Image: Photo taken by Jennifer Ball of a Norfolk Pine in the middle of the courtyard of her college in Oman.

UNE PhD graduate, Jennifer Ball, recently completed her study journey with UNE, and while reflecting on her studies she noted that one of her key goals has been to contribute to the mindful teaching of English throughout the world. Not only is this goal achievable for a passionate academic such Jennifer, but she has already begun the process through her PhD study.

Jennifer’s PhD project investigated the writing requirements in an English medium tertiary college in the Sultanate of Oman. For those who might not know much about Oman it is a country located on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and represents an excellent case study of educational trends in its region. Jennifer’s research explores what these trends say about English language levels and proficiency at an educational level in Oman. Jennifer describes this best when explaining the context of her research:

“Despite a phenomenal expansion rate in the education sector, including the predominantly English medium tertiary institutions, the resultant student outcomes have fallen well short of expectations, particularly with regard to English language levels. Broadly speaking, my research investigated this problem. More specifically it was undertaken to inform the teaching of English in a particular college entry pathway program.” Jennifer goes on to discuss how the research began with two questions:

  • What written English texts are required in the first-year assessments in the Bachelor of Communications in a tertiary institution in Oman, and what are the distinctive language features of these texts?
  • To what extent do the assessment genres in the English Department support student progress and achievement in the Communications Department?

Jennifer’s findings suggest that the apparent failure of the Omani tertiary education may be partially due to imported teaching and assessment practices that are inappropriate for the context. Elaborating on these findings further Jennifer noted that there are two important aspects to the Omani context that must be considered.

“Firstly, the socio-political context led to the choice of textography as the methodological approach. Secondly, the diverse linguistic makeup of the country underlies an interesting finding regarding the effectiveness of translanguaging in Omani tertiary classrooms.”

Jennifer’s thesis also demonstrates that textography can meet the requirements and constraints faced by teacher researchers working in Oman, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. “The political and social volatility of this area makes long or sometimes even short-term planning difficult,” said Jennifer reflecting on her research findings. “In addition, foreign teachers tend to have limited agency or control over the scope of their roles. These factors are not conducive to quantitative research which requires tight control over quantity and timing of data collection. Furthermore, as in all GCC countries, Islamic sensibilities must be considered when conducting research or making recommendations for teaching in Oman.”

Researching within international cultures is often quite a sensitive undertaking, which leads one to ask the question of how Jennifer’s PhD study was conducted. Despite the challenges of her project Jennifer described how the process of data collection involved using previously written assessment pieces from tertiary institutions in Oman.

“Such data is not only authentic, but also requires no additional input from students beyond signing consent. This bypasses many potential challenges such as time restrictions as well as language and cultural barriers. In my research I utilised teacher interviews, college and Oman Ministry of Education documents as well as researcher observations recorded in notes and photographs.”

Oman has a rich and complex linguistic profile. Although Arabic is the national language, a number of indigenous and non-indigenous languages are also frequently used in Omani homes and society in general. The findings of my research strongly suggest that students call on these diverse linguistic skills to support them as they acquire the English language skills needed in their studies. Interestingly, even features of Arabic which have previously been thought to cause negative transfer for Arabic speaking English learners, appear to be leveraged by students with positive results in their assessment writing. This ‘translanguaging’ (Canagarajah, 2011) was found to be an important tool for both students and teachers in the Omani tertiary context. In fact, it was indispensable for students to negotiate the imported curriculum for which they sometimes had few relevant terms of reference.”

Having recently come to the end of her PhD journey with UNE, Jennifer wishes to extend thanks to her supervisors Susan Feez, Zuocheng Zhang and Liz Ellis for their unfailing faith and support. While PhD students and their research are elevated by a strong support team, it is often the case that a student’s supervisory team also imparts wisdom. Speaking to this Jennifer noted:

“Above all else I want to thank them for helping me keep sight of the important issues that I will now try to move ahead with in the hope of making a small contribution to the mindful teaching of English throughout the world.”

Of course completing a PhD and harbouring a passion for teaching has also provided Jennifer with words of advice for students who may be following a similar path as she:

“I encourage students to concentrate on their methodology when choosing their supervisory team. Nobody knows your content until you write it, otherwise it would not be a contribution to knowledge. The methodology is the thing you need help with. I was lucky to have a supervisory team that helped me explore my options in this respect and I combined all of their methodological knowledge with the concept of textography.”