Research interests:

second language teaching & learning; linguistic identity; bilingualism; teacher education

Working in three languages

Posted: June 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: multilingualism | No Comments »

I was musing the other day on the difficulties of working in three languages. That morning I was answering emails in English to my graduate students, in German to the organizers of a session at the conference in South Tirol this summer and in French to the professor organizing the teacher preparation courses for the French cohort. Someone entered my office and I had to ask them to wait while I concentrated on the right wording of the email in French. Those of you who live and work in three languages know the challenges. Researchers recognize that multilingual people use their languages for different purposes and therefore have areas (“domains” to quote Fishman) in which they work in one language and not another. However, some of us, for a variety of natural or artificial reasons, do the same work in more than one language. I facilitate teacher workshops on drama pedagogy in either English or German. I teach language classes in German or French and undergraduate teacher preparation classes in English or French. So, in one domain, I need to have the same vocabulary in all three languages (or at least in two of three). This can be really challenging as one is always stronger in one than the other and sometimes you don’t realize your shortfalls until you are in the middle of a sentence! Take, for example, an undergraduate class in French that I taught in January. I took great pains to prepare the classes, but during a spontaneous reference to something the students may have been exposed to in the lecture from another class, I started saying “Dans votre. . . ” then I got stuck. I wanted to say “lecture” (in French), but that word in French means “reading”, like reading a book. Immediately I thought of the German word “Vorlesung”, but that actually does mean “reading” because, I surmise, it came from the days when professors sat at the front of the lecture hall and read to their students from a paper or prepared notes. So the German word was no help. I asked the students. They (also mostly advanced¬† second language learners of French) said they didn’t really ever use that word and so nothing came to mind. So I did a circumlocution and said “classe de x” and moved on. Working in three languages keeps me humble and always adding to my knowledge, but there are times I wish people could see a sign on my head that read “she really is trying”. (Oh, by the way, the word I was looking for is apparently “cours magistral” – very impressive sounding word – I have connotations of the king presiding).

Difficult conversations – Working in a second language

Posted: May 15th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: academia, general | No Comments »

I have mused before about working in three languages, but I was reminded last week about the less glamorous side of speaking more than one language well: not speaking the language of a particular conversation as well as one would like. I was having a conversation in German describing my research, which I do primarily in English. I had the distinct impression that my conversation partner wasn’t being won over by my argument, but what frustrated me most was feeling like I didn’t express myself well enough. There are so many subtleties that I know, just know, I am not expressing because I often pick verbs that are too general. Then, when I do use a precise verb, I can tell by someone’s reaction that I picked the wrong one. Now I am being too precise and have inadvertently focused the conversation on another matter than I had intended. Ladled on that are the differences in research or classroom culture where you want to say “So macht man das nicht!” (We don’t do it that way/That would never work).

Ultimately, deciding to continue to work in another language means a combination of giving up some pride in one’s ability to express a specific point and determining anew to learn more of that language, especially as it pertains to the particular domain you want to talk about, in this case, classroom research. I am also reminded that I have some of the same problems in conversation interactions where I am doing something new like going to the gym to workout (I asked for a locker instead of a lock!). I tell myself we all need to have some self-compassion in these difficult interactions, which in turn should lead to compassion for others in similar situations.


Three aspects of academia that make it all worthwhile

Posted: December 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: academia, teaching | No Comments »

Have you ever made of list of what you love about your job? It is a recommended activity for career seekers and brings to light what drives you to seek a particular job. (By the same token, writing down what you do not like helps to clarify if you are indeed in search of the right position). Here are some of my favorite aspects of academia and how I experienced them this past semester.

I have been working as Interim Coordinator for the newly-relaunched Teaching Across Borders (TAB) program in Undergraduate Programs in Education (UPE) at the University of Calgary. This program will enable students in their third semester of the BEd program to spend 10 weeks abroad volunteering in schools while getting to know another culture, language and school system. They will be supported by the Teaching Across Borders Coordinator and their online instructors. This support will help them to have a successful experience abroad and return to Canada to take part in their third semester practicum in a Canadian school. I am excited to be a part of this program and will post more about it as the program unfolds. For this post, I would like to focus on the three most-rewarding aspects of the role that I have worked in full time this past fall.

