A Day of Remembrance

Now, I acknowledge that it was on 20 November, but I wanted to take a moment to make a note of Transgender Day of Remembrance. In 2017, 25 transgender people have been brutally murdered in the United States (according to the Human Rights Campaign). The transgender community is one of the most marginalized of the sexual minorities that I am aware of, often even marginalized by other, more dominant forces, in the broader LGBTQ+ community. It is a community that needs recognition, that needs understanding, that needs a right to a voice, and a right to peace.

This includes, of course, transgender English language learners. They deserve recognition; they deserve a place in our classrooms; they deserve affirmation. However, they are also grossly underrepresented in our research literature. They are invisible, and I’m guilty of this too. My own work has erased transgender lives by not engaging with them on theoretical or empirical grounds—and I identify (and am identified by my publications) as an LGBTQ+ ELT researcher. This leads me to question, does the field of TESOL/Applied Linguistics have a homonormative bias, akin to the heteronormative one that it has made such great strides to problematizing? There is, after all, only one study that I’m aware of that directly and in great detail engages with transgender language learners to better understand how to support learners from the community. And, that I feel, is quite an issue.

A Note to Graduate Students and Junior Faculty

So, I’m now, somewhat officially, drowning in due dates. I feel for my students now. First, a bit of housekeeping. I’m going to have to scale back on the updates here until about mid-December. I have three publication deadlines between now and 13 December. And, even though they have no bearing on my employment or my promotion, I must be sure meet them.

Now, for the note to graduate students and junior faculty: Never think it’s too late to reconnect with that old classmate or colleague. I’ve done a lot of reconnecting lately, and it’s been the most refreshing thing that I’ve done. Yes, being 13+ hours removed from most of my U.S. based colleagues is super challenging, but it’s completely worth waking up early or staying up late. I just had a brilliant conversation with my old MA classmate, Dr. Kasumi Yamazai (Japanese Studies, The University of Toledo). We talked about being junior faculty members on–and off–the tenure track. We talked about the joys of working with advanced students and commiseration that comes with talking to junior faculty members. We actually ended up developing some joint project plans together, some of which we’ll likely share here, on ALx (Re)Coded, and some of which we hope will pop-up at conferences near you. So, keep an eye out!

An Updated View on the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers

Institutions of higher learning in many countries—particularly in the English-dominant centre—are more corporatized, more diverse, and increasingly dependent on international students as “revenue generators” in financially unstable times (Tardy & Whittig, 2017, p. 1).

Those that know me know how religiously I quote Silva’s (1997) article, “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers,” because of how powerfully it speaks to the need to resist the deficit-view of L2 writers and writing. It has become a cornerstone of my professional philosophy. And, something that should, frankly, be required reading for any educator that is going to work with multilingual students. I know that I wish I could force some of my colleagues to read and critically engage with the piece. Now, ten years on, the article is really only showing its age because of how much ground the field of L2 writing has covered. Despite this, it’s still an exceptionally relevant piece.

It is still so crucial that Tardy and Whittig (2017) decided to give it a timely updating for its tenth anniversary. They updated the piece by going into each of Silva’s original four points and speaking of the advances in L2 writing and TESOL that have taken place over the past decade. While we know a lot more now, we still have some way to go as far as the ethical treatment of L2 writers. For example, Tardy and Whittig (2017) point to the need to acknowledge that the distinction between L1 and L2 can create the impression of a monolithic population where none exists; furthermore, we must train both specialist and non-specialist alike to be aware of this fact. The community of writers identified as L2 is, perhaps, even more varied than the L1 population. This variation means that L2 writing specialists must take a very nuanced approach to how we talk about L2 writing issues with our colleagues, being careful not to reinforce an oversimplified view of reality.

Granted, this is very challenging. I was invited to give a talk at a writing pedagogies institute at a university in New York. One of their staffers, a person marginally aligned with TESOL, grilled me during the welcome dinner, asking very probing and highly marginalizing questions about L2 writers. Questions like, “In your professional experience, don’t you find that the Chinese students can’t construct good sentences or paragraphs?” Beyond being insulted and not wanting to offend someone who might someday review my reappointment docket, I politely pointed out that, yes, some have this issue. But, so do some so-called native speakers. And, some first-year Chinese L2 writers are actually particularly adroit at sentence construction. Well once I wouldn’t reaffirm their deficit view of L2 writers, they were done with me and with hearing what I had to say. At least that’s the impression they gave off. And, this happens far too often. When we, as L2 writing specialists, don’t reaffirm racist, deficit views of the population with which we closely work, we begin to lose our street cred. But, to that, I must say resist and persist—for the good of the students.

