Trends and Issues in Higher Education:
International Teaching Assistants in Higher Education in the U.S.A.
Rey Ty and Awni...
undergraduate experience in U.S. colleges and universities (Luo, Belows, & Grady,
2000). Hence, they lack the knowledge an...
case study of the ways in which a university in the Midwest deals with the issues
confronting ITAs through the years will ...
& Bergerson, 2008). Third, TAs play the role of faculty-student liaison. TAs convey to
the professor the students’ feedbac...
religious background, and family attitudes. ITAs also need to deal with students as
adults, encourage students’ participat...
content in a systematic, simple and clear way. Some students “complain that their
professors are cheating them by spending...
features of U.S. culture into their international cultural aspects. “ITAs who successfully
adjust to the United States uni...
ITAs must know student names which show that they care about their students.
They need to deal with students as adults, en...
dishonesty also refers to "[f]orms of cheating and plagiarism that involved students
giving or receiving unauthorized assi...
honestly with their students. With these issues in mind, ITAs need to consider the
following in order to be effective verb...
Implications of Applications of the Findings to Practice
Teaching assistants, including those from foreign countries, are ...
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Rey Ty & A.. Alkarzon. (2013). Trends and Issues in Higher Education: International Teaching Assistants.

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Rey Ty & A.. Alkarzon. (2013). Trends and Issues in Higher Education: International Teaching Assistants.

  1. 1. Trends and Issues in Higher Education: International Teaching Assistants in Higher Education in the U.S.A. Rey Ty and Awni Alkarzon Abstract. This paper reviews the literature on international teaching assistants (TAs). It begins with a comparison of teaching assistants and international teaching assistants (ITAs) in the United States. Next, it identifies both the problems and the roles of ITAs. Subsequently, recommendations are enumerated. The paper concludes with ideas for further research. Introduction Background. Since at least the 1970s, there has been an increase in the number of foreign students at U.S. universities. The presence of international graduate students has a significant impact the U.S. higher education institutions (Finder, 2005). They seek work as teaching assistants and receive their education at U.S. universities. U.S. higher education institutions hire international training assistants, because there is a shortage of qualified U.S. teaching assistants (Smith, et. al., 1992). However, the TA position requires a preparation that qualifies international graduate students to carry their responsibilities adequately, because ITAs arrive at the U.S. as ineffective instructors and unprepared for their teaching responsibilities (Gravois, 2005; Finder, 2005; Williams, 1992; and Bailey, et. al., 1984). Research Problem. ITAs are passing through pedagogical and cultural issues. The process of being a TA can be difficult for international students, as they are confronted with the new educational environment and emergent teaching challenges, as they adjust to the U.S. educational system. Most ITAs in the U.S. did not have the
  2. 2. undergraduate experience in U.S. colleges and universities (Luo, Belows, & Grady, 2000). Hence, they lack the knowledge and experience of context and their teaching assignment and duties. Research Questions. The research questions of this paper are the following: One, how different are ITAs from U.S. teaching assistants (TAs)? Two, what are some of the problems with which ITAs deal in both traditional face-to-face classroom setting and in virtual or online distance teaching? Three, what are the duties of ITAs? Four, what are some recommended responses to the challenges with which ITAs are confronted? Objectives of the Research. The objectives of this research are the following: To compare and contrast TAs and ITAs; To identify the problems of ITAs; to discuss the duties of ITAs; to identify and discuss the problems with which ITAs are confronted; to identity the duties of ITAs; and, to suggest some recommendations to ITAs so that they can effectively perform their teaching duties in the higher education context in the U.S.A. Significance. This paper is significant, because it empowers ITAs to overcome different challenges in their attempts to be successful teachers in new cultural and educational settings. Learning lessons from this paper, ITAs will be able to take more responsibility for their continuing education and help them share experiences and encourage them to feel more comfortable in their class. Literature Review. This paper is a critical essay which reviews practice in higher education as documented in the current literature. The link between current research on and actual practice of ITAs will be provided. Specifically, literature about (1) the functions of teaching assistants in general, which affect ITAs as well, (2) classroom and distance education delivery considerations, and (3) cultural considerations will be used. A