1. Variety – I have had an office on campus as a student, but having set up an office for Teaching Across Borders, I was also able to set up a schedule that involved a variety of activities everyday from office work, research and writing that had me sitting in front of the computer working in a relatively solitary manner, to meetings of all sorts (TAB-related, service to UPE or my educational discipline specialization area (EDSA)) to workshops and meetings around campus to educate myself or make arrangements for Teaching Across Borders. In addition, I taught one course, mentored a new instructor and collaborated with a colleague on creating a video for future iterations of the course.

2. Collegiality and Team Work –¬† I am an extrovert, so I thrive on being around people. Thankfully, I have interesting, dynamic colleagues that I enjoy working with. These people serve as mentors in the areas of teaching, research and academia in general. For example, the above-mentioned video involved helping to prepare an interview of a visiting scholar who was very accommodating and presented interesting, important work in an accessible manner. My collaborator is the team lead for the course, who balanced her goals as the interviewer with my goals as the videographer, while also being sensitive to the interviewee. It was a very positive experience with a steep learning curve for all of us. Some of my mentors also include staff whose roles provide support for the TAB position. I created content for a TAB webpage that involved o the staff of the Communications Office who advised me on how to set up the content, physically put it together for me and then created publicity for the program and the website by having me in to do a QuickChat Interview.

3. Research and Writing – Keeping a regular, on-campus schedule facilitated my research and writing. I set aside regular blocks for both and even participated in an on-campus academic writing group. I caught up on study abroad and intercultural communication research. I revised and resubmitted two articles, one of which has now been accepted. I also co-wrote a grant application for the TAB program. The focus of an instructor’s research and writing is curriculum development. I see a great capacity in the TAB coordinator position for research that will inform the program.

Reflecting on this role, I see these three aspects of academia as ones that make the work rewarding and worthwhile. While academia is not the only career that offers these three aspects, I consider these aspects as important to sustaining the work that is done at universities.



Visiting Scholar – Take 2

Posted: May 3rd, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: academia, research | No Comments »

I am back at the University of Hamburg for a month – this time as a visiting scholar under the German Academic Agency’s (DAAD) Short-term Research Stay program. I will be continuing my research into how the University of Hamburg is preparing pre-service teachers for working with refugee children. This research has expanded to a comparative study of the US and Canada with two international colleagues: Drorit Lengyel and Barri Tinkler.

I have three main goals while I am here:

  1. continue the document analysis I started two years ago and getting it ready for publication
  2. (tied with that) pilot a document analysis workshop with graduate students here and if successful, offer at home and at a US institution
  3. interview university instructors regarding their work with pre-service teachers in this area.

I am still waiting for clearance to do #3, but the ball is rolling for that.

I have a few personal goals to expand my German repertoire:

  1. take in some movies at the Abaton Kino which offers lesser known titles in German (as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters)
  2. make use of the university fitness studio where I just bought a guest membership for the month
  3. try out a few new restaurants to add to my list of favourites (and pictures on Instagram)

So far, other than jetlag, I have also had to deal:

  1. with temporarily losing the ability to do bank transfers with my German account (long story – even longer to settle)
  2. accidentally walking into the mens’ change room (can’t I read German?)
  3. converting my personal training program from mph to km/h (didn’t I learn to convert in school?)

Stay posted for progress reports.

Developing a Sense of Style – Thanks Steven Pinker

Posted: June 29th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: academia, writing | No Comments »

When I entered graduate school I knew I had to learn to do research, I didn’t realize I would have to learn to write, really write, a lot! I thought of research articles as research reports, rather than the persuasive writing pieces they actually are. As I started to get articles reviewed, I noticed similar comments each time. Without going into detail, those comments taught me that I needed to invest in the craft of writing. One way I do that is by reading and trying to apply the suggestions in books on writing.

