(Today's post derives from a couple of discussions with my colleagues I have had in the past couple of weeks. I have discussed before my appreciation for the kind of interchange my current office situation allows, and I wish to reiterate that statement of appreciation. In the thoughts leading up to today's post, the intra-office talk has allowed me to generate a new idea, one that I find of value and that I hope may be of some use to others when they confront similar situations.)
One of the complaints that is heard from students is that they do not understand their professors. In many cases, the lack of understanding comes from the fact that the professors are lecturing based upon the belief that students, having voluntarily entered into the collegiate environment and remained in the classes in which they enrolled, have performed the tasks assigned them and done the assigned readings. Many students do not do the assigned readings, as simple quizzes often show, and even among those who actually look at the pages in their textbooks, there is some...misunderstanding about what reading actually is. (Reading is not simply seeing the funny marks on the page; it is making those funny marks make meaning, and it is not a passive process.) It follows that those students will have trouble keeping up with things.
In some cases, however, the students complain of not being able to understand a professor because that professor "has an accent." This is particularly the case in classes in language disciplines such as English; the student gripe of "The professor can't even speak English; why should I listen?" echoes through hallways and in offices of instructors and administrators, thrown up as a justification to overturn grades or switch classes. And it is a bad one.
In the first case, everybody--everybody--has an accent. Everybody. I speak what is largely a lower Midwestern accent (although I have my Texanisms, y'all), and, for the most part, people do not complain about my accent; it is more or less that which is privileged in the United States. That does not, however, mean it is not an accent; there are a number of features in my speech that are classically from my major accent pattern and yet violate the prescriptive standards of pronunciation articulated in a number of dictionaries and of usage articulated by Strunk and White. Yet I am understood clearly (in most cases, and by most people).
In the second case, communication is a reciprocal process. It is admittedly true that speakers have a duty to present as clearly as possible the ideas which they want to convey. It is also true that listeners have a duty to do their utmost to attend to those ideas and work to understand them. As with reading, it is not a passive process; the effort expended in doing so often goes unnoticed, so that people are readily annoyed by having to exert noticeable effort, but the expenditure does not mark it as a bad thing. The exertion of muscles to noticeable extents is not condemned by those who have to do it, or if it is, it is not blamed upon the thing toward which the exertion is directed; it is instead assumed to be the fault of the one exerting. And the exertion is perceived as having improved the one exerting. The same is true of communicative acts; having to work to get the meanings embedded improves the worker and helps the idea to remain with the worker longer.
In another case, the professors whose accents are derided are almost all teaching in languages which are not their own. They have had to learn new languages and even new alphabets, often as adults and amid many challenges. In many respects, they have a better understanding and appreciation of the language of instruction than those for whom it is a native language, a tongue that "simply is" and that does not have to be critically examined therefore. (Consider how many native speakers of English in the United States--unfortunately, typically monoglots--complain that they are not good at English. Is it perhaps because of the discomfort attendant upon interrogating the assumed?) That superior understanding, as well as the direct experience of grappling with the difficulties the language offers (and all languages have their own interesting quirks and challenges), stands to make of those instructors better teachers. I have rarely had to struggle with English classes; I have no understanding of what it is like to look at the words and have them not make sense, so I do not know how to guide others through that experience nearly so well as one who has had to face it. And I am not the only one.
Such student complaints come down to two things: 1) The students want to do less work and 2) The students are presenting tacit racism (for it is almost always the case that the students who make such complaints do so from positions of ethnocentric privilege). Neither of these should be encouraged.