Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jun 24 15:37:32 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, June 24, 2005

Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said

Valerie Serrin still remembers vividly her anger and the feeling of
helplessness. After getting a C 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, possessed a finely honed mind. But he also had a heavy
accent and a limited grasp of spoken English, so he could not explain to
Ms. Serrin, a freshman at the time, what her report had lacked.

"He would just say, 'It's easy, it's easy,' " said Ms. Serrin, who
recently completed her junior year at the University of California,
Berkeley. "But it wasn't easy. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but
he couldn't communicate in English." Ms. Serrin's experience is hardly
unique. With a steep rise in the number of foreign graduate students in
the last two decades, undergraduates at large research universities often
find themselves in classes and laboratories run by graduate teaching
assistants whose mastery of English is less than complete.

The issue is particularly acute in subjects like engineering, where 50
percent of graduate students are foreign born, and math and the physical
sciences, where 41 percent of graduate students are, according to a survey
by the Council of Graduate Schools, an association of 450 schools. This is
despite a modest decline in the number of international students enrolling
in American graduate programs since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,
2001. The encounters have prompted legislation in at least 22 states
requiring universities to make sure that teachers are proficient in spoken
English.  In January, Bette B. Grande, a Republican state representative
from Fargo, N.D., tried to go even further after her son Alec complained
of his experiences at North Dakota State University. Mrs. Grande
introduced legislation that would allow students in state universities to
drop courses without penalty and be reimbursed if they could not
understand the English of a teaching assistant or a professor.

"If a student has paid tuition to be in that classroom," she said, "he
should receive what he paid for." State lawmakers, however, balked,
instead ordering education officials to assess how well state universities
were training teaching assistants. Many universities are trying to
minimize the problem by creating programs to assess the English skills of
international graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants
and offering courses as needed.

But interviews with dozens of undergraduates at six universities over the
last few weeks indicate that the problem remains acute, in some cases even
influencing decisions about what majors to pursue. Ms. Serrin said that
she went to Berkeley thinking she might go to medical school but that she
was now majoring in economics, in part because of freshman chemistry.

Myles Sullivan, a University of Massachusetts senior, twice dropped
courses, once in astronomy and once in linguistics, because he could not
decipher his teaching assistant. "Both were brilliant men, but the
language barrier was just too much for me," Mr. Sullivan said.

Some students end up spending hundreds of dollars to conquer the language
barrier. Loyda Martinez, a senior at the University of Massachusetts,
started subscribing to an online service that provides copies of notes
from previous courses at the university when she had a hard time
understanding teaching assistants in math, science and psychology classes.
The service cost $20 to $75 a course, Ms. Martinez said.

Others in the academic world believe that the complaints are not entirely
about the shortcomings of foreign-born teaching assistants.

"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."

It is a point echoed by some foreign teaching assistants who, in addition
to their own studies and the rigors of grading papers, overseeing labs and
leading discussions, must deal with what they sometimes 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 who was
born in India and raised in Bahrain and has a slight accent. "They thought
it was hilarious to make fun of his accent."

But Ms. Phukan also thinks the university should consider requiring more
graduate students to take rigorous classes in spoken English.

Many public and private universities have created programs in recent years
to assess and train international graduate students. Most research
universities require international applicants to pass a standardized test
in written English for admission to graduate school. Many also set
standards in spoken English for prospective teaching assistants.

Virtually every major graduate school has made a concerted effort to make
sure that international teaching assistants have the language skills they
need, said Debra Stewart, the president of the Council of Graduate
Schools, but that does not guarantee that there will not be problems.

"American students are living in a global world, and there is value in
making an effort to understand people who sound different from you," Ms.
Stewart said. "That said, it is also an obligation of those of us in
education, that if we put someone in front of students, reasonable people
will be able to understand them."

At Stanford, for instance, about 200 foreign graduate students take a
standardized test each year to assess their ability to speak English.
About 30 of these students are required to take English classes, and
others are encouraged to do so, said Philip Hubbard, director of the
English for Foreign Students program there.

"I can't say there's no problem out there," Mr. Hubbard said. "It wouldn't
be fair. But there hasn't been any significant problem here for a number
of years."

At the University of Virginia each year, about 120 foreign-born graduate
students who are prospective teaching assistants take a test in spoken
English; those who need to improve are offered courses.

But many students said that despite such efforts the problems remained.
They said they had adopted myriad strategies to get by, not all of them

Alison Monrose, a junior at Rutgers, said she began sitting in the front
of the classroom to "lip read." Ms. Serrin at Berkeley formed a study
group with other students. Jacqueem Winston, a junior at Rutgers, decided
he would just ask questions in class until he did understand. "You can't
be shy," Mr. Winston said.

But Mohammed Islam, who is also a junior at Rutgers, simply stopped going
to his discussion section in a physics course. The professor who lectured
to the large class was excellent, Mr. Islam said, but the teaching
assistant who oversaw his small weekly discussion section "didn't speak
English at all."

Mr. Islam, a ceramic engineering major from Brooklyn, paid a price for his
decision. Homework, which counted for 25 percent of his grade, was
supposed to be turned in to the teaching assistant. But since Mr. Islam
had stopped going to the discussion section, he did not hand in any
homework. He still managed to get a B-plus in the course, he said: "I
broke the curve on the final."

Geoff Young, a junior at Rutgers, said he had not had problems
understanding his teaching assistants. But he said many of his friends at
Rutgers had struggled mightily.

"I've heard a lot of people complain about that," Mr. Young said, "saying
things like, 'How many languages other than English have you learned while
you were here?' "

Even dealing with the problem caused anxiety for some students.

"You don't want to be rude and say, 'Your English is no good,' " said
Rhyshonda Singletary, a senior at the University of Massachusetts. "But
you also don't want to suffer."

Michael Falcone contributed reporting from Berkeley, Calif., for this


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