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Understanding International Teaching Assistants (ITAs): Institutional, ITA,
and Student Role Expectations of ITAs
Submitted to the Graduate Education Interest Group of
For consideration for the AEJMC 2004 conference
Jae Hong Kim
College of Communications
Pennsylvania State University
Home Address: Eun-A Park
1400 Martin St. #2018
State College, PA 16803
Email: [log in to unmask]
Understanding International Teaching Assistants (ITAs): Institutional,
ITAs', and Students' Role Expectations of ITAs
Jae Hong Kim
This study explores how school administrators, ITAs, and undergraduate
students understand the role of ITAs and what they expect of ITAs in the
American undergraduate classroom via in-depth interviews. By looking at
each part (school, ITAs, and students), we determine if there is a
discrepancy or understanding gap in their expectations.
Over the years, a growing number of graduate teaching assistants are coming
from other countries, bringing with them a unique sense of culture and
identity. With their increasing numbers, their role and status on college
campuses has progressively become more significant, and their presence in
undergraduate education is expected to grow (Olaniran, 1999). Many of
these international teaching assistants (ITA) face cultural challenges
which create numerous instructional barriers in the classroom (as cited in
Althen, 1991; Numrich, 1991; Smith et al., 1992).
Although their research was confined to economic courses, Watts and Lynch
(1989) found that ITAs had a negative effect on student learning. Their
hypothesis is based on student complaints about ITAs. Watts and Lynch
demonstrated that ITAs had diverse problems in the classroom, apart from
expected problems such as basic language skills. For example, many ITAs
come from countries where the interaction between student and teacher is
not considered important or highly encouraged in the classroom, putting
ITAs at a disadvantage in dealing with students in the United States.
Many studies aimed at improving the performance of ITAs in undergraduate
courses have examined the role and socialization process of graduate
teaching assistants teaching undergraduate courses, without taking into
account the ITA's cultural background or language ability (Darling, 1999;
Galvin, 1999; Staton, 1999). These studies merely concluded that
the acculturation of the ITAs into the "American" academic culture is
important to the facilitation of effective teaching and learning (Arubayi,
1981; Bresnahan, 2000; Kim, 1977; Smalley, 1963).
These researchers did not examine the perspectives of undergraduate
students, ITAs, and school administrators. Ignoring the tripartite (school
administrator, ITA and student) perspectives and expectations increases the
difficulties inherent in improving the role and performance of ITAs in the
classroom. This agrees with Staton (1999), who stressed the need to take an
"an ecological perspective" in examining the teaching and learning process.
In order to understand the ITAs' problems and suggest a solution, it is
necessary to examine the nature of the relationships between those involved.
The purpose of this present study is to explore how school administrators,
ITAs, and undergraduate students understand the role of ITAs and what they
expect of ITAs in the American undergraduate classroom. By looking at each
part (school, ITAs, and students), we can determine if there is a
discrepancy or understanding gap in their expectations. If there is a gap,
then it could be an effective suggestive platform to help reduce role
conflicts. We propose the following four research questions:
1) What role expectations do undergraduate students have for ITAs in the
2) What role expectations do ITAs have for themselves as teaching instructors?
3) What role expectations do school administrators have for ITAs?
4) What is the difference in role expectations between those involved?
II. Literature Review
1. ITA Adjustment and Training
There has been much research concerning ITA adjustment issues. That is, an
ITA's interpersonal effectiveness (Yook & Albert, 1999), the necessity of
efficient training programs to facilitate the ITA's assimilation into the
American educational system (Smith et al., 1992; Smith, 1993; Watts and
Lynch, 1989), key factors contributing to the fine-tuning of ITAs as
teachers (Olaniran, 1999; Bresnahan & Cai, 2000), compensatory language
strategies (Bailey, 1983), and technical and cultural difficulties of ITAs
in speech communication (Ross and Krider, 1999).
Yook and Albert (1999) focused on American undergraduate students'
perceptions of an ITA who speaks English as a second language. Based on
the psychological perspective, the authors conducted an experiment to test
the influence of intercultural training strategies (e.g., helping U.S.
undergraduate students' to understand and know about the cultural
differences or the ITA's teaching and speaking difficulties in the U.S.) on
the American students' evaluations of the non-native speaker. This article
implies that providing some intercultural sensitivity tips to the American
students is crucial for ITAs at the beginning of the semester because it
will not only help or reduce students' negative feelings about ITAs, but it
also supports positive relationships between American undergraduate
students and the ITAs.
Smith et al. (1992) draws an overall big picture about the increasing
number of ITAs in the undergraduate classroom in the U.S. Starting from
social pros and cons debates raised by the demographic change, the
discussion centered on the following issues: what is the legislative and
academic response to complaints about the use of ITAs in undergraduate
education; what program models address the training needs of ITAs; what
assessment instruments are used to screen and evaluate ITAs; what type of
research has supported and informed ITA training program design and
content; and how university administrators can support the development and
implementation of ITA training and assessment programs. It will advance our
understanding of the involved parties' perceptions of ITAs. Especially,
this research justifies our study purpose by recommending further research
in policy planning issues including how institutions define and identify
ITAs, strategic planning regarding the future role of ITAs in undergraduate
instruction, and so forth. Smith (1993) also investigated factors that
contribute to the successful development of ITAs as instructors through a
case study (i.e., observation and interview). The case was a Chinese
teaching assistant who had a very difficult time assimilating into the
different cultural and teaching setting in the U.S. However, by receiving
systematic instructions, changing his attitude, and having systematic and
specific individual goals, the ITA was able to overcome his negative
feelings and uncomfortable mindset. This study indicated the importance of
clarifying personal goals in determining a focus in the teaching
environment. The author suggested that having specific and systematic
goals, such as linguistic, cultural, social, and professional goals, and
connecting those goals to the ITA's real teaching environment are crucial
to becoming a successful international teaching assistant. The article
implies that systematic advice and guidance from department graduate
coordinators, peer TAs, faculty/administrators, and even from American
undergraduate students are all crucial sources that can help develop the
ITA's performance as an instructor.
