By Karen Wolf

Ann Darling had been a communication professor at the University of Utah for four years, but she still wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into the new liberal education class in September 1996.

The two-week, pre-fall course, “Building Community In and Outside the Classroom: Exploring Linguistic and Cultural Diversity,” was an innovation for the U. The course tackled the sensitive topic of language and culture diversity, but with a twist; part of the sessions were to be taught by rookie international teaching assistants (ITAs), graduate students who would be critiqued by their undergraduate students.

The point, organizers hoped, was to give the ITAs teaching experience before the autumn quarter ensued. Yet it was also intended to break down cultural barriers and increase international awareness among U undergraduate students, many of whom had never encountered an instructor with an accent.

It wasn’t the first time the University had addressed ITA classroom training, but it was certainly a new tack.

Since 1991, ITA workshops – minus the undergraduates – had been held each fall that focused on cross-cultural awareness, classroom management, classroom language, and better comprehensibility.

But despite all the training and testing – since 1992, all potential ITAs had been required to pass a spoken English test, in addition to the written English requirements already established by the U – negative student attitudes had persisted over the years. Many undergraduates were still complaining that some ITAs’ accents were causing them to earn poor grades. And those negative impressions were being passed around, whether they were true or not.

By involving undergraduates in ITA training, “Building Community In and Outside the Classroom” ushered in new ways of addressing the problem. And Darling, who at the time was interim director of the U’s Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, accompanied by a handful of other University administrators, was about to find out how well the class had worked.

Valued, Yet Disparaged

About half a million international graduate and undergraduate students are enrolled in U.S. colleges today, according to the Almanac of Higher Education. The most common way for these graduate students to finance their education is by working as teaching assistants in their departments’ undergraduate classes. Universities typically rely on these students, many of whom are found in science and math departments, to lead discussion groups, conduct labs, and help grade papers and exams. Many also work as research assistants.

The University of Utah is no exception. Last year at the U, 18 percent or 110 of the TAs on campus were non-native speakers of English.

Academic affairs experts frequently consider non-native TAs a mixed blessing.

While international graduate students are vital for the assistance they provide professors, many ITAs, like their American counterparts, have had no prior teaching experience. Combine that weakness with heavily accented – although technically accurate – spoken English, plus the unfamiliarity of American culture, and the circumstance becomes ripe for student frustration and complaints.

The issue, however, hasn’t been taken lightly at the U. For the past seven years, deans, department chairs, professors and directors have continuously developed, improved, and expanded the training of international teaching assistants.

The required passing score for the ITAs’ spoken language exam is higher now than it was two years ago. Today’s ITAs are given trial runs before classes of undergraduates, and by faculty in their own departments. And the ITAs now have advisors who evaluate their performance by frequently observing their teaching and student interactions throughout the year.

“We do not provide only screening and workshops,” says Ann Hart, dean of the Graduate School. “We provide on-going support. The University of Utah accepts responsibility for making sure that our students are successful with the instructors provided to them. And we will continue to provide support to all our instructors to help them be successful.”

Eight years ago, formal ITA training wasn’t such a high priority. Then Rosemarie Brittner-Mahyera, director of the U’s English Language Institute (ELI), came on the scene.

In the late 1980s, Brittner-Mahyera, a specialist in English as a second language, noticed that complaints about ITAs were rising nationally. Lawsuits were being filed against universities by people who were afraid that with a non-native teacher in the classroom, a student who couldn’t understand his or her ITA might become injured conducting lab experiments.

Brittner-Mahyera, who started the ELI in 1990, began wondering if the same could happen at the U. Alarmed, she assembled a group of department chairs to discuss a plan. “I said, ‘Shouldn’t we be doing something here?’” she recalls.

Until then, training for American and international TAs had been handled by individual departments, if at all. Although international graduate students had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam to be admitted to the U, not much additional training was provided, or for that matter, required.

In 1991, Brittner-Mahyera teamed up with Rick Steiner, then-associate dean of the Graduate School, to create an all-encompassing ITA training program. “I really saw [Steiner] as a visionary because he really understood the problems,” Brittner-Mahyera says.

Together, the two developed a voluntary pilot program based on successful ITA training sessions already in place at many universities. The program was backed, both in concept and funding, by Interim President Jerilyn McIntyre, who was then vice president of academic affairs.

The 20-hour program, sponsored by the Graduate School and conducted by the ELI, enrolled about 25 ITAs that year. Its purpose was not only to improve the ITAs’ teaching skills, but to acclimate them to American attitudes in the classroom.

The international student-teachers had to be taught, for example, that American professors usually prefer a laid-back, give-and-take classroom rapport rather than taking a stern, distant posture. The ITAs, not surprisingly, had been mimicking teaching skills they had observed in role models from their home countries – practices that don’t necessarily work in American classrooms.

