The Michigan Daily
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
Like many students at the
University, Business sopho-
more Eric Brackmann can't
understand his graduate
Brackmann tried to understand
his economics GSI's accent, but
he found communication "impos-
"I just gave up," Brackmann
Now Brackmann lets his mind
wander during class.
"I tend to zone out for about the
first 10 minutes as the GSI speaks,"
Experiences like Brackmann's
have become increasingly common
in the new, global world of higher
education. With an increase in the
number of international graduate
student instructors at the Uni-
versity, administrators have dealt
with an upswing in complaints
from students saying their GSIs
don't speak English fluently.
Scott Kassner, a student advi-
sor 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 said.
Many students will drop out of
a class or switch to another sec-
tion 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 occupa-
tions require employees to be able
to understand people from other
countries, understanding people
from different areas is increas-
ingly important. While a student
might be able to avoid taking a
class with an international GSI
now, they might regret that deci-
sion when they're working for a
Chinese-owned company with co-
workers who didn't grow up in the
For many, however, the prospect
trying to figure out what everyone
else is saying isn't as frightening as
One solution would be to forbid
non-native English speakers from
teaching classes, or on an indi-
vidual level, to make sure all your
GSIs speak English well. To quite
a few students, that doesn't seem
like a terrible idea.
THOSE WHO STAY WILL
While some students give up
when confronted with a hard-to-
understand GSI, others learned
from the struggle. Although it
From page 11C
She would be waiting at the
kitchen counter for him with a
bottle of Chivas Regal scotch,
Schembechler went on to play
college football at Miami (Ohio),
where he started at offensive tack-
le. Late in his career, he played
under Woody Hayes, then Miami's
coach. Hayes went on to coach at
After graduating from Miami in
1951, Schembechler signed on as
a graduate assistant under Hayes,
who had taken over the head
coach's job at Ohio State. There,
Schembechler earned his master's
degree in physical education.
Following a tour of duty in the
U.S. Army and brief assistant
coaching stints at Presbyterian
College in South Carolina, Bowl-
ing Green and Northwestern,
Schembechler returned to Colum-
bus as one of Hayes's assistants.
He served under Hayes for five
more seasons before being hired
as Miami's head coach in 1963.
Schembechler led the Redskins
(now the Redhawks) to a 40-17-
3 record in six seasons with the
While coaching at Miami,
Schembechler received job offers
from Tulane, Vanderbilt and Pitts-
burgh, Bacon said. Schembechler
turned them all down. His sights
were set on another job.
"He was utterly passionate
about Michigan," Bacon said. "He
knew as a kid growing up in Ohio
about Michigan's great tradition."
In 1969, Michigan Athletic
Director Don Canham needed
someone to rebuild a program
that had floundered during Bump
Elliott's 10-year tenure.
After interviewing Schem-
bechler, Canham knew he had
found the right man to return
Michigan to its former glory.
"His personality just struck
me right away," Canham told The
Michigan Daily in 2004. "I hired
him 15 minutes after we began to
talk. That was the turning point in
my career as athletic director."
Schembechler didn't take long
to cement his legacy at Michigan.
In his first season, the Wolverines
came into their matchup with Ohio
State as 17-pointunderdogs against
made the class harder, it taught
them how to communicate with
people who don't speak English
LSA sophomore Corinne
Charlton said she had trouble
understanding her foreign eco-
nomics and calculus GSIs at first
but eventually learned to commu-
nicate with them.
"It forced me to pay atten-
tion, so it could be seen as a good
thing," Charlton said. "Eventu-
ally, I could figure out what they
Many intro-level science and
math courses at the University
are taught by GSIs rather than
by professors because it allows
for smaller, more intimate classes
where students can interact with
their teachers, said mathematics
lecturer Karen Rhea.
