Everyone on campus has taken or knows someone who has taken a course in which the graduate student instructor’s English was less than perfect. The prevalence of GSIs struggling with English — and that struggle’s effect on students’ ability to learn — is the subject of many complaints, rants, excuses and jokes around campus. But while many students feel justified complaining about their GSIs’ language skills, it’s often the undergraduates who are to blame for not understanding the material.
Over the summer, I worked for the English Language Institute as a undergraduate student in practice teaching courses taught by aspiring GSIs. All graduate students hoping to teach in the fall are required to take this course if their previous education wasn’t taught primarily in English. At the end of this intensive course, there is an exam to make sure the graduate students are qualified to teach. This exam tests not only pedagogy and classroom management skills, but also language ability. And because nobody likes failing anything, especially with a job and a lot of money on the line, aspiring GSIs work incredibly hard on improving their English.
In my experience, there were no graduate students whose English, on the whole, was particularly difficult to understand. For each graduate student, there were some individual words that I didn’t initially understand, but by the end of each lesson I didn’t feel like I had missed anything — or, if I had, it was less because of language comprehension and more because 3D geometry makes my head hurt.
But the most noteworthy trend among the aspiring GSIs was that they wanted us to tell them when we found their English difficult to understand. The graduate students asked specifically for language feedback and eagerly wrote down any problem words we suggested they work on. The perception that GSIs don’t care to learn how to speak English well is clearly a myth, and undergraduate students shouldn’t be able to get away with operating under the assumption that GSIs are apathetic to improvement.
Even between lessons or while walking to and from the teaching sessions, the GSIs engaged the other pretend students and I in casual conversation. Maybe practicing English was their primary motive or maybe I’m just a really fascinating guy, but regardless of why the GSIs struck up the conversations, they made a notable effort to improve their language skills during our chats. If we used a word or phrase they didn’t understand, they would ask us what it meant, and if they pronounced a word incorrectly, we could let them know without them feeling offended.
Many of these GSIs said they hope to find jobs in the U.S. after graduating, and several wanted to continue teaching beyond their graduate studies. It’s clear that these students’ desire to learn English is rooted in a passion to teach and to grow that goes far beyond just passing an aptitude test.
So when an undergraduate doesn’t understand something a GSI says but doesn’t ask for clarification, it’s difficult for me to find anyone but the undergraduate to blame. These GSIs have — in a span of only a few short weeks — gone through an insane amount of training, including over 200 pages of worksheets and practice lessons. And the graduate students have done it all with remarkable drive and enthusiasm, so it’s hard to fault them for not achieving perfection.
As the omnipotent headmaster in the “Harry Potter” series Dumbledore — who I would argue is even more difficult to understand than any GSI — so wisely said, “Soon, we must all make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” And while it may be easier to sit back, relax and complain to your friends after class, the right thing to do is to help your GSIs, and, in the process, help yourself. They want to better their English as much, if not more, than you want to learn — or at least pass — organic chemistry.
I realize this is asking a lot of undergraduate students. Often, asking a question or making a comment in class is nerve-wracking and awkward enough without the added fear of either offending your instructor or appearing insensitive to your classmates. But trust me when I say that your GSI will appreciate you stepping up. And if your classmates don’t, maybe they’ll change their minds when they realize they understand the material a whole lot better.