Watts and Lynch (1989) empirically investigated the effects on student
learning and grades of assigning international graduate student instructors
in elementary courses of economics. They found that ITAs exhibited negative
and significant effects in the learning equations and suggested special
screening and training programs for ITAs. Even though the findings of this
article are constrained to economics courses, they provide a part of the
picture of the effects ITAs bring into the classroom. This indicates that
without any consideration of their special training or screening programs,
there might be a risk of ITAs bringing some problems into the classroom.
Through interview and/or observation, a few scholars have tried to
explicate some factors that are credited with the success of ITAs in the
classroom. Through face-to-face interviews, Bresnahan and Cai (2000)
discovered that willingness to talk about teaching problems and the
availability of teaching support were key factors contributing to ITAs'
adjustment as teachers in the American classroom. Adaptation was examined
using three factors: how prior expectations of teacher-student interaction
helped or hindered adaptation, how ITA attitudes about American
undergraduates facilitated or hindered the success of classroom
interaction, and ITAs' evaluation of ways in which the university
contributed to their process of adaptation. Thus, this study provides ITAs'
stories as a valuable source for understanding their viewpoints.
Olaniran (1999) analyzed and evaluated a workshop for ITAs through a
participant observation technique based on five variables identified for
reducing the student instructor's social difficulties (e.g., language, age,
academic classification, cultural similarity, and friendship communication
network). This study gives us an idea of what is really expected to improve
ITAs' interactions with their students. The author advises that readers
change from a "one size fits all" mentality to one that identifies the
different needs and roles of international undergraduate and graduate
students. He elaborates on this and specifies the dimensions in each
variable which influence the successful adjustment of ITAs.
Bailey (1983) made a data comparison of TA performance between native
speaking TAs and non-native speaking ITAs as evaluated by undergraduate
students in terms of their overall effectiveness and outside helpfulness.
In native speakers' classes, there was a moderate correlation between the
students' evaluations and the frequency of 1) the TA's moves to elicit
input from the students (an index of how interactive their classes were)
and 2) the TA's manifestations of friendliness, humor, and concern for
their students. However, for non-native speaking TAs, the frequency with
which they simply provided subject matter information (without being
entertaining or interactive) correlated negatively with the student's
evaluations. This article gives some statistical evidence for the
problems that ITAs face in terms of overall teaching effectiveness and
outside helpfulness for U.S. undergraduate students. We argue that this
study does not provide good solutions or have deep implications for school
administrators and ITAs. This type of article is one that follows a current
research pattern in that it only evaluates or discovers ITAs problematic
performance in terms of language proficiency or social interaction by
comparing them with native-speaking TAs. Most studies share the assumption
that the ITA should be trained to adjust to the new teaching and learning
environment by focusing mostly on their language ability (Raman &
Conversely, some articles dealing with more various and multifaceted
aspects derived from the ITAs' perspective were suggested with implications
for our study. ITAs identify themselves as teaching assistants, students
and 'international travelers' (Ross & Krider, 1992). These foreigners face
the challenge not only of adjusting to a new way of life, but also of
coming to terms with meshing the roles of student and teacher and dealing
with the expectations attached to these roles within the American
university system (Ross & Krider, 1992). That means they have to both adapt
to the host culture and participate in the host culture's instructional
delivery process. As a result of these factors, ITAs face some social
difficulties, forcing them to juggle academic challenges and other
intercultural adaptation process requirements (Olaniran, 1999).
Through in-depth interviews, Ross and Krider (1999) tried to explicate
ITAs' teaching experiences in speech communication. They found two main
meaning clusters: (a) technical teaching difficulties and (b) intercultural
difficulties. Technical difficulties contained the common themes of
instructional preparation, classroom procedures, English usage, and
American students. Intercultural difficulties included the common themes of
cultural awareness and interpersonal communication. Through a
phenomenological study that assumed wealthy life texts of ITAs'
experiences, they suggested that teaching communication, humanities, and
social science contains far more cultural pitfalls for ITAs than teaching
many other disciplines. Therefore, they directed that "departments must go
beyond merely developing technical teaching orientation programs for ITAs
and develop means through which issues of cultural awareness and
intercultural differences can be addressed" (Ross & Krider, 1992, p.291).
Ramasubramanian (2001) approaches ITAs in the American undergraduate
classroom from cultural and critical perspectives, more specifically, from
the perspectives of inter-culturalism and feminism. The author, an ITA,
through analysis of cultural difference, explains well the reason for role
conflicts minority ITAs are likely to face in the communications classroom.
Above all, her firsthand lecturing experience shows well the possible
inter-cultural conflicts between ITAs and their students in terms of
different perceptions of a "third world" person and a minority. This paper
suggests that a TA, as part of the de-centered teaching and learning
community, is no longer considered an "alien" but becomes a moderator and a
2. Discourses of Teaching Role
The discourses about teaching roles seem to make a common statement. They
reveal that the teaching role is not just a position, but is rather a
relationship, a social interaction, and an ecological process and as such
it stands out in the perception and comprehension of all those involved
(Galvin, 1999; Staton, 1999; Millar, 1996).
Teaching is a multidimensional and interactive process (Galvin, 1999).
According to Galvin (1999), teachers' roles include preparation of subject
materials, provision of equal treatment to students, and evaluation of
students' performance (p.243). He further defined "Roles" as positions
which entail a series of expectations for an occupant of a given position.
Such expectations convey beliefs about how a role should be enacted no
matter what the circumstances (Linton, 1945). Roles serve to reduce anxiety
that would arise from constantly choosing between alternative behaviors.
Therefore, role expectations can reduce the need for constant negotiation.