All six GSIs currently teaching
recitation sections for Mathemat-
ics 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. Stu-
dents will often blame their prob-
lems on an international GSI to
avoid blaming themselves, Kass-
"Let's say a student is hav-
ing trouble in calculus," the LSA
student advisor said. "Is that dif-
ficulty 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 undergraduate education
because they expose students to
diverse cultures and accents.
"One of the great advantages of
being at a university like the Uni-
versity of Michigan is that you get
to encounter people from all over
theworld," Kassnersaid. "Students
should ask themselves, 'What can
I learn from this person?"
Not trying can be a form of rac-
Mocking international GSIs and
blaming them for communication
problems remains seen as largely
acceptable on campus, even though
other forms of discrimination are
The Every Three Weekly, a cam-
pus satire publication, published
an article making fun of foreign
professors called "North Campus
Adopts Bloken Engrish As Official
Language" last month.
"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
an undefeated Buckeye squad.
But the oddsmakers didn't
account for the new man on the
"He knew which guys to kick in
the pants and which guys to pat on
the head," Bacon said. "He was the
single best motivator college foot-
ball has ever seen."
"If you were in his office deliv-
ering water jugs or sandwiches,
he would motivate you before you
left," he said.
In practice the week before the
game, Schembechler taped "50-14"
on the back of his players' helmets
to remind them of their devastat-
ing defeat a year earlier.
The Wolverines came out of the
tunnel at Michigan Stadium with a
new determination. They shocked
Ohio State with a 24-12 win, earn-
ing Michigan its first trip to the
Rose Bowl since 1964.
That win set off what came to
be known as the Ten-Year War,
a series of bitterly fought games
between Schembechler and
Hayes, his former mentor. Those
years intensified the Michigan-
Ohio State rivalry, making it one
of the most legendary in American
Over his coaching career,
Schembechler continued to build
his legacy as a Michigan icon. His
toughness was unquestioned, his
fairness universally praised and
his temper legendary. Schem-
bechler fostered a sense of Michi-
gan pride in his teams. He focused
on developing his players as more
than just linemen or quarterbacks.
"When we talk about the teams
and how he prepared us to play,
we also look at how he got us pre-
pared to go on after football," said
Betts, who played quarterback and
safety under Schembechler in 1969
and 1970. "When you look around
the country today at the guys who
played for him, there's something
very, very special about them"
On the field, his coaching style
was simple: Michigan would play
hard-nosed football, grinding out
wins with tough power running
and an unshakable defense.
The formula worked.
Schembechler retired as head
coach after the 1989 season with
a .796 career winning percentage,
having brought Michigan to 17
bowls. Schembechler's Wolverines
never had a losing season. With
234 career wins, Schembechler
ranks 10th all-time among Divi-
depict Asian characters as stupid
or inept. Although the character-
istics of the mock language have
remained the same - for example,
an inability to distinguish between
the letters "I" 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 teach-
ers from different national back-
In a 1990 experiment by socio-
linguists D.L. Rubin and K.A.
Smith, undergraduates said
a recorded lecture was easi-
er to understand when played
alongside a picture of a white
woman than alongside a picture of
an Asian woman.
A 2005 experiment by Stepha-
nie Lindemann showed that the
average student college student
has a more negative impression
of Chinese, Russian and Mexican
accents than of standard Ameri-
can English. The students in Lin-
demann's study ranked Chinese
accents as the least prestigious.
Complaints by students about
hard-to-understand GSIs might be
a kind of hidden racism, Campbell-
Axelson said she spoke to an
Italian economics GSI who experi-
enced discrimination based on his
accent. The GSI, who was white
and dressed like an American, had
already lived in the United States
for two years and was fluent in
"He was pretty at home here,"
Axelson said. "Based on his looks,
you could easily think he was
As the GSI entered the class-
room and prepared for the begin-
ning of class, he felt positive vibes,
Axelson said. When he spoke with
his Italian accent, though, every-
"People's faces closed off and
they became hostile," Axelson
sion I-A coaches.
