Feb 20, 2006

On International Teaching Assistants


(Toledo, OH) A contoversy is smoldering at the University of Toledo - the flames of which will certainly be fanned by this Independent Collegian article - over a proposal by the Student Senate to "reward" international teaching assistants (TAs) who improve their English speaking skills.

"A lot of the grad students, at least in the sciences, are foreign," said student senator David Kvale. "Sometimes, using a second language makes it hard to communicate effectively."

The underlying complaint, of course, is the belief that many international TAs cannot speak English in an effective manner with which students can learn.

I have taken many classes with international TAs. I have never encountered a single TA whose grasp of English was less than adequate, or whose accent impeded the instruction process. The only time I ever had some difficulty understanding an instructor was a professor I had at U of M who had severe cerebral palsy, and, within a day or so, I became used to his unique pronunciation.

The University of Toledo has progams already in place for non-native TAs, and they are required to produce a mock lecture for tenured faculty before they ever set foot in a classroom.

In addition, in my work as a writing tutor on campus I have never encountered an international student (let alone a TA) who could not be understood. In fact, the precision with which many international students speak and write English puts to shame many "native" English speakers.

I might also suggest that it is not the accent of the TA that throws students as it might be their lack of colloquialisms and slang. I sometimes feel when my kids turn on one of the music television stations that I am hearing a foreign language.

In a UT lecture today I witnessed at least 10 students sleeping, another 8 wearing iPods while jotting down notes from the slides (missing the verbal portion of the lecture), a half-dozen chit-chatting through the lecture, 3 taking cell-phone calls, and several reading the newspaper. I offer that one's ability to understand any instructor is limited by these factors.

This class today contained about 150 students. That sounds like a lot, except when you consider the fact that the enrollment is about 210.

So, by my estimation, 90 of 210 students engaged in some form of behavior that severely inhibited their potential to learn the material being discussed.

I suspect that students who are struggling in a class taught by an international TA might first look to their own habits before passing blame along to the instructor.

Finally, in a fast-paced modern world increasingly affected by globalization, there is an added benefit for students to get used to people speaking with accents. The idea that we can isolate ourselves, or demand that the rest of the world behave the way we want them to, is an archaic relic of a nativist past.
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Valbee said...

Ok, I'm going to disagree with you slightly. :)

My son had an international TA for math. Not so bad, numbers work the same in every language, right? But my son did struggle to understand him. I found that it takes time and direct interaction to comprehend an accent you're not familiar with. In a large class, you're not going to get a lot of direct interaction. I have no problem understanding the international students who come in where I work, but I have seen some of our student workers really struggle. The more exposure you have, the easier it is to pick up on new voices.

Language is only part of the barrier and it depends a LOT on what the class is.

I had an international TA for Comp I a few years back. That was a problem. Why? The basis of the class was culture and this woman's culture was entirely different from that of the students. She had a lot of pre-conceived notions about American culture and they frequently didn't match with what the students themselves had experienced. But she was always right and we were always wrong.

Nothing kills class discussion faster than knowing everything you say will immediately be shot down.

White Mormon Patriot said...

historymike wrote: "So, by my estimation, 90 of 210 students engaged in some form of behavior that severely inhibited their potential to learn the material being discussed.

I suspect that students who are struggling in a class taught by an international TA might first look to their own habits before passing blame along to the instructor."
Good advice. Perhaps if those 90 students each got an "F" for the course, it might change some attitudes. Perhaps many of those 90 are getting a free scholarship ride or having their way paid by their rich parents. I find that when people have to actually "work" for something, they attach more personal value and invest more effort.

However, I don't consider an "America First" attitude to be nativist. If these graduate assistants are engaged because we can't find enough interested and qualified Americans, that's one thing. But if they're taking slots away from interested Americans in the name of "diversity", that's unacceptable. We shouldn't be allowing foreigners to come in and steal jobs from Americans. Let them have what is left over after we've made an honest and reasonable attempt to solicit American labor.

historymike said...

That's fine, Val. I freely admit that the timing of my reading this article coincided with my own experience of seeing mass slackage in the 1000-level class in which I TA.

It's hard to feel sympathy when I see so many students with such poor habits.

