Interviews About COVID-19
With Applied Linguists and Administrators
Suzanne Panferov Reese is the chair of the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching Ph.D. program and teaches in Public and Applied Humanities at the University of Arizona. Previously, she served as Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives and directed the Center for English as a Second Language. She teaches courses in language program administration and presents on professionalism
and leadership. Additionally, Prof. Panferov Reese has served as the President of TESOL International and UCIEP.
Sara Cushing is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Georgia State University and Senior Faculty
Associate for the Assessment of Student Learning in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from UCLA. She has published research in the areas of assessment, second language writing, and teacher education. She has been invited to speak and conduct workshops on second language writing assessment throughout the world, most recently in Vietnam, Colombia, Thailand, and Norway. Her current research focuses on assessing integrated skills, the use of automated scoring for second language writing,and applications of corpus linguistics to assessment.
Chelsea Timlin is Assistant Director for Technology at the Center for Language Studies and Lecturer in Language Studies at Brown University. She holds a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching from the University of Arizona. Her research interests include second and foreign language pedagogy and curriculum development, learners' development of interactional literacies, and graduate student instructor professional development.
Christine Tardy teaches courses in the undergraduate English program, MA-TESL program, and SLAT PhD program at the University of Arizona. She also works with the university’s Global unit, coordinating the instruction of English first-year writing at the University of Arizona's partner universities abroad where they have global programs. Her research focuses on the areas of second language writing, genre and discourse studies, English for Academic Purposes (EAP)/Writing in the Disciplines (WID), and the politics and policies of the English language, particularly in institutional contexts. Her work appears in numerous edited collections and in journals such as Written Communication, Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, English for Specific Purposes, College Composition and Communication, and Discourse & Society. She served as co-editor of the Journal of Second Language Writing for six years.
What are your responsibilities and resources in your current job role, and how have those changed as a result of COVID-19?
Suzanne Panferov Reese
My role as the incoming Chair of our Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching is ever evolving. Pre-COVID-19, this role was responsible for overseeing the day‐to‐day administrative and curricular affairs of the program and managing the fiscal oversight of the program, in consultation with a faculty Executive Committee. This includes cooperating with faculty across four colleges to offer a diverse set of curricula and set expectations for supporting and mentoring doctoral students from admissions to graduation. However, now negotiating for funding for graduate students has become extraordinarily complicated with severe budget cuts due to the virus. Additionally, we are uncertain about the ability of our new international students in the fall 2020 cohort to travel, get visas, and arrive on time for the semester start. Finally, at the forefront of everyone’s mind is what teaching will look like in the fall. Much debate is flying about in social media about the pros and cons of returning in person versus hybrid or online courses. Our own university president swore on national tv early in the summer that we will be in person, but now an upward turn in our case numbers may nix that. So, preparations for teaching are evolving for either situation, making flexibility in teaching preparations more important than ever before.
I have two roles—one as an administrator and one as a faculty member. As an administrator, I am responsible for overseeing the assessment of student learning outcomes for the university. Every program needs to submit a report annually on their assessment. My role has not changed appreciably except that I am working from home. As a faculty member, I had to put my course online in the middle of the semester, like everyone else.
As the Assistant Director of Technology, my primary responsibility is to provide language faculty with resources that support their use of technology in second language instruction. Prior to moving to telework due to COVID-19, I offered monthly workshops designed around specific tools or topics that language faculty indicated interest in (e.g., digital social reading, active learning with student response systems, and tools provided by the institution). I also met with individual language faculty on a regular basis about implementing technologies in their courses, online placement exams, and designing hybrid courses.
After transitioning to working remotely, I reconfigured my regular workshops into a Summer Webinar Series devoted to designing online and hybrid language courses. These webinars focused on topics such as hybrid course design, using multimedia in online contexts, encouraging interpersonal communication in digital spaces, assessment in online language courses, and establishing and maintaining community in online language courses. I also have created a Resource Website for language faculty to refer to for external resources (e.g., Title VI LRCs, ACTFL, NECTFL, IALLT) and information about various technologies for language teaching (for example, Canvas modules). I lead regular workshopping sessions via Zoom and have been meeting language faculty individually and entire departments over Zoom for specialized discussions of technology for their courses.
In my role as Lecturer in Language Studies, I co-taught a section of intensive beginning German during Spring 2020. Once we moved to remote instruction in March, I took over the design of asynchronous activities that students completed every Tuesday and led my regular section on Thursdays.
In general, I have gained more access and visibility to language departments and faculty who did not typically attend the in-person workshops or meet with me in person to discuss technology in their courses. Interest in and the need for resources on implementing technology has risen for obvious reasons, so my to-do list has actually grown significantly in the past few months compared to the Fall 2019 and early Spring 2020 semesters.
