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.

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