Program Reflection

Ezekial Hale  
Portland State University - MA TESOL Program Reflection

I have learned a ton in this program. I’m sure I will continue processing the experience for many years to come as I reflect on concepts from my coursework and relate them to new challenges. Intercultural competence and a foundational understanding of phonology, pragmatics, and the interactive nature of learning have become bedrock elements of my work with students facing extra social and linguistic barriers.

It is becoming easier for me to maintain an open-ended approach while I get to know new students and colleagues, or as I acclimate to an unfamiliar cultural setting. Ideas from Discourse Analysis, Language Acquisition, and Language-Identity oriented courses have helped me establish stronger habits for holistically assessing a situation before making too many assumptions. This contrasts quite a bit with how I approached situations in the past. Deeper knowledge of linguistics and the world's language-communities are helping me to better understand myself and those I interact with.

Having previously studied just one other language (German) in a formal setting, I came into this program with some narrow and prescriptive ideas about language and learning. I used to think that languages were synonymous with a central, easily identifiable culture. I also primarily defaulted to analytic education methods, prioritizing grammar, morphology, and syntax memorization when learning or teaching language. These beliefs were challenged in every single one of my classes. Even Applied English Grammar – a fairly prescriptive study of features that often still resemble German – explored nuances in the interpretation of everyday structures and left me reconsidering prior assumptions.

Studying the Indigenous language of where I grew up in Language Typology and in Endangered Languages not only expanded my understanding of what formal structures can exist in a language, but also of why languages shift and change and how much of our identity, culture, and even politics revolve around language values and practices. Looking at the experiences of Indigenous language activists and artists, as well as hearing the perspectives of Indigenous PSU students in Native Film further moved me to consider my own background and beliefs. Before this program, I had not reflected much on my language values and I even felt like I kind of “didn’t have a culture”. Now I find that idea absurd, and I recognize some of its origin in a neocolonial and superficially ‘multicultural’ perspective that I am working to move past and help destabilize.

My studies in the program complemented what I was doing professionally, as well. While working with learners who face substantial barriers I was also researching the history and policies surrounding language education and marginalized communities. This has made me more aware of the limitations of my own experience. I have been afforded a great many advantages and opportunities that most of my students do not share, especially with respect to accessing academia, voluntary educational travel, and modes of literacy which the majority of resources cater to. At the same time, I have begun to recognize my own intercultural and pluralistic background. After a couple of decades of mostly living in one region of the US, I had kind of suppressed a chunk of my early childhood which was in Ecuador. Interviewing some of my international colleagues for ‘Language, Identity, and Culture’ and reading Kumaravadivelu’s Cultural Globalization and Language Education in ‘Understanding the International Experience’ left me questioning self-limitations that I had internalized previously. Namely that a kind of hybrid, pluralistic, or even contradicting identity was not accessible to me, and that my conflicted feelings were not valid. Working through some of that and exploring perspectives from our coursework has made it easier for me to connect with people from different backgrounds, and that is a powerful skill for realizing my professional and personal goals.

I would also mention that the Research course was extremely useful and equipped me with a lot of skills that I pretty much did not have at all beforehand. Learning about appropriate uses of descriptive versus inferential statistics and how this relates to qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches to research. This course helped me become a much more efficient reader, writer, and investigator with respect to research. Having a basic grasp of the null hypothesis and for how to attend to and evaluate reliability and validity were also entirely new skills for me. Being able to decide what kinds of data can answer what kinds of research questions, or what kinds of questions are appropriate for existing data is of vital importance for conducting, writing, or reading and understanding research. Digging into inferential statistics not only provided an introductory basis for reading and understanding quantitative research, but also reinforced the importance of knowing when quantitative or mixed methods are actually appropriate. When reading research before this class, especially quantitative research with inferential analysis, I pretty much had to accept a lot of the findings and synthesis as a kind of smarter-than-me handwaving. Now I can spot when methods might not be appropriate or when statistics or other findings are misrepresented. 

