[Paleopsych] CHE Colloquy Invitation: Teach Impediment

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Teach Impediment: When the student can't understand the instructor, who is 
to blame?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.8

    Join a live, online discussion with Donald L. Rubin, a professor
    of speech communication at the U. of Georgia, about what should be
    done to deal with classroom language barriers, such as the accented
    English spoken by many foreign instructors, on Thursday, April 7, at 2
    p.m., U.S. Eastern time.


    On the phone from Fargo, N.D., State Rep. Bette Grande's voice rings
    with clarity. "Colleges are a business," she says in a starched
    Midwestern accent. "When we put research as our No. 1 focus, we forgot
    the student," she says. "We got ourselves all turned around."

    Ms. Grande could be talking about any of the ills plaguing a modern
    university -- drops in per-student spending, tuition increases, or
    maybe the lack of face time with professors. But she has something
    much more contentious in mind.

    She wants her state's university system to do something about the fact
    that its students can't understand what the heck their foreign-born
    instructors are saying.

    Late in January, Ms. Grande proposed a bill in the North Dakota
    legislature to prod public institutions of higher education in
    precisely that direction. Under her bill, if a student complained in
    writing that his or her instructor did not "speak English clearly and
    with good pronunciation," that student would then be entitled to
    withdraw from the class with no academic or financial penalty -- and
    would even get a refund.

    Further, if 10 percent of the students in a class came forward with
    such complaints, the university would be obliged to move the
    instructor into a "nonteaching position," thus losing that
    instructor's classroom labor.

    Almost as soon as the bill went public, Ms. Grande realized she had
    touched a nerve. Calls and e-mail messages poured in from all over
    North Dakota and from as far away as Florida and Arizona. In nearly a
    decade as a legislator, Ms. Grande had never attracted such a
    prodigious and impassioned response.

    That's probably because anyone who has studied mathematics,
    engineering, computer science, or economics at an American university
    in the past decade is likely to have harbored the frustrations Ms.
    Grande's bill aims to soothe. With rising international enrollments in
    graduate programs, classroom language barriers have become both a
    public hobbyhorse and a subject for scholarly study in their own
    right. In more than a dozen states, legislatures have passed laws to
    set English-language standards for international teaching assistants.
    But Ms. Grande's bill was designed to send a stronger message: If you
    can't speak the language clearly, get out of the classroom.

    Meanwhile, from the sidelines, linguists are sounding a cautionary
    note: The natives are restless, sure -- but maybe they should try
    listening harder.

    A Global Academy

    Ms. Grande took up her cause last fall, over the course of several
    visits to North Dakota State University's main campus to campaign for
    fellow Republicans running in the November elections. There she spoke
    with former students of hers (when the legislature is not in session,
    Ms. Grande is a middle- and high-school substitute teacher), friends
    of her college-age son (a student at North Dakota State), and various
    kids who had grown up in her neighborhood.

    When she asked how their classes were going, she was dismayed to
    discover how many said they were having trouble wading through a
    professor's accent. What was worse, the students suggested that the
    university did not seem interested in doing anything about it.

    Ms. Grande sensed a public failing. She approached administrators
    about the issue, but received responses she found to be tepid at best.
    "I found it as frustrating as any student had described," she says.
    "'This is something that the students should work through; it's a
    diversity issue,' they told me."

    "There were more excuses," Ms. Grande sizes up, "than there were
    avenues to remedy the situation."

    At that point she began paving an avenue of her own with the language
    of a deliberately unforgiving bill. ("If you don't push it to the
    envelope where they see that it's going to affect them financially,"
    she says, "they're not going to come to the table.")

    R. Craig Schnell, North Dakota State's provost, defends the
    university's policy on foreign teaching assistants, which is built on
    a series of written and spoken language-proficiency tests and, for
    those who fail them, remedial classes in English as a second language.
    "We think we've had pretty good luck with it," he says. He also
    stresses the importance of exposing students to international
    influences, especially students from a place like Fargo.

    "I think North Dakota's fairly provincial," he says, "and if you sound
    in any way different, that's a point of contention." Those hang-ups
    are something students must grow past, he insists. He then cites one
    of the basic premises -- for Ms. Grande, a basic excuse -- of
    contemporary higher education: "We're going to live in a global
    society," Mr. Schnell says, "and we have to be prepared."

    Mr. Schnell is probably right about the way the world is heading:
    There are now many times more nonnative speakers of English in the
    world than there are native speakers of English, and the gap is likely
    to widen. But higher education is heading in that direction much
    faster than are most Midwestern towns.

    In 2003 just under 41,000 people earned new Ph.D.'s from American
    universities, according to the federal "Survey of Earned Doctorates."
    Of those, about 12,200 -- roughly 30 percent -- were citizens of other
    countries. In engineering, foreigners have outnumbered U.S. citizens
    among new Ph.D.'s for the past 20 years. In the physical sciences,
    meanwhile, 45 percent of the students are foreign. Among all those who
    earned doctorates from American universities between 1999 and 2003,
    the most common source of undergraduates was the University of
    California at Berkeley. But the second most common was Seoul National
    University, in Korea.

