Interdisciplinary Chats

Since I’ve landed at NYU Shanghai, I have been involved in crossing borders—shuttling between silos in an attempt to support student learning and advanced literacy acquisition throughout their educational experiences. When I first arrived, I was told that something that contributed to the decision to hire me, besides my background in L2 writing and TESOL, was that I had knowledge of professional and technical writing from my time leading development at the Purdue Online Writing Lab. So about three weeks into my first semester, I sat down with the dean of the Silver School of Social Work and we started developing a professional writing seminar that would provide L2 writers with a targeted opportunity to continue working on the literacy skills required to be practitioners in the field of social work. We purposefully designed the course to address linguistic and rhetorical issues, while staying away from creating a remedial grammar and writing course—a fact that I’ve felt the need to remind people of recently as leadership has changed.

During my second year, I was tasked with leading a support project to help our first-year sciences faculty better scaffold students’ acquisition of scientific literacy practices. I contributed to and supervised the development of a bank of instructor- and student-facing resources that covered topics like scientific writing best practices, common organizational patterns and genres in scientific communication, and advice for working with L2 writers in an ethical manner, as well as general guidelines for effectively providing feedback about writing.

Despite the fact that all of this disciplinary border crossing has been such a major part of my career at NYU Shanghai, I’ve got to say that I’ve just come to realize something rather profound. I enjoy engaging with people outside of my discipline. It’s thrilling to discuss teaching with others and to highlight the ways that we can complement each other when it comes to literacy acquisition and development. Sure, it can be frustrating when you feel the need to constantly (re-) justify the importance of what you do—which is helping disciplinary faculty make explicit for students what they have implicitly acquired over years of graduate study and professional engagement—but at the end of the day, I enjoy it. We tend to learn a great deal from each other. And, while there are varying degrees of engagement, just like when teaching, when I reach even just a few of my colleagues from outside my discipline, and we learn from each other about ways to improve how we teach students…well, that’s a major win in my book.

TL;DR: Escape your disciplinary silo often and talk with others about your practice. You’ll both gain something valuable from the experience.

Expat Teachers as Language Learners

The semester has begun at NYU Shanghai, and I was sitting at my desk staring out the window with a lukewarm cup of Nescafé in my hands. I had just finished reviewing a few chapters on articulatory phonetics and general phonology to prepare for my seminar the next day. And, my mind was wondering from what to read next—perhaps something for the article that I need to revise and resubmit before 1 December—to the colleague that had upset my morning flow by turning a standard greeting into a chance to vent for fifteen minutes. My thoughts were interrupted by the ping of my email inbox. So, I dragged my mind back to the present and took a look at what had arrived. Perhaps, it would be a request for more materials in class. Or Maybe, it would be an invitation to another meeting or to serve on another committee.

Luckily it was an announcement that the September issue of Asian EFL Journal was out. I try to keep up on the reading in my field; so, I browsed the T.O.C. to see if there was anything worth adding to my queue—which is finally under 30. The very first article sucked me in by the title, “Always the Other: Foreign Teachers of English in Korea, and Their Experiences as Speakers of KSL.” I immediately downloaded the article, not even bothering to vet my decision by reading the abstract. I knew I needed to read this piece.

I’ve written a few posts on this blog looking at the life of the migrant (expat) faculty member (the most recent can be found here). I write about this topic for two reasons. First, it is my current lived reality. I shuttle back and forth between China and the U.S. according to the academic calendar. Second, you don’t see that much work done in TESOL or English-facing Applied Linguistics about so-called native-speaker teachers (NESTs) acculturating to a new culture, let alone the NEST as a language learner in their own right. The relative absence of work on this topic is deafening once you realize it’s there. Seeing Grey’s (2017) entry in the Asian EFL Journal, I simply knew that I had to read it.

I can’t say that there was anything overly surprising about what Grey found. His primary finding was that the foreign teachers in his sample actively pursued L2 Korean proficiency to help them acculturate to their new country and to help carry out identity and affiliative work with the socially significant others (e.g., co-workers, friends, potential lovers, etc.). Many of his participants reported that Korean language proficiency was necessary to integrate fully into their workplaces and local communities. Also, they reported still being set apart because they did not phenotypically present as Korean or East Asian. This set them up as constantly other, especially when their interlocutors responded poorly to their linguistically facilitated performance of social identity.

