish/ write for international English-language scholarly journals?
  26. When was the first time you heard about plagiarism?
  27. Can you describe the context and how you felt?
  28. Do you worry about plagiarism? When? Why?
  29. For senior scholars: Another linguist (Swales) says that the distinction between native and non-native scholars is not as important as the divide between junior and senior scholars. What do you think?
  30. Would you like to stay informed about my data analysis and research findings and have an opportunity to respond to them? If yes, how should I contact you?


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[1] Similar versions of the methodology section and appendices in this study were published in "Negotiating Cultural Identities through Language: Academic English in Jordan" in College Composition and Communication, 62.2 (December 2010).

Contact Information

Complete APA Citation

Pedersen, Anne-Marie (2011, March 15). Writing across languages, disciplines, and sources: Second language writers in Jordan. Across the Disciplines, 8(1). Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/pedersen2011.cfm