An opinion piece we recently published online and in the August-September print edition has garnered much feedback (12 comments online to date, which is a fair amount for us, a specialty higher-education publication in Canada). The article had the innocuous headline, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” but the subhead gave more of a flavour of what it was about: “ESL students and the erosion of higher education.”
The article, by professors Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney respectively of Thompson Rivers University and Simon Fraser University, recounts their frustration teaching students with poor English-language skills – typically English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students – or students whose “academic or cultural preparedness is not up to speed.” The presence of these students in the classroom “fundamentally changes teaching and learning, to the detriment,” they write. “Instead of engaging students in disentangling the nuances and subtleties of a particularly important passage from the assigned readings, one begins speaking to the class as one might speak to academically challenged teenagers.” Ouch.
Editor Peggy Berkowitz and I knew the opinion piece would be controversial. I must admit I was a bit squeamish about publishing it. But we felt the authors were sincere in what they were saying and had grievances that deserved to be aired and discussed. Universities in Canada are increasingly seeking to attract foreign students to come study in Canada and it is important that these students have the resources and support they need to succeed.
Several readers, not surprisingly, didn’t see it that way, calling the piece variously “xenophobic,” “utterly ignorant” and a “thinly veiled racist rant.” They’re entitled to their views. But what disappointed me was the suggestion by some that we should never have considered publishing it. This inclination to want to prevent uncomfortable views from being aired is unbecoming of the academic community. There was nothing in the piece, to our minds, that should have prevented it from being published. It was a judgment call, sure, but that’s what editors do.
Some who did find it objectionable nevertheless said they would use it as a “teachable moment” in their classroom, which strikes me as appropriate in the academic context. As well, some who did not quite agree with the views expressed by the authors did give them the benefit of the doubt. “I think certainly that we can listen to their frustrations without disparaging their institutions, their credentials, or their achievements,” wrote one commenter. And, in general, the conversation within the comments section has been quite edifying and deepened the conversation – which is ideally what one would hope for.
Some even congratulated us:
— Alex Usher (@AlexUsherHESA) August 8, 2013
As a final note, readers may be interested to know that we did in fact censor ourselves by refusing to publish one comment about the article. Our main reason was that the comment seemed rather extraneous to the main issues raised by the opinion piece. There was also one particular phrase about “lower level cultures” which we felt was indeed borderline racist. I think we made the right call.
Editor’s note: The headline of the opinion piece referred to above, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus,” was incorrect in the original version of this blog post. It has been corrected.