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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning




Students’ participation in a new academic discourse community does not necessarily lead them to progressively integrate with the community. Thus, it is crucial to pay close attention to the obstacles to students’ increasing their participation, focusing on unsuccessful cases. From this perspective, this chapter deals with how two Japanese exchange students discontinued their one-academic-year studies at an Australian host university. On the basis of the concept of legitimate peripheral participation, an investigation was made about the discursive processes in which they managed their academic tasks in conjunction with their participation in class and their social participation in the wider host community.

The data collection procedures, including a diary study, interviews with students, and a collection of written documents, allowed me to triangulate the data and to present a thick ethnographic description. The findings illustrate that the students’ participation in the Australian academic context can frequently change as a result of their development of goals, motivational investments, social networks, and academic management. The multifaceted analyses of these interplaying components of participation further lead me to identify various cognitive and sociocultural factors affecting the developmental processes of participation. This chapter reveals that the two incomplete cases occurred in relation to the students’ unsuccessful transfer of their previous knowledge and skills, failure to evaluate their management strategies, insufficient negotiation of identities, and limited establishment of situations where they could position themselves favourably.


As a result of globalisation of tertiary education, university academic contexts have increasingly involved contact situations where multiple academic cultures are found. Thus, there has been a growing need to view intercultural academic participation in terms of students’ development of contact competence which allows them to manage these situations. Such competence is to be developed in relation to students’ growing acquisition of discourse and increasing involvement in a host discourse community. However, belonging to a certain community does not necessarily guarantee progressive participation and the development of contact competence, in that various obstacles to becoming fuller participants exist in academic contact situations (cf. Duff, this volume; Kanno 1999; Toohey 1998, 1999). Investigation thus needs to be made about how the obstacles prevent students from increasing their participation and at times result in them discontinuing their studies. Despite a number of empirical studies of students’ cross-cultural academic adjustment, few research studies have analysed the processes of students’ incomplete participation, mainly because students who discontinue their participation become unavailable to take part in research. The in-depth ethnographic approach, which my study utilises, covers such a shortcoming. It enables an exploration of two incomplete cases out of six Japanese exchange students’ participation in academic contact situations at their Australian host university. In particular, this chapter reports on the processes in which the two participants failed to develop their participation and the socio-cognitive factors, which affected their developmental processes of participation.1


Studies of academic discourse have increasingly considered academic texts as socially constructed by individuals, by their learning communities, their power relations with others, and their audience and goals (Duff, this volume). Thus, it seems that students’ developmental processes of academic participation should be examined in relation to the situated nature of learning. On the basis of Vygotskian notions of the sociality of learning (Vygotsky 1978), recent work has attempted to investigate language learning as a socioculturally situated social practice (Norton and Toohey 2002). Norton and Toohey explain that this approach originates in ‘a shift from seeing learners as individual language producers to seeing them as members of social and historical collectives’ (Norton and Toohey 2002: 119). This perspective of the situated nature of learning leads to the concept of situated learning or cognition, which emphasises learning through activities in the situations embedded in a certain community (cf. Berkenkotter 1991; Brown et al. 1989; Flower 1989; Flower et al. 1990; Lave and Wenger 1991; Rogoff 1991; Wenger 1998). The concept stresses that to understand what is learned is to see how it is learned within the activity context (Wilson and Myers 2000: 71). Hence, knowledge is not absolute but can only be defined in relation to a specific situation or context (Tyre and Von Hippel 1997). Brown et al. (1989) explicated how to learn knowledge in a certain community, referring to conceptual knowledge as similar to a set of tools, in that both knowledge and tools can only be fully understood through use. Knowledge is thus regarded as reciprocally constructed within the individual-environmental interaction rather than objectively defined or subjectively created (Barab and Duffy 2000). The theory of situated learning thus allows us to examine learning through the processes of individuals acquiring and using knowledge in socially situated activities.

Situated learning or cognition has been further elaborated through Lave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP), which represents the multiple ways in which apprentices participate in a variety of social situations that are embedded in a certain community. Legitimacy of participation constitutes a defining characteristic of ways of belonging that is not only a crucial condition for learning, but also a constitutive element of its content. Only with legitimacy can newcomers’ inevitable stumblings and violations become opportunities for learning rather than cause for dismissal, neglect, or exclusion (Lave and Wenger 1991: 101).

