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Fluent College Instructors

October 09, 1987

The students and legislators of Illinois do have a legitimate complaint about the difficulty in a classroom run by an instructor speaking poor English (Part I, Sept. 27), but their legislative relief is aimed at the wrong target.

The real culprit is the ever-worsening practice in our universities of allowing professors, whose primary responsibility, as the administrators will piously proclaim, is to teach, to teach as little as they can get away with--a practice that allows poorly paid graduate students as "teaching assistants," admittedly with no teaching experience, to take over classes while the professors pursue research grants, lucrative consulting jobs or run their own off-campus companies.

The teaching assistants, who are the effective targets of the new Illinois law, are among the worst exploited class in our universities. They are supposed to assist--doing such chores as grading papers and reports, running discussion sessions, helping in the laboratory, etc., to allow the professors more time to be more effective at teaching.

But they end up regularly teaching classes and earn a pittance for it, while the professors they assist (nay, substitute for) take home ten times as much.

This comparison is no exaggeration, for it is not uncommon for professors, especially those in the technical and scientific fields, to double their academic income with outside work (often euphemistically referred to as "community service" by the administration).

The foreign-born graduate students are more likely to end up doing this least glamorous part of university life--teaching--because their native-born counterparts have better options for employment.

This is not to ignore the language problem which is quite real. The supposed teachers should, as a part of their qualifications, be expected to be able to communicate effectively on a verbal basis. But since the universities don't really consider teaching but rather grant-getting ability and experience in hiring a professor anyway, this matter of language falls by the wayside.

As long as our universities reward professors for not teaching, the students will have cause to complain, for they are being short-changed; poor English is only the secondary fall-out of the primary problem. The problem is serious and endemic to American universities, whose predictable response to criticism such as the new Illinois law is to raise the flag of "academic freedom." The shirking of a university's primary responsibility is academic license, not academic freedom.


Huntington Beach

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