Thursday, February 6, 2014

Question time

A reader asks for insightful answers, or at least to hear a chorus of "Yeah, that sucks but whaddaya gonna do?"  

Why do these questions make me so thirsty, this being the day before Friday?  Wait, that's not the question for you.  This is.

From Apprentice Academic:

I'm working on a PhD at a large R-1, and one of my duties is to be a teaching assistant. I've encountered a lot of students who don't speak English well. It's beyond subject-verb disagreement, to the point where I often can't understand what the student needs even when they're speaking to me.  One student came to my office hours this week, and even my office-mates weren't able to figure out the student's question. Written assignments are riddled with mistakes that
I'm willing, for the most part, to overlook, but often make it impossible even for me to grasp the larger meaning.

Any advice? Should I continue to try to make sense of this? Obviously I can't make any structural changes to university admission policies, but any advice or strategies would be appreciated!



  1. I'm assuming these are foreign students...? If so, your R-1 probably has an international students' office of some kind. You could ask them if there might be any on-campus support for the furriners--remedial or refresher courses in English, for instance--and/or suggest that such a program would be useful if they don't already have one. Perhaps the writing center would be a resource for written assignments (and again, an R-1 writing center has probably seen such students before and has/should have some kind of system in place for that). Encourage students to avail themselves of any of these campus resources before you try to shoulder any additional burden yourself.

    At the moment of contact, my way of dealing with this problem is to keep asking (as kindly as possible) if s/he might repeat the question, and keep repeating it until I can manage some kind of answer. I rephrase it back to them, and if they respond to the rephrasing I respond. And then I ask them if that response actually answers the question they had--but one aggravating habit among some of the people I meet in my adopted country is saying "yes" or "OK" even when the person has zero clue what s/he is agreeing to. So sometimes you just never know.

  2. Edna is right on. I've had good success maintaining a good relationship with the international students office. One thing that really stood out to me was the cultural miscommunication in addition to the verbal variety.

  3. You mean we shouldn't just speak loudly and then get someone else to handle it? (/snark)

  4. I don't think the question refers to international students, but to native speakers. @Apprentice, does you R-1 require incoming freshmen to take the TOSSENS? (That would be Test of Standard Spoken English for Native Speakers). My U decided to require it after it became clear that freshmen conversant only in the local dialects were having trouble making themselves understood by professors and TAs from distant shores (like California or New York.) They have to get a 5.0 before they're allowed in the classroom.

    1. Tom Lehrer: "He's from Georgia, and he doesn't speak the language very well."

    2. :)
      Rural Georgia is great. Almost as good as Creole country and Appalachian hollers.
      "You're not from around here, are you?"
      But I've had some that were gifted mathematicians and mechanics.

  5. Good advice (especially from Edna, in terms of what to do in the moment, which I've always found difficult, especially when there are 6 other students waiting to ask a question at the end of class. I generally get students who've had a few years in an American college to polish their skills, so L2 learners aren't a huge issue, but we're doing more exchange and partnership programs, and I have the feeling this is going to get harder over the next few years).

    Definitely seek out the resources available at your university, and make a habit of referring students who need help, firmly and regularly, in that direction. In addition, avail yourself of any brief training your university's center for excellence in teaching (or whatever they call it; everybody's got one these days) has in this area, as long as it's practical and not overly time-consuming. This may sound a bit cold, but unless you're getting a Ph.D. in education or linguistics with the goal of teaching English as a second language (and it doesn't sound like you are), working with L2 learners should not be a major focus of your teaching experience -- and your teaching experience, of course, should not take up more hours than it is allotted by your graduate program. Personally, I think we should take pedagogical training of grad students far more seriously; if you become a senior tenured professor, and feel the same then, you can take on the issue then. Right now, that's another structural issue by which you should not be waylaid on your way to the Ph.D. (instead, you should be spending any spare time -- ha! -- identifying and preparing yourself for possible alternative career paths. Leave the structural issues to those who are definitely staying).

    My sense (from the perspective of a state R2) is that students from overseas are one of many "untapped markets" (in this case, a pool of people who will pay full tuition, rent on-campus housing, purchase full dining contracts, etc.) that administrators are avidly pursuing, usually with the pretext of making the existing student body more globally connected/aware. On the surface, it's a good idea, but, as with groups in the USA that administrators identify as "underserved" (e.g. working parents, people living in rural areas, and others who might be willing/eager to go to school entirely online, thus requiring little new campus infrastructure), the hope is always that the new students will be revenue-positive: i.e. they can be taught for less than than they pay, thus generating income that can be applied to other university programs. Such thinking is, of course, a disincentive to creating the targeted services members of these groups often need to succeed. One way you can combat potential exploitation of students in these categories is not to provide the services they need on an ad-hoc basis. Instead, refer students who need help, early and often, to the services that do exist (writing centers and the like keep statistics, often of requests for services that they were unable to meet as well as those they were able to meet), and keep asking both the people who run those services and anyone responsible for teacher training for practical, realistic help in deciding how you can help within the amount of time you're supposed to be spending on TAing, without shortchanging your L1 learners. By dong so, you'll be helping those whose job it is to provide and/or advocate for appropriate services for these groups, and thus, indirectly, the students themselves.

  6. Just wait until you take your required stat course as taught by an international TA...thankfully, everyone got a B

  7. Thanks for all of this advice! I'll definitely look into referring students to the international students office.