Geeta Aneja is a third-year Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work primarily concerns the manner in which discursive practices recreate macroscopic social and linguistic ideologies at the local level. | May Interviewer: Terry Doyle
1. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule and life to answer my interview questions. Tell us about your educational, linguistic, and teaching background. For example, what was your undergraduate major in your university? Why did you decide on that major? Why did you decide to continue on for an MA and PhD? Also, what experiences have you had as a student which might be interesting to readers of this blog?
Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed. I guess I’ll start at the beginning. I was born in New Delhi, India, and was raised in Tampa, Florida. Growing up, I was convinced I was going to be a nuclear physicist (crazy, right?). I first got interested in linguistics in 8th grade when we were required to read George Orwell’s 1984, since the concept of Newspeak connecting language, perception, and cognition fascinated me.
I did my undergraduate work at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I started out as a physics major, but I still took Introduction to Linguistics out of casual curiosity. In my second year, I realized that I was much more interested in linguistics than physics, though the natural sciences continue to fascinate and inspire me. I ended up graduating with a BA/BS in Linguistics and Psychology and almost a minor in Physics.
Through college, I also taught for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. I started teaching because I needed the money, but it quickly became a passion. I worked with two educational nonprofits, one that supported single women who dropped out of high school in earning alternative certifications, and one in Hong Kong that ran an immersive English summer program for low-income high school youth. I was also lucky to work on some language revitalization initiatives in Peru and an anthropological study in India during the summers after my sophomore and junior years of college.
All of these experiences culminated in my applying to Penn’s program in Educational Linguistics. This program has allowed me to synthesize my interests in anthropology, cultural studies, language, and education. Since starting the program, I’ve worked with several nonprofits in Philadelphia, both teaching English and offering professional development workshops. In the research world, I’m working on a few different projects, one exploring translingual pedagogies in teacher education, one considering discourses of partiality in TESOL, and another working to possible methods of supporting “NNESTs” in master’s programs.
2. You are now a student in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. What factors influenced your decision to study for a doctorate? What in particular has your research focused on? In what ways do you think the research projects you mentioned above will add to the literature of NNEST issues?
My initial motivation for pursuing a doctorate was to examine possibilities for culturally-responsive, critical curricula and resources in the K-12 school system. This interest shifted to graduate study when I decided to earn my M.S.Ed. in TESOL along with my Ph.D. At that time, I found that my experience as a student and teacher in the US was very different from that of my international peers. I found that I was often privileged or assumed to be more experienced simply because of my accent or familiarity with American culture. This realization sparked my interest in NNEST issues.
Inspired by Makoni and Pennycook’s (2007) Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages and my advisor, Nelson Flores’ frame of nation-state/colonial governmentality, I am in my current work attempting to frame conceptualizations of the native speaker as a discursive social construction rather than an objective or even ideological classification. While others have considered the conflation of native speaker status with ideologies of race, accent, nationality etc., the manner in which individuals and groups are “native speakered” in circulating discourses has not been closely examined.
This work contributes to NNEST issues by approaching them with theoretical lenses and methods used in critical applied linguistics and discourse analysis. I also hope to eventually look to developing curricula and initiatives that can be used in TESOL courses to raise critical awareness of issues of nativism in the field.
3. You have volunteered to join our NNEST blog interviewer team. What sparked your interest in wanting to work with us?
I discovered the NNEST-IS at TESOL 2013, where I was presenting a project on the tendency of novice MA TESOL student-teachers to conflate inexperience with NNEST status. At that time, I had no idea there was such a large community doing research on these issues, and I felt very much alone. At the NNEST booth, Ali Fuad Selvi and Bedrettin Yazan suggested I check out the blog. As soon I discovered it, I realized that this would be an invaluable resource for me both as a student and as a teacher/TA. I often direct TESOL students to the blog for encouragement and support. It helps to know that there are others who share their experiences, and that there is a community working to motivate change in the field. When the blog team sent out a call for new interviewers, I jumped on the opportunity to be part of a research community and help produce the content that had so benefited my students and myself.
