Academic journal article Journal of International Students

Managing Anxiety: A Case Study of an International Teaching Assistant's Interaction with American Students

Academic journal article Journal of International Students

Managing Anxiety: A Case Study of an International Teaching Assistant's Interaction with American Students

Article excerpt


This case study utilizes structuration theory to explore the complexities in the academic interaction between a Chinese international teaching assistant (ITA) and her American students. Through four semi-structured participant interviews, eight classroom observations, and student feedback, major themes and variations were identified regarding the feelings, concerns, and strategies of the ITA's interaction with American students from the ITA perspective. The assumption is that despite the possible obstacles in cross-linguistic and cross-cultural academic interaction, ITAs have the drive and potential to successfully navigate through the challenging process. Implications for improving ITA training and practices are discussed.

Keywords: international teaching assistant, academic interaction, case study, stmcturation theory

In 2010, 723,277 international students were enrolled in American graduate schools (Council of Graduate Schools, 2010; Institute of International Education [HE], 2011). This comprises about 15.5% of all graduate students in the U.S. Due to various financial constraints, colleges and universities employ graduate students-including international students-to teach American undergraduate courses. During the past three decades, the persistent presence of the international teaching assistant (ITA) has brought linguistic, pedagogical, and sociocultural challenges that have led to the development of research related to ITAs (Bailey, 1983; Fitch & Morgan, 2003; Gorsuch, 2003; Kaufman & Brown worth, 2006; Kim, 2009; Li, Mazer, & Ju, 2011; Smith & Simpson, 1993). Over the years, the scope of research has expanded from exclusively focusing on basic linguistic issues, such as pronunciation and intonation, to a more comprehensive set of concerns such as pedagogical, psychological, emotional, communicative, and cultural competence (Zhou, 2009).

Despite some advances, the existing research has two shortcomings. First, the bulk of the research to date relies on quantitative methods to examine the issues and challenges related to ITAs. Common data sources include surveys, questionnaires, and mid- or end-of-semester evaluations collected from American undergraduate students. There has not been adequate research attention given to the complexities in ITA teaching practices from the perspectives of ITAs themselves (Kim, 2009; Zhou, 2009). It is assumed that the problems can be solved through Americanizing ITAs based on the American linguistic and pedagogical model as well as the needs and expectations of American students. Second, the majority of the research has been conducted in the field of secondlanguage acquisition, with the assumption that issues and challenges related to ITAs stem from their inadequate linguistic competence. When factors beyond language barriers are examined such as pedagogy, motivation, and prejudice, they are usually treated as confounding or secondary issues (Zhou, 2009). However, teaching and learning are conditioned by complex social and cultural realities that involve more than linguistic communication (Steffe & Gale, 1995).

A particular need for more qualitative research on contemporary ITA issues and challenges exists due to at least two important trends. First, research attention to ITAs has decreased in recent years (Zhou, 2009). However, research and reports continue to highlight the need to improve ITA practices. For example, in a 2005 New York Times article (Finder, 2005), interviews with undergraduates at six American universities revealed that the number of ITAs in a department strongly influences the major that an American undergraduate decides to pursue. Secondly, as English becomes more widely learned at a much younger age in non-English speaking countries, current English oral proficiency within ITAs is likely much higher than it was ten or twenty years ago. The increasing information exchange is also likely to equip ITAs with some knowledge of American classroom culture prior to their arrival. …

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