They were exposed to all sorts of new teaching customs during the training.

In five videotaped sessions, each ITA simulated first-day-of-class introductions and course overviews, led a discussion, and explained concepts in front of fellow teaching assistants. Afterwards, the ITAs and their instructors critiqued the taped performances.

The program was such a success that it was approved as a mandatory class for all new ITAs the following year.

“You can understand how the clash in American classrooms forms. If you teach them the little things, like, not to answer questions while facing the blackboard, I think it makes a difference in their teaching style,” Brittner-Mahyera says.

That wasn’t the only new ITA requirement adopted in 1992. Under a U policy effective that fall, ITAs were required to pass a Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit (SPEAK) test – also known as the Test of Spoken English, or TSE – before being allowed to teach. Students who scored below 180 out of a possible 250 were required to pass an English-as-a-second-language course with a B or better before they could instruct. Those who didn’t meet that requirement were allowed to grade papers or do lab work that didn’t require extensive work with students. Those who scored in the 180-250 range were enrolled in the two-week ITA orientation.

The requirements, and the language institute autumn sessions, continued for the next three years. But more fine tuning in ITA training was in the works.

Breaking down barriers

In the spring of 1995, the Utah Alumni Association asked Tehila Associates, Inc., to conduct an “Institutional Perception Study” to figure out what current and college-bound students thought about the U.

Although focus group participants deemed the University “a very good school and by far, the best local school,” the students, not surprisingly, also had various complaints. The most prominent were problems with teaching assistants, which were mentioned in every group of students, including high school seniors, who had heard negative rumors. Namely, students said the basic problems were the TAs’ teaching abilities and their lack of proficiency in spoken English.

Tehila Associates recommended that the ITA training be expanded to improve the language and teaching skills of the teaching assistants.

Clearly, the ITAs needed more long-term support than what the two-week training was able to provide.

University administrators and professors were concurrently developing strategies to further those efforts. First of all, the University hired 35 new TAs called University Teaching Assistants (UTAs), one of whom was to work with the ITAs in the linguistics department. The UTA program was “explicitly designed to enhance innovations in undergraduate education,” Dean Hart says.

Richard McClane BA’89 MA’97, a graduate student assigned to linguistics, was hired as that department’s first UTA. McClane’s role was to observe and evaluate first-year ITAs campus-wide for a year, but he also conducted surveys of ITA-taught students, wrote new policy guidelines for ITAs, and served as their mentor. In addition, he later conducted a study to determine if ITA-taught students really did receive poorer grades than their counterparts taught by native English speakers, as alleged by students on campus. McClane found no substantial differences among the grades, although his study drew fire because it didn’t take into account the amount of study time students put into their course work, or other factors which could have affected their grades.

By the end of the school year, the benefit of having a supervising UTA in linguistics was so obvious that the department requested an additional one. This year, two UTAs, Diane Cotsonas BA’97 and Ann Bardwell, monitor the ITAs, and provide more counseling and advice to them.

“The ITA program is a perfect match with the goals of the UTA program,” Hart says. Meanwhile, UTA advisor Steven Sternfeld, a professor who has a joint appointment in the department of languages and literature and in the linguistics program, had been mulling over an idea.

For the past several years, Sternfeld’s students had been performing service-learning projects in conjunction with their classroom work. On several occasions, the students had been paired with English Language Institute international students to work as language tutors.

The required passing score for the ITAs’ spoken language exam is higher now than it was two years ago. Today’s ITAs are given trial runs before classes of undergraduates, and by faculty in their own departments. And the ITAs now have advisors who evaluate their performance by frequently observing their teaching and student interactions throughout the year.

Then the idea struck him; he called ELI Director Brittner-Mahyera. “I said, `has to be a way of using my students with your international TAs’,” he recalls. But the plan didn’t take root until 1996, when Sternfeld’s department asked him to create a new ITA training program.

Sternfeld, along with colleague Randall Gess, former UTA McClane, and the department’s new UTAs, Jacqueline Croswhite MA’97 and Kathleen McCann Klaiber MA’97, prepared to take over the training, and developed a new program, “Teaching and Learning Across Cultures.” It combined ITA training with a new liberal education course in the “Problems in Human Values” series, called “Building Community In and Outside the Classroom: Exploring Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.”

To Sternfeld, the class was more than just about teaching instructional techniques, or introducing undergraduates to people from different cultures. It was about breaking down the barriers that prevent Americans from appreciating and understanding foreigners, and about the tolerance it takes to have an open mind. Once barriers are removed, he reasoned, people may be more willing – and skilled – to communicate with one another.