Peripherality suggests that there are multiple or varied ways in which a learner or an apprentice is located in the fields of participation, as defined by a community. The term peripherality is positively used since it suggests, ‘an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 37). Flowerdew (2000) further elucidates the concept of peripherality, noting that peripheral participation means that participants, who are not central but are on the margins of the activity in question, acquire knowledge through their involvement with it. Lave and Wenger stress that given the complex, differentiated nature of communities, the end point of centripetal participation in a community of practice should not be limited to a uniform or univocal ‘centre’, or a linear notion of skill acquisition.

The concept of LPP thus encourages the view that communities are composed of participants who differentially engage with the practices of their communities, and that this engagement or participation in practice constitutes learning (Norton and Toohey 2002). Instead of focusing on the mind of the learner, involving the production of knowledge and acquisition of linguistic or rhetorical structures, the concept looks at the learner’s interaction with the lived-in world, the community in which the learner seeks membership, and how active the learner’s participation is, rather than regarding the learner as a passive recipient (Belcher 1994). From this perspective, Norton and Toohey (2002) suggest that educational research focus not so much on assessing individual uptake of particular knowledge or skills as on the social structures in particular communities and on the variety of positionings available for learners to occupy in those communities.


This study employs Lave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of LPP as a conceptual framework, while allowing for criticisms of LPP, which indicate that the concept is an ambitious and still-evolving approach to understanding learning in both its individual and social aspects (cf. Kirshner and Whitson 1998). The concept of LPP downplays the fact that all novice members cannot be regarded as equal, in that some non-native-background students may be full participants of the community while many others might remain at the margins (cf. Kanno 1999; Toohey 1998, 1999). Toohey (1998) stresses that conceptualising L2 learning as a process of moving from being an outsider to being an insider is much too simplistic. In her study of children in a kindergarten community in 1996, the participants were inside by virtue of their presence in the classroom as legitimate peripheral participants, but inside was not a place wherein participants moved inexorably toward fuller and more powerful participation (Toohey 1998). Kanno (1999) has also indicated that, except for the relationship between graduate scholars and their supervisors, students’ participation in intercultural academic settings does not involve a kind of apprenticeship as the standard mode of learning. In fact, her study showed that learners were often blocked physically and mentally from opportunities to interact with native speakers, which was vital to their acquisition of the L2 (Kanno 1999). Furthermore, from a broader perspective, some researchers have pointed out obstacles to understanding cognition as situated, claiming that the concept of situated cognition little discusses internal representations and needs more development of the cognitive aspects to describe subjectivity in addition to its social dimension (cf. Anderson et al. 1996; Kirshner and Whitson 1998; St. Julien 1997; Wilson and Myers 2000).

Given the above limitations of the concept of LPP, my investigation of students’ intercultural academic participation needs to carefully allow for the students’ positionings in social contexts and the cognitive aspects of the process of students’ adjustments to a new discourse community. In particular, as in Kanno’s (1999) and Toohey’s (1998) studies, apprenticeship is not normally provided in most of the courses in which Japanese exchange students enrol, and we can assume that becoming a fuller participant in the host academic community is difficult for them. Despite such limitations, the concept of LPP is still useful in that it enables this study to direct attention to students’ management of participation in relation not only to frequently changing social positionings but also to the variety of social situations in which they participate. Consideration of the limitations of LPP allows this study to incorporate the role of context in learning into the individual cognitive processes of intercultural academic participation and to identify obstacles to students’ increasing participation.



From a case study of six Japanese exchange students, this chapter focuses on two Japanese exchange students, one male and one female (with the pseudonyms of Shingo and Chie) who were enrolled at an Australian university (AU) between March and July, 2002. As shown in Table 1 below, Shingo was a fourth-year student at his home university and majored in Economics. Chie was in her third year of an undergraduate course in the Department of International Studies. The official minimum scores required for exchange students’ enrolment at AU were TOEFL 550 with a TWE (Test of Written English) score of 5.0, TOEFL-CBT (Computer Based Testing) 213 with an ER (Essay Rating) score of 5.0, or the IELTS 6.0 with Writing 6.0. Shingo was accepted with his TOEFL score of 550 with TWE 4.0, whereas Chie’s score was TOEFL 560 with TWE 4.0. It seems that the university flexibly assessed the scores for the writing tests, because the scores that these participants obtained in these tests were below the minimum requirements.


