Devon Fitzgerald: Students should treat international teaching assistants with more respect

It’s the first day of a discussion section. Students sit chatting before class, waiting for the teaching assistant to show up. She walks in the door, sets down her bag and says hello – and a few people in the room groan quietly. The TA has an accent.

In classes like microeconomics, macroeconomics, international economics and statistics, I’ve heard complaints about foreign TAs nearly every semester without fail. When people talk about their discussion sections and recitations, if the TA’s name is hard to pronounce, it’s met with a sympathetic sigh and a nod of understanding.

Yes, sometimes difficult subjects like economics and statistics can be even harder to grasp when you can’t understand your TA. But regardless of how difficult the subject matter may be, students should treat international TAs with just as much respect as they would any professor.

Unfortunately, a recent study of data collected from Rate My Professor shows that students often rate instructors with “American”-sounding last names higher than those with Asian names. This specific study applies to professors, but if students rate international professors poorly, it’s safe to assume they would rate international TAs similarly. This bias – the idea that someone with an accent is a bad teacher – can also manifest itself in the classroom, not just in evaluations.

Not all TAs are foreign, of course, and not all international TAs are difficult to understand. It’s a spectrum. But no matter where a TA falls on that spectrum, it’s unacceptable to disrespect them.

“There are very few cases that students behave disrespectfully. But yes, it exists,” said Quan Zou, a Ph.D. student and statistics TA.

Some students’ rudeness doesn’t always manifest itself in direct confrontation, like yelling at TAs or making comments to their face. Instead, students are most often rude to their TAs in small, yet obvious ways – like laughing over fumbled words. But it’s time for students to start recognizing their own rudeness when they interact with international TAs. They’re smart graduate students and they deserve better.

TAs are likely a few years farther along in school than their undergraduate students. And if they speak broken English, consider what that means: They’ve most likely completed their undergraduate degree in their native language, moved to a different country and are doing graduate-level work. No matter where they come from, they should be respected, just like everyone else in the classroom.

Zou said that students in his statistics classes “do get frustrated by the topic” and then tend to blame it on the language barrier. When struggling with a difficult subject, of course it can be tempting to blame a TA with a heavy accent. No one wants to admit they’re having a hard time, but by pretending that the TA is the problem, the real issue will never be fixed.

But with that said, if a student genuinely cannot understand their TA’s accent, there are ways to deal with it. I had this experience last spring in macroeconomics, when I occasionally had trouble understanding my TA. I frequently approached him after class to ask for clarification and in the end, it worked out better for both of us. I was able to learn the material more thoroughly, and he better understood what students were confused about so he could take more time to review it in class.

If you have less success talking to your TA in person than I did, try emailing them. Or, if the question is really important and your first attempts to talk to your TA weren’t successful, ask your professor. Whether it’s in class or via email, odds are they’ll understand your predicament.

The bottom line is your TAs want to help their students. Everyone on the other side of the lectern is here for the benefit of our education – and we all need to remember that.

Devon Fitzgerald, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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