Throwing Ideas into the Ether

I’ve been home for a week now, and it’s been a comfortable life. I must admit that one of the most challenging parts of being a migrant academic with a 9-month teaching load is keeping myself disciplined and still working during the summers. It’s so tempting to just take the dog to the park, play Mass Effect Andromeda or watch Star Trek: The Original Series on infinite loop.

Granted, for the first week, I’ve kept myself busy preparing to sit for the Praxis exams in the hopes of getting my Maryland state teaching license (for a possible career move), working on grant applications, and carrying out revisions to hopeful publications. Oh, and reading. Let’s not forget that any academic worth their salt—and this includes applied linguists—must read and read a lot.

And, I must admit that I am heartened to see one of our professional organizations take such a sustained and multi-angle interest in LGBT+ issues in the field. TESOL International has run some LGBT+ focused newsletter articles for their various interest sections lately, and both TESOL Journal and TESOL Quarterly have had some great articles coming out/in-press on the topic. To quote Martha Stewart, “It’s a good thing.”

I was reading a recent article in the Social Responsibility-IS newsletter that got me to thinking more. In this article (link below), Kelly and Lewis (2016) discuss four avenues for queering the classroom. It’s their final one, “include topics of sexual literacy”, that I think is the most interesting. It’s interesting because it speaks to material creation issues, which I’ve written about in the past (Paiz, 2015, 2016, in press). Kelly and Lewis go one step further, they start recommending materials that the reader might find useful to queering the classroom.

So, this brings me to the idea. We need a—you guessed it—curated, web-based repository of queer teaching materials and lesson plans appropriate for ESL/EFL students. This pool of resources could include summaries of publicly available materials and how educators have used them in their own classes, scaffolds to make the materials linguistically appropriate/accessible to language learners, and (best of all) teacher created materials with a reflection of how the teacher tailored the content to their institutional context. This could be a massively useful resource and allow us to point early service teachers and those that are new to queering the classroom towards a concrete bank of trusted ideas, best practices, and suitable materials. It’s grant writing time!!! Whose going to join me in making this thing come to life?

Source Materials

Kelly, M., & Lewis, A. (2016, June). Creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQIA ESL students. TESOLers for Social Responsibility. Accessible from: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolsris/issues/2017-06-07/5.html

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, October). A call to queer L2 writing. SLW News. Accessible from: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolslwis/issues/2016-10-14/3.html

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

Queer Voices: NYU Shanghai Discussion Follow-up

Last month, I shared a follow-up on a conversation that I was part of for the NYU Shanghai Teaching and Learning Conversation series about equity and diversity. That talk continued with a thrilling conversation with one of my colleagues, which led to me and her being invited to give a moderated discussion on the topic queer issues in higher education in front of the Queer and Ally Society at NYU Shanghai.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to offer a rejoinder to that conversation. Both my former posts and my publication history (Journal of Language and Sexuality and SLW News) point to the fact that I am in favor of queering the classroom. I believe, and have stated elsewhere, that queering the classroom is important because it 1) makes the classroom more accessible to all students; 2) it lays bare the ways that dominant discourses make available different identity options for learners; and, 3) it equips students with a critical framework to apply to inquiry in other domains.

In the moderated discussion, my colleague, Dr. Pandavar, took a stand against queering the classroom for a number of reasons, some of which required digging through a layer of logical fallacies or contradictory thoughts. Here are my responses to the most salient issues that she pointed out.

Teachers need to be 100% present in an unbiased way.

On its surface this seems like an agreeable claim. It comes from a good place. The heart of this idea is that teachers need to be there to teach and to do so in ways that are welcoming to all students. However, if you dig deeper, this isn’t just untenable; it’s a fantasy. It’s unrealistic because teaching is an ideologically fraught act, and we teachers are products of our educational heritage and our lived histories. Like it or not, we bring that to the classroom with us. It informs our pedagogies. It shades our linguistic choices. It guides our classroom management. There’s no way to be 100% present in an unbiased way.

Rather, we can be forthcoming with our students about who we are as teachers, about the ideologies that prop up our pedagogies. Moreover, we can purposefully trouble our own practice by working to include disparate perspectives in our teaching, creating not only a voice for those that may be marginalized by our ideological biases but also showing the value of queer pedagogy as one that actively seeks to trouble all identities and their relationship to various discourses. This move can show students how to actively seek perspective in their own lives in order to avoid living in an echo chamber.

We can just follow-up with students who make marginalizing/othering comments.

This would be great if the follow-up actually happened. Too often it doesn’t. Too often, we segue to a different topic for discussion. Or, even worse, we actively seek to avoid controversy in the classroom—we keep it vanilla. Other times, we condemn the negative behavior and move on. This can also be silencing and othering in its own way.

The follow-up needs to happen and it needs to happen in a way that models respectful disagreement for the students—in ways that show them how to be mindful members of the learning community. Doing this can help students to become comfortable with uncomfortable situations and conversations, equipping them to become more effective advocates for self and for others, and more skillful language users. These two goals—modeling respectful disagreement and getting comfortable with discomfort—can also be facilitated through a purposeful queering of the classroom in such a way that alternative perspectives are given voice and then troubled, as we do with all perspectives and all identities in queer approaches.

Queering the classroom is just about identity politics.

No, no its not. It may have its roots in identity politics. But, to say that queering the classroom is all about sexual identity, is to say that queerness is just about “altnerative” forms of sexual desire and expression. It’s more than that. It’s about equipping students to critically trouble normative discourses, helping them to see the identity options that are created, made available, and policed by these discourses, and how to respectfully standup for self and other.

In closing, the moderated discussion was a delightful experience, even if my eyes shot wide a few times, as it became clear that my colleague was playing to the crowd at certain moments. It certainly led to new ideas on my end about what queering the classroom should actually look like.

Assessing Teachers with Student Evaluations

I’m writing today’s posting in response to a recent Inside Higher Education essay arguing against nontenured/tenure-track faculty being assessed based on student evaluations. You can find the original article here.

To summarize, Robert Samuels (Lecturer, UC Santa Barbara) argues that in this politically charged time, where anything but perceived neutrality can be seen as marginalizing the opposition, there is a need to move away from using student evaluations of a course to assess the faculty member teaching the course and to determine matters of promotion, renewal, and pay increases. He ties his argument mostly matters of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and job security. As a non-tenure track faculty member, I’m inclined to agree. What I disliked about this article, however, is how little of it focuses on real solutions, which is why articles like Chronicle Vitae‘s “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere” keep cropping up from time to time.

Allow me to say that I do appreciate my students’ feedback. I often use it to make online and next-semester-oriented changes to the course to deliver better instructional experiences and to give the students what they feel that they need, as tempered by my understanding of learning as a researcher and educational expert. And, I am fine with them being a part of a triangulated approach to evaluating my work for consideration of promotion, reappointment, and annual pay increases. However, I feel that they need to be just one part of that review process and that they should be weighted in a way that acknowledges the students’ subject position and their relative position on the cline of higher education experience.  So, what does triangulated assessment for nontenure-track faculty look like? Here’s one possibility, and in some places, I’ll be expanding on Samuels most salient recommendation.

Item 1: Director Evaluations

Director evaluations should make up one item of the assessment that nontenure-track faculty should face. And, they should be weighted relatively strongly, but not so strongly that personal issues between the director and the faculty member can completely derail the faculty members chances for reappointment or promotion. They should be based on the director’s experiences of observing that person teach, at least twice, and their experiences with them as a departmental colleague. They should focus on how the faculty member aids in discharging the mission statement and goals of the program. And, it should also consider educational best practices as understood by the program and by the dominant discipline in which it is situated. Ideally, they should be written up in a way that can be shared with the faculty member, and that can lay the groundwork for guided reflection on the part of the faculty member. Finally, they should contribute to the development of plans that will focus on the continued professional and career development of the faculty member being evaluated.

Item 2: Peer Evaluations

Perhaps weighted less than the director’s evaluation, programmatic and disciplinary peer evaluations should also be part of the assessment of nontenure-track faculty members. Value around peer observations and formative feedback should be created in the program. Coming out of industry and into higher education, one of the things that have always shocked me is how anti-assessment we are when it comes to our work as professionals. Part of this, I feel, stems from our almost endemic imposter’s syndrome; and for some nontenure-track faculty, from a genuine worry that they can be replaced on a whim, especially if they are appointed to contingent faculty positions. However,by creating value around this experience for both members, we can begin to control for this possible worry. By setting up the peer evaluation as an opportunity for both faculty members to learn from each other—to provide constructive feedback that will help them develop in the longer-term—we can begin to assuage these assement fears. Also, by encouraging them to happen more than once and to allow the faculty member being evaluated to pick which peer-evaluations get included in their assessment docket, we can again control for some of these concerns, while still creating a positive assessment environment that encourages continued growth and development.

Item 3: Student Evaluations

Yes, I do believe that student evaluations should be considered in the overall assessment of all faculty. However, they should be weighted in such a manner that acknowledges that 1.) self-reporting is notoriously unreliable; 2.) that affective, racial, and gender-based interferences may skew an evaluation in a way that corrupts its efficacy as an objective assessment; 3.) that students are still in process and may not have a complete sense of educational endeavors until later in their academic careers—or even after they graduate. I know that some of the professors that I just chafed under during my undergraduate career gained a new respect after I graduated and could make better sense of their place in my educational processes and the disciplinarily situated ways in which they were teaching.

