Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cultural Diversity in a Research Lab

The demographics of my research group represents fairly well the demographics of my broad field: there are very few women (presently none), and a large number of international students from all over the world, many from different parts of Asia and a few from Europe. The fact that my group members are presently all male is not ideal, but, on the upside, I can look at cultural aspects of the dynamics without the gender component perhaps obscuring the conclusions.

Having people from all over the world comes with challenges. An important part of my maturation as an academic has been to handle these culture-related challenges as they arose in a fashion that I hope is clear-cut, fair, and inclusive.

For instance, occasionally I will have 2 or 3 people from the same country, and they tend to speak in their native language when at work, which excludes others from the conversation. Since conversations in the lab are first and foremost supposed to be work-related, and since the language of instruction at the University is English, I now explicitly require that all the conversations in the lab or office be in English.

In my opinion, perhaps the most important skill a foreign-born graduate student should acquire during graduate school in the US is excellent command of English. I have often been quite disappointed at the quality of incoming students' English (completely incommensurate with test scores): it is frustrating for them to take classes and for both the student and me to talk about research tasks. I therefore insist that students for whom English is not a native language work tirelessly on improving it, through English-as-a-second-language courses, reading a variety of literature (from technical to popular), watching US programming, and -- most importantly -- through opening up to become friends with native English speakers. Unfortunately, I have had a few students communicate, directly or indirectly, that they feel learning English is not really important, and they spend years without exiting the comfort sphere populated exclusively by their compatriots. This is quite saddening, because a technically excellent PhD student, who wants to work in the US but cannot speak English fluently, often becomes an unemployed PhD graduate. I have found a strong correlation between the speed with which a student's mastery of English ramps up in the first few years and subsequent technical productivity; I believe both are manifestations of a strong motivation to succeed.

Occasionally, there will be a clash in the lab. At one point in time, I had a very conservative and outspoken US student, with mediocre technical skills, tell one of my international students (a very mellow guy, very technically strong) to "go back to [the student's country of origin]" after the latter student challenged the former one on a technical issue. I have had a situation or two where global politics was discussed in the lab and passions ran high; one of my explicit instructions nowadays is that I will absolutely not tolerate arguments about world politics or religion in the lab.

There are also some amusing (at least in hindsight) aspects of diversity, where diversity should be interpreted in the broadest sense (i.e., not as US vs non-US folk). For instance, some of my lab/office rules now include explicit instructions on proper food storage (e.g. food should be stored in the fridge and not left out to rot on one's desk for days) and hygienic habits (frequent showers and washing laundry). This sounds silly, but I have had more than one occasion of a student with a strong body odor (these were sometimes local and sometimes international students, all with various backgrounds), where the smell was so strong that it would disrupt the work of others to the point of them avoiding to come to the lab after complaining in vain. Not only am I now well versed in conversing about someone being stinky (which used to haunt me as possibly the most uncomfortable conversation ever), I have had to occasionally do it more than once, and in one case, after repeated conversations, I had to threaten termination of research assistantship unless the situation improved (it did). I have also talked with students about laundry issues such as fabric softener choice, and I once researched Al-free deodorant for a student who would not use any deodorant for fear of cancer. I remember thinking whether this was really part of my job description as their research advisor, but I suppose it is, because I see no one else volunteering...

But, challenges aside, having a culturally diverse group is much better than having a culturally uniform one. For instance, often I have students who have excellent technical training but have been schooled in a system where initiative and independence are discouraged; I have others who are very independent and creative, which their school system fostered, but may lack, sometimes significantly, in math and physics skills. Together, the mix enables all of them to become much better young researchers overall, as they learn from each other.

It has also been quite heartwarming to see how friendships forge, sometimes between people whom you would never expect to bond, with origins very remote from one another. It is interesting to see how often students who are good friends end up coming up with very original research ideas; I have had several student-initiated papers, where it was always two students, from very different backgrounds, who became good friends in grad school and came up with an idea that meshed their expertise and resulted in cool new science.