Table 1 Profiles of the two Japanese exchange students

The number of credit points they needed to graduate from their home universities is shown in Table 1: 10 in the case of Shingo (necessitating him to enrol in three more subjects) and 15 for Chie (equalling eight subjects). Based on the exchange agreement between AU and its overseas partner universities, the credits, which the students obtained at AU, are basically transferable to their home institutions. Shingo planned to graduate in Japan within the four-year regular term of study since he aimed to advance to the Masters course the following year. Thus, he needed to complete three subjects at AU at least to cover the points equivalent to 10 credit points at his home university. Although Chie needed to enrol in eight subjects and obtain another 15 points for graduation, she planned to take five years to graduate and thus was not motivated to transfer all the credits she obtained at the host university back to her home institution.

The participants’ study abroad experiences stand in contrast to each other. Although Shingo had never experienced study abroad, Chie had previously studied at overseas primary and secondary schools. She had lived in the U.S.A and England, each for about three years. In England, she was educated at a Japanese school for the duration of her sojourn. The school also allowed Chie to improve her English skills in ESL and in some immersion classes, although the main goal of the school was to enable the Japanese students to keep up with secondary education in Japan.

As shown in Table 2, the two participants enrolled in various subjects at the Australian host university. As full-time students, exchange students were basically required to enrol in a minimum of seven subjects – four in the first semester and three in the second semester – during their one-academic-year study at AU. Chie enrolled in the Faculty of Arts, whereas Shingo participated in the Faculty of Economics at AU. Each participant mainly selected subjects from among those offered in their faculties. Shingo’s subject selection involved two third-year and two first-year subjects, which included one of the subjects recommended by exchange program staff at AU (English in Use). Chie selected four first-year subjects including the recommended subjects – English in Use and Contemporary Australia.


Table 2 Subjects undertaken by the participants


Four types of data collection procedures were principally employed in this ethnographic examination of Japanese exchange students: a diary study, follow-up interviews, semi-structured interviews, and collection of written documents. In this study, a diary study was employed to monitor the activities that the Japanese exchange students undertook, the problems they encountered, and the strategies they implemented as well as to identify the students’ various internal representations in the processes of engaging in tasks as well as in their everyday participation in classes. The diary entries, which are documented through regular entries, enabled the researcher to analyse recurring patterns or salient events (cf. Bailey 1990; Nunan 1989).

Diary entries were kept from the day the exchange students started working on set tasks until the last day they completed these tasks, recording the kinds of in-class and out-of-class activities they undertook, their evaluations of the activities, and the time required for undertaking them. Prior to their commencement of a diary, the format was provided to the students to avoid the inclusion of data that was irrelevant to the research (cf. Miyazaki 1999). A sample of diary entries was also shown to them and the researcher explained how to fill in the diary format. This study took into consideration the students’ preference to practise writing in English as often as possible. Thus, the written scripts on the entries were not limited to Japanese and the participants were allowed to write either in English or Japanese.

The self-reporting nature of diary studies was supplemented by questioning in subsequent follow-up interviews. Japanese was used as the medium of communication in these interviews in order to make the process of investigation meaningful and make the interviews comfortable to the participants (cf. Riazi 1997). The homogeneity of the nationality and similarity of experiences between the researcher and participants also provided the researcher with insider awareness of participants’ academic adjustment to the host university context in Australia (cf. Hornberger 1994; Riazi 1997). This resulted in the researcher and participants developing rapport, and allowed them to have a highly interactive research atmosphere.

Throughout their study at AU, all of the interviews were conducted on the day the students completed specific tasks or at least within a few days after their completion of the tasks. Students were interviewed in order to explore the activities and management strategies mentioned in their diary entries, and they were encouraged to elaborate on their behaviour in the process of their undertaking the assigned tasks, while following the events and happenings in sequence. Moreover, this study sometimes used participant verification by requiring the participants to confirm the researchers’ interpretations of findings (cf. Ball 1998; Flowerdew 2002). In the interview sessions that followed, I also requested the participants to elaborate upon crucial or ambiguous findings, which I sometimes found in the transcripts.

