Multiculturalism and its effect on international teaching associates and assistants in the United States

Feature article by Daeun Shin, Arizona State University

Introduction

This article aims to depict a sample classroom environment by sharing the author’s teaching experience in first-year composition (FYC) classes and to suggest a pedagogical approach that can be incorporated into international teaching associates and assistants (ITAs) training programs. ITAs are graduate students from different countries who teach undergraduate courses (Gorsuch, 2016). This article only focuses on the issue of ITAs in the United States (US), as per the author’s teaching experience.      

 

The international graduate student population has been increasing (Institute of International Education, 2022), and the population of ITAs is also projected to increase. Higher educational institutions, then, are responsible for offering proper ITA training programs for both ITAs and undergraduate students (Meadows et al., 2015). I argue that the first step for developing such training programs should be understanding the current classroom environment when taught by ITAs. The structure of this paper is as follows: First, the concept of intelligibility (Smith & Nelson, 1985) intertwined with perceived “non-nativeness” is introduced as the main problem based on a review of ITA studies. The author’s teaching experience is then juxtaposed with the literature by focusing on the change in undergraduate student demographic and stance regarding multiculturalism. Finally, critical multicultural pedagogy (May & Sleeter, 2010; Sleeter & McLaren, 1995) is proposed as an approach that reflects the multicultural turn (May, 1994), empowers ITAs, and cultivates effective learning environments.

Intelligibility and Perceived “Non-Nativeness”

The main concern about ITAs portrayed in the literature is the issue of intelligibility of their instructional delivery. Intelligibility encompasses three levels of understanding: (1) word-level recognition, (2) sentence-level meaning understanding, and (3) sentence-level illocutionary understanding; each level being interrelated (Smith & Nelson, 1985). The intelligibility issue addressed in ITA studies ranges from the first level—related to English accents—to the third level—related to pragmatic aspects of the instructional delivery. Based on this framework of intelligibility, ITA studies have focused on the perceived “non-nativeness” attached to ITAs and its impact on the intelligibility of their instructional delivery. Intelligibility is co-constructed through a negotiation process between speakers and listeners (Smith & Nelson, 1985). Therefore, student perceptions toward ITAs (Kang, Rubin, & Lindemann, 2015; Rubin, 1992; Zhao, 2017) and ITAs’ self-perceptions (Ruecker, Franzier, & Tseptsura, 2018; Zheng, 2017) as being “non-native” affect the intelligibility of their instructional delivery. For example, Rubin (1992) and Zhao (2017) demonstrate how perceived “non-nativeness” of ITAs negatively affects the intelligibility of their instructional delivery whereas Kang et al. (2015) shows that a change in student perceptions toward ITAs can bring a change in the intelligibility.

Positive Perceptions on “Non-Nativeness”: My Experience from FYC classrooms

Compared to the ITA literature, perceived “non-nativeness” and its subsequent negative consequences regarding the intelligibility issue seems to be different from my own teaching experience. I have taught FYC courses in the US for the past two years. I have around 20 students per class and teach three courses per year. Both domestic and international students have reacted positively to my perceived “non-nativeness” as an ITA, and I have not encountered any negative reactions yet. They demonstrate their cultural affiliation to East Asia to which I belong by sharing their extra-mural lives. Their affiliation with Korean culture is expressed in multiple and unexpected ways. For example, one student asked if it is possible to visit my office hours to ask some questions about the Korean language. This occurred at the beginning of the FYC course in a student needs analysis survey. Some students mentioned that they took Korean language and culture courses or asked for recommendations. Experiences like these seem to imply the possibility of students’ positive perceptions about my “non-nativeness.” 

 

A positive perception of “non-nativeness” could influence the intelligibility of instructional delivery (Kang et al., 2015; Wang & Jenkins, 2016). As mentioned above, intelligibility is constructed by speakers and listeners. The positive perception of “non-nativeness,” then, can be an influential factor for students’ willingness to understand instructions, which in turn, affects the construction of the intelligibility of instructional delivery. Student evaluations on my teaching for the past two years have remarked on two criteria that are related to instructional delivery: “the instructor demonstrated knowledge of the course subject and materials” and “the instructor effectively explained the importance of the subject matter,” which have scored an average of 1.2 on a 5-point Likert scale. The scale ranges from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). This evaluation demonstrates that the majority of the students strongly agreed with the aforementioned statements regarding my teaching. The score from these evaluations implies that the students’ positive perception of my “non-nativeness” positively affects the intelligibility of my instructional delivery. 


The change in student demographic could be one possible reason for the gap between the findings in previous studies about ITAs and my own experience regarding my students’ perceptions about ITAs’ “non-nativeness.” Having multicultural experiences can influence students’ perceptions. As mentioned earlier, intelligibility is constructed by speakers and listeners, and students’ multicultural experiences facilitate their willingness to be cooperative with ITAs in classroom settings (Kang et al., 2015). As the international population increases in the US, more people are exposed to different cultures from a young age and have positive attitudes towards people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds than in previous generations (Budiman, October 1, 2020; U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). It is, then, possible to speculate that current undergraduate students, as opposed to the student demographic represented in past literature, tend to react positively to “non-nativeness” due to their multicultural experiences. They perhaps enrolled in my class because of my “non-nativeness”.

Critical Multicultural Pedagogy

Multiculturalism has been a big part of current undergraduate students’ lives and affects their perception of ITAs' “non-nativeness” and instructional delivery. However, recognizing and celebrating differences is not enough: Multiculturalism entails close examination of inequitable power relations (May & Sleeter, 2010; Sleeter & McLaren, 1995). In other words, having a positive perception of difference does not necessarily mean understanding difference. In fact, many of my students have also expressed their interest in Japanese culture, which could imply insensitivity towards diverse East Asian cultures. One time, I was surprised to see a white American student’s name written in Japanese on an assignment assuming that I would be able to read it. Understanding multiple cultures from critical perspectives can cultivate solidarity among students (May & Sleeter, 2010) as well as empower ITAs to be confident in their teaching (Zheng, 2017). In this sense, this paper argues for incorporating a critical multicultural pedagogy (May & Sleeter, 2010; Sletter & McLaren, 1995) into ITA training programs. 

 

In addition to offering critical awareness on differences, critical multicultural pedagogy provides students with a critical lens for understanding power dynamics and reconceptualizes schools as a sociopolitical space representing specific interests (Sleeter & McLaren, 1995). This aspect of critical multicultural pedagogy can empower ITAs. Inequitable power relations become visible by sharing historical and cultural self-narratives and comparing them with others. This, in turn, connects ITAs’ multiple selves with larger socio-cultural-political discourses (May & Sleeter, 2010). Incorporating critical multicultural pedagogy into ITA training programs, then, offers these teachers an ideological lens to understand themselves from critical perspectives, empowering them to navigate the US higher education system. It also offers a pedagogical lens that they can bring into the classroom in which students can share their lived experiences and re-examine their cultural affiliations. 

 

The close examination of inequitable power relations in cultures and societies offered by critical multicultural pedagogy seems to be beneficial for ITAs.  If their “non-nativeness” attracts students with cultural affiliations associated with ITAs, it is possible to assume that the students are more comfortable discussing different cultures. Then, ITAs can apply critical multicultural pedagogy to (1) help students re-examine their assumptions regarding their cultural affiliations and (2) promote their critical understanding of the knowledge-producing process in the US higher education system. As the process of applying the pedagogy involves sharing lived experiences of ITAs as well as students, it could also engender solidarity among students and ITAs and empower them.

Conclusion

This article suggests critical multicultural pedagogy for ITAs by addressing my teaching experience as an ITA in the US higher education system. Unlike the previous literature on ITAs, my teaching experience reflects undergraduate students’ positive perceptions of my “non-nativeness.” The shift in perceptions could be attributed to students’ exposure to more multicultural experiences. However, these positive perceptions toward cultural differences do not necessarily mean understanding them. By applying a critical multicultural pedagogy, ITAs can offer opportunities for students to closely examine inequitable power relations in multiple contexts, including different cultures and US society. Since this paper is preliminary and based on personal anecdotes, systemic examination of the phenomenon, including understanding students’ perspectives and adding other ITAs’ teaching experiences, are suggested as next steps. 

References

  • Budiman, A. (2020, October 1). Americans are more positive about the long-term rise in U.S. racial and ethnic diversity than in 2016. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/01/americans-are-more-positive-about-the-long-term-rise-in-u-s-racial-and-ethnic-diversity-than-in-2016/

  • Gorsuch, G. (2016). International teaching assistants at universities: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 49(2), 275-290.

  • Institute of International Education. (2022). "International Student Enrollments by Institutional Type, 1999/00-2019/20." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. http://www.opendoorsdata.org.

  • Kang, O., Rubin, D., & Lindemann, S. (2015). Mitigating U.S. undergraduates’ attitudes toward international teaching assistants. TESOL Quarterly, 49(4), 681-706.

  • May, S. (1994). Making multicultural education work. Multilingual Matters. 

  • May, S., & Sleeter, C. E. (2010). Introduction: Critical multiculturalism: Theory and praxis. In S. May, & C. E. Sleeter (Eds.), Critical multiculturalism: Theory and praxis (pp. 1-16). Taylor & Francis Group. 

  • Meadows, N. K., Olsen, K. C., Dimitrov, N., & Dawson, D. L. (2015). Evaluating the differential impact of teaching assistant training programs on international graduate student teaching. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 45(3), 34-55.

  • Rubin, D. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33(4), 511-531.

  • Ruecker, T., Frazier, S., & Tseptsura, M. (2018). Language difference can be an asset: Exploring the experiences of nonnative English-speaking teachers of writing. CCC, 69(4), 612-641.

  • Sleeter, C. E., & McLaren, P. (1995). Introduction: Exploring connections to build a critical multiculturalism. In C. E. Sleeter, & P. McLaren (Eds.), Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference (pp. 5-32). SUNY Press. 

  • Smith, L. E., & Nelson, C. L. (1985). International intelligibility of English: Directions and resources. World Englishes, 4(3), 333-342.

  • Wang, Y. & Jenkins, J. (2016). “Nativeness” and intelligibility: Impacts of intercultural experience through English as a Lingua Franca on Chinese speakers’ language attitudes. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 38-58.

  • Zhao, Y. (2017). Student interactions with a native speaker tutor and a nonnative speaker tutor at an American writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 36(2), 57-87.

  • Zheng, X. (2017). Translingual identity as pedagogy: International teaching assistants of English in college composition classrooms. The Modern Language Journal, 101(S1), 29-44.

 
Daeun Shin_Profile.jpg

Daeun Shin is a graduate student at Arizona State University. Her research interests include intergroup emotion and emotion alignment in computer-mediated communication. She currently works on research projects exploring mechanisms of intergroup emotion and linguistic manifestations of emotion alignment that emerge in Korean online forums.