It’s almost spring break time at NYU Shanghai. I’ll be leaving China for a series of meetings and workshops in NYC; then I’m heading off to spend time with my family. To maximize time with my boys, I won’t be updating the blog until I get back to Shanghai in two weeks. TTFN!
In a previous series of blog posts, I discussed life as a migrant academic (Links below). In today’s post, I’d like to publicly reflect on my career, as I move through the later stages of being an early career TESOL specialist. Part of this reflective impulse is being spurred by the fact that we’re nearing mid-term at NYU Shanghai; the other part is that I’m I’m nearing my reappointment time. If we’re honest, though, it’s because I believe so firmly in power and necessity of being a reflective practitioner.
My journey into to TESOL began before I even entered my M.A. program. It all started with a seed planted by watching someone else’s language acquisition journey. It was the summer of 2006, and I was a returning area supervisor working for Magnum Management/Cedar Fair, LLC. I was in their Merchandise Division, and I had a staff of about 37 working under me. Many of these staff members were international students. There was one that stuck out, Jawad. When Jawad first entered the company his English skills were seemingly non-existent, given the high degree of customer interaction in our area it was problematic, to say the least. But, over the course of the summer, and through no intervention on my part, I saw Jawad go from simple yes/no responses to joking with his friends and being highly communicative with customers. I began to wonder how that happened—not for him particularly, but in general. How does one go about acquiring language?
From there, I entered the M.A. TESL program at the University of Toledo in 2009. While some may view the M.A. years as professionalization and apprenticeship—and it certainly is—in this program at least you’re also called on to be a practitioner. All of us GTAs were the instructor of record for at least one course. I’ll never forget my first day in the classroom, barely older than my students and having just graduated from U. Toledo a few months before. My hands shook horribly, and I had to grip the computer podium just to keep upright. It was in those few moments of being “Mr. Paiz” of being “teacher” that I learned my first career lesson, and it’s one that I think we all know: Fake it until you make it.
At U.Toledo I learn another valuable lesson, that sometimes in academia, it starts with a little bit of luck. I’ll never forget that in my second semester in the program I was showing a new student around the office—where to get mail or office supplies—and we ran into our director. They confided in me that she was glad that they had “taken a chance on me, as I wasn’t a first-choice candidate.” I had gotten lucky, and in that luck, I had found a new home, a profession, and a growing voice. Remember, though, it starts with luck, what happens next is up to you. This luck continued when I landed a job as an ESL specialist in our intensive English program (IEP). A vital part of my professional development because it was my first faculty gig—It allowed the chance to grow comfortable with wearing a lot of different hats at the same time. When I was at the IEP, I was a member of the faculty. When I walked across the green to the English building I was a student and a GTA again.
I learned one last lesson at U. Toledo, leverage your pre-existing talents in new ways. Before academia, I spent time in supervision, management, and IT. In high school, I was trained as a Cisco Computer Network Technician. While I was at UT, I could create value by helping the ESL program launch its internal website and resource repository. I could ensure continuity by training the director so that she could train my replacements. During my first few years at Purdue, I’d still get emails for IT support. This was an important moment because it helped to establish my credibility when the coordinator’s position at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) would open in my first year at Purdue University.
At Purdue, and in those first few critical months, I learned another precious lesson, trust your close colleagues; they’re your allies, and they often know you better than you know you. When the call for applications for the Purdue OWL first came out, I remember thinking, that’d be cool, but they’ll never pick an SLS/ESL student. They’ll go for someone in Rhet/Comp. It was actually when a close colleague and I were having dinner and drinks one night that I changed my mind. She spoke rather compellingly about how my background in IT and management made me more qualified than the competition. In the end, I applied, and I was a graduate administrator at OWL from 2012-2015, when I graduated. It was a critical experience in my graduate education. Before taking over the Purdue OWL, I was struggling to find my voice and a possible place in the academy. I knew I was being trained to be a researcher and to apply for tenure-track (TT) jobs at universities—but there had to be other ways. I was not and still am not the best researcher. Being in an administrative position I found my voice, I found a kind of work that I love doing, that I’m passionate about, and that can feed my research. If I hadn’t listened to my colleague, I would have had some of the most exciting years of my young professional life. I wouldn’t have gained skill in project management, and hiring, and project costing, event planning, or in building partnerships. I would have found a line of research that has appeared in Asian EFL Journal or that got me invited to give a keynote at a European conference.
After graduating from Purdue University—almost the very next day—I was off to my first full-time faculty position at NYU Shanghai. In my first few weeks at NYU Shanghai, these lessons came to a head to help me learn a new one: Be flexible and willing to strategically say yes. Working for a startup university—one that is still deciding what it is—means that you learn to roll with the punches. Changes come at a breakneck pace, and you either adapt to them and seek out opportunity in them. Or, you let them crush you and negatively impact your teaching practice. And, if your teaching practice suffers, who’s the victim? The students, and at the end of the day, we’re here for them.
