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Advice from successful academics, Part Two

In last month’s blog post, we looked at the first seven interviews I conducted for the podcast, covering the advice the interviewees gave.

Kicking off the second half of this blog post is interview number 8, (podcast #16) Dr. Shaun O’Dwyer. Although several of my interviewees are former colleagues of mine, Shaun was the first of my interviews of academics with whom I am currently working. We work for the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University and have shared many a long hour cooperating in meetings and research teams. Therefore, although I probably knew the answer, I asked Shaun for his advice to remain productive, a particularly important question at the time as we were in the middle of the COVID lockdown.

Shaun reminisced about his time as a language teacher, trying to get back into academia: “it just came down to setting time aside, and making sure I worked on stuff. And also, the fact that I was a humanities scholar meant that all I needed was a laptop and internet connection and some books. I think that also makes it easier if you're in the humanities, you don't need that much” (39:01). This is an excellent point: with the advances in online repositories of academic knowledge, the truth is a lot of humanities research, particularly into the background of a proposed study, can be done with only a laptop and an internet connection. He also mentioned the importance of using these tools to maintain relationships within the academic community: “I think part of it is motivation, and then maintaining some kind of connection with networks of other scholars, still maintaining some published output. My advice is to kind of struggle perhaps, if they're not tenured, or if they're sort of halfway in halfway out of the academic world, is to keep it up and maintain some sort of connection by correspondence with … scholars working in their field.” (39:42). This advice is important not only for those on the way up in their career, but also those who have achieved some level of security in their position: maintaining a robust network within your field can lead to opportunities for career advancement you simply couldn’t find or navigate by yourself - our podcast is one way I am attempting to do this.

My next interview with Dr. Mahboubeh Rakhshanderoo came about because of a convoluted intersection of associated colleagues, the story of which was outlined in my previous blog post. Dr. Rakhshanderoo had also interviewed me for her video series for YouTube about my research, so this interview was the return leg, so to speak. Coming from Iran to Japan around a decade ago for graduate study, Dr. Rahkshanderoo has an insider’s perspective on English taught programs (ETPs) in Japan. She conducted postgraduate research into these programs and published her doctoral research as a paper in 2018. She also teaches in these programs and knows first-hand the challenges faced by instructors. Giving advice to would-be teachers when working on a course that combines international students and domestic Japanese students together, in either a lesson or research project, she said “I have, for example, international students this semester, that are studying English ... and they are not shy at all. They talk and not in the class, they are very motivated ... But for my Japanese students, not all of them ... they do not ask questions unless I try to create a kind of, you know, environment for them that they get encouraged to be more motivated and ask questions” (25:36). She also gave some enlightening and hopefully motivational messages to current graduate students who have had a difficult time making their way through ethics review for their data collection. With the improved status and level of trust former graduate students gain through their graduate work, institutions might be more likely to give assistance in future post-graduation from the doctoral program: “I think I was not lucky in the beginning. And I really developed my own connection after graduation. If I fill out this form ... the ethical faculty, the committee, they say that, okay, this study looks like to be okay in terms of ethical issues, so I can have access to this student's mailing list. But when I was a PhD student, we didn't have such a system. So even though I had finished the ethical review process ... I had to explain about my research myself, I remember even my supervisor, send them an email and describe the research and the one of the Graduate Schools clearly stated that we are not willing to, you know, collaborate … I think my status was not something that people could really trust me with. But now that I'm an instructor and have these things in place for the instructors that after finishing this ethical process, you can have access to the students, and I think data collection can become [much] easier” (21:51). That’s good to know!

Coming up next was the second of my interviews with current colleagues, Dr. Gabrielle Decamous. Her interview was on the subject of her book, an expanded version of the research she did for her doctorate. An academic with a background of working in art galleries and for artists, Gabrielle has a unique perspective to bring to her role as a researcher and educator. The work we were discussing was her 2020 paper “Art, Censorship and Nuclear Warfare” which was derived from her 2019 book “Invisible Colors”, which in turn was inspired by doctoral research. After discussing the details of the paper, our conversation led to the process of writing a book. I asked if she thought she would do it again: “And then I think it's a good thing to talk about struggles as writers, I think instead of just saying it was easy, I'll do that tomorrow all over again. It took me I would say about five years, all together, to put it from start to bottom“ (24:18). We then spoke about specific problems she had encountered that she would recommend could be avoided: “I ended up having 160 images, or more than that, actually, and this is not something I would do. Again, it was too long, and also having to deal with different languages, Japanese, Japanese, and French and English and Italian and I at some point I was it was overwhelming, because what happens is that every country has its own laws, copyright laws, and then every museum and an every artist, and then sometimes it was very expensive“ (26:35). Anyone who had had to deal with the issue of image right for a publication will understand this problem - it cannot be avoided, only mitigated: “if I could change things, it would be how I, how I planned it, and also all the copyrights images, I will not do this ever again. In my life. I don't want to go there anymore. Anymore” (33:17). However, by this Gabrielle did not mean she would avoid the process of writing another book entirely: “But today, if I could write again, another book, I would just take the time to really gather all the information and then start from there. Instead of just being in an emergency all the time over there” (34:19). The advice appears to be to plan carefully, know your goal, but plan for plenty of extra time and contingencies to be required in the process.

