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Digging into the question of identity

Exploring professional identities helps us reconsider the native versus non-native divide, as Melanie Butler discovers from Dr Jane Evison

You teach on master’s courses and run the University of Nottingham’s online MA TESOL. Your area of research is teachers’ identities, including the difference in identities between native speakers and non- natives. Has your experience teaching master’s informed this area of research?

Just 10 or so years ago, there tended to be assignments organised around comparison and fairly unproblematised lists of the characteristics of supposedly different sorts of teachers. Gradually these have been replaced by more nuanced engagement with a number of issues, such as unfair recruitment practices, the challenges of pre-service training and opportunities to professionalise.

From the very beginning of their studies, our teachers share the stories of their career journeys and how they’ve been included or excluded when working in different places, along with their aspirations for the future.

They also take part in structured online peer discussions where, as well as doing tasks that are set, they often share complex identity issues relative to their own contexts. 

You use discourse analysis as a tool for digging into the question of identity. What are the advantages of this?

I’ve always researched spoken language, originally using corpus linguistics, so it’s impossible for me to see an interview as anything other than a ‘speech event’ in which the participants are not simply interviewer and interviewees.

They are interlocutors, first and foremost, orienting themselves to each other’s (perceived) positions. These positions could be explicit or implicit in what they’re saying. Discourse analysis is a way of getting at these positions, as it allows the talk to be considered as a whole, not simply as a set of discrete answers to questions. Using discourse analysis means that you can spend lots of time looking at deceptively small items.

“I’ve been privileged to learn about the professional lives of many teachers 
from around the world”

I’m endlessly fascinated by things like pronouns, deictics – especially ‘here’ and ‘there’ – and common interactional items like ‘you know’. I also focus on the use of vague language, as in ‘teachers like us’; ‘CLT, TBL and stuff like that’ or ‘lesson planning and wot-not’. When an interviewee uses these kinds of expressions, they are making assumptions about shared membership of a group that can ‘unpack’ the meaning.

If you simply see interviews as data to be thematically coded, you can miss these kinds of subtleties.

My co-researcher, Lucy Bailey, and I have done several research studies in this area, and one thing that continues to surprise us is how often speakers signal to others the groups to which they don’t belong and whose values they don’t share. That’s often easier, and less risky to do, than it is to clearly articulate specifically the group to which you do align.

Your latest paper on language teaching looks at how ideas of career trajectories vary between two groups. One sees a master’s as a way of being recognised as ‘not a backpacker’ and for the other as ‘not just a local’. Does this affect the way the groups see each other?

I’ve been privileged to learn about the professional lives of many teachers from around the world through my work at Nottingham. I teach on the face-to-face programme, the web-based one and for a quite a number of years I also taught on our programme in Malaysia. I’d say that in their daily lives, teachers who are

professionalising by taking master’s courses like this aren’t so much interested in who is in which group, but who makes a supportive colleague, who is doing their job well and who they can get inspiration from.

Jane Evison is Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Nottingham, UK. Her research interests include talk and interaction, the discourse of teacher education and teacher professionalism in international settings. She is the leader of the MA TESOL (web-based) programme and the School of Education’s Senior Tutor.

Images courtesy of IMATE BY SANU A S FROM PIXABAY and Library
Jane Evison
Jane Evison
Dr Evison is Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Nottingham. Her research interests include talk and interaction, the discourse of teacher education and teacher professionalism in international settings. She is the leader of the MA TESOL (web-based) programme.
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