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`Publish Or Perish'

By Janet Ross / September 12, 1989

FROM my desk I watched the students filing into my classroom that opening day of the semester. Two slim Japanese girls were the first arrivals. At the door they paused, peered inside, then, giggling a little, entered. The dark-moustached man behind them strode in imperiously. A tall blonde woman walked in, switching her long hair over her shoulder. She sat down across the room from the others and gazed out the window. A swarthy man in starched white turban was next. A round-faced dark-skinned man with round black-rimmed glasses beamed at me and said ``Good morning'' as he took a seat. A man with gray around the temples came in quietly, acknowledging my presence with a slight, rather courtly bow.

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Communication Skills 101, the course was. It covered both speech and written composition, and was required of all students at the university. I had taught it and similar courses many times before, had listened to countless speeches, and graded countless compositions. But this class, Section 62F, was different. The F indicated it was reserved for foreign students.

``We have to do something about all these people coming in from other countries,'' the dean had decreed. ``They just don't fit in regular Communication Skills classes.'' I had taught French briefly, and English to a few foreign students' wives. My friend Gladys, like me a graduate student, had taught speech, and had had a few foreign students in her classes. Thus we were selected to teach the two F sections of Communication Skills.

I wondered how that group of 25 that seated itself before me were all going to fit together in Section 62F. As I called on them one by one to introduce themselves I found that only two were 18-year-old freshmen for whom the course was planned. The turbaned man and a companion were teaching assistants in mathematics, and their department chairman had required them to enroll.

``Their pronunciation is terrible. No one can understand them,'' he had told me on the telephone. The two men looked unhappy. ``We've spoken English all our lives,'' one of them protested, ``the way they do in India. If we talk like you when we go home, everyone will laugh.''

An Arab and a Korean man were more eager to take the course. They were fellow interns at the hospital. ``I no understand him. He no understand me. Bad for medicine.'' the Korean explained.

One girl, after her neighbor introduced herself, got up and moved across the room, where she seemed to be crying softly. After class I asked her what the trouble was. ``I'm Greek. I don't sit with Turks,'' she said.

Later in the day I compared notes with Gladys. ``My class is impossible!'' I said. ``The students range in age from 18 to about 50, and have about eight different native languages. Some can read English but can't speak it. Some speak, but can't understand. And the way they write!''

``It's the same with mine,'' said Gladys. ``And that textbook the department ordered for us to use, it's awful. The students just fill in blanks in sentences.''

``That's no way to learn a language,'' I declared. ``Anyone could write a better book than that!''

Gladys looked thoughtful for a moment. Then a gleam came in her eye. ``Well, why don't we write one?'' she said.

``Me, write a book?'' I laughed.

Somehow we got through that semester. When we weren't teaching or studying for our graduate courses, we wrote exercises and thought up assignments for our F sections, and Gladys kept talking about that book we were going to produce. ``It will be such fun to do it! And when we leave here and have real jobs, it's `publish or perish' you know.''