“The idea is to say that [the ITAs and the American undergraduates] have assets. If we bring them together, then from strength, people are encouraged to recognize what their differences are, and can collaborate as a means of resolving their issues,” he says.

Plus, the undergraduates, as part of the class’s service-learning component, could provide valuable advice to the ITAs about their teaching strengths and weaknesses.

During the two-week course, students and ITAs ate meals together, worked on team-building skills and shared ideas in group discussions, in addition to participating in the ITA-taught classes. And by the course’s end, something magical had happened: the undergraduates and the ITAs were able to understand each other better, and had even forged friendships.

“I was euphoric,” Sternfeld says.

It was on the last day of that new program that CTLE interim director Darling and her colleagues had come to visit. The students were “honest, brutally honest,” about the ITA experience, recalls Darling, who was appointed director of the CTLE July 1.

Some undergraduates admitted they wanted to walk out during the first week of class, but didn’t. Others expressed surprise at being able to eventually understand their ITAs.

It was enlightening, Darling says. By the end of the class, “it was not even a question” that the course would be held again. It was too clear.”

The second year of the ITA-undergraduate training class was held again last September, and, like before, received accolades from students and ITAs alike. In fact, on the last day of class, several students who approached the lectern to share their thoughts broke down in tears when discussing how rewarding the two-week experience had been.

During a reception following the program, students continued to reflect on the course.

For Noriko Okada BA’96, a second-year linguistics graduate student who also attended the U as an undergraduate, the experience was eye-opening.

Originally from Tokyo, Okada, 24, has spent the past year in the U’s graduate program, but in a non-teaching role. So the training was helpful, she says, especially when it came to correcting the little nervous mannerisms that would crop up when she practiced her teaching skills.

Okada, whose English has a trace of an accent but few difficulties communicating with her American friends, wasn’t completely prepared for the high level of fluency and clarity demanded by the undergraduate students.

But the classes were helpful in recognizing these concerns. “I feel so much better” about teaching, she says. “It was helpful.”

Dave Williams, a burly 26-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair and a penchant for public speaking, also reflected on the course.

Admittedly, Williams, a senior English major with a theater minor, initially took the class to fulfill a humanities requirement. “But I got a lot more than I bargained for,” he says.

Although he considered himself open-minded, the class still made him realize that “instead of focusing so much on other people’s differences, to stop and consider my own biases. I’m really impressed with (the ITAs’) competence, and I wish we had more of them in different departments,” he says.

Students who tend to blame ITAs for their poor grades should also take a better look at themselves and the efforts they put toward learning, he added.

Malinda Tall, a 23-year-old senior music major, enjoyed the class so much that she was sorry she couldn’t have taken it twice during her college career.

“At the beginning, I felt we came as individuals, but that we left as a group,” she says. “I realized that we can learn so much more from (the ITAs) than I thought. Just because they have an accent doesn’t mean they can’t speak English.”

Schooled in American Ways

The University has continued to examine its requirements in the hiring of ITAs. In late 1995, the Educational Testing Service rescaled the scoring for the SPEAK/TSE test and asked universities to set new minimums. The U assembled a committee to determine what score would be fair. After a trial year with a minimum score of 40, this fall Utah boosted its requirement to 50 – out of a possible 60 points. Additionally, most departments now hold supplemental teaching sessions with ITAs, and American TAs, under consideration for teaching positions before offering teaching assignments. The English Language Institute also offers supplemental classes for ITAs who want to further improve their teaching skills.

“It gives the department a sense of whether or not they want an international student as a teaching assistant,” Dean Hart says. “The focus is, do the students comprehend you, not do you think you speak English well. Is your English comprehensible to Utah 18-, 19-, and 20-year olds?”

Members of the University administration do not deny that some students may have legitimate complaints about their ITAs, and that a few prove to be unqualified to teach. But it’s hard to gauge just how big the problem is.

“I was recently in a student meeting where this topic was discussed,” says David Pershing, acting vice president for budget and planning. “Two students in the group provided exactly opposite views. One said his best experiences had been with (international) graduate teaching assistants while another felt that she had experienced poor-quality instruction.

“I believe that both are likely correct, and that is why we have to continually work on improving the quality of the instruction.”

The bottom line, professor Sternfeld says, is that both ITAs and their students must keep an open mind about each other’s culture, and not place the blame for the lack of understanding on either set of shoulders.

“It’s not a TA problem, it’s not an undergraduate problem,” he says.”It’s simply a shared experience, where, if both sides withdraw, you’re going to have some very unsuccessful teaching. But if both sides reach out, you’re going to have some very powerful teaching.”

– Karen Wolf is a writer with the University News Service. She worked previously as a reporter for the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association