I must admit that there were places where I was frustrated with Grey’s respondents. At times the simultaneously seemed to want to be integrated into Korean society and to enjoy still the rights and privileges of being outside it—and, make no mistake; all of us expats live in a bubble of privilege in our respective host nations. Said another way, they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too. But, I acknowledge that feeling. There are times that I, too, wish that I had sufficient language skill in Chinese to more fully, and smoothly, interact with my Chinese neighbours, colleagues, and peers. But, I also acknowledge that I am a guest in this country and that I will always—for better or for worse—be American and not Chinese.

What’s groundbreaking about Grey’s work isn’t his findings, which I come to expect as an expat teacher myself. What is groundbreaking is the shift in focus to the NEST as a language learner. This is something that needs so much more attention. This is made even truer when we consider his findings in relationship to teacher-training and graduate programs, which should prepare ELT professionals for the genuine possibility that they may move abroad for work. So, if you’re an expat faculty member, or you’re a teacher-trainer/MA-TESOL professor…read it, now. Assign it to your students. Discuss it. Come to terms with it. Work to extend it.

Source material.

Grey, S. (2017). Always the other: Foreign teachers of English in Korea, and their experiences as speakers of KSL. Asian EFL Journal, 19(3), 7-30.


Personal PD (Cont.): Mobile Learning in the Japanese Context

Obari, H., Goda, Y., Shimoyama, Y. & Kimura, M. (2010). Mobile technologies and language learning in Japan: Learn anywhere, anytime. In S. Levy, F. Blin, C.B. Siskin, and O. Takeuchi (eds.). WorldCALL: International Perspectives on Language Learning (pp. 38-54). New York: Routledge.


In this chapter, the authors presented the material conditions for mobile Computer-assisted Language Learning (m-CALL) in the Japanese context and explored the efficacy of mCALL implementations for English language learning. They showed that a majority of college-aged students at Japanese universities owned a mobile device (~94%) and that of these students over 60% preferred to use their mobile devices for language learning activities, ranging from lexicon expansion activities to listening comprehension activities. Based on some small-scale exploratory studies, the authors found that students, except for liberal arts students, all had marked gains in linguistic skills after experiencing mCALL interventions.


The biggest take away from this piece was that CALL interventions should meet students where they are at. Increasingly, in Asian contexts at least, this is on mobile devices while on the metro, while queued up to buy food, or even while watching TV. The prevalence of mobile devices in our students’ lives has substantial implications for how we design and implement our CALL tasks, as not every website will be immediately mobile friendly, nor will every file type be equally accessible on mobile devices. It is a critical takeaway when we consider the ubiquity of high-powered smart devices that our students use. Having said this, this chapter had many flaws that made it difficult to follow, and that decreased its potential impact. Most critically, it just tried to do too much. The authors summarized five different studies that they carried out but didn’t go into enough detail for them to be useful. They presented some charts and figures that were never fully explained, which made it difficult to see their relevance to the argument that they were trying to advance.

Personal PD (cont.): Blended Learning in Higher Ed Language Education

Now that I’m back in Shanghai, it’s time to get back to work on my TESOL Advanced Practitioner’s certificate, AKA: This year’s PD project. As promised, I’m going to continue “live” blogging my way through by first sharing the outputs of each stage of the certificate program. First, I’m compiling an annotated bibliography of readings in the area that I wish to grow in—in this case, Computer-assisted Language Learning, or CALL. Below, you’ll find the next entry. If you want to see other entries in this series, use the search box to find titles that contain “Personal PD” in them. Enjoy!

Ticheler, N., & Sachdev, I. (2010). Blended learning, empowerment, and world languages in higher education: The Flexi-Pack Project for “languages of the wider world. In S. Levy, F. Blin, C.B. Siskin, and O. Takeuchi (eds.). WorldCALL: International Perspectives on Language Learning (pp. 163-171). New York: Routledge


In this chapter, the authors explored the creation and adoption of flexi-packs, digitally delivered language learning support lessons that depended on multimodal resource delivery, and the impacts on students and teacher motivation. They argued that flexi-packs allowed educators to create a blended learning environment by deploying tools that met students in their time of need and gave students control over how they used the support resources. It should be noted, that the flexi-pack content and structure was always tied to specific pedagogical imperatives in the live classes for which they were created. The authors went on to provide an outline for what should go into an effective flexi-pack module: e.g., clear learning objectives, multi-modal, authentic resources, review material, etc. They concluded by providing a view of how flexi-packs influenced students and teachers, reporting positive results from both populations and marked positive impacts on learner motivation.