A colleague who I have known for over a decade but with whom I have never worked directly was my next interviewee, Dr. Chris Stillwell. His research field is teacher observation, a subject over which we first bonded and, despite no longer being full-time focused on language teaching methodologies, I believe to be a powerful tool in improving the skills of a job for which I have a great deal of affinity. Chris told the story of the program he directed and the value it has for teachers at different stages in their careers: “This is a teacher who maybe finished the master's program not too long ago, and the correct, quote, unquote, correct way of doing things. But they just can't necessarily do these things, even though they can, they can talk about and they can have a good conversation about it. But they're still too overwhelmed” (28:34) This is a note all teachers can remember, first with a sense of dread for the memory of those moments, then with a sense of pride of having overcome: we knew the course and remembered our training, but not the moment, and we thought the only prescription was experience; in fact, the prescription was experience and support. Chris continued, “In the classroom, perhaps we kind of don't have the bandwidth to do so many things. It's kind of like when you when you're first learning to drive, I think, and you you know, when you're first learning to drive, the idea that you're going to manipulate the steering wheel and the gas pedal and the brake and the mirror and get the radio on the station on the on the station that you want. All those things are quite a lot when you're starting out”(28:53). His final point serves as an excellent analogy to think about our colleagues at the start of their careers. So much of what we might take for granted or see as natural is a struggle for some at the beginning: we have to be there to help each other.

Chris’s final note on this method of self-improvement through group support was inspiring: ”it was just a really powerful way to learn things. Because these were people I already knew and trusted. And, you know, they're good friends of mine. But now I've seen something completely different. So I just don't think there's a more powerful way to learn about teaching and reflecting on one's own teaching” (41:24). When we work within a supportive group, the limits to our achievements are lifted and within trust we can find personal and joint development.

My next interview is one that has been the cause of much discussion post-interview, Dr. Ahmar Mahboob from the University of Sydney. His stance on EMI courses, and the difference between his opinions and those of other academics made the topic of my first blog for this website “A podcast narrative.” A learned and deeply thoughtful academic, Dr. Mahboob had advice ranging from for academics and language users alike, as we can often struggle to understand how best to use English so it works in a positive, additive way and does not damage our linguistic environments.

When asked for his advice on how to achieve these aims, Professor Mahboob had a detailed response: “We need to move away from referenced-based thinking and minimize that as much as possible, if not deleted, and move into observation-based thinking specially when we're dealing with any social semiotics and social sciences. And definitely we should, in our teaching, not get our students just to replicate that stuff and define things in exactly the same way that has always been defined. But really question these sorts of definitions and terms and look at these things, in our own work and with our students” (1:05:06). Indeed - critical thinking as teachers, challenging our own concepts and knowledge, and encouraging our students to do the same within the environment of the classroom, a place where they should feel free to explore ideas together, is a positive step forward.

Although understanding the basis of his opinions, the negative opinions of EMI expressed by Dr. Mahboob led me to contact Dr. Annette Bradford for the following interview (for more details of how these two interviews intersect, read my previous blog). Annette is a long-time colleague of mine and collaborator on several conference panel presentations. The topic of our interview was ostensibly the production of edited volumes, but Annette’s work is so admirably prolific and so often cited, the top of productivity was bound to come up. It was interesting to hear a similar refrain in her advice: “I would say researching something that you enjoy. It is something that I noticed with friends doing research degrees - they get bogged down by their research because they are doing a topic their advisor told them to do. Right from the beginning, I chose to research a topic I was interested in and already knew a little bit about, so that keeps me motivated to continue with it” (35:00). This is the same advice heard before from Kris Ramnonda and discussed with Marc Helgeson: intrinsic motivation is boosted by wanting to know the answer or enjoying the process of discovering it.

