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TFs Will Receive More Training

News Analysis

By Elizabeth J. Riemer

Administrators have long acknowledged that many teaching fellows are not doing an adequate job of instructing undergraduates.

This year, however, students and administrators have begun to address the issue. The Faculty Council has reformed the guidelines for hiring TFs, and the Undergraduate Council suggested new rules for TF training and evaluation.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell jumped into the fray last month and presented a proposal to improve training for teaching fellows whose native language is not English.

"There have long been student concerns in this area, and we felt it was important that we address them," said Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz.

But faculty members have been restrained in expressing support for the proposal. There's a reason--any attempt to impose quality control on TFs inspires professor's fears that the administration may be trying to chip away at faculty rights.

The specifics of Buell's proposals excited those worries. The dean sought to establish a system in which all non-native English speakers would be testedfor English skills and provided with trainingbefore they can work as TFs within the Faculty ofArts and Sciences.

"There was a sense that centralized testingwould be a large bureaucratic hurdle," Wolcowitzsaid of the Faculty Council's reaction to theproposal. "They thought it was important that wenot be implying that individual faculty membersaren't responsible for the training and selectionof their teaching staff or that departmentsaren't.

Possible Compromise

In the long run, the only plan that could winthe support of the faculty may take the form of acompromise which leaves enforcing standards forteaching fellows up to the individual departments.

But, it is unclear whether such a compromisewould definitively set a bottom line standard onTF's English skills.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles said inan interview yesterday that the testing ofpotential TFs must be flexible enough toaccommodate the needs of different departments.

"I am less concerned about what the precisemechanisms are than that mechanisms exist toguarantee the quality of the classroom experiencefor undergraduates," Knowles said.

A compromise may already be on the way. A newversion of Buell's proposal offers the departmentsmuch more latitude in the testing and training oftheir teaching fellows.

"We may not have to go through a testingprogram for people who have been here for awhile," Wolcowitz said.

He added that if graduate students have workedclosely with a professor, a formal test might notbe necessary to identify those who need morelanguage training.

Wolcowitz said the revamped proposal called forgraduate students to be screened before they couldassume teaching responsibilities.

"Under the initial proposal, if people werejudged by the test to be deficient, then theywould be given several weeks of training and wouldbe retested, at which point it would be decidedwhether they could teach that term," Wolcowitzsaid.

Knowles and faculty members said one concernwith having central control of TF screening isthat it may be unnecessarily over-regulated.

"I have no desire to be gratuitouslybureaucratic; the important thing is to ensureteaching quality," the dean said. "Somedepartments say they don't need all that, and maybe they don't."

"I don't want, of course, to take acookie-cutter approach to this," Knowles added."That would be idiotic. The goal is teachingquality, not bureaucratic tests."

Knowles said that while he encourages acompromise, he also has to set a standard.

"There has to be some sort of mechanism,"Knowles said. "Obviously it is important that TFscan both understand and be understood, and we mustestablish procedures to ensure that."

"I think it is quite improper for ourinstructional budget to be used for people whocannot teach," Knowles asserted.

Some faculty members, however, have alsocriticized the original proposal for its potentialto exclude graduate students who might be valuableTFs.

"We have to consider whether a [graduate]student who has a lesser grasp of English cancompensate by the other things they bring tosection, like insight into a particular languageor region," Baird Professor of Science Gary J.Feldman said after a Faculty Council meetingearlier this month.

Some Examination Necessary

But even though faculty and administrators maydisagree over the specifics of a languagescreening process, most council members said theybelieve that some form of examination isabsolutely necessary to ensure quality teaching.

Knowles said that asking departments to screentheir TFs for language skills is no different fromthe requirements the College imposes onforeign-born undergraduates. These students mustscore at least 600 on the Test of English as aForeign Language (TOEFL) before they can apply toHarvard.

"It's clear that there's no point in bringingan undergraduate here who is going to be utterlylost," Knowles said. "The same goes for TFs inclassrooms."

Graduate Student Council President Carlos A.Lopez, a third-year graduate student in theDepartment of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, saidgraduate students generally support screening forlanguage proficiency.