In my opinion, getting to know one person from a certain cultural background really well has the ability to bring the whole culture much closer to you than any touristy trip ever could. Personally, I certainly have a much better appreciation for the cultures of several countries after having advised students from there. Our foreign students and postdocs are their nations' great ambassadors in the US and on the global scene. At the same time, our local, but culturally and racially diverse students, bring about the best of the US into global science.

What is your favorite anecdote that illustrates the joys or challenges of working with a culturally diverse research group?

28 comments:

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

First of all, I think that most labs could do with more diversity. I don't have my own lab yet, but I envision a mini United Nations, with many divergent cultures present and abundant opportunities to learn from each others' life experiences and perspectives.

As a graduate student I worked in a lab that happened to be predominantly Chinese. Although they tended to converse to each other in their native language, for the most part it didn't bother me. I simply worked alongside them and would gently interrupt only if I needed something.

One day I was standing with one of the technicians when the visiting postdoc asked - in Chinese - where a reagent was. Although I should not have known what he was saying, I reflexively answered. Both turned to me in mild shock and asked how I knew what he had said. I assured them that I did not in fact understand Chinese, and may have unintentionally picked up key phrases from listening to them converse with each other. I tried to use my unconscious linguistic tools to learn more phrases, but I apparently I can only understand languages if I don't actively try to learn them....

As an aside, from that day forward they mainly spoke in English in the lab.

Anonymous said...

I am of European descent and my best friend from grad school is Indian. He was best man at my wedding. Now we both hold academic jobs on opposite ends of the country, but he's still the guy I call whenever I need someone's honest, no-BS opinion.

Anonymous said...

Our research group has a highly diverse mix of nationalities, and there is usually more than one person of a given extraction available for people to speak their native language if they so choose. It has never bothered me that people occasionally choose to talk science in their native tongue with a colleague, and they always switch back to English if they need to communicate with someone else. Living away from your home country and doing top notch science is stressful enough without having someone demand that you function in English at all times. For me it's all part of the fun of being in an international group, and it's great for me to be able to learn a bit of another tongue as well. I think you can impose high standards on written and spoken scientific English without insisting on its use at all times.

Lab Rat said...

I think that always insisting on English is a bit unfair. We had two eastern European women working in our lab, (one PhD one PostDoc) which meant that when the PhD student needed to know something important, it was far easier for her to ask the PostDoc in her native language rather than trying to struggle through a question in a second language and then struggle again to understand the answer. It also gave them a very close friendship, and they could talk about things they both remembered and related too during the coffee breaks (in their own language) which certainly made the PhD student feel less homesick.

I know that if I was in a lab overseas, I probably wouldn't be able to function being forced to speak another language the whole time, even a language like French (which I'm vaguely competent at) and certainly not if there were other Brits in the lab.

Namnezia said...

My goodness, for someone who claims to support diversity in the lab you certainly have put in some rules that discourage it on many levels. Hopefully you will one day question your idea of so-called "diversity" and really come up with constructive ways to promote cultural, racial and socioeconomic diversity in science.

GMP said...

Comment 2 of 2

Namnezia says: Hopefully you will one day question your idea of so-called "diversity" and really come up with constructive ways to promote cultural, racial and socioeconomic diversity in science.

Namnezia, I am actually a bit proponent of diversity, believe it or not. But if I do not ensure my students speak good English, they will forever be second-class citizens in the US, despite their excellent intellect.

I most certainly do not put any restrictions who anybody socializes with or how they practice their tradition. I just insist they learn English so this important issue is not in the way of their subsequent success. Do you know, for instance, how cruel teaching evaluations can be to faculty whose command of English is not good? Blog venom has nothing on the things undergrads can write on evals. And bad teaching evals have a bearing on your tenure, promotion, salary. Why would a perfectly smart international faculty have to go through this?


Running a lab is not a picnic. Work is work, and we need to be efficient about it, which means there is one language to facilitate interactions among people. What my group members do on their own time socially is up to them. People in my lab have plenty of time to socialize, and there are a number of cross-cultural friendships.

GMP said...

Comment 1 of 2

Dr. Dad, Anon at 7:05, Anonymous at 1:32, Lab Rat, and Namnezia, thank you all for your comments.

