Non-White, 'native speaking', and academic; my voyage in the field of ELT as a black professional

"Finally, it needs to be stressed that if ELT wants to develop into a profession rather than remaining a largely unlegislated industry, then it should aim to eradicate all forms of discrimination. To evolve into a profession, the ELT community needs to challenge and remove from its belief system the notion that 'some speakers are more equal than others,' to give all members of the TESOL community the justice and equality that they deserve" (Mahboob, 2009, pg. 38). 

These are profound words written by Ahmar Mahboob and still ring true almost a decade later. As a field, we have come a long way in raising awareness of the issues of racism and discrimination (however uncomfortable that has been), but we still have a lot of work to do. I wish to preface this post by saying in no way, shape or form is anything written intended to be antagonizing. I also submit that in discussing this issue, one must walk a very fine line. On the one hand, we cannot be over-sensitive such that any and everything is considered racism: on the other, we cannot be dismissive of people's lived experiences and pretend that a problem doesn't exist. It is hoped that this post continues the discussion and generates healthy and insightful dialogue with the many bright minds and compassionate hearts in ELT, but from a perspective not heard from too often in our field. Lastly, I cannot fail to acknowledge the tremendous support I've received from the many accessible professionals/academics who have helped me along the way in my career. They are (in no particular order) Maureen McGarvey of IH, Jennifer Jenkins, Adrian Holliday, Julie Ciancio, Travis Bristol, Ali Selvi, Marek Kiczkowiak, and Andy Hockley. Your encouragement and guidance have been invaluable.

BLACK, 'NATIVE', & ACADEMIC: A UNIQUE SPACE

No doubt, racism and discrimination exist in the world, and yes even in a nice field like TESOL (Kubota, 2002). While quantifiable data would reveal the extent to which we have a problem with racism, our eyes and our ears tell us that there is indeed a problem. We have an obligation to tackle these unpleasantries so that human beings can enjoy basic freedoms; among them is having an equal opportunity to earn a living and live a decent life. These freedoms are granted by national and international laws (United Nations), and a basic requisite of employment should always be one's competence and skill set, and nothing more. That said, many non-White and 'non-native' teaching professionals in ELT still find obstacles to employment based on factors such as skin tone, mother tongue, nationality, and religion. That we even need to articulate this in 2018 is symptomatic of a deeply rooted and terribly stubborn problem.

I now share with you my story as an ELT professional. For me, I occupy a very unique space in TESOL: a black (non-White), 'native speaking' academic. From this space, I have 1) been denied employment based simply on appearance, regardless of qualifications and 2) benefited, financially and otherwise, from being a 'native speaker'. The last space in this matrix that I occupy is having the ability to contribute to academia in ELT (in my own small way) because of the scholarly tools I was fortunate to gain from an elite education. To articulate how it feels occupying all of these spaces, often at the same time, is beyond difficult. There are feelings of anger because of marginalization (employment opportunities vanishing simply because of my appearance), feelings of guilt from "remorseful entitlement" (despite being disadvantaged at times due to color, I have an advantage due to native speakerism, and this is something I've expressed as being unfair with my 'non-native' colleagues), and feelings of tremendous hope and opportunity (that I have a platform to speak out against what I feel is not correct and provide a mouthpiece for a significant segment of the ELT community largely unheard from). All of these factors contribute uniquely to my experience as a black teacher in TESOL and have laid the groundwork for why I believe I need to be more proactive in being part of the solution to this salient problem.

EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION

My teaching experience so far in almost 15 years of teaching has been largely positive. I have been fortunate to have published commentaries, have attended amazing conferences, have held important administrative positions, and have met some fantastic people. With that, I have also had interesting experiences with issues of discrimination and race. These experiences have mainly revolved around employment discrimination and perceived native speakerism. I also want to make it clear that I'm speaking from my experience in the context of the Middle East. Other black professionals may have had different experiences (some better, some worse) in other parts of the world, and even different experiences in the Middle East. That said, I know from my conversations with countless other black teaching professionals here that my experience reverberates with many others in the field.

When I'm applying for a position, as a principle and a strategy, I generally don't hand in passport pages or photos with initial applications (unless stipulated otherwise). My rationale is that I want to be judged first and foremost on my credentials, not how I look. I was told early in my career, from white and black colleagues, that sometimes recruiters simply reject applications if a candidate is non-White. They encouraged me to "at least get in the door" by being invited to interview because at that stage, it would be more difficult to be rejected. Interestingly, some of this advice has come from white colleagues who were in charge of recruitment and operating under the directive(s) of their superior. Over time, adopting this approach has indeed exposed some recruiters for being explicitly discriminatory at worst, highly unprofessional at best.

One incident in particular was when I applied to a language institute in Italy. I initially received high praise from the recruiter because of my educational background, academic accomplishments and for being a 'native speaker'. He was very excited to conduct the interview just as a matter of formality, and he requested the first page of my passport, which I sent. Unabashed, he sent me an email within minutes saying the position was filled and thanked me for applying. Ooookay. He really went there? Bewildered, I had hoped that he was being truthful, but after asking him to explain his previous behavior (high praise if the position was already filled) and receiving no response, I couldn't shake the idea that I was “qualified” for the job but not what he was "looking for". This would happen to me two other times, once for a job in Morocco and the other for a job in Saudi Arabia. In a market underpinned by native speakerism, it seems that some 'native speakers' are more equal than others. 

PERCEIVED NATIVE SPEAKERISM

As a black ELT professional, I've also often experienced the phenomenon that a 'native speaker' can only be White. Before leaving the US, I was never once questioned about my identity as an American; outside of the US in Saudi Arabia and Morocco has been a different story. In these places whenever someone asks me where I'm from, and I tell them New York City, whether I'm speaking to students, local teachers, or general people, the follow up question is almost always: "No, I mean where are you really from...like originally"? At first, I used to spend literally 10-15 minutes giving a mini history lesson about how no one is "originally" from America (we're all immigrants essentially), and that yes black people came over from Africa, but after 400 years we've sort of forgotten where we come from exactly. I quickly picked up that some people outside the US may not view black people as being American, regardless of the countless number of black Americans who are historically or currently world famous. This has a direct influence on teaching in English class because the formula becomes "originally American = native speaker = good quality", whereas "not originally American = non-native speaker = lesser quality". When you're teaching a class, it's mind numbing to have to think about the fact that sometimes the value of your teaching will be commensurate with how convinced students are of your "Americanness": that being perceived as not originally being from America has some influence on the perception of the quality of one's teaching. In other contexts, the black experience in the classroom has been even more flagrant. Charles (2017), conducting narrative inquiry research with black teachers in South Korea, asked teachers to document some of their classroom interactions. The study found that professionals had to constantly shake students’ perceptions of blacks as “uneducated...dangerous...[and]... untrustworthy", perceptions which had been recycled in South Korean media, and the teachers had to devise pedagogical strategies to combat misrepresentations of black Americans.

NON-WHITE/ 'NON-NATIVE' SPEAKER OVERLAP

From these experiences, I have grown highly sensitive to the plight of my fellow 'non-native speakers', and here I revisit the inherently biased and discriminatory nature of the ‘native speaker’ model. Ostensibly, ‘native speaker’ means someone who grew up in an English speaking country and has essentially spoken the language from birth, but in reality it has often been used synonymously with being a White speaker from an English speaking country. Used this way, the model becomes a mechanism to exclude non-Whites from employment, as I have hopefully) evidenced here. Used another way, the 'native speaker' model becomes a mechanism to exclude professionals who hold passports of non–English speaking countries from employment on the basis of being 'non-native'. It is even used to justify paying 'non-native' speakers lower salaries for equal work.

I could go on and on, but this inequality cannot. A teacher, regardless of field or industry, should only be judged on his/ her merit, competence, rapport, innovation, efficiency and passion. Any other criteria are irrelevant, and by judging one on what truly matters, the "justice and equality" Mahboob alluded to will finally be served. Racism and discrimination have no place in education, and we must work hard to ensure that every teaching professional has an equal opportunity to earn a decent living.

References: 

Charles, Q. D. (2017). Black Teachers of English in South Korea (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania).

Kubota, R. (2002). The author responds: (Un) Raveling racism in a nice field like TESOL. TESOL Quarterly36 (1), 84-92.

