In this article Stephanie Vandrick narrates a tale of a late bloomer. She tells how she had been in the field of English as a second language (ESL) for many years but began seriously writing and publishing only after age 40, when events in her professional life gave her the confidence and the resources to begin writing, an activity she had previously thought that only others did
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University of San Francisco
I have always been an avid, even addicted, reader, and I have always been in love with words and language. I have always loved the academic world, the world of the university campus, of classes, of the library, of scholarly and intellectual discussions and pursuits. Thus although throughout high school and college I had little idea of what I wanted to do with my future, it gradually became clear that of course that future had to include books, ideas, and campuses. As a new graduate assistant in the English Department at the age of 21, I was assigned to teach English as a second language (ESL), and after my first day of teaching, I knew that teaching at the college level would be my career. I pursued that career and have taught ESL and other subjects (literature, Women’s Studies) my whole adult life. But I didn’t begin seriously writing for scholarly publication until I was forty. Before that, I wrote some short pieces, some newsletter articles, some reviews, but not a lot. I was in writing, as I have been in other parts of my life, a late-bloomer.
WHY DIDN’T I WRITE EARLIER?
A primary reason that I didn’t write earlier was the difficult working conditions during my first 15 years of full-time teaching. Although I have been teaching ESL (and other areas) at the college level my whole adult life, my teaching situation during my first 15 years was one that did not encourage, and in fact actively discouraged, research and writing. I worked under very negative conditions at my institution, both at the department level and at the university level. ESL was considered a service field, and ESL instructors were expected to teach a heavier- than-normal load, attend many meetings, do quasi-administrative work, work on curricula, organize social events, and in general put in long hours. Efforts to do research were actively discouraged; for instance, teachers (including me, on at least two occasions) who asked to teach a certain class again in order to follow up on initiated research were purposely assigned to completely different classes. Although we were full-time faculty, and grateful for that status, we suffered many of the indignities that part-time faculty in our, and other, fields so often face: heavier teaching loads than other faculty had, desks in a large room rather than private offices, no individual telephones, no access to research or travel funds, low status. Even worse than the specifics of this negative situation was the hostile attitude of the administrators at the time; they not only did not attempt to improve working conditions, but thought that the conditions were perfectly appropriate for the faculty and believed that the faculty should be grateful for having their jobs and should not complain.
I can’t begin to describe the pain that this difficult and hostile work situation caused my colleagues and me. It was difficult for me, as someone who had had a happy, secure childhood, to believe that people could behave in this way. I had been raised to think that if a person did her or his job well, she or he would be valued. I had always thought that people were basically good and generally treated each other decently. I honestly couldn’t comprehend cruel, manipulative motivations and behavior, and was shocked to observe it and to be its target. Still worse was to observe it in people with power over my colleagues and me. Even today, when I have been in an infinitely better situation for many years, I sometimes realize how much that time in my life affected me. Just recently, when the subject happened to come up during a conversation with a new colleague at a professional conference, I found myself choking up and briefly unable to continue speaking.
Readers may wonder why I didn’t simply leave this toxic situation; I am sure some of my friends wondered the same thing at the time. Perhaps I should have left then. Yet leaving a full-time university position in ESL, in a premier geographical location, especially knowing of the scarcity of such positions, made it very hard to leave. I also had family and roots in the area. After moving often during my childhood, I didn’t want to keep moving as an adult. And perhaps I was just plain insecure about looking for a new job.
All of these conditions interacted with my own lack of confidence in myself as a scholar and researcher. Some of the reasons for this had to do with my own personality, and some had to do with gender. Some had to do with the internalization of others’ regarding ESL as a second- class field. Although intellectually I did not and do not believe these belittling conceptions about my field, all the stereotypes insidiously seeped into my mind, as I know they do, unfortunately, for many teachers in our field: ESL is only remedial; anyone who speaks English can teach English; you are “only” dealing with “foreigners;” ESL is not a real discipline.
