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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

May 5, 2005

Written by C.N.

Hard-to-Understand College Teachers

The Christian Science Monitor has a story about how many college students complain that they can’t understand their foreign-born instructors (many of whom are Asian-born graduate students). As the article notes, it describes the efforts of one parent in North Dakota to get legislation passed that requires stricter and more formal assessment of foreign instructors’ English fluency. But there are other issues involved:

Yes, some university officials responded, students should be able to understand instructors, but communication is a two-way street. “We live in a global economy … and here in North Dakota, we’ve been doing better [in recent years] at being able to create diversity, and perhaps this is just one of the growing pains,” says R. Craig Schnell, North Dakota State University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. . .

Today, about one-quarter of the faculty in American universities are foreign-born, and that should be seen as an asset, says Akbar Marvasti, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “Communication skills are important, there’s no question about it, [but] one also needs to acknowledge [their] contributions,” he says, especially in science and math. A longtime US citizen who was born in Iran, he says the increasingly diverse student body will benefit from international role models.

At OSU all potential international TAs are evaluated, and many of them are placed in the Spoken English Program (SEP) for a year before they teach. Some need help with pronunciation and idioms, while others need cultural tips, says SEP director Susan Sarwark. Many are used to an authoritarian classroom, she says, so they find the interaction in America surprising. One new Korean TA commented that his students were lazy because they were always raising their hands. In his country, it would have been selfish to waste a professor’s time with questions in class, he told Ms. Sarwark.

As with most issues, there can certainly be a middle ground herre. On the one hand, it’s true that students should be able to understand their instructors because the quality of their education depends on it. Further, foreign-born instructors would definitely benefit from learning how the styles of teaching can differ between the U.S. and their home countries.

On the other hand, my impression is that many students are quick to complain or at least get frustrated at any type of foreign accent. Perhaps they were socialized to think that because American culture and influence are everywhere, that everybody should be fluent in English. As Prof. Marvasti point out, we live in global and multicultural world and that means that we need to accept and indeed, welcome non-Americans because they have a lot to offer us.

With a little respect and two-way communication, many differences can be overcome rather easily.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Hard-to-Understand College Teachers" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2005/05/hard-to-understand-college-teachers/> ().

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