19 November 2021

Do not make professors guess a student’s childhood

I was filling in recommendation forms for students today, and was gobsmacked by this question:

English Competency: For students whose first language is not English, please rank the applicant’s ability and comment on the applicant’s English competency in the box provided below.

Wow, that’s a bad question. Wait, let me upgrade that. That’s a freaking terrible question.

Why am I only asked to assess the English competency of students “whose first language is not English”? I know a lot of students who are native speakers whose linguistic skills are not good.

More to the point, how can I possibly know what a student’s first language is?

Maybe a student will mention this to me, but probably not. It’s not in a student’s records for a class. I am quite confident it is not part of a student’s university record.

(And this was a non-optional part of a form, which is also weird, because presumably I am supposed to skip it for native English speakers?)

The only way anyone could complete this part of the form is by making assumptions. So this question is code for:

“Does this student speak with an accent?”

“Does this student’s name look European?”

“Does this person have black or brown skin?”

The question singles out some people as needing extra “assessment”, but it’s based on the recommender’s stereotypes about who a “non native English speaker” is.

If you’re going to ask a question about language proficiency, ask, “Rate this applicant’s proficiency in communication” for every single applicant. Don’t even mention the language. Because there are some people who will never speak English who should be afforded the opportunity to have an education. (I’,m thinking of people who sign, for one.)

Update, 23 November 2021: In this case, a happy ending! The program changed the question so that every recommender is simply asked to comment on language skills for every applicant.

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