Another important update that Tardy and Whittig (2017) provided was about the writing courses for English as an additional language (EAL) writers, here L2 writers. L2 writing courses must be more than mere grammar and mechanics courses. Indeed, attention to language and to the linguistic expectations of the academy are important. But, the classes we offer must be more than some remedial reading of the Bluebook of Grammar and Spelling. I, frankly, couldn’t agree more. The so-called problem for L2 writers isn’t one of not enough of something; it’s one of too much. And, like one of the X-men with too much power that accidentally destroys half of the town, our L2 writers have to learn how to wield their multilingual, multirhetorical powers in ways that will provide them access to the dominant discourses of higher education. This means that L2 writing classes should focus on helping students to first understand the expectations for written communication in the academy before moving on to making it clearer to them how they can deploy their multilingual resources to play with and to artfully break those expectations in ways that lead to even more potent meaning making with their chosen audiences. Indulge me as I return to the mutant metaphor from earlier. We as L2 writing specialists need to be more like Professor Xavier and less like Warren Worthington II, the developer of the mutant cure to turn all mutants into ordinary people—just like everyone else. That is, we have to work with our students to show them how to channel their abilities to be more effective communicators.

Perhaps the most crucial update, however, was Tardy and Whittig’s (2017) call to for all L2 writing specialists to be advocates for this student population. To resist, on their behalf, the dominant discourses of the university that continue to marginalize and to silence them. Furthermore, to be ethical advocates, we must also equip these students to, over time, become self-advocates. Note, however, that there are many pathways to advocacy. I don’t think they, or I, would suggest picketing the vice chancellor’s office—but, hey if you think that would work… Instead, this advocacy may take the form of raising the awareness of colleagues and administrators about the challenges and benefits of L2 writers and writing, or holding pedagogy development workshops or pushing for inclusive and ethical campus policies.

TL;DR: Read Silva (1997) and Tardy and Whittig (2017)!

Source material

Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31(2), 359-363.

Tardy, C.M., & Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writings: An update. TESOL Quarterly, doi: 10.1002/tesq.405


Automated Writing Evaluators (AWEs) in L2 Writing

Later today, a guest blog that I wrote for ELT Research Bites will come online. In that posting, I discuss how the Global Masters in Social Work (gMSW) program at NYU Shanghai decided to make a premium version of Grammarly available to our students free-of-charge, and I summarize a recent study that looked at student attitudes towards automated writing evaluators (AWEs) like Grammarly. In today’s blog post on Applied Linguistics (Re)Coded, I’m going to reflect a little more on AWEs and their (possible) role in L2 writing.

First, allow me to say that I was entirely in support of the gMSW program’s decision to roll out Grammarly to its students—L1 and L2 English users alike. I should also note, that I am an adjunct lecturer at the Silver School of Social Work in the gMSW program. However, I was also vocal in stating that we had to properly train students on how to integrate the AWE into their writing practice in a critical way. Far too often, students view AWEs as mere checking tools (see Cavaleri & Dianati, 2016; Reis & Huijser, 2016). Also, students have been known just to click, click, click through the suggested changes, to accept them with little thought as to how the recommended alterations might impact meaning and stylistics in their texts (ibid). Both of these practices drastically reduce the potential efficacies of AWEs—first, as learning tools; and second, as writing improvement tools. So, there are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind when scaffolding students’ use of AWEs.

For L1 and L2 writers alike, there is the need to highlight the fact that many advanced AWEs such as Grammarly, PaperRateror After the Deadline, aren’t just checking tools; they are also great learning tools. One of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Grammarly is because I can hover over a suggestion to learn more about why the AWE flagged it as a potential error. I can then see examples of other sentences with similar mistakes; and then, I can reflect on what I’ve written to decide whether or not it’s actually an error that needs to be addressed. Also, every week Grammarly sends me an email that lists my top-five errors (e.g., faulty parallelism, improper article use, etc.), which I can then use to identify a pattern of errors in my writing. After identifying the pattern, I can then begin actively to hunt them down in future writing. Both of these features are great tools for learning and not just for checking.

The second issue, however, is a much harder one to deal with. Novice writers tend to see AWEs as a silver bullet to fix their writing. I tell my students the same thing I tell early-service educators and researchers, “There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, so quit wasting your time.” The only way to improve our writing, our practice, or our research is to invest the time in it that it needs to be nurtured. This means critically reflecting on what we’re doing, the tools we’re using, and the successes and failures we’re encountering. Students must be taught to use AWEs critically. AWEs are, despite how advanced they’ve become, pretty stupid things that can only check for what they’ve been programmed to monitor for. And, even then, they’re only as good as the code that makes them run and the databases and corpora that serve as their foundations. So, you must look into all the suggestions that they make to inform your revision decisions. There are some cases where an AWE will make recommendations that actually change the intended meaning of a sentence, or that will introduce new error into the text. Likewise, there are somethings that the checker simply will not catch. So, it’ll never replace an additional set of human eyes.

