TakeruK wrote:There is a difference between a necessary ability for the job and an ability that we often associate with a job but incorrectly attribute it to being necessary. I think this is the difference between the exterminator example and the speaking example. The accent example is harder because we might be thinking of different "levels" (so to speak) of accents when we use this example. So let's use an example that is a little more concrete:
Although English is my only truly fluent language, I have a bit of an accent where my "th" sounds like a "d" sometimes (e.g. "that" might sound like "dat" and "this" sounds like "dis" to someone who just met me). In a presentation class, the instructor (not a faculty member or an academic) suggested to me that I should go to speech therapy because my accent makes me sound childish to American ears. No one in academia has ever said this to me before, because I think if a decision was made on whether or not I "sounded" childish, then it would be discrimination. Sure, it takes a little bit more work for a listener to distinguish some of the words I'm trying to say (e.g. "bar" vs "ball"), it doesn't actually impede the ability of a student in my class to learn. I also agree that there are things I can (and should) do to help the students understand me, such as writing the word / drawing a diagram on the board or using it in context where it's clear that it's "bar" instead of "ball". But when I said there's nothing I can do, I meant about my speech itself. Sorry, but "speaking slower" and "enunciate" doesn't help---believe me, I've tried doing this for over 20 years now. I do agree that the other stuff suggested (check for understanding, repeating things) is what should be done, and that's what I do. So, I think as long as someone with an accent, lisp or other speech impediment is still able to convey the subject matter, they should not be disadvantaged for any job offer. Otherwise, you're just preferring one accent (or the lack thereof) over another.
My first point is not that schools shouldn't use ability to communicate as a criteria for hiring a TA, instructor, professor etc. My point is that schools should be more careful to distinguish between actual ability to perform a job (this is fine, as in the exterminator example) vs. a preference in the way a person speaks, whether it's with a certain accent or not (this is discrimination). As long as an instructor with an accent can still do their job effectively, it shouldn't matter that they don't sound the same as other people.
My second point is that schools sometimes are not acting fairly in the way they screen for people who are unable to perform the communication requirements of the job. Unconscious bias exists, and I think we all have an easier time hearing accents that are closer to our own. My opinion is that, except for cases where there is no communication ability at all, there are other ways for someone to still develop oral communication ability while working as a TA. After all, this is a school, it's a place of training! At my school, if you don't pass the language screening when you first arrive, then you take remedial evening English conversation classes and until you finish that, your TA work is grading-only and responsibilities for teaching in front of the class is slowly added.
EDIT: I realized I misunderstood parts of your argument, so my post is arguing something you never claimed. In fact, you clearly stated it in "My first point is not that schools shouldn't use ability to communicate as a criteria for hiring a TA..." My bad. Guess this doesn't look good for my communication skills. I'll still keep the original post though:
I don't think many people would disagree with your point saying "As long as an instructor with an accent can still do their job effectively, it shouldn't matter that they don't sound the same as other people." But what does doing their job effectively entitle? In reality, I doubt schools care much about how well someone can speak as a TA as much as how well they can speak within the department. Physics is a VERY collaborative field, and so clear communication is important. To give an example, an assistant professor from my university, who was from North America and thus didn't have an accent, was not given tenure. A big complaint against him at the time was that he couldn't communicate his ideas well, even though speaking English wasn't an issue.
Even I, who was raised in a Spanish Speaking household and can speak it fluently (for the most part), have an incredible amount of trouble explaining my research to my family in Spanish even after dumbing it down, and I can't imagine describing it in the detail needed if I were to speak to a professor. It's not so much a matter of "accent" and that they can't speak clearly (which is what you seem to focus on), but more that they can't "communicate" clearly, in that they can't find the right words or write down a coherent sentence. This is a major issue, and one that can't be fixed with single semester of classes. And, unfortunately, students cheat on exams in order to circumvent these requirements.