Archive for November 11th, 2017

November 11, 2017

What my Research is All About

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I was in high school, people started using this phrase: “I’m all about…”  I thought this phrase was really stupid, but because I was in high school and the people around me were all saying it, I said it too.  “I’m all about cool ranch doritos!”  “I’m all about the Spice Girls movie!”  “I’m all about that inflatable sofa!”  I can clearly recall one summer night at Camp Akita when every member of the high school work crew had to introduce themselves and say what they were “all about.”  I might have said I was “all about” grilled cheese and tomato soup. Frankly, I have no clue now what I was “all about” at age 16, and I probably didn’t know then, either.

When you’re doing dissertation research, or preparing to do dissertation research, people always ask “what’s your research about?”   Here’s a little experiment you can do: find a doctoral student, ask them this question, and watch carefully. You will be able to see a little piece of them die before they answer.  I have answered this question a thousand times, a thousand different ways.  Sometimes I say, “the learning, beliefs, and practices of novice Indonesian English teachers.” Other time I say, “how English teachers learn to teach about culture, and how they do so during their early years of teaching.”  Here in Indonesia, I can just say, “my research is about English teaching,” and people will accept it because they think it is so darn great that I decided to come to Indonesia for my research. One of the greatest parts of being here in Indonesia is that I am spared the never-ending introductions and queries about “research interests” that happen on university campuses in the US

So, my research is about all of those things, but most of all, it is about English teaching in the Indonesian context.  Indonesia is the fourth-most populous nation, is home to more Muslims than the Middle East, and is dizzyingly diverse, but we hear almost nothing about it in the U.S.  A recent series of stories on NPR is a welcome exception, and I recommend reading or listening if you’d like to learn more about Indonesia.  Most of those stories start something like this:

“As home to 250 million people speaking hundreds of languages and spanning some 17,000 islands in an area as wide as the continental U.S., Indonesia is one of the most populous and diverse countries in the world.”

This is all true.  Indonesia is home to Sumatran Muslims who practice Sharia law, to Balinese Hindu women who carry offerings to the temple every morning, to cosmopolitan Jakartans who shop at Cartier and Versace, and to Papuan men who wear penis gourds.  To unify this enormous mishmash of cultures and peoples, the Indonesian founding fathers were very deliberate about crafting a national identity.  The best example of this is the Pancasila, the nation’s official philosophy, which includes a commitment to social justice and unity across diversity.

Education policy plays an important role in sustaining that national identity.  For instance, in recent years, Pancasila has become a required subject on all college campuses, perhaps in an effort to remind Sumatrans, Balinese, Papuans, and all the other residents of those 17,000 islands that they are Indonesians first.  Another example is the most recent primary and secondary school curricula, issued in 2013, which requires teachers of all subjects to infuse “character education” into their teaching by addressing one of 18 “values that form character” in each lesson.  Some of these values are rather benign, like “loving to read,” “friendliness,” “caring for the environment,” but others are more ideologically charged, at least from my American point of view, like “discipline,” “religiosity,” and “nationalism.”  Most national public education systems implicitly expect schoolteachers to help their students become good citizens who contribute to society and conform to societal expectations.  Few systems are as explicit as Indonesia regarding the teacher’s role in sustaining the nations cultural values.

My research looks at how novice English teachers balance this demand with the teaching of language, which is already a culturally-laden subject.  Culture and language are so interconnected that teachers can’t help but expose students to new ways of thinking and seeing the world while teaching English.  Language teaching requires teachers to act as cultural mediators and help students see the world and their lives from an intercultural perspective.  It could be difficult for new teachers to sustain Indonesian cultural identity while also teaching about new cultures in language classes.

Or at least that is what I thought.  That’s what my dissertation proposal says, that’s what the fancy academic research says, and that’s what I thought based on my own experience as a foreign language teacher.  After 3 months of data collection, I’m not so sure.  Over the past 3 months, I’ve done 10 interviews and 3 focus groups with novice teachers; I’ve done 42 lesson observations and interviews with English teachers from elementary school to university level, including in teacher education courses; and I’ve led 2 teacher professional development groups.  After all that data collection, I have the impression that it’s actually pretty easy for new teachers to sustain Indonesian cultural identity because they don’t do much teaching about new cultures in language classes.  In other words, the systemic pressure to focus on Indonesian culture seems to be so strong that new English teachers don’t feel comfortable or able to also address the “intercultural perspectives” that the fancy academic research talks about.

So, I’m at a point in my research where I need to figure out what this is “all about.”  I’ve done all that data collection.  At first glance, what’s happening isn’t what I’ve expected.  But I haven’t done much more than a first glance.  This week marks the end of the first phase of my research, where I’ve been observing what is happening without any efforts to change it.  I’m curious about how teachers are teaching about culture, but I haven’t explicitly talked to them about how they could be teaching about culture or addressing intercultural perspectives.  At my next professional development meeting with the novice teacher participant this afternoon, I’ll open up a discussion about culture and model some techniques they could use to teach about culture.  I’ll do that again at meetings in December, January, and February.  As I continue to observe and interview these teachers every month, I’ll look for times when they do address intercultural perspectives or engage students in critical thinking about cultural issues.  I’ll look for what circumstances and factors support their ability to do so.  My research isn’t quantitative, so I’m not looking to provide any kind of causal link between teacher’s practice and the professional development I’m providing them.  Instead, I’m hoping to see when and how new English teachers teach about culture, and tell the story of how that happens, so that other teachers elsewhere can follow their lead.

That’s the fun part of my research.  The less fun part, for me at least, is analyzing all that data I have collected – pages and pages of field notes from lessons and transcripts from interviews.  Before I get too far into helping teachers teach differently, I need to look at how they’re teaching now – and I need to look carefully at all that data to see if what I think at first glance is what’s really going on.  It probably isn’t – what people say they are “all about”, and what data seems to be “all about”, is often not the whole story.  So I’m going to take a break from data collection, bring my computer with me to a quiet string of Islands just north of Java, and spend the next week digging into what story the data is actually telling.   Another one of the greatest parts of being here in Indonesia is the chance to make data analysis more fun by doing it in sight of the ocean.  And I’ll probably find a little time to relax, as well. Because, you know, I’m all about beach vacations!