The Current Threat to TESOL

After much thought about staying silent, I have decided that I simply cannot. Before I begin, however, understand that these views are solely my own. What I will say here about TESOL as a discipline, and as a part of applied linguistics, are my interpretation of this professional community based on my understanding of the various official position papers that it has put out over the years. These interpretations have been scaffolded by my interactions with other members of this community of practice.

This past weekend, it’s been impossible to escape news of the growing chaos that is being created in the United States; the chaos that has been created—for whatever reasons—by what appears to be an ill-prepared new administration. An administration that is at its best well-intentioned but misguided and at its worst…I’ll let others speculate about its worst intentions. The chaos I’m referring to here doesn’t touch on the invocation of the Mexico City Policy that limits funding to NGOs that take approaches to sexual health advocacy that isn’t in line with the new administration’s beliefs. The chaos here refers to the recent presidential executive order severely restricting refugee resettlement and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries; this order has come to be known as the Muslim ban in the press. On some superficial level, this executive order is tied to protecting American citizens from terrorist attacks. On a deeper level, there are other possible readings. Personally, I feel that none of them are positive.

It has been read as misguided by some and outright racists by others. No matter what, it paints the United States in a negative light, and as an applied linguist and TESOL practitioner, I cannot remain silent on this issue, and none in this profession should. This executive order cuts at the very foundation of the TESOL profession. TESOL, which is one part of applied linguistics, has always been accepting of diversity of thought, of belief, of linguistic practice. And, it has often sought to advocate for those in disadvantaged positions, in places of power under. In the 1960’s as African-American students were being disadvantaged in the educational system applied linguists testified in Midwestern courts that these students should not be viewed as deficient and treated as less than on the basis of their “bad English.” Rather, the English that they spoke was African-American Vernacular English, and it was governed by its own set of rules of syntax, grammar, and usage. This became codified as position statements on students’ right to their own language and was picked up by that National Council of Teachers of English, with a version of it being taken on as a position statement by TESOL International. Their position reports on language variation and on African-American Vernacular English can be found here. I, therefore, maintain that in light of this thoughtless executive order TESOL professionals must once again stand as advocates. Not just for their students from the affected regions, but for our global colleagues as well.

I’m having an intense reaction to this problem not just because I feel it flies in the face of my professional ethics, but also because I feel that it imperils higher education in America. I say this because American institutions have increasingly come to rely on tuition dollars from international students to help offset increasing cutbacks in federal and state education budgets. International students are an important part of the financial well-being of many American and Western universities. And, given this administration’s signals about how it views education, this population becomes even more necessary. However, money doesn’t matter in this issue. It’s tertiary at best. The biggest problem is that American universities’ greatest human resource is being threatened with actions like this. International students add so much to the educational experiences in American schools. They bring with them not only diverse linguistic practices, but also unique worldviews; and, when they are in mainstream classrooms, the domestic students benefit greatly from their presence and from their sharing of their experiences and their beliefs. When many Americans may never leave their home region, this is an invaluable experience that cannot be reproduced in any other way short of studying abroad, which is out of reach for many lower- and working-class college students. This executive order can also influence international enrollments from countries not even directly named in it. This effect is realized when students and their parents begin to question if America is really the best place for their students to study when Australia might be closer, Canada might be more progressive, and the UK offers a gateway to the rest of Europe. Why come to America? Where there may be danger of violence? Or, there might be an unwelcoming population? This can create a dangerous feedback loop that can further damage American higher education and diminish our abilities to prepare our students to join a globalized workforce. And, speaking frankly, there is no going back. Our students will be competing in a global job market even if America decides to adopt an isolationist, protectionist foreign policy.

Also, this executive order threatens the professional of TESOL and the field of applied linguistics. These blanket bans, which I can’t help but to see as racially and religiously motivated, are keeping talented scholars from sharing their work at major international conferences (which are often hosted on US soil). It’s preventing them from coming to American universities as visiting scholars. And, more importantly, it’s preventing them from being able to take jobs at U.S. universities, thereby adding to the institution’s and the discipline’s diversity. This is a pity because there’s some truly amazing work coming out of some of the affected nations. Iranian scholars, for example, have been carrying out lots of research into second language (L2) writing. This work significantly adds to disciplinary understanding of the phenomenon and offers new teaching best practices. And, the work of these scholars is breaking ground in under-explored areas in the discipline, like L2 writing in K-12 contexts.

