In my four years at the University, I’ve had graduate student instructors from countries I didn’t even know existed. Sometimes there are language issues. In both organic and inorganic chemistry labs, I’ve had a difficult time pronouncing my lab instructor’s name – especially with my flasks boiling over – but that’s part of the Michigan experience. The problems can be more serious, however, than understanding a GSI’s name.

The language barriers between students and some foreign GSIs are a challenge to both students and the GSIs, and they can be quite frustrating. It’s difficult enough trying to understand dense course material, but add on a language barrier and watch a lecture hall cringe. What bothers me, though, is seeing the students take out that frustration on the GSIs.

Rather than reaching out and making an effort to talk to them, some students treat foreign GSIs like pushovers. I’ve noticed that many students instinctively treat GSIs poorly based on their English skills or accents. Many carry on conversations in class and make fun of the GSIs instead of paying attention. This overall poor attitude about discussion sections and labs worsens the communication problem.

Problems can arise even before class. As students shop around for classes on Wolverine Access, many flock toward discussion sections taught by instructors with familiar names. Smith, for instance, is usually a safe bet. Goldbar? Still golden. Xang? Probably shouldn’t expect a waitlist.

However, I’ve yet to run into a foreign GSI who didn’t try extremely hard to bridge the language gap. Walk into the Statistics Help Room, for instance, and you’ll be welcomed by prepared GSIs willing to answer your most difficult questions. Few are native English speakers, but they genuinely want to help. Students who reach out find these GSIs perfectly capable of answering all of their questions.

Only once did I ever have a foreign GSI who didn’t have absolute mastery over the class material, and it wasn’t even his fault. The GSI spoke stilted English, but because he was shy and had no personal connection with the material, the students picked him apart like a pack of ravenous wolves. I felt bad for him.

I have also noticed that students cooperate more in classes taught by assertive instructors who react harshly toward unruly students. I would sooner challenge a grizzly bear than talk during my biochemistry lecture. Unfortunately for foreign GSIs, it’s more difficult to be assertive when you’re at a severe language disadvantage.

With practice, though, non-native GSIs can learn how to communicate with students with more ease and familiarity. To find out how, I spoke with a veteran statistics GSI originally from China. She stressed that students should be respectful but ask lots of questions and interact as much as possible. Give suggestions – even about speaking English – and don’t wait until the end of the semester to do so, she said.

It’s important for foreign GSIs to get feedback from their students about how to improve their teaching and language skills. Non-native English-speaking instructors should use a combination of official University services like the English Language Institute and their own evaluations to improve communication skills. Instructors may also sit in on each other’s sections and write down what mistakes were made.

The more communication that exists between you and your GSI, the more you will come to understand one another and the more likely you are to understand the material. You’re going to learn more than just math and science if you keep an open mind. It’s the Michigan experience, after all.

Gavin Stern can be reached at gavstern@umich.edu.

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