I’ve been using the premium version of Grammarly for about a year, and will likely fork over the 140$ for another year. Since I’ve started using it, I’ve become more confident in my writing, and I’ve added an additional—and necessary—level of revision to my work. I actually got a compliment on my writing and style from an editor for an article that I submitted to their journal (an article that was also my first “accept with minor revisions”). But, that’ doesn’t mean that error doesn’t still creep into the writing. Clicking through the AWE doesn’t solve all the problems. It helps, for sure. But, you must always go through multiple rounds of revision and review. And, you can never replace a second set of eyes.

This post has been edited with the help of Grammarly, and I’m sure you still might find a floating error here or there that I missed because I was in a hurry to run downstairs for another cup of Starbucks.

source material

Cavaleri, M., & Dianati, S. (2016). You want me to check your grammar again? The usefulness of an online grammar checker as perceived by students. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1), 223-236.

Reis, C., & Huijser, H. (2016). Correcting tool or learning tool? Student perceptions of an online essay writing support tool at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Show Me the Learning. Adelaide, AU: ASCILITE.

Critical Applied Linguistics (CALx)

I just finished reading Alistair Pennycook’s (2001) Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction, and I must say that it gave me a great many feelings. I went from cheering in agreement to wrinkling my nose in annoyance when his confrontational writing style started rubbing me the wrong way. Now, a caveat here, I do no small amount of work in one domain of critical applied linguistics, or CALx. Specifically, I work in the area of sexuality and language teaching (Paiz, 2015, 2016, 2017). Despite my engagement, there were still places where I found Pennycook’s approach to be a bit much. Or, in the lingo of my 18-year old students. He was a bit extra.

Now, before I go further, I should state why this book occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. It mostly had to do with the tone that Pennycook took throughout the text which was, at times, confrontational—and at other times downright combative. He certainly lives his advice for the CALx research to be a restive problematizer, as it often seems very little previous work met his standards or his vision for CALx. That being said, I see the need—and agree with his call—for applied linguistics (ALx) to turn a critical eye inward. To question what it does, what it can do, and how dominant discourses in the discipline have maintained the social status quo. TL;DR: He’s combative, but he needs to be.

There is, of course, a great deal that I liked about the book. There are many passages in it that I have flagged with either “quote” or “mic drop” or “hell yeah!”—I’m an aggressive reader. For example, I agree with his assertion that part of what CALx must account for is how we are awash in power relations at a variety of levels (programmatic, institutional, disciplinary, national, etc.). Even my work in queer applied linguistics needs to better account for this. I found that when Pennycook was clearly and directly outlining the mission and viewpoints of CALx he was in rare form and it was brilliant work.

In this book, Pennycook also introduced the notion of hope to the field, even if it was in a passing way. He discusses multiple times the critiques leveled against CALx. One of the significant pushbacks against critical applied linguistics has been then it doesn’t seem to do much. It becomes paralyzed in an endless circle of hopelessness and (self-) criticism. Pennycook states that CALx must find a way to infuse hope into its work.  Hope that this work makes a difference. Hope for marginalized language learners. And, hope for practitioners and junior scholars that their work can find a space to flourish and can potentially make a difference.

I was first introduced to the notion of hope through my work with the field of social work (Green & Simon, 2012). In social work, it is seen as one of the goals of the practitioner to give hope to those who have lost it, often by speaking truth to power and advocating for those that cannot, or are not yet ready, to be self-advocates. I’ve often wondered how applied linguistics can integrate this notion of hope critically and mindfully, especially when our practitioners occasionally work with learners that are, potentially, at a delicate period in their lives or are having trouble finding a voice and a place in a new educational system. Here, I must echo Pennycook in pointing out that if we are going to import the hope construct, we must do so in a way that acknowledges the different levels of power and discourses in which a person operates. We can’t just continue to push modernist, emancipatory frames that don’t actually do what they claim to do.

To be honest, I’m still processing this book that took me over two-and-a-half weeks to read. I imagine that I’ll be processing it for a very long time to come. But, if you’re interested in having your views of the field shifted; if you’re interested in reading a book that will give you feelings, this is definitely one to add to your reading list.

Source material

Green, W., & Simon, B. L. (2012). The Columbia guide to social work writing. New York: Columbia University Press.

Paiz, J. M. (2015). Over the monochrome rainbow: Heteronormativity in ESL reading texts and textbooks. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 4(1), 77-101.

Paiz, J. M. (2016). A call to queer L2 writing. Second Language Writing News [October]. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

Paiz, J. M. (2017). Queering ESL teaching: Pedagogical and materials creation issues. TESOL Journal.

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. New York: Routledge.