Anonymous at 1:32, Lab Rat, and Namnezia, I assure you that I am not a petty tirant. And that I am speaking from a point of someone who is running a lab, which is different from my standpoint when I was in grad school, when I thought all these people speaking different tongues was just wonderful and thought that was the most important thing about my experience. I still do, but now I see a need to enforce some rules so the lab would be productive. And I also have seen many of my dear lab mates not be able to get any job in the US, and it's not for lack of technical expertise...

I also speak from a standpoint of someone who is
not a native speaker of English and who has seen how important command of English is to ensure good job prospects in the US. Let me explain a bit (over the next two comments, as the response got too big for a single comment.)
In the US, unlike in most of Europe, English is both the language of science and coincidentally the language that the local population speaks. Also, in my hard STEM field there are comparatively few Americans, so I do have a very diverse group, and we all have to communicate somehow. That language is English, the language of instruction at the University and the language of science globally. Also, unlike in Europe, a graduate student needs to take many many classes, and not speaking the language of instruction is very counterproductive.

I most certainly do not police my students about what language they use. But, I make sure early on that I consider their improving English to be important, and that in order to communicate with others in the lab I expect everyone to use English.

Anon 1:32 says: Living away from your home country and doing top notch science is stressful enough without having someone demand that you function in English at all times.
Anon, I am aware of that, and I make a conscious effort to recruit students from a certain country in pairs or threes, precisely so the students would have someone to fall back on in the early years.

For me it's all part of the fun of being in an international group, and it's great for me to be able to learn a bit of another tongue as well.

I agree, and that's what happy hours and weekend outings are for.

I think you can impose high standards on written and spoken scientific English without insisting on its use at all times.

Actually, you cannot. Mastery of a language is achieved through practice. You assume all students are motivated on their own, but it's not true. I have a lot of Chinese students, and they only socialize with other Chinese students, since there are many of them at the University. If I don't insist they speak English in the lab, they would never use it, and they would not communicate with other group members either, which is often necessary for work to be done. How would they achieve good command of English if they were always free to fall back on the safety net of compatriots?

I think that me insisting on English in a STEM lab in the US is no more an act of tyranny than your mom making you eat vegetables: you may not like it, but it's good for you.

Of course, if someone doesn't understand something, it's a first priority for them to understand, and they do so in whichever language they are most comfortable with. Again, I am not policing around what they use. I just make my preferences known.

Anonymous said...

Having seen some pretty scary safety issues arise in a chemistry lab specifically because a research fellow's English was not good enough to understand restrictions on the use of a chemical, I'd definitely agree that encouraging adoption of the lab language (regardless of what language that is) is of primary importance. Eventually we worked around those issues by getting another research fellow with good spoken English to translate in to a third language that was in common to the two research fellows - a very complicated way of conveying vital chemical safety information.
I'd also agree that hiring 2 or 3 individuals from the same country is a very good idea - thoughtful actually, and really important to help both assimilation into the lab culture, and for them to feel less alone in a new strange country.
Regarding personal hygiene, I'm going to take a liberal interpretation of 'cultural differences' there because while I have experienced issues with foreign students from different cultures, I've experienced just as many with local students with different cultures! In response to comments made elsewhere, I think maintaining a suitable level of personal hygiene is essential to facilitate good interactions within a lab, and requiring that is not discriminatory. Anyone who's been in the situation of dealing with such issues would understand this.

Anyway, looking forward to reading more of your blog posts.

Namnezia said...

GMP:
Sure, I completely agree that having excellent command of English is critical for succeeding in science, particularly but not limited to the US. And as a mentor I also agree that encouraging foreign-born trainees to become proficient English speakers is one of our duties. If your post had been entirely about this, I would have whole-heartedly agreed. But the context upon which it was placed, combined with your comments about all the rules regarding foreign languages and personal hygiene (which intentionally or not DO single out foreign folks in the lab) make it seem culturally insensitive, to put it mildly. English is also my second language, and I managed to learn it without being forced not to speak my native language at work.

Encouraging diversity also means learning to question and examine one's own implicitly held assumptions and stereotypes, and learning to view one's comments through the lens of others. Otherwise, many well meaning attempts will end up having the opposite effect.

Let me give you an example. Recently in Arizona a law was approved that teachers who had a pronounced accent were not allowed to teach in classrooms where there were ESL students. The idea is that if they were to learn English, they should learn it from someone who spoke it "properly". So this was supposed to benefit the students. However, I don't have to tell you that if you are a Mexican kid or teacher in one of these classrooms, this law is sending a very different message.

GMP said...

Anon 10:57 and Namnezia, thanks for your comments.

Anon, thanks for sharing your experiences and taking a liberal interpretation on the hygiene issue. I certainly wasn't intending to be xenophobic or racist; there were issues of hygiene in my lab (and my grad school experience too) that definitely included some local 'offenders'.

Namnezia, thanks for your comment. I suppose you are right, it might have come across as equating foreign with smelly, and that's certainly not the case. Actually I've had hygiene issues and food left to rot in the lab with people from several different backgrounds, some local, some international. I will reword that sentence in the post so that it does come across more accurately and less offensively.

You are right about implicit biases, and sometimes well-meant attempts may backfire. Posts like these are meant to get people thinking about diversity, and be challenged by others with a different view. So thanks for your comments!

I actually lived in Arizona for several years and have a bit of knowledge about the school system there. And I am painfully aware how ghettoized a lot of Mexican population there is, and how limited their job-prospects are, owing to, at least in part, no or poor command of English. Let me say at the outset that I don't agree with a lot of Arizona legislation, but I actually think that Mexican-American students' future job prospects significantly increase with decreasing accent. Is that really fair? Absolutely not. But it is true, nonetheless, at least presently, and will be in the near future. But, the more young Mexican-Americans make it to high-ranking places in the industry and government (and doing so is probably somewhat facilitated by less accent), the more good these high-ranking people will be able to do in turn for the general Mexican-American population. Perhaps this is cynical of me, but for any minority (such as women and Latinos), one first has to get some critical mass in high ranks, doing whatever it takes (e.g. women acting 'manly' in science); only then, from the inside, can a larger-scope change be made. I believe this is simply how politics works.

Anon and Namnezia, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I think this type of conversation is very important. I hope you will keep reading and commenting, and calling me on my BS when needed! :)

Ambivalent Academic said...

"Mexican-American students' future job prospects significantly increase with decreasing accent. Is that really fair? Absolutely not. But it is true, nonetheless, at least presently, and will be in the near future."

But you are still asking the already disadvantaged students to make further effort to comply with an inherently and wrongly biased system. This is not a solution to the problem. A solution would be to change the system to not be so biased toward individuals with accents.

Perhaps more pertinent to the title of your post, it is not encouraging diversity. It is encouraging conformity.

GMP said...

Ambivalent,

We are getting a bit off topic with the Arizona discussion, because I am not a legislator, and I talk about the issue as someone who lived there and has Mexican-American friends.

But you are still asking the already disadvantaged students to make further effort to comply with an inherently and wrongly biased system. This is not a solution to the problem. A solution would be to change the system to not be so biased toward individuals with accents.

I actually agree with you, but expecting a discriminatory system to change simply because it's wrong or unfair is unrealistic and I would say naive (no offense intended). The discriminatory majority has little incentive to make changes, and minority is not part of the in-crowd so it does not have the power to implement the changes from the outside. Any discriminatory system must change from the inside, and a way to do it is to change the composition of the majority through the advancement of Trojan-horse, conforming minority members. I think conformity of minority is necessary in the initial stages of a non-revolutionary political change.

Example: Everyone says we need to have more women in high-ranking places and more role models for women for women's numbers in science to really go up. Most of these high-ranking women had to conform to a larger or smaller degree in order to not hit the glass wall. But now that there are more women in high ranking places, they have the ability to make farther-reaching changes than if they had been left on the outskirts.

Regarding the title of the post: a lab is an enterprise, and it needs to be run efficiently. Diversity in a lab is a blessing, but conforming to the rules is also necessary. An inefficient, unproductive lab benefits no one. I think the post illustrates the pros and cons of having a diverse population and both the benefits and challenges that come with it in the context of doing resarch efficiently.

