September 27, 2010

Todd Ruecker

NNEST of the Month
October, 2010

tcruecker [at] miners [dot] utep [dot] edu

Ana Wu: Could you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to be an educator?
Mr. Ruecker: I grew up as a monolingual native English speaker. In high school and college, I focused on learning the no longer widely spoken languages of Latin, Classical Greek, and Old English. However, my interest in becoming an L2 educator and learning new languages came when I spent a summer in Alaska housekeeping at a hotel outside of Denali National Park. There, I worked with people from all over the world, and grew especially close to a group of people from the Czech Republic. With them, I began to learn a few basic words of Czech and found it rewarding and interesting to be able to communicate with my friends, albeit in a very limited way, in their own language. My Czech friends invited me to come teach English in their country, telling me that as a native English speaker, I would have no problem finding a well-paying job. This led me to visit the Czech Republic a couple times over the next few years, take a TEFL training course there, and focus my MA thesis on peer review between native and nonnative speakers of English (while I was in a primarily English literature MA program, I searched out an advisor who specialized in linguistics to craft a path of study that included study and teaching experience in L2 writing). Knowing that I wanted to be able to communicate with Czechs in their own language, I began teaching myself Czech on a regular basis, working with a textbook, talking to myself around the rural Missouri town where I was studying, taking an independent study with a Slavic literature professor who had limited Czech knowledge, watching Czech movies, and emailing my friends in Czech.

I eventually moved to the Czech Republic and lived there for two years while teaching English through a private language school at various businesses along with teaching at a junior high/high school catering to wealthy Russian expatriates in Prague. It was not until I moved to El Paso, TX, and began my doctorate in rhetoric and composition that I began reading articles about native speakerism, realizing that by moving to Prague and teaching English with very little linguistic knowledge, I was taking advantage of native speaker privilege. This realization, combined with readings in a critical race theory course, led me to the work I presented on at TESOL 2010 and will discuss more below.

After learning Czech, I learned Spanish as well. I began with a book, practicing with Spanish-speaking friends from Colombia, Spain, and Peru, later improving my fluency by spending time in in a volunteeer English teaching program in Chile and also by living here on the border in El Paso. My major focus at present is my dissertation, in which I’m following multilingual students on the US-Mexico border as they make the transition from high school to college. While most of my work with these students has been done in English, I have utilized my Spanish in crafting bilingual research board documents for my study approval. I’ve also been able to use Spanish at times in interviews when students aren’t able to express themselves as they’d like in English.

Ana Wu: You teach in a rich multicultural environment and have designed assignments well suited for students to take advantage of their multilingualism. Would you share some of your ideas and pedagogical recommendations? How do you think foreign-born NNES instructors working in the US can effectively help their ESL students develop intercultural competence, promoting cross-cultural sensitivity, awareness, and understanding?
Mr. Ruecker: I think that foreign born NNES professionals working in the US have a unique opportunity to help students utizilze their multilingual abilities and help all students in their classes develop cross-cultural competence. Even if they do not know the home languages of their students, NNES professionals in the US have the experience of learning another language. With this, they become role models for their students and are more likely than monolinguals to understand the challenges of learning a new language. Because foreign-born NNES professionals have the experience of living in multiple cultures, they are more sensitive than those who have only lived in one culture to the differences between cultures. As a result, they are likely to have more ideas on what kind of topics should be discussed in a curriculum aimed at developing cross-cultural comptence. As an added benefit, they likely have stories of awkward situations that arose when learning a new language or functioning in a new culture that can help bring them closer to their students and build their ethos among them.

A common assignment in first-year composition courses is the rhetorical analysis. Given that most students at the University of Texas at El Paso are bilingual English/Spanish speakers, I like giving my students an opportunity to see their multilingual/multicultural backgrounds as an advantage. One semester, I gave students the option of engaging in a cross-cultural rhetorical analysis, in which they read articles from Mexican and US papers on current issues, such as the US-Mexico border wall or immigration policy. As I prepared students for the essay, I would post several sets of articles, with half of them being bilingual and the other half being only in English. When I did this, a few of my monolingual students were confused because they could only choose from two of the four options I posted. To me, this indicated their discomfort when a classroom was changed from a space that catered exclusively to monolinguals to one that recognized the unique abilities of multilinguals. I had to explain to my monolingual students that because they were not bilingual they did not have the options that their multilingual peers did. The students who chose the multilingual option for their final paper were able to draw on their knowledge of multiple languages and cultures to reveal how authors’ situatedness shaped the way the same topic was discussed in very different ways.

In other classes, I have encouraged students to use home languages in their writing, but consider their audience in doing so. For instance, if they are writing to a multilingual audience that speaks Spanish, they may be able to incorporate untranslated quotes in their writing in their original language. However, if their audience is primarily monolingual English speakers, students should provide translations of the Spanish either in the text or in footnotes. In examining the politics of translation, we discuss how putting original Spanish quotes in the text and providing the English translations as footnotes gives Spanish a more privileged place within the text than it would have if simply relegated to footnotes.

It must be noted that when offered to use their home languages, only a few students choose this option, and my dissertation advisor has reported the same when encouraging her students to use their own languages in their writing. This is likely because students are so used to a monolingual classroom and, in the case of a border language like Spanglish, are used to their language carrying a lot of stigma.