Recently I have been working on “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker. My favorite factor chapter is #2 on the classic style of writing. I appreciate his criticism of writing that is wordy and lofty, since academia is full of unclear prose that I have always struggled to understand. Pinker uses three very different writing excerpts to discuss what makes a piece of writing exceptional. My motivation to write more clearly was strengthened by the examples.

Rather than geek out on the many aspects I liked, suffice it to say that all of us who write for a living, and I consider academics to be professional writers, can benefit from greater clarity in our writing.


Formative assessment in online graduate classes

Posted: June 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: research, teaching | No Comments »

In my teaching practice, I instruct a number of online graduate classes a year. With the first course I instructed, I began in the way of most beginner teachers: “teach as you were taught”. After the first course, I reflected upon what worked well and what I felt could be improved. One aspect of online graduate courses that appeared to be missing was formative assessment. In subsequent classes, I looked at how to build formative assessment into the course.

1. I began by requiring students to provide drafts of final reports by a given deadline. This proved popular. Without the deadline, students rarely took up the general offer to have me read over anything they had written and if they did it was usually a small snippet of their writing or very focused questions. What was missing was a chance to read how the student wrote a longer piece. Once I integrated drafts on a deadline, I was able to see how the student wrote: the line of argumentation, use of citations and practical issues such as formatting and APA style. I commented and gave suggested and expected to see a progression from the draft to the final paper.

2. At the same time, I implemented peer editing. Students in online courses are often asked to comment on other student’s posts and there is a danger of “cheerleading” (e.g., “I really liked what you wrote about. . . “) In the Canadian context, this seems to be heightened by our reluctance to criticize. In the first course I implemented peer feedback on writing, all students posted their work and were asked to choose two other pieces of posted work to comment on. This turned out to be problematic. Students didn’t know how far to go in their editing and the results were superficial for the most part.

3. What appeared to be missing was a relationship among the students that would facilitate closer reading of one another’s work, so in the next course I instituted peer editing groups. Groups of three to five students were assigned to work with one another throughout the whole course, beginning with brainstorming, researching and outlining and culminating with reading and commenting on each other’s drafts. Creating these groups allowed the students to focus only on reading and editing a small number of pieces and since they were working together over the duration of the course, they built up relationships of trust. The resulting final papers, compared to the drafts, were outstanding and the improvement was clearly based on more than my comments on their drafts.

4. An added benefit of formative assessment was the privilege of reading each paper twice. Some colleagues have asked me if it isn’t so much extra work for me to read a draft that goes ungraded and then have all of the grading at the end of the course. I always answer that the grading is made so much more manageable by the fact that I am acquainted with the topic. In addition, I feel that the comments that I make on the final paper are more valuable. I no longer feel compelled to comment on minutiae that would only help the student if s/he were intending to work up the paper for publishing, since s/he would never be writing (or possibly even looking at) this paper again. Instead I can give feedback on the work that was done in light of my students’ learning goals and the degree to which they were able to improve the paper over time.

5. My latest challenge has been to improve the feedback I give in the form of comments. I recently read “Embedded Formative Assessment” by Dylan Wiliam¬† and have taken to hear the research on “feedback that moves learning forward”. I have altered the way I include comments and grades, by separating them physically so that the students read the comments first and then look up their grade in a different part of the online platform. I do not know if this will have the desired effect or just annoy students, but I will be asked the students at the end of this semester if it was effective. I am also trying to limit my comments to the scoring rubric only or, if I do comment on something outside of the rubric, to label it as such and only include it if it is part of the upcoming assignment’s rubric.

Improving formative assessment in online graduate classes will continue to be a goal of mine for improving my teaching practice. Fortunately, successes are almost immediately perceived and as such, the motivation to continue this work remains high.

Update: I went on to research peer and instructor feedback. It was published here:

Dressler, R., Chu, M-W., Crossman, K., & Hilman, B. (2019). Quantity and quality of uptake: Examining surface and meaning-level feedback provided by peers and an instructor in a graduate research course. Assessing Writing, 39(1), 14-24, doi:10.1016/j.asw.2018.11.001