Other less personal factors that made me less likely to write were the fact that 25 years ago there were far fewer scholarly journals in the field of ESL and applied linguistics and far fewer faculty in full-time university positions in TESOL and applied linguistics; therefore, except for a few prominent scholars at a few institutions, there was not much of a culture of expectation of writing and publishing. In addition, most of the writing and publishing that was done was on topics related to linguistics and language learning. As a person who came to ESL through my interests in literature, language, and culture, my focus was more on literature and on sociopolitical issues than on, for example, second language acquisition research, I thought that in order to write, I would have to do quantitative research, use statistical analysis, and write about, for instance, how language learners acquired a certain grammatical competence.
Readers may also wonder whether I was and am just using the difficult situation at my institution as an excuse for why I didn’t write. I myself have wondered this at times. Sometimes I thought, and think, that if I had only been more motivated, more disciplined, harder working, more confident, I could have and should have written anyway, despite the difficult work setting. Perhaps it is true that I could have and should have done more anyway. But I was not strong enough to surmount the difficulties. I need at least a bit of support and encouragement from my professional community, or at the very minimum a neutral setting rather than a destructive one, in order to write.
What allowed me to start writing and publishing at 40? First, much of the unhappy situation at work changed quite radically Our university’s faculty union was instrumental in fighting for better working conditions. A new administration, and in particular a new dean, had a very supportive attitude and followed through with tangible support. For example, the ESL faculty’s teaching load was reduced to the same as that of other college faculty, and in some cases, including mine, it was later further reduced to allow for research and writing time. For another example, I was finally assigned a private office, with my own telephone, computer, windows, and lock on the door. As Virginia Woolf famously said, people—and in particular women—need “a room of one’s own” in order to think and write (Woolf, 1929/1959). In addition, a close colleague and friend became department chair, and she was tremendously encouraging and supportive of my writing.
I particularly remember a meeting that my colleagues and I had with our new dean, the supportive dean I mentioned earlier. He told us that he would immediately reduce our teaching load to the same load that all faculty at our university had. But, he said, we would then be expected to do the same kind and quantity of research as other faculty were expected to do. I remember experiencing a tiny moment of panic, and then a bracing rush of optimism and confidence. This was another moment of epiphany: I suddenly realized that this was the moment I had been waiting for. YES, I told my dean. Yes, of course I would do that research and writing. No problem. Where did that confidence come from? Apparently it had been lurking underneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to come out. It was a moment of hope and joy for me.
Simultaneously, partly as a result of the increased respect for me and my profession shown by the university and the increased support the university gave me, I began to believe in myself as someone who could share her ideas with others by writing. Until then, on some level I had thought of writing and publishing as something that others did, others who somehow knew more, knew the magic inside information that allowed one to write and publish. Now a shift happened in me which allowed me to picture myself as, at least potentially, one of those people: a writer who publishes.
It is hard to know whether this shift was mostly a result of age, a result of the earlier-mentioned external factors, or some combination of the two, some alchemy brought about by their interaction. Perhaps, too, I was experiencing that burst of creativity that one often sees these days among women at midlife. Women in general tend to be “late-bloomers” compared with men; whether this is inherent in females, socially constructed (see, e.g., Rubin, 1979), or simply a matter of the logistics of managing a family life along with a career (see, e.g., Apter, 1993; Hochschild, 1997) are knotty questions that feminists and others have not yet resolved. In any case, I know many women writers, artists, actors, musicians, photographers, and others who didn’t fully come to their creative work until their 40s or even later. Perhaps they were too busy with their jobs and families earlier; perhaps they lacked confidence and were not expected or encouraged to give themselves the time and opportunities to work on their art earlier. For whatever reason, I believe I am just one of many who are part of this phenomenon of late-blooming creative women.
Connected to this midlife “flowering” is the sense that most people, women or men, have: the sense that time is running short and is not as inexhaustible as one thought when one was 20 or even 30. I am someone who tends to put things off, thinking I will do a given project “someday.” But I realized at 40 that my “somedays” were not unlimited, and I started to feel that if I were ever to write, it should be soon.
