Retired professors help int’l RAs, TAs with English skills

The Partners in English program focuses on student communication.

Matt Graham

Though they no longer teach classes, some retired professors are still working to improve the learning experience at the University.

The professors are spending several hours each week with international teaching and research assistants to work on their pronunciation, help them communicate better with students and improve their conversational English.

The professors are members of the University Retirees Volunteer Center, and the project is called the Partners in English program.

Eight retired professors volunteer to teach approximately 30 graduate students, University officials said. There are 20 graduate students waiting to be placed with instructors.

Caroline Rosen, the University Center for Teaching and Learning Services volunteer coordinator, said that the University began the program last fall as a way to help teaching and research assistants practice their English.

“We were looking for some ways to get our international teaching assistants more opportunities for speaking English outside the classroom,” she said.

The goal is not so much to teach the assistants to speak English, Rosen said, as it is to work on speaking more clearly.

Hyesook Han, a math education graduate student from South Korea, has been participating in the program since December.

She said the way South Koreans learn English has caused her some problems because they emphasize reading and writing more than learning to speak.

She said she has been working on her English with former engineering professor Patrick Grames.

“He corrects my pronunciation,” she said. “He teaches me how to make the sound.”

Grames said he is happy to volunteer.

“It’s one of those things – if the people you’re trying to help seem to be getting help, it’s rewarding,” he said.

Each professor meets once a week with up to four students at a time, participants said.

Retired physical chemistry professor Bill Schwabacher said much of the time is spent teaching the graduate students U.S. idioms.

He said professors are given a lot of freedom in the type of instruction to give. But one focus of the program is not speaking English slowly, because it will not be spoken slowly in the classroom, he said.

Schwabacher said the biggest thing international students need is practice with native speakers.

“One of the difficulties is that (international) graduate students, especially at this university, tend to stick within their own groups,” he said.

Undergraduate students said they are happy with the program.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said history junior Brett Garrett. “I’ve had some (teaching assistants) in the past who you could barely understand. It makes learning almost impossible.”

Rosen said the program is looking for more students and especially teachers.

“We would like some more English speakers to help out,” she said. “Anybody can help with this – you don’t have to be a professor.”