May 2, 2001

Language Program For ITAs Approved

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WIth a mission to decrease English language barriers between international graduate teaching assistants (ITAs) and students, a new training program has been approved this semester.

The program is “much more robust,” according to Ingrid Arnesen, director of the Teaching Program for International Teaching Assistants (ITATP). It was issued in response to a resolution that the Student Assembly (S.A.) passed last November which aimed to strengthen the overall undergraduate learning experience.

“This was a major coup for the S.A. If they hadn’t pressed the issue, these improvements would not have happened,” said J. Robert Cooke, dean of the University faculty.

A training program for ITAs has existed since 1987. Under the old program, all graduate students from non-English speaking countries were evaluated through an informal interview and a “mock teaching presentation” in their field of study.

Based on the test, the ITAs were then either exempted from or required to take the two-credit language intensive course EDUC 578.

While taking the language class, even the ITAs that had the least English-speaking experience were typically required to teach a course beginning with their first semester at Cornell.

ITAs teaching while still learning the language “has been a problem and that’s one reason why the new plan has a summer training program,” Arnesen said.

Beginning this summer, all ITAs will have the option of enrolling in a two-week summer orientation program. The new program will then become mandatory the next year.

“We had serious concerns about issuing a requirement for next year after the acceptance letters had already been mailed,” Arnesen said.

The summer orientation will pre-evaluate the ITAs and group them into three levels, based on their English proficiency.

At the end of the summer, exit tests will be conducted to determine placement in EDUC 578.

Recognizing that language acquisition takes time, ITATP has added a supplemental course, EDUC 579, to be offered in the spring to focus on cross-cultural communication.

The summer orientation, which will grant roughly 130 ITAs stipends of $1050 per student is modeled after the chemistry department, which already provides stipends and extensive training for its graduate students.

The stipends, which will come straight from the Provost’s budget, are “a significant cost” to the University, according to Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services.

The ITA evaluation system will for the first time take place across all seven colleges, whereas before, the large group of international architecture students were exempted from the training system.

Leslie Barkemeyer ’03, student trustee elect, expressed concerns during S.A. debates last semester that the proposal may have a “xenophobic tone.”

“I think that the [final] resolution has been made more accommodating, but it still seems extraneous in some cases,” Barkemeyer said.

“A xenophobic tone was certainly not the intent, but I think there’s that risk in the interpretation,” Murphy said, adding that the program was designed to give graduate students a “jump-start” in their careers and to improve undergraduate education.

Lidija Sekaric grad, vice president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA), said that there has been “no response whatsoever” to the proposal among members within the GPSA.

A native from Montenegro, Sekaric added, “I don’t expect outrage for any reason, because students are really well taken care of under the new plan.”

After the S.A. passed the resolution last November, Walter Cohen, dean of the graduate school, drafted the proposal that was then presented to the provost and the academic deans. In March, the group unanimously approved the statement.

Cohen said that the new program, although an important step forward for the University, leaves many issues unresolved.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree that there have been people teaching every year whose English isn’t where we think it should be,” Cohen said. “It is easy to predict that [a two week orientation] will not improve the situation for everyone.”

Cohen indicated that TAs who fail to pass the exit test and cannot demonstrate adequate English skills may be forced to terminate their study at Cornell.

“As much as we’d like to give stipends to TAs who can’t pass the tests, we don’t have the financial resources to do that,” Murphy said.

David Mahon ’01, student-elected trustee admitted that the S.A. had expected so much when it was evaluating the resolution last semester. “This is one of the hard facts we have to deal with,” Mahon said. “We cannot have TAs who cannot communicate effectively with undergraduates. They are doing a disservice.”

Cohen said that using the first year as a trial period will help ease the transition.

He said, “We will try to learn from the summer what the scale of the problem is and then adjust accordingly.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts