Spotlight on Alumna Monika Ekiert: “A product of TC!” ☆

Dr. Monika Ekiert received her doctorate in Applied Linguistics (AL) from TC in May, 2010. She also holds a Master of Arts degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from TC.  She has collectively spent nine years at the college in a variety of capacities (including a revamp of the Community Language Program) and is now herself a full-time, tenure track Assistant Professor at CUNY.

How did you first become interested in second language acquisition?  What provided that spark for you?

I’ve always been interested in languages.  I am a native speaker of Polish.  And I lived in Moscow, Russia for ten years when I was a young adult, so I consider Russian to be my second language.  English is my third language.  Through strange twists of life, I married a man who is Greek and was exposed to that language.  Then we came to the United States.  So here you go, a lot of languages!

Can you please tell me about your role as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Language Acquisition at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY?

I started in September 2010, right after I graduated from TC.  I decided I wanted to stay in New York, and CUNY has always been very good to TC graduates. Many of my former classmates work on different CUNY campuses.

I teach Academic Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, Introduction to Linguistics and Introduction to Bilingualism. There’s also a lot of administrative and committee work as well as college service. I’m also focusing on research in my area of specialty, second language acquisition.

Let’s go back to your TC days.  I know you spent a long time at the college, and I’m hoping you can take us through the highlights.

I am a product of TC.  I am completely shaped by TC, truly!

I came to TC to get my MA in TESOL which I did in 2003, and then I moved on to an Ed.M. in Applied Linguistics (2005). I stayed at TC to do my doctorate in Applied Linguistics and defended my dissertation in 2010.

Everything that I know and use every day in my teaching I learned at TC.

I did a lot of teaching at TC as well. I taught several MA-level courses in TESOL and Applied Linguistics, among them A&HL 4087, Introduction to Second Language Acquisition. Since second language acquisition is my area of specialty, it was a great academic and professional opportunity. I even received a teaching award for teaching that course in 2006!

I also taught the “Academic Language and Culture” course for the Office of International Students at TC.  I did that for six years—between 2005 and 2009.  Practically every international student at TC would come through my course.  I would always tell them, “I’m a product of TC, so if there is anything you want to know, ask me!”  That was actually one of my highlights at TC:  teaching the course to international students.  I met a lot of interesting people.  They first arrived as my students, and then I’d see how they’d go into doctoral programs, go into interesting fields and find interesting jobs.  That’s just such a wonderful feeling.

Another highlight is the Community Language Program, which was my administrative stint.  I did that for a long time as well.

I understand that you really turned the Community Language Program around.

We revamped it. I worked with Phil Choong, who is still there.  The program we inherited was struggling a bit.  So we revamped it, with the help of our faculty supervisors—Professor James Purpura and Professor ZhaoHong Han. They gave us the tools to make it a very popular and quite successful program. We added foreign languages and specialized ESL classes to the CLP offering and I think the program is doing really well at this point.

Can you tell us about the community that the CLP serves?

It’s interesting because when it was first established in the 1980s, “community” meant the neighborhood of Teachers College. That’s what the founders meant.  I think Phil and I took it outside that “neighborhood”!  We definitely meant the tri-state area.  The CLP students come from Connecticut, New Jersey and all parts of New York.  Phil and I were very pro-active in terms of going out to the immigrant communities and long- and short-term visitors.  In our group of staff, all of us were bilingual or trilingual, so we were able to tap into all these communities. We used newspapers, the Internet, and word-of-mouth to reach out to potential students. We would average 300-400 students per semester. And it was such a small school.  Run, essentially, by four people.

Of course, the programs in TESOL & AL are the most important community that the CLP serves.

So the program is a laboratory for grad students?

Yes, first and foremost.  MA teachers in the program need a place to do their student teaching.  And because a lot of TESOL majors specialize in adult ESL teaching, this is an appropriate site.  Also, TC has a summer TESOL Certificate Program, and those teachers-in-training need a site to get their practical training as well. The second objective for the CLP is to provide a site for research. A lot of doctoral students in TESOL & AL collect data for their dissertations in the CLP.  I’m one of those people.  So I am even more grateful to the program for providing that opportunity.