"Classroom roles are viewed as repetitive patterns of behaviors by which
classroom members (teachers and students) fulfill classroom functions (p.244)"
Classroom roles emerge through a complex dual process that involves (a)
role expectation and (b) role performance. Galvin identifies that personal
background, relationships with others, system expectations, and feedback
affect role development. Role expectation is based on the prior experience
of teachers and students. If a student attended schools with a homogenous
religious, ethnic, or socioeconomic student body, he or she may base his or
her instructional expectations on this experience. Others, such as college
peers, establish expectations about how good teachers behave. Finally,
messages from the educational system influence expectations. Beliefs and
background, peers, and general system expectations influence one's role
expectations. He demonstrates that a mismatch between faculty and student
expectations leaves both parties unfulfilled.
Galvin's thought of teaching as "interactive process" unites with Staton
(1998)'s emphasis on social and ecological environment for teaching and
learning. Staton stresses on the social and ecological environment in which
teaching and learning occur; that is, it is not enough for a teacher to be
an expert in the academic content, a teacher must also understand the
environment for teaching and learning with a consideration of three
contexts: the classroom context, the institutional context, and the
societal context. She suggests that setting aside knowledge of content, an
effective instructor should socialize well into the classroom, institution,
However, as Ramasubramanian (2000) pointed out, ITAs are likely to have
trouble understanding and socializing to the environments because they are
often unfamiliar with this culture in which they have to teach. Especially,
those from non-Western countries, where more hierarchical social structures
are common, who are used to considering teachers as authority figures and
To achieve our research goal, we administered face-to-face interviews. The
sample population consisted of undergraduate students, ITAs, and department
administrators in the College of Communications and Department of
Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University.
Through individual contact processes, a total of 18 persons participated in
the interviews, including five administrators, five international teaching
assistants who are currently teaching communication courses during spring
2004 and eight undergraduate students who were in two ITAs' classes (See
Table 1). Interviews were conducted individually, one to one, by two
researchers, and were voice recorded for the researchers' reference.
Two main concepts examined in the study were "role expectation" and "role
discrepancy." Role expectation is based on Galvin's categorization.
Personal characteristics, classroom responses, other faculty and the
institutional system influence role performance. Accordingly, role
functions can provide more specific means for examining classroom life. The
primary role functions are (a) providing content expertise, (b) providing
learning management, (c) providing evaluative feedback (d) providing
socialization and (e) providing personal models.
More specifically, the role functions of a teacher in a classroom can be
explained as follows:
(a) Teachers should create changes in their students through thoughtful
structuring of content that connects to their students' lives.
(b) Teachers should manage their students' learning through the creation of
specific learning processes, such as diagnosis, objective setting,
selection of strategies, and evaluation.
(c) Teachers should give students constructive critiques designed to foster
continued improvement. Teachers must also evaluate themselves, using
self-reflection, student feedback, and peer and school administrator's
(d) Teachers should serve as gatekeepers to a world that represents their
field as well as the values, assumptions, and types of intellectual life
that characterize their discipline.
(e) Teachers should interact with students in a way in which they serve as
role models – adults who appear to have reached a desired level of
intellectual and personal development. Within the communication field,
students expect to view a teacher both as a communication scholar and as a
model of personal communication competence.
If there is a difference or gap between the expectations of students, ITAs,
and school administrators, we will call this "role discrepancy."
Accordingly, we made three protocols for interviews, adjusting questions to
the three different parties. The protocols are attached at the end of this
paper (Table 2).
Table 1) Identification of participants
Media industry policy and history
International communication, research methods and political communication
International communications, telecommunications policy
Media effects and research methods
1-2 times of class experiences with ITAs
1. Providing Content Expertise
A. School Administrators
The first question was about the admission pool. Nowadays, more and more
international students have been coming to the U.S., and this has been no
different in the communication department. In general, ITAs do not have
much practical experience in the U.S. media culture. Accordingly, our
question was why, in spite of the ITAs' lack of experience, does the
communication department admit and give a TA opportunity to the
international graduate students?
In response to this research question, which asked school administrators'
thoughts on ITAs' content expertise in general compared to that of domestic
TAs, most school administrators agreed in that there were no big
differences between ITAs and other faculty, including domestic TAs in terms
of teaching and content expertise. They emphasized that fact later on. One
school administrator stated, "We pick our students regardless of their
origin or nationality…. we do think all of them have at least well-prepared
The administrators recognized the difficulties facing ITAs in the teaching
classroom, representatively, the lack of language skills and cultural
understanding. Most school administrators thought that "content expertise
is not a really important criterion for picking our TAs from an application
pool." They assumed that those selected, as graduate teaching assistants
would have the basic ability to adjust to teaching in the classroom. One
interviewee more specifically stated,"the first decisive factor would be a
knowledge about their interest area… the second one would be an ability to
be an efficient teacher in terms of practical knowledge about teaching…the
third one is an ability to communicate effectively in the cultural aspect."
Accordingly, they thought the language problem would be one of the most
salient obstacles for ITAs. "If an ITA were using broken English, we would
not be able to put him/her into an undergraduate classroom."
On the other hand, they believed in common that peer mentoring and
apprenticeship would help solve this problem. Peer mentoring means that a
senior ITA who has teaching experience would help a novice ITA out by
giving them practical teaching advice or information before they go into an
American classroom. Apprenticeship refers to a pairing of an ITA and a
faculty member having the same teaching interest area. An ITA would attend
and assist in a class in his/her interest area until he/she can take charge
of the class alone with help of a mentor faculty member. They believed that
this kind of apprenticeship was the most efficient way to have ITAs
accommodate to instruction. The problem they mentioned, however, was the
decentralized system of the College, which was supposed to guide ITAs
towards socializing to the classroom.
B. International Teaching Assistants
The ITAs who we interviewed have been teaching the following communication
courses: mass communication research methodology, mass media and the
public, introductory speech communication, and media and cultural studies.
