Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This vexes me. I am vexed.

Thanks to the MN Daily, I got up this morning to discover the existence of House Bill HF2798: "English pronunciation policy required as a condition of instructing students at public postsecondary institutions."

Ultimately, the bill requires Minnesota state colleges and universities (I'm interpreting this as "those funded by the state," because at some point I lost all ability to usefully interpret statutes) to "adopt a clear, understandable written policy" that must at least fulfill the following requirements:

(b) Before employing or assigning an individual to instruct undergraduate students, the chair of the department in which the individual would be employed or assigned must conduct an oral interview with the individual and document that the individual speaks English clearly and with good pronunciation.
(c) If a student notifies in writing the chair of the department and the dean of students of the public postsecondary institution the student is attending that the student believes that an individual employed or assigned to instruct a class in which the student is enrolled, does not speak English clearly and with good pronunciation the postsecondary institution, upon request of the student, must reimburse the student for all tuition and fees paid for the class and permit the student to withdraw from the class without financial or academic penalty.
(d) When the dean of students of any public postsecondary institution receives notices under paragraph (c), from students equal in number to ten percent of those enrolled in a class on the tenth academic day, the individual must be reassigned to a nonteaching position and may not be permitted to instruct students until a hearing before a panel is held and determines that the individual can speak English clearly and with good pronunciation.

Now, at this point, I really wish I had a lawyer handy (by which I mean, I wasn't too lazy to call my friend who's in law school), because the statute doesn't seem to have any sort of actionable penalty. I assume, however, that this sort of bill is just attached to budgeting regulations in some fashion.

But anyways, this seems to me like a horrible idea. So horrible, in fact, that I've even called my state senator and my state representative and told them so.

Why does this seem like a bad idea?

First off, let's address the fashions in which might incline me towards it. I can understand the frustration students sometimes feel. At Macalester, I encountered a few professors whose command of English was less than perfect. However, I only had one I can recall at the moment whose command seemed poor enough to me to interfere with my ability to learn from them. And she was a foreign language teacher, a category where I think that English pronunciation is less important. But that's neither here nor there: Macalester is a college that emphasizes itself on the international experience--both in students and the faculty--and more importantly, will not be affected by this law.

So what about the U of M? Well, I realize that anecdote is not the singular form of data, but I haven't really had any problems with professors at the U. I've had a number of problems with TAs, and I do think that the U needs to develop a better policy for dealing with that area, but I would never suggest that a law like this be implemented in that regard.

But why does this really frustrate me?

First off: regardless of what the author of the bill may claim, there is definitely not an epidemic of public university instructors whose command of English is so poor as to prevent students from learning. I would argue that if such were the case, I probably would've interacted with at least one in the last four years. At the very least, perhaps a legislator from a district that actually contains a public college or university might have put such a bill forward. I've had a few whose English was certainly less than perfect, but none so bad as to require legislation.

And that's another reason this bothers me: even if this were (or is) a serious problem, I'm inherently uncomfortable with the government legislating who can and can't teach a class. If the legislature really needs to deal with this, adopt a nonbinding resolution. Let the schools deal with this in their own fashion: it's in their own best interest to provide the best experience possible to students. Do we really want colleges to be so afraid of the least common denominator that they must only hire professors who can be understood by the least attentive 10% of the class? Do we really want professors who speak English as a second language to be constantly paranoid that at any time, a few students might decide to complain about their English skills and thus force the professor out of a teaching position?

That's the other big problem with this bill for me: it seems rife for abuse. If this bill is passed into law, any student failing a class taught by a foreign-born professor can just complain that they can't understand it and get a free pass out of the class, plus a full refund of their full tuition and fees for the class. At any time.

American schools are dealing with enough problems getting top-tier grad students, postdocs, and professors from abroad due to the insanity of the nation's current approach to immigration; it seems like the only purpose this bill can serve is to make schools actively afraid to hire them in the first place.

Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill: I've got no idea how much support this bill might have at the legislature. But I'm very uncomfortable to see xenophobic-leaning bills like this being introduced in the first place.

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