We also discussed funded research, including a Kakenhi Grant-in-Aid fund she was awarded in 2020, and how best to prepare your funding request. “You’ve got to think about where the money is coming from for any kind of research - who is the funder? What benefit is the funder going to get out of this? Funders … have people that they have to report to as well, so what are they going to write in their report about how they’ve spent their money?” (41:02). This is also good advice if you find yourself stuck about what to write or what to say in a paper or presentation: ask yourself ‘Who is the audience? What do they probably know or probably not know? How can what I write/say help them to understand my position better?’

Moving away from sociolinguistics entirely, the next interviewee was a former colleague from Kyushu now working in Kyoto, Luisa Zeilhofer. Hailing from Germany, this avowed Japanophile spoke about how important the “plus alpha” (3:50) was in gaining secure employment in Japan. By this, she was referring to the need to separate yourself from other candidates. In my experience, Luisa has a great deal to offer any potential employers in Japan, not only her high energy attitude, but her linguistic abilities and commitment to her students. Later in the podcast, we discussed the basis of her approach to teaching, which included some very useful advice.

The topic of the paper was meditation in the language classroom, specifically to assist with students mindfulness and centering them in the present: “I really recommend to try anything at first...because some people like guided meditation, some people hate them...go to YouTube, try one, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or one hour...and try different speakers because everyone has a different meditation guiding style and your have to like the voice” (25:28). When we spoke about productivity, she reported working on “6 articles” (30:00) as the response to my question of whether she likes to complete one project before moving onto the next. “I have to force myself to concentrate on just one topic” she said when asked if they were all about meditation and mindfulness “I try to limit myself” (30:43). Finally, one piece of motivation perhaps Luisa is uniquely able to utilize came up when discussing the details of one of the articles she is working on: “It will be published hopefully next year, this time in German: I have to switch the language all the time otherwise I get bored” (31:39). Good luck with all of them!

The final interview included in this blog was with the person recommended by Aya Matsuda and contacted on my behalf by Mahboubeh Rahkshanderoo, Professor Nobuyuki Hino. The paper we were discussing was on the production of an endonormative (i.e. not normalized against a foreign standard) model of English for EIL (English as an International Language). As you might imagine, this is not widely supported work outside of the field of sociolinguistics.

Professor Hino is a vivacious proponent of endonormatively-stabilized varieties of English outside the traditional standards often held up as the models for learning and teaching. Endonoratively-stabilized means they have to draw from within the contextual environment for the lexical, grammatical, pronunciation, and sociolinguistic pillars of the language variety. When asked what advice he had people considering postgraduate studies in this area of linguistics, hespoke very directly: “I think I have two pieces of advice ...: one is in this area of study ELF and EIL and world English is so many people have been doing research on attitudes, attitudes towards varieties of English. If a prospective student wants to pursue this area of attitudes further, then I think they need some new perspective, because we already have a huge accumulation of studies regarding people's attitude towards varieties of English. So far, I think that would be important because ... students are trying to only replicate what has been researched already“ (39:06). To hear an academic as experienced as Professor Hino express this sentiment was personally affecting. It was a piece of advice I had recently shared with a friend of mine considering undertaking a doctorate in WE and EIL and my advice was very similar: you need an angle not yet considered because most of the attitudes research has been done or is covered by MA students replicating prior methodologies.

Professor Hino continued: “My second piece of advice would be ESL. As we discussed earlier, people are now interested in pedagogical aspects of why the English is ELF and EIL. In this case, I think they are those students who should have some background in ELT theories. For example, I think the students should know, what does focus focus on for me, how is it different from focus on forms? And what is comprehensible input? What is content based content based instruction? and things like that? I would say so, in other words, I want those students to read Jack Richards, for example, as much as Jennifer Jenkins” (40:11). As a former full-time EFL/ESL teacher with an MA in English Language Teaching, this was, again, music to my ears. I spent the majority of my first decade in Japan considering methods of how to improve students' appreciation of the language they were learning outside of the points I was trying to include in my lessons. Appreciating these points from the point of view of the person having to explain them is a useful exercise in understanding; this also holds true for the understanding of one’s first language as well.

Which brings us to the end of this second half of our advice blog. Of course, the podcast did not stop here: at time of publication, we have released (38) podcasts. I certainly can and will write a Part 3 (and more) of this type of blog. We will just have to wait until I have another 15 podcasts to review, which should be sometime . It has been fascinating to go back through these interviews and rediscover the comments and advice from six months of work. To conclude for today, I would like to say this project is one from which I am also constantly learning. This is not always true of other works I undertake. Just as in the introduction I said our interviewees come from various backgrounds, running a regularly released podcast has come with its own varied tests of our skills and opportunities to learn new ones. It is hoped that, podcast-by-podcast, we become better at drawing out interesting gems of information from our interviewees, and that you, the listeners and readers, also improve along with us.

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