The wrong target

The students and legislators of Illinois have a legitimate complaint about the difficulty in a classroom run by an instructor speaking poor English but their legislative relief is aimed at the wrong target. The real culprit is the ever-worsening practice of allowing professors, whose primary responsibility (is) to teach, to teach as little as they can get away with. (This is) a practice that allows poorly paid graduate students, 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 university system. They are supposed to assist—doing such chores as grading papers and reports, running discussion sessions, helping in the laboratory, etc., so as 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 (may, 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 may well be likened to the Mexicans who come to California to do the stoop labor the natives won’t accept.

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 effectively communicate verbally. But since the university doesn’t really consider teaching but rather grant-getting ability and experience in hiring a professor anyway, this matter of language falls by the wayside. In reality the truly good teachers and speakers speak such well-organized and grammatically impeccable English that one quickly could get over the accent barrier.

As long as universities reward professors for not teaching, students will have cause to complain, for they are being short-changed. Poor English is only the secondary fallout 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.

aymond L. Chaun, Ph.D.

untington Beach, CA