My basic teaching responsibilities have not changed drastically other than the move to online teaching. This summer I have been completing some mini-courses on online teaching (offered by my university) to up my game in this area—though I am lucky that I have already taught online and have previously completed some professional development in this area.
I also work with my university’s Global unit, coordinating the instruction of English first-year writing at our partner universities abroad where we have global programs. That has involved a lot of rapidly changing situations with many unknowns. Do we need to prepare for remote instruction or f2f instruction? Will f2f instruction end up as remote instruction anyway? What support do teachers need? How will the pandemic affect student enrollment in these programs? How will ever-evolving global relations affect the future of these programs? It seems we have a new set of questions every week.
How did you solve conflicts or overcome difficulties during
this period of time?
Suzanne Panferov Reese
Solving conflicts and difficulties always involves lots of communication and information sharing. One of the hardest challenges in leading university programs of any time right now is the lack of information just because we do not know yet what is to come. We need to be open and ready to communicate that we just do not know all of the answers so that no one feels like information is being withheld. Training is essential too. Being able to pivot teaching quickly from in-person to online quickly is critical but takes resources and basic training. I recommend using any down time to learn and share all that we can about best practices of teaching online. And getting everyone at the same table preparing contingencies and thinking through the various impacts of various decisions is super important. It is critical to invest time now talking with all stakeholders about how any changes may affect others, not only to prevent future calamities but also to save time. Universities are complex entities, and when one domino falls so do many others.
I tried to recognize that everyone was under a lot of stress and dealing with a variety of challenges. I was flexible with deadlines and reduced the workload for the course I was teaching, recognizing that graduate students, many of whom were also teaching and having to put their courses online, were under even more stress than I was.
Many of the conflicts I have experienced during this time have stemmed from a struggle to address my increased responsibilities at work in a decreased number of work hours while caring for a 19-month old and trying to maintain a “normal” home life. The daycare facilities in our state closed in April and only some reopened in early June. Because my partner is immuno-compromised, we could not (nor did we want to) take the risk of putting our son back into a daycare with poorly outlined safety procedures. My partner and I both have demanding full-time positions, and it has been a difficult process of creating and maintaining a routine that allows us both at least 3-4 hours of work during regular business hours. This routine, while far from perfect, is the most effective strategy we have found thus far to combat stress induced by having to juggle all of these responsibilities at once.
Probably much like everyone else, I have generally just tried to make it through one day at a time! I was very fortunate (and somewhat unfortunate) that when things closed down in March, I was actually on sabbatical. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about moving my classes online or dealing with the many logistical issues that my colleagues were contending with. Because I have a son in first grade, I was able to help him with remote schooling (and, it turns out that first graders really aren’t able to do much—if any—of that kind of work on their own). I am grateful I had the time to help him, though it was disappointing to lose the treasured sabbatical time.
Since March, I’ve been in a process of trying to create a new routine. Trying to adjust to working at home with a young child has definitely been the biggest challenge. I have had to let some work go, and I am sure that will also be the case in the Fall as remote K-12 school continues and I add my own teaching and meetings to the mix. I am re-adjusting timelines on my own research projects and turning down new writing project opportunities. I have tried to prioritize working with my graduate students, so we still meet weekly on Zoom; we write together and check in on their progress. It gives all of us some sense of normalcy and some support.
I have also started a writing group with other academic moms. We set modest goals at the start of each week and check in at the end of the week to see what we accomplished. It is really encouraging to be connected with others who are facing similar challenges of balancing work-at-home and 24/7 parenting. Working parents are being stretched thin right now and are also dealing with the stresses of making decisions about their kids’ schooling in the Fall. In the writing group, we give each other a lot of support and also some ideas and strategies for managing things. I would recommend everyone to find some kind of support network like this, where you can cheer each other on.
How do you see COVID-19 impacting university students, faculty, and/or staff around the country, particularly regarding the ways in which this pandemic has challenged established ways of thinking and doing in higher education?
Suzanne Panferov Reese
COVID-19 is a significant disruptor. Our way of university life has been turned upside down. This has a disorienting effect for many. Change is hard and this virus has required us to change our ways of teaching, communicating, assessing, and meeting. This questions our basic assumption of what teaching is if there is no classroom. This forces us to think differently, redefine priorities, and take risks we hadn’t expected, which may in the end be good for us, but it’s difficult to go through. The process of change is messy, and we did not ask to make this change. Students must consider new courses of study, master new modes of data collection, manage delays in research, consider different career paths, and even possibly accept later graduation dates. Faculty need to try new teaching technologies, postpone sabbaticals, and learn the intricacies of online meetings. And staff are juggling so many conflicting priorities with no clear road map for the future. But even in the face of this uncertainty, we must continue to aspire to greater goals of education and improving humanity.