The only blemish on Schem-
bechler's otherwise sterling
coaching resume was his team's
performance in bowl games.
Schembechler's Michigan squads
went 5-12 in bowls and never won
a national title.
But in the rivalry against Ohio
State, Schembechler's teams put
up a strong 11-9-1 record - a stark
contrastto his predecessor Elliott's
3-7 record against the Buckeyes.
The Wolverines' current streak
of 100,000-plus fans in attendance
began during Schembechler's ten-
ure at a game against Purdue on
Nov. 8, 1975.
The phrase "Those who stay will
be champions" - which Schem-
bechler coined in his first season
said. "That whole friendly atmo-
sphere disappeared, and he then
had to win them back."
Some students misbehave in
the classroom out of contempt for
international GSIs, Axelson said.
"I've seen students just do their
e-mail in class," she said. "They'll
hang out at the back of the room,
talk to their friends, snicker about
the GSI. That's really demoraliz-
ing and undermining."
Perhaps American students
don't understand the importance
of understanding different accents
because they're lucky enough to
grow up speaking English, the
international language of busi-
The international graduate stu-
dents understand, though that's
one reason many of them study in
the U.S. in the first place.
Nine international graduate stu-
dents watched movie trailers in a
Modern Languages Building class-
room last month. The students,
from different University depart-
ments and schools, listened care-
fully to the dialogue from movies
like "Welcome to Mooseport," "50
First Dates" and "Shrek," silently
mouthing the words. They used
the trailers to learn American
slang and colloquial English.
In the class, English Language
Institute 338, called Pronunciation
in Context, ELI Lecturer Brenda
Imber teaches international stu-
dents to speak like Americans so
they can communicate effectively
with students and faculty.
Some will become GSIs down
the line. Others will stick to
One graduate student spent 10
minutes before class writing e-
mails to College of Engineering
faculty in impeccable English.
When the class started, though, he
struggled to distinguish "they're"
from "they are" and "we're" from
as Michigan coach - remains an
iconic part of Michigan lore.
Schembechler also held the
reins as Michigan's athletic direc-
tor from 1988-1990. In 1989, he
made the controversial decision
to replace basketball coach Bill
Frieder after Frieder announced
he would be leaving to take a job at
Arizona State Univirsity.
"A Michigan man will coach
Michigan, not an Arizona State
man," Schembechler said at the
That Michigan team went on to
win the national championship.
Until his death, Schembechler
remained a constant presence on
Michigan's campus. An honor-
ary member of the senior society
Michigamua, he maintained an
It's the little things that are
hard for non-native English speak-
ers to master, Imber said. She told
her students to mentally replace
the word "they're" with "there."
"Nobody can tell the differ-
ence," Imber said.
That is, nobody besides their
students. The University has an
extensive program in place to
ensure that GSIs speak good Eng-
lish, but for some it's not good
enough. Are the little things really
a substantial setback to communi-
To study at the University, inter-
national students must pass the
Test of English as a Foreign Lan-
guage. Although all international
graduate students have proven
proficient in English, many have
little experience speaking English
in a classroom context, Axelson
said. In ELI classes, GSIs learn
what sort of language is expected
in interactions with students and
faculty, she said.
"It's finding out what people
actually do in an actual context,"
Axelson said. "If I want to estab-
lish a rapport by having small talk,
what kinds of things constitute
Many international students
have to relearn greetings because
the ones taught in textbooks are
rarely followed in practice, Axel-
"Textbooks teach you a certain
kind of greeting - the 'hello, how
are you' sequence," Axelson said.
"It may come as a surprise to hear
interactions where people don't
respond to 'how are you?' That's a
weird one to hear if you've learned
a pattern, which is 'fine, thank you,
and you?' "
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
In 1984, the University had no
training program for GSIs.
