“It’s easy, it’s easy”

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.”

19 thoughts on ““It’s easy, it’s easy”

  1. The Universities should not give TA’s to foreign students who have accents which are so thick that no one can understand them. If there are not enough TAs who can speak understandable English, the Universities need to start giving admissions to graduate students who can speak better English. Maybe the Universities should lower their standards and recruit grad students with better spoken English skill and maybe compromise a little on the quality of the grad students.

  2. The TAs who are hired should certainly be able to communicate their subject matter. By the same token though, I went to a top-tier US school, and I was stunned at the amount of grade inflation that went on. It was really quite ridiculous.

  3. If there are not enough TAs who can speak understandable English, the Universities need to start giving admissions to graduate students who can speak better English.

    But thats the point Al Mujahid. There are no other grad students to give admissions to. A university makes more money off the foreign students and gets a vastly superior researcher in return. Would you have them give admissions to inferior students whose only skill is the fact that they speak english better?

  4. Would you have them give admissions to inferior students whose only skill is the fact that they speak english better?

    This ties in to the research focus vs. teaching focus debate. You want the sharper mind in all cases, unless you’re specifically pitching undergrad education, which hardly anybody does.

  5. A very common complaint about research universities is that they don’t provide a very fulfilling undergraduate experience. Researchers don’t want to teach, language barrier or not. I had really bad teachers who could speak perfect English.

    Then, there’s the semester when I had to teach Geology 101 (“Rocks for Jocks” isn’t an entirely disparaging term), almost had to shit-kick the students into attention, and was left with dealing with ALL of them asking for better grades at the end of the semester.

  6. I had really bad teachers who could speak perfect English. I agree with that. The language barrier is a problem but the bigger problem is that the big research schools (known for their engineering programs) do not put much effort into teaching. The grad students (mostly foreigners) are put in front of classes with very little or no training. There is pressure to excel in their classes and conduct research but there is not much emphasis to do a good job on their teaching assignments.

    This is a pity because the first few years of undergrad (particularly freshman year) are when many students drop out of engineering. I believe that the retention rates of women in engineering would likely improve with better teachers (with/without accents) in the early years. . .

  7. I chose to be a research assistant, but if I wanted to be a TA I would have to go through a series of test which tested oral skills and written skills. I can only speak for south asian grad students. As far as what I have seen they are pretty decent at english. Well there is accent and also they put their ideas in different words. But it is not that difficult to understand either.

    And most of the TA were strict in their first semester of work, but the profs told them to be otherwise. so what happens…..after a couple of semesters the TA’s do not care much and all most all of the students make very good scores by the end of the semester. All the students now know that if you go talk to a TA about your score, most probably the score will improve. Now nobody has complaints, but the students don’t improve.

  8. Very interesting post.

    We had to TA as a part of our PhD requirements…..and I did so. No one had a problem with my accent, but they had a torrid time with my grading. I just graded hard, because of the system I came out of, where (even though it was on a GPA scale of 10) only 1 or 2 students would get a 10, a few would make a 9, and so on. So…..I was a little hard on the grades, and the backlash was quite surprising. I think I got the lowest TA ratings in class or something :-)

    Learnt the hard way……the next time I TA’d, I doled out the A’s, and got a superb rating :-)

  9. I took a statistics class freshman year of college from a professor with a VERY pronounced accent and a habit of calling z-variables “g-variables.”

    If I hadn’t read the book and kept up with the work, that might have confused me.

    But I read the book and kept up with the work, and made an A in the class. The accent was not so much of a barrier. I feel very little sympathy for a student who gets a C and blames it on her TA’s accent.

    Now if the TA did not understand or speak enough English to get the ideas across, THAT I can understand. However, don’t all international students have to take and pass the TOEFL to even get admitted to grad school here?

    Abhi’s right about the grade inflation though. As an education professional, let me say that it is ridiculous – and ubiquitous. There’s a lot of students who actually believe that by forking over thousands of dollars of tuition money, they deserve an A, or at the least, a B. The concept of actually having to study and work for that A don’t even play in. Don’t take my word for it though.

  10. Wacky. I may blog about this myself later. . .

    Cough cough, I don’t mean to be snotty, but I’ve been told, at other top tier research schools, by several people including a Nobel laureate, that Berkeley is generally regarded as having less grade inflation than most when it comes to the sciences.

    At large research universities, education is self-service anyway, accent or no accent

    Absolutely true. But I have to say my undergraduate education (at Berkeley, in physics) was very, very strongly influenced and serviced by top notch graduate students. When I wonder “what might have been” had I gone to a liberal arts college, I’m always struck by the gaping hole that would have been left without dozens of talented, smart, warm grad students to teach me, counsel me, encourage me, help me with my homework, inspire me with their research, and caution me with their woes. I’m a little biased because a lot of these people are still some of my best and closest friends in the world, but that just goes to show you the extent to which they took a strong and positive interest in my education. At least three of them were double majors in English, so that should give you some idea about their communications skills. Casting my memory back, I only ever had one TA who didn’t have an absolutely great command of English–it was a little painful to hear him say over and over again, “force = mass time laceration! Calculate the laceration!” He was adaquate besides that.

