By Shivan Micoo
Labourers are paid for their manual dexterity and physical strength; lawyers are paid for their rhetorical talent; and professors are paid to educate and guide young minds.
And in order for this to occur, professors must be able to communicate effectively with their students.
“You can be the smartest person, but if you can’t get the information across to students, you won’t be a good teacher,” said Neil Kelly, senior human resources consultant at Ryerson University.
A number of students in engineering have a hard time understanding some of their professors and teaching assistants, causing students such as Jason Panjikaran to find creative ways of learning independently.
“Sometimes I can’t understand a professor because they have a thick accent, so I have to do extra work. I end up looking things up online, borrowing notes and even attending other classes to make sure I understand,” said Panjikaran, a third-year electrical engineering student.
Nad Jaya, a fourth-year electrical engineer thinks that academic credentials are trumping the ability to communicate when it comes to hiring a professor.
“What I notice,” Jaya said, “is that they are hiring more and more people with PhD’s so that the university could get grant money and a better reputation.
But if these people can’t teach and transfer information to the students, then the reverse is going to happen — the university will get a bad reputation.”
Fei Yuan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, earned his PhD from the University of Waterloo and has worked hard to improve his English.
He said that even though his teaching experience was taken into consideration when he was being hired, Ryerson also placed emphasis on his research ability. Born and raised in China, Yuan said before he came to Canada, he learned English by studying hard and by “mimicking and following” the voices of American broadcasters he heard over his short-wave radio.
He also said that he continues to learn English, and that he has “about 20 dictionaries and English usage books” that he studies on a regular basis.
“If you can get a PhD then you should be able to improve your language,” said Yuan.
Carla Cassidy, dean of the faculty of arts said that after job offers are advertised, candidates go through a “rigorous” selection process conducted by bodies called Departmental Appointments Committees (DAC), which are comprised of tenured faculty.
“Teaching demonstrations” and “research talks” are also part of the hiring procedure at Ryerson, said Cassidy.
According to Hesham Marzouk, chair of the civil engineering program, each DAC member gives each candidate a mark based on how they performed in various components of the hiring practice.
The marks are then tallied and compared with the scores of other candidates. “We add numbers together and everybody submits his number and we see who is the best fit for the department,” said Marzouk.
Marzouk also said that a professor’s ability to communicate is as equally important as his/her academic credentials. But he also said language is not the biggest issue.
“The problem is beyond language,” said Marzouk. “There are some teachers who are born and raised locally that are lousy teachers. Some people have the talent and some people don’t.”
Assistant engineering professor Lian Zhao agrees, saying engineering relies on a universal language: formulas.
“For me, the language problems aren’t such a big deal like it might in social work, because engineering uses formulas, like A+B=C.” Ryerson’s Learning and Teaching Office offers a two-level English pronunciation course for professors.
The school covers the cost of the program. Director Judy Britnell said no courses are currently running, but usually six professors volunteer each term.
Britnell added that the engineering faculty specifically runs a separate program each term. For students such as Panjikaran who have to deal with a professor they can barely understand, a voluntary pronunciation course could improve the quality of her education.
“The profs here really know their stuff,” said Panjikaran. “It would be a bonus if I could understand them all the time, but right now, it just means I have to work harder.”