“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Gin House Tune!”
The librarian clicked a few keystrokes. “There doesn’t seem to be a book by that title.”
Another student offered some assistance. After some discussion, he said, “I think she means Jane Austen.”
“Yes, where I find book?”
“Do you mean a novel by Jane Austen?”
She didn’t seem to understand the question.
The helpful student interjected, “Do you mean a book by Jane Austen or a book about Jane Austen?”
Understanding did not register.
“One she wrote or one that tells her life?”
“Oh! Tell life.”
There were more keystrokes and the writing of some call numbers before the librarian directed her to the fifth floor.
“How I get here fifth floor?”
“You take the elevator.”
“No! Where here now? Where ‘P’?”
Again there was difficulty, but we figured she wanted to know where she was in relation to the location of books about Jane Austen. She still did not seem to understand “P” was part of a call number and the section of the library where books about Jane Austen would be found.
We all tried very hard, but the student who had served as an interpreter finally took her to the books.
Colleges and universities have been admitting too many students who do not have enough proficiency in English to succeed in U.S. colleges. It isn’t fair to these students, nor is it fair to their professors, instructors and classmates whose teaching and learning is slowed by the presence of under-prepared students. Limited resources, some say not nearly enough, are being diverted in an attempt to “coach up” students with English language deficiencies.
When I taught, my attitude was akin to the lawyer who takes his plaintiffs as he finds them. While I sometimes thought it was unfair to burden me with under-prepared students and the ethical challenges they presented, I resolved to do the best I could in light of my relative powerlessness to change the situation. I could not bring myself to punish these students for what was entirely, or almost entirely, not their fault. Sometimes this approach paid dividends in student success; other times it left me wondering if I had done right by judging their work by a different standard or participating in an institution’s policies of social promotion and revenue enhancement.
Students whose first language is not English are often alleged to have passed English proficiency exams. I’ve long had some doubts about this. In this country, for example, there have been a number of scandals involving individuals taking tests for others. We have only just begun tightening up on security for SAT testing. Also, some students score well on reading and/or writing and/or speaking, but are not necessarily proficient in all three.
A common student complaint is the continued presence of teaching assistants, instructors and even professors who do not speak or pronounce English well enough to be sufficiently understood by their students. Often, student complaints are not taken seriously by administrators. They are told universities are supposed to be “universal” and how fortunate they are to have instructors from other countries. Still, I’ve seen less-than-language-proficient lecturers addressing large, nearly empty lecture halls, their students no longer attending class and opting instead for teaching themselves or finding other means to pass their course requirements.
Trekking across campus I continued thinking about the student in search of Jane Austen, my experiences with students lacking adequate English language proficiency, and my responses and ethics when presented with students who should not have been placed in my courses. What would I do today if our Jane Austen scholar suddenly appeared in one of my classrooms?
As I passed the law school I saw her again. She was holding a photocopied book. The title of the book was “Preparing the Lecture.”
Dan Schwartz, J.D., Ph.D., a former university education department chairman and dean, has taught English and education in five states. He is a Wisconsin Teaching Fellow and Horatio Alger Fellow. He currently divides his time between Amherst and Green Bay, Wis.