During the periods when the students did not engage in any tasks, the researcher requested the students to keep diary entries on their everyday participation in classes for a week, and subsequently administered follow-up interviews. The interviews were thus conducted almost once a week during the semester. After the participants were back in Japan, several further email interviews were administered to consolidate the data about their participation in AU and credit transfers. I also administered semi-structured interviews with them at their home universities several months after their return to Japan. In these ways, the combination of diary entries and interviews enabled the researcher to elicit details of their participation in academic situations and their accompanying academic management. A variety of written documents were also collected to consolidate the data about Japanese exchange students’ participation in the host institution. These documents included students’ written drafts, returned assignments, overall academic records, subject outlines, lecture notes, handouts, and assignment guidelines.



Although the notion of LPP assumes that newcomers aim to gain fuller participation, the cases of Shingo and Chie indicated that they could not, or did not necessarily seek fuller participation. These students’ participation was not completed since both of them discontinued their studies at AU after finishing their first semester. Shingo’s case showed that the inside of the host community was not a place that guaranteed fuller participation to him (cf. Kanno 1999; Toohey 1998). Shingo vaguely envisaged that he would gradually improve his learning and socialisation with host community members by merely belonging to the host community. However, Shingo was not able to become a fuller participant, since various socio-cognitive factors hindered him from increasing his participation and contributed to his remaining at the margin.

Shingo’s marginal positioning in the host community increased his stresses and strains which, in turn, affected his health and resulted in the occurrence of swollen lymph glands on his neck. This illness led him to withdraw from two of the four subjects after the fourth week of the first semester and to abandon continuing his studies in the second semester (cf. Table 3). While he was participating at AU, he denied the suggestion that the illness resulted from these stresses and strains because he was reluctant to accept the fact that he was worried about adjustment problems and that he was homesick. However, in the follow-up interview in Japan, he admitted it, noting, ‘It’s embarrassing for me to say, but I didn’t know how to be myself in AU. So I was very stressed and I missed Japan so much’.

On the other hand, the more Chie was involved in the host community, the fuller a participant she became. However, she gradually came to regard the host community as not the place where she should stay long for a number of reasons. After a temporary return to Japan in the mid-semester break, she decided not to continue her studies in her second semester. As shown in Table 3, these two students’ incomplete participation was accompanied by contrasting academic results. Shingo obtained a pass grade for one of the two subjects he studied and failed the other one, whereas Chie’s decreased participation still allowed her to obtain reasonable results – three credit grades and a pass grade. These two participants’ incomplete cases did not simply result from their insufficient English academic competence but from multiple factors in relation to their goals, motivational investment, social networks, and academic management.


Table 3 Overall results of Shingo and Chie

High Distinction: 80–100%, Distinction: 70%–79%, Credit: 60%–69%, Pass: 50%–59%, Fail: 0–49%


Students own arrangements of goals of participation were one of the factors that facilitated or constrained their studies. The Japanese exchange students tended to have different goals for participating in student exchanges. Shingo’s academic goals involved completing at least three subjects out of seven, which he was supposed to enrol in during his one-academic-year course, and gaining academic English skills, which would be advantageous for him to study the Masters course back in Japan. Contrary to his intention to develop such skills, he did not mind failing or withdrawing from some subjects if he found that they were too demanding for him. This attitude was significantly influenced by his native norms of enrolment in subjects in Japan, whereby he emphasised how economically he could obtain credit points. Shingo noted, ‘In my Japanese home university, I usually enrol in more subjects than I need. Then, I drop the hard subjects among them and I keep the ones which I would be able to pass’. This approach thus did not require Shingo to fully participate in all of the subjects which he enrolled in, and allowed him to withdraw from International Economy and English in Use in the Australian situation.

Chie participated in the student exchange program because she wanted to overcome her inferiority complex about her limited English communication skills, which she came to perceive as a returnee student in Japan. At AU, Chie thus set her primary goal as improving her English interaction competence. She also aimed to fulfill the academic requirements to achieve a pass. Chie commented in the interview:

In my course at my home university, there are lots of returnee students who have much better English skills than me. One-third of the subjects were delivered in English, but I avoided English classes and the opportunities to use English as much as I could, because as a returnee student I’m not good at English. My listening and pronunciation are OK, but I cannot speak English properly.

