From Isolated Remediation to Collaborative Mediation: Confronting Institutional Isolation in University ESL Programs

Shapiro, Shawna. From Isolated Remediation to Collaborative Mediation: Confronting Institutional Isolation in University ESL Programs. 2009. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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This dissertation is a qualitative case study examining the ways that institutional isolation has been at work in and around the Academic English Program (AEP) at the University of Washington (UW) and considering the ways that this isolation can be counteracted. The theoretical framework for this project includes an understanding of U.S. higher education as a socially-bound enterprise in which notions such as diversity, standards, excellence, and equity are highly contested. Institutions seek to mediate tensions between these values by creating isolated 'spaces' for underprepared students, including multilingual students—both internationals and immigrants. By relegating support for students to remedial programs located at the institution's margins, universities are able to avoid making substantive changes to the curricular 'center.' A review of literature reveals that the institutional isolation of ESL programs is indeed widespread and can be significantly detrimental to students and other stakeholders.

Data from surveys, interviews, participant observation, and institutional documents reveal that the AEP at the UW has been an extreme case of institutional isolation, and that this isolation has a negative impact on students, faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders. AEP students—who are already likely to feel marginalized as an underrepresented population—feel that the AEP policies and curricula are alienating and unsupportive. AEP instructors and administrators feel that their isolated position prevents them from being treated as professionals and limits their own sense of belonging and purpose at the UW. The UW at large also suffers from the AEP's isolation, as the institution lacks a "mediator" for conversations about linguistic diversity, academic support, and curricular outcomes in relation to multilingual students.

The latter portion of this study constructs a grounded "theory of change" by which the UW can evolve from a mindset of remediation to one of mediation, in which the AEP serves as an advocate for students and a curricular consultant to academic departments. The author describes her own engagement in the enactment of this vision and discusses the challenges inherent in this sort of collaborative turn at a large research institution.