October 2016

Brief Summary

At the October get-together Dr Christina Gkonou, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex, England, led a stimulating workshop on using diary studies in learner development research (christina-ld-sig-diaries). Please see further below for some short reflections from the workshop. Jenny Morgan also interviewed Christina for Learning Learning, and we had an interesting group discussion about developing the get-togethers for 2017. The next get-together, followed by a bonenkai party in a nearby restaurant, will feature Creating Community: Learning Together 3 on Sunday December 18 2016. More details here.

Reflections from the October get-together

Jenny: I very much enjoyed and was stimulated by Christina’s well-staged Powerpoint which led us participants into the area of diary studies and reflective practice to foster learner development. At different stages through her talk, Christina had us discuss focus points in groups so we could reflect, share and draw on our own personal experiences with diaries/journals, then move into discussing contexts as teachers and learners. It was good to hear how different teachers have students do journal writing sessions in class-time and /or outside of class-time.

We discussed and learned about the uses, goals, and benefits of reflection/reflective practice. Also, Christina gave some useful tips on training/scaffolding for learners participating in diary studies. This was extremely useful as I am currently doing this in my own classrooms with a view to exploring the student data.  My research students do longer, deeper reflections on their research and presentation processes; while general English freshmen write more briefly about whatever they found interesting/difficult in class that day (looking back), and something they want to improve on or learn about in the next class (goal-setting). Adjusting my expectations and writing prompts to match learners’ language level is key; even reflecting in Japanese may be necessary in some instances – no matter L1 or L2, it’s all still reflection for developing self-knowledge, self-direction and growth.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Christina after the workshop. This pushed me to read her article prior to the get-together and frame some questions about her research focuses.  This has helped me think about how I can analyse the student reflections data that I have collected last semester.  Now I just gotta get started on my “coding schemes and relational models.

Ken: I looked forward to this workshop as I have employed diaries as reflective tools for my students to keep track of their language progress. Christina’s section in her powerpoint on how reflection in diaries benefits students in that they are changed longitudinally, helps them take stock of their learning, and allows them to note and expand on their dilemmas, concerns, breakthroughs and realizations.

One way I presently am using them is to require students who are writing graduation theses in my seminar to keep a diary for the purpose of helping help them be aware of the aspects and stages of their research process. This “graduation thesis diary” (“GTD”) consists of 4 parts, in which they: A) tell what they are reading (informal summarizing), B) explain their research ‘odyssey’ (methodological notes), C) find links to their topic in current news, and D) as something completely different, tell something personal happening in their lives (which could be job-hunting, joys, frustrations etc). I have repeatedly coaxed them to write this GTD as part of their grade (also requiring them to just keep it once a week), but it is a Sisyphean challenge when the diary writing does not seem directly related to their graduation theses. However, despite the alarming attrition (out of 17 students) one student has kept this diary throughout these six months, and in my opinion it has greatly contributed to her overall well-being as well as help flesh out her thesis. One dilemma concerned her testy relationship with her homestay mother in her study abroad in Canada last year, but the diary writing helped her to understand it better through reflection. An integral part of her writing will be the focus of my presentation at our upcoming CCLT conference. For a few others, the original aim of these GTDs as diaries have morphed into becoming quasi-ongoing drafts of their graduation theses. This for me reflects some sort of human propensity to keep the name or title of some enterprise and use it for other purposes than originally intended.

It was illuminating to learn that Kathleen Bailey has been the pioneer of these diary studies and a pity to be told that this form of narrative inquiry has become fallow. I was pleased to see how Christina handled the low turnout of the get-together and made our gathering a stimulating and engaging time.

Andy: I really enjoyed the whole workshop, particularly the explanation and discussion of analysing learner diary entries. Taking part of the analysis back to the learner(s) involved and discussing with them some of the interpretation(s) that you make as a teacher-researcher is something that I have tried to do in the past and am about to do in the weeks leading up to JALT2016. It would be interesting to discuss further how the teacher-researcher can explore with learners the interpretations that they might make of the teacher-researcher’s interpretations of what they have originally written. The “confirmatory process” raises interesting questions about how the co-construction of understanding between learners and a teacher-researcher might work,  in what languages it might be done, and how one might navigate some of the power differentials between learners and teacher-researcher in such a process.

The other part of the workshop that I found particularly interesting was the discussion of how diary studies have somewhat disappeared from view since their emergence in the 1990s. Is the term “diary studies” less privileged than other forms of inquiry with personal writing by learners such as “narrative inquiry,” “autobiographical writing,” and “reflective journaling”? If so, why, and where might a further discussion of different genres/modes of “narrative knowledging” take us in coming to a critical view not just of learner diary studies, but of other related modes of personal writing by learners too?

