May 2012
Liz Tummons, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA

In the past, our ITA program has had varying levels of success using conversation partners and conversation hours as an opportunity for our students to practice their speaking and listening skills. For example, we recruited members of the university’s retirees’ association and found retired faculty provided excellent conversation partners. The students paired with them felt the depth and breadth of their conversations really helped them improve both speaking and listening. However, despite efforts over several semesters, it was difficult to recruit more than a few volunteers each semester.

We have had more luck recruiting undergraduates from programs such as International Studies, but if the chemistry is not right between the conversation partners or if the semester gets busy, they often stop meeting after the first or second time.

When we used conversation hours, we generally had more internationals than native speakers. When they clumped together in groups, usually one international took on most of the conversation responsibilities while more passive students might not have been actively involved.

Of course, the final problem was what to talk about. The retired faculty enjoyed discussing research, teaching, and the American classroom, but it was much more rare for undergraduates to go beyond conversational basics.

In the past year and a half, we have started using a new model that we call roundtables. For a typical roundtable we recruit 6 to 12 volunteers from a campus organization to come and speak about their organization’s specialty. We divide the volunteers into six or more stations, each with a slightly different focus. When our students arrive, they spend 7 to 10 minutes at one station and then rotate to the next.

For example, volunteers from the university’s undergraduate student government formed eight stations. We suggested topics to them in advance, but they had input as well. The volunteers were able to pick a topic that they were interested in and knowledgeable about. Topics included fraternities and sororities, dating, homecoming, and tailgating.

The conversations are usually quite lively―much more so than those we had previously in conversation hours. I believe this is because the volunteers are experts and have a lot to say on their topic in a short period. Instead of searching for answers, volunteers respond to our students’ questions enthusiastically. On the flip side, our students get a lot of cultural information from volunteers who have thought a great deal about the topic.

One of my favorite roundtables occurred when undergraduates with disabilities shared their experiences. Each volunteer talked about his or her disability and the modifications and resources needed to be successful in the classroom. Several of our students left saying they felt inspired by the people they had met.

We invited Black undergraduate students to share as well. Their dialogue was extremely candid. They shared general information as well as their specific experiences with overt and subtler acts of racism. They explained the events and the significance of an upsetting event on campus now termed the “cotton ball incident.” Although it occurred in 2010, this event has shaped much of the dialogue about racism and discrimination on our campus.

In addition to cultural learning opportunities, we teamed with undergraduates from the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) and used the same roundtable format to run three pronunciation workshops: a vowel workshop, a consonant workshop, and consonant cluster workshop.

NSSHLA volunteers have been especially enthusiastic. Most had never worked with adults or in the field of accent modification, so the roundtables have been excellent confidence builders for them and have opened them up to a field they had not really considered before.

The roundtable program does require more administrative work throughout the semester compared to a conversation hour or conversation partner program. In order for undergraduate leaders to round up their volunteers, we have occasionally had to postpone a workshop. Also, some student organizations have been unresponsive. The key seems to be finding good undergraduate student leaders―whether or not they belong to a student organization―and cultivating relationships with them. Though it takes time and effort, the program is definitely worthwhile in light of the quality of cultural information received and the attitude of both the volunteers and our international students.

Liz Tummons is the ITA Program Coordinator at the University of Missouri. Because of her K-12 background and her interest in math and sciences, she is generally curious about a lot of things.