    For Nicholas P. Hacker, a 23-year-old resident of Grand Forks who is
    both a freshman member of the North Dakota Senate and a senior at the
    University of North Dakota, those trends have hit home with unhappy

    Mr. Hacker says he has taken several classes where the instructor's
    accented English was difficult to comprehend. "There were days when I
    would go home and have to study the material that they had taught, for
    the simple reason that I couldn't understand the things that came out
    of their mouth," he says. "It's one thing to go home and study a
    concept, another not to understand what the professor was saying."

    Those experiences are part of what led Mr. Hacker to co-sponsor Ms.
    Grande's bill. "Sometimes we forget who our real customer is in higher
    education," he says, "and that's what this bill is -- it's a
    consumer-protection bill."

    Evidence that instruction in accented English affects the learning
    process is not all anecdotal. George Borjas, an economist at the John
    F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who studies
    immigration, says he has found evidence that foreign-born instructors
    do indeed have a withering effect on undergraduates' academic

    In 2000 Mr. Borjas, who is a Cuban immigrant, published a study of
    students enrolled in a two-term principles-of-economics course at a
    large, top-ranked public university. By focusing on the students who
    had one term of a discussion section taught by an American teaching
    assistant and the other term taught by a foreign-born teaching
    assistant, he was able to study the effects of exposure to the
    different types of teachers while controlling for differences among

    On balance, he found that undergraduates' final grades slid by 0.2
    points (on a four-point scale) when they had a foreign-born

    The question is, do such academic breakdowns happen because
    universities aren't doing enough to prepare international teaching
    assistants for the classroom, or because American undergraduates, the
    beleaguered consumers themselves, simply tune out when faced with
    someone who is sufficiently different from them?


    Late in the summer of 2002, Min Liu flew from Shanghai, China, to
    Fargo to begin a Ph.D. in communication at North Dakota State. Aside
    from a small battery of language-proficiency tests administered on her
    second day in the United States, she says she was treated no
    differently from any other incoming graduate student.

    Ten days after stepping onto American soil, she was teaching her first

    Ms. Liu says she felt woefully unprepared when she first stepped into
    that classroom. Though she did attend a weeklong departmental
    orientation for all new teaching assistants, she says there was no
    effort to socialize her as a foreigner into the mores of American
    higher education -- much less North Dakotan higher education. "Had I
    known the problems I was to get myself into," she says, "I wouldn't
    have come."

    Even today, three years after arriving in the United States, Ms. Liu
    says she still gets two or three complaints per course -- always on
    anonymous end-of-semester course evaluations and never from a student
    in person -- saying that she is difficult to understand and does not
    speak English well enough to teach. But she believes the hang-ups are
    more cultural than linguistic.

    "When I taught as a TA back in China," she says with an intonation
    that approaches newscaster's English, "I experienced a totally
    different classroom culture. I had total authority in the classroom.
    Here, it's almost like the opposite."

    While Ms. Liu feels that North Dakota State leaves its international
    teaching assistants largely to fend for themselves in their new
    linguistic and cultural landscape, a number of American universities
    have taken greater pains -- often at the prodding of state
    legislatures hounded by calls from unhappy parents and students -- to
    prepare their foreign-born teaching assistants for the classroom.

    At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, foreign-born teaching
    assistants go through an intensive two-and-a-half-week program that
    meets for five to six hours a day in the summer. The program
    encompasses management strategies and teaching methodologies for
    American classrooms, campus dynamics, and the broader scope of
    American culture, in addition to focusing on simple language fluency.

    Meanwhile, at institutions like Vanderbilt University and the
    University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, foreign-born teaching assistants
    are paired with undergraduate tutors whose function is to expose the
    newcomers to both the rules and idiosyncrasies of students' behavior
    and speech.

    At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, incoming international
    teaching assistants participate in role-playing exercises in which
    they play students and teachers, or in which a student theater group
    acts out a number of different classroom scenarios for them to

    These programs have their proud advocates, but are they effective? Do
    undergraduates still complain that they can't make heads or tails of
    what their foreign instructors are saying?

    "Yep," says Diane Larsen-Freeman, director of the English Language
    Institute at the University of Michigan, home to one of the most
    robust international orientation programs. "We do get undergraduates
    who will complain."

    Listen Up

    In 1988 Donald L. Rubin, a professor of education and speech
    communication at the University of Georgia, began toying with an
    experimental model that would occupy him for the next several years:
    He gathered American undergraduates inside a classroom and then played
    a taped lecture for them over high-fidelity speakers. The lecture
    -- an introduction to the Mahabharata, say, or a discourse on the
    growing scarcity of helium -- was delivered in the voice of a man from
    central Ohio.

