Editor’s note: In this post, TIRF Trustee and Research Advisory Chair, MaryAnn Christison, shares highlights from her interview with 2012 DDG Recipient, Lixia Cheng. Dr. Cheng completed her dissertation in 2014.
1. MaryAnn: Tell us a little about yourself? Where are you currently working and what does your position involve?
Dr. Cheng: I am currently working for Purdue Language and Cultural Exchange (PLaCE), a new English language bridge program being developed to provide English language support and foster cultural exchange at Purdue University. As the Testing and Assessment Coordinator, I am responsible for piloting, scaling, and validating a locally developed, internet-based, post-entry test of English proficiency for international undergraduate students. In addition, I teach a section of an integrated-skills English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course within the program. Another exciting aspect of my position is that I have been involved in the proposal, planning, implementation, and refinement of a Language Partner Program between PLaCE and the Chinese Language Program at Purdue. The Partner Program will foster parallel language development and use, and provide not only an important step in the integration of the burgeoning international undergraduate population into the greater Purdue community but also support for the internationalization of resident undergraduate students at Purdue.
2. MaryAnn: What did receiving the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant mean to you?
Dr. Cheng: My TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant allowed me to collect data in China – an important aspect of the design of the study which would have been impossible without support. Given the procedure and scope of my study, I am tremendously appreciative of the financial support provided by the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant. (I used an independent measure to determine potential participants’ oral English proficiency levels and I recruited Chinese English language learners both in China and in the US.) Receiving the DDG was also tremendously encouraging in that the quality and potential of my dissertation research was recognized by a team of established scholars and professionals in the broad field of English language education.
3. MaryAnn: What were the main findings of your study?
Dr. Cheng: I studied high/low proficiency English language learner production of requests in ESL/EFL contexts because I wanted to determine whether manipulations of PDR (i.e., additive effects of Power, Distance, and Rank of imposition) would have differential effects on learner production with respect to response latency (a.k.a. pre-task planning time), speech rate, and appropriateness ratings awarded by L1 English judges. I found that compared to PDR-low situations, PDR-high tasks are associated with longer response latency, slower speech rate, and request performances receiving lower ratings of pragmatic appropriateness. These findings indicate that learners are sensitive to the additional demands that being pragmatically appropriate requires when producing requests. I was also intrigued by the finding that ESL low proficiency participants benefited from being in the ESL context more than ESL high proficiency participants. In addition, the discourse analysis on request sub-strategies and internal modification devices suggests a need for explicit pragmalinguistic instruction, particularly in areas such as the past tense marker “-ed” and the subjectivizer (e.g., I was wondering).
4. MaryAnn: What did you think was the most important thing you learned about doing research in the process of completing your dissertation?
Dr. Cheng: I have learned that when you break a big project up into manageable pieces and try to accomplish the pieces one by one by the target date, the entire task becomes much less daunting and can be achieved. Effective management applies to every phase of a major research project, including subject recruitment, data analysis, and research write-up. I will continue to use this process throughout the rest of my professional life.
5. MaryAnn: What plans do you have for future research and how did your dissertation influence them?
Dr. Cheng: My dissertation represents an important first step in my exploration of the various topics in Second Language Pragmatics Assessment and Instruction. In addition to turning my dissertation into publications, I am also interested in adopting the findings from my dissertation study and examining the effects of explicit pragmatic instruction on ESL learners’ pragmatic performances. My dissertation study also prepared me for almost everything that needs to be done to complete a research project: from planning research, preparing IRB applications, recruiting participants and raters, collecting ratings, analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, to writing reports and grant proposals.
6. MaryAnn: What advice would you offer doctoral students who are just beginning their doctoral programs?
Dr. Cheng: Apart from reading literature, doctoral students could also reflect on their own experiences as second language users and/or educators and try to identify an area or a topic emerging from their past experiences that might be of interest to them. When developing a topic through extensive reading, the students will find that the literature begins to resonate.
7. MaryAnn: What would you say to someone who is considering donating to TIRF?
Dr. Cheng: I would say to them: “Your donation to the TIRF DDG program would make a unique and substantial contribution to the success of a junior scholar’s doctoral dissertation research and to the field of English language education at large. Your kindness, encouragement, and support will be highly appreciated and long remembered. TIRF DDGs provide excellent support to the recipients not just in funding their research but also in ensuring that the recipients reach each milestone towards the final completion of their dissertations.”