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Dr. Steven Talmy (October 2010)

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In this interview, TIRF’s first Russell N. Campbell Doctoral Dissertation Grant winner, Dr. Steven Talmy, talks about the role the grant played in his completion of his dissertation and gives advice to novice researchers in the field of language learning and teaching.

Dr. Steven Talmy

Dr. Steven Talmy

TIRF: Dr. Talmy, in 2002 you were the first recipient of a Doctoral Dissertation Grant from TIRF. The topic of your study was “Student Resistance to Learning ESL: A Critical Ethnography of an Urban High School ESL Program.” What were the main findings of your study for us in a few sentences?

Dr. Talmy: Generally speaking, the study had two major related aims. First, it examined student resistance to ESL (English as a second language). Second, it looked at how the low-prestige, or “stigma,” associated with ESL was accomplished in the everyday life of the ESL classroom.

Regarding the first point, quite a lot of applied linguistics research concerning ESL is based on the presumption that students want to be in the classroom, and are invested in learning English. But that research often doesn’t concern youth in compulsory educational settings, where ESL (as an identity category and a programmatic option) tends to be stigmatized as “remedial,” or as one of the teachers in my study called it, “a dumping ground” for the academically undesirable. My study concerned precisely this sort of context (a public high school), and what’s more, a population of long-term ESL students (aka “generation 1.5” ESL) who not only were well aware of the stigma associated with ESL, due to their years of study in US schools, but also had the English proficiency and interactional competence to make their often disparaging views about ESL publicly known, in both subtle and overt ways. I argued that many of the behaviors these students displayed about how ESL wasn’t “cool” constituted their resistance to it.

The second point really follows from the first: looking at how the stigma of ESL in a public high school is produced and circulates in actual classroom contexts. Although a lot of research about public school (or Kindergarten-12th grade) ESL acknowledges the low-prestige associated with ESL, much less has examined how it actually occurs in the classroom, especially in teacher-student and student-student interaction. I linked my analysis of how the stigma of ESL occurred in the classroom to broader negative societal views about bi-and multilingualism, immigration, and diversity, and how they connect with, among other issues, linguistic prejudice, the native speaker myth, and national identity.

TIRF: What did you learn about conducting ethnographic research in the process of completing your dissertation?

Dr. Talmy: I learned that conducting a two and a half year critical ethnography in a public high school is not for the faint of heart! It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive, and “messy” project, as I think all ethnographies necessarily are (critical and otherwise). But it underscored to me how absolutely essential social context is to gain any sort of understanding about the complex endeavor that we call L2 learning, especially as it occurs (or does not occur) in a place like a high school classroom. We absolutely need more ethnographic studies in K-12 ESL contexts, challenging as they may be due to the length of time required, the need for sustained, persistent engagement in the classroom(s) being studied, the delicacy of negotiating entry at the classroom, school, school district (and in my case, state) levels, the need to ensure site and participant confidentiality, and especially difficult these days, to attend to the ever-increasing concerns of institutional review boards when working with culturally and linguistically diverse children and youth in public schools.

I also learned a lot about myself as an ESL educator and researcher, namely how unprepared I was to conceive of, much less handle, the unbelievable demands that are placed on our public school ESL colleagues. I was fortunate to meet many amazing people during my fieldwork who were working in what can only be considered difficult instructional circumstances, yet who did so with high degrees of professionalism, care, and, perhaps equally important, good humor.

TIRF: You are now a professor at the University of British Columbia. What courses do you teach? And how did your research help enable you to successfully instruct your students?

Dr. Talmy: I teach a range of courses at UBC, from undergraduate courses in teaching ESL, to graduate courses in research methods and second language learning and teaching. My research has given me what I think are some really important insights about these topics, insights that are common enough to span the distance between the UK (where I’m from), the continental US (where I grew up), Hawai‘i (where I conducted the study), and British Columbia (where I now live and work): a deeper appreciation of many of the issues facing ESL teachers, especially in public schools; a means to elaborate or critique particular theories of second language learning or approaches to teaching; a solid experience from which to draw for particular research methods.

