Introducing International Teaching Assistants

We recently published A Transdisciplinary Approach to International Teaching Assistants edited by Stephen Daniel Looney and Shereen Bhalla. In this post the editors explain how their book reframes the notion of ‘the ITA problem’.

For several decades in North America, international graduate students have accounted for a significant portion of the teaching labor force at large universities. Thus, novice multilingual teachers with little to no pedagogical training are leading courses populated by undergraduates from the US who have limited experience with intercultural interaction in high-stakes contexts. By the 1980s, this situation had been dubbed “the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Problem,” and the problem was perceived to be a sociolinguistic one, i.e. lacking symmetry between the speech and pragmatic expectations of ITAs and undergraduates. States began passing legislation requiring that ITAs’ English proficiency be certified before they could undertake teaching responsibilities. This led to the emergence of ITA Programs at universities across the US and Canada as well as the establishment of the ITA Interest Section in the International TESOL organization. ITA Programs vary vastly both in where they are housed in universities, e.g. an academic department, teaching and learning center, or Intensive English Program, and in the services that they provide, e.g. semester-long courses or shorter workshops and seminars. The ITA Interest Section is composed almost exclusively of teachers and administrators with few researchers being active participants. This imbalance has arguably caused ITA as a sub-field of applied linguistics and TESOL to be marginalized and misunderstood as deficit oriented.

Framing ITAs as a problem surely offends the 21st century applied linguist’s sensibilities, but researchers and practitioners realized early on that the issue is more complex than just pronunciation and grammar which can be addressed with remedial ESL courses. ITAs need to be able to exploit and interpret prosodic and multimodal cues, and classroom communication is a two-way street, involving undergraduates as well as ITAs. At the same time, perceptions of speech and expectations for classroom behavior are influenced by experiences and biases that may be conscious or not. While ITA research has dealt with language, interaction, and the perceptions, attitudes, and experiences of ITAs and undergraduates, other stakeholders such as faculty members, ITA practitioners, and university administrators have only entered the periphery of the discussion at best and an in-depth look at policy is non-existent to the best of my knowledge.

Drawing on recent developments in applied linguistics, our volume is a collection of state-of-the-art ITA studies from a variety of perspectives. While there are chapters addressing language and social interaction, there are also studies of communities of practice, the contact hypothesis, assessment, policy, and program evaluation. As a whole, the contributions to this volume reframe ITAs as skilled multilingual professionals who are developing sophisticated interactional repertoires for teaching and academic interaction. Additionally, these multilingual professionals are being socialized into communities of practice including university classrooms, departments, research labs, and student organizations. The collection recognizes the roles multiple stakeholders play in ITA and the institutional and ideological realities that these stakeholders face. While ITA has been framed as a North American issue, English is increasingly the medium of instruction in universities around the world, making our volume relevant to researchers, teachers, and administrators worldwide. The use of English for Teaching (and Academic) Purposes is a global issue that deserves further attention. Our volume only begins to crack the surface of what could be fertile ground for applied linguists, but we hope it can serve as a springboard for further investigation.


For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like International Student Engagement in Higher Education by Margaret Kettle.

Using Ethnomethodological Conversation Analysis in Research on Teaching

Next month we are publishing The Embodied Work of Teaching edited by Joan Kelly Hall and Stephen Daniel Looney. In this post the editors tell us more about the methodology used in the research for this book.

The Embodied Work of Teaching is based on the premise that language teaching is sophisticated, professional work. Such work has typically been represented in the literature as propositional knowledge about teaching. Numerous essays and books exist that tell teachers how they should teach, e.g. ‘connect to students’ experiences’, ‘maintain everyone’s attention’, ‘promote student participation, and ‘be prepared for contingencies.’ Missing from this abundant literature, however, are studies on how teaching is actually accomplished. This volume addresses this gap by showcasing studies that document in rich empirical detail the complex, embodied achievement of language teaching in a variety of instructional settings.

The studies draw on the theoretical foundations and methodological tools of ethnomethodological conversation analysis (EMCA). A dominant approach to the study of social action, EMCA considers the nature and source of human sociality to be fundamentally cooperative, locally accomplished, and grounded in real-world activity. The purpose of EMCA research on teaching is to describe the natural features of classroom life as they are actually produced by teachers and students without reducing them to collections of discrete, insignificant acts. Data-driven and analytically inductive, EMCA relies on a set of robust transcription conventions to identify and describe the fine-grained details of the specialized actions of teaching, the learner actions they engender and the larger pedagogical projects they accomplish.

As demonstrated in the studies in this volume, in addition to instructing or directing others, language teaching involves the ongoing management of alignment, affiliation and multiple participant frameworks through the simultaneous and sequential coordination of numerous embodied resources in addition to language, including body positions, facial expressions, gaze, gesture, and objects in the environment. The studies are not offered as exemplars of best practices; that is, they do not claim to showcase how teaching should be accomplished. Rather, they demonstrate how it is accomplished in particular settings, by particular teachers with particular pedagogical goals and with particular students. As instructive descriptions of the interactional, embodied achievement of teaching, the studies offer to scholars of teaching, teacher educators, teachers and other stakeholders the opportunity to see and understand the sophisticated practices of teaching in new and potentially transformative ways.


For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting you might also like Objects, Bodies and Work Practice edited by Dennis Day and Johannes Wagner.