Writing from the other side of the world, Sothearwath surprised me by asking a favor: “Do you have any research or study on reading and writing? I am here ok, but I have lots to read.”
Until recently, Sothearwath (not his real name) taught English at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), in Cambodia. Now, he had just begun a doctoral program at a university in another Asian country. For the past four years, I’ve spent each January at RUPP working with him and his colleagues. I endeavor not only to help the Cambodian instructors teach more effectively, but also to learn how to be a better teacher back home. I lead workshops on various topics -- learning theory, assessment, responding to student writing -- usually in classrooms as dingy as they are airless. But, most importantly, I hold follow-up individual coaching sessions with the faculty. We meet in their departmental office, a cramped but slightly air-conditioned double room. Most of the teachers share “desk space” at three round tables and take turns sliding in and out of the seat next to mine at their appointment times.
There have been no head starts for these teachers, and they have very little usable history. In Cambodia, the living either survived the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) or descended from that era’s millions of dead or disabled. Despite these hardships, perhaps because of them, most of the teachers I’ve met are engaged, professional, thoughtful, immensely social and, frankly, fun. We work hard, but we also laugh often.
Sothearwath rarely laughed. In his early 40s, reserved, proud but diffident, he was an experienced English teacher, and his linguistic virtuosity -- emblematic of his country’s tortured history of war, uneasy alliance, and occupation -- included Russian and some Vietnamese as well. But his comfort zone was circumscribed by lexicons and rote-learning lesson plans. So, although he attended all of my workshops, Sothearwath was initially reluctant to meet with me and explore his teaching plans and practices in depth. By my second January, though, he began requesting individual consultations. Still, he was just as likely to cancel an appointment as keep it. By my fourth stay, we had achieved a polite rapport but not the kind of connection that would have made it easy for him to contact me.
I replied to his e-mail at once, reminding him of his strengths as an educator and his potential as a scholar. I urged him to define a narrow question that he could answer through his research, offering examples of hypotheses derived from broad topics, and reminded him to consult with his librarians, noting that I used their expertise often. I asked him to stay in touch.
I have provided long-distance academic coaching to several of my Cambodian colleagues now pursuing graduate work abroad. At home, they have reached the top of their fields. However, in foreign universities where they must work exclusively in another language, another culture, and to standards and conventions for which some are unprepared, they can quickly find themselves unmoored.
Yet they are far from alone in this dilemma. At Smith College, I work extensively with M.S.W. and Ph.D. candidates in the college’s School for Social Work, in an academic and writing support program I co-designed: a program consisting almost entirely of individualized academic coaching. These advanced students benefit from assistance with writing techniques, and we almost always discuss methods of analysis and critical thinking. Social work strategies are effective tools with all learners: Meet the learners where they are and start with the strengths they possess. From this point, one can begin to coach people to confidence in a world that many -- even those accomplished in other or earlier pursuits -- find strange and new.
Sothearwath responded to my e-mail as quickly as the 12 hour time difference would allow. His usually careful English was in chaos, and I had trouble understanding his dilemma: “I am only one foreign student in my class and the class started 2 day later after I arrived…I did not know anything about my school. Therefore the study topics that we needed were selected by others.” He listed three broad topics on literacy and asked me to e-mail scholarship on one of them. Sothearwath seemed to believe that the only research he required was what I would send him. I had no sense that he had been to his library -- or wanted to go. He ended his e-mail, “Help me.”
Sothearwath’s anguish felt familiar. Recently, I worked with a middle-aged American who had returned to school for a Ph.D. in social work. A sophisticated, learned, and skilled professional, Nancy (another pseudonym) had managed to avoid typing anything for so many years that she had no idea about basic manuscript form, let alone how to use a computer or fathom the style requirements of the American Psychological Association used at Smith. Lacking these bedrock skills in a wired world so overwhelmed her ability to function that she was unable to address concepts and content that should have been readily accessible to her. She considered abandoning her program.
I find the Khmer phrase for one’s intense interests, chap arom, “to capture one’s consciousness,” useful at these moments. Before Nancy could move forward, she needed to reconnect to her original desire for her work. We talked about her satisfying experiences with clients, her successes with past writing projects and graduate programs, and the professional advantages a Ph.D. would bring. I also assured her that she could learn the skills she lacked. Our individual meetings were often bi-weekly, she was fragile but functioning, and she finished her first semester committed to the second. When I next saw Nancy, she was ebullient. In a card she wrote, “I passed. (Of course.)” She scheduled only a few appointments with me in her second term.
Clearly, and in very many ways, American and Cambodian educational settings are different. Yet one can use similar methods with advanced learners in disparate worlds. Personal coaching is well-established in professional environments and an increasing presence in undergraduate education. It can be labor-intensive and expensive -- but also highly effective.
Teachers know that the single greatest predictor of all learners’ success is their engagement in their academic endeavors. Thus, to enable learning, academic coaches can explore and enhance each learner’s connection and commitment to the work, particularly when the learner is destabilized by finding him or herself stumbling. What captured his consciousness? Why? What sustains her interest and commitment? The details of your writing process: what works, what doesn’t?
Sothearwath had achieved his great goal: He was studying abroad, in a place of more. Still, in Cambodia, resources are few, Internet access expensive, and even the best professionals remain the products of an intensely traditional, hierarchal and dangerously dictatorial culture. All serious Cambodian learners must overcome this. What would enable him to do so now?
I continued my correspondence with Sothearwath, sometimes twice a day. (He was clearly awake all night, many nights.) I reminded him of his abilities and resilience; I sent research data bases; and I continued asking targeted questions about his research: What writing assignments build critical thinking skills? Why? How? His return e-mails revealed some progress, his language becoming more clear as his thinking found form. As did my American social work student, he needed confidence building as much as skill sets. But Sothearwath also, and expectedly, needed more. He revealed that facing what he felt was a dooming deadline to critique existing research, he took some of my curriculum materials (giving me full credit for my work), mocked up a study based on them, slapped together a power-point presentation, and presented it in a class. “I had no choice because I had to give them something,” he explained.
At least he met his deadline and passed the assignment. And he was honest with me about what he did. Still, I expressed my surprise to him in an e-mail, withholding (I thought) my disappointment -- yet, he clearly seemed to sense it. He responded: “During the course work, it is hard for the scholars to consult with anyone. Actually, we can talk to the professor of each course, but you can imagine how much time the professor can have for students.”
“The worst thing that will ever happen to us,” another American consultant told me during my third January in Cambodia, “is that we’ll be escorted to the airport and deported. So never do anything to get a Cambodian in trouble -- because they have to live here.” To that end, discussions of serious controversy, politics and religion are avoided at the university. So, in my workshops and coaching sessions with the RUPP faculty, I found safer ways