Thank you for commenting!

Hope said...

I came to the US as a young child from a Spanish-speaking country. I learned English in school, from people who “spoke it properly.” My parents, who came to the US with some command of English, refused to speak it at home. They did this for two reasons: 1) so that their kids would not lose their fluency in their native tongue; and 2) so that their kids would not pick up their accents. I think they did the right thing. Today, no one can tell that English was not my first language, and I am also fluent in Spanish. And anyone that has lived in a foreign country for an extended period of time knows how empowering it is to have a near-native command of the language.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I actually agree with you, but expecting a discriminatory system to change simply because it's wrong or unfair is unrealistic and I would say naive (no offense intended). The discriminatory majority has little incentive to make changes, and minority is not part of the in-crowd so it does not have the power to implement the changes from the outside. Any discriminatory system must change from the inside, and a way to do it is to change the composition of the majority through the advancement of Trojan-horse, conforming minority members. I think conformity of minority is necessary in the initial stages of a non-revolutionary political change.

I see your point (and no offense taken). This change the system by changing the majority idea is popular, but I think it is problematic. I agree that changing the system is *more difficult*, for all the reasons you mention. That doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing. Some of us are not the minority. Some of us are in a position to effect change, and if we are truly vested in the value of diversity it is important to cultivate true diversity rather than just the appearance of it. Is it enough to have representative proportions of each demographic? Is this sufficient if we are asking those in the minority to basically do away with the actual diversity that they bring to the table just so that the majority won't feel threatened? I don't think it is - I'm not as interested in the *appearance* of diversity as I am in the actual acceptance of different people. I'm not interested in asking them to conform.

I agree with you on this: "Most of these high-ranking women had to conform to a larger or smaller degree in order to not hit the glass wall. But now that there are more women in high ranking places, they have the ability to make farther-reaching changes than if they had been left on the outskirts."

Lots of women had to conform to get to where they are (and we often still do, so has this really been effective?) - but just being there is not true diversity if we have to fake that we're men to get there, and those of us who are there now have a responsibility to enact change in the system so that others that come after will find it a more accepting place for them.

I honestly don't know whether your Trojan horse model is more efficient than a revolutionary model. But I've not been terribly impressed with the way the Trojan horse model has panned out for women in science - it risks pushing real accepting diversity underground or not tolerating it at all. I'm inclined to try something different and push for real change in the system here and now.

GMP said...

Hope and Ambivalent, thanks for your comments.

Hope, I am happy that you enjoy the benefits of being fully bilingual.

Ambivalent, I think we are actually in agreement. There is the incremental (non-revolutionary) and the revolutionary way for reform. I have no idea which is better, but history seems to teach us that for the revolutionary changes the timing has to be right. You may be right, maybe the Trojan horse model has not worked for women, or not aas well as it could have. The revolutionary model seems to require good timing and a fair bit of organization; I don't know if adequate organization exists for women in science...

But I think we're getting into topics I don't know as much as I should about. Perhaps we could have a political scientist chime in on the merits of evolutionary vs revolutionary overhaul and the probabilities for success.

Thanks!

Ambivalent Academic said...

Well, it probably depends on how we measure success. I'd say that the personal investment in revolution model is having very real tangible effects in the microcosms in which I work. This is a good thing. It makes me happy to continue working in this place, on this science, because I'm not ALSO having to work on proving my right to be right there doing just that all the time. Since this has a real tangible impact for me, I'm invested in producing a real tangible impact for other people insofar as I am able. I'm just a post-doc. If I were a PI I could probably do more. I suggest that actively cultivating an environment where one's trainees don't constantly feel inadequate or unwelcome because of ethnicity or native language or gender or whathaveyou will go a long way toward fostering diversity in one's own microcosm. Maybe they'll even feel more like talking to you as the PI and other people who might be in a position to give them valuable career advice...in English even.

Ambivalent Academic said...

An example of the efficacy of the revolutionary approach.

Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed this post and reading through your past posts. Thank you for sharing your insights and welcome to the internet!