Faced with an increasing num-
ber of international graduate stu-
dents who struggled with English
in the classroom, the University
began to require that all the inter-
national graduate students take
tests to gauge their command of
academic English. The English
Language Institute stepped in to
become the primary form of Eng-
lish instruction for graduate stu-
"GSIs are better teachers than
they used tobe," Axelson said.
All international students must
now pass ELI's Academic Eng-
lish Evaluation to become GSIs.
They take the two-hour test at the
beginning of each semester.
Based on the results of the test,
students are assigned to various
English for Academic Purposes
courses taught by the ELI. Cours-
es for GSIs include Spoken and
Written Grammar in Academic
Contexts, Academic Speaking and
Graduate Student Instructor Com-
office in Schembechler Hall, which
was named for him, and frequently
spoke to Michigan's athletes.
After his first wife, Millie,
succumbed to adrenal cancer in
1992, the former coach helped to
raise millions of dollars for can-
cer research at the University.
An endowed professorship at the
University of Michigan Medical
School also bears her name.
"This is a tremendous shock
and an irreplaceable loss for the
University of Michigan fam-
ily," University President Mary
Sue Coleman said yesterday. "Bo
Schembechler embodied all that
is best about Michigan - loyalty,
dedication and the drive for ever-
This year, Schembechler audit-
No matter how much English a
GSI knows, terms like "electronic
override" are going to be baffling
at first, said assistant mathematics
professor Dale Winter. That's why
GSIs need to practice common
classroom conversations before
teaching classes, he said.
International students taking
ELI courses make presentations
and hold simulated office hours as
part of their training.
ELI lecturers also teach gradu-
ate students about American edu-
cational culture. There are major
differences between the way
teachers and students interact in
the United States and other coun-
tries, Rhea said.
One Chinese postdoctoral
student teaching Math 115 was
popular even though he origi-
nally struggled to speak English
because he made it clear that he
cared about his students, she said.
When a handful of administra-
tors from Chinese universities vis-
ited the University's mathematics
department and spoke with the
graduate student, they asked him
why American students liked him
so much. His answer cracked up
"In America, you have to care
about the student," Rhea said, imi-
tating the graduate student's Chi-
nese accent. "The administrators
laughed like that was arealbizarre
Many departments at the Uni-
versity - including the math
department - train their GSIs
beyond the courses taught by the
ELI. After receiving certification,
math GSIs must take a month-long
department-specific course before
they can teach a course.
They also "shadow" GSIs
already teaching courses to learn
how to grade assignments and
interact with students, Rhea said.
"We truly do not want to put
someone in the classroom that
we know we're going to get com-
plaints on," she said.
Granted, it can be difficult to
understand an international GSI
unfamiliar with American class-
roomculture, who speaks accented
or poor English. The experience,
however, is what students make
The Internet and increasingly
free trade have made English alin-
gua franca that allows people from
different countries and native
speakers of different languages to
Students have in international
GSIs an opportunity to gain expo-
sure to the myriad varieties of Eng-
lish that cross the telephone lines
and fill the boardrooms of today's
international world. All they have
to do is listen.
This article originally
ran on March 7, 2007,
ed a class at Michigan's Ford
School of Public Policy, named for
his friend, University alum and
former U.S. President Gerald Ford,
who played football at Michigan.
"Bo Schembechler was an out-
standing citizen in every respect,"
Ford said in a written statement.
"He was a dear friend of ours and
willbegreatlymissed byhis numer-
ous friends. It is a great loss to the
University of Michigan in particu-
lar and football in general."
Schembechler leaves behind his
wife Kathy and sons Glenn, Matt
- Mariem Qamruzzaman and
James V. Dowd contributed to
this report. This article originally
ranon Nov. 18, 2006.
NEED A NEW COMP UTER?
30% - 50% OFF RETAIL!
Nothing refurbished, everything is NEW and un-opened!
Un-beatable prices --- we buy in bulk!
FREE support for the life of your system.
CONTACT US AT ANY TIME:
We're here to help, and we mean it. TM