French and Arabic Teaching Assistant Programs Reduced


Meg Parker

Students learn Arabic with teaching assistant Hawraa Sana.

Oberlin foreign language departments are preparing to undergo changes to the Teaching Assistant Program starting next year. The Arabic and French departments will each be losing one TA, and all TAs are expected to see their salaries standardized. This reduction would leave the French Department with one TA and the Arabic program with none.

Elizabeth Hamilton, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, assures students that there is no cause for concern about the coming changes. “Some [TA positions] are being reduced in relation to other staffing patterns,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “These are modest changes.”

TAs are usually Masters students from countries outside the U.S. and have many responsibilities both within and outside of the classroom. They lead group discussions, organize campus events, assist in grading, and lead language tables. Many faculty members and students have expressed concerns about the upcoming changes and how learning may be affected.

“I think that the presence of a TA is so essential and important to practice language, and to interact with,” said Salam Karahawa, a double-degree senior and French House residential assistant. “I think the TA program is so valuable.”

Not all language programs at Oberlin have TAs or program assistants. However, several staff members believe TAs are uniquely able to cultivate a helpful and effective language learning environment.

“The TAs have a lot of contact with the students and help create this atmosphere outside of the classroom where students can learn a lot in a friendly, relaxed setting,” said Matthew Senior, chair of the French and Italian departments. “I think a lot of our students would say they learned as much in such settings as they did in the classroom. They have a chance to make friends and use the language. It’s part of the culture at Oberlin and it needs to be supported.”

Faculty also emphasized that TAs provide a value that is difficult to achieve by other means, since they can relate to students and communicate elements of their culture.

“The ability to have contact with peers more or less your own age is extremely important,” Senior noted. “Professors are usually at least a decade older than their students, so they are not in contact with a certain kind of culture that their peers have and can share.”

Faculty members in the French and Arabic departments fear that the quality of education and opportunities available at Oberlin will be diminished by the absence or reduction of TAs in their respective departments. Professor Al-Raba’a spent one module without a TA and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work he had to take on. He explained that he had to cancel some Arabic Department events as a result.

“I had a heavy burden myself,” he said. “The second module I was doing everything myself: conversation hours, language tables, every aspect — I was doing alone. I eliminated some cultural activities because I can’t do everything. I’m speaking from experience; [TAs] help in so many ways.”

Some students, however, were not heavily impacted by TAs during their language education and do not hold the same concerns .

“I don’t interact with TAs that much,” College junior Johanna Rosenboom wrote in a message to the Review. “Most of that has to do with the fact that I’m a minor, and not a major, and haven’t had to go to French table as part of my classes since my classes have been upper-level.”

Arts and Science administrators are exploring ways to make sure that foreign language education is enriched in alternative ways. For example, the College hired current, native French-speaking students to conduct some duties usually performed by French TAs earlier this semester.

Many faculty object to hiring current students as TAs and believe that trained international TAs are still necessary for foreign language education at Oberlin.

“Some of [the TAs] even come here with advanced language training,” Senior said. “It is highly preferable to have these advanced students, trained at some of the best universities in the world.”

Kevin Roceron, faculty-in-residence and a former TA himself, added, “They are students, and may not have the time to participate in activities. This is a full time job.”
The College is also introducing some new technologies and innovative programs to foreign language courses.

“Faculty and staff involved in the Oberlin Center for Languages and Culture, the Cooper International Learning Center, the Gertrude B. Lemle Teaching Center, and language departments themselves are exploring options for high-quality language and cultural learning using powerful contemporary technologies and rich campus programming,” wrote Hamilton in her email. “We have piloted the Shared Languages Program to connect language courses with our peer colleges and universities in the region, and we’ve found that students do really well. It’s extra intensive, face-to-face instruction. Students see their language proficiency grow substantially, and through partnering across institutions, we can offer more courses than our programs could otherwise offer.”

Aside from reduction to the TA program, some students and faculty are worried this may be the first of future reductions.

“From what I can tell, Oberlin is trying to cease the Arabic program. I think students need to know about this,” Senior said. “If the administration gets their way, there will be no Arabic instruction next fall. That’s it.”

Opportunities to practice language have also been modified recently. Stevenson Dining Hall is also no longer reservable for foreign language tables during lunch hours. “So many diners have similar windows of time for lunch, we needed every seat available during this peak period to ensure that all diners could enjoy their meal when they needed to,” Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo wrote in an email to the Review.

Additionally, all TAs will have their salaries standardized “We saw that salaries varied widely and, for equity reasons, they are being standardized,” wrote Hamilton. In addition to receiving a salary, TAs are provided with housing, meals, and opportunities to take courses during their time at Oberlin.

However, Senior believes that the standardized salary does not adequately compensate TAs for their labor. “From our impression, this is too low of a salary,” he said. “It’s really unacceptable and substandard.”

The Oberlin foreign language departments hope to find a solution that is budget-friendly but does not eliminate the role of TAs in Arabic and French programs.

“We understand that Oberlin is trying to tighten its belt, and we want to cooperate in that process,” Senior said. “That’s why we proposed the idea that if French is going to lose a TA, and Arabic is going to lose a TA, we are exploring the idea of combining the Arabic and French TAs, because there are plenty of people from the Arabic world who speak French as well. We don’t want to dig in and pretend that there are no problems with the budget, but we think that there are creative ways to keep language instruction at a maximum here.”