Cultural Collisions

Cultural Collisions


The relationship between international teaching assistants and American students can often be challenging — tips to ease the tension
By Anita Nahal

Much has been written about the sometimes contentious relationship between international teaching assistants and their American students. ITA’s sometimes unfamiliar accents, teaching styles and cultural nuances can create an environment where teaching and learning become a challenge. In an ideal classroom, both the student and teacher would be enriched by the other’s cultural experiences. However, rather than being a seamless union, classrooms and labs have often become the sites of cultural collisions, marked by confusion over pronunciation, word usage and social customs.

The frustration cuts both ways. Many ITAs over the years have found it difficult to adjust to a culture where students speak informally to their instructors, eat in class, arrive late and express visible impatience.

But now a diverse group of Howard University faculty, all former teaching assistants, have come together to offer tips to assist ITAs.

Dr. Folohan O. Aryorinde, a graduate professor of chemistry from Nigeria, suggests interacting and socializing with other students in order to become more comfortable in the academic environment. He also recommends speaking clearly and paying attention to voice modulation, inflection and speed.

Doris R. Corbett, professor of sport studies, says cultural stereotypes can blind the instructor from recognizing the values and skills students possess.

Dr. Arvind K.N. Nandedkar, an Indian professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, believes a critical inroad to better communication is through correctly pronouncing the names of students. He suggests asking students how to say their names correctly, which gains their respect and their attention.

Dr. Ransford W. Palmer, a Jamaican economics professor, notes that ITAs are normally asked to teach introductory courses and might want to consider doing some background research on how American undergraduate students learn. The use of multiple-choice examinations in many introductory courses, for example, favors a style of teaching that imparts precise information, Palmer says. And if the ITA is male, he must understand how to interact with female students in and out of the classroom. What is okay elsewhere in the world may not be acceptable at an American institution.

Dr. Kay T. Payne also recognizes the importance of pronunciation. She suggests speaking slower than your normal speaking rate to make sure every student can follow along. Recognizing American English pronunciations, especially syllable stress and vowel sounds, is crucial, she says.

Dr. John Tharakan, an Indian professor of chemical engineering, says ITAs must be respectful of the cultural diversity of their students. But again, that respect must go both ways. Dr. Mercedes Vidal from Spain says that an ITA has a unique opportunity to educate students on their particular culture. Emphasize points that are common to both cultures, and address stereotypes the cultures may have of each other. Speaking candidly about cultural differences could help open doors to more effective communication.

I recommend the LAWS Method.

– Learn: About your chosen university, chosen country, about the students in your class, the academic requirements of the course you will teach, semester system, class/es per week, evaluation system, etc.

– Appreciate: Diversity of every kind, including professional. 

– Willing: To learn new things, to adapt to
the new and different environment and to improvise.

– Survive: By remaining focused — remember why you came to this country and do not forget your goals.

Dr. Nahal is associate professor of history, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, India, and since 2002 has been coordinating the international affairs and women’s studies programs at the Howard University Graduate School. 



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