    I just thought I’d put some counter anecdotal evidence out there. The problem fundamentally boils down to a shortage in the pipeline starting as early as middle school and high school. If middle schoolers aren’t tracked into Algebra they may not make it to Calculus; if high schoolers don’t take Calculus in high school they can find a way to avoid it in college. If college students stay away from the hard courses there’s no one to apply to grad school. Mean while in China the government sponsors GRE workshops that pretty much eat up the higher percentiles; and we all know how much experience our Indian cousins have at taking exams. Professors need warm bodies to fill their labs and will get them where they can. Everythign else equal, they certainly don’t prefer foreign students–they’re much more expensive to fund at the graduate level. So part of the problem is that American students are, on the whole, a bit lazier and less well prepared then they should be. But another part of the problem is that research universities are always going to pick their graduate students based on research expectations, not teaching ability, and are always going to use those same graduate students to teach basic classes until they’re funded. You can gripe and moan about that, or you can work with it, taking advantage of it where it helps you, and finding alternatives of it when it works against you.

    And there are plenty of alternatives. I took that same freshman chemistry class with those same premeds. Right off the top of my head I can tell her what to do. Freshman chemistry at Berkeley always, always has grouped office hours, where you can go get help from another TA, not your own. If you live in the dorms there are tutors in those dorms for classes like Chemistry. You can also use the Student Learning Center for free. I don’t know if it’s still active, but if there’s a student branch of the American Chemistry society, there are often juniors and seniors on hand to help out. Not to mention that freshman chemistry often has associate TAs–seniors who are working on an education minor or somesuch–and they also hold office hours.

    Don’t get me wrong. Berkeley’s incredibly hard, and whipped me many many times. There are a lot of things I’d like to change about it. But this does seem a bit whiny.

  11. … “force = mass time laceration! Calculate the laceration!”

    If you’re talking about a projectile aimed at a human, that’s not far off :) Anyhow, afte my time at Berkeley I’d gladly take incomprehensible TA’s in exchange for professors who are good teachers. The one math prof whose clarity I loved used my note of appreciation (well after grades were released) as a job reference :) Sadly, his teaching was much better than my grade.

  12. Or you could have ended up with a TA like myself, who did NOT grade hard, but hardly graded. We were to simple watch the students for their overly diehard cheating tactics, let them pass with whatever they wish, and focus on our graduate thesis…

  13. Shashwati has an interesting take on this same article, pointing out that some of this is bias:

    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.

    If anybody knows of similar research, and can provide links, it would be interesting …

  14. Maybe I’ve been out of school for too long, but my first thought in response to all of this is “F**ing WAAH!”

    Aren’t these poor whiners going to encounter real live human beings in the real world as their colleagues, bosses, clients, partners…and perhaps those human beings just might have accents? Suck it up, lazy college kids- quit expecting your education to be spoon fed to you, and accept the fact that you might have to translate something said by a foreign-accented TA to terms comprehensible to you, on top of trying to learn. oh, waah for you… it all further enables the apathy and laziness.

    I’m trying to restrain myself here, but there are many educators in our family and I just think complaining to a teacher when the student themself is not taking advantage of the educational opportunities available is setting a bad behavioral trend of deluded self-entitlement. -Like these brats deserve an A just for showing up??

    agh. now I sound like my mom. :|

  15. When I read about Ms. Serrin I just thought “You’re not in high school anymore.” Sure, some T.A.’s are a bit difficult to understand but students need to put in the extra effort at the college level to bridge that understanding gap.

    Many Americans leave their high schools ill prepared for college. They will get into the very bad habit of trying to mention everything including contradictory things in the hope of nailing whatever the Professor was looking for as an answer. When I saw answer like that, I would not give credit. And, yes, the students complained.

  16. Ennis‘ excerpt encapsulated my gut response to this post. When I was an undergrad, I noted that a lot of students that were otherwise quite bright would throw their hands up in frustration the moment their TAs exhibited the slightest sign of an accent. In fact, I used to function as the liaison between the TAs and the students at times. So, this smacks of bias to me.

    It’s undeniable that graduate programs in the sciences have a larger emphasis on research, and that there is a shortage of qualified candidates within the US. When I was in graduate school, teaching was a requirement that was considered of the lowest priority, and was mainly a way to provide a stipend for students who had not yet secured research grants. Since that’s the lot we find ourselves in, I think it’s critical to learn to communicate with others despite their accent. After all, it is likely that, upon graduating, a lot of these students will encounter similar accents in the workplace if they remain in science.

    Or, in other words, what everyone else said. :)

  17. If you US universities are facing shortage of good TAs, they should review their policies and allow more qualifies foreign candidates, who have already graduated but wants to work in US university for the sack of their research interest, but do not have post doctoral fellowship or any other kind of financial support. Since such candidates would not be busy with the regular courses, their research output will be substaintial too. XYZ

  18. I completely sympathise with the Berkeley student. I am a grad student now and I try to avoid Chinese teachers and TA as much as possible. Thankfully the Chinese professors in the department have been in the US for decades, so their English is pretty ok. English proficiency of Chinese grad students is quite pathetic and it is hard to do research with people where you have to spend so much time understanding what they are trying to say. I find this quite surprising, since Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world, yet the Chinese have such a hard time speaking good English.