I have heard from some of my peers that they did not appreciate the Research class as much as I did, and I think some of them struggle to find the relevance for teaching. With respect to qualitative research, some have found it redundant to other courses which already handle some of the same concepts and strategies. Perhaps the class could be framed better in terms of relevance for teachers and for lower level education, and I might recommend that it be required within the first couple of terms for all students. Knowing why quantitative or qualitative approaches are appropriate and having at least a rudimentary grasp of statistics is wholly relevant for teachers that want to be effective in teaching content and who want to prepare their students to understand and evaluate information. Teachers - not just administrators and policy writers - have a responsibility to understand and keep up with research findings so they can be confident that their methods and curriculum are backed by verifiable outcomes. If too many teachers are going along with the status quo without a critical understanding of why methods are continued or new ones are adopted, it can have extremely disastrous results, see ‘the reading wars’, e.g.

For many years and during much of this program I felt like my work experience and academic pursuits were too unfocused and that I lacked a clear aim or specialization. I’ve started to feel very differently during my final terms, however. I now feel that my coursework, research participation, and work experience have all started to coalesce around themes which I may have disregarded as unrelated in the past, but which in fact intersect and complement one another. Multilingualism, intercultural competence, socio-interactive practices, and an understanding of planning, programming, and policy all lend themselves to the kind of work I am now pursuing. Something at the locus of education, research, policy, and community planning.

Sometimes I do wish I had a more established plan or road-map for my personal curriculum during this program. I did feel stressed and burnt out at times, especially early on, and I think that would have been helped by some clearer advising and more focused engagement on my part. I began the program during COVID lockdowns and all the classes were still online, so I was also experiencing ‘lockdown fatigue’. At any rate, I would recommend that new students entering the program take some proactive steps and work with an advisor from the very beginning to establish and frequently revisit a personalized curriculum map which relates to post-graduation goals –  especially if they plan to take classes remotely. I started the program with a full time courseload while also working two jobs. This was somewhat tenable when all was achieved from my dystopian hyperspace-console (home office), but ultimately this was not sustainable. After switching to part-time studies I had a much more enjoyable and useful experience. I internalized a lot more material when I could focus on just one class and my work with the Language, Literacy, and Technology Research group (LLTR). I don’t regret having gone through this way, but I think doing the whole program both part-time and in-person would have been better for me.

Working as a research intern for LLTR was actually one of the most enjoyable, interesting, and rewarding parts of my experience in this program. I know several peers from multiple MA TESOL cohorts at PSU who reported similar feelings about their work on departmental research or community projects. This seems like one of the strongest elements of this program and one that I would recommend to others, especially those who are focusing more on Applied Linguistics or who wish to pursue their own research in the future. As a part-time student who worked with three different cohorts during my time in the program, LLTR was a stabilizing through-line where I got to work on bigger, longer-running projects. Collaborating with some of the same research team members across multiple terms and even during the summer fostered a sense of community that I did find anywhere else during my time here.

A lot of the jobs I am looking at recommend or require a master’s, and several list an MA in TESOL, specifically. I’ve been teaching and working other education jobs for about a decade, but 90% of that experience has been with younger learners. I now have a lot more knowledge and some practical experience working with adult learners in intercultural and multilingual settings, which describes quite a few of the teaching and research opportunities I am looking into. Further down the road, I hope to continue working with Indigenous languages and to help with revitalization efforts. I’d also like to get more involved with studying and recommending policies related to language and intercultural systems.

When asked by non-academics about what I have been studying, I joke that I can now watch a movie in a language I’ve never heard and still figure out when the subtitles are probably wrong. On a deeper level, though, I have learned that language is how we interact with one another and that the way we communicate reciprocates into the world we build together. Everyone has their own unique and dynamic language practices, embedded within complex and intersecting personal and social contexts. It can get quite complicated and overwhelming at times, but understanding this complexity is urgent and indispensable as people increasingly move around the globe with shifting political, economic, and ecologic tides. I leave the program feeling more prepared to help myself and others navigate new social and linguistic currents.

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