Saying vs. Doing: A Contradiction in the Professional Development of Foreign Language Teaching Assistants

By Angus, Katie | Foreign Language Annals, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Saying vs. Doing: A Contradiction in the Professional Development of Foreign Language Teaching Assistants


Angus, Katie, Foreign Language Annals


The Survey of Earned Doctorates (National Science Foundation, 2014) reported that 91.3% of PhD recipients in foreign languages (FL) who were employed upon graduation in 2014 had jobs in academe (Table 67, n.p.). With the number of full-time and nonadjunct faculty positions dwindling and the number of tenuretrack positions in comparison with nontenure-track positions decreasing, many FL graduate students are likely to take on responsibilities that require heavy teaching loads, primarily at the undergraduate level (Steward, 2007).

Given the significant portion of instruction provided by teaching assistants (TAs) (Laurence, 2001) and the fact that many will continue teaching in the future, their professional development as teachers is becoming increasingly more relevant. In her review of articles about FL teacher preparation found in the Modern Language Journal since its inception in 1916, Schulz (2000) concluded that the field of FL teacher education is "still long on rhetoric, opinions, and traditional dogma" (p. 516). Echoing Schulz's conclusion, Allen and Negueruela-Azarola (2010) found that, of the 96 works dealing with graduate student professional development from 1987 to 2008, only 21 were published empirical studies. The authors called for a renewed interest in graduate student education, especially in the form of empirical studies, so as to help teacher educators connect research about professional development to practice rather than basing their pedagogy solely on tradition, their own learning experiences, or personal hunches about what approaches work best.

Rather than continuing the trend of enumerating recommendations without exploring how effective, or even how welcomed, such professional development opportunities are, the present mixedmethods study responded to Schulz's (2000) and Allen and Negueruela-Azarola's (2010) call for further investigations of the way in which future members of the professoriate are prepared. To that end, this study investigated the kinds of professional development, knowledge, and skills that TAs thought they needed as teachers, the types of opportunities in which they participated, and the constraints that prevented them from taking advantage of such opportunities.

Literature Review

Freeman (1989) described teaching as a decision-making process based on four fundamental domains: knowledge, skills, attitudes, and awareness. Within this framework, awareness was viewed as the overarching piece that united the other three, since "the capacity to recognize and monitor the attention one is giving or has given to something" (p. 33) is critical across a range of decision-making domains and contexts. However, research studies that have considered how graduate students develop the first three professional and pedagogical components have been quite limited in number and scope. Interestingly, many of the published empirical studies that were cited by Allen and Negueruela-Azarola (2010) focused on, or were the product of, German departments (e.g., Gonglewski & Penningroth, 1998; Huffman, 1998; Rankin & Becker, 2006). Ryan-Scheutz and Rustia (1999) collected data about 290 TAs who were employed by Italian programs in North America in order to determine how these TAs were being prepared to teach, their background, and who prepared them for teaching. They found that just more than a third of the TAs (37%) had prior teaching experience, and only 0.05% had taken an FL pedagogy class (p. 456). To prepare TAs to teach, 72% of these Italian programs offered methodology courses, and 42% held workshops (p. 459). While it is quite likely that findings in German and Italian can be generalized to other languages, particularly other more commonly taught languages, the perspectives and unique needs of TAs in other FL departments should also be considered.

Other studies have examined TAs' own perspectives on professional development. For example, Mills and Allen (2007) and Mills (2011) investigated the self-efficacy beliefs of TAs and found that while TAs were satisfied with the amount of professional development that they had received in general, they were not confident in their ability to teach literature. …

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