Professors shouldn’t face discrimination for their accents

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Some professors are better lecturers than others, but whether or not they speak with an accent shouldn’t be a determining factor in that assessment.

A recent article in The Eyeopener explored the dynamic between professors who speak with accents and their students at Ryerson University. The article referenced a 2015 study that examined students’ perceptions of non-native English-speaking professors through reviews left on RateMyProfessors.com, a popular online forum for class and instructor reviews.

It’s not uncommon to overhear peers complaining about a professor who speaks with an accent on our own campus. Whether blaming poor academic performance on their inability to understand the professor’s delivery of course content or doubting professors’ suitability to teach, these discussions are often problematic and inherently divisive.

A hierarchy exists in how Canadian students may perceive a professor’s accent. European accents from places like the United Kingdom are frequently associated with intelligence and sophistication, while accents that indicate a professor may be a non-native English speaker can be looked down upon as a hindrance to students’ learning. 

Professors who are judged negatively for speaking with an accent are disproportionately people of colour. As discussed in The Eyeopener’s article, non-white professors who speak with an accent are sometimes viewed by students as being less intelligent than their white colleagues. 

It’s inevitably discouraging to have students mocking the way you speak or leaving unfair reviews about your teaching online on the basis of your accent. It’s particularly damaging when those opinions stem from racialized perceptions about what accents are and aren’t desirable. 

University professors have their jobs for a reason. They’re knowledgeable, qualified professional educators. The high positions they hold reflect their abilities.

Having a non-native English-speaking professor is no excuse for doing poorly in a class. Most professors are willing to address any confusion or make necessary clarifications for students who don’t grasp the course material. This willingness extends to students who may have struggled to understand something their professor said in class due to a lack of familiarity with the way they speak.

Privileging one way of speaking over another isn’t productive. It’s actively harmful when the accents being favoured are those associated with white native English-speaking people.

It’s vital that we keep ourselves and our peers accountable as respectful students and people, and that we quash problematic conversations about professors who speak with accents instead of continuing them.

Professors aren’t going to change the way they speak or sound, and they shouldn’t be expected to do so. It’s the responsibility of students to be engaged learners, to pay close attention to what they’re learning, and to seek clarification when they need it.

—Journal Editorial Board

 

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