Re-post of my comment from Isis' blog:

I'm surprised at how many people feel that faculty shouldn't mandate that English is spoken in their labs. I'm a native English speaker and I've done training in two foreign countries. In both countries, when in the lab, I spoke the language of my co-workers. It was difficult, but it was part of the learning and training process. A PhD in science often used to require foreign language training; I think it's a shame that it no longer does. As faculty, we are required to train our students- and learning scientific English in an English-speaking country is an important part of that training. Too many faculty are happy to bring in lots of immigrant students, have them work long hours in the lab as technicians, and not provide real mentoring. During their free time or in cases of emergency, it's fine to speak your native language. But during work, it's critical to speak English. This is in the international student's best interests (better job prospects, better manuscripts, more likely to get selected to go to conferences), other student's best interests (more opportunity for collaborations and interactions), in the lab's best interests (enhanced safety). I was a PD in a lab where 50% of the trainees were from one foreign country while the remaining 50% were from all over. The first 50% only spoke their native tongue at work. None received jobs in the US, although all of them applied. I see this as a tremendous failure by the professor. Professors are educators, not science managers.

Namnezia said...

Ambivalent academic said:
"Perhaps more pertinent to the title of your post, it is not encouraging diversity. It is encouraging conformity....

and

....I suggest that actively cultivating an environment where one's trainees don't constantly feel inadequate or unwelcome because of ethnicity or native language or gender or whathaveyou will go a long way toward fostering diversity in one's own microcosm. "

Bingo and double bingo! Thanks for so eloquently stating what I was trying to say before.

GMP said...

Namnezia and Ambivalent,

My students don't feel unwelcome in my group. I spend way more one-on-one time with each of my students than most PIs do, so my students know I care about them. Just because I clearly delineate rules which I trust will serve them well in the long run doesn't make them unwelcome. Bending over backwards to accommodate everyone's preference for language or culture or smell in the lab is not doing anyone any favors. If they want to stay in the US, they have to speak English well, period. Regarding hygiene, there is BO, cooking O, banana left in bottom drawer for 2 months O, clothes unwashed for weeks O, smoking 2 packs a day O, smelly perfume making people wheeze O. All these O's are unwelcome, as they will be unwelcome in their workplaces. None of these are restricted to foreigners, and apply to different cultural groups (e.g., percent of smokers drastically varies in the US with economic status; students who smoke face significant prejudices).

Ambivalent, when you have your own lab and realize things are not getting done or people are put in danger because someone doesn't in fact understand instructions, you may not feel I am unreasonable and bigoted for requiring that one language be used in a lab.

I am tired of the political correctness. The world is biased. Many of the comment posts on Isis' blog are outraged that I am implying biases exist and people from different cultures are disadvantaged. Well, they are. I am offering my students some advice on how to make it in that world. Apparently, many people think implying anything other than "the world needs to change ASAP" makes me a bigot. Well, I am sorry, but until the world does change into the utopian world where no biases exist, I am happy to help my students achieve a better life for themselves, and that means a job first and foremost. You say I am prejudiced, I say I am practical.

Anonymous at 6:37, thank you for your comment!
I am glad you enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

In your last comment at 8.22 pm, you write
"You say I am prejudiced, I say I am practical."

I am sure that in formulating the English-only-in-labs policy, you have the best interests of your lab and your students in mind. It certainly does not make you a bigot. Far from it, you come across as a professor who cares for her students and wants the best for them. When I started grad school in US (I am from Asia), my advisor told me that during job searches, once I make it to a short-list and get invited for a campus interviews, it would be absolutely essential that I can communicate well in English. I am grateful to him that he specified this right in the beginning.
You also write in your blog
"At one point in time, I had a very conservative and outspoken US student, with mediocre technical skills, tell one of my international student (a very mellow guy, very technically strong) to "go back to [the student's country of origin]" after the latter student challenged the former one on a technical issue."
I am very curious to know how the international student tackled it. Also,
the behavior and attitude of the "conservative US student", if unchecked, can land him in big trouble in the future and is also not healthy for the functioning of the lab. As an advisor and PI of this student, how did you address this incident ? Do you have any rules in the lab that prevent this kind of behavior?

As an international student, I am always at a loss how to respond when someone says or implies something like "Go back to your country". Hence, my question.