That being said, Val also raises a good point about experience in dealing with people from different cultures. Those who are familiar with a wide variety of different types of people find it easier to adjust than those who may have grown up in a smaller, more insulated town.

But -

At some point people have to realize they live in a very large and interactive human community, and that whining about the presence of people from other cultures won't have any effect on the fact millions come here from other nations.

Unless, of course, they adopt the white nationalist utopia of creating an all-white "homeland." Good luck with that; I am more than willing to accept people from all cultures into this country provided they are willing to contribute.

Timothy said...

It has gotten better, but back in the early 90s the university was flooded with teaching staff with thick, incomprehensive accents. I remember, in my undergraduate career, a chem-lab instructor who wrote beautiful cursive but communicated in charades, an electrical engineering instructor whose thick accent was peppered every third word with 'okay', and a comp. sci. instructor whose accent was in short stacattos spoken in whispers.

One altercation I vividly remember was with a math instructor and a student. His accent was so hard to understand that the class turned into a collective "what did he say?" If anyone understood him, they'd re-explain it to the class. Anyway, this guy didn't like the interruptions it caused so he tried to throw out the 'translator', to which one of the frustrated students yelled "speak my F***ing Language" at the top of their lungs a few times. After a few moments of screaming and threats, about half the class up and left.

Luckily UT has upped the quality of their instructor's English skills. I can only wonder what people complaining today would have to say about

Timothy said...

...the way it was back then.

historymike said...

I should also, in all fairness, admit a bias in favor of the humanities (in which international TAs are less prevalent than in math and the "hard" sciences) as well as a love of languages.

When I come across a person for whom English is a secod language, I often try to engage that person in as much of their tongue as I know (I have command of two languages - Spanish and Portuguese - while I "dabble" in French, Russian, Latin, Arabic, and Italian).

I also pick up languages quickly, so I am an oddity in that regard as well. Must have been a parrot in another life...

Anonymous said...

I can understand the students' frustration. The type of class can really make a difference.

Years ago at Cleveland State I had two TA's with very thick accents. One was a Spanish class and I loved having an instructor who was teaching her native language. The other was a calculus class and it was a nightmare.

Eventhough math is easy for me, I struggled. I quickly adjusted to hearing "substract" instead of "subtract" but there was no discussion to be had in this class. If you didn't pick up the information from the book you were out of luck.

Numerous students had problems in this class but somehow every student who showed up got a B, even me who attended every class and had a solid A going into the final.

The TA had returned to his home country and it took hours of phone calls and trips to my college office to get my grade changed to an A, which is the grade that I had earned.

I think TA's need to be better monitored. Some are good, some bad and some are great - if they are given good direction by the profs it can be a good experience.

historymike said...

Seems like many people have struggled with this. I appreciate the experiences that people have shared.

Maybe I have just been lucky...

Stephanie said...

I've never had any difficulties with TA's, all my college classes were small and were taught by the professors themselves (though, that can be problematic for different reasons). However, I have struggled with doctors with thick accents. It's especially difficult when dealing with a technical subject that you don't understand in the first place.

Though, that didn't prevent me from choosing a "foreign" doctor who has a bit of accent, because he was the best fit for us. Sometimes he has to repeat himself, but usually he doesn't.

In large classes that would be more difficult, however.

Lisa Renee said...

Emily is in engineering and she has had problems with at least two situations, one where the language barrier was so bad she almost considered dropping the course.

I advised her to complain because for the amount of money she is being charged for tuition, there should be no excuse for someone not able to clearly communicate.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

"If these graduate assistants are engaged because we can't find enough interested and qualified Americans, that's one thing.... Let them have what is left over after we've made an honest and reasonable attempt to solicit American labor."

AKwingnut, that's exactly what's happened. We don't have enough Americans interested in getting PhDs, especially in science. Oh sure, we're chock full of English lit and psych PhDs, but look at the doctoral candidates in science, and with the possible exception of biology, most of the doctoral candidates at the 3 universities I've attended have been foreigners.

In the old days, when we were friendly towards outsiders, those folks would settle down here. Now, sensing our hostility, they have a tendency to leave and take their degree with them.