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Brokering practices among international EAL students at a New Zealand university

The numbers of international students enrolled in higher education in Anglophone countries have increased in the past decade, with the majority of students originating from Asian countries such as China. While it is in the interest of these universities to support international students during their study, there is a tendency for institutions to view students’ learning in a deficit mode, for example, characterising students in terms of their limited English proficiency. Many studies of students for whom English is an additional language (EAL) are situated in formal instructional contexts that privilege Western academic norms, an environment which constrains students’ agency. In order to make visible the agency of international EAL students, as well as to contribute to the limited research on students’ informal academic learning, this study set out to examine a phenomenon in cross-cultural contexts known as brokering. Brokering refers to help-seeking social interactions, where students seek assistance with unfamiliar academic texts and practices from brokers who are able to bridge knowledge gaps. A multi-methodological approach underpinned by a social constructionist paradigm was used to investigate the nature of brokering practices among 10 first-year, international EAL students, nine of whom were ethnic Chinese, at one New Zealand university. The study employed focused ethnography, where regular semi-structured interviews were conducted during students’ initial 15-week semester. Records of brokering interactions associated with three key informants were also collected in the form of audio-recorded observations and screenshots of instant message exchanges on mobile phones. The data analysis was informed by brokering-related concepts from sociology and studies on immigrant communities, as well as conversation analytical concepts such as epistemic asymmetry, and politeness theories in pragmatics. The study found that participants sought brokers among peers and non-peers for their academic needs. Brokering practices encompassed language brokering, literacy brokering, and resource brokering, with each type of brokering addressing particular aspects of academic learning. Unlike non-peer brokering, which was typically facilitated by English-speaking staff, peer brokering mostly took place in homophilous interactions, that is, between those of similar ethno-lingual backgrounds. Peer brokering relationships were also found to be valued not only for instrumental action in terms of obtaining knowledge, but also for expressive action in terms of engaging in shared sentiment. The analysis of the key informants’ brokering interactions further demonstrated how agency was enacted through the seekers’ maintenance and negotiation of relative knowledge positions, which was supported by politeness and face-management strategies. Peer brokering dynamics afforded greater scope for student agency, while the hierarchical social relations in non-peer brokering did not. By integrating theoretical frameworks from different disciplines, this thesis has provided a unique conceptual lens for understanding international EAL students’ academic-related brokering practices. It has also highlighted the need for international education practitioners to be sensitive to first-year international students’ needs for culturally appropriate support. The thesis concludes that if institutions are aware of international EAL students’ brokering practices, and take on a brokering role themselves, they will better serve the intercultural goals of international education.
Type of thesis
Lee, S. (2019). Brokering practices among international EAL students at a New Zealand university (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12304
The University of Waikato
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