Maria Thomas-Ruzic

The NNEST Caucus Member of the Month
December 2006
Maria Thomas-Ruzic

Question: Could you please tell us a bit about your linguistic, academic and professional background?

Maria: I am a native speaker of English, but grew up in a household where Italian was also used and where–for periods of up to two to four years—we lived in different places in Europe. All my mother’s family live in Italy (Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and other areas) and my father’s work was linked to US military hospitals in Europe; therefore my brothers and I were raised in Germany, France, and Italy, in addition to the US. My student career included preschool in Italy and one year in a French lycée; regretfully, however I attended mostly English-speaking schools. I am grateful to have Italian and French as additional languages, and as an adult, through study and practice opportunities at different times, to have gained various degrees and types of proficiency with German, Cameroonian Pidgin, Russian, Arabic, Russian and Spanish, Croatian—the latter two of which I continue to study.

I was an anthropology major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I later also pursued graduate studies in linguistics.

My teaching career began in Cameroon, West Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1973 to 1975. I taught English as a course subject in a lycée, or secondary school. The small city where I lived was an outpost in the eastern part of the country, part of what was referred to as Francophone Cameroon, which comprised about four-fifths of the country’s area and people that had been under French colonial rule. The other part of the Cameroon’s people and area, bordering mostly on the western Nigerian border, was Anglophone, having been a British colony. The number of languages (mostly of the Bantu but also Chadic families) spoken in the country was approximately 65, and I found that most of my students knew and used at least two of these, in addition to French. Maka, Kaka and Ewondo, three Bantu languages, were among those most widely spoken in my area, but there were also Hausa and Tok Pisin (West Cameroonian creole), the latter used mostly in the market and other trade contexts, at least in my area. Four other colleagues—three from West Cameroon and one from the U.S., and I comprised our English department.

In schools the curricula were essentially holdovers from colonial times, and the English-as-a-second language program used at the time was essentially British, with materials published in Senegal. Cameroonian schools followed either British or French curricula and school structures and systems in their respective post-colonial regions. During the time when I was there, in the early 1970s, curricula were just beginning to integrate African content, scholars, and themes.

Among other things, my experiences in West Africa raised my sensitivity to issues of colonialism and the dynamics of languages in contact, language and power, and particularly the role of English and English teaching in multilingual societies everywhere. While I haven’t published in these areas, an awareness of the uses and study of languages besides English and of the dynamics of English language use around the world go back to my Africa experiences and inform all aspects of my work.

In the mid 1970s I took up a teaching position in Rome, Italy, in a program that served Eastern European and Russian refugees bound for the US, Canada, or Australia. I subsequently found myself back at the University of Colorado to study linguistics and teach at the International (then Intensive) English Center. I was fortunate to have junior Fulbright awards that allowed me to live and teach English or work in teacher development in Bosnia and Croatia (1981-1983), and later Italy (1992). While engaged in my doctoral studies at CU-Boulder, I also did some short-term teacher trainings abroad—in Hungary, Poland, and Cuba. I became a full-time faculty member at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center (UCDHSC) in 1998 after earning my Ph.D. with a discourse-based dissertation study of the functions of 1st and 2nd person reference in instructional talk. I work in Linguistically Diverse Teacher Education at UCDHSC with partner districts and schools and an on-campus program as well, and I am also directing a TESOL emphasis program within the Linguistics Department on the Boulder campus. While the number of NNESTs in our programs is not very high—I’d estimate that 7 percent of students in our TESOL-related programs at UCDHSC (at the licensure, MA and doctoral levels) are nonnative speakers of English, and among faculty, that percentage is much lower—I would very much like these increase. To serve international and immigrant students and others well requires sensitive and informed responses to the changing dynamics and needs in Colorado as well as the other many contexts that our students will be working in.

Whatever the context, I try to be the best ally and advocate that I can be for nonnative speaking teachers (or prospective teachers)—whether of English, Spanish or any other language. I also consider it part of my responsibility to support dual language efforts and the study of languages in addition to English– world languages and also less studied and indigenous languages.

Question: What are your academic areas of interest? The most recent conference presentation(s)/ publication?

Maria: My primary academic and research interests are linked to discourse analysis. My dissertation study looked at instructional talk in university classrooms, and in my work in teacher education I help teachers use discourse, transcriptions and transcribing of oral language as an inquiry tool. I’m also interested in ways in which transnational–especially US Mexican adolescent youth–negotiate their identities in and out of school. My most recent conference presentations have been mainly in these areas, and these days I’m trying to be make more concerted efforts to publish. With colleagues at the Benemérita Universidad Autonóma in Puebla, Mexico –where I spent my 2004 sabbatical as a Fulbright exchange scholar—I’ve been looking at some research directions linked to literacy issues for non-native English speaking teachers in Mexico.

Question: How about your extracurricular hobbies and interests?

Maria: As for what I like to do when away from my computer and away from the university or school and community partners I work with: Living in Colorado, I enjoy the easy access to mountain parks and trails for hiking—almost from my back door! I do some skiing (x-country and downhill), ice-skating and sledding in winter months. I enjoy taking in live music (opera, jazz, and my son’s local rock & roll band). Keeping up with extended family also keeps me busy: my sons and brothers and their families all live in Colorado; and my husband’s family is dispersed in Croatia, Serbia, Austria, Argentina and Colombia).

Question: How did you initially become interested in NNESTs and their issues?

Maria: Though my interests in issues linked to nonnative English speaking teachers span my whole career, I’m a relative newcomer to the NNEST caucus, having joined at TESOL 2005 in San Antonio. Since beginning to attend sessions and being on the email list, I’ve become convinced that the potential contributions of the NNEST caucus are among the most crucial and important in the organization. I believe the future and vitality of TESOL as a professional organization will hinge on how well TESOL responds to the growing issues and numbers of a more international, diverse, and second-language speaking/using constituency. As this readership knows well, issues dealing with inequity and bias in hiring loom large, along with issues in publishing. I also see the role of this caucus and of TESOL in promoting the study of other languages, including the study of International English, among native English speakers from North America, Australia and Britain. I believe NNESTs are well placed to be leaders in these areas and with many other initiatives.

Thank you so much, Maria!


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