Although the above-mentioned goals enhanced Chie’s participation in the first half of the semester at AU, the attention she paid to developing English competence mainly for communicative purposes rather than for academic achievements did not enable her to maintain her concentration on managing her academic participation. After the mid-semester break, she perceived herself as having sufficiently increased her English interaction competence because she found herself not having difficulties in social participation at AU. Chie noted:

I’m happy with my improvement of English communication skills. I want to pass but my academic results were not so important to me, because I won’t transfer the credits. So, once I realised that I can somehow manage the requirements and I can pass the subjects, I don’t feel like studying hard.

Her satisfaction with such developments contributed to her decreasing her participation in the host academic context. In these two participants’ cases, their arrangements of goals did not contribute to an increase in their academic participation. The participants did not show dynamism in their goal arrangements, whereby a new goal is designed after a certain goal is achieved. Lack of changing or expanding goals seems to have thus led the students to insufficiently allocate effort in relation to their academic management.


The participants’ insufficient goal arrangements pertained to their inconsistent study behaviour. Even though they intended to achieve certain goals, sociocultural constraints (such as pressure from host community members, especially peers or teachers, or from peers at their home universities, and self-perceptions of these pressures) sometimes hindered them from acting based on such intentions. In this regard, their motivations to learn were not a static stimulus of learning but changed according to various factors (cf. Norton Peirce 1995). In relation to the dynamic nature of motivation, this study utilises the term ‘motivational investment’ based on the notion of investment, which sheds light upon the relationship between learners’ desires to learn the target language and sociocultural constraints on learning and practising the language (Angelil-Carter 1997; Mckay and Wong 1996; Norton Peirce 1995).

Shingo insufficiently developed his motivational investment in increasing his own participation during his studies at AU. Such insufficiency was significantly related to his own sense of self and his reluctance to accept his peripheral position in the host community. As Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) claim, linguistic transition itself involves an intentional re-negotiation of one’s multiple identities, which are reconstructed in communication with members of another discourse community. However, while he was participating at AU, Shingo’s limited contact with English-speaking community members interfered with his developing a ‘situated identity’ as a student at AU (cf. Norton 2001). Thus, Shingo more frequently perceived himself as a visiting student from his Japanese home university rather than as a novice student, who needed to adjust to the new academic genres at AU. In fact, Shingo often conducted email and telephone interactions with his peers in Japan to relax himself, rather than interacting with host community members. Shingo commented in the interview, ‘Every day, I have too much English in classes, and so I want to speak Japanese when I’m free’. His reluctance to accept himself as a peripheral participant also interfered with his investment to move from peripheral to fuller participation in AU. He did not allow himself to show his academic struggles to others, and tended to be reticent in the presence of English-speaking host community members. Shingo noted, ‘I don’t feel like communicating with my English-speaking friends often because my English isn’t good enough’. Such insufficient motivational investment prevented him from identifying how to behave as a legitimate peripheral participant. Consequently, this resulted in him utilising ‘avoidance of communication’ as a strategy of keeping away from potential deviations that could occur in his interactions with peers (cf. Neustupný 1985).

The exclusive atmosphere in some classroom communities, furthermore, influenced Shingo’s motivational investment in participating in class. Teachers’ attitudes towards non-English-speaking background students and the distance between Shingo and his classmates occasionally resulted in his feeling that he was excluded. Shingo noted:

One of my teachers is too authoritative, not approachable, and doesn’t understand my academic struggles, and so I cannot ask questions of him. I’m afraid that my teacher says to me ‘It’s wrong’.

Shingo also claimed that his classmates sometimes excluded his right to participate in class interactions, because they were not patient enough to listen to his utterances. Such an atmosphere led Shingo to lack the confidence to participate in class and, in turn, resulted in his being reticent in class.

In contrast to Shingo, Chie effectively invested herself in managing her participation to fulfil her goals. Her motivational investment was principally triggered by her anxiety about, and excitement in, participation. She was afraid she could not achieve the goal of passing the subjects in which she was enrolled but at the same time she regarded the academic tasks as worthwhile. Chie commented in the interview:

I’m worried about my study. I believe that the teachers at AU are stricter with marking than those at my home university, so I need to study much harder. Otherwise, I might fail. The tasks are challenging but I’m excited to tackle them. Actually, I’ve never studied hard like this in Japan.