Their teaching course topic and their research interests do not always
match. This situation happens often because many undergraduate courses
cover many diverse and broad topics rather than tiny and deeply specific
areas. Most ITAs responded that they prepared for their teaching courses
during the summer vacation before the start of the new school year with the
help of such sources: professors, instructors or peer colleagues; past
course syllabi; the Internet Web; and by their own studying.
Based on our interview, ITAs gave us somewhat diverse answers regarding the
following question—'are you confident and satisfied with the undergraduate
classes you are currently teaching?' Although their teaching courses and
their research topics do not perfectly match, they seemed to be satisfied
and confident in their teaching courses. Most ITAs mentioned that at first
it was not easy for them to teach undergraduate courses, but their teaching
was much better and easier as time went on. Especially, they reported that
teaching undergraduate students enhanced their knowledge compared to before
their teaching. An ITA emphasized, "teaching undergraduate students is
another way that I can learn many things… which I cannot explore from
graduate classes. Teaching is not only a good opportunity to prepare for my
future, but also a great chance to review what I learned during the past
years". Implicit in their answers is the idea that, although it is
essential to be confident and knowledgeable in the subject area of the
courses before teaching, it is also crucial to note that teaching is
another great opportunity for ITAs to enhance their knowledge. Likewise,
they thought teaching as 'an opportunity' for educating themseves whereas
school administrators thought it as a 'final stage' coming after gaining
enough language skill and expertise.
Teaching American undergraduate students is especially hard for ITAs in
communications when they have to bring American current affairs (e.g.,
American pop-culture; politics) into the classroom. As one ITA said, "if I
can bring current popular U.S. cultural issues which can be applicable to
lecture content, my class will be a lot helpful for students to
understand. It is important, but also difficult for international teaching
assistants, to bring many interesting U.S. cultural issues…very difficult
to catch up every U.S. political and cultural trends… If mastering English
language is a barrier that international teaching assistants should
overcome, understanding and bringing many diverse cultural topics is
another difficult thing…"
Because of such ITA difficulties, they emphasized the role of training
programs for ITAs or TAs in general. ITAs from the College of
Communications and Department of Communication Art and Science mentioned
that graduate teaching assistant training programs which systematically
organized TAs, regardless of their nationality, helped to prepare
undergraduate course teaching. Especially, ITAs from the College of
Communications stated that the graduate teaching academy program in the
College, which was held for all TAs, provided diverse opportunities for
ITAs to prepare and think about their role and effective teaching
methods. ITAs emphasized the importance of the TA training program. They
suggested having more programs or workshops for TAs.
Achieving knowledge from classes or academic materials is
important. However, how to deliver knowledge or give their lectures using
more systematic and effective teaching methods seems to be a more crucial
issue to them. Implicit in the opinions given by ITAs in our interview is
the notion that content expertise cannot be achieved by ITAs by themselves.
Mutual cooperation between ITAs, department programs, and interaction with
other domestic TAs is essential for ITAs to enhance their content expertise.
C. Undergraduate Students
Undergraduate students participating in our interview emphasized that
knowledge of course content is not a matter just related to ITAs. That is,
regardless of nationality or cultural background, course expertise is the
most important thing for every instructor. American undergraduate students
distinguished the role of ITAs from that of domestic instructors in terms
of the ITAs' abundant and diverse cultural values and perspectives which
domestic TAs or even professors might not have. One student said, "We
assume that every instructor in our department is an expert in their course
teaching... But, international teaching assistants do have a unique role
that can bring diverse current international issues that we do not know
very much about…" A student taking a media ethics course from an ITA also
stated that the ITA of her classes brought Eastern values and philosophical
perspectives that American undergraduate students were not familiar with.
Regarding the degree of students' satisfaction with their ITA's teaching,
in general, they were satisfied with their ITA's teaching style and
methods. Interviewers were surprised that American undergraduate students
did not really complain about their ITA's English proficiency. Also, they
did not discriminate between ITAs' knowledge expertise and that of domestic
TAs. Indeed, past literature regarding ITAs in American colleges has dealt
with the issue of ITAs' English ability as one of the conspicuous
issues.One might assume that communication major ITAs have somewhat higher
English proficiency compared to those in the natural sciences or
engineering departments. Actually, this assumption is supported by our
interview in that American undergraduate students did not complain about
their ITAs' English proficiency, at least in our communication education,
although effective communication ability is essential for class
management. However, it is hard to generalize simply based on our interview.
Students did not differentiate the level of course content expertise
between ITAs and domestic instructors. However, students in our interview
suggested that ITAs should bring more current American issues that are
related to course content. Implicit in the students' suggestion is the idea
that it is essential for ITAs to understand American culture and issues as
well as they understand international issues.
2. Providing Evaluation and Feedback
A. School Administrators
When the school administrators were asked about the role of ITAs in
providing evaluation and feedback in the classroom, they indicated that
ITAs would do an evaluation of their students based on the practice of the
school system just as other faculty members do. Therefore, it seems that
beyond giving evaluation guidelines established by the school system,
school administrators do not have any particular thought or guideline for
ITAs to give appropriate feedback to and evaluation of their students.
Also, school administrators considered it would be left to the discretion
of the instructor, and they did not need to be bothered by any systematic
suggestion. However, one administrator admitted the possibility that this
might be a pitfall for ITAs because students may target ITA's nationality
to complain about their evaluation. One administrator assumed that the
phenomena might happen especially to a woman instructor who is a minority.
Basically, as mentioned above, school administrators considered that
nothing would be different from any other instructor in evaluating
students, regardless of the instructor's identity or level of teaching
experience. That is, there would be no difference between twenty years'
experienced and tenured professors and new graduate teachers. In general,
the administrators were more likely to put much credibility on the
legitimated evaluation process established by the school. As ITAs evaluate
their students, the department also evaluates TAs every year. Students also
evaluate their instructors through a systemized evaluation form. The mutual
evaluation system legalized by the school was often mentioned by
interviewees. Some administrators were regretful about the absence of a
practical training system to give specific guidance to ITAs in giving
evaluation of and feedback to their students. Since they think the
evaluation or feedback would depend on the characteristics of the course
subjects or teaching methods, they did not expect any uniformly systemized
evaluation guidelines for ITAs.
