Monday, May 7, 2018

Doing a part-time Master's from Taiwan

I'm having trouble reading this - 朝山?潮汕?Is that a radical or a design element?

So, my first full term at Exeter is finished, grades are in, and I'll just say I'm quite happy.

It's important to me to write about professional development - after all, I'm interested in Taiwan for personal reasons, but my actual profession isn't related to Taiwan Studies, affairs, policy, any of it, and although I know there are others here who take TESOL seriously, it's hard to see that just looking online. Besides, people have asked. There aren't a lot of professional development opportunities locally, so for those who are actually serious about the profession I figure it'd be good to talk about what I've been up to.

I have less to say about this than I did about doing a CELTA (taking over a month away from Taiwan) and a modular Delta locally. I'm in the groove now - I know what I need to do and how to go about it, and there's less initial confusion and stress. So, it just feels like "life" rather than "something worth writing about".

But, there are a few things worth saying:

A bit about my program

I'm enrolled in the MEd Summer Intensive TESOL program at Exeter: it's the only highly-ranked school I could find that had a program quite like this - I've written about this issue before. It's not a "distance learning" program: you take your classes face-to-face over the summer, and then go back to wherever you live to write your papers. This is enough for it to be considered fully face-to-face.

The same program is offered full-time, and the summer program tends to be attended by people like me: working professionals in the field looking to level up (I have heard that the full-time program skews quite a bit younger.) Most of my classmates are non-native speakers, which I appreciate, and the entry requirements are stringent enough (though, to be honest, I did not fear that I'd be rejected.)

The main issue was finding relevant literature - in general:

There is just not a lot of TESOL literature available in Taiwan. Caves has a modest selection, I haven't yet figured out if I can use an interlibrary loan system here and, given that the best university doesn't offer my program, I'm not sure it would be fruitful to try. I can get most journal publications electronically, but it can be hard to access books, as many relevant titles aren't available in digital copies (when one is available, it's usually offered in a read-online format through the Exeter library).

I lucked out in terms of having access to a large library of relevant titles through a helpful classmate, but if I hadn't made that connection, I might have spent thousands more just on books.

...and relevant to my context

Because this is a Master of Education program, and not a Master of Arts, it is very much tied to one's teaching context. You can't write abstractly: you have to find real teaching situations, evaluate them, and often propose your own output or adaptations for use in these real-world contexts. I appreciate that - it's relevant, not too up-in-the-clouds - but to ground your ideas in principled pedagogy and relevant literature, you need such literature about said contexts. And there just...isn't a lot. There are TESOL and AppLing researchers publishing research from Taiwan, some of which is crap and some of which is fine - but there's just not enough of it. In the field, Taiwan simply does not represent very well.

It can be a bit lonely

I did Delta with Brendan - we had each other to talk through the hard parts, read each others' work, make each other dinner and talk each other down from stressful moments. I also had a local tutor for the most difficult module, which helped a lot.

On the Master's, although one of my classmates is Taiwanese and we've become good friends, I don't see her often as she lives in Hsinchu. Otherwise, it's just me...going it alone. I'm quite extroverted so all that time stuck in books or behind a computer screen, without other people doing the same thing, got a little lonely. I started feeling a bit like a slug - not enough exercise. I felt trapped indoors on beautiful days. Finding friends working on their own stuff to be around and choosing outdoor cafes on occasion helped, but frankly, you're sort of on your own.

There's not a lot of local support

To be blunt, Taiwan does not seem to value qualified English teachers. It can feel sometimes like nobody cares. I quit one of my (many) jobs in part over frustration with what I saw as academically-underqualified management, feeling as though, if I wasn't going to get support at work, where my degree would be immediately relevant, I would at least need time to finish my papers. My other workplaces were highly accommodating of my time needs and I'm thankful for that - those papers, man - but weren't resources in terms of discussing module content and writing.

I'd worked with highly qualified academic managers in the past, whom I would have happily gone to with questions or for advice, but that dried up. I got some very helpful support from the person I consider as a kind of mentor (thanks, yo), but he's busy with other things too.

I know there are other qualified people in Taiwan I could talk to, but I have found once you get to this level, you tend to be horribly busy (as I have been), and I feel as though there's no such thing as a truly helpful workplace in Taiwan. Not even necessarily the universities. I have to hope I'm wrong.

Yet I can't help but feel as though English teaching here suffers from the same blight as journalism: professionalism is just not valued. It's depressing. Come on, Taiwan.