I think we are at a watershed moment (to quote from a webinar I watched recently) and it’s impossible to predict the future. Largely due to economic pressures, universities have long been on an unsustainable path of attempting to do more with fewer resources, which has resulted, among other things, in a two-tier faculty system, with relatively well paid, secure tenure-track faculty on the one hand and low paid adjunct or fixed term faculty on the other. COVID-19 has brought us closer to a crisis, I think, with students largely dissatisfied with the sudden move to online education and a lot of uncertainty around plans for going back to campus. With even tighter budgets, universities are going to have to make difficult choices about their priorities. Some may have to close their doors. I hope there is some strategic thinking going on among the higher levels of administration about how to be creative about education going forward. There are certain advantages of online teaching that faculty are reluctantly coming around to, and if there is enough training and buy-in from the faculty, teaching can be done very creatively if it’s not bound to a single time and place. Students may need to be more intentional about their educational goals, if “going to college” means more than just the inevitable next step after high school and they can’t necessarily count on four years of parties and football games on a beautiful campus. For staff, I think telecommuting will become a more realistic option going forward, now that it’s been made abundantly clear that a lot of people can work from home just as productively.
The majority of my interactions are with faculty, and it has become quite apparent that there exists a real hesitation to relying so heavily on technology in language teaching. While there is a solid group of faculty I work with who regularly implement technology in their teaching, many did not utilize much, if any, technology in their classrooms prior to moving to remote instruction. This sudden switch to relying on technology has created a significant amount of stress, particularly because of the assumption that technology poses limitations to what they have been doing in the physical classroom for so long. I consider it my responsibility to showcase the benefits and abilities of technology to facilitate the practices faculty are already comfortable with and to create positive and productive second language teaching and learning experiences, particularly through the access technology provides to digital texts and spaces for multimodal communication.
What I see from my colleagues, locally and around the country, is a lot of stress, worry, and even anger about how the crisis is being handled within universities. At my own university, I know of graduate students who have lost their funding extensions, which is obviously devastating when one is trying to complete a dissertation. Many of the students I work with had to go through the worries of the proposed restrictions on international students staying in the US, though those have fortunately been removed. In addition, many incoming students are unable to begin their education because of the pandemic—and of course these decreases in enrollments impact the entire university. At my institution, predicted decreases in enrollments have resulted in a large number of lecturers losing their jobs. Additionally, in many places, faculty and graduate students have been given very little voice in decisions about whether universities will “re-open” and, if so, how.
All that said, I am encouraged by the faculty organization at my own university in strongly advocating for faculty, staff, and graduate students. I also do think the virus has provided a potential opportunity to re-think how we do things in higher education. Maybe we don’t all need to be on campus all the time, perhaps more meetings can be done online, and I think we are learning that some useful technology was previously under-utilized. But I also think this crisis has highlighted the value of campus life and the importance of the personal interactions that faculty have with students. So while we make changes moving forward, I hope we keep in mind that those interactions are critical and worth preserving; for the moment, we just need to find new ways to create such interactions.
From your perspective, what will be long-term effects of the crisis on graduate education and the job market?
Suzanne Panferov Reese
One of the most significant longer-term effects, I believe, will be the acceptance and expectation of online teaching and learning as the norm rather than the exception. Gone are the days when one expects to be in a classroom or in a boardroom. I expect job markets will increasingly demand online teaching and skills in digital proficiencies and perhaps offer fewer tenure-track opportunities. Communication has also changed and our boundaries between our work lives and our home lives are blurry. The instantaneous quality of communication means our professional tasks bleed into our living rooms and kitchens and even that our teens might read the article we are reviewing over our shoulder, glimpsing into the mystery of our work worlds. For some this is leading to extraordinary longer workdays and messiness of interruptions of focus and time. For others this leads to extreme isolation and disconnect. We will regroup and reformulate our “work” as we know it but not without bumps along the way.
The trend away from tenure-track positions in academia will be accelerated by the crisis, I think, and graduate students will need to position themselves for other types of careers, for example in industry or government. Faculty members will also need to understand the job market better and be realistic about the opportunities for their students.