Such motivational investment allowed Chie to be very active in overcoming her adjustment problems until the mid-semester break. However, her investment seemed to decrease after the break as a result of not only self-perception of achieving her goals, which was discussed above, but also due to influence from other Asian exchange students. The fact that most of the exchange students from other Asian countries studied for only one semester resulted in Chie reconsidering the length of her study at AU. She commented, ‘My exchange friends from other Asian countries told me that they studied here for only one semester because they didn’t want to delay their regular study cycles at their home universities. So, I thought that study for one semester would be better for me, too’.

A shift of perceptions of herself also led Chie to decrease her motivational investment. Chie’s temporary return to Japan during the mid-semester break led her to change her interpretation of who she was. In particular, peer pressure in Japan contributed to her placing emphasis not on her social identity as an exchange student but as a third-year student at her home university, who needed to start searching for employment. Chie found that her peers at her home university had already started submitting job applications, so she felt as if she was being left behind. Although she previously planned to search for employment in her fourth and fifth years at her home university, she reported that she gradually came to believe it would be better to graduate within four years rather than to continue studying. Similarly, the presence of her boyfriend at her home university contributed to her change of attitudes towards participation in AU. Since she regarded her boyfriend as the one who understood her most, her participation at AU without his support increased her stress in managing her academic life and also enhanced her interest in returning to her home university sooner rather than later.

Chie’s sensitivity to how people in Japan might perceive her status as a former returnee student from the U.S.A and England also contributed to distracting her attention from her participation at AU. When she consulted senior students in Japan about her future employment, Chie found that long-term study abroad experiences were not necessarily highly valued in job applications, on the grounds that returnee students from overseas were sometimes considered as selfish, argumentative and less cooperative in the workplace. Since she had already had six years of overseas experience prior to participating in the student exchange program, she was afraid that one more year of study abroad might worsen the impression of her. Chie’s decreased motivational investment, furthermore, partly resulted from her decreased excitement in participating at AU. Towards the end of her first semester, Chie confided to other Japanese exchange students that her academic life at AU did not excite her much since she had previously had similar overseas experiences in the U.S.A and England.

The findings here suggest that the complexity of multiple community memberships negatively affected Shingo and Chie’s participation at AU. They physically belonged to the host community but mentally moved back and forth from their home to the host community. Consequently, they ended up perceiving their temporary memberships of the host community negatively and their belonging to their home communities positively. This perception seemed to interfere with their social formation of self at AU.


Shingo and Chie revealed contrasting results with regard to their development of social networks at AU. Shingo’s limitations in developing academic networks had the effect of decreasing the development of his academic participation. As mentioned earlier, Shingo failed to develop networks in the situations where others defined him as a linguistic minority participant. Therefore, although Shingo was participating in some study networks with some Australian or international classmates through group work towards the end of the semester, the networks remained temporary because of his inactive involvement in them. He was not even able to maintain access to the group member who was of Japanese origin and with whom Shingo interacted in Japanese. Shingo commented:

He (the group member of Japanese origin) was approachable, but it was a bit embarrassing for me to speak to him in Japanese and rely on him too often. So, I tried to communicate with him in English. But once I started communicating with him in English, I became unable to speak to him as often as before.

In addition to academic networks, Shingo was not able to develop his private peer networks. His private networks were basically limited to an international undergraduate student from Hong Kong and Japanese students who were studying English at the English language school affiliated with AU. Membership in these networks frequently provided Shingo with situations where he communicated in Japanese and positioned himself favourably, since his Hong Kong friend looked up to him for his knowledge of Japanese popular culture, and his Japanese friends respected him as a university student. However, his belonging to the group tended to place Shingo outside of the host academic discourse community and to block access to certain resources useful for academic management.

Shingo’s lack of ‘social affiliation’ in the host community also partly resulted in his unsuccessful development of social networks there (cf. Norton and Toohey 2002). In his Japanese university, he had strong social networks in a rowing club. Belonging to the club automatically provided Shingo with the situations where he could socialise with peers while exploring his personal interest. The networks were also academically useful because senior or other members in the club were very willing to share relevant information, lecture notes, and past examination papers. Therefore, his successful academic achievements at his home university were at least partly a result of his utilisation of such networks.