The best part is the travel - the papers are...papers

Seriously - the classes are lectures, a bit long (three hours) but fun to attend. Otherwise, you are free to ramble about Exeter, although many students will spend time in the library looking through the physical collection to take notes, get ideas on what they might need, or scan relevant passages. First year students have to write a fairly simple formative essay and take study skills seminars - we'll see what it's like for second years - but otherwise, we could enjoy the town (quiet as it is). There was never a point when we were too busy to go to the pub or out for dinner, or to enjoy theater and other performances with our student discounts. In fact, people commented on my constant social media posts having fun with my classmates asking if I was actually doing any work (some).

And, of course, if you're already in England, you may as well poke about Europe...last year I went to Georgia, Armenia, Greece, Czechia, Hungary and Austria. This year I'll go to Portugal, Wales and Italy (and there is talk of a weekend trip to Spain.)

Then, the papers came. They're not easy - I mean, it's Master's level at a fairly prestigious university. I did very well but I had to work for it, and I felt like I spent most of January, February and March deep in a hole with only my computer screen for company.

There are no exams (yay!)

I always found this a bit odd about my friends' Master's programs. I thought exams were for college classes where you could assume the average to...let's say "differently motivated"... students couldn't write a decent paper (sorry if that sounds mean, but...) and if you were in a Master's program, especially in any kind of liberal arts or humanities field, you would certainly do away with the nonsense of timed exams and express your literature-grounded, principled and justified ideas in writing. Apparently - according to people I know - that's not always the case.

My program, however, has lots of paper writing but no exams. As, frankly, it should be.

Time can be an issue

I was lucky - as above, my various employers were very accommodating. I also took on a new teacher training role during this time, which I've been really getting into. It was a steep learning curve, though, so I found myself teaching my first teacher training course while finishing up my first paper, and not sleeping much at all. But, the job presented itself and I jumped on it, as I'd always wanted to do teacher training.

However, it's less clear that others doing this program would be so fortunate: I remember being dependent on an employer for a work visa, and I remember not having the power or resources to tell an employer to buzz off if they weren't accommodating. Most employers in Taiwan don't respect teachers' time - you're scheduled without being asked, pressured to work weekends or take classes you don't want, corralled into doing extra unpaid work (judging [ridiculous] speech contests, pointless paperwork, 'English corner' or whatever) and aren't even paid particularly well for the honor.

I could easily imagine someone without my resources - the experience of having done a Delta, the course exemptions from that Delta, accommodating employment, permanent residency, a persuasive resting bitch face* and a supportive husband - struggling to get all of the papers written.

Even I - a fully-resourced person - gave up my Lunar New Year to spend 6 straight days writing a paper on testing and assessment, with a cold so bad it bordered on the flu. I didn't have the time otherwise.

It's caused me to re-think similar programs in Taiwan.

Looking from the perspective of someone who had done a Delta, MA TESOL programs available in Taiwan didn't look particularly impressive. I didn't see how they actually trained one to be a good teacher (and I have been told that the MA Teaching Chinese programs tended to focus on the linguistics of Chinese rather than how to teach it).

But, I'm finding that's true with pretty much any Master's program. You get a lot of background in the field and a deeper theoretical and academic knowledge of it, but if you are looking to get better at classroom practice, they aren't going to do that. Period. No matter where you are. The academic knowledge is worthwhile, but it's best to know what you are signing up for. 

It's still absolutely worth it

Seriously, I'm lovin' it! I feel like I've found my superpower - a great hidden talent - writing academic papers that keep getting high marks. When you enter the field as an inexperienced nobody, as I did, and continue to work in it despite it being dismissed as "not a real job" by so many other expats (which I want to say is not fair, but so many "teachers" treat it as "not a real job" that I can't even blame the haters too much), there's always this desire to do something to set yourself apart as a real professional. Besides, although I don't write about it much, I do care about the field. I've toyed with starting an TEFL blog but Lao Ren Cha is enough for me, I'd rather write as a hobby and leave the work at work. Besides, it is interesting (to me) - I enjoy knowing enough about second language acquisition that I can shrug off all of the folk theories and pontificating. Leading TESOL training and developing future language teachers simultaneously really drives home that I do have a body of professional knowledge worth sharing. It's great.

I mean the papers can be torture, but also, it's great.

*no, seriously, sometimes you just gotta don the face and tell people how it's gonna be

1 comment:

Susan Orton said...

You are awesome, Jenna. You will go far because of your hard work, positive attitude, and determination.