Item 4: The Reflective Teaching Portfolio

The final item in the assessment docket should be a reflective teaching portfolio where the faculty member being assessed critically reflects on their practice, how it meets and helps discharge programmatic goals, and how it reflects disciplinary best practices in their home discipline. This should be supported by samples of syllabi and student work, with the faculty member’s commentary about what worked and what didn’t work. To be truly valuable for the faculty member, I feel that it should be structured in a way that allows the faculty member to consider their own continued professional growth. This means that it should end with some discussion of what comes next. What revisions to materials or practice does the faculty member want to try next, and how can that be supported by the administration.

I’m fortunate to work for an institution that uses a review process similar to the one outlined above. Some tweaks will occur to it. But, it is my hope that the core of it—this focus on continued professional growth and development—will remain in place for as long as I am with the institution. I acknowledge that some faculty members at other institutions are evaluated almost solely on how their director feels about them and student evaluations. In this era of contingent faculty labor, this leads to understandable trepidation. For that reason, I believe that any assessment of faculty members needs to be multipronged. What’s listed above is just one way to go about this. And, as I continue through my career in higher education—for however long that might be—I’ll likely revisit the matter of faculty assessment and how it can be more than a 5-star Yelp review and be a tool that supports programmatic and professional growth and development for the good of the students.

The Place of Culture in Language Teaching

Recently, I’ve been reading through a copy of English Language Teaching Today. I had found it lying around our program’s library and decided to thumb through it. There’s been some interesting chapters on topics ranging from vocational English—not something I’ve encountered a lot about—to teaching reading—something I need to know more about because it goes hand in hand with good academic writing. However, there’s been one chapter that I keep coming back to as I think about my teaching writing and my learning Chinese as a second language (CSL). The chapter that I keep returning to was written by Jonathan Newton on the place of culture in teaching English for intercultural communication.

In it, Newton (2016) argues that we cannot divorce language and culture. To meaningfully teach one, we must teach the other. Now, the place of culture in ELT is something that has seen some debate in the field, Atkinson and Sohn (2013) provide a pretty good review of the conversation that’s occurred in recent years. Proponents, such as Newton and Atkinson and Sohn maintain that culture provides valuable contextualizing information for language use. It can prime particular registers and therefore lexical and syntactic choices. It can even lead to the favoring of particular connotative meanings as opposed to denotative ones. That is, cultural context can determine if “Would you like to come up for coffee?” is a legitimate inquiry about desiring to drink a caffeinated beverage, or if it’s a romantic advance. Those that think we should not teach culture typically tie it to the “stickiness” of the topic. They argue that teaching culture is so problematic because it can’t be done in a respectful way that isn’t essentializing or that doesn’t force students to become cultural informants.

While I don’t agree with how Newton (2016) presented his argument—there’s a major tone issue with the piece that sounds more at home on a sales floor than in the pages of a serious scholarly text—I do agree with his message. Culture plays a critical role in communication, and must, therefore, be part of language teaching. Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. The messiness of culture and of language mean that we must be flexible communicators. Teaching culture in the language classrooms allows us to equip students with an appreciation for ambiguity and with the skills to respectfully navigate difference.

On a much baser level, there’s so much of daily life and communication in everyday living that is culturally steeped. To help students better fit into regular conversation on topics of importance to them, it’s necessary to teach culture and how it influences language and linguistic choice.

Take getting angry as an example. It’s hard to express how upset we are by bad situations without falling back on culturally-steeped idiomatic expressions. If I order food from e le me (饿了么), a food delivery APP in China and the driver calls to tell me he’s going to be an hour late, the most that I can say is, “That’s not ok.” I can’t express what an idiotic proposition this is, as it would require cultural understanding and idiomatic expressions that are beyond my abilities. Love and romance provide another avenue where culture because important. When I talk to my spouse in Chinese and try to be romantic, they often wrinkle their nose, smack me in the arm, and tell me never to do that again because I sound weird. This is because beyond the standard wo ai ni (我爱你), I lack the cultural script to express myself romantically in my L2.

This may seem beyond the goals of language learning, but I would argue that it’s not. By only providing our students with culturally divorced tools, we are leaving them ill-equipped for their communicative encounters. With the two examples above, anger and love, we see that we are also equipping them to sound foreign—and perpetuating the notion of the polite foreigner. It’s not that I’m necessarily a polite American. It’s just that I can’t express how angry I am when you think it’s ok to deliver my reganmian (热干面) an hour late—after it’s congealed into a mess of starch. I can only imagine the frustration our ESL students must feel when they can’t express their genuine worry over class assignments, or their outrage with predatory landlords.

Source Materials

Atkinson, D., & Sohn, J. (2013). Culture from the bottom up. TESOL Quarterly, 47(4), 669-693.