This article introduces the notion of flexi-packs as ways to give students greater control over their learning. They argue that doing so will facilitate increased student motivation in engaging with language learning. However, I fear that they missed the mark here. It’s not just about control over learning. What needs to happen with all CALL interventions is that students are guided to taking increased reflective agency over their learning. That means structuring lessons and materials in such a way that students come to understand how their eco-social environments prime them make individual choices and how this may impact learning. Students need help to become critically aware of the tools that they use to support their language learning/acquisition endeavors and how these tools will feedback into their linguistic performances in their eco-social worlds.

While I appreciate that the authors firmly grounded the creation of flexi-packs in the pedagogical imperatives of the classes that they support, I can’t help but notice the overly optimistic tone that they take towards their subject. I’m all for technologic supports for language learning—I use many myself—but there is little talk about how flexi-packs can move beyond the institution to support language learners worldwide—allowing the universities to provide a free service to their increasingly global constituents. Nor does this article adequately discuss the shortcomings of flexi-packs. For example, from my work on the Purdue Online Writing Lab, I know that students make use of these resources and feel that they have learned something, but time and again you see the misapplication of the learning in ways that produce errors. This issue is one that needs to be considered more fully in CALL research.

Personal PD (cont.): A New Perspective on My Teaching Philosophy

I’m continuing through the first activity of the TESOL Advanced Practitioner Certificate, which requires you to learn more about a particular aspect of the field. Like the previous entries show, I decided to focus on Computer-assisted language learning, or CALL. As part of my critical reflection on this sustained reading in the area of CALL, I was also required to submit a statement of teaching philosophy for English language teaching (ELT). Since my existing statements are more general, I decided to write a new one focused on ELT and highlighting a new perspective on the philosophy that drives my practice. So, this philosophy isn’t replacing the one that appeared on this site earlier in the month, but it is supplementing it and extending it. They’re both reflections of me and my teaching, but they look at it from different angles.

TESOL Teaching Philosophy

When working with L2 English students, my teaching is grounded in a tripartite framework influenced by the sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition (SLA). First, I believe that all language and learning are simultaneously social and cognitive acts. Second, I believe multilingual students have rich linguistic resources that they must learn to apply to new contexts while managing increasingly complex and diverse cognitive tools. Third, I think that working with students to co-construct knowledge, including knowledge of linguistic systems, can drive student agency and ownership of the learning process. Below, I will discuss what this philosophy looks like in my classes.

Language, as a tool and as an act, is both a social and a cognitive phenomenon. Certainly, we use language for social means–for example, to lay down a social network in a new setting. Likewise, language is also driven and governed by cognitive processes like recursive monitoring. Learning is much the same. We seek to affect mental states, but we do so through a socially negotiated process. In my classes, I strive to make this clear to my students and to help them understand the implications of this view. For example, we can talk about how social context may prime linguistic choice. For example, talking to their classmates about an assigned reading requires one register, while talking to/for a teacher about the same reading requires another. By understanding the influence of the social context on language, we can better understand when and how we can play with language.

The students in my classes are gaining in multiliterate ability every day. I work with them to highlight how this is a strength to be leveraged and not a deficit to be overcome. In my classes, we collaborate to explore how conventions of language work so that they can decide when to deploy their multilingual resources to play with those conventions to make new meaning and to better enact their social identities. In writing classes, for example, we will explore the standard conventions of a genre and how they prime us to make certain linguistic choices. Once we have command over the genre, we can seek out places where we can play with expectations to more effectively make meaning, which may include deploying a localized variety of English over which the student has command to engage in the act of linguistic creativity. First, we do; then, we play because it is in linguistic creativity that new ways of thinking in and about our ecosocial world take shape.

Finally, I firmly believe that learning is the act of co-constructing knowledge with my students. In my classes, this means that I am not the expert. I am the facilitator. I will create educational experiences, and we may encounter places where I do not have the answers. I work to show them that there is nothing wrong with not knowing. Rather, we work together and apply our various experiences, perspectives, and knowledge to come to best-fit answer to our question.