"It's generally a good idea to have standardtraining," said Lopez, who voluntarily goes to theBok Center for Teaching and Learning eachsemester.

But he cautioned that graduate students who arefinancially dependent on their TF stipends but whofail to meet a language standard should not bepenalized.

"They should find a way to help the studentwith his English, but they should also makearrangements for this person's financial support,"Lopez said. "The University or the department hasto be responsible for the student's financialaid."

Under Buell's original proposal, graduatestudents judged to need further English trainingwould take part in programs administered throughboth the Bok Center and the English as a SecondLanguage (ESL) program of the Division ofContinuing Education.

The ESL program deals with language problems,while the Bok Center focuses on communication andteaching skills.

"We see ourselves as one leg of a three-leggedstool, where the other legs would be thedepartments and the Bok center," said Lilith M.Haynes, ESL program administrator.

"We would want to give [the graduate students]all kinds of skills, which the Bok center alsoreinforces," Haynes said. "Communication is verymulti-faceted--the whole question of speed, thequestion of pronunciation."

The ESL program already helps graduate studentswho take classes voluntarily. Eighteen studentsfrom across the University enrolled in suchprograms through the Division of ContinuingEducation last fall, she said.

And Haynes said that expanding the staff of theprogram to accommodate more widespread trainingwould not pose a problem.

"The idea is that we would work jointly withthe professional schools to set up testing andvarious kinds of training for different schools,"she said.

"I think that the awareness of the problem mayhave been there, but the urgency now is critical,"Haynes added.

Some departments already require their TFs toenroll in teacher-training courses at the Bokcenter. Courses designed to improve the languageskills of TFs include spoken English, writtenEnglish and materiel presentation.

The Mathematics Department, for example, wasthe first department on campus to require its TFsto enroll in an apprentice program at the BokCenter.

Math TFs, however, have traditionally been someof those most criticized for their lack of Englishskills.

"A lot of students use their TF's accent as anexcuse not to do their best work," said Donna R.D'Fini, coordinator of the department's graduateprograms. "Some students concentrate on theaccent, not on the math."

D'Fini, who has worked in Harvard's mathdepartment for 17 years, said she recognizes theproblems inherent in assigning foreign-born TFs toteach sections.

But she said that many problems in thesesections result from students' negative attitudesrather than actual problems with how their TFscommunicate.

"Things have a lot to do with culturaldifferences and prejudices," D'Fini said. "Somestudents come in with a mind that is alreadyclosed to a TF with an accent--in the time thatI've been here I've even seen students complainingabout a TF with a strong Southern accent.

"There was a sense that centralized testingwould be a large bureaucratic hurdle," Wolcowitzsaid of the Faculty Council's reaction to theproposal. "They thought it was important that wenot be implying that individual faculty membersaren't responsible for the training and selectionof their teaching staff or that departmentsaren't.

Possible Compromise

In the long run, the only plan that could winthe support of the faculty may take the form of acompromise which leaves enforcing standards forteaching fellows up to the individual departments.

But, it is unclear whether such a compromisewould definitively set a bottom line standard onTF's English skills.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles said inan interview yesterday that the testing ofpotential TFs must be flexible enough toaccommodate the needs of different departments.

"I am less concerned about what the precisemechanisms are than that mechanisms exist toguarantee the quality of the classroom experiencefor undergraduates," Knowles said.

A compromise may already be on the way. A newversion of Buell's proposal offers the departmentsmuch more latitude in the testing and training oftheir teaching fellows.

"We may not have to go through a testingprogram for people who have been here for awhile," Wolcowitz said.

He added that if graduate students have workedclosely with a professor, a formal test might notbe necessary to identify those who need morelanguage training.

Wolcowitz said the revamped proposal called forgraduate students to be screened before they couldassume teaching responsibilities.

"Under the initial proposal, if people werejudged by the test to be deficient, then theywould be given several weeks of training and wouldbe retested, at which point it would be decidedwhether they could teach that term," Wolcowitzsaid.

Knowles and faculty members said one concernwith having central control of TF screening isthat it may be unnecessarily over-regulated.

"I have no desire to be gratuitouslybureaucratic; the important thing is to ensureteaching quality," the dean said. "Somedepartments say they don't need all that, and maybe they don't."

