Stories from
the trenches

Why do students ask questions in class that challenge my authority?

International teaching assistant, CMU-Pittsburgh

I have been a TA in Economics for two years. In my first semester teaching recitation sections, I was offended when students asked questions in class like “I don’t see how you got that answer. Don’t you have to calculate X and Y?” and “But wouldn’t it be simpler just to do X and Z?” In my country, if students are confused, they either ask the professor outside of class or figure the answer out on their own. It’s considered impertinent to ask questions in class because it implies that the instructor isn’t sufficiently knowledgeable or that he hasn’t explained the concept well. When students in the U.S. asked me questions in class, it felt like they were challenging my expertise. At first, I wondered if they doubted me because I was a TA, not faculty. Then I wondered if they questioned my abilities because I’m a foreigner. But I realized that they asked U.S. TAs and faculty the same kinds of questions. And nobody seemed bothered at all!

I understand my students’ behavior better after going to classes at the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh. The staff there explained that students in the U.S. are encouraged throughout their schooling to ask questions. It isn’t intended to be disrespectful; in fact, it’s the opposite, since asking questions indicates that students are engaged and curious. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I still have a gut-level negative reaction when students ask questions in class. That sort of thing doesn’t disappear overnight. But I remind myself that students mean no disrespect and I answer cheerfully. There are times now when I even like it.

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