4. What memory in your childhood sticks out as important to the reason that influenced your decision to go into the field of education?
When I was six years old, my first grade teacher told me my name was meaningless. We were doing a class project where each student looked up the meaning of their names in the dictionary or encyclopedia. The objective was to teach us how to use research resources, and in the process for us to learn a little more about each other. I was the only student who could not find her name in either volume. My teacher tried to make me feel better by saying “I’m sorry your name doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still very pretty.” This made me even more upset, since I knew not only that my name had a meaning, but also that it was sacred. However, I couldn’t prove it, since I couldn’t find it in the books I was given. Despite my protests, my teacher did not believe me and had her aide escort me to the principal’s office. My mother was called in for a conference.
When my mother picked me up from school that afternoon, she met with my teacher and opened the B-volume of the encyclopedia to “Bhagavad Geeta.” She then explained that the name Geeta in Sanskrit is derived from the Bhagavad Geeta, the Hindu Holy Book. Bhagavad Geeta literally translates as “Song of God” and Geeta means “Song”.
I will never forget this experience. In retrospect, I’m sure the teacher was well-intentioned and was trying to do a project that brought students’ personalities and identities into the classroom in a productive way. However, the manner in which this was implemented and her cultural insensitivity made this a very negative experience for me. This is my first memory of a cultural encounter in an educational space, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it my most important childhood memory, it is certainly one on which I have reflected frequently since then.
5. You have been a student and also a teacher in rich multiculturalenvironments both in India and in the United States and have had opportunities to take advantage of your bilingualism and multiculturalism. Could you share some particularly poignant experiences and also some ideas and pedagogical recommendations? How do you think foreign born NNES instructors working in the United States can effectively help their ESL students develop an intercultural competence, promoting cross-cultural sensitivity, awareness, and understanding?
A theme in my own experience has been the importance of legitimizing students’ home experiences and communicative repertoires. I studied Hindi both in the US and in India, and one stark difference I noticed was that professors in the US trying to get me to abandon the “mistakes” of my Punjabi regional twang for more standard, textbook Hindi, which no one actually speaks. On the other hand, my professors in India helped me understand what about my speech was Punjabi and when it was appropriate or inappropriate. They taught me how to use my different ways of communicating instead of simplifying them as being wrong. I think this approach is important to take in other settings and with other languages as well. Particularly, when students have some level of English proficiency already, it’s important to legitimize what they can already do, even if it’s not typically considered “standard” or “correct”. They acquired these other ways of communicating because they were socially significant for them, and they may continue to be so.
On a different note, one issue many MA TESOL students have here in Philly is that they are often teaching in the nonprofit sector because they can’t legally work in the US. As a result, many of their students are adults looking to develop the communicative skills necessary to navigate professional environments to get promoted or communicate more effectively with their local clients or co-workers. These more colloquial registers can be challenging international students, particularly those who have recently moved to the US. It’s important to remember that this isn’t so much a nativism issue as one of local knowledge and cultural familiarity. Even though I’ve spent my entire life in the US, when I first moved to Philly there was plenty that I didn’t know about the local ways of communicating. I didn’t know that a “steak” was a philly cheesesteak, that the “L” is the name of a local train line, or that “jawn” is just a generic noun.
From a pedagogical perspective, it’s important to remember that many novice teachers have difficulties in the classroom; lesson planning, classroom management, giving directions, and so on are all learned skills. These issues are common regardless of when you or your peers learned English. It’s important to seek support from your peers and to practice to hone your skills in the classroom.
6. As a person of color and an educator in the United States, could you share some of the struggles or challenges you have encountered as a result of your intercultural identity?
