Research Contributing to Social Change

TESOL & Applied Linguistics doctoral student Catherine Box

On the weekend of October 3 – 4, 2014, researchers, graduate students and colleagues alike gathered at TC for creating a collaborative learning space once again:

We proudly held “The 4th annual meeting of LANSI” (The Language and SocialInteraction Working Group).

The topics discussed varied from classroom discourse to medical office interaction, from flirtation on a date to reported speech on the phone, which are everyday interactive situations for all of us.

Sponsored by The TESOL and Applied Linguistics Program here at TC, LANSI was established by Dr. Hansun Waring in Fall 2010. This was a new venture to bring together scholars and students in the New York area and exercise workouts on analyzing data of naturally-occurring interaction in various contexts. This year’s conference featured 26 presenters from as far away as Korea and France, and among them were two prominent researchers in our field as plenary speakers – Dr. Hugh “Bud” Mehan and Dr. Patricia Duff.

During a coffee break, we were fortunate enough to grab an opportunity to privately chat with Dr. Mehan, well-known for his research of the IRE pattern [1] in teacher-student exchanges (discussed in his classic 1979 paper). We wondered, however, as a sociologist, how he became so involved in the studies of classroom discourse. We decided to improvise a brief interview over coffee:

J & G: “So, how did you become interested in classroom discourse to begin with?”

Hugh Mehan speaking at LANSI

Mehan: “Well, when I was a graduate student, I had a concern with equity issues, and the fact that there’s discrepancy in resource allocation by social class and by ethnicity.I thought maybe a classroom is where you can see how the macro issue of discrimination resides in, or could be found in micro, face-to-face interaction.”

J & G: “Wow, so you were interested in student equality and not focused on the IRE first.”

Mehan: “Right. Not only in classroom, but also I looked at educational testing in my dissertation. And there I was able to show that the testers treated students differently depending on their ethnicity and gender. So it began with my concern with equity, and I was trying to see if we could locate that kind of social structure in interaction between adults and students.”

TESOL & Applied Linguistics doctoral students engaging and having fun

J & G: “And that was some 40 years ago! So, after decades of excellent research career, what are you working on these days?”

Mehan: “My colleagues and I built a high school on our campus. It is exclusively for lower-income students. The idea is to prepare them as thoroughly as possible to go to college. So it’s a college prep school for lower-income students.”[2]

If you have ever wondered how research could contribute to society, here was the answer and an excellent example. We were also astonished at the fact that his discovery of “IRE” was more of a by-product. Despite all his fame and status in the field, what a charming, down-to-earth, and humorous person he was!

Although there was no doubt that the lecture by Dr. Mehan was awe-inspiring and not to mention the fascinating talk by Dr. Duff, all of the presentations were innovative to fit what we call “the LANSI spirit of dialog and diversity”.

As we hurried back into the conference room for the next presentation after our chat, Dr. Mehan added quickly:  “This is a really intimate, great conference because you have both senior scholars and young students interacting with each other. Very impressive.” We are already excited about next year’s meeting and looking forward to expanding the LANSI horizon!

Gahye Song and Junko Takahashi, TESOL/AL


[1] The IRE is an acronym for Initiation-Response-Evaluation, and refers to a three-part sequence of interaction between a teacher and a student.

[2] Preuss School is located on the campus of University of California, San Diego.