And although these other factors were all preparing the ground, so to speak, I did have a definite, sudden, and distinct epiphany one day: I suddenly realized that I did not have to force myself to become interested in a linguistic topic that I didn’t really have knowledge about or interest in, but that I could write about the topics I was most interested in: sociopolitical issues such as gender, class and identity. Prior to that epiphany, I had thought of those topics as very important to me and to my teaching but never thought of them as topics to write about for presentation and publication in professional arenas.
With great excitement, I embarked on my first full-length article, one that took the position that it was important for teachers to act on their social and political beliefs and not try to keep them out of the classroom. This article was published (Vandrick, 1992), and I went on to write about gender and pedagogy, class and privilege, literature in the writing classroom, and other topics close to my heart.
A SENSE OF URGENCY
Another turning point for me, soon after I wrote and published that first full-length article in a refereed journal, came in the spring semester of 1994, when I had a sabbatical. I was determined to use the precious sabbatical time to move forward with my still very new writing career. I decided to write about critical pedagogy and ESL, a topic that was important to me. As I started reading and researching, I found myself drawn more particularly to feminist pedagogy. I knew I had found “my subject.” After all, I had been a feminist since high school days, and I often taught women’s issues in classes, gave lectures to international students and others on feminist issues, and considered my feminism an important part of my personal, political, and academic life. As with the first article, described earlier, I felt a great sense of excitement and “rightness” about this topic. With enthusiasm and dogged determination as well, I read every book and article I could find about feminist pedagogy and eventually wrote several pieces on various aspects of the topic.
During that 1994 sabbatical, I found that I could work best in my office at the university and that although there were distractions to avoid there, the distractions were fewer and less pressing than those at home. Besides, I had all my necessary materials around me in that office: my books, my files, my computer; the university library was nearby and convenient as well. I had the sense that time was very valuable, and that I wanted to use my one semester sabbatical well. After all, there was an increasing urgency now that I was 44 years old.
My resolve was badly tested that semester, as a series of events made it hard for me to move forward. Renovation was being done on our building, and twice I had to move out of my office temporarily. Throughout that semester, there was noise from jackhammers and from workers yelling to each other; dirt and dust invaded my office; I felt unsettled. But nothing could stop me at that point. I just kept right on working, though complaining loudly and often. Out of that sabbatical came several publications, most notably two publications on feminist pedagogy, that I felt pleased with and that were well received (Vandrick, 1994, 1995).
I write about these difficulties, and my overcoming them, in order to indicate the urgency I felt at that point in my writing life. I felt desperate about preserving my time and my forward momentum; I feared the time somehow being stolen from me or evaporating before I knew it, and I just couldn’t let that happen. I also felt a great joy in writing, and that helped to keep me moving forward despite the moves and noise and dust. After all, such distractions and inconveniences were nothing compared with the psychic and logistical obstacles I had experienced for so many years in the past.
As I wrote and my articles began to be accepted for publication, and as I got some positive feedback from colleagues and readers, I became more confident about my right to speak, to write, to “join the conversatiori.” This sense of being part of the professional conversation was immensely joyful for me, and this confidence helped me, in turn, to continue writing and publishing.
Also of great help to me has been my writing group, consisting of two colleagues and me; we have, for about 10 years, met regularly to talk about our writing. We have written several articles and a book together, and we read and respond to each other’s individual writing as well. We encourage each other, support each other, and console each other when rejection letters arrive, and we celebrate together when invitations or acceptance letters arrive.
A HAPPY ENDING?
This is not a completely happy story for me. I still sometimes mourn the years in which I could have been and perhaps should have been writing. The experience of writing and publishing and being part of the professional conversation is one that feels so right that I wish I had begun much earlier. I blame certain conditions and even certain people for holding me back. And sometimes I blame myself for not managing to write despite the obstacles. But, as a colleague said to me, I need to remind myself that all those years were not wasted regarding writing. All the reading, teaching, thinking, discussing, and experiencing I did during those years nourishes the writing I am doing now. Maybe I wasn’t ready earlier. Maybe I didn’t really have a lot to say earlier. In any case, the past is the past, and it is useless and even destructive to waste energy bemoaning it.