B. International Teaching Assistants
Before coming to the U.S., ITAs have been trained and educated in a
different culture and, therefore, we cannot deny that they might have a
different educational background and perspective. Provision of evaluation
and feedback for undergraduate student performance is a crucial role of
instructors, regardless of nationality and cultural background. The reason
that we brought this question up in our interview is that ITAs might have
different criteria for evaluation and feedback for their students.
Regardless of our assumption, ITAs had objective and quite common criteria
as assumed by school administrators, which could not be differentiated from
those of American professors. ITAs in our interview said that they learned
and got evaluation criteria usually from TA training sessions, faculty
members or their colleagues.
Although school administrators mentioned evaluation and feedback guidelines
in more general terms, ITAs, in our interview, specified their evaluation
criteria is weighted on analytical and critical thinking ability as the
most critical yardsticks, rather than simple memorization of lecture
content. Therefore, according to the ITAs in our interview, they usually
adopted students' participation, group project, and essay format exam,
rather than simply depending on multiple-choice exams.
However, one ITA reported that sometimes it was hard to objectively
evaluate students because of the ITA's lack of American cultural background
and unclearness on or misunderstanding of students' answers. Therefore, he
said that it was not a simple matter to give grades to their students.
Based on his past experience, sometimes, he had no choice but to give
students a somewhat generous grade.
Although ITAs evaluate and give feedback to their students, they agreed
that evaluation of ITAs, themselves, right after their teaching class, is
also critical. Self-reflection and self-evaluation of their own teaching
performance are another way that they can improve their teaching styles and
performance. In addition, students' evaluations of ITAs also help ITAs
improve their teaching and evaluation performance in future semesters.
C. Undergraduate Students
To understand the performance and role of ITAs' evaluation and feedback,
students were questioned based on two categories—(1) what they think about
ITAs' evaluations and feedback; (2) what are the most crucial criteria to
evaluate their ITAs in terms of the students' position. Overall, students
thought there was no significant difference between ITAs and domestic
instructors in terms of evaluation or feedback performance. Most of all,
they believed that ITAs employ and follow evaluation criteria which are
established by the department and college system. In general, they seemed
to be satisfied with the evaluation and feedback received from their ITAs.
Basically, there was no uniquely different point regarding evaluation and
feedback standards for their ITAs when compared to other domestic TAs or
Although students receive evaluations from ITAs, students also evaluate
ITAs. As an important criterion of the evaluation for ITAs, students
emphasized such factors as their "…clear explanation of course
material…their dedication and passion to teach students…clear answer the
3. Providing learning management
A. School Administrators
To create the desired learning environment, instructors should be required
to manage the classroom. Each instructor creates the specific learning
process including diagnosis, objective setting, selection of strategies,
and evaluation (Galvin, 1999, p.249). ITAs might have trouble selecting an
appropriate method or strategy based on their perception of student needs.
Relative to the role of ITAs in managing the learning environment, school
administrators were in agreement that a kind of "learning communities"
would help make sure ITAs perform their role effectively.
In this school, there was a teaching academy for the purpose. Through this
community, ITAs were able to access practical teaching information through
a required pedagogy class during the first year of their Ph.D. program.
They were able to get helpful information on such as group facilitation,
giving assignments, grading assignments, lecture preparation, classroom
procedures, and expectations of students. Also, an ITA who had finished one
year of Ph.D. study was supposed to teach one small section of an
introductory communication course with about 20 students in it. This
opportunity to unite theory and practice was recognized as an effective way
for ITAs to adjust to the American classroom at the very beginning of their
career as teachers.
However, when our interview was conducted, the teaching academy had been
canceled, temporarily. As the reason for the cancellation of the teaching
academy, the school administrators mentioned the complaints of TAs and
students. TAs complained that they did not have enough time to study
because of the burdensome teaching preparation. In addition, students who
were learning from different TAs with different course schedules and
syllabi for the same course complained that they did not receive fair
instruction and grading. Finally, the teaching academy was withdrawn for
better design for all of students and instructors for the future.
School administrators indicated the apprenticeship would work despite the
absence of a practical training program, such as the teaching academy. That
is, an ITA may have a chance to work with a faculty member in his/her
interest area. In spite of such a decentralized TA training, faculty and
peer mentoring and the pedagogy seminar create an environment which helps
TAs to combine theory and practice. A faculty member assigned to each TA
would be a first advisor for the TA's teaching. School administrators
expected domestic TAs and ITAs to get help managing their undergraduate
classes from those preliminary training programs.
Distinguished from domestic TAs, the school administrators agreed with the
benefits that ITAs can bring into the classroom. According to one of our
interviewees, "some unique benefits that American undergraduate students
can learn or experience from ITAs would be the access to the multicultural
perspective. Especially for teaching culturally specific and meaning-bound
subject matters, different perspectives from those who are from other parts
of the world would be a valuable example for undergraduate students by
providing opportunities to enhance their viewpoints of the world."
Another interviewee stated, "About 85 percent of undergraduate students are
coming from the local residence. Therefore, a relatively small number of
diversity exists at the school. American students in general are not likely
to be international-oriented and do not tend to be culturally sensitive to
other people from other countries. International teachers can bring their
experiences from their country to the classroom. And undergraduate students
can learn how to communicate with different cultures."
However, one school administrator gave an episode—one student complained to
a professor about an ITA because the ITA criticized the American media
system in the classroom. Even though the critique happened during the
class, the students perceived the ITA's idea as an assault against the U.S.
