Introducing International Teaching Assistants

We recently published A Transdisciplinary Approach to International Teaching Assistants edited by Stephen Daniel Looney and Shereen Bhalla. In this post the editors explain how their book reframes the notion of ‘the ITA problem’.

For several decades in North America, international graduate students have accounted for a significant portion of the teaching labor force at large universities. Thus, novice multilingual teachers with little to no pedagogical training are leading courses populated by undergraduates from the US who have limited experience with intercultural interaction in high-stakes contexts. By the 1980s, this situation had been dubbed “the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Problem,” and the problem was perceived to be a sociolinguistic one, i.e. lacking symmetry between the speech and pragmatic expectations of ITAs and undergraduates. States began passing legislation requiring that ITAs’ English proficiency be certified before they could undertake teaching responsibilities. This led to the emergence of ITA Programs at universities across the US and Canada as well as the establishment of the ITA Interest Section in the International TESOL organization. ITA Programs vary vastly both in where they are housed in universities, e.g. an academic department, teaching and learning center, or Intensive English Program, and in the services that they provide, e.g. semester-long courses or shorter workshops and seminars. The ITA Interest Section is composed almost exclusively of teachers and administrators with few researchers being active participants. This imbalance has arguably caused ITA as a sub-field of applied linguistics and TESOL to be marginalized and misunderstood as deficit oriented.

Framing ITAs as a problem surely offends the 21st century applied linguist’s sensibilities, but researchers and practitioners realized early on that the issue is more complex than just pronunciation and grammar which can be addressed with remedial ESL courses. ITAs need to be able to exploit and interpret prosodic and multimodal cues, and classroom communication is a two-way street, involving undergraduates as well as ITAs. At the same time, perceptions of speech and expectations for classroom behavior are influenced by experiences and biases that may be conscious or not. While ITA research has dealt with language, interaction, and the perceptions, attitudes, and experiences of ITAs and undergraduates, other stakeholders such as faculty members, ITA practitioners, and university administrators have only entered the periphery of the discussion at best and an in-depth look at policy is non-existent to the best of my knowledge.

Drawing on recent developments in applied linguistics, our volume is a collection of state-of-the-art ITA studies from a variety of perspectives. While there are chapters addressing language and social interaction, there are also studies of communities of practice, the contact hypothesis, assessment, policy, and program evaluation. As a whole, the contributions to this volume reframe ITAs as skilled multilingual professionals who are developing sophisticated interactional repertoires for teaching and academic interaction. Additionally, these multilingual professionals are being socialized into communities of practice including university classrooms, departments, research labs, and student organizations. The collection recognizes the roles multiple stakeholders play in ITA and the institutional and ideological realities that these stakeholders face. While ITA has been framed as a North American issue, English is increasingly the medium of instruction in universities around the world, making our volume relevant to researchers, teachers, and administrators worldwide. The use of English for Teaching (and Academic) Purposes is a global issue that deserves further attention. Our volume only begins to crack the surface of what could be fertile ground for applied linguists, but we hope it can serve as a springboard for further investigation.

 

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like International Student Engagement in Higher Education by Margaret Kettle.

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