Editor’s note: In this post, TIRF Trustee and Research Advisory Chair, MaryAnn Christison, shares highlights from her interview with 2012 DDG Recipient, Tasha Darbes. Dr. Darbes completed her dissertation in 2014.
1. MaryAnn: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Dr. Darbes: Before I began my PhD, I worked for many years as an ESL instructor at community college, in community-based organizations, and in family literacy programs. My experiences supporting ESL students in community colleges, and seeing the effects of assessment and placement, inspired the work of my dissertation. I also co-produced and wrote a documentary on undocumented students in higher education, “Admissions,” which has screened across the county and abroad.
2. MaryAnn: Briefly, what are the main research questions for your study?
Dr. Darbes: I have an academic background in anthropology, so I was interested in examining assessment and placement of ESL students as a social process. I wanted to know how this process worked at different campuses, how students experience this process, and how their experiences intersected with their perceptions of their bilingual abilities.
3. MaryAnn: In a few sentences, can you explain why your research is important to the field of language assessment?
Dr. Darbes: Community colleges play an important role in educating diverse populations, including linguistically diverse students, and there is a lot of discussion whether the assessments that determine “college readiness” function as a gatekeeper or a necessary way of identifying students who need more support. I was particularly interested in how these assessments affected the engagement and trajectories of bilingual students and those in the process of learning English, a population that deserves increased attention. My work differs from much research as it examines assessment and placement using interdisciplinary lenses of psychology and anthropology, with a focus on the effects on student engagement, feelings of belonging, and identity.
4. MaryAnn: What do you think you learned about doing research in the process of completing your dissertation?
Dr. Darbes: I was fortunate to work as part of a research team and I received excellent guidance from the principal investigators and my advisor. I learned how to think like a researcher – to operationalize concepts, to create clear and systematic data collection procedures, to ask answerable and important questions. And I learned how to continue when things don’t go the way you expect!
5. MaryAnn: What plans do you have for the future after you finish your dissertation?
Dr. Darbes: I love teaching, especially about research! At the moment I am applying for academic jobs and hope to continue teaching and research and engaging in meaningful projects.
6. MaryAnn: What did receiving the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant mean to you?
Dr. Darbes: The TIRF doctoral dissertation grant really allowed me to expand my skills as a researcher and improve the quality of my analysis, especially by giving me necessary support to attend a three-day workshop on how to use qualitative analysis software and to pay coders. These are skills that I will use in future research – they will not end with the dissertation. The award also gave me confidence and encouragement that my ideas were worth pursuing and I am very grateful for all the support.
7. MaryAnn: What advice would you give people who are thinking about pursuing a PhD?
Dr. Darbes: Remember that a PhD is about the transition from being a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. The most important gifts will come from mentors and fellow students, so look for programs that have faculty with similar interests and opportunities for collaboration.
8. MaryAnn: How did you learn about the TIRF doctoral dissertation grants?
Dr. Darbes: I was fortunate to share a workspace with Cecilia Zhao, who received a TIRF grant in a prior year, and I also know the TIRF DDG recipient Beth Clark-Gareca as well. They are certainly tough acts to follow; however, they encouraged me, and I thought I should give applying a try!
9. MaryAnn: What advice would you give a Ph.D. student who wants to apply for a TIRF DDG (i.e., how can an applicant improve on his or her application)?
Dr. Darbes: The most difficult part for me was deciding on the question. Good research has both a clear focus and an eye to the “bigger picture,” and it is difficult to find that balance. Be sure you know what it is you want to know!
10. MaryAnn: What would you say to someone who is considering donating to TIRF? Why do you think it’s important for language professionals to support TIRF?
Dr. Darbes: The field of language education is incredibly important for communities in the US and around the world and has the power to open doors and minds. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for funding for graduate-level research, which is crucial to produce quality dissertations that are a foundation for future innovations. By supporting TIRF, you not only support the individual graduate students who are often making financial sacrifices for their education – you are supporting all of the insights and applications that will result from their efforts.