Wed, Sep 12, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Requirements and ‘good education’

By Emilio Venezian

In 1953, when I registered as a frosh in the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University, I had to take a large number of required courses, plus a course on English as a second language (ESL) because I was not born in an English-speaking country.

That left only one course I could choose myself that had to be in the arts or sciences. I chose French 100, because it was one of the two first-year courses that fit into my schedule. I also asked to be exempted from ESL courses since my grades from the provincial high-school leaving examination were well above average.

The request was denied. I had to take ESL at the same time that I took English 100. My request for French was also denied: My high-school leaving exam grades were so high that I would learn nothing in the course.

I then applied to take French 101, but that was also denied, because I had not taken French 100. I ended up taking Invertebrate Biology, the only course available to me.

I think that gives me some qualification to comment on the article “Students protest language aptitude test requirement” (Sept. 8, page 3). I can add to my qualifications my having spent 10 years teaching courses in English at a number of universities in Taiwan.

“It is illogical to impose a rule that students may not attend remedial courses unless they have failed an exam” might be a valid complaint if prerequisites are considered. If students are required to take courses taught in English — as they are at many universities, especially at the graduate level — then some proficiency in English is needed.

Why should students not be allowed to take a remedial course in English if they so desire?

One argument against that would be that if “zero-credit courses” are abolished, lazy students could malinger on the exam to be allowed to add many courses about subjects in which they are already proficient to avoid learning and, in the process, over-burdening the faculty.

A similar case arises in science courses that require a basic knowledge of mathematics. If students are not allowed to take remedial courses that will teach them this basic knowledge, then students will pressure the instructor to dumb down the course, with the threat that if they do not do so, the teaching evaluations will be bad and the instructor will have to find another job. The result is a flimsy education.

I have been exposed to many students who, when asked a question, reply: “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” in Chinese, but when I ask whether they did not understand the question, did not understand the English or did not understand the subject matter, they are at a loss and repeat the same refrain, even if I ask another student to translate my questions into Chinese. Without a coherent answer, it is difficult to find a way to help the student learn.

I have also been in the position of being assigned to teach the second half of a course after someone else has taught the first half. It took more than two lectures before a student said that the first half had been taught in Chinese, so she was at a complete loss because she did not understand the technical words in English.

Again, not a good way to provide a good education for the money that is being collected.

I was exempted from English 100 before the end of the first trimester and when I told my teacher that the department was still adamant that I should continue the ESL course (“rules are rules,” after all) she fought successfully to relieve me of the obligation.

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