I also learned to strategically say yes. We read a lot about saying no, like in this article. But, I think we must also think of how we’ll strategically say yes. In my second month at NYU Shanghai, I was asked if I’d like to work with the Silver School of Social work to develop a professional writing class for their graduate students. I saw this as a potentially important partnership for our program, and a chance for me to teach something new. I said yes. The class that has come out of it has become a cornerstone of my teaching. In my work with these graduate students, I have found so many strategies and approaches that I have been able to apply to my undergraduate courses and my scholarship.
I don’t know what comes next; we’ll see. But, I’m confident that no matter what, I’ll carry these lessons into middle career with me. That is, of course, unless I decided to be a stay-at-home dad (highly unlikely), or get picked to go colonize Mars (not just unlikely, but 特别 unlikely).
Paiz, J.M. (Jan. 2017). “A look at being a migrant academic [blog post]. ALx (Re)Coded. Available from: https://joshuampaiz.com/2017/01/24/a-look-at-being-a-migrant-academic/
Paiz, J.M. (Jan. 2017). “Another look at being a migrant academic [blog post]. ALx (Re)Coded. Available from: https://joshuampaiz.com/2017/01/25/another-look-at-being-a-migrant-academic/
Paiz, J.M. (Jan. 2017). “A last look at being a migrant academic [blog post]. ALx (Re)Coded. Available from: https://joshuampaiz.com/2017/01/27/a-last-look-at-being-a-migrant-academic/
Now, this posting may make me seem like I’m waffling, especially when compared to last week’s post on deadheading some of the flowers (click here). In that post, I was arguing that certain theoretical approaches to applied linguistics add more noise to our outward facing message and can have adverse consequences for professionalization into the field. Here, I am arguing that room needs to be made in the applied linguistic tent for non-Western theories of language acquisition, teaching, and learning.
The initial response may be that, given the sheer number of non-Western researchers, theorist, and practitioners in applied linguistics, is this really a concern? I would argue yes, it really is. Here’s the reason. If we think about the body of English-language literature, it is mostly written by researchers and practitioners that have themselves been trained in the Western academic tradition and been exposed to a Western view of the field of applied linguistics as embodied in our central cannons. This means that, despite our best efforts and the fact that we are a truly global discipline, there is still a strong Western bent in the research and theory that is being produced and shared through mainstream channels like conference presentation, invited book chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles. This is replicated through our graduate training, where there is little space in introductory courses for non-Western views of language learning, teaching, or acquisition. Thinking back to my own experiences at Purdue University, I can think of one non-Anglophone example, and that was a history of language teaching compiled by, if memory serves, Musumeci in 1977.
A good example of a place that could benefit from a non-western perspective is in theorizing on identity and how it might be actualized in and influence language learning and teaching. I can remember when I started my dissertation on a sociocognitive approach to identity in SLA, my then dissertation chair asked me if I’d read any non-western work on identity. How did Confucian scholars or Japanese theorists view the construct of identity? How had these alternative views been applied in applied linguistics? Well, after some searching—and perhaps not enough—I couldn’t find anything. This lack of perspective is potentially dangerous, particularly since we export Western-informed theories to other contexts around the globe. A good example of this comes out of the field of queer theory.
Queer theory, as many of us know it, is firmly grounded in Western academic traditions and identity politics. This is clearly shown by seminal texts in this area and how the categorization of homo/heterosexual can be linked back to the medicalization of sex, sexuality, gender, and desire in Western countries. However, Petrus Liu is quick to point out that there are non-Western traditions of queer studies, and that attempting to ignore these for Western interpretations of sex, gender, and sexuality is theoretically shortsighted. This shortsightedness arises because it ignores the highly situated ways that people in different national contexts experience and make sense of these issues. In building his queer Marxism in the contexts of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, Liu shows how the local version of queer theory is able to speak to and make sense of sexual desire and gender expression, and State sponsored responses to those expressions, throughout Chinese history in ways that Western queer theory simply cannot. He also points to potent lessons that Western queer theory might be able to learn from queer Marxism–lessons that would extend its analytical powers and begin to strip away a strong Western bias.
It would be worthwhile, I feel, for applied linguistics to ask itself the same question—and to begin to actively seek this perspective by creating value around local theories of language learning, teaching, and acquisition. What that might look like, I’m uncertain. But, it would make for an exciting disciplinary conversation that could lead us to a more robust understanding of the phenomenon under our study.
Lantolf, J. (1996). SLA theory building: “Letting all the flowers bloom!”. Language Learning, 46(4), 713-749.
Liu, P. (2015). Queer Marxism in two Chinas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Musumeci, D. (1977). Breaking tradition: An exploration of the historical relationship between theory and practice in second language teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill.