Although American University is regarded as one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, it can often lack cultural perspective due to its predominantly white student body. I see this lack of perspective in derogatory whispers about professors with Middle Eastern, Central American and African accents. I have had few professors of non-American backgrounds at AU, but those I have had the privilege of taking classes with were extremely knowledgeable. However, they are unfortunately subject to comments about their accents and culture from other students. At AU, multilingual skills and cultural knowledge are seen as barriers instead of being seen as evidence of knowledge and world perspectives beneficial to learning.
AU students write both formal and informal professor evaluations, the formal being the Student Evaluations of Teaching administered by the University and the informal being Rate My Professors. The evaluations seem to face higher scrutiny from students based on accents and cultural differences. This not only defocuses potential areas of class improvement, but devalues a professor’s knowledge and experience for teaching in their non-native language. This can be damaging to professors, as it distorts their work into a confining and oppressive model that values comfort over cultural appreciation and adaptation. Having the courage and expertise to teach in a language that is not your own must be valued, not only for the unique perspective their culture and experiences bring, but for the action itself.
At AU, professors with Middle Eastern, Central American and African Accents are often held to a higher standard than their counterparts with American accents. This difference is not new, as passive-aggressive and discriminatory comments can be traced back decades. One 2012 evaluation on Rate My Professors stated, “Good professor… Very helpful. Only problem I had with him was sometimes his accent was hard to understand,” and gave an overall rating of 3.5 out of 5.
Another review from 2012 read, “[professor] is really nice, despite the fact that she can’t speak English,” with a rating of 3.5. Other reviews for professors with similar descriptions, but no accents, are in a range of 4-5.
Both professors have high averages for student comprehension and learning on SET. These comments then reflect unwillingness to learn from professors with non-American accents. The problem, aside from the comments being unnecessarily scrutinizing and discriminatory, lies in the effects of a professor’s rating dropping due to these close-minded reviews.
As ratings drop for professors with accents, students are unfortunately less likely to take classes with professors of cultural differences. In devaluing these professors, the knowledge they have is less likely to be passed on, since students are more reluctant to take their courses or listen to their content due to fears of cultural disconnect. However, their cultural knowledge and unique expertise in their field are beneficial for all students at AU.
Their roles provide representation for students with accents and for non-white students while providing unheard perspectives for the majority of AU’s population. Seeing as AU is mostly white, the University would especially benefit from listening to professors with different backgrounds to bring forth more world experiences. Accents need to be respected as real-world experiences instead of being seen as barriers, especially with the discrimination in Western academia that many individuals with accents already face.
Many of the professors with accents teach courses specific to their cultures or their native language. In turn, devaluing these professors based on their accents devalues learning about minority subjects and languages important to minorities. These professors and topics are incredibly important to higher education, as minority issues are often overlooked.
I did not come to AU to see the accents and cultures carried by my family be belittled. A primary reason I attend AU is to learn about minority protections, and this discrimination undermines that education. Learning topics from professors with personal experiences is illuminating and a privilege all students should take advantage of, especially at a predominantly white institution.
Students at AU can afford to put in the effort to understand someone’s accent. If a professor can translate their life’s work, teaching and passion into a language foreign to them, students can take the time to listen to them the way they would listen to a professor with an American accent. Valuing comfort in these situations comes at too great a cost, as this value is detrimental to student learning on multiple fronts. Uplifting other cultures and minority issues is central to a holistic education. Devaluing a professor’s experience for speaking in a language they learned is backward, and students must listen to their teachings with the respect they deserve.
Rebeca Samano is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Nina Heller. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Luna Jinks, Natasha LaChac and Sarah Clayton.