"I don't want, of course, to take acookie-cutter approach to this," Knowles added."That would be idiotic. The goal is teachingquality, not bureaucratic tests."

Knowles said that while he encourages acompromise, he also has to set a standard.

"There has to be some sort of mechanism,"Knowles said. "Obviously it is important that TFscan both understand and be understood, and we mustestablish procedures to ensure that."

"I think it is quite improper for ourinstructional budget to be used for people whocannot teach," Knowles asserted.

Some faculty members, however, have alsocriticized the original proposal for its potentialto exclude graduate students who might be valuableTFs.

"We have to consider whether a [graduate]student who has a lesser grasp of English cancompensate by the other things they bring tosection, like insight into a particular languageor region," Baird Professor of Science Gary J.Feldman said after a Faculty Council meetingearlier this month.

Some Examination Necessary

But even though faculty and administrators maydisagree over the specifics of a languagescreening process, most council members said theybelieve that some form of examination isabsolutely necessary to ensure quality teaching.

Knowles said that asking departments to screentheir TFs for language skills is no different fromthe requirements the College imposes onforeign-born undergraduates. These students mustscore at least 600 on the Test of English as aForeign Language (TOEFL) before they can apply toHarvard.

"It's clear that there's no point in bringingan undergraduate here who is going to be utterlylost," Knowles said. "The same goes for TFs inclassrooms."

Graduate Student Council President Carlos A.Lopez, a third-year graduate student in theDepartment of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, saidgraduate students generally support screening forlanguage proficiency.

"It's generally a good idea to have standardtraining," said Lopez, who voluntarily goes to theBok Center for Teaching and Learning eachsemester.

But he cautioned that graduate students who arefinancially dependent on their TF stipends but whofail to meet a language standard should not bepenalized.

"They should find a way to help the studentwith his English, but they should also makearrangements for this person's financial support,"Lopez said. "The University or the department hasto be responsible for the student's financialaid."

Under Buell's original proposal, graduatestudents judged to need further English trainingwould take part in programs administered throughboth the Bok Center and the English as a SecondLanguage (ESL) program of the Division ofContinuing Education.

The ESL program deals with language problems,while the Bok Center focuses on communication andteaching skills.

"We see ourselves as one leg of a three-leggedstool, where the other legs would be thedepartments and the Bok center," said Lilith M.Haynes, ESL program administrator.

"We would want to give [the graduate students]all kinds of skills, which the Bok center alsoreinforces," Haynes said. "Communication is verymulti-faceted--the whole question of speed, thequestion of pronunciation."

The ESL program already helps graduate studentswho take classes voluntarily. Eighteen studentsfrom across the University enrolled in suchprograms through the Division of ContinuingEducation last fall, she said.

And Haynes said that expanding the staff of theprogram to accommodate more widespread trainingwould not pose a problem.

"The idea is that we would work jointly withthe professional schools to set up testing andvarious kinds of training for different schools,"she said.

"I think that the awareness of the problem mayhave been there, but the urgency now is critical,"Haynes added.

Some departments already require their TFs toenroll in teacher-training courses at the Bokcenter. Courses designed to improve the languageskills of TFs include spoken English, writtenEnglish and materiel presentation.

The Mathematics Department, for example, wasthe first department on campus to require its TFsto enroll in an apprentice program at the BokCenter.

Math TFs, however, have traditionally been someof those most criticized for their lack of Englishskills.

"A lot of students use their TF's accent as anexcuse not to do their best work," said Donna R.D'Fini, coordinator of the department's graduateprograms. "Some students concentrate on theaccent, not on the math."

D'Fini, who has worked in Harvard's mathdepartment for 17 years, said she recognizes theproblems inherent in assigning foreign-born TFs toteach sections.

But she said that many problems in thesesections result from students' negative attitudesrather than actual problems with how their TFscommunicate.

"Things have a lot to do with culturaldifferences and prejudices," D'Fini said. "Somestudents come in with a mind that is alreadyclosed to a TF with an accent--in the time thatI've been here I've even seen students complainingabout a TF with a strong Southern accent.

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