You were the Managing Editor of Teachers College, Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics from 2005 through 2007.  Can you tell us about that?

Another highlight.  That was such a wonderful experience.  It’s an online working paper publication that was launched in 2001.  I was the second managing editor.  The founding editor, Santoi Wagner, and the faculty advisor, Professor ZhaoHong Han, with a group of doctoral students created this web journal.  In my time, the journal went from a small website to a more professional, open journal platform.  We opened the journal to submissions from outside TC. Also, we added another feature:  video-interviews with scholars in the field of TESOL and Applied Linguistics.  At the time, it was pretty innovative.

Can you tell us about the experience of organizing a colloquium at the AAAL (The American Association of Applied Linguistics) annual conference this past March in Chicago?  What was it like collaborating with Professor ZhaoHong Han?

Professor Han was my dissertation sponsor, so I’ve been collaborating with her on many things all these years.  I know her style, and I always enjoy and learn a lot from my work with her–she’s truly an inspiring scholar.  The colloquium was her idea and she recruited a group of very talented doctoral students to work on it.  She had a great title for the colloquium which focused on an important issue in the field of second language pedagogy.

What was the title?  And can you share a bit about the content?

The title was “Beyond a decade of focus on form (1998-2008): Giving learner meaning its proper place”.  Focus on form is a technique that’s been used by second language teachers for more than a decade. It was first proposed to address the issues noted by researchers working in the Canadian immersion settings – the French immersion students were very fluent, but their language lacked accuracy. Focus on form was proposed in order to strike a balance between pedagogical approaches where the language is primarily treated as an object and opportunities to communicate are scarce or absolutely absent, and teaching paradigms in which the only concern is communication and there is no place for grammar instruction.

In our colloquium, we attempted to show that, although very productive for the last decade, the focus-on-form research promotes a pedagogical practice that at times overemphasizes formal accuracy at the expense of learners’ command of meaning and function in linguistic structures being taught. Bringing the learner perspective into pedagogical interventions is very important: addressing language issues while keeping in mind what the learner wants to say, what the learner is struggling with to communicate, is really crucial.  No intervention is possible unless we keep the learner in the center and try to get to the learner’s meaning.  The picture is complicated because the learners come from different language backgrounds, and these native languages usually influence the way learners think and communicate in a second language.  Without taking that into account, it is very hard to change certain things in their performance in a second language.

Even though the colloquium was scheduled to close the conference, we attracted an impressive audience and were able to present our position and engage in an interesting discussion with prominent players in the field. At the same time, it was stressful.  I actually think my voice changed when I saw some of the faces in the audience!  So that excitement was the interesting and exciting part of the presentation.  The colloquium was related to my dissertation topic and in general to my research interests, but it was far enough from what I’m working on to give me a chance to learn something new. I really learned a lot on that project.

In the past academic year, over 70 TC Arts & Humanities students presented at conferences internationally.  When a student is just starting out, presenting can be a rather overwhelming experience.  As a conference veteran yourself, can you impart some wisdom on how to navigate these waters?

In terms of conference preparation, everyone needs to do their homework.  You can’t assume that you can wing it.  Everyone comes with a wonderful PowerPoint presentation, but very often, you see big names in your field coming into your conference room, and I’ve seen it a lot of times:  people just freeze once they see the room filling up.  And once you freeze, you forget what you’re supposed to say. So prep as much as you can, have short and to-the-point notes on exactly what you want to say to present your content to a live audience. Then you can discretely look at those notes. Don’t copy long sentences from your paper! Prep for natural sounding speech.

It is also important to connect your presentation to what is going on at the conference.  Audiences react really well if you connect your presentation to something that’s been talked about at another presentation or a plenary. It makes your talk more meaningful.

Can you please overcome your modesty share the news of a more recent award that you’ve received?

I can maybe boast of one that I’m particularly proud of.  I received an award in the fall of 2010 from the Second Language Research Forum (SLRF).  It was an award for the presentation based on my dissertation study.  SLRF is a very specialized conference, addressed mostly to those of us who work in the field of second language acquisition. So the award came from people who are my primary audience. That’s why I’m really proud of it.