A Last Look at being a Migrant Academic

It’s fitting that today is the last day of examining life as a Migrant Academic—that is, one that works in a country outside of their country of origin. The reason that it feels fitting is that today I’ll begin packing for the trip back to Shanghai. This is the hardest part of being a migrant academic. During semester breaks, so about twice a year, I come back to the U.S. and spend a bit of time with “my boys.” My boys here meaning my little 4-year old Pomeranian-Shetland mix—a real lazy sort—and my husband—an engineering sort. These times are nice because we spend some real quality time together, and we do our best not to take that time for granted. But, and this will stay true no matter how many times I make this trip over the coming years, leaving will always be hard. Certainly, I’ll be happy to be back at work, back in the classroom, and back to teaching. I do really love my job. But, the temporary goodbyes can be a bit affectively draining. There’s a reason for our madness; a reason why I trade my country for his and he trades his country for mine. It’s all about attempted longer term career planning.

If you’re thinking about whether the migrant academic’s life is for you, I’d say take a risk and go for it. Speaking from my experience, it’s been horribly rewarding both personally and professionally. I’ve done things because of this experience that I would never have done otherwise. I’ve gained invaluable experiences, ones that I hope will aid me on whatever my long-term career path might be. If you do decide on this career path, know that you’ll want to learn how to roll with the punches and that you’ll want to be open to new things. Many early career academics are told to learn how to say no. I would say as a migrant academic you need to learn how to say yes. Say yes to new experiences. Say yes to cross-departmental collaborations. Say yes to that one extra conference every year. Say yes to taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy. You’d be surprised what comes up.

Finally, make sure that you take time for self-care. Often, when finishing our graduate programs, we’re so focused on our theses or dissertations and on trying to publish and to play the game. We completely neglect our self-care. Perhaps, we think we’re too busy to go to the gym; or, our student health plan doesn’t cover mental health visits. If you choose to be a migrant academic, you must attend to care of the self. If you don’t, it’s going to be a rubbish experience, and you’re going to flounder professionally. No matter where you move, make sure that you have options for self-care, and that includes mental health, an oft-ignored area of our personal health and wellness.

Another Look at Being a Migrant Academic

On Monday, I spent time discussing the personal aspects of being an applied linguist that is also a migrant academic, or an academic that has moved from their home country to another country for work. In today’s post, I’m going to focus on the professional aspects of being a migrant academic.

Professional Challenges

I work for NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学), which is a Sino-American joint venture (SAJV) university. Now, the joint venture university is a relatively new beast. There are very few of us that are degree granting and in full operation (e.g., NYU Shanghai, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Wenzhou-Kean University). Because we’re so new, this means that we’re often in Start-up mode. Now, like a tech start-up, there’s a flurry of activity and changes happen from moment-to-moment as we attempt to find our stride and the policies and procedures that work best for our school, students, faculty, and staff. Being a start-up also means that there’s a lot of administrative work that needs to be done. And at times, these administrative tasks can feel like they’re encroaching on your regular work of teaching or researching…or even of administering other areas. It can be a real challenge to keep up with it all. There are days where it can take a considerable amount of energy to keep up with the changes and the attempt to be an active change agent.

However, in this challenge comes great opportunity. Working through the challenges of start-up gives you the opportunity to affect positive change and to be a part of setting the direction for the university. Also, being a start-up means that the argument “that’s the way it’s always been done” no longer holds any water. But, one of the best possible benefits of this challenge is that the experience can help you to become an agile academic—one who can quickly adjust meet the changing needs of the university. Agility is a vital skill for a faculty member to have, especially when many American universities are facing a wall of changes.

Another professional challenge, although this may vary from one institution to another, can be access to resources. If you’re working for an SAJV, this means things like the Great Firewall (防火长城) are a reality in your daily life. This means that you may need to adjust your schedule to make sure that you have access to resources for research—perhaps you can only access certain library materials on the school intranet. It may also mean that you must be creative in seeking out alternative methods of acquiring resources. For example, learning how to gain access to, and make use of, national research databases like the Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure (中国知网). Or, perhaps it means using an institutional VPN. But, VPNs go down, Infrastructure credentials can expire, and it can be a sunny day that you don’t want to spend in the office. You just get to learn how to be extra creative, which is fantastic because you end up expanding your professional repertoire in exciting ways.

