Complaints and Compliments:

A Look into Accent Discrimination Against International UA Professors

An emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion has been spurred across the nation the past few years, but even as there are pushes for more inclusive conversations, initiatives and methodology, many have seen how discrimination still seems to seep into everyday life, including on college campuses.  

According to their website, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) purpose is to uphold anti-discrimination laws within the workplace. For example, employees cannot experience discrimination due to their appearance, their national origin or their accent.

These laws apply to all employees at The University of Alabama (UA), including the more than 300 “international scholar and faculty” members that work here, according to the Capstone International Center.

However, despite these anti-discrimination laws, accent discrimination by students against international professors and teaching assistants at The University of Alabama is still present today. 

With international professors, their accents can sometimes lead to conflicting student responses. Some of these international professors have had positive experiences with students regarding their accents, yet some of these professors have been subject to discrimination from them.

One UA professor from Southeast Asia, who would prefer to remain anonymous, said although he has not experienced negative reactions from his coworkers or his department, he has from some of his students.

However, he said students have never directly expressed a problem with his accent to him; they expressed their complaints in the class evaluations or on Rate My Professors, a website where students anonymously give critique on their professors, describing their difficulties in understanding his accent and presenting what he said was “prejudice.”

“I don’t understand the big deal about this accent thing,” he said.

He said whenever students fail to understand the lectures, they put the blame on him and his accent and not themselves. 

However, Anonymous believes engineering and math students should not have difficulties when it comes to his accent in class because the lectures are about math, not English, which students should be able to understand. 

“[It’s] not very easy being [a] non-English international,” Anonymous said.

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Although some professors have had negative experiences, some like David Keellings, a geography professor from Scotland, said his experiences at The University of Alabama have been positive.

“I’ve always loved [my] accent, and I think people do, too,” he said.

Despite that, he was not always “sure [he] wanted to be faculty and [teach] classes.”

“I was really, really frightened when I first started teaching as a graduate student,” he said. “I thought, well, I’m going to be standing in front of a room full of 150 people, and they’re going to be listening to everything I say.”

Keellings said he was concerned about saying something stupid, not knowing the answer to a question and not having the time to do his research. However, he gradually started to enjoy teaching.

“I think part of it was because students appreciated the accent and the humor that I tried to always work in there, and I think that really resonated,” he said. “So, it made me more confident when people were smiling or, occasionally, they would tell me they enjoyed the class or give me the positive feedback on the evaluation forms. So, yeah, I think having the accent probably helped a lot with me becoming interested in teaching and becoming a faculty member.”

Professor David Taylor, M.A. TL – TESOL, coordinator of The University of Alabama’s English Language Institute, has been part of the International Teaching Assistant Program (ITAP) for 19 years.

Though their experiences differ, international faculty members all go through the same training to prepare them for the process. 

While some international professors struggle with accent discrimination, some international teaching assistants (TAs) struggle as well.

According to the Capstone International Center (CIC) and the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA), of the approximately 1,200 international students at UA, half of them are graduate students. 

Any “non-native English speaking graduate students” wanting to be TAs can participate in the International Teaching Assistant Program (ITAP). Its coordinator, English Language Institute Professor David Taylor, has been part of the program for 19 years.

According to the CIC website, students must complete the ITAP before they can teach or lecture. 

Taylor said the first thing he has them do is an entrance interview. After this they do the course where they learn about “teaching methods, American culture and spoken English.”

He said since many of these graduate students want to gain experience and become teachers, they are “very grateful for help,” as it allows them to understand their students better. Though, some students find the program boring or a “waste of time.”

Once the students complete the course, they take the ITAP Proficiency Exam (ITAPPE). This exam includes a speaking section and a sample lesson section, according to the website. They can receive three different outcomes: not passing; a conditional pass, where they can teach labs and tutor but cannot teach lectures; or a full pass, where they can teach everything. If they want a full pass, they are free to test again.

After this, Taylor then observes them in class to “verify [their] grade.” Sometimes, he asks the class’s students what they think of their TA’s accent. 

Some students like their TA’s accent while others found it difficult at first but now have no problem.

He said the anti-immigration sentiment in this region “[stresses] the situation,” causing the accent discrimination towards these international students and professors.

So, some professors and TAs intentionally “Americanize” their accents, but some do it unintentionally. 

However, the professors expressed differing opinions on “Americanizing” accents.

Taylor said it is not so much getting the grammar but rather understanding the idioms and obtaining more vocabulary and expressions. It is a “two-way street” as well since American English is often looser than British English. 

Anonymous said someone “never can Americanize [their] accent,” because an accent is “very difficult to eliminate.” 

“[The] accent will always be there,” he said.

Keellings and Taylor also offered advice for students afraid their accent might hinder their ability to become a teacher or, if they do, that their students might not respect them.

“To be a teacher, I don’t think it’s so much about how you sound,” Keellings said. “It’s about what you do and your knowledge of the subject area and making your lessons interesting and trying to reach people. There’s a lot more to it than what you sound like. So, I would tell people not to worry too much about it and just try to be the best they can be in the area they’re interested in, that they want to teach in.”

Taylor shared a similar opinion.

“Be your best self,” he said.