Newton, J. (2016). Teaching English for intercultural communication. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 161-170). New York: Springer

The Need for Quality NEST Training: Pushing Against the Specter of Deprofessionalization.

I’ve learned from and worked with Tony Silva throughout my time at Purdue. He taught about 1/3 of all the courses that I took, was on my dissertation committee, and supervised my work with him on the quarterly “Annotated Bibliography on Research in L2 Writing” for the Journal of Second Language Writing, as well as my work on a program design project. He was always exceptionally generous with his time, seeking to help his graduate students to professionalize into the field of TESOL/Applied Linguistics (ALx). He was, simply put, a force for good for his students.

Which means, I was rather surprised by his frank presentation at the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW) about the state of the sub-field of L2 writing. He pulled no punches in highlighting the ways that L2 writing professionals may be, at best, forgotten and, at worst, marginalized by their institutions. This situation and shrinking education budgets contribute to a possible future where the sub-field of L2 writing is deprofessionalized and the important work of helping L2 writers gain academic literacy is diverted to underprepared instructors with no formal training in how to best work with this unique student body. Looking at the vast array of less-then-legitimate TESOL certification programs and bargain-bin hiring standards, it’s not that hard to see the same ghost dogging the steps of TESOL.

Which is why I had such a strong reaction when I was reading Zhenhui Rao and Hua Yuan’s article on native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) in China. There was nothing new about the various benefits that they extolled—I would argue that there are places where their work treads dangerously close to upholding the NEST unproblematically and unequivocally as the ideal language teacher. However, they made one crucial point that I think is worth some discussion. NESTs need training to prepare them for the classroom. And, I would argue that they need quality training.

For Rao and Yuan, their focus on training ends at saying that it should be localized training that focuses on four major areas (p. 4):

  1. Institutional Introduction
  2. Teaching Situation at the Institution
  3. Students’ Learning Styles
  4. Stakeholders Expectations

While this sort of orientation is necessary, it’s not enough. It’s certainly not enough to address the various issues with NESTs that Rao and Yuan identify. There’s nothing here about pedagogical training—talking about learning styles isn’t the same thing as talking about planning, designing, and executing classroom interventions. There’s little here about the insensitivity to students’ linguistic problems. And, there’s nothing here about negotiating culture and its effects in the classroom. So, how do we address these issues?

Certainly, Rao and Yuans recommendations make good pre-service training. But, there is a need to continue professionalizing early service teachers to have the best educational impact for the students. This must begin with a foundational knowledge of language learning and teaching. This can be done through a series of in-service trainings that add value to the work experience by preparing the in-service teacher to meet the demands of the institution, while also paving the way for future career success. Ideally, this on-the-job training should be overseen by a more senior teacher or consultant with advanced education in the TESOL/ALx. Reading and discussing seminal work from TESOL/ALx is a good place to start. Another avenue is to watch, dissect, and discuss recorded teaching samples from more expert teachers. Then, working with the trainer, the early service teachers can plan ways to apply these lessons to their own work.

For me, a vital part of any in-service training program must be reflection. Time must be made to allow the teachers to reflect on their practice and to make that reflection public. Then, as teachers encounter and share problems, they can work together to solve these issues. Public reflections do two things. First, it creates value around reflective practice. By building this time into training, and highlighting its possible effects, we can help in-service teachers to see the benefits of being a reflective teacher throughout their careers. Second, it encourages teachers to not see problems as tribulations that they must face alone, or as failures to bury in their portfolios. Rather, problems become recast as challenges to be collaboratively overcome for the good of the group. It moves the act of reflection from a mental exercise, to an applied one—going from reflection to reflexive action.

Rao and Yuan also discussed NEST/NNEST team teaching; however, they ignored the possibility of it as a training tool. This would be, to me, a fascinating possibility that could radically change the training dynamic. It would give the potentially young, monolingual, early-service NEST access to someone who has mastered the L2, who has overcome the challenges of language learning. The NNEST can become a font of experiential and cultural knowledge for the NNEST, while the NEST can share pedagogical tips and tricks that they bring with them from their own learning experiences. This can help to create reciprocity in the training process and help show that both NEST and NNEST teachers are valued by the institution. And for students in teach-taught classes, they can begin to have their assumptions about the NEST being “hands-down” the best language teacher challenged. Rao and Yuan are correct in pointing out, however, that this team teaching must cast the NEST and NNEST as equals or else the power of this opportunity will be lost.

Source Material

Rao, Z., & Yuan, H. (2015). Employing native-English speaking teachers in China: Benefits, problems and solutions. English Today, 32(4), 1-7.

Silva, T. (2014). Reflections of a post-mid-career L2 writing professional on the ever-increasing challenges of working at a large public research university: Facing the specter of deprofessionalization [Keynote Address]. Presented at the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing. Tempe, AZ.