  3. 3. case study of the ways in which a university in the Midwest deals with the issues confronting ITAs through the years will be presented. Research Methods. As a critical essay, this paper addresses the duties of ITAs and their learning of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes so that they can be effective instructors in higher education in the United States. Teaching assistants’ training and development (TATD) is a specific component of faculty development (FD), of which the training and development of ITAs is a sub-component. Findings International Teaching Assistants Both ITAs and U.S. TAs perceived significant classroom management problems but each of the two types of TAs also had unique problems. In general, teaching assistants (TAs) play three main roles, these are: post-graduate student, instructor, and faculty-student liaison. ITAs in particular are non-U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents in the United States who are completing their master’s or doctoral degree, assisting regular faculty members as TAs (Plakans, 1997). ITAs play an important role in most U.S. higher education institution. Without their work, U.S. colleges and universities will face difficulties in achieving their educational goals (Pica, Barnes, and Finger, 1990). They teach university courses or assist professors, faculty members or course directors in grading students’ quizzes, tests and homework; supervising laboratory sessions; proctoring tests; and leading discussion sessions. The teaching assistance task for various international students is a demanding one. First, the TAs must create a balance between being the teacher and expert in the course content. Second, they must alternate between being a learner and a student, while working with and under professors (Bailey, 1983; Jia
  4. 4. & Bergerson, 2008). Third, TAs play the role of faculty-student liaison. TAs convey to the professor the students’ feedback. This creates an atmosphere of understanding between students and course director. In short, the TA facilitates the learning process and helps the professor to administer the course to students. Problems with which International Teaching Assistants are Confronted ITAs have to learn what U.S.TAs take for granted. In contrast to U.S. TAs, ITAs are confronted with two main problems, namely (1) the lack of experience in the U.S. educational system and (2) cultural differences. As the ITAs arrive in the U.S. without an adequate experience about the educational system, the institutions should provide them with adequate training programs about rules, regulations, and educational technology tools in order to make them successful assistants or instructors. Cultural Differences. Most ITAs come from countries where they belong to one culture but they find that diversity dominates the U.S. classroom. As the United States is a multi-ethnic nation and multiculturalism dominates the U.S. classroom, ITAs must“plan their lessons in such a way as to intellectually and emotionally connect with, and respect all their students from all backgrounds” (Hutchinson, 2005, p. 73). Instructors need to learn about educational settings such as classrooms and instructional technology (Morrison, 1997). “The issue of diversity also features the management of diverse students’ learning needs. An understanding of these issues is necessary in order to ease the transitional process for international teachers” (Hutchison, 2005, p. 73). Primary dimensions of diversity include gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical qualities and abilities and color. Secondary dimensions of diversity include work experience, marital status, educational background, geographic location, income,
  5. 5. religious background, and family attitudes. ITAs also need to deal with students as adults, encourage students’ participation, be positive towards their behaviors, and make effective presentations in formal classes. In fact, ITAs are passing through pedagogical and cultural issues. Language and Delivery Considerations. Teaching in a foreign country using another language is challenging. Without recognizing the cultural aspects of the U.S. classrooms, ITAs will not be able to realize the nature of their roles within the educational system in the U.S.A. (Bailey, 1983). The dissimilarities in culture and language can make the interaction between the U.S. students and the ITAs “complicated and sometimes problematic” (Bailey, et al., 1984, p. 3). Thus, to protect themselves as ITAs, they need to give handouts or use PowerPoint in order to present the content of the lecture. Some programs explicitly require “PowerPoint use in presentations or teaching demonstrations because it is expected to be used in the classroom, provides structure for the students’ presentations, or simply because students like to use it” (Crumley, 2010, p.414). ITAs Duties and Responsibilities Instructional Plan. In some countries, a course syllabus is not required. But in the U.S., ITAs must prepare a syllabus which serves as a contract between the ITAs and their students. Because of environmental consciousness, many syllabi are now posted online. In their syllabus, ITAs must include their ground rules as well as the departmental and university policies. In addition to knowledge of conventional pedagogical practices, ITAs must understand university and departmental standards, regulations, and norms (Trebing, 2007). Students expect ITAs to explain the course
  6. 6. content in a systematic, simple and clear way. Some students “complain that their professors are cheating them by spending more time consulting and publishing than teaching or preparing for classes” (Levy & Rakovsky, 2006, p.737). On the first day of class, ITAs should introduce themselves, tell their students their names and what they prefer to be called in the classroom, and present their credentials. They need to present their credentials to students on the first day of class. ITAs are expected to tell their students why they are TAs and whether they are M.A. or Ph.D. students. This communicates the message of professional relationship between the ITAs and their students. ITAs must know that students with special needs are in every school and every classroom in the United States (Morrison, 1997, p.166), for which reason TAs will need to know about laws that define terms and give special rights to students (Morrison, 1997, p. 167). Students of disability should be given special treatment and it should be confidential. Cultural Considerations. Having a good command of English language is not enough for ITAs, to be successful in their jobs. There are slang terms and phrases that they might hear from students. If the ITA has consultation hours, s/he should keep the office door open especially if they are not talking about anything confidential. ITAs can ask their students to come in pairs during office hours. This is to avoid any sexual harassment charges, which are prohibited by federal law. ITAs need to know that sexual harassment is not allowed in college or any employment setting. Clothing is a symbol which helps in defining the ITAs’ culture (Eckert, 1989). Clothing and appearance are the most outwardly visual aspects of identity development (Hebdige, 2002). ITAs gain “hybrid identity practices” by combining, in their clothes,
  7. 7. features of U.S. culture into their international cultural aspects. “ITAs who successfully adjust to the United States university system communicate effectively in the classroom and understand the cultural characteristics of their students, will increase the quality of the educational opportunities, experiences and the outcomes that undergraduates receive” (Fox and Gay,1994, p.21). Classroom Dynamic. Based on their own cultures, ITAs may consider some students’ behaviors as impolite, while these behaviors are acceptable in the U.S. A. In some countries, asking questions and challenging the professor are unacceptable behavior but in the U.S. these behaviors are valued. U.S. students do not usually show formal signs of respect for the teacher, such as standing up when the teacher enters the classroom. Many U.S. students are accustomed to calling instructors by their first names. In some countries, you must call the instructor Professor, Dr., and Sir. In some countries, students are expected to memorize what the teacher lectures. In answering their exam questions, students must spew back out the instructor’s lectures (Freire, 1970). But in the U.S., students can challenge authors and ideas, because they are taught to think critically. Discussions are good in small classes. Diversity is a fact of life in the U.S. classroom. “The issue of diversity also features the management of diverse students’ learning needs. An understanding of these issues is necessary in order to ease the transitional process for international teachers” (Hutchson, 2005, p. 73). ITAs need to recognize primary dimensions of diversity (gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical qualities and abilities, and color) and secondary dimensions of diversity (work experience, marital status, educational background, geographic location, income, religious background, and family attitudes).
  8. 8. ITAs must know student names which show that they care about their students. They need to deal with students as adults, encourage students’ participation, and be positive towards their behaviors. ITAs need to tell their students if they have questions that they can ask them in class, office, or by e-mail. Instructional Technology: In the U.S.A., more and more higher education institutions are using new technology tools in order to enhance access to educational opportunities that were not present prior to the Internet. ITAs need to be familiar with distance education, as it represents the current trend in higher education. Distance education can include several emerging technologies (Burdet, et al., 2007), including among others, blogs, wikis, podcasts and Google docs. ITAs must know virtual classroom, basic computer skills such as MS Word, PowerPoint, opening and saving files, and how to use the electronic (or e-) blackboard. Online teaching and learning can be either synchronous (happening at the same time) or asynchronous (the opposite). Testing and Grading. ITAs must not give special treatment to one or few students. If extra credits are offered, they must be accessible to all students. In some countries, students are happy even when the grade are low, as long as they pass. For example, in France, students are happy when they get 12 out of 20. In India, students are happy when they get 60 out of 100. In the U.S., the expectations are different. ITAs need to tell your students what to study to get an A. ITAs must be aware of the definition, meaning and purpose of academic dishonesty, because it helps them in complying with the U.S. education system. Academic dishonesty is an intended performance as students use fabricated information or unauthorized sources in an academic production (Gehring & Pavela, 1994). Academic
  9. 9. dishonesty also refers to "[f]orms of cheating and plagiarism that involved students giving or receiving unauthorized assistance in an academic exercise or receiving credit for work that is not their own" (Kibler, 1993, p. 253). In other countries, students copy and paste ideas or information without referencing them. In the U.S., this act constitutes academic dishonesty. ITAs must discuss with their students the risks of committing academic dishonesty at the beginning of the semester. Professionalism. While it is preferable to be loved than feared (Machiavelli, 2012), ITAs need to keep their relationships with their students on a professional basis at all times in order that they can provide fair testing and grading. This makes the ITA more of an authority and less of a friend to his or her students. Students expect to see their grades by the end of the succeeding two class meetings. The ITAs’ grading policy must be clear from the very first day. In some countries, the longer your paper, the higher your grade. In the U.S., when the professors say ten pages, they mean ten pages. Some professors will not read papers which are longer than the required number of pages. In some countries, when students write papers, eighty percent is useless background information. In the U.S., students have to follow certain guidelines, format, and rubric. Recommendations ITAs need to be aware of language difficulties cultural differences, rules and regulations, and basic and new educational technology tools in order to develop and manage a comfortable classroom atmosphere by learning about one another and developing a cross-cultural, teacher-student relationship. Acceptance and patience are significant to the TA-student relationship. ITAs need to avoid cultural miscommunication, have positive attitudes, remove misunderstandings and communicate
  10. 10. honestly with their students. With these issues in mind, ITAs need to consider the following in order to be effective verbal communicators and pave the way for students to understand the lessons and course content: 1) to know your students’ names and background, 2) to communicate with friendliness and respect with students, 3) to improve spoken English, 4) to control the rate and volume of speech by speaking slowly and enough volume, 5) to make eye contact when talking with students, 6) to smile, 7) to be confident when explaining issues, course content, and lessons, 8) to know students’ educational background and experience, 9) to ask experienced professors for advice regarding students’ excuses or complaints, and 10) to deal with students on equal basis, including students of color, women, students with certain religious beliefs, and international students. Conclusion Summary ITAs need to be aware of language difficulties and cultural differences, develop a comfortable classroom atmosphere by learning about one another and developing a cross- cultural, teacher-student relationship. ITAs are required to care about their students’ conflicts and frustrations. Acceptance and patience are significant to the TA-student relationship. ITAs are required to avoid cultural miscommunication, have positive attitudes, remove misunderstandings and communicate honestly with their students. Teaching assistantship provides benefits for both the U.S. students as well as for ITAs studying and teaching in the United States. ITAs provide new attitudes on the curriculum and offer international perspectives to the course content “that United States academicians may not have considered” (Pialorsi, 1984, p. 16).
  11. 11. Implications of Applications of the Findings to Practice Teaching assistants, including those from foreign countries, are at the heart of higher education, as they assist regular faculty members in teaching courses. This paper deals with the ways in which higher education institutions reexamine the performance, learning, and change in the role of teaching assistants who are from other countries and have different experiences. While ITAs need to take more responsibility for their continuing education, higher education institutions need to provide them with opportunities to pursue continuing education. Recommendations for Further Research Further research efforts can go beyond description and investigate the causal relationship between the variables. They can also study ITAs across different universities. Furthermore, aside from getting data only from ITAs, they can also include feedback from the students’ perspectives. References: The full list of references is available upon request from Rey Ty at rty@niu.edu. _________________________ Rey Ty, Ed.D. and Awni Alkarzon, Ph.D., Division of International Programs, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115, rty@niu.edu and aalkarzon@niu.edu. Presented at the Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult and Higher Education, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, MO, September 20-21, 2013.

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