One administrator mentioned, "Students may tend to evaluate ITAs more
critically than domestic TAs because of their language, different cultures,
different teaching and method." As an example, ITAs from India had suffered
from undergraduate students' preconceptions because of their accents and
their social status as a minority. They were treated as an "alien" in the
American classroom (Ramasubramanian, 2001; Raman & Ramasubramanian, 2003).
One administrator acknowledged, "…breaking down their preconception would
be greater challenging for ITAs…this is one of the toughest things teachers
B. International Teaching Assistants
Helping students to enhance their critical and creative thinking abilities
was one of the most crucial teaching philosophies for ITAs in our
interview, as mentioned before. Implicit in the notion is the idea that
simple memorization is not the only goal of students' learning. That is,
enhancing a student's ability to look at a phenomenon from diverse angles
is an important goal for learning. Therefore, for effective students'
learning management, ITAs favored adopting diverse teaching methods, such
as group projects, encouraging students' active class discussion and
participation, and in-class assignments. According to ITAs, they usually
learn such diverse teaching methods from TA training sessions, faculty
members, or colleagues.
Especially, an ITA emphasized that it is important for ITAs to understand
students' learning habits and ways of thinking. He added that although it
is crucial for ITAs to improve their own teaching strategies and skills for
student learning, without mutual understanding between students and ITAs,
their teaching might create a unilateral teaching environment, rather than
an interactive teaching and learning atmosphere. Hence, understanding their
students and provision of diverse learning experiences for students, which
require dynamic interaction between instructors and students, are crucial
points in terms of pedagogical perspectives that ITAs should keep in mind.
C. Undergraduate Students
In general, students were satisfied with their ITAs' course objective and
course policy that lead directions for student learning. As mentioned in
the above category, undergraduate students wanted ITAs to bring diverse
current social issues and affairs which can be related to course content.
As one student suggested, "it is somewhat boring when the instructor just
confines themselves to the course materials…bringing some more live issues
…what have happened in the U.S. might enhance students' involvement and
participation more actively" in the class lecture.
Another unique suggestion from students was that ITAs should be more active
and direct in terms of delivering their feelings and expressions in their
course teaching. In general, in light of cultural difference, people from
Eastern countries are somewhat more introverted than Western people.
Cultural difference might cause ITAs' indirect or unclear expression.
4. Providing Socialization
A. School Administrator
The classroom is a place of personal socialization as teachers exert
influence regarding social values. Communication courses speak directly to
values that support democratic citizenship, interpersonal growth or
political awareness. Faculty members become mentors for one or more
students, serving as a guide to life in the academic world of communication
(Galvin, 1999, p.251).
TAs are more likely to be comfortable socializing with young students
because TAs themselves are much younger than a 60 year-old faculty member.
But too much closeness could bring some problems and risks. All school
administrators provided a guideline for ITAs for their personal
relationship with students. They appeared to believe too friendly a
relationship means more trouble to some extent. In light of socialization,
domestic TAs are more approachable and seem to have a more friendly
relationship with their students. Compared to domestic TAs, ITAs are more
likely to have a limited relationship with their students due to their
language and cultural differences.
Nevertheless, one of the school administrators emphasized, "…[ITAs] should
try to maintain distance from students…if you get too close, your personal
feelings to the students would be a problem as well..." He thought ITAs
would have less trouble than domestic TAs because of the limitation of
their socialization. However, most administrators seem to believe that the
intellectual engagement of ITAs with their students should be encouraged
because it would encourage students' effective learning.
B. International Teaching Assistants
Although most ITAs agree with the importance of socialization with their
students to facilitate a better learning environment, it is a challenging
task. As one ITA mentioned in our interview, socialization should be
understood as a part of the teaching strategies. He added that even though
an ITA has sufficient knowledge for his or her course lecture, the ITA who
does not know how to socialize with their students during the course
lecture might experience difficulties delivering his or her knowledge and
As the ITAs in our interview emphasized the importance of socialization in
the classroom, they understood socialization in terms of diverse
activities: greeting students; being friendly; bringing campus issues or
popular culture into the classroom; understanding what students like or
dislike; and using office hours for students.
Although socialization in the classroom is important, it is not easy for
ITAs because of their lack of understanding of American college culture. As
one of the ITAs from our interview said, "socialization was not an issue in
the classroom when I was a college student in my home country because class
lecture was somewhat one-way directive, rather than interactive…"
Most ITAs in our interview thought it is easier to socialize with students
in the classroom than outside of the classroom. They added that out of
class socialization with students might be a sensitive issue, therefore, it
is recommended for ITAs to be cautious. They emphasized that maintaining
distance from students is necessary because not only is it important to
treat students on the same footing, but it also is very dangerous to mix
public and private matters, especially in college education.
C. Undergraduate Students
Undergraduate students stated that the ability to socialize affects their
class participation. They said that if students are not comfortable with
their teacher, it is hard for them to approach their ITAs. Implicit in
their remarks are the idea that if ITAs are too shy, introverted or do not
open their mind to students, it is hard to expect students to ask questions
or give active responses to their teachers. One student said, "…there is no
difference between domestic TAs and ITAs in terms of the importance of
socialization…Socialization with students shouldn't be bothered by
nationality or skin color…" However, students admitted the fact that ITAs
are somewhat passive and introverted compared to domestic TAs, in general.
They suggested that ITAs should approach their students in the classroom
and use such remarks—"what do you think?"; "do you understand what I am
saying?"—which can not only warm up the classroom environment, but also
pull active responses and participation from students.
5. Providing Personal Models
A. School Administrators
The school administers did not expect that ITAs should be a specific
personal role model for their students because of their lack of
professional experiences in the U.S. On the other hand, a school
administrator in our interview asked a question: "what percentage of
students in an undergraduate classroom would be interested in international
issues or people from other countries?...Expectation of a role model from
ITAs wouldn't be a significant matter in that point."
ITAs, however, may be a valuable role model for their students. One
interviewee emphasized, "In teaching a liberal art course, ITAs cannot be a
role model as a good journalist or media professional. However, ITAs can
provide a personal role model, such as a person who overcomes and defeats
language and cultural barriers."
