Wednesday, June 29, 2005

How much language should a TA have? 

One of the really troubling things for me when judging a young scholar's ability to teach is when he or she is not a native English speaker and has a heavy accent. I travel overseas a good bit but normally conduct business in English -- my Russian, French and Armenian are good enough to order food and get through the customs line at the airport, not much more -- and so I am used to hearing many different accents and learn to work with them. I adjust fairly quickly to a new accent.

Students, particularly from smaller cities and towns, have no such experience. So it is rather common now for them to come to me, as an academic chair, to complain about accents for the non-native English faculty I have. (We don't use our graduate students in the classroom because our programs are applied programs for people going into business fields, not academia.) I was therefore fascinated by an article in the IHT on graduate assistants with limited command of English.

Valerie Serrin still remembers the feeling of helplessness. After getting a low grade on a lab report in an introductory chemistry course, she went to her teaching assistant to ask what she should have done for a better grade.

The teaching assistant, a graduate student from China, had a heavy accent and a limited grasp of spoken English, so he could not explain to Serrin, a freshman at the time, what her report had lacked, Serrin said. "He would just say, 'It's easy, it's easy,"' said Serrin, who recently completed her junior year at the University of California at Berkeley. "But it wasn't easy. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but he couldn't communicate in English."

Some writers think this is just students being, well, students.

Some in the academic world believe that the complaints can be a reflection of insularity and laziness. "Is there some low-level carping? Absolutely," said Dudley Doane, director of the Center for American English Language and Culture at the University of Virginia. "Is it justified? At times it may be. However, we have some students who aren't used to stretching."

Some foreign teaching assistants said that, in addition to their own studies and the rigors of grading papers, overseeing labs and leading discussions, they must deal with what some might consider intolerant undergraduates.

"I had students come into my class mimicking the accent of a friend of mine, who is a teaching assistant in math," said Atreyee Phukan, a graduate student in comparative literature at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, who was born in India, raised in Bahrain and has a slight accent.

Students can be cruel, too, and some stretching is a good idea. The point here though is that, as someone who's evaluated potential professors for some time (and remember, most of these are foreign-born scholars who received English-language instruction and earned a Ph.D. with a thesis written in the language), there is a serious attempt to try to be sure the people we put in the classroom can speak the language too. However, too much of an attempt can sometimes run afoul of campus diversity crusaders who think your evaluation of an accent is a thinly-veiled attempt to keep, say, an African scholar off the faculty. Particularly at larger state institutions of second- or third-tier status, that pressure can be quite severe.