MUSG urges TA English ability

Marquette Student Government Senate has passed a recommendation calling for a special task force to evaluate the English proficiency of teaching assistants and professors on campus.

The task force, composed of academic representatives and student leaders, would submit their observations to the Office of the Provost and suggest strategies for improvement.

Proponents of the "Making it Clear" legislation said many students, especially those majoring in math and the sciences, have trouble understanding TAs and professors whose primary language is not English.

Supporters of the recommendation, passed Feb. 24, want to see better strategies for assessing their instructors' English-speaking abilities and improvements in the instructors themselves.

Several senators adamantly opposed the recommendation, saying it would unfairly target Marquette's international population at a time when the university is trying to diversify its staff and student body.

Christopher Hoffman, a College of Engineering sophomore and Schroeder Hall senator, was the author of the recommendation and began drafting it last semester.

He said he experienced varying English proficiency among TAs and professors in some engineering courses.

"I've had people lean over in the middle of a class and say, 'What are they saying?'" Hoffman said.

Ashley Foy, a sophomore in the College of Communication and academic senator for her college, sponsored the recommendation with three other senators.

She said she also had a personal experience in her statistics course with a TA whom she did not understand.

"We don't think the language should be a barrier," she said.

One instructor for whom English is a second language agrees that evaluations are necessary.

"I can't judge myself," said Abdelwahed Sameh, a teaching assistant in the chemistry department. "Someone has to judge me."

But critics in the Senate said the recommendation is aimed against international students and racial and ethnic minorities.

Hoffman and Foy said the recommendation is not meant to discriminate but to close the communication gap between students and instructors.

"It's not my intention to hinder the growth of diversity here," Hoffman said.

International TAs and graduate students are tested in their English language skills before arriving at Marquette, Foy said. But the tests usually take a written form and do not assess the speaking ability of each person.

Hoffman, who discussed the issue with the dean of the College of Engineering, said the procedures are writing-intensive because calling students to talk with them is expensive, time-consuming and difficult due to various time zones.

He said international newcomers may benefit from a total immersion program several weeks before classes start. This is unlikely, Hoffman said, because federal laws restrict the time an international student can be in the United States without teaching or attending classes.

However, Hoffman said he does not have an all-encompassing view of the situation and that is why the recommendation calls for a team effort.

"I don't have all the solutions," he said. "The provost and department chairs and the school deans know so much more than I do. They could use the knowledge together to find solutions."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 3 2005.