Learning In Amerika

Culture and Media

The New York Times has an article about how undergraduate students on American campuses are suffering, due to their foreign born teachers:

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.

A few years ago I heard a paper at an Asian American Studies conference that dealt with this issue. The researcher had found that when a group of students believed that a passage was being read by a Chinese American, they reported lower comprehension, and perhaps more important, they scored lower on comprehension tests, compared to a control group.

In all the years I taught, I felt compelled to give my, You can jolly well understand me, and here is why” lecture on my first class, in my Convent School English (difficult to understand I am sure), doing justice, I hope to Miss Lal, the elocution teacher. When I could understand a Southern drawl watching Gone With The Wind” in India, I didn’t see why my students felt okay about turning in poor work, or was it because their reading was in a foreign accent too?!

The article goes on to say:

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….. The encounters have prompted legislation in at least 22 states requiring universities to make sure that teachers are proficient in spoken English.

Half the people who were my colleagues in film school had no experience with a camera or microphone, yet were teaching classes in filmmaking. Not only that, many of them had very high teaching loads, which interfered with their ability to learn the very skills they were supposed to teach, even if it was in accent-less” English (a thing I don’t think exists). I don’t suppose the legislators in those 22 states put out any money to hire more professors or improve English proficiency. In a situation where most universities rely heavily on cheap graduate student labor, and the Government considers education a lower priority than war, I don’t see how complaining about accents is going to do anything other than promoting xenophobia. Update: Abhi at Sepia Mutiny has a post about the same article.