Ana Wu: Despite the fact that other fields, such as sociology, anthropology, and composition studies have both extensively and critically explored issues of race, we haven’t seen much of such discussions in TESOL (Kubota & Lin, 2006). When analyzing the relationship between non-native speakers and power, you propose the use of the Critical Race Theory.

a. Why? What can we learn from drawing on this approach? What topics do you think need further investigation? How do you think NES and NNEST can work collaboratively on doing research?
Mr. Ruecker: In my TESOL presentation, I made the argument that TESOL has not extensively explored issues of race in part because of the discomfort that ensues from talking about this topic. Moreover, while the Kubota and Lin edited TESOL Quarterly issue, Curtis and Romney’s (2006) Color, race, and English language teaching, and a 2006 special Critical Inquiry in Language Studies issue on postcolonial approaches to TESOL have made important contributions in this area, I still find the scholarship limited in that it tends to focus on how teachers’ race or ethnicity can significantly impact the way they are heard by students, regardless of their English ability.

In my article, I propose drawing more broadly from race theorists. As an example, I use Harris’ (1993) “Whiteness as property” to argue that native speaker status has been constructed as a property interest with benefits that has subsequently been protected. I also point to other areas where TESOL can benefit from work in race theory, such as drawing on theories of racial passing to discuss linguistic passing and theories of everyday racism to explore how native speakerism is constructed through daily discourses and actions. I do think NES and NNEST speakers need to work together as challenging the power of native speakerism should not be solely the responsibility of NNESs just like challenging racism should not be simply the responsibility of victims of racism. However, in working together, we need to recognize the power hierarchies and ensure that NESs speak with and not for NNESs. One area of collaboration could include a collection like Braine’s (1999) Non-native educators in English language teaching that includes not only NNES voices but also NES voices who discuss and critique the ways that they have benefited from NES privilege.

b. What seminal papers inspired you? Which ones would you recommend graduate students in TESOL or Applied Linguistic programs read?
Mr. Ruecker: I would definitely recommend Kramsch’s (1998) “The privilege of the intercultural speaker” and Cook’s (1999) “Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching.” They were some early works in challenging the privileged status of the native speaker and also questioned how we assume that there is an easy definition of who is a native speaker. Holliday’s (2005) The struggle to teach English as an international language has a good discussion on native speakerism and provides a useful definition. Braine’s (1999) collection is certainly important as well. In connecting the discourses of racism and native speakerism, I have found Shuck’s (2006) and Motha’s (2006a; 2006b) work valuable.

c. When I commented about the use of the Critical Race Theory, a colleague responded that by “discussing race, you become a racist promoting racism.” What do you think of this suggestion?
Mr. Ruecker: In my TESOL presentation, an audience member raised the same objection that your colleague did. While it is true that racial divisions have no basis in science but are socially constructed, we do not benefit from simply ignoring issues of race because our society is still structured around racial divides, as is evident by divides in wealth, education, and other areas. Conservatives have appropriated liberal discourses of colorblindness to dismantle programs like affirmative action in the United States by arguing that we should ignore race. Similarly, by dropping terms such as native and nonnative speaker, we do not solve the problem and the inequality surrounding these labels. Instead, we need to work to rewrite the meanings surrounding nonnative speaker so that it is seen more positively.

Ana Wu: Besides working on your Ph.D dissertation, you are the president of your student organization, Frontera Retorica, the assistant director of the first-year composition program, and the webmaster for the English department. What strategies do you employ to keep focused and motivated in your professional activities? How do you build on your strengths and uniqueness?
Mr. Ruecker: My doctoral work has certainly kept me busy. In the spring, I was taking three classes, teaching one, working as our program coordinator, and conducting dissertation research at a local high school two days a week where I assisted students, taught, and interviewed students and teachers. Additionally, I gave five presentations at three conferences. I have found that finding the energy for all this work comes because it is all something I care deeply about. I get energy from being around and working with some excellent colleagues and students. I am very happy to be doing an empirical as opposed to theoretical dissertation because it involves meeting with and interviewing students as well as observing their classes. Through these interactions, I hear new stories and perspectives that help me learn new things and be amazed by my participants’ struggles and successes on a daily basis. When relaxing, I like to cook, bike, and enjoy various cultural events around town. As El Paso is on the border, I hear both English and Spanish everyday and love the fact that many local cultural events, such as concerts and poetry slams, are commonly bilingual.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this insightful interview and good luck in your studies!

Braine, G. (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 185-209.
Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (2006). Color, race, and English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Harris, C.I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard law review, 106 (8), 1707-1791.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford UP. 

Kramsch, C. (1998). The privilege of the intercultural speaker. In Byram, M. & Fleming, M. (Eds.) Language learning in intercultural perspective: Approaches through drama and ethnography (pp. 20-35). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kubota, R. & Lin, A. (2006). Race and TESOL: Introduction to concepts and theories. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (3), 471-493.

Motha, S. (2006a). Decolonizing ESOL: Negotiating linguistic power in U.S. public school classrooms. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies: An International Journal, 3 (2 & 3), 75-100.

Motha, S. (2006b). Racializing ESOL teacher identities in U.S. K-12 public schools. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (3), 495-518.

Shuck, G. (2006). Racializing the nonnative English speaker. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5 (4), 259-76.


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