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What Your Son or Daughter Gets for Your $200,000 in Tuition: Asian Instructors Who Can't Speak English
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March 02, 2015, 03:16 PM
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A new study reveals: American college students sometimes have problems understanding the accents of instructors with Asian surnames, white people to blame.

Accent on Bias

March 2, 2015 By Scott Jaschik

Rate My Professors is a student evaluation site that frustrates many professors, who say that the nonscientific standards leave faculty members open to unfair ratings.

… Now a new study looks at how students on Rate My Professors rate instructors who have Asian-sounding last names, and the results suggest that these instructors are getting significantly lower scores than those with other last names in Rate My Professors’ categories of clarity and helpfulness.

The author of the study, who also examined comments students make about the instructors, said that his findings raise questions about whether American colleges and universities are as international in outlook at they boast of being — and whether Asian instructors are being reviewed fairly. The study — “She Does Have an Accent But” — has just been published in the journal Language in Society (abstract available here). …

Over all, he found that instructors with “American” last names received clarity scores that were 0.60 to 0.80 points higher than did those with Asian names (on a five-point scale), and that they received scores 0.16 to 0.40 points higher on the helpfulness scale.

… Subtirelu then looked at the comments students post, and noticed a pattern in which many students introduce remarks (frequently praise) by saying than an instructor “has an accent, but.” He also noted cases where students remarked positively about language, but seemed to view that as a surprise or as something that needed to be shared about someone with an Asian last name. “Her English is perfect” is an example of such a comment. These comments — seemingly positive — suggest a focus of students on Asian instructors’ language skills in evaluating them.

The findings suggest to Subtirelu that there are serious issues facing American colleges and universities that rely on Asian teaching assistants, but his view of the issues is not that American students are being poorly taught. He acknowledges that there may be some individual instructors who are difficult to understand because of their accents or speaking abilities. But Subtirelu is working on another research project in which he’s sitting in on classes led by Asian instructors.

Many have accents, he said. But they are not actually difficult to understand if one makes a little effort. He said that he is concerned that simply having an accent is being viewed as negative. Students appear to be “pushing back against this extra labor of interacting with their instructor, to overcome this extra difficulty that they face with someone who doesn’t share their background.” He added that “this is a big problem for an institution that wants to be an international university.”

But it’s not a big problem for the students who can’t understand what their instructor is saying. Or it should not be. And aren’t “ought” and “is” the same thing? So, man up, white students! (Is that sexist? No, because it’s racist. Or, I mean, no, because it’s anti-racist.)

Your incomprehensible professor is the victim of your bias, you’re not the victim of his incomprehensibility. The point of going to college is not to learn math or whatever, it’s to develop an infallible, automatic instinct for who has more victimism Pokemon points in any situation.