Since I myself am a teaching assistant in the sciences I had to jump on this article in the New York Times. Almost everyone whose ever been to college has had some experience with a TA they just couldn’t understand.
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.
There are several issues here in addition to the focus of the article. First, I have no doubt that Ms. Serrin deserved a C. Foreign TA’s are tougher because they are used to expecting more from their students and don’t understand that grade inflation is the norm in the U.S. This is especially true in the sciences. I have to inflate grades all the time, even at a top rated University like the one I attend. A friend of mine, who is now a Post-doc, told me that when he first came from India he was a mean and ruthless TA because that is what he thought a TA was supposed to be like. He didn’t understand why the students were so sensitive. The second issue is the question of why we have so many non-English speaking TAs in the first place. Fewer Americans go into science every year (the exception, I think, is biology). Many in government see this as an impending national security crisis but don’t know what to do about it. American students don’t like all the numbers and “things” associated with science. I can’t tell you how many undergrads seem to lack a basic understanding of the most simple of scientific concepts.
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.
When frustrated because of the language barrier (rightly so) and performing poorly in the class anyways, there seems to be one inevitable recourse:
“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.”