Agony and ecstasy of foreign students

ONE of the most significant developments in American higher education in recent years has been the increase in the number of foreign students. Last year, for example, nearly 350,000 foreign students attended American institutions, with their numbers in some institutions accounting for as much as 25 percent (University of San Francisco) of total enrollment. Like any demographic change, there is both ecstasy and agony in what the Institute of International Education dubs ``open doors.'' The good news is that the trend offsets the decrease in the 18- to 22-year-old population in the United States, permitting educational institutions to fill a good portion of the seats that were constructed for the post-World War II baby-boomers. Foreign students on American campuses have also broadened the cultural horizons of American students, whose career consciousness has in recent years narrowed their concerns about traditional liberal arts areas that encompass the study of other countries. At my own university, International Week, held during late October in conjunction with the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, is a spirited and sincere effort by American and foreign students to share in establishing cultural bonds and work toward world peace.

The downside of the demographic change is that traditions sometimes clash in the teaching-learning process. Some Middle East students, for instance, have attempted to bargain over grades in my classes, as if the classroom were a market where goods were sold in a give-and-take atmosphere. So many religions are represented among foreign students that it is difficult to schedule examinations and other important assignments during the course of a semester without conflicting with some religious observances.

Perhaps most important of all is the difficulty of evaluating the use of English by the foreign student. As recorded in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the attempt to ensure the language ability of foreign-born teaching assistants at various institutions has created solutions that are ``complicated, time-consuming, and politically sensitive.'' Among undergraduate foreign students, the problem is how to evaluate the writing style of a student whose essays and papers indicate enormous discrepancies in his or her command of English. Having studied abroad as an undergraduate, I appreciated the fact that my instructors were tolerant of the fact that I missed an umlaut or two under time pressures. I try to repay that tolerance with my own foreign students.

But where do you draw the line between minor stylistic and spelling flaws and serious problems? That may soon well be the most serious dilemma facing professors, especially as foreign students express their critical feelings in evaluations of teaching that often play a part in the promotion, tenure, and merit pay of professors. As one foreign student put it on one of my evaluation sheets: Remember, he said in reaction to my grading of style as well as substance, more tolerance is needed, for our institution is an ``international university.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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