But there’s more to it than that. My study encompassed four years of my life (two and a half at the school), and so, yes, it has enabled me in important ways to teach (in ways I’m still discovering), but also, it is a part of me and of who I am. So it not only thoroughly informs what I do in the classroom, it has allowed me to be the researcher and educator—and the person— that I am today. That isn’t meant to valorize or romanticize some sort of individual self-transformation; it’s to acknowledge in personal terms the consequences of the “researcher as research instrument” tenet of ethnography. I just had no idea when I initially conceived of this study that it would have such dramatic and far-reaching implications for me, as a scholar, certainly, but as a human being, too.

TIRF: What are your current research interests, and how did your dissertation influence them?

Dr. Talmy: Well, I remain totally committed to K-12 ESL research. There is simply too little of it, and I think we abrogate our responsibilities to the communities in which we live and work if we don’t engage with what’s happening in our public schools, if we fail to work with our colleagues there. This commitment is evident in some new research I’m currently getting underway: an action research professional development model that supports K-12 teachers, and a mentoring program for new K-12 ESL teachers. These ideas aren’t anything new or terribly original; there just aren’t enough programs like them.

TIRF: What did receiving the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant mean to you?

Dr. Talmy: Practically speaking, the Russell N. Campbell Doctoral Dissertation Grant helped me purchase digital recording equipment to replace the creaky, ill-tempered analog machine I had been using for audio-recording classrooms and interviews. Most important, it helped off-set the costs of paying translators to help me understand and transcribe a good portion of the hours (and hours!) of Korean, Mandarin, and Cantonese language data I had recorded in classrooms. Intellectually and socially, I benefited in more ways than I can describe from the opportunity to meet and share my work with a wide range of established scholars in TESOL, as well as other TIRF awardees, for example, at the TIRF meetings that were held at the TESOL Annual Conventions. I also know that the grant positioned me well when I was on the job market. Like any important award, it helped to distinguish me in the applicant pool, and in more than one instance, gave me and faculty at institutions I was applying to—some of whom were members of TIRF and knew of me as a result—a lot more to talk about.

TIRF: Did receiving the grant instill more confidence in you when approaching your research? If so, how?

Dr. Talmy: A critical ethnography about student resistance to learning in a public high school was definitely not the most common kind of study that was being done when I was a doctoral student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Although I enjoyed tremendous support from the department and my professors there (especially Dr. Graham Crookes and Dr. Gabriele Kasper), I was a bit of an oddball topically, theoretically, and methodologically speaking. So when I read the email from TIRF early one Sunday morning in 2002 notifying me that I had received the grant…. I’ll never forget the feeling… there was happiness, of course, excitement, some relief, but most of all, the strongest sense of affirmation, that an organization like TIRF, which was established by and composed of so many major scholars in the field, recognized that my study could merit the award of the Russell N. Campbell grant. It was a huge legitimization. So, yes, absolutely, receiving the grant gave me a lot more confidence with the project. It also helped to validate what I was doing in the eyes of others who may have wondered about the merit of the project.

TIRF: What advice did you receive, or wish you had received, as a novice researcher?

Dr. Talmy: Looking back on things now, probably the most important advice is to formulate a study that you like, that you believe is important, that will contribute to the world in some way as well as to knowledge in the field, that will sustain you intellectually and personally as you go forward with it. This advice is important because you’ll be working with it for a while, certainly as a student, but also afterward, as you’re writing for publication, looking for jobs, are on the tenure-track or in a NGO or a private company, etc. Try to be strategic, too, to think about where the field is, where you think it is going, where you would like it to go, and conceive of a study that in some way responds to those predictions. Read widely. Read deeply in areas of particular interest to you. Whenever possible, read outside of TESOL and applied linguistics, e.g., in anthropology, sociology, psychology, cultural studies, or fields more relevant to your particular interests. Be ethical. Be reflexive. Remember that graduate education is a privilege, one that is invested with considerable power and thus comes with many responsibilities, all of which are amplified when preparing, conducting and writing up research. Remember your family. Remember to take a break when you can. Remember to take care of yourself!

TIRF: Any other comments?

Dr. Talmy: I’d just like to extend my gratitude once again to TIRF for the many opportunities that the Doctoral Dissertation Grant has afforded me over the years, including participating in this interview!