On the other hand, he was not able to obtain membership in a social group within the Australian university. Although he participated in the Kendo club once, the large amount of weekly assigned readings for his subjects prevented him from continuing to attend the practice sessions. This lack of social affiliation promoted his sense of isolation in the host community and hindered him from using his native strategy of relying upon peers to manage participation. These findings indicate that in the host disciplinary community, Shingo was not able to set up situations where his status as a Japanese exchange student could be respected and his personal resources could be valued (cf. Norton and Toohey 2002). His limited peer networks thus hindered him from moving out of his peripheral position in the host academic context and interfered with the development of his participation.

In contrast, Chie’s decreased participation did not directly result from her social networks. In fact, Chie extensively developed her social networks as she established many situations where she positioned herself favourably. She effectively took advantage of her peripheral positionings to ask others to accommodate her needs of assistance with task management. In this regard, she had various L1 and English-speaking peer networks to draw upon for academic management and to share information relevant to the tasks. Chie noted:

It’s easy to ask for help to teachers and Australian or international students in English, because I don’t have to use honorifics to them and don’t have to be very polite like in Japanese. All I have to do is to be friendly to them.

Placing themselves in a lower position than the linguistic majority has been considered as hindering students from learning the target language (cf. Norton and Toohey 2002). However, Chie’s case revealed that her access to academic networks was enhanced by her acceptance of some degree of inferiority to host community members and her deliberate placement of herself in a lower position to them. It seems that Chie’s previous intercultural experiences in the U.S.A and England enabled her to regard such inferior positions to host community members as a natural phenomenon for newcomers. These findings revealed that Shingo and Chie perceived their inferior positions to others differently and this difference significantly influenced their formation of academic networks.


In Shingo’s case, his inappropriate selection of subjects and insufficient evaluation of management strategies negatively affected his development of academic competence. Because the policy of the credit transfer system at Japanese universities required exchange students to select subjects which were similar to those offered at home universities but not equivalent to the ones they had previously studied, Shingo failed to select the subjects at AU which involved appropriate academic content at suitable academic levels for himself. In fact, the two subjects (International Economy and English in Use), which he discontinued, were too challenging for him. The academic level of International Economy was too high. Similarly, English in Use did not allow him to maintain his concentration because it dealt with unfamiliar disciplinary content and the credit points were not transferable to his home university. His unsuccessful completion of Principles of Macroeconomics was also related to the fact that the subject content was equivalent to the one that he had previously failed at his home university. Shingo noted, ‘I thought I would be able to pass this subject (Principles of Macroeconomics) when I selected it. But, once I started studying it, I remembered that this was the area which I wasn’t good at’. These findings revealed that Shingo’s inappropriate subject selection complicated his academic management.

Shingo was also not able to identify effective academic management approaches since his evaluation of his passive participation at AU was insufficient. Until he obtained unsatisfactory results for unit tests towards the end of the semester, Shingo perceived his passive participation as adequate. This evaluation hindered him from attempting to be more active in his academic management but he thought it was sufficient to study hard just before examinations. Even though Shingo evaluated his ineffective academic management, such an evaluation did not lead to the adjustment of his management strategies. For example, he noted and negatively evaluated his passive study behaviour and rote memorisation of terminology after an unsatisfactory performance in one of the unit tests. However, Shingo was not able to put his negative evaluation into action, because a time lapse between the unit test and other forthcoming tasks had the effect of decreasing the seriousness of the difficulties. Shingo stated, ‘Whenever I have a bad result, I think I need to work more efficiently. But I always forget the feeling soon’. Shingo’s lack of such adjustment hindered his active participation at AU. Shingo’s case, furthermore, showed how difficult it is for students to cross-culturally transfer knowledge and skills learned in one context to a different one (cf. Flower et al. 1990). His failure in transfer was partly attributable to his unsuccessful subject selection but mostly because he was overwhelmed by linguistic difficulties, which he encountered at AU. In a latter interview in Japan, Shingo commented:

When I came back and started studying here (at my home university) again, I realised we shared lots of common knowledge of economics both here and in AU. If I had used my previous knowledge of economics, I could have coped with my academic life at AU better. But, maybe, I was too nervous to notice the similarities. The same things looked like different to me in English.