And I have discovered that there are some advantages to coming to writing late. My life experiences and thinking certainly enrich my current writing. And because writing for publication came hard and late to me, I do not take for granted the conditions that allow me to write and the satisfaction and pleasure of writing and having other people read and respond to my ideas. Incidentally, my publications also helped me to get a promotion, which is certainly a result that I celebrate, but truly this happy result was almost beside the point compared with the gratification and fulfillment I have experienced since I began to be a writer. And an important by-product has been that as a writing teacher I finally feel that I am practicing what I preach to my students!
This is also not a completely happy story in terms of its implications for others in our field. I tell my personal story in the hope that it may be encouraging to others in our field who may feel that only “others” are qualified to write or who feel that because they haven’t started yet, it is probably too late to start. When I first thought about writing this chapter, this was the major message that I wanted to convey. My narrative had a rather traditional arc, with the main character (me!) overcoming tremendous obstacles to triumph in the end. But on reflection I realize that the story and its implications are much more complex than that. I do not want this to be a naive story about how “anyone can do it,” because I know that despite my earlier difficulties, I have been fortunate enough to have many factors in my life and professional setting which (eventually) gave me the luxury of writing: a full-time job, tenure, supportive administration and colleagues, reasonable teaching load, private office, computer and computer support, and funds for travel to conferences, among others. And many other teachers in our field, perhaps even most others, do not have these positive conditions.
So I am now conveying a very mixed, inconclusive message. On the one hand, I want to say that if writing and publishing is your dream, don’t give up; it is never too late; you too can do it But on the other hand, if what allowed me to write and publish, finally, was mainly a change in my academic situation, and in the time and support and status and facilities available to me, then what does this say to people in our field who do not have access to these resources? What about the many in our field who have part-time positions, or full-time positions with no or low rank or security, teach a heavy workload, do not have private offices or technological resources and support, do not have funds available to attend professional conferences, and do not have support from their administrators and institutions?
I realize that my originally intended message is in fact naive in that it suggests that one must overcome adversity on one’s own in order to succeed. In fact, the obstacles that were at least partially responsible for my not writing for so many years were and are endemic to our profession; they are institutional and societal obstacles. They are closely tied to the low status of the field of ESL, as well as to the continuing low status of any field in which women practitioners predominate. The way that these obstacles have cut off many valuable voices is a real loss to our field, as well as to the individuals whose voices have been silenced.
What message, then, can I salvage from my story? One point that I can still legitimately and sincerely make is that age itself need not be a factor. In other words, because one has not written and published at a younger age does not mean one cannot do so at an older age. In that sense, at least, it really is never too late. I do believe that sharing one’s ideas and expertise through writing is within the grasp of many people who may feel it is not, especially those who feel this way because they feel that they are too old, and that it is too late. I would like very much to encourage those people to take the leap of faith and begin.
And the other message I would like to convey is to women in our field who have been too intimidated to write for our field’s journals and publishers. Although many women in our field do write and publish, they do not do so in proportion to the number of women who teach ESL; women are underrepresented in our publishing venues. The same situation can be found in other (also generally low-prestige) fields in which women dominate: composition, education, nursing, and so on. So I urge my colleagues, particularly female colleagues, in TESOL not to be intimidated, not to believe that only others have the necessary ability, knowledge, and connections to publish their work. I urge that my colleagues, however old they are, take heart and plunge in.
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Hochschild, A.R. (1997). The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Rubin, L. (1979). Women of a certain age: The midlife search for self.
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Vandrick, S. (1994). Feminist pedagogy and ESL. College ESL, 4(2), 69–92.
Vandrick, S. (1995). Teaching and practicing feminism in the university ESL class. TESOL Journal, 4(3), 4–6.
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