Professional Opportunities

My work with NYU Shanghai has brought about many, many professional opportunities. And, I am so very grateful. Now, I understand that what I might discuss in the follow paragraphs may not apply to all cases or all institutions, but I want to share some of the professional opportunities that this position has brought about for me. In doing so, I hope it highlights some of the possibilities that exist.

Working for NYU Shanghai has been a professional boon. There are so many things that I’ve gotten to do by working for them that I don’t think I would have gotten to do otherwise—from supporting writing across the curriculum to designing new courses, to mentoring para-professional staff, it’s just been amazing. So, here are a few of the most memorable opportunities.

Being in Asia means that you have relatively cheap airfare to a host of other countries. At this point, you may be thinking, “that’s great for travel.” And, you’re right. It is perfect for travel, which means it’s ideal for tapping into a vibrant regional professional community. I can safely say that I wouldn’t have the chance to get to know so many energetic TESOL professional from places like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Japan if it weren’t for being so close to other TESOL conferences. Yes, big-T TESOL in the U.S. has an international draw, but sometimes it’s too big, and it feels centered on the Americas. But, the regional TESOL conferences like CamTESOL in Phenom Pehn are much more accessible, and you get to learn about great work being done in a wider range of national contexts. It’s been amazing.

At NYU Shanghai, I’ve also gotten to design and teach two new courses. This is stimulating intellectual labor that requires you to critically apply what you learned during your pre-service coursework. And, sometimes, it may require you to work collaboratively with other units on campus. For example in Fall 2015, I started working with the Silver School of Social Work to design a professional writing seminar for some of their students. This allowed me to be an advocate for L2 English students, and to apply my knowledge of writing and rhetoric to a new context. I’ve taught that course twice now, and it’s been a thrill a minute. In Spring of 2016, I designed a course on language variation and identity for Perspectives on the Humanities series of classes. Through this course, I got to introduce a group of students to World Englishes, showing them that American and UK English aren’t the only Englishes out there. There’s a whole world of variety that requires us to be open to and accepting of diverse linguistic practices. Also, through this course, I was able to find a small group of students to engage in scholarly collaborations. A group of my students and I are working on a World Englishes analysis of queer identities in Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom. We hope to add in a bit of a queer Marxist reading as well. Currently, we’re attempting to present a draft version at the International Association of World Englishes in New York this summer, and we hope to send an article treatment to the Minnesota Review in the fall. It’s very exciting to work with such passionate students because they draw out your own passion in return.

There is a host of other professional opportunities that NYU Shanghai has helped to create for me. But, I won’t go on anymore. I will say, however, being a migrant academic can open many doors that you never even considered. It’s a very challenging, very rewarding experience.

Come back on Friday as I wrap up this week’s series by talking about some considerations to bear in mind if you want to pursue the path of the migrant academic. Cheers!

A Look at Being a Migrant Academic

One of the great things about being an applied linguist, especially one that specializes in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), is that it gives you unique access to the global job market. This is because of the wide-spread use of English as a lingua franca, or mutual language, in several sectors like diplomacy, business, and science. Certainly, the global spread of English is not without issue. However, this week, I’m going to focus on what life is like as a migrant academic. Here a migrant academic will refer to those of us who are engaged in academic labor in universities that are not housed in our home countries. This term is being used in place of terms like ex-pat faculty, which carries a certain Western bias, or international academic, as the modern academic is often publishing and presenting at international conferences and teaching students from all over the world. All academic now have the potential to make a global impact. Migrant academics, however, have decided to move to a new country for a work appointment. In some cases, this may be because of a wish to live in a place, or to carry out research in a given national context. Or, it could be because employment opportunities have contracted in their home countries.

This week, I’ll be using my own experiences to discuss life as a migrant academic. I plan on speaking frankly, sharing the opportunities, risks, challenges, and rewards. Understand, that these are based on my personal experiences, and are by no means representative. Allow me to begin by contextualizing my experiences.

