In my day job, I direct the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at the University of Arizona (UA). The UA is a large, public university located in the city of Tucson in southern Arizona about 100 kilometers from Mexico. We have about 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students on campus and typically 300–400 students at any given moment studying in programs associated with our ESL center. I have been the director of this center for about 9 years. During that time we have increased our ESL student population and received CEA accreditation for all of our programs. But surviving those 9 years has been quite the challenge.
We are situated on a large campus in a state that is often not terribly welcoming to higher education (no portion of CESL is funded by the state of Arizona, and a decreasingly smaller portion of the university budget is funded by the state). The past 4–5 years have been terribly difficult for me as a university administrator because budgets have been shrinking, programs are being cut, and staffing is being reduced dramatically. Add to those challenges our state politics that are far from welcoming to nonnative English speakers and internationals and you get headlines not only about shrinking university budgets but also alarming stories about “undocumented aliens” and even teachers with accents! In short—not a very welcoming environment in which to be nurturing an ESL program. I knew coming into my position in 2002 as enrollments were dropping post-9/11 that things could only get better. But certainly I had no idea what the scale of that challenge would be.
One of the greatest challenges was justifying CESL’s existence as a center both professionally and programmatically. Not many people on campus knew who we were or even where we were located (ironically in the CESL building!). We recruit international students, but when I began we weren’t even speaking with the folks in the university international student office or the admissions office. Not being known on campus, of course, meant that our expertise was completely ignored. Often we faced cases where other administrators on campus were making decisions about ESL-related matters without ever thinking to consult us (like what would be an appropriate TOEFL score for admissions or how to assess a graduate student’s English proficiency for teaching). These slights are not unheard of but are indeed a slap in the face to our profession.
But while I was busy asserting our expertise on campus and showing off our professional work to my campus colleagues, a bigger threat was looming on the horizon—the threat of a corporate takeover. Never in my wildest dreams about directing an ESL center did I think that I, an educator with technical experience in teaching second language writing, training in grammar, and experience in promoting new methodologies, never did I think I would be fighting to establish our professional credibility to stop a corporate takeover. But indeed it happened. Not once, not twice, but several times.
Alas, we needed to survive and so I needed to fight. Each time I had to ensure that all of the top-level university administrators knew what the profession of teaching English as a second language was all about and why the expert faculty in our center were the best qualified to teach and run our center and not some outside company promising flush pockets or dazzling dollar signs.
To the outside world, our state finances and therefore our university finances appeared to be crumbling, and so we looked vulnerable. The center was an easy target: A company could certainly capture the university provost’s attention by suggesting that the university increase student numbers and decrease center costs (by cutting faculty pay and benefits). But in my gut, I knew we indeed were (and are!) a profession not to be run over roughshod: We had to advocate for ourselves and our profession and save our center.
We were lucky. We shined up our reputation just enough on campus to save the CESL. But we had to do that by repeatedly demonstrating that we are English language teaching professionals, that TESOL is a profession, and that indeed we should be recognized as professionals. We made ourselves indispensable; we were highly visible, and showed that we are entrenched in research and use our funding wisely.
Not everyone is so lucky. And certainly this fight to establish professional credibility is a much tougher battle in other parts of the world, but the bottom line is still the same: TESOL is a profession. We have a body of knowledge; we conduct research to gain more insight. We have qualifications, and we have reason to be proud of the work that we do. We advocate for our students but what I’ve learned these past few years is that we have to advocate for ourselves as well.
In my plenary on 21 March, I’ll be talking about how, in my view, we as a profession have moved from hiring native-English-speaker–backpacker teachers to developing elaborate credentialing systems with dedicated professional educators in our field. My talk comes out of the experience I’ve just described of having to justify our ELT profession to my own university in the face of adversity. We all need to know who we are and why we are a professional force to be reckoned with. My father taught me to stand up for myself. We as TESOLers need to do that, too. And when we do, we’ll find some truly amazing professionals standing with us.
Dr. Panferov will deliver the Presidential Plenary, titled “Our Heritage: The TESOL Journey in Developing Great Teachers,” at 2 pm CDT, Thursday, 21 March, at the TESOL 2013 International Convention & English Language Expo in Dallas, Texas.