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Seminar bridges gap with foreign TAs

If you are an Ohio State student, chances are you’ve had a teaching assistant in one of your classes. In Autumn Quarter, 2,164 graduate TAs taught at the university, some of whom were not born in the United States, said Ken Orr, operational analyst in the Office of Academic Affairs.

While the university takes pride in its diversity, some students worry about understanding their international TAs in the classroom.

This issue will be the topic of discussion Tuesday at a University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT)-sponsored seminar in the Younkin Success Center.

The seminar, “Strategies for Communicating Effectively with Your International TA,” is a part of the Undergraduate Colloquium Series, a year-long series of academically enriching workshops centered around a theme. This year’s theme is immigration, identity and citizenship.

Laurie Maynell, instructional consultant at UCAT, said the seminar is a “coming together of many things.”

The topic of international TAs in the classroom is in line with this year’s theme, Maynell said. The event is also filling a need on campus.

“I have heard that there are undergraduate students on campus who, as soon as they walk in their classroom on the first day and see a foreign face, they go, ‘Oh my gosh, this class is going to be awful,'” Maynell said.

She said she hopes the seminar will give students a new perspective and better attitude.

“When we thought about the topic, it was really about bridging cultural differences,” Maynell said. “Some of the strategies are going to be about understanding the person better who is your TA … and being patient in understanding their English.”

Sean Edwards, a third-year in biology, said he has had good and bad experiences with international TAs at OSU.

“It’s either hit or miss,” Edwards said.

One TA in particular was especially challenging, Edwards said.

“I had one that would just explain things 10 times and you wouldn’t be able to understand a single thing she said,” he said.

Ruth Roberts-Kohno, one of the facilitators of the seminar and a lecturer in the Spoken English Program, which trains and certifies international TAs, said fear and misconceptions often get in the way of effective communication.

“Students have certain expectations based on cultural stereotypes or what you’ve seen in movies, but actually those expectations are going to hinder your understanding of your TA,” Roberts-Kohno said.

The Spoken English Program screens international TAs for language proficiency and places them in language classes before they teach in a classroom, Roberts-Kohno said.

Each quarter-long class focuses heavily on language, pronunciation and American culture.

“We want them to understand more about undergraduates and undergraduate life,” said Ron Clason, academic program specialist in the Spoken English Program and seminar facilitator.

The American education system is very different from the systems in many other countries, so the classes also teach the future TAs what to expect, Clason said.

For example, Clason said that in some countries, asking the instructor questions during class, a common practice in American classrooms, is considered disrespectful.

“If we don’t expose them to the American education system and what the possibilities are, they can be offended,” Roberts-Kohno said.

To immerse graduate students in the culture of an American university, undergraduate students are brought in to the language classes, Roberts-Kohno said.

“Part of this cultural component that we’ve developed is getting our students to meet and talk with undergrads at different points in their English study,” Roberts-Kohno said.

She doesn’t think undergraduate students know about the training international TAs receive before setting foot in a classroom.

“We want people to understand that this (training) is happening because a lot of people still think nothing is going on with the (international) TAs,” Roberts-Kohno said. “(International TAs) are taking responsibility for being a good teacher, but the communication goes both ways.”

Joel Moreira, a TA in the math department, came to OSU last year after completing his undergraduate degree in Portugal, his home country.

Moreira has been a TA for Math 151 since September and said students should be proactive if they are confused in class.

“They should do something if they have a problem understanding,” Moreira said. “They should come talk to me at the end of class and in office hours, send me an email.”

Like Moreira, Kathi Cennamo, coordinator of the Spoken English Program and seminar facilitator, said students have to take control of their own situation.

“The worst thing that you can do is sit back and nod and then hate it and then just don’t go to the class,” Cennamo said. “And I think probably most people do that.”

Despite the negative attitudes of some undergraduate students, Maynell said she knows there are others who feel differently.

“I know that there are a lot of undergraduate students out there making a good effort to understand and who are sensitive to the fact that their teacher is negotiating a new culture,” Maynell said. “I guess I’d just like to see that attitude a little bit more.”


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