My positionality in the field of TESOL is a bit complex. I was born in New Delhi and speak Hindi and Punjabi with some level of proficiency, but I moved to the US when I was 3 and have an American accent in English. The vast majority of my education has been in the US, but I have also studied in India and in Peru, and I have taught in Hong Kong. Because of this international experience, as well as because of my Indian name and darker skin tone, I am often perceived as an international student or an NNEST, while my American accent and familiarity with American culture and society on occasion causes people to perceive me as a NEST as well. These tensions and negotiations are part of what sparked my interest in issues surrounding native speaker concepts.
I guess the biggest challenge is one that is shared by anyone who has moved away from their ancestral home – making people understand that I am neither entirely Indian, despite my name and appearance, nor entirely American despite my speech and clothing.
7. I am very interested in what role MA TESOL programs play in perpetuating the unfair advantage that native speakers have in finding employment in our field. In question 7 (February, 2013) of her NNEST of the Month blog interviewPei-Chia Liao discussed her reasons why she (and I agree with her 100%) thinks our NNEST blog and our NNEST IG in TESOL should advocate for the hiring of more NNEST professors in MA TESOL programs in the United States and especially NNEST professors who have studied NNEST, World English, and EIL issues. I think your research provides more proof for this. Don’t you agree? Could you give some specific ways that MA TESOL programs could improve in providing more appropriate “practical but critical teacher education and professional development” that better prepares non-native MA TESOL students to compete in the job market and to survive as English teachers if they hire more professors (especially NNESTs) who have studied NNEST, World English, and EIL issues?
I absolutely agree that more NNESTs should be hired in US higher education. My research doesn’t directly deal with hiring practices at the moment, though I would be interested in looking at discrimination on the job market – not just what percentage of NNESTs vs. NESTs various institutions employ, but particularly whether NESTs are favored over equally qualified NNESTs in hiring. I would advise caution against hiring a less-qualified professor solely based on their NNEST status, since I think that would perpetuate the stereotype that NNESTs are in fact less qualified than NESTs. That said, it has been demonstrated that NNESTs as professors can serve as positive role models and inspirations for all MA TESOL students. First of all, it sets the expectation that students can excel regardless of their positionality on the native/nonnative spectrum. It also encourages students to see themselves and others as whole, legitimate speakers of English who already have valuable skills that are worth sharing with their students and their peers.
Addressing issues of standardness and nativeness in the MA TESOL classroom are of the utmost importance.
8. What is your “best of all worlds” dream concerning the status of non-native teachers 20 years from now?
Ideally, I would hope that the issue of nativism will no longer be discussed. I know that’s ironic, since I’m basically wishing my research will become obsolete, but I see (non)native speaker as being a socially and discursively constructed positionality rather than an objective reality. Ideally, nativism will no longer be an issue in hiring.
9. In the middle of taking your PhD qualifying exams, you volunteered to be one of the new interviewers for our NNEST of the Month blog. What strategies do you employ to keep focused and motivated in your professional activities? How do you unwind in order to relieve stress? How do you build on your strengths and uniqueness?
I know it sounds cliché, but this is really what I love to do. I enjoy working with people, and I feel like I am contributing towards an important goal. Throughout my doctoral study, I’ve found ways to adjust my research projects to meet my interests and professional undertakings and vice versa. It’s also important for me to stay in professional and personal conversations at conferences, online, and in other spaces to give myself a little motivation. And of course, there’s always the greatest motivator of all: deadlines.
I unwind through travel, hobbies, and involvement with non-academic groups on campus. I serve as a residential advisor in the graduate living community, and as the graduate representative on the Christian Association student board on campus. I also enjoy playing racquetball and practicing my photography skills (which have come in handy for research documentation as well!). When I can spare a weekend, I also make a point to visit my family in Tampa, Florida and Dallas, Texas. It’s important to me to see them at least once a semester.
Aneja, G. (2013). Disinventing and Reconstituting Native Speaker Ideologies through the Classroom Experiences of International TESOL students. WPEL Volume 29, Number 1.
Makoni, S., Pennycook, A. (2007) Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. New York: Multilingual Matters.