COLUMN: Stop underestimating professors with accents

Leona Falconer

An unsavory trend I’ve noticed at Central Michigan University is the mistreatment of professors with, particularly thick and heavy accents. 

It needs to stop.

I hate to share that I’ve overheard many conversations between students complaining about a professor’s accent. The complaints are generally issues of misunderstanding the material, solely blamed on the professor’s communication skills. However, the conversations can often trickle into poking fun at the professors' accents and origins — or even blatant racism.

As I’ve overheard these complaints and microaggressions, I always find myself sitting in the same exact class and thinking “...I can understand the professor just fine. Am I hearing the same thing as these other students?”

The issue, more often than not, isn’t dependent on the professor’s accent, but rather within these individual students’ internalized racism. On a broader scale, this behavior is a reflection of an unacceptable aspect of the culture at CMU. 

For how much we promote and advertise our diversity, the same level of respect offered to native English-speaking professors is not reflected in faculty with accents.

Need evidence? Look no further than RateMyProfessor. Similar to every other college student signing up for classes, I always browse RateMyProfessor reviews to get an insight on the course. Here are some examples of comments I’ve found regarding CMU professors:

“I don't think (redacted) has ANY idea of what classes in America are normally like. She has a very bizarre & confusing way of teaching. She assigns stuff from books that aren't required but doesn't touch the required ones. She also has a very annoying voice that is difficult to bear for 2hrs.”

“She can't speak very good English. In the class I had, she didn't answer questions clearly AT ALL. I learned NOTHING and found the class very pointless!!!!”

"You can't understand her very well, but the class isn't that hard if you've had chem before. She needs to learn English though."

"He can be hard to understand because of a language barrier, because he is from China."

You get the idea. 

The anonymity of RateMyProfessor allows students to post reviews like above, and I’m sure there are worse comments made in private conversations between classmates and friends. 

Would you say these things directly to the professor? If not, then they don’t belong in the back of the class or on a website either.

These students are potentially missing out on a wealth of knowledge by underestimating professors with accents. If you can look past an accent, you may find a professor to be the most knowledgeable teacher in the department or an invaluable mentor. Understand that these professors aren't any lesser for speaking broken English; in fact, they should be respected even more for instructing in a second language.

As a university with an on-campus population made up of over 70% white individuals, this isn’t the first time CMU has been accused of mistreating and ostracizing people of color on our campus.

In a study completed by CMU faculty Dr. Mary Senter, she found that 61 percent of students of color at CMU have heard negative comments about a racial or ethnic group from other students on campus. The study reported that more than half of minority employees do not believe that CMU employees support and promote diversity and do not believe that there are many opportunities for minorities to advance at CMU.

These trends need to change. Each CMU student needs to become aware of the larger impact of their comments and reviews on our university culture. If this behavior is being exhibited against qualified professionals, I can only imagine the lengths of discrimination that POC students endure.

Please, just ask your professor for clarification, whether that be during or after class. 

I've noticed that many of my professors with accents begin the first day of class by openly acknowledging the potential language barrier. They highly encourage students to stop them and ask for clarification whenever necessary. 

If you can’t make the extra effort to work with an accented professor, and your first instinct is to shame them or write a nasty review, then you are the problem, not the professor.