Shingo’s case suggests that his insufficient English competence resulted in his perception of common features between home and host academic genres as different. His lack of noting of commonalities in disciplinary knowledge and situational similarities prevented him from utilising his previously developed academic skills.

Chie noted her limited academic writing skills in English and the noting was followed by a negative evaluation of her limitations. To compensate for these, Chie utilised a management strategy of co-engagement in tasks with academic personnel. However, her inconsistency in using this management approach decreased her development of academic management. As soon as the semester started, Chie established effective management approaches by drawing upon teachers and the instructor at the language and study support centre. These strategies enabled her to obtain a high distinction (the top mark) in her first written assignment – a 500-word exercise for the subject English in Use. In subsequent larger written assignments (a 1000-word critical paper and two 2500-word essays), she allocated much more effort in seeking assistance from academic personnel. However, because of the complexity of completing larger assignments, she could not obtain the high results she expected. When she was given a Pass grade for the critical paper for Australian Indigenous Studies, Chie commented, ‘My effort didn’t pay off. I was disappointed at the result, because I really studied hard for it. I shouldn’t have studied that hard if I had known I couldn’t get a high result’.

Chie, therefore, gradually assessed the strenuous procedures necessary for the completion of assignments as unreasonable. Accordingly, she became unable to maintain her incentives to undertake this type of management approach. She noted, ‘I’m tired of coming and seeing teachers or the instructor at the centre, because I usually have three or four consultations to complete one written assignment. It’s getting too much for me’. After finishing most of the written assignments, Chie simplified her management approach and began to rely upon peers rather than academic personnel. However, this simplified approach did not assist her in performing well in the written tasks and the examinations that followed. Throughout her study at AU, Chie relied upon others’ academic assistance and emphasised seeking temporary assistance from others in each assignment rather than developing autonomous management skills.


The ways that the two Japanese exchange students participated in AU were dynamic processes and could frequently change as a result of their development of goals, motivational investments, social networks, and academic management. The students’ incomplete academic participation occurred because their participation was not driven by appropriate goals, because they could not sufficiently negotiate their identities, and because they failed to evaluate the effectiveness of their academic management strategies. Furthermore, Shingo’s case revealed that the developmental process of participation was hindered by his unsuccessful transfer of previous knowledge, negative perception of peripheral positionings, and limited establishment of situations where he could position himself favourably.

This study exemplified the concept of LPP by illustrating the multiple ways in which newcomers participate in a community while actually undertaking activities embedded in social situations. The findings concurred with the concept in that Japanese exchange students’ participation at AU was not ‘a linear notion of skill acquisition’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 36). However, at the same time, my study confirmed the limitations of LPP, which several researchers have already indicated in relation to this context. First of all, limitations of community belongingness were reinforced in this study. The findings illustrated that the students could not necessarily gain access to desirable resources and increase their involvement in the host academic settings simply because they physically belonged to the host community. Second, the study identified limitations of learning from other host community members. Although Lave and Wenger (1991) stress newcomers’ increasing movement towards fuller participation while interacting with more experienced members, Shingo’s case demonstrated that the behaviour of other host community members themselves can result in hindering novice students’ participation, and also that host members’ assistance was unavailable and inaccessible to novice students on occasions. Furthermore, we need to take it into account that working with others can be an unsuitable participation style for some students (cf. Nemoto 2005). Thus, the findings suggest that the concept of LPP needs to allow for the negative – as well as positive – impacts of other community members on newcomers’ negotiation of participation in a discourse community.

To conclude, the development of contact competence in academic contexts involves participants’ negotiation of academic participation with others in conjunction with management of cultural contact, goals of participation, and identities. Hence, it is suggested that future research on intercultural academic participation more comprehensively examine students’ social positionings in relation to other community members, their perceptions of these positionings, and the role of structural arrangements played in facilitating their positionings. Such research can then be applied in institutional settings to provide linguistic minority students with organisational support for their management of intercultural academic participation and also help them to develop skills to increase their participation.


1     Hiroyuki Nemoto undertook the study on which this chapter is based for his PhD in the Japanese Studies program at Monash University. He wrote this chapter upon the completion of his degree during his appointment as an honorary research associate in the same program.


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Cite this chapter as: Nemoto, H. 2007. ‘Incomplete participation in academic contact situations: Japanese exchange students at an Australian university’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 9.1 to 9.16.

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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

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