TO THE EDITOR:
On Tuesday, March 14, 2017, The Miami Student published a letter to the editor authored by James Brock, an economics professor in the Farmer School of Business. The article, “Miami’s excellent failing ACE program,” was short but had a simple message: The ACE program has failed in its purpose to educate, with the insinuation that the ACE program is simply passing students along. ACE Program faculty hand out A’s to any student who wants one with no regard for the burden they place on the professors of “real” courses.
After I read the letter, I felt angry. I felt frustrated and I felt sad because, yet again, here was someone telling an entire population of students on our campus that they were not deserving of an education if their English ability did not match that of their domestic peers. This message is broadcasted consistently from a variety of sources. On the surface this message is a benign one: Language proficiency is important for success in the American classroom, a fact that I will concede. But the underlying theme of this message is significantly more sinister and damaging. We continually equate English proficiency with intelligence and we continually equate whiteness with worthiness. To our students of color, for whom English is not their first language, we are saying “you are not smart enough to be here and you are not worthy of my time.”
When I consider the issue presented in the first letter, that international students are often not prepared for introductory economics courses, I begin to question whether the struggle is a result of the flaws of the student or the faculty member. Conceptually speaking, learning is a shared responsibility between the educator and the student; knowledge is co-constructed as a result of the student-teacher relationship. I have volunteered to present sessions on campus involvement and residence life for the ACE Program’s extended orientation for two semesters now. I’ve spoken with almost 300 students about the importance of being a part of student organizations, utilizing their residence hall resources and managing relationships and conflict with roommates. When a student appears puzzled or asks a clarifying question or seems to be missing the point, I cannot blame the student but rather my own methods of presentation. I assess the situation and adapt because it is my responsibility to ensure that the students are internalizing the messages I am presenting.
The previous letter also mentioned that the grades that many ACE program students received did not correlate to their perceived readiness in class. There are two issues with this premise. The first is the assumption mentioned above: that these faculty members are (for some reason) passing students who are not ready. The author’s opinion of the ACE program has led to the belief that these educators are less ethical, and care more about moving students through than their students’ success. My personal experience with many of the ACE program faculty and staff demonstrates otherwise.
The second issue I have is the assumption that the classroom environment for both an ACE course and an economics course are equal. I have known several international students who have received emails from their professors at the beginning of new semesters. These emails contain warnings of intensive use of English and suggestions that those who do not speak “good” English should drop the class. The international students enrolled in these courses have to enter the classroom for the first time knowing the professor had already made assumptions about their ability to speak English and, ultimately, to succeed. In psychology, stereotype threat is the situational predicament in which individuals experience mental and emotional stress as a result of feeling at risk of confirming negative stereotypes. International students who enter the classroom understand this stress, and studies have demonstrated the negative effects of stereotype threat on classroom performance. The ACE courses are designed for students to use English freely and without judgment. Classroom environments in which students are fearful or ashamed of their English ability are not environments in which they can succeed.
After I read the letter, I also felt disappointed. Given my position within the university, I have come to expect those around me to support all Miami students. Whether we meet these students in our classrooms, at the residence halls or through student organizations, they all deserve our support and our commitment to ensuring they are getting an education and an experience fitting of Miami’s reputation. After all, the success of our students is also our success, and we cannot forget this.