Isolation activities: thesis writing and running

I’ve been keeping to myself these past few weeks because I’ve needed to really focus on getting this thesis done. Yes, I already had a first draft way back in December 2013, and, truth be told, it was not my best work. I just wanted it out the way. Now, I’ve had to return to the original draft and start the slow process of picking it apart before putting back together. The resulting draft is much more streamlined, focused and something that I’m beginning to feel proud of. It’s been an interesting, yet unexpected switch of emotions. Continue reading

Thesis editing slumps, spring, and running

I’ve been editing my thesis so intensely these past few weeks and I feel rather *ugh*. Actually it’s more like “THESIS EVERYWHERE! CAN’T ESCAPE!”, y’know, that kind of feeling. I can understand now why final year PhD students seems to disappear for months at a time. For me, I’m not quite in the head space to socialise and at the moment I know I am a thesis bore. It’s all I can really talk about nowadays. I sometimes get into a mental slump these past few weeks, because editing is really, really hard. I’ve had to become very strict with my time so that I can focus properly on what I’m doing, but, the end result has been polished, or nearly polished chapters – a very good pay off to my self-imposed isolation.

New running shoes! After 5 years I thought it was time to replace the old pair. Photo my own via instagram (@eljeej).

That is why I’m thankful it’s spring. The warmer temperatures and the longer daylight hours have helped my mental outlook immensely. I spend most of the day indoors in front of a computer so I do make it a point to go out, everyday, and get some fresh air. For me, this is in the form of running. I used to run more regularly when I lived closer to town, but stopped because my current neighbourhood isn’t ideal, in my opinion, for running alone in the dark (early morning or evening).  During the cooler (and darker) parts of the year I’ve been weight lifting at the gym instead. However, there’s something about being outdoors that makes running more appealing this time of year. So I get out of the house, out from behind my desk, and give myself a physical break from my thesis. This has helped me to stay more positive so that I can keep working.

The “Where are you from (really)?” question: A bit of me and my PhD topic

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The majority of my blog posts focus on the experiences of being a PhD student, but less so on the actual topic.  This week’s post is on the development of my thesis topic, beginning with a question that I get asked every now and then. I was inspired to finally write this entry by Chia Suan Chong’s post on the very same question.  While we have different starting points, the “Where are you from?” question is a complicated one to unpack, considering the emotional response that it invokes.  In my version of the question, I’ve bracketed ‘really’ because it’s often the intention behind the initial question.  “Where are you from?” followed by a look of confusion caused by my answer (e.g. “I’m from Canada.”) is usually followed up by the actual question they wanted to ask: “What is your background?” / “Where were you born?” or, sometimes, the straight up “Where are you really from?”.

Now, I’m a Canadian-Filipino living in the UK.  I was born and raised in Canada and moved to the UK in 2006. So when someone asks “Where are you from?” I usually answer “Canada” because that is where I’m from. While the person asking the question usually means well, I do find it frustrating when “Canada” isn’t the answer they were expecting and so often I prepare myself for the inevitable follow up questions.  Over time, I’ve come to expect that my answer doesn’t often fit with other people’s idea of “Canadian” though, ironically, I supposedly sound like one.

Studying the concept of the English language ‘native speaker’

This PhD that I’m undertaking is a personal journey that explores the role of race and ethnicity in TESOL.  As stated in my bio, I explore the status and identity of visible ethnic minorities who consider themselves native English speaking teachers (or VEM-NESTs for short).  I’m a VEM-NEST, and in the past I’ve experienced discrimination based on my race, from having job offers revoked once I sent my photo to being paid less than other teaching staff because, as the owner of one school put it, “The students don’t think you’re a real native speaker, so they don’t want to pay more.”  Yet, I’ve been hired as a English language teacher because of my North American accent.

As a full-time English language teacher I was angry.  Not that explosive type of anger but that slow, simmering type that eats away at you in the background.  I was angry because I was paid less than the rest of the teaching staff who were white-native speakers.  I was angry for feeling the need to be on the defensive, and became fed up of having to explain my background to each and every class I taught. In many ways, I felt that my professional ‘self’ was being de-valued because of perceptions regarding my ethnic identity, and as a new teacher, it was at times overwhelming.

Let me be frank in my position and state that I do not believe that language ability equates teaching ability. In the English language teaching industry (ELT), being a native-speaker (NS) does not and should not equal being a qualified / good / best / better teacher. Ever. Moreover the definition of what it means to be a native speaker of English isn’t as straightforward.  From a teacher’s point of view there are several excellent blog posts addressing the issue of native speakers and ELT, one of which is Josette LeBlanc’s great blog post exploring how to re-defining the NS label as well as an interesting discussion thread on The British Council website on the value of NS teachers. There isn’t enough space here for me to argue persuasively against the hierarchical nature of NS/NNS in the TESOL industry – there are many authors out there who have written extensively on the subject. However, the very fact that this is still being debated today is a reminder that there is still a long way to go before these  views are put to rest.

The relationship between race identities and NS/NNS labels, however, is a relatively new and limited discussion in TESOL.  I’m well aware that are some who equate my North American accent / Canadian passport with teaching ability and through my experiences (past and present) I’ve also been made aware that my ethnicity challenges expectations associated with the label ‘Canadian English native speaker’. So for me, “Where are you from?” is loaded question.  In some ways, I’m still haunted by feelings of being under pressure to prove I’m as good a teacher as my students expected from a ‘real native speaker’ (a.k.a. ‘real Canadian’). On a different level, I continue to be frustrated when my answer “I’m from Canada” is not a sufficient enough reply. I feel I shouldn’t have to explain my Canadian identity or why I speak English so well.

There’s more I could say on this but I’d like to leave it here for now and invite you post your reactions and thoughts in the comments below. Please keep your comments respectful and civil. Thank you for reading this post!