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March 07, 2007 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2007-03-07

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Why complaining about your
GSI's accent is a waste of time
(and racist)
Some students are blaming their
academic troubles on their GSIs'
accents. It's an easy way out. It's also
the wrong one.
By Gabe Nelson I Daily News Editor

Likemanystudents atthe Univer-
sity, Business sophomore Eric
Brackmann can't understand
his graduate student instructor.
Brackmann tried to under-
stand his economics GSI's accent, but
he found communication "impossible."
"I just gave up," Brackmann said.
Now Brackmann lets his mind wan-
der during class.
"I tend to zone out for about the first
10 minutes as the GSI speaks," he said.
Experiences like Brackmann's have
become increasingly common in the
new, global world of higher education.
With an increase in the number of inter-
national graduate student instructors
at the University, administrators have
dealt with an upswing in complaints
from students saying their GSIs don't
speak English fluently.
Scott Kassner, a student advisor for
the College of Literature, Science and
the Arts, said at least one student per
semester asks him for advice about a
GSI the student can't understand. But
unrest about accents is more significant
than that number indicates, he said.
"They might not be bringing it to our
office, but we hear it and it happens," he
Many students will drop out of a
class or switch to another section of the
same class if they find the GSI too hard

to understand. Some stay in the class.
Some mock the GSI's speech and treat
the experience as an unpleasant rite of
passage. And some actually learn more
than they signed up for.
In a world where many occupations
require employees to be able to under-
stand people from other countries,
understanding people from different
areas is increasingly important. While
a student might be able to avoid taking
a class with an international GSI now,
they might regret that decision when
they're working for a Chinese-owned
company with co-workers who didn't
grow up in the Midwest.
For many, however, the prospect of
sitting in a corporate board room trying
to figure out what everyone else is saying
isn't as frightening as failingcalculus.
One solution would be to forbid non-
native English speakers from teach-
ing classes, or on an individual level,
to make sure all your GSIs speak Eng-
lish well. To quite a few students, that
doesn't seem like a terrible idea.
It is.
While some students give up when
confronted with a hard-to-understand
GSI, others learned from the struggle.
Although it made the class harder, it

with their teachers, said mathematics
lecturer Karen Rhea.
All six GSIs currently teaching reci-
tation sections for Mathematics 216 are
international GSIs.
Science and math classes tend to elicit
the most complaints about hard-to-
understand GSIs because the classes are
more difficult. Students will often blame
their problems on an international GSI to
avoid blaming themselves, Kassner said.
"Let's say a student is having trouble
in calculus," the LSA student advi-
sor said. "Is that difficulty in calculus
because of the way the GSI is speaking
or is that because calculus is tough?"
Kassner said international GSIs are an
important element of a modern under-
graduate education because they expose
students to diverse cultures and accents.
"One of the great advantages of being
at a university like the University of
Michigan is that you get to encounter
people from all over the world," Kassner
said. "Students should ask themselves,
'What canI learn from this person?"
Not trying can be a form of racism.
Mocking international GSIs and blam-
ing them for communication problems
remains seenaslargely acceptable on cam-
pus, even though other forms of discrimi-
nation are increasingly taboo.

The Every Three Weekly,
a campus satire publication,
published an article making
fun of foreign professors called
"North Campus Adopts Bloken
Engrish As Official Language" last
"Engineers, we all in same boat,
and boat take you across watel,
and watel is ranguage," the article
read. "Is a metaphol. Okay? Meta-
Linguistics Prof. Kathryn
Campbell-Kibler said articles like
that draw on old stereotypes but
use them in a new way.
Asian language stereotypes have
traditionally been used to depict Asian
characters as stupid or inept. Although
the characteristics of the mock lan-
guage have remained the same - for
example, an inability to distinguish
between the letters "1" and "r" - it is
now used to say Asians are good at math
and science and bad at language skills,
Campbell-Kibler said.
Research shows that college students
react differently to teachers from dif-
ferent national backgrounds.
In a 1990 experiment by sociolin-
guists D.L. Rubin and K.A. Smith,
undergraduates said a recorded lecture
was easier to understand when played
See ACCENTS, Page 7B

English LearningInstitute tutor Carson Maynard (right) practices tongue-twisters at an infor-
mal pronunciation session with graduate students working on minimizing their foreign accents.
taught them how to communicate with could be seen as a good thing," Charl-
people who don't speak English clearly, ton said. "Eventually, I could figure out
LSA sophomore Corinne Charlton what they were saying."
said she had trouble understanding her Many intro-level science and math
foreign economics and calculus GSIs at courses at the University are taught by
first but eventually learned to commu- GSIs rather than by professors because
nicate with them. it allows for smaller, more intimate
"It forced me to pay attention, so it classes where students can interact

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