As I was writing this, questions about asking learners to take photos, make drawings, and include visual elements in their personal records and reflections about their learner development came to mind. I would be interested in hearing about any longitudinal learner diary studies that have attempted to include this; and having written this, I just found a very useful starting paper by Paula Kalaja, Hannele Dufva, and Riikka Alanen called “Experimenting with Visual Narratives” in Gary Barkhuizen’s 2013 edited volume on Narrative Research in Applied Linguistics. So, one of the great benefits for me from the get-together was that it helped me think over different puzzles, and then start to go and seek out possible connections afterwards towards planning a small research project.

Finally, I really appreciated the way Christina responded so warmly and inclusively to what different people said, and how she nurtured a sense of reflective and dialogic learning among us during the workshop. Very engagingly done. Thank you, Christina.

Lee: I too enjoyed Christina’s presentation and like Andy and Ken, am somewhat at a loss to grasp why the density of research in diary studies has lessened in quantity over what seems to be the last 10-15 years or so. The literature that accumulated in the 1980s and 1990s certainly doesn’t seem to lack for richness in quality; there are almost ethnographic-level representations of language learning from the ground-up, with a depiction and even characterization of the full range of pain and joy that learners go through that have added to our understanding of what the language learning process involves. I would think this could have been leveraged more fully into language pedagogy, and teacher education in TEFL, given the empathetic potential in research as to what happens with a person in the process.

Here’s my “tuppence” as to why this research may have appeared to drop off. At least in the U.S., and perhaps some other Western cultures, a diary might commonly be seen as merely an everyday notation of things whereas a journal is perceived to have more elaboration, and perhaps a deeper sense of breadth and range. Is it possible then that “diary study” as a term does not lend itself to density of qualitative content and material upon further scrutiny? Perhaps the literature hasn’t dropped off at all in that case, but has either segued into narrative journaling or merged as an aspect of reflective learning, with the diary-study term fading into the ether as it has become pollinated with the larger range of learners that narrative journaling or reflective learning seeks to capture.

The bulk of the diary studies I am aware, at least from their heyday, seem to center on learners outside their cultures on homestay and study abroad sojourns, but perhaps there was a recognition that language learners within their own cultures grappling with an L2 could go through the same level of anxiety and breakthrough even with the cushion of life and study within their own cultures. There may also have been a political dimension that came into play –  that those on overseas stints represented learners who were from privileged backgrounds or communities who had the wealth and luxury to embark on these sojourns, perhaps experiencing them as exotic jaunts even where committed and relevant learning and understanding was taking place.

Having said all that, it seems that diary studies, in lieu of a term that might capture what they do more incisively to wider perception, are still relevant, and Christina’s presentation was engaging for showing what learner-noted content could consist of, and what researchers interested in such content could look for. I didn’t realize that what I currently have on my hands amounts to such a study with the learner I mentioned, and it helps me in thinking about what is relevant as I am currently putting together my LD forum presentation on this learner’s journal.

Alex: It was a great opportunity for me to attend Christina’s workshop and get an insight about the latest research on diaries, and in particular, about Christina’s longitudinal diary study.

While the number of workshop attendees was rather low, we managed to have an engaging discussion with the presenter and interact with other participants. Christina was able to deliver a thought-provoking workshop that surely kindled our minds. All workshop attendees have used diaries/journals in their teaching practices to some extent, making it interesting to learn about other participants’ stance and experience on deploying diaries/journals in the Japanese ESL context.

While I have used journals with my first- and second-year students at a number of universities, the aim of the journals was not necessarily to elicit data on students’ reflections related to their English language development; rather, I was interested in learning what challenges (if any) students were faced with in their first/second year of being a university student. I was also interested in learning more about students’ interests/life outside the university. I hope to present my findings at the Creating Community: Learning Together 3 conference in December.

However, during the second semester of the academic year 2016-2017, I have switched my focus to deploying journals as a teaching tool aimed at developing students’ research and writing skills. I have also asked students to write reflections on what/how/why of their writing skills and what they think they need to do to hone their academic writing skills.

Using journals/diaries in one’s teaching is a great tool, however, I realized that the feasibility of the task requires a careful planning. After having an after-class focus group discussion with students, I decided to devote 20-30 minutes of my class time to journal writing. This, in turn, has proved to be more effective than asking students to submit it as a homework assignment. After considering all pros and cons, I decided to balance journal writing as a 70/30% activity, where 70% was done as in-class writing, and 30% was done as a homework assignment. Of course, this is still an ongoing exploratory project; therefore, I was very interested in attending Christina’s workshop. Moreover, she is Greek, and I was thrilled to have met her in Tokyo, Japan. What a small world!