Mahboob, A. (2009). Racism in the ELT industry. In A. Mahboob & C. Lipovsky (Eds.) Studies in Applied Linguistics and Language Learning. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Ndura, E. (2004). ESL and cultural bias: an analysis of elementary through high school textbooks in the western United States of America. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 17(2), 143-153.

United Nations. (1958). Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. Geneva: OHCHR. Retrieved June 29, 2018 from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/ Pages/EmploymentAndOccupation.aspx.
 

Textual ownership, international students, and plagiarism

As of late, international clients have sought our expertise in devising plagiarism policies for their language institutes/universities. This hasn't been easy as addressing plagiarism is never a simple cookie-cutter solution that works everywhere in every context; it's much too complex. That said, plagiarism, an egregious intellectual violation, remains an important concern for institutions seeking to maintain ethical standards and for individuals that stand to profit from their intellectual property (IP). By eradicating plagiarism there is an assurance that IP, something that individuals work so hard to create, remains sacred and protected and such assurance benefits and drives a free intellectual and financial market. In spite of these safeguards on IP, plagiarism remains a phenomenon, especially in higher education (HE).  Some studies have indicated that plagiarism is not only prevalent in HE (International Center for Academic Integrity, 2015) but that incidences of plagiarism and academic dishonesty may also be on the rise (Ali, 2016). It would be wonderful if getting to the root of it were a simple task, but the causes of plagiarism are multi-faceted: comprised of linguistic, academic, and cultural elements. While examining all of these elements is beyond the scope of this short post, one aspect that deserves particular attention is the critical role culture plays in plagiarism. How knowledge is formed, who it belongs to and how knowledge is formally referenced can be culturally relative. Thus, when we give any consultation about plagiarism with international students studying in English speaking countries, or students studying English in foreign contexts, analyzing cultural perspectives on textual ownership is almost always where we start. 

CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES ON TEXTUAL OWNERSHIP

Central to understanding why plagiarism sometimes occurs amongst international/EFL students is the notion of textual ownership. As defined by Merriam Webster, to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's ownuse (another's production) without crediting the source" (Merriam Webster, 2018). Yet as scholars in Western academia, we must submit that this is a very constricted view of textual ownership. "To steal" something necessarily means the unlawful appropriation of something not owned by the "thief". In Western academia, a person's "ideas or words" (the creation of knowledge) are seen as a hallmark of individualism, and his/her creation of knowledge becomes a commodity in the intellectual marketplace. This knowledge can be used or disseminated in the market only after proper reference is given to the original proprietor. Such understandings of the nature of agency and textual ownership are by no means universal.

Pennycook (1996), in a very thought provoking piece, argued that triumphing agency and individual creative expression are rooted in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Thus, "an understanding of the notion of authorship and originality as a very particular cultural and historical orientation to meaning raises profound questions about plagiarism" (Pennycook, 1996, p. 211). Further, Pecarori and Petrić (2014) present a number of concurring views of many contemporary scholars; that "plagiarism...as literary theft...is thus a historical and cultural phenomenon...and may not be applicable to writing cultures...marked by a different course of development" (Pecarori and Petric, 2014, p. 274). If we can agree that plagiarism, as concerned in HE, has evolved from a specific view (and a specific region of the world) of textual ownership, then we must be sensitive to the the fact that other cultures may not necessarily share the same view. And in becoming sensitive to this, we can begin to help international students who hail from various cultural backgrounds (as well as students studying English in foreign settings) to better acclimate to the conventions of academic scholarship as they study in English-speaking countries.

COMMON REASONS FOR PLAGIARISM AND WHAT CAN BE DONE

Though plagiarism is considered a serious (and unethical) academic violation, not all plagiarism by students stems from ill will. Scholars have distinguished between unintentional versus intentional plagiarism, and this blog post is concerned with students who have honest misunderstandings that arise from conceptual confusion (unintentional): not those with nefarious intentions (intentional). Some common reasons (for unintentional plagiarism) that have been identified are 1) differences in source use between the students' native culture and Western academia (Pecarori & Petric, 2014), 2) differing perspectives on what constitutes "common knowledge" (The Higher Education Academy, 2014), and 3) lack of vocabulary to express themselves in their own words. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is meant to identify common difficulties students may face.