Another school administrator stated, "Basically, less than two percent of
students would go to the graduate school…that means most students are going
to work for media companies. Interaction with ITAs would help students to
accommodate their future work practice. For example, business related job
careers, such as advertising and P.R. would have more chances to work or
meet with people from different countries…At this point, learning from ITAs
would provide students with chances to interact with people from different
countries for the similar purpose."
B. International Teaching Assistants
When ITAs were asked about their role model for students, most ITAs
appeared to find such a question somewhat difficult to answer. We assume
that the difficulty answering such a question might be derived from their
dual role as student and instructor. As one of the school administrators
mentioned above, because of their lack of professional experience in the
U.S., ITAs might find it very difficult to be a professional model for
their students who want to enter the job market right after their
graduation. Nevertheless, one ITA said, "I would like to be a model that
has an open mind for my students…it is critical for students to respect
diverse ideas and points of views…this is one of ways that communication
major students can raise ability to look at a phenomenon in many different
ways." In addition to being a role model for their students, most ITAs who
participated in our interview agreed with the idea that not only do they
make their professors their models, but also their colleagues are good
inspirational models for them.
C. Undergraduate Students
Although it was hard for us to elicit deep ideas from school administrators
and ITAs regarding ITAs as role model, undergraduate students had diverse
images of ITAs in their mind. Based on our interview, students considered
the role of the ITA as mentor (like their professors) during their college
period, and they had diverse role expectations for them, such as a person
who has an open mind; tries to overcome many cultural difficulties and
language barriers; brings diverse multi cultural perspectives and issues
into classroom. In light of students' points of view toward ITAs, one might
assume that not only are American students interested in different cultural
values and ideas, but they also consider understanding different cultural
values and issues crucial for their future life. Actually, two students in
our interview expected to travel or study in other countries. One student
said, "…[ITAs] will be a very helpful model for my future when I face the
same situation like them in other countries or different culture…" .
Although one of the school administrators we interviewed had a somewhat
pessimistic perspective of American undergraduate students' making an
effort to understand international issues or cultures, students had quite a
different perspective from the school administrator. Implicit in the
students' perspectives is the idea that the ITA plays a significant role as
a mediator by bridging culture and culture, which role might be hard for
domestic TAs or professors to play.
In this paper, we tried to explore any similarity or discrepancy in the
role expectations of ITAs, school administrators and undergraduate students
in communication education. By mirroring a teacher's usual role function
specified as five categories, we were able to compare their thoughts in a
juxtaposed way (See Table 2).
In sum, considering the expectations about an ITA's role in providing
content expertise, it can be understood that some similarities and
differences coexist between school administrators, ITAs and students.
School administrators and students did not think that there was any
difference between ITAs and domestic TAs in their content expertise.
Actually, ITAs showed confidence in their content expertise. Also, while
school administrators thought an ITA's English proficiency would be the
biggest obstacle to overcome for delivering their knowledge, ITAs
emphasized their cultural ignorance and the failure of the application of
the young generation's current culture to their lectures as the most
salient problem, even if they admitted the deficiency of their language skill.
Interestingly enough, students who were in ITAs' classes thought that ITAs'
language skills are not so much a problem for them. Most students mentioned
the positive contributions of ITAs, such as bringing different perspectives
into the class discussion and suggesting international issues. Whereas most
school administrators in our interview suggested peer mentoring and
apprenticeship as solutions for adjusting ITAs to the classroom, ITAs
suggested systematic TA training programs or workshops at the department
This kind of expectation has already been found in Ross and Krider's (1992)
study. The study suggested that ITA orientation programs should be set up
on a university or departmental level to help ITAs adapt to American
culture. They proposed, "the most important for communication, humanities
and social science departments to realize is that teaching such subject
matter contains far more cultural pitfalls for international students than
many other disciplines. Therefore, departments must go beyond merely
developing technical teaching orientation programs for ITAs and develop
means through which issues of cultural awareness and intercultural
differences can be addressed" (p.291).
Second, administrators and ITAs contrasted in their expectations about
ITAs' role of providing evaluation and giving feedback to students.
Administrators did not have any specific thought about the role, but
perceived it in terms of a more general term, such as evaluation criteria
established at the level of the college system. They indicated that there
would be no difference between other faculty members and ITAs, but at the
same time they thought the evaluation should be contingent on the existent
criteria legitimized by the college system, such as students' evaluation of
their instructors and professors' evaluation of TAs. ITAs, however, have a
more specific expectation and criteria about their role beyond depending on
student evaluations or self-reflection. They expected they had to have
individual teaching philosophies that they could apply to the evaluation
criteria. And so, in general, they were trying to employ more active
teaching methods that could facilitate students' critical and analytical
abilities, rather than simple memorization of contents. In addition, they
thought they were more likely to give rather generous grades to students
because they were not able be sure about students' ideas embedded in the
assignments. In contrast, students did not have specific expectations about
their role. What they mentioned was that there was no difference in
evaluation between ITAs and domestic instructors. What mattered to them
was: "Instructor's clear explanation of course material… clear answer to
the questions they raised in addition to an instructor's dedication and
passion to teach students."
Third, considering the role of ITAs in providing learning management, a
kind of role discrepancy between the three parties was discovered. ITAs
thought that their roles would be defined with more specific terms and,
simultaneously emphasized understanding the learning levels of their
students and using diverse teaching methods to encourage students'
participation such as collaborative learning, class participation, and
in-class assignment while administrators did not imply any specific
expectation. Administrators suggested ITAs receive advice and help from
faculty members who had taught the same class in terms of managing a class.
Undergraduate students understood their instructors' teaching methods as
similar to those used in other courses. Nevertheless, they perceived ITAs
differently from other domestic instructors in that ITAs were more likely
to be introverted and passive in managing the classroom. So, they looked
forward to ITAs' more active and direct engagement in managing the learning
Fourth, in the role of socialization of ITAs, there was an understanding
gap between school administrators and ITAs/students. School administrators
indicated the risk of over-socialization with students. And so they thought
ITAs would have fewer problems in that aspect because ITAs were less likely
to socialize enough to cause any trouble relative to domestic TAs. ITAs and
their students, however, seemed to have a different idea about the role.
ITAs thought of socialization as an important part of teaching strategies
and welcomed in-class socialization. More specifically, to the ITAs,
socialization meant diverse activities, from greeting their students in a
friendly manner to bringing campus issues or popular culture into the
classroom or understanding what students like or dislike. Nevertheless,
they are well aware of the potential danger of too much socializing with
their students, especially in the out of classroom context. Most ITAs
mentioned that they were very cautious socializing outside of class.
Students pointed out the importance of ITAs' ability to socialize by
indicating that the instructor's socialization encourages the students'
class participation. Since they have impressions about ITAs—i.e., passive
and introverted, students expected ITAs should use more warm-up questions
or remarks before going into teaching for better socialization.
Finally, in light of the role of providing personal models, school
administrators and ITAs were in agreement that they did not expect ITAs to
be a professional role model for American undergraduate students. While
most undergraduate students are going into the job market and expecting a
kind of professional role model, ITAs usually lack professional experience
in the U.S. However, both school administrators and undergraduate students
shared the same expectation that ITAs could be a personal role model in
light of that they came abroad to study and overcame cultural and
linguistic barriers, themselves. Furthermore, students considered ITAs
mentors, just as their professors. Especially, they envisioned the diverse
role images of ITAs, for example, a person who had an open mind, tried to
overcome cultural difficulties and language barriers, and brought diverse
multicultural perspectives into the classroom.
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Table 2 Questionnaire protocol about role expectations of ITAs
Providing content expertise
-What do you think ITA's content expertise in general?
-Are you confident with your teaching in terms of your content expertise?
-Do you have any expectation that your department should consider ITA's
-What do you expect your teacher in terms of their content expertise?
Providing evaluation feedback
-What criteria do you think should ITAs apply to evaluate or understand
American students' class performances?
-How do you evaluate or give feedback to your students?
-What do you think about evaluation and feedback from ITAs?
Providing learning management
-To provide efficient teaching for undergraduate students, do you have any
expectation that ITAs should keep in mine or prepare before their teaching?
-How do you manage your class to create desired learning environment (e.g.,
your own teaching policy, class rule, teaching methods, class activities)?
-What do you think about class management of ITAs such as teaching methods,
class rule and policy?
-What do you expect from ITAs for your better learning?
-Please specify your expectation related to ITAs' socialization
-How do you socialize with your students in class and out of class?
-Please specify your own expectation for better socialization
-How much do you thin socialization with your teachers is important?
-How do you socialize with your teacher in class or out of class?
-Please specify your own expectation for better socialization
Providing personal models
-Do you think ITAs should be a role model for their students?
-If so, what kind of role model do you expect?
-Do you think you should be a role model for your students?
-If so, what kind of role model do you expect?
-Do you think ITAs might be a role model for you?
-If so, what kind of role model do you expect?
Providing content expertise
-No big difference between ITAs and domestic TAs in terms of course expertise
-English proficiency is one of the most important requirements.
-Peer mentoring and apprenticeship are recommended for ITAs' adjustment to
the undergraduate classroom.
- Language is a difficult problem. But bringing U.S. cultural issues into
the class is another difficult problem.
-Peer mentoring and apprenticeship are crucial sources for lecture preparation.
-More systematic training program at the department level is needed.
-No big difference in knowledge expertise between ITAs and domestic instructors
ITAs' English proficiency is not a big problem.
-Bringing international issues into the classroom is a distinguished role
that can be expected from ITAs.
Providing evaluation feedback
-No particular expectations for ITAs' evaluation of their students
-In general, evaluation is contingent on the criteria established and
legitimized by the college system.
-Critical and analytical ability are crucial evaluation criteria for their
students, rather than simple memorization of course content.
-Rather generous grading compared to domestic TAs because of the lack of
understanding of American culture and unclear understanding of student ideas
-No significant difference in evaluation between ITAs and domestic instructors
-Clear explanation of course material…dedication and passion to teach
students…clear answer to the question are expected from ITAs.
Providing learning management
-Suggested ITAs receive advice and help from faculty members who had
taught the same class
-Important to cultivate students' analytical and critical thinking abilities.
-Using diverse teaching methods (e.g., group projects, class participation,
and in-class assignments)
-Important to understanding students' ways of learning and thinking.
-Satisfied with course rules and policy
-No difference between ITAs and domestic instructors in terms of teaching
-Expected to bring more current U.S. cultural issues
-Required of ITAs to give more active and direct expressions
-Avoid too friendly relationship with students
-ITAs would have less trouble with this because of the limitation of their
-Socialization should be considered part of teaching strategies.
-Socialization includes diverse activities (e.g., bringing campus issues or
popular culture into the classroom, understanding what students like or
-Socialization with students out of classroom should be cautious for ITAs.
-The ability of ITAs' to socialize with students influences class
-ITAs considered somewhat passive and introvert compared to domestic TAs
-Important to use warm-up questions or remarks
Providing personal models
-In general, ITAs is not expected to be a role model for students, such as
professional journalist or media practitioners.
-But ITAs can be a role model who overcame cultural difference and langue
-Due to the lack of professional experiences in the U.S., it is hard to
expect ITAs to be a role model for their students.
-Students consider ITAs mentors like professors.
-Diverse role images about ITAs: A person who has an open mind; tries to
overcome cultural difficulties and language barriers; and brings diverse
multi-cultural perspectives into the classroom
-Images of ITAs will be an inspiration for students to challenge and
overcome cultural barriers.
Table 3 Consequential role expectations of ITAs among interviewees