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  April 23, 2001

International Teaching Assistant Video
Shows 'Respect on the Line'

student saunters into class late, glances at her grade on the quiz the teaching assistant just returned, and expostulates: "Fifty percent? I've never gotten an F in my life."

After a further hostile encounter during office hours between the student and the TA, a young woman from Africa, the two pass each other on campus. "Witch," hisses the student.

In another class, a Chinese TA doggedly continues to write equations on the board, as the undergraduates discuss a basketball game the previous night, tackle a crossword puzzle, or launch a paper airplane.

In a third class the teaching assistant, a young man from Ireland, is barraged with pleas for extra credit from an insistent female student who offers to wash his car or "do anything" for him in order to boost her grade.

These scenarios, though acted, are disturbingly realistic. And they are based on actual incidents. They are captured on a videotape just completed by the Institute for Teaching and Learning to help international teaching assistants cope with distasteful behavior in the classroom.

Identifying the Problem
"The video is based on real events, observed or reported by international teaching assistants or students in the class," says Catherine Jarvis, director of teaching assistant programs. "In most cases, the ITA didn't know how to respond and the behavior continued for a whole semester. The ITAs felt responsible and feared losing their jobs if they spoke out," she says.

Many international graduate students rely on the income and benefits, including health care, they derive from their jobs as teaching assistants.

Although student misbehavior can happen in any class, international teaching assistants are particularly vulnerable to it, says Jarvis, because of their differing cultural backgrounds and their desire to avoid confrontation or possible loss of face if they ask for help.

The video is intended as a tool to identify problems and help the process of resolution.

The project came about after a female ITA approached Jarvis at the end of the semester and asked if it is normal for American students to swear. "I responded, 'it depends where - in the hallway, to friends or at you,'" Jarvis says. "It turned out the students had been swearing at the TA all semester and she did not know how to handle it."

Jarvis says she discusses student behavior with ITAs during orientation sessions offered at the start of each semester. "We teach them that American students can be very informal, but we haven't been teaching them where informality ends and disruptive behavior begins."

The video, produced and directed by Sadhaka Ahluwalia, a media producer in the University Center for Instructional Media and Technology, uses actors. The ethnicity and, in some cases, the gender of the participants has been changed to avoid the possibility of the actual participants being identified. The dramatic arts department helped identify and train actors for the key roles.

The scenarios in the video all take place in math or science classes. "That's because the predominance of international teaching assistants is in math and science," says Jarvis.

Raising Questions
The vignettes are carefully crafted to leave the viewer questioning: Was the student just teasing the male teaching assistant? Was it harmless flirtation? Or did she cross the line into unacceptable behavior?

The video is accompanied by a set of prepared questions to prompt discussion and help viewers recognize where the line has been crossed.

The fourth scenario, however, leaves less room for doubt. It depicts an Indian-born teaching assistant walking into the classroom and finding an obscene sketch of herself on the board.

Some of those who've seen the video have objected that the scenes are too disturbing. That's necessary, says Jarvis, so that this type of behavior won't be "swept under the rug.

"ITAs are afraid to talk. They think it's their fault," she says. "But if we don't address the worst case scenarios ahead of time, we won't find out until after the fact. We want to show that bad behavior can occur, and do something about it."

Proactive Strategies
That something includes emphasizing good classroom management strategies, and rapport building techniques, such as getting to know each student by name. "When they know you know who they are, they're less likely to act up," Jarvis says.

Instructors also need to set the tone from the beginning, says Keith Barker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction. "You need to let them know you're all heading for the same purpose," he says. "Your job is to help them learn, not to be seen as a person set apart from the class."

Yet that can be particularly difficult for students from some parts of the world, such as Asia, who have grown up in an environment where there is a greater distance between instructor and students. An interactive teaching style - including working on problems in groups and active class participation by students - works well in American classrooms, Barker adds.

The video appears to be the first of its kind, Jarvis says. "Many campuses are struggling with problems of student behavior," she says, "and they see this as a useful tool to promote discussion." More than a dozen institutions, across the country - including the Universities of Arizona and Michigan, and Princeton University - have purchased it since Jarvis presented it at a national conference last month.

Jarvis is already using the video during orientation for international teaching assistants, and she and Barker have shown it to some faculty groups. She hopes also to use the video next year with undergraduates during First Year Experience sessions to talk about civility, responsibility, how to relate to an international teaching assistant, and where students can go for help if they are disturbed by the behavior of their peers.

Barker emphasizes that neither the problem nor the solution is one-sided: "Undergraduates also have to take some responsibility for the behavior," he says, "and some responsibility for the solution."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

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