Of these three common reasons, the last one can be remedied by a learner simply expanding his/her vocabulary; the first two need explicit and extensive training on the expectations of scholarship and how they may differ from conventions practiced in students' home countries. In fact, one of the things we suggest is a mandatory "induction" period. The induction period can range from a few weeks to a few months depending on the specific objectives of a particular institution. The main goal, however, is to highlight the cultural underpinnings of plagiarism, and this will help students better acclimate to academia. There is research that suggests (Pecarori & Petric, 2014; Bretag, 2013; Macdonald & Carroll, 2006) that intervention by the institution from the onset of a writing program can significantly reduce instances of plagiarism. Additionally, "there is...a growing awareness among scholars and practitioners alike that the solution to problems relating to plagiarism lies in education rather than punitive measures" (Pecarori & Petric, 2014, pg. 287). Thus, relevant and appropriate plagiarism pedagogy becomes an integral part of reducing plagiarism in HE. Students should attend a series of workshops which should be conducted at the beginning of university study or at the beginning of a language institute's writing course, and these workshops would revolve around two major themes: 1) educating students explicitly about [the cultural aspects of] plagiarism and (2) teaching source use and referencing in greater depth" (Pecarori & Petric, 2014, pg. 287).

To empower students and give them every opportunity for success in university and HE, we should acclimate learners to the concept of plagiarism by giving them a comprehensive overview as they become accountable for their academic writing performance. Failing to do so, especially when plagiarism can be considered as culturally relative, will inevitably set our learners up for failure and expose them to grave academic consequences. 

References:

Ali, A. (2016). Plagiarism investigations at Welsh universities rise in the last 5 years. Independent. Retrieved July 6, 2018 from https://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/Studies/plagiarism-investigations-at-welsh-universities-rise-in-the-last-5-years-a7144621.html.

Bretag, T. (2013). Challenges in addressing plagiarism in education. PLoS Med 10 (12): e1001574. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001574.

International Center for Academic Integrity. (2015). Statistics. International Center for Academic Integrity. Retrieved July 15, 2018 from https://academicintegrity.org/statistics/.

Macdonald, R., & Carroll, J. (2006). Plagiarism—a complex issue requiring a holistic institutional approach. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(2), 233-245. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02602930500262536.

Pecorari, D., & Petrić, B. (2014). Plagiarism in second-language writing. Language Teaching47 (3), 269-302.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others' words: Text, ownership, memory, & plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly30 (2), 201-230. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3588141.

Plagiarize. (2018). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved July 3, 2018 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarizing.

The Higher Education Academy. (2014). Addressing plagiarism. Retrieved June 30, 2018 from https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/addressing_plagiarism.pdf

Why "native speakerism" ultimately just doesn't make cents

Last year in a piece I published, entitled "The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT", I tried to make the case as to why employing a "native speaker" model when hiring English teachers is a legal and moral faux pas (Jenkins, 2017). Based on the language written in the Discrimination Convention in Geneva in 1958 (United Nations, 1958), discrimination in any form was essentially outlawed decades ago. Similarly, in many countries today explicit employment discrimination is illegal. So how can recruiters expressly deny someone an employment opportunity just because he/she isn't a "native speaker"? Isn't that against the law? And by the way, what does "native speaker" mean exactly? Does it mean one who is a passport holder of a native English speaking country? One's accent is "native"? Can bilinguals be considered "native"? With the expansion of a language that has become a lingua franca (Jenkins, 2000), there doesn't seem to be consensus on what a "native speaker of English" actually is these days, yet recruiters are really adamant about having them. 

Another side of the debate is concerned with the morality of a "native only" recruitment policy. Research shows that the "native only" framework may subject fellow "nonnative" speaking teachers to unspeakable psychological and emotional torment. In a compelling plenary, Richardson (2016) rehearsed scholarly works that highlighted the "inadequacies" that "nonnative" speaking teachers feel when measured to their "native" counterparts. She also reviewed some of the strategies they employ to avoid being "detected" as a "nonnative" speaker. Adrian Holliday (2014) suggests that employing such a framework is tantamount to "neo-racism", with "race [being] implicit in the Othering of 'non-native speaker' teachers" (Holliday, 2014). Is this really what recruiters endorse? Are we comfortable with allowing human beings to question their self-worth, to actively deny their origins, in the name of earning a living?

Beyond the serious legal and moral implications of employing a "native speaker only" framework, it's just bad for business. In terms of market demand, the mantra of customers preferring "native speaker" teachers to "nonnative" speakers has been challenged repeatedly by empirical research. As such, companies adopting this approach are operating on a fallacy (for a succinct overview of other basic fallacies of "native speakerism", I invite you to read Marek Kiczkowiak's (2014) piece written for the British Council). Another important factor in the ELT business is the concept of supply and demand. As we know, there's tremendous demand by companies and institutes clamoring for "native speaker" teachers because of their ostensible worth in language teaching. Yet if 80% of the English teachers worldwide are "non-native" (Canagarajah, 2005), then that doesn't leave an abundant amount of "native speakers" to serve the 1.5 billion English language learners in the world (Beare, 2017), does it? And that figure is expected to jump to 2 billion by 2020. The perception that only "native speaker" teachers are the most well equipped to teach English is not sustainable, not morally and not economically, and it must be re-conceptualized to accommodate the realities of the growing ELT market.

I remember working as a consultant for a staffing project in Saudi Arabia, and a new university wanted to hire 50 teachers by the fall semester. They started recruiting in July (just a little fashionably late), and they wanted 50 "native speaker" teachers! I said, "Wow! That's not feasible and all the best with that because there aren't that many "native speaker" teachers just sitting around waiting to come to Saudi Arabia!" Ultimately, they couldn't complete the project because they stipulated a "native speaker" only hiring policy. "Nonnative" speaker teachers need to be accorded their due worth and value to change the perception that "nonnative" is somehow synonymous with lower quality. In fact, we know from research that "nonnative" speaker teachers are in many cases better poised to teach certain aspects of the language by virtue of them having successfully gone through the language acquisition process. So how is that these fallacies continue to underpin the market, even to the extent that businesses and/or projects fail as a result? In any case, for a market that's expanding ever so rapidly, "native speakerism" will not make lots of cents in the long run...and it doesn't make any sense now for that matter.

   

References:

Beare, K (2017). How many people learn English? ThoughtCo. Available at https://www.thoughtco.com/how-many-people-learn-english-globally-1210367 (accessed 9 June 2018).

Canagarajah, A. S. (ed.) (2005). Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Holliday, A. (2014). ‘Native speakerism’. Adrian Holliday. Available at http://adrianholliday.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/nism-encyc16plain-submitted.pdf (accessed 9 June 2018).

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, S. (2017). The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT. ELT Journal71(3), 373-376.

Kiczkowiak, M. (2014). Native English-speaking teachers: Always the right choice. British Council Voices Magazine. Available at https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/native-english-speaking-teachers-always-right-choice (accessed 9 June 2018).

Richardson, S. (2016). ‘The “native factor”, the haves and the have-nots’. IATEFL Online. Available at https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/plenary-silvana-richardson (accessed 9 June 2018).

United Nations. (1958). Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. Geneva: OHCHR. Available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/EmploymentAndOccupation.aspx (accessed 9 June 2018).

Welcome to TEGRA!

Welcome to the Turnkey Educational Group Research and Activism (TEGRA) blog! This blog will be dedicated to advancing important discussions on contemporary issues in the field of English language teaching. There will be monthly posts examining different aspects of the teaching and learning of English, and while the blog posts will not be full-fledged, peer reviewed articles, they will incorporate research literature whenever possible to support contributors' views. Some of the most prominent areas of blog discussion will be (but certainly not limited to) language policy, language and power, language and culture, native speakerism, second language writing, second language acquisition, academic integrity, discrimination and equality in ELT, English as a lingua franca, globalization, and teacher education.

We invite contributors to write for our blog on any topic they are passionate about. The views expressed by outside contributors will not necessarily be those expressed by TEGRA, but the idea is to invite diverse perspectives on important ELT discussions; it's critical that all voices on a particular spectrum have a platform to be heard. For those interested in contributing, please email us at inquiry@turnkeyeducationalgroup.com and we look forward to fruitful and lively discussion.

Here's to happy blogging!