October 2017
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Interview by Elena Shvidko, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, USA

Graduate Student: Kelly J. Cunningham, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA

Where are you from, and what are you studying?

I’m originally from Connecticut, but before coming to Iowa State, I did my MA in the Chicago suburbs and taught ESL [English as a second language] in the area for about 7 years. I am currently a PhD candidate in the applied linguistics & technology and human-computer interaction programs at Iowa State University. Most recently I have been using appraisal analysis (an off-shoot of systemic functional linguistics) to see how modes of technology (MS Word comments and screencast video) change the language of ESL writing feedback on an interpersonal level.

What is an “a-ha moment” you experienced recently in either teaching or research?

During an interview on screencast and written feedback, a student said that they thought the written feedback was better for fixing and video was better for understanding. It was nice to see this emerge on its own from the student directly in the way students perceive the modes. I mean, it makes sense and even seems somewhat obvious. It actually aligns well with my linguistic analysis. It also underlies to some degree why I try to refrain from saying things such as, “Feedback A is better.” In making choices and recommendations, it is typically much more complicated and always tied to a number of parameters—better for what? For whom? In what context? What do we even mean by better?

What in second language (L2) research excites you right now?

The expanded opportunities and perspectives offered by incorporating biometrics and user experience (UX) techniques to develop more nuanced understandings of and support for L2 writing are exciting and seem to have a lot of potential. I think increasing UX perspectives can give us more contextual, multifaceted student- and instructor-centered views in L2 research overall. I have only really dabbled in biometrics, but I would like to do more in the future. We have seen eye tracking of experts in other fields to differ from novices and that it can be used in training. I think we will see different types of biofeedback used for training and feedback in more personalized approaches to both L2 writing and language learning.

I am also excited by the recent growth in graduate student writing support, which is another area I work in. The Consortium on Graduate Communication has been helpful for getting to see what others are up to in this area. In regards to graduate writing support, I am most interested in graduate peer review groups because that is the program I coordinate at my university and where I have the most experience. I am interested in what makes them sustainable and valuable for students. I am also interested in how graduate writing, communication, and language support and review group membership affects identity development, especially disciplinary, career, and intersectional identities.

I think the large-scale cross-disciplinary partnerships we are seeing with projects like Corpus & Repository of Writing (CROW) are really exciting. There is a lot of potential and mutual benefit in bringing together professionals from different areas and we could do more in this area. How would having a user researcher, a rhetorician, a developer, a sociologist, an identity scholar, an ethnographer, an industrial engineer, etc. on your team bring a new perspective to your project? Who else on your campus or beyond might be interested in an extension of your work that you could have join you from the beginning? Additionally, how can we transform more research into tools and interesting accessible, preferably interactive formats?

Could you share one way research informs your teaching?

A lot of my current work is about understanding potential impacts of technology or language in order to enable informed choices from a wider array of possible resources. I do that through systematic analysis of language, like my appraisal analysis of feedback, but also by thinking about and investigating how people interact with systems.

With the tools and language we use, we have to consider how they are being used, the context they are being used in, what our goals are and that even when having all of that information, we still have choices. In teaching, I can translate research, knowledge, and experience to help students build up enough of a background to make an informed choice and to expand their array of choices. That might take the form of helping them expand their language resources and contextual knowledge for applying them, new researchers expanding their methodological choices, or teachers expanding their kit of pedagogical tools. I can ask them questions about what it is they want to accomplish to help them think about things they might want to consider in making that choice. This is something I do all the time in facilitating graduate peer review groups where students give on-the-spot verbal feedback on work in progress and something that I see as underlying my teaching and the feedback I give on work.

Additionally, my work with appraisal has alluded to the importance of instructor perspectives on language and language learners for feedback. In working with instructors, I would like to pull in this kind of work to help instructors become more aware of their own philosophies and attitudes in these areas and how they might affect feedback and, ultimately, students.

Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor in ESL at the Department of Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies at Utah State University. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, and interpersonal aspects of teaching.

Kelly J Cunningham is a PhD candidate with co-majors in applied linguistics & technology and human-computer interaction at Iowa State University where she is finishing up her dissertation on how mode impacts the language of technology-mediated screencast and text feedback in ESL Writing. She also coordinates Graduate Peer Review Groups for the Graduate College’s Center for Communication Excellence, manages a School of Education research group working on projects related to identity development of women, and co-teaches an advanced qualitative research methods class in the Research & Evaluation department.

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