Exercising Your Privilege In Front of The Unwashed Masses

One of my daily pleasures is to spend some time reading the Philadelphia Inquirer with a nice cup of coffee. Some days I read thoroughly, other days I skim, but no matter what I always read the comics. I just can't get through a day without reading the comics. (And let me here digress to say that I have been reading the comics in the newspaper since I was a very little girl. I do not want my newspaper comics taken away from me. So all you evil forces conspiring to destroy the daily newspapers: I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, for this and many other reasons. And please don't tell me I can read them on the internet. It isn't the same.) Hmm, when I digress, I really digress.

Several of my favorite daily strips have lately taken to remarking upon the horrible insult that is the approaching end of summer, with its inevitable back-to-school consequences. This got me to thinking about some of my own back-to-school experiences from years past. We take for granted that there are aspects of this "back-to-school" experience that are shared, common, and repetitive, even as we age from K-12 to college and grad school (and even as educators in the K-12 and college/university systems). But what if you are encountering "back-to-school" in the U.S. for the very first time, as an international student? What's that like?

Around this time twenty-five years ago I was preparing to begin my first year as a graduate student at MIT. I have no idea what the process was like then for international students, but take a look at this set of instructions for international students arriving at MIT this year. If that doesn't just make you sick with anxiety, you aren't breathing. Keep in mind they have to do all that in addition to all the things you normally would be doing to prepare for the start of graduate student life.

When I arrived on the MIT campus as a new student in Course 22 (that's nuclear engineering to you non-MIT folks), all new students were informed that we would have to take a test of written English. We native-English speakers were assured that this was a mere formality but that everyone had to do it. I still felt some anxiety about it though I am sure it was nothing compared to my fellow international student classmates.

Upon arriving at the designated test site, we were handed a blue book and a two-page sheet of instructions. The instructions told us that we had to write a brief essay inspired by one of of the various pictographs on the pages before us. The pictographs were all science-y type drawings, but had no words accompanying them. We were just supposed to write spontaneously whatever came to our minds upon looking at whatever pictograph we chose. The pictograph I chose looked something like this, as best I can remember:


That is supposed to be a partially filled volumetric flask inside a square. (You can see why I did not pursue a career in the arts.) It's possible it was not exactly like that. Perhaps there was some sort of rudimentary engine or other mechanical device inside the square. What is important is that there was a...science-y thing, and it was enclosed in a square. All the other pictographs have faded from my memory. This is partly so because I remember looking at them and thinking, "what in the hell could I possibly write about any of these silly looking pictures?"

But I seized upon this one, because for some reason, when I looked at it, the phrase "System Boundaries: Where to Draw the Line?" sprung unbidden into my mind, and I was absolutely sure I could blather my way through the requisite number of words with sufficient engineering guff with that phrase. And so I did, and so I passed MIT's test of written English.

Looking back on that experience, I think it was a good decision for the powers-that-be in Course 22 to make everyone, not just the international students, take the test of written English. For one, it gave them some sense of everybody's ability to produce prose. For another - and I don't know if this was their intent - but it would seem to remove some of the stigma from the international students if everyone had to do it.


Except there was this guy. I'll call him PWD, for Privileged White D00d. PWD and I arrived at the test site together, though he grumbled about having to go. When the test instructions and blue books were passed out, and he looked them over, he grumbled more. I could hear him grumbling and fussing as I went to work on my essay (it was a timed test). Finally he got up and announced that this was a stupid test and he was not going to participate and he didn't care what the rules were and anybody could see from his application that he knew how to write English! And he flounced out before the exam time was over. I can only imagine what effect this performance may have had on any international students in the room.

In the end, he was awarded a failing grade on the exam, and his entry into the graduate program was jeopardized. He had to appear before the department head and appeal his failing grade. He was fortunate to have published an article in a popular science journal as an undergraduate that he could brandish as proof of his (quite formidable) writing prowess, and was granted entry to the program.

