Things were not going well in a recent lab section of Organic Chemistry 104 at the University of Maryland. The Taiwanese graduate student teaching the 20-student class could barely speak English. He said "coagulation" when he meant "calculation" and finally gave up over the pronunciation of "chemicals," referring to them as "stuff."
Several students strained to understand him. Others laughed. Two students began imitating him and then two others walked out in frustration, halfway through the class.
The scene is being repeated in other classrooms on the College Park campus, as a growing number of foreign-born graduate assistants cause an increasing number of students to withdraw from courses, complaining that they can't understand their instructors. The problem is most acute in the school's increasingly popular engineering and basic science courses.
Although university administrators say they screen foreign graduate students before giving them teaching assignments, a shortage of teaching assistants has forced administrators to place some of them in classrooms even when they are unable to speak English adequately.
"It's a sensitive problem," says Richard Park, physics department chairman. "There's no denying it exists."
David Falk, associate chairman of the physics department, said teaching assistants with language problems have been removed from classes, but "students wish we could do it more often. At present, we don't have enough teaching assistants."
Alexander Lan, the Taiwanese graduate teaching assistant, said he was told he would teach a laboratory class before he left his own country and before chemistry department officials had talked with him. Lan writes nearly everything he wants to say on a chalkboard and limits his speaking in class. He came to Maryland after he learned of its chemistry program from a college catalog.
When he first applied for entrance to Maryland, said Lan, "I never imagined I would teach. I don't like it too much. First time I came here I didn't know to speak. I use simple words. I write down all on board. Students don't understand me; I feel sorry for them," Lan said.
Chemistry department officials say they select the best qualified graduate students for their program regardless of nationality. The department receives more applicants from foreign countries than from within the United States--about 15 every week, according to Paul Mazzocchi, associate chemistry department chairman.
University administrators say few U.S. students enter graduate study in the sciences at College Park. Instead, most seek high-paying jobs immediately after completing their undergraduate degrees.
"We want the best chemists and we want them to teach. The foreign students are the cream of the crop, but often we don't know if they can speak English," Mazzocchi said.
As a result of the university's reliance on teaching by Chinese, Iranian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean and other foreign graduate students, undergraduates are dropping out of classes, receiving lower grades on tests, or avoiding altogether courses with foreign instructors, according to Mazzocchi.
"I couldn't understand a word the foreign teaching assistant said," said Cindy Bruzzese, a senior zoology major from Capitol Heights who dropped a general microbiology course with a Taiwanese instructor. "I was really upset."
"He couldn't relate to us," Troy Brewer, a senior industrial technology major from Baltimore, said of his Chinese chemistry teaching assistant.
"He realized he couldn't communicate very well so he slacked off. No one knew what was going on. Our class grade point average was very low in comparison with another section of the same course taught by an English-speaking teaching assistant."
Brewer said four sections of his chemistry course taught by a foreign teaching assistant received lower grades than four other sections taught by an American graduate student. The grades in the foreign student's classes were increased or "curved" to make up for the difference.
Mazzocchi says there is no proof to support students' contention they get lower grades than they would otherwise receive because of difficulties with foreign teaching assistants, although he acknowledged that it is possible.
Of the 1,417 foreign students at Maryland, about 650 are graduate students. Most are studying physics, engineering, astronomy or chemistry. As graduate students, most are required to teach classes or supervise laboratory sections for undergraduates.
Campus professors often recruit foreign graduate students while working on research projects overseas, according to Park. He added that physics professors are on assignment to recruit outstanding students wherever they go.
In some cases, professors will recommend students so highly to department officials that the students are permitted to bypass the English-speaking requirement imposed by departments. Many of these students, despite their poor English, then become teaching assistants, according to Falk.
"We don't want students to get hung up on written requirements," Falk said of the process of admitting foreign students. "There might be some exceptions."
Before a foreign student is admitted to the university, he or she must pass a test of English as a foreign language. But because the exam has no oral component, teaching assistants with good grammar and reading abilities often are admitted despite poor speaking abilities. "We rely on the impression of the interviewer (a campus professor), not the exam," Park said of admission requirements in the physics department.
In an attempt to instruct foreign students, university administrators have spent $204,000 from state and student tuition monies for the past two years to pay for the Maryland English Institute, which offers classes in grammar and conversational English, according to Leslie Palmer, Maryland English Institute director.
"We know the problems are twofold," Palmer said. Foreign teaching assistants "don't have adequate speaking skills so they can be understood by a native speaker, and many are hostile to questions from students," Palmer said.
He said in many foreign countries students do not participate in the class discussion, but simply listen and take notes. Questioning a foreign graduate student could be taken as a sign of distrust in the teaching assistant's abilities, Palmer said.
Since the program began in August 1980, Palmer said, it has had approximately 260 foreign students--about half of them teaching assistants.
Chancellor Robert Gluckstern said it is the responsibility of individual departments to supervise foreign teaching assistants and to put them in positions that involve limited contact with students if they can't speak English well. He noted that "there are lab and grading assistantships which do not require a good knowledge of the language." Gluckstern added that students should be willing to adjust to teaching assistants' accents.
But students disagree. They say they expect instructors at Maryland to speak English fluently.
"I'm paying for my education. I think I should be taught . . . in my own language," said Jeff Winans, a junior from Annapolis who is majoring in family and community development. He said he had a hard time understanding his teacher in a beginning engineering course. "You could figure out a lot of words but it took a month to understand what he was actually saying," Winans said.
Other students said they drop or avoid courses taught by foreign teaching assistants. But department administrators say some undergraduates may be using the language difference to rationalize poor grades.
"There are problems, but some students tend to use that as an excuse for their grades. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the quality of the teaching assistant. Students have to do more than just sit in a chair to be educated," Mazzocchi said.
Administrators expect the number of foreign students, both graduate and undergraduate, to increase by 100 a semester, according to Valeria Woolston, International Education Services director. Foreign students now make up 3.3 percent of the student population at Maryland, Woolston said.