March 4, 2015
When I was in college, I had a teacher from Japan who was literally unintelligible. I remember it very clearly – I remember looking around the classroom in confusion, every time I attended the class, and wondering how it could possibly be happening. During the first class, I made eye-contact with a chick on the other side of the room who was also looking around the room for signs that others viewed it as bizarre, and we both just burst out laughing. We ended up being friends.
This anecdote is to show that this is indeed a very real problem – I know because I’ve experienced it. Asian teachers without basic English schools are being placed as teachers in state universities.
Now, a study has been done, which indicates that the only reason people cannot understand these teachers is that they are racists. This is hard for me to believe, given that at the time, I was pretty much totally non-racist. I just wasn’t anti-racist enough that I was unwilling to laugh at the situation.
Rate My Professors is a student evaluation site that frustrates many professors, who say that the nonscientific standards leave faculty members open to unfair ratings.
Now a new study looks at how students on Rate My Professors rate instructors who have Asian-sounding last names, and the results suggest that these instructors are getting significantly lower scores than those with other last names in Rate My Professors’ categories of clarity and helpfulness.
The author of the study, who also examined comments students make about the instructors, said that his findings raise questions about whether American colleges and universities are as international in outlook at they boast of being — and whether Asian instructors are being reviewed fairly. The study — “She Does Have an Accent But” — has just been published in the journal Language in Society (abstract available here).
Over all, he found that instructors with “American” last names received clarity scores that were 0.60 to 0.80 points higher than did those with Asian names (on a five-point scale), and that they received scores 0.16 to 0.40 points higher on the helpfulness scale.
Subtirelu then looked at the comments students post, and noticed a pattern in which many students introduce remarks (frequently praise) by saying than an instructor “has an accent, but.” He also noted cases where students remarked positively about language, but seemed to view that as a surprise or as something that needed to be shared about someone with an Asian last name. “Her English is perfect” is an example of such a comment. These comments — seemingly positive — suggest a focus of students on Asian instructors’ language skills in evaluating them.
The findings suggest to Subtirelu that there are serious issues facing American colleges and universities that rely on Asian teaching assistants, but his view of the issues is not that American students are being poorly taught. He acknowledges that there may be some individual instructors who are difficult to understand because of their accents or speaking abilities. But Subtirelu is working on another research project in which he’s sitting in on classes led by Asian instructors.
Many have accents, he said. But they are not actually difficult to understand if one makes a little effort. He said that he is concerned that simply having an accent is being viewed as negative. Students appear to be “pushing back against this extra labor of interacting with their instructor, to overcome this extra difficulty that they face with someone who doesn’t share their background.” He added that “this is a big problem for an institution that wants to be an international university.”
Why on earth should students have to work harder to understand the language of a professor? Aren’t they working hard enough, what with all the learning?
And why would any university want to be international? What is the objective value of that?
This is madness. These kids’ parents are paying actual real money for them to attend these universities so that they can learn whatever it is they are supposed to be learning – not so they can struggle to understand accents. The idea that this then becomes White people’s fault shows just how far this whole thing has gone.