Ambivalent Academic said...

GMP - I never said you were a bigot. I don't think you are a bigot. I merely think that your *intentions* (however benevolent) for your trainees reflect a relatively narrow POV - your own, with no consideration to their individual experience. I came to the impression from the overarching theme of your post that you are interested in fostering diversity and in soliciting feedback in how to best do so. As such, I have suggested that perhaps your tack on handling these issues reflects what is most convenient for you, but not the actual interests of your trainees. I apologize if this is not the feedback you were looking for.

GMP said...

Hi Ambivalent, I think I owe you an apology. I know you never said I was a bigot. I guess I lost my temper amidst all this blog turmoil.

I don't know if you missed it in one of the early comments, but how I run my lab has to do a lot with my experiences as grad student and young professor. English is not my native language, and I definitely know what many of my international students are going through (see comment Anon at 9:13 PM) because I have been there. And the best way to get even for bigotry is to show them you can beat them at their own game, which means you have to learn the rules of the game.
Thanks for your comments and the links you provided, and I do appreciate the input.


To Anon at 9:13:
I heard about that particular incident from another student. My international student in question didn't say anything (he is very mellow). Eventually, I ended up letting the US student go; the reason was his mediocre performance combined with his repeated provocations of several of my international students (he was more interested in harassing my international students than doing his work, apparently). The international student in question is one of my best students, getting ready to graduate with a stellar record (and a very good command of spoken and written English). He can do anything he wants when he graduates.

How do you address when someone tells you "Go back to your country?" I think this depends on your personality. Many people just ignore it.
The most important thing is that you yourself don't believe this person has a point. You must believe that you have every right to be here: you did well in undergrad studies, passed all the required tests, were admitted by the University, you got all the paperwork necessary to legally come to study here, and you are now working hard. This makes you as qualified as anybody else to be in your graduate program. Perhaps this is what you can say when you are provoked. You have every right to be here, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. Good luck!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

And isn't it a lovely fucking coincidence that this "Trojan horse" strategy allows the privileged to tell the oppressed to just shut the fuck up, lay low, and not rock the boat--i.e., not do anything that might disturb existing power relations?

GMP said...

CPP,

Yeah, I get from Zuska's article that I am now an agent for the oppressor...

But what should I tell my students instead: you will get a job because in all fairness the world owes you one? You just get good and angry and you will get a job?

And for the last time: whoever thinks I am one of the privileged and doing this out of convenience, I am not. I am a 1st generation immigrant, English is not my 1st language. Where I got as a woman in this field and in this country was by playing by the current rules of the game. My personal clout was too small to change the rules of the game, so I decided to show "the oppressors" that I can beat them at their own game. This is what I am advocating to my students, as this is what I know to work.

Rocking a boat while having little clout will get you nowhere (except maybe wet). Once you actually are in the system you have more power to make changes.

Or alternatively my international students can remain out of the system, unemployed, and angry. But as long as they gave the oppressors' boat a good shake, I am sure they will feel great.

Isis the Scientist said...

If you write a pseudonymous blog, no one is going to know that you are an immigrant/brown/a chicken/etc. What they will read is a post that tells the foreign kids to shower and learn the language. I still may not agree with you entirely, but what you wrote in your last comment is infinitely more informative and heartfelt than the above post was.

If you're going to blog using a pseudonym, you have to remember that people don't know you're not a trained monkey unless you provide them with a point of reference.

Anonymous said...

As a newly appointed prof. at a small university in Southern Europe, I decided when starting my group (still tiny and with no foreigners) that English would be the "official" language of presentations and discussion at group meetings.

Students don't like it very much (our results in foreign language proficiency are not very good as a country) and neither do some of the older profs. in the group, but they have come to appreciate its benefits when having to deal with writing papers or going to conferences around the world (even taking into account our less than perfect command of English). So I completely understand your policy regarding language here, even if I really appreciated being able to speak my own native language now and then while I was postdoc-ing in the US.
Kind regards,

Anita

GMP said...

Anita, thanks for your comment.

I am closing comments to this post; if you have an opinion to share, please comment on the follow-up.