Perhaps requiring native-English speaking U.S.-born citizen students to take a test of written English was a stupid thing, and a waste of time for them and for MIT, I don't know. I can't help thinking, though, that PWD could have saved himself the fuss by simply executing the exam that surely would have presented no serious challenge to his writing ability. And simultaneously, his non-fussy presence in the room would have made a statement to all the international students that yes, we all do this, it's normal, don't feel bad about it. You are one of us, we are here with you. Instead, he was so insulted that anyone would dare put him in the same room with international students who had not "mastered the language" (I know this because he told me so) that he had to make a stink and walk out and cause himself extra grief.

If you are a U.S. student about to walk on campus this fall as a graduate student, think for a minute what your fellow international students have gone through just to get to the same place that you are. Try to be a bit sympathetic. Try to imagine yourself learning all that you are about to learn - in a foreign language, in a foreign country, where maybe you even have a hard time finding the kinds of food you are used to eating. A weekend or holiday trip back home to see the family may be completely out of the question. And remember, even if you speak the language of this foreign country reasonably well, the students you may end up having to teach are inevitably going to complain about being forced to listen to your accent.

When I went to Germany as a postdoc I spoke essentially no German at all. (Guten Tag! Ein Bier, bitte? Wo ist die Toilette?) I was welcomed by all my colleagues, helped to find an apartment, shown where and how to shop for groceries, integrated into the social life of my colleagues, assisted in learning my way around the research site, and treated with kindness at every turn. People excused my pathetic German, and begged me to let them practice their English with me. Do you think the average grad student or post doc from India or China has exactly this sort of experience here in the U.S.?

What a difference it makes when you speak the dominant language, eh?

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I appreciate your sharing the story, and I agree with you that the mandatory test of written English was an excellent idea.

And yes, please be sympathetic to incoming international students, they can certainly use the kindness. I remember my own experiences as an international undergrad (20+ years ago, yikes): though I was fluent in spoken and written English, and had thought of myself as quite familiar with American culture (through TV shows, alas), the actual daily routine and details still bewildered me from time to time. Of course, the university being in Texas was probably a complicating factor--Texas IS a whole other country.

I will be starting my PhD program in a few weeks. As the great-granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, I am amazed by how far I have come.

Now, I must recognize my privilege and the benefits I receive because I was born here. Thanks, Zuska, for this reminder.

All of these Chinese and Indian science graduate students are themselves all among the very tippy-top most extremely privileged classes of their own countries, and they have all received extensive training in written and (to a lesser extent, at least in China) spoken English that the unprivileged in those countries have no access to.

Tongzhi- from my own position of extreme privilege, as one who has had the incredibly opportunity receive training in spoken (and to a lesser extent, written) Chinese... I can tell you exactly how eleventybajillion times harder it is to cross this particular language barrier than you could imagine if you haven't tried.

People excused my pathetic German, and begged me to let them practice their English with me.

That was almost exactly my experience when I have travelled in Germany. The only person I encountered who didn't switch to English upon noting my difficulties with spoken German was a little old lady on the train, somebody who obviously had gone to school during if not before the war. Japan and China were somewhat more difficult (mainly because they don't normally use the Latin alphabet; in Germany I could at least read the signs and try to guess the meaning), but even there the people I encountered were more likely than not to speak some English.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 21 Aug 2009 #permalink

I am likewise saddened by the potential fate of the comic, not because I need to read them in a print newspaper but because future $$ support for cartoonists is in doubt.

Some of the best education in the politics of a given historical era can be derived from both editorial cartoon collections as well as the quasi-editorial cartoons such as doonesbury. You may not get a lot of balance and nuance but you get a great overview of the issues...

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 21 Aug 2009 #permalink

As far as I know, all international students have to take TOEFL along with GRE to apply for grad school. So I don't see the need for such a test as the one you were given. (I'm not sure if TOEFL was around at the time when you joined grad school.)

