Faculty in the News In the News

April 30, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Chronicle of Higher Education Quotes Bikowski on Helping Foreign Graduate Students

Dr. Dawn Bikowski

Dr. Dawn Bikowski

Dr. Dawn Bikowski, Director of the English Language Improvement Program (ELIP) in the Linguistics Department at Ohio University, was quoted in an April 24 Chronicle of Higher Education article on “How colleges help foreign grad students with teaching.”

The article is also available at University World News.

“For colleges, the challenges faced by foreign graduate teaching assistants like Mahboubeh are nothing new. Some state legislatures as far back as the 1980s passed laws that require such students to demonstrate a given level of English proficiency before they can teach in the classroom. Many colleges set their own thresholds,” writes the Chronicle’s Vimal Patel. “But the language problem is a particularly stubborn one, with institutions today still looking for the best ways to fix it.”

Patel introduces the lengthy article with a vignette of an Ohio University student:

During her first semester as a graduate teaching assistant at Ohio University, Noora Mahboubeh was terrified. The Iranian doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering often struggled to understand her students’ questions, and they weren’t always sympathetic to her difficulties with English.

She started to gain confidence after enrolling in an English-language improvement programme, one of many services the university provides to international graduate students who want to communicate better as instructors.

“I learned to not pretend that I can understand something,” Mahboubeh says. “I’m not as afraid of making mistakes anymore. When I can’t understand something, I just ask.”

The article also quotes Bikowski:

Communication is, of course, a two-way street, notes Dawn Bikowski, director of the English Language Improvement Program at Ohio University. The responsibility should be shared by speaker and listener and is, in part, an issue of campus culture, she says.

Bikowski and others at Ohio try to instil a willingness in undergraduates to understand “different Englishes”. They recruit undergraduates to help rate the oral proficiency tests and then ask them to reflect on how their own listening skills have shifted. They visit classes to encourage patience and empathy for international teaching assistants.

“We don’t want to give the message that only the international teaching assistant needs to change,” Bikowski says. “As listeners, we bear responsibility to have a willingness to work harder, within reason, to understand an individual who speaks in a way we’re not accustomed to, instead of assuming you can’t learn anything from that person.”

Get dramatic

Ohio University’s programme is also joining with the theatre department in workshops. The theatre students get experience with different accents, and the international students learn techniques like breath control and intonation patterns.

An American theatre student and Mahboubeh, the teaching assistant from Iran, tried to mimic each other’s accents. When they couldn’t meet, they made videos and played them side by side. “It was a really fun experience,” Mahboubeh says.

The collaboration is about building confidence as much as language skills. “The international student can do many things to sound more natural and relaxed, and theatre students are very good at that,” Bikowski says. “And they’re outgoing. So they can help with students who might be shy, and build a personal relationship.”

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