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Early in the spring 2024 semester, the English for International Students (EIS) program at The Graduate School offered a new course in partnership with the Duke International Student Center (DISC) and the Office of Global Affairs (OGA).

While previous EIS courses have supported graduate and professional students in growing their skills in academic and professional English, this new course offering was unique in that it focused more on conversational English and opened its doors to a broader international community.  

How It Started: A Three-Way Collaboration

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Headshots of Brad Teague, Eve Duffy, and Kevin D'Arco
According to Duffy, Teague (top) supplied "the vision" for this EIS course, and both Duffy (left) and D'Arco (right) were happy to jump in and lend their insights and resources.

“I noticed that Duke lacked structured language support for postdocs, visiting scholars, and spouses or partners whose first language is not English,” says Brad Teague, assistant dean and director of EIS. “Duke welcomes a large international population, and I felt it was important to provide free or low-cost on-campus language services to help this group thrive.”

All three programs/offices (EIS, DISC, and OGA) worked closely to brainstorm and implement the new course, each offering “important resources that have been critical to the course’s success,” according to Teague.

“The Graduate School’s EIS program provides highly-trained language instructors and a strong curriculum,” says Teague. “As a hub for all of Duke’s international communities, DISC has been instrumental in ensuring that the course is well-advertised to our target group. OGA supports campus programming with an international focus and has made the course possible through generous funding.”

Kevin D’Arco, senior associate dean of international students at DISC, says that “there wasn’t a course like this that existed at Duke, as far as we know.”

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"What Does OGA Do?" infographic
Some funding opportunities offered by OGA are the Duke Student Passport Fund, Global Student Research Fund, and Course Enhancement Grants.

“We’re developing conversational skills, confidence, and community for those participating in this course,” says D’Arco. “And it’s been such a positive partnership between the three offices. We were all able to come together and get behind something that we all felt would be a net positive for the community.”

Eve Duffy, associate vice provost for global affairs at OGA, describes this “net positive” for the international community as “a deeper and more meaningful experience while living in Durham or the Triangle.” Moreover, Communications Specialist Charles Givens says that OGA is glad to pitch in with this and other initiatives, since “a rising tide lifts all ships”—meaning that the whole Duke community stands to benefit from these kinds of collaborations.

“We want our office to be primarily collaborative,” says Givens, pointing out a number of OGA funding opportunities for students, faculty, and staff. “We hope that this sparks the imagination of other schools, offices, and departments to collaborate for the greater good.”

Inside the Classroom: Learning Language and Culture

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Three women participate in small-group discussion
Small-group discussion is crucial in this EIS course so that participants can gain hands-on experience and learn to navigate nuance. Meanings and usages of colloquial expressions and social norms "are not 100%," says Dresser. "These are trends, these are my interpretations."

EIS Instructor Craig Dresser, who has been a teacher for 14 years, led the non-academic, not-for-credit course across the first half of the spring 2024 semester. Dresser described the class as “very student-led,” which he found exciting.

“Everyone was there because they want to be,” said Dresser. “That was their sole motivation for being here—they wanted to learn something. There’s a real energy that comes from that.”

The format of the class was relaxed, alternating between large class discussions and small groups. Much of the conversation dealt with unpacking colloquial or idiomatic English phrases, navigating the “poetic” uses of language, and acclimating to social and cultural norms, including appropriate topics for small talk.

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Class participants listen attentively and take notes
During class discussion, Dresser points out that idioms change over time or depending on context/medium. For example, the expression “(to make a) long story short” becomes “tl;dr” on the internet.

Of course, in the real world, norms can differ from room to room and person to person—something that Dresser did not shy away from addressing. For example, he acknowledged that the landscape of gender roles is something that shifts with time and that this can be tricky when deciding how best to address someone.

“We don’t have a distinction for whether a man is married or not. But we do for women (‘Mrs.’ versus ‘Ms.’), so it’s a bit uneven,” said Dresser. “Some people might prefer not to be called ‘Mrs.’”

Dresser shaped this never-before-offered class around “the things they wanted to know about,” responding to questions and themes that participants recalled from their readings and encounters.

For their part, the class participants were equally excited as well as appreciative, expressing their hopes that the course might become a standard feature here at Duke. Hear it in their own words:

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Round headshot of Gu Sup Kang

Gu Sup Kang

Visiting Scholar in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

“I am delighted to be participating in this course where I not only improve my English skills but also gain insights into US society. I am also very happy to have a chance to meet lots of researchers from various countries. I hope to have similar chances for English courses in the future.”

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Round headshot of Soon-Woo Cho

Soon-Woo Cho

Postdoctoral Researcher in Biomedical Engineering

“This class teaches US culture, including some casual expressions and pronunciation. The most impressive component is the US culture and understanding it as a melting pot.”

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Round headshot of Jeehyun Lee

Jeehyun Lee

Spouse of Visiting Scholar

“Our teacher, Craig, diligently prepared for each class and asked students about their preferences before starting, incorporating them into the lessons. Through this course, I learned new English expressions and, more importantly, practical tips on how they are used in real life, unlike what I had seen in books. It was a valuable opportunity to not only improve my language skills but also gain insights into American culture. If such English courses are offered in the future, I would actively participate.”

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Headshot of Lalita Mazgaeen

Lalita Mazgaeen

Postdoctoral Associate in Integrative Immunology

“As an introverted person, I am often super self‐aware when speaking English. However, the class environment, where I witnessed everyone actively participating in group activities and striving to give their best efforts, encouraged me to engage without hesitation. For me, this class was not just about learning the English language; it was a transformative experience that enabled me to develop a sense of comfort in interacting with others and expressing my perspectives with confidence.”

Future Plans: Can This Course Become a Staple?

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Headshot of Craig Dresser
Reflecting on his experiences so far in his first year at Duke, Dresser says he feels very aligned with the goals of The Graduate School

Fortunately, there are already plans to offer the course again this summer, but in a condensed form: the class will meet twice a week for four weeks after spring classes end. As Kevin D’Arco from DISC explains, this revised template takes into account that international folks often use the summer as an opportunity to travel home.

“If they know they’re going to be here in May and June, perhaps if they or their partner is finishing up a research project, they can add this course and still be able to go home after,” D’Arco adds. “It also makes sense for families with kids in Durham Public Schools, which run until mid-June.”

As for an eight-week course offered in the fall or spring semester, Teague, D’Arco, and Duffy—the powerhouse of the collaboration between EIS, DISC, and OGA—are hopeful that the success of the initial class will warrant a repeat. With any luck, and with continued collaboration, this innovative course just might become a staple.

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Sign Up for Summer Course!

If you’re an international postdoc, visiting scholar, or spouse/partner and are interested in the four-week summer class, please contact Brad Teague at brad.teague@duke.edu for more information.

Header image: four EIS course participants engage in small-group discussion. This image was slightly enhanced with Photoshop AI.