    While the undergraduates sat and listened, they faced an image
    projected onto the classroom wall in front of them: Half the time, it
    was a photograph of an American man ("John Smith from Portland"),
    standing at a chalkboard and staring back at them. For the other half
    of the testing groups, the slide projected before them was that of an
    Asian man ("Li Wenshu from Beijing"), standing at the same chalkboard.
    The two figures were dressed, posed, and groomed as similarly as

    Now for the interesting part: When the students were asked to fill in
    missing words from a printed transcript of the central Ohioan's taped
    speech, they made 20 percent more errors when staring at the Asian
    man's image than they did when staring at the picture of "John Smith."

    What did that mean?

    "Students who expect that nonnative instructors will be poor
    instructors and unintelligible speakers can listen to what we know to
    be the most standard English speech and the most well-formed lecture,
    and yet experience some difficulties in comprehension," Mr. Rubin
    says. "All the pronunciation improvement in the world," he says, "will
    not by itself halt the problem of students' dropping classes or
    complaining about their instructors' language."

    At the request of The Chronicle, Mr. Rubin conducted an interview with
    Ms. Liu to gauge her speaking proficiency. To do so, he used a
    modified version of the oral examination most widely used in American
    universities to test foreign-born instructors, the Speak test.

    When the test was done, he gave Ms. Liu the maximum score.

    "If one actively looks for evidence of native Chinese language
    interference in Ms. Liu's speech, it is detectable," he writes in an
    e-mail message describing their conversation. He notes that she does
    drop an article every now and then ("Although this phenomenon may
    irritate listeners who are native speakers of English," he writes, "it
    is unlikely to affect comprehensibility"); she occasionally blends "r"
    and "l" sounds ("also of minor communicative significance at the rate
    and degree she exhibits"); and she sometimes produces vowel sounds
    that are "a little more tense" than would be exhibited by a native
    speaker of English.

    "This marks Ms. Liu as not a native speaker of English," Mr. Rubin
    writes, "but does not interfere with her intelligibility." Moreover,
    the vocabulary that she has at her disposal in both speaking and
    listening, he goes on, is "sophisticated and probably more fluent than
    my own."

    Yet still, every time she teaches, undergraduates complain about her

    All of this brings Mr. Rubin to an idea that is just beginning to
    figure fully into the nationwide discussion of communication
    breakdowns in foreign-born teaching assistants' classrooms: "We must
    accompany support for international instructors' teaching skills with
    support for U.S. undergraduates' listening skills," he says, "in
    particular their ability to listen effectively -- and that means
    nonprejudicially -- to world Englishes."

    Representative Grande's bill, however, rose in the public eye
    precisely because it was designed to give students the power to oust
    accented instructors -- a menacing prospect for foreign-born teaching
    assistants. "It's too harsh," says Syed Rahman, a Bangladeshi graduate
    teaching assistant in North Dakota State's computer-science department
    -- one of the most international corners of the university.

    For Ms. Liu, the entire issue brings on a certain amount of despair.

    'A Convenient Excuse'

    International teaching assistants are "set up for failure," Ms. Liu
    says. "No matter how hard they try, their foreignness will always work
    against them and provide a convenient excuse for the students who want
    to resign from a class without taking the responsibility as a

    After several weeks of discussions with higher-education experts,
    amendments, and deliberations, Ms. Grande has begun to think
    differently about the issue of language barriers in the classroom.

    Her bill, too, has changed drastically: In both the North Dakota House
    and the Senate, after several rounds of amendments, it turned into a
    relatively vague order for the State Board of Higher Education to
    create a new policy on teaching assistants' communication skills,
    along with a formalized process for responding to student complaints.
    By the end of March, that order had been approved by legislators.

    "What I'm hoping for is a solution that offers something to our
    foreign-born teachers," Ms. Grande says, having been convinced that
    there is much more North Dakota could be doing to prepare
    international teaching assistants for the classroom.

    But she is cool to the thought of culpability on the student's side of
    the linguistic equation.

    "I can understand when they say the students just need to listen
    harder," she says, acknowledging that that is the "neighborly" thing
    to do. But she says there are limits to such strained good will. "What
    if it was bearing on whether or not I was going to be able to grasp
    materials I was going to need for my profession?" she asks.

    When it comes down to it, Ms. Grande still believes that universities
    are businesses, and students are consumers: If a student cannot
    understand her professor, then she is being served a faulty product.

    Mr. Rubin, however, prefers to think of the issue in terms of
    prerequisites -- worldly listening skills as a requirement for
    graduation. "I consider the ability to listen to and comprehend world
    Englishes a prerequisite to success in a wide variety of enterprises,"
    he says.

    At this notion, Ms. Grande balks. She thinks of all the countries she
    has visited -- Israel, Egypt, Honduras. "In every place, what was the
    main thing they wanted to do?" Ms. Grande asks. "To communicate with
    the American. They knew that, throughout their lives, if they wanted
    advancement they would have to do everything they could to communicate
    with us."

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