Wednesday, August 08, 2012

teaching ITA's

I have arrived in Texas and am preparing for my assignment here, which will have three parts: 1) teaching ITA's, 2) teaching Linguistics, and 3) working in a writing lab. On the ITA front, I've been reviewing some of the past work I've done with ITA's, and I found myself saying, first off, that what international teaching assistants have the hardest time with, on a day-to-day basis, is the interactive nature of the American classroom. American students expect to be able to communicate: to show the teacher they don't understand, or show the teacher they don't agree, and they expect the teacher to respond. Now that doesn't mean students are equals of teachers, or that students respect the teachers less here. It doesn't even mean that the teacher has any obligation to agree, or change delivery, or change anything. But the teacher is, for cultural reasons, expected to notice, and do something about it. And this is true for virtually every minute of every class.

Aside from that, I know that generally international teachers demonstrate a general maxim that intonation is far more important than pronunciation. One reason is that while we analyze pronunciation constantly, and can adjust to individual pronunciation idiosyncrasies, we have much more trouble adjusting to discordant intonation, because we aren't analyzing it in the same side of our brain. Thus we are especially rattled by international teachers from places where their intonation is likely to set off jarring emotions that may interfere with our normal understanding of, say, a routine psychology lecture. Intonation is used to convey emotions in English, and certain intonations, standard in some languages for lectures, are likely to make us feel put down, diminished, intimidated. What do you do after an hour of this kind of lecture? Go home angry. Save up your hostility for the class evaluation. Do worse on the exams.

The heck of it is, nobody can ever tell the lecturer this. Ask the students what the problem is, and they'll blame it on pronunciation, which is a reasonable cover for something they really can't explain, or don't know why they are upset about it. Here they have a person who they know is nice, wants them to learn, cares about them, reaches out to them, yet, every hour they end up feeling crappy, degraded, etc. It's a kind of discord, but it's classic and it plays out all across the US as international teaching assistants teach what, a large percent of lecture classes.

Then it appears that what international teaching assistants are more likely to be doing, is teaching labs, in classes such as chemistry, biology, etc. What does a lab instructor do? Somehow the lectures are supposed to come out as practical assignments in the lab. I picture people pouring chemicals from one test tube to another, or poking at a dead frog before pulling out its kidney. What kind of things do you have to ask the lab attendant? There is a certain dynamic here. "Ask your friend" becomes a more likely response than "ask a teacher" when it is too hard to ask the teacher, or you are too likely to get a response you can't work with. Sometimes teachers are nice, present, willing, even aggressive and people still don't ask the teacher. But my sense is that the lab instructor is really required to have a more practical approach than the lecturer. How for example do you show someone how to do something, so that next time they can do it themselves? Or so that they do not feel totally robbed of self-esteem? Or so that their budding love of chemistry, or whatever, is cultivated rather than squelched? And to what degree does the approach of the lab instructor really make a difference?

These are questions I'll try to answer this semester. I bring everything I've picked up over about thirty years of teaching. I have an entirely new environment. But, as one guy said to me here in Texas, this ain't my first rodeo.

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