In 2015, I was wrapping up my Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics/Second Language Studies at Purdue University. I had applied to about 75 tenure-track, non-tenure track, and administrative positions. By April of 2015, I had received a few campus visits—for director positions—and two job offers. Both of my job offers were for Sino-American joint venture (SAJV) universities. After much thinking, I decided to join the faculty of my current institution, NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学). NYU Shanghai is a start-up SAJV university in the heart of the financial district of Shanghai. This spring, I’ll start my fourth semester on staff. Since I’ll be returning to the office in a few days, I’ll start by focusing on the personal aspects of being a migrant academic.

Personal Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest opportunity is that for personal growth and development. I moved to Shanghai about a day-and-a-half after I walked across the stage at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. My mom, step-dad, sister, and fiancé were there. Granted, my partner and I were working on about three hours’ sleep because of travel delays. I remember shaking hands with Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue when he asked me what was next. I told him I was off to Shanghai for work and he responded, “That’s so cool!” Yeah, it is freaking cool!, I thought to myself as I walked down the stairs to watch the rest of the very long commencement ceremony.

However, two days later and in the grips of the sultry Shanghai summer heat, I was having second thoughts. I had forgotten to pack deodorant; couldn’t find it in any stores, and had gotten stuck on Line 2 of the Shanghai Metro during rush hour. And, my broken Chinese wasn’t helping, as I was asking store clerks for auto air freshener instead of antiperspirants. I was tired, didn’t smell that fresh, scared of what the future might hold, and missing my partner. I was ready to just go back to the U.S. and be a stay-at-home dad.

However, I stuck it out, navigated the Shanghai rental market and immigration bureaucracy, and started a new job. And, with that, the first bit of personal growth began to take hold…I was becoming more patient with different ways of doing things. I also developed a bit of a sense of humor. Being able to laugh at the minor travails and my linguistic slip-ups. These, I will say, are some of the most significant bits of being a migrant faculty member, patience and a good sense of humor. I’ve heard others complain that “Things are so different!” Yes, yes they are. That’s half the fun. Do things take longer at the bank? Yes, but that’s a superb time to catch up on reading…or Candy Crush. You do you. Do the tacos taste more like the idea of tacos with Chinese-flavors? Sure, do. But, shou zhua bing (手抓饼) is a tasty alternative—and Taco Bell is back in Shanghai. Certainly, things can get frustrating. However, making new friends with different perspectives on life and world events helps you to critically think about your worldviews.

Another great opportunity is to work on acquiring a new language—or to dust off one that you haven’t gotten to use in a while. I know that my Chinese has improved drastically since moving to China, especially since I have a few friends who either speak very little English or who are more comfortable conversing in Chinese. This required me to become more comfortable with taking risks and with failing. But, it’s led to an increase in my strategic communicative skills, like relying on various Sociocognitive tools (dictionaries, body language, etc.). There will be days where you just can’t even. There are days when I’m tired and frustrated with life and just “can’t Chinese.” But, binge watch a show, sleep in, walk along the Bund and try again tomorrow. Now, the downside of this is that when I come home for long stints my Chinese atrophies…making each new term feel like I’m starting over in Chinese.

There are, however, challenges. I’m about 8,000 some odd miles away from my family and my small dog. There are days, many, that I miss them terribly. There are times that I worry that I’m missing out on their whole lives. But, being this far apart forces us to be more appreciative of the time that we spend together when I’m in the U.S. It means that we take greater advantage of our time together. It also forces us to not take that time for granted. There are some payoffs. Two apartments mean that when we’re apart, we can each keep the house the way that we like—neat and tidy for him, a bit more chaotic for me. It also means that we can focus more on our careers while we’re apart, and concentrate more on our relationship when we’re together.

I’ll be honest. On the personal front, being a migrant academic is very challenging. There are days when you question if you made the decision. But, the possibility for personal growth, for linguistic development, for new experiences. It’s great. It really is. Don’t get me wrong. My husband and I are keeping an eye towards the future. But, for the time being, we’ve found a way that seems to work for where we are in our relationship and in our careers. It’s been very, very rewarding.


ALx (Re)Coded Update Schedule

Since I’ll be returning to work soon, it’s time to decide a more sustainable update schedule. Since I’ll be teaching on Tuesdays and Thursdays, this blog will now update on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Thanks for reading!