I’ll be honest in saying that I am concerned about the effect this crisis will have on the already declining availability of academic jobs (and I mean any jobs, not just tenure-track positions). I do believe universities (and other non-academic entities) are now realizing a need for field-specific experts who are knowledgeable of the role that technology plays in instruction and professional development. I am extremely grateful for the team of instructional technologists at my institution, but I often observe conflicts between what language faculty want to do with technology and the more general perspective that is provided by instructional technology teams. Perhaps I am being hopeful, but I believe that acknowledging this need will motivate more departments and universities as a whole to design positions for recent graduates who have experience with technology-enhanced teaching and research in a given field.
The long-term effects are still unclear, but I suspect higher education in the U.S. will look quite different in the years ahead. I think at some universities, smaller programs will be under threat of closure. We need to advocate strongly for the value of programs in applied linguistics and for continued support for graduate student funding, but also be open to new modes of delivering our programs. It also seems likely that the shift away from tenure-track jobs will accelerate, so we need to demonstrate the value of such positions at our local institutions while also preparing graduate students for a broader range of jobs as they enter the job market.
What tips and strategies do you have for graduate students facing uncertainty and ambiguity during this crisis?
Suzanne Panferov Reese
Remember that class where you first encountered the term “tolerance of ambiguity” about language learning? We are a profession of people who embrace and tolerate uncertainty and delve into new languages and cultures and uncertainty. We have done this every day. The trick is how to manage life when everything is uncertain. Manage by the hour, rather than the year. My daughter who lost her high school graduation to this virus declared recently how she just “never expected this” at this time in her life. I assured her that in my many more years of experience, I too have never experienced this. Day by day we have to look for lessons learned. We have to cherish and appreciate each other more. We have to live authentic lives. Some days just getting up and getting dressed is enough. On other days, we may repaint a living room or clean out a whole closet and write an annotated bibliography. What is extraordinarily needed now more than ever is compassion for ourselves and each other. This means self-care and care for others. Know your resources for support and ask for help.
This pandemic has disrupted our lives and created all sorts of chaos. It has raised frustrations and flared tempers. It has exposed old festering wounds of intolerance and bigotry. Now is the time for our younger professionals, our graduate students, to step forward to embrace the opportunities of these times to change our world, improve our world, teach our world, and heal our world.
Take care of yourself, first of all. Try to accept ambiguity, because you can’t know the future. Control the things you have control over, such as your habits of sleep, diet, and exercise. Reach out for help if you need it. Talk to your advisor or a trusted mentor if you are feeling anxious. Don’t try to tough it out on your own—find someone to talk to or take a walk with. Be gentle with yourself!
This is also a good time to explore career options outside of academia. There are plenty of people in your field who chose alternate paths who would love to tell you about their work and how they ended up where they are. I can’t think of anyone who would not welcome an inquiry from a graduate student or be more than happy to share their story with you.
As this crisis began, I was preparing for my dissertation defense while holding a new full-time staff and lecturer position and caring for a toddler at home. I was greatly affected by the uncertainty that has become commonplace over the last 6 months, particularly while waiting to hear whether my in-person defense would be cancelled and when any revisions would need to be submitted. Through all of this, I found tremendous support through my graduate program from my dissertation advisor, committee members, and the program coordinators. I strongly recommend confiding in the individuals in these positions when you are unsure of what comes next. I also learned to be lenient with myself and my expectations for how much I would achieve in a given week. The only time I found to write and complete revisions was usually sometime after 9:00 PM, once my son was in bed and after a full day of work and parenting. It took some time and fighting with myself, but once I acknowledged that I would not be my most cognitively present self all the time, I was able to set realistic goals and completed my revisions on time. Sometimes this meant writing for at least 20, uninterrupted minutes and sometimes it meant taking the night off because it was just too much to handle. This was all made easier after I joined two different writing accountability groups for the summer, one of which was a group of fierce academic moms. The moral of the story: find supportive people, set realistic goals, and above all, be kind to yourself.
My heart really goes out to graduate students right now. It’s an incredibly stressful time to be trying to focus on your education while knowing that the job market is likely going to look very different for a while. I tell my own students to focus on the things they can control: If you are in classes, get the most out of them; if you are teaching, take advantage of the opportunity to learn new teaching tools and approaches; if you are doing research, be flexible and do what you can to complete your project, even if it looks different from what you originally imagined. There will still be jobs for language professionals, but those might look very different from what they have looked like in the past. I think being open-minded about the job market, including where you can relocate to, is probably going to be essential in the coming years. I would also recommend that graduate students be in close touch with faculty mentors and voice your concerns and worries. You might work together with faculty to suggest workshops that could help students navigate these times, for example. Most faculty are very strong advocates for graduate students, and it is important that we work together so that faculty can carry out that advocacy and support students in the best ways possible.