And I sort-of agree with CPP because I'm one of the privileged.

I am impressed by non-native-English-speaking grad students (even if they do get more assistance learning the language than many others in their own countries), because I've tried getting by in everyday life in another language (Hungarian), and it's damn hard. Having to focus on the how of speaking adds an extra burden to the what. Showing some respect by doing the test same as everyone else (nobody's even asking that you write a great essay, just a decent one) is not uncalled for.

Besides, I've met some native English speakers who really do deserve to fail a writing competency exam.

I'm pretty sure TOEFL was around when I started graduate school. If I am remembering correctly across the span of 25 years, my department felt that TOEFL didn't entirely serve their purposes, and possibly back then it may have been easily to fudge one's way through it. It may be that they way they got around imposing a second English writing test on foreign graduate students was to make everyone take it. You can debate the ethics of that, but maybe that's all the more reason for the domestic students to STFU and take the test along with their fellow international students. It didn't hurt us a bit to do it. I don't know if MIT still does this, by the way. Perhaps I ought to give a call to my old department and ask them if they still do this...

fwiw, I was an MIT undergrad (Class of '06) and when I arrive they made all the entering freshmen, domestic and international, take a pass/fail writing assessment now (the one exception being if you took the Advanced Placement English Language exam and got a 5, which got you an automatic pass). The domestic students that passed the SATs, the international students that passed SATs + TOEFL, everyone. If you "failed" (which actually was quite a possibility - several American upper-class private-schooled friends of mine didn't pass), you were simply placed in a writing-intensive class such as technical writing to improve your written communication skills. Lots of people wound up liking these classes, and a few people who passed the writing assessment took them anyway.

Personally, I think it's a great idea. A lot of eighteen-year-olds go into science and/or engineering because - direct quote - they "hate anything having to do with writing". Now as a physical science grad student, I look at how much writing I do on a day-to-day basis and reflect on what a foolish statement that is. Any serious research institute like MIT that wants to produce scientists that write articles, publish papers, and apply for grants needs to establish a pretty high level of science-specific literacy. When you consider it from this perspective the native/non-native speaker issue disappears - communicating effectively in *scientific* English, both to peers and the general public, is a unique and important skill in and of itself. (just look at ScienceBlogs! :P)

And, slightly OT: a Chinese grad student friend of mine had one of her research proposals slammed by a committee because it was "too good" - they couldn't conceive that a non-native speaker would write such a clean proposal, and argued that she must have had excessive help from her adviser. This was *infurating*, as I saw this young woman toil painstakingly over that proposal for WEEKS, almost entirely by herself, to perfect her already-quite-good written English. At the same time a particularly loathsome male white grad student in the department (whose writing skills were flat-out pathetic) had a proposal before the same committee that was blatantly written for him by his adviser; naturally, nobody said a word to him. The technicolor example of white, male, and native-spaker privilege on display during that committee's discussion was nauseating, and definitely a reminder of just how prevalent bias really still is. (she would have brought a discrimination claim against the committee, only they did approve her proposal in the end; it just came with lots of insulting comments that insulted her integrity as a scientist and belittled her impressive efforts as a non-native speaker. Grrr.)

Wow, I talk a lot. Devoted reader, occasional verbose commenter, keep up the excellent work!

Considering the illiteracy rate here in Oklahoma amongst American citizens, and the prevalence of adult literacy programs here, I am not surprised that MIT or any other college would test for basic writing skill.

By James A Kulacz (not verified) on 21 Aug 2009 #permalink

All of these Chinese and Indian science graduate students are themselves all among the very tippy-top most extremely privileged classes of their own countries

Way to generalize, PWD. Maybe all the ones that land at your fancy-ass private school are like that, but your description fits only a small minority of foreign graduate students of my acquaintance.

You've met Chinese and/or Indian graduate students in the United States whose parents were not themselves professionals? What sorts of jobs did their parents have?

"(You can see why I did not pursue a career in the arts.)"

That made me laugh, because in the one-and-only college physics course I ever took, the TA wrote "try art" on my quiz. I drew LOVELY diagrams but completely failed to calculate the answers correctly. So now I teach art. ;)

I'm merely a BS student right now.

But, I got around of having to do all that foreign student junk by just taking the GED (I've got foreign education, US citizenship). I only had couple of weeks to get all my transcripts translated and notarized and all that before the cut-off, and decided I could just get the GED and enroll later in the year since regular enrollment lasted couple months longer than foreign student enrollment.

"All of these Chinese and Indian science graduate students are themselves all among the very tippy-top most extremely privileged classes of their own countries

Way to generalize, PWD. Maybe all the ones that land at your fancy-ass private school are like that, but your description fits only a small minority of foreign graduate students of my acquaintance. "

7 of my 9 team mates doing the same job I do are all from far-east Asia. Pretty much all of them also came from upper classes in their respect societies. Your average American, much less someone from a developing country, is not able to afford the $15,000+ out of state tuition even in just public college. While you should never ever say all or every one, there is a grain of truth in the concept that many students who come here came from a privileged class.

It may well be true that that most international students come from the relative upper class of their respective societies. I fail to see how this negates the challenges of navigating the language barriers, however. Or how their upper class status in their home countries mitigates the scorn and disdain that are heaped upon them for daring to speak English with an accent when they arrive on U.S. soil. (Noting, of course, that some accents are looked upon more favorably than others.) So their home country privilege allows them to arrive here to obtain an advanced degree - does that insulate them from all the trials and tribulations associated with trying to make your way in a foreign country? I don't think so. CPP, I love you dearly, but I think you are barking out of your ass on this one.

I took the AP English test in high school and received a 5; I had a nice high score on my SAT verbal and the English subject exam (or whatever it was called 30 years ago) and when I arrived on campus for my first year at Fancypants College, I had to take the writing test. Everyone took the writing test. Most everyone then had to take a writing-intensive introductory lit class. At most, 1% of the class "placed out".

No stigma. No complaining. A lot of anxiety, but then that was normal for us.

At my university, anyone hired had to be certified for proficiency in English. One of my fellow emeritus Professors contracted to teach a course. He was not amused by the English certification requirement. The fact that he had been on the faculty for many years made no difference, as it was a new hire contract.

The University of Colorado used to give all entering freshpersons a spelling test.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 23 Aug 2009 #permalink

During my time as a post-doc in the US, I did think the complaining about foreign accents was noticeably higher than in Australia. My own accent was acceptable, but heavens forbid you were from just about anywhere in Asia. I think there's a skill you pick up, of learning to hear a new accent relatively quickly, and the American grad students and post-docs mostly hadn't learnt it.

By Ingrid Jakobsen (not verified) on 23 Aug 2009 #permalink

I think there's a skill you pick up, of learning to hear a new accent relatively quickly, and the American grad students and post-docs mostly hadn't learnt it.

I hadn't thought about it, but I think Ingrid is right. It is a skill.

Not surprising really, on average Americans have low rates of passports and overseas travel, and aren't exposed to as many accents on TV as TV in the US is overwhelmingly American.

By Rachel (Anothe… (not verified) on 25 Aug 2009 #permalink

I went to grad school in Canada not too far from the region I'd grown up in (in the US). Same culture, same language, school with 20% international grad students - and I was utterly lost.

The first several weeks of school were one big panic as we international students tried to pay our tuition (not easy with all the anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering roadblocks for international money transfers), get a social security number from the government office several miles from campus, and get all our paperwork in place before the legal deadlines.

We did get a big book called "welcome to Canada" or somesuch to orient us, but it mostly had statistics and platitudes about how friendly Canada was, and then a checklist of requirements that varied by country and weren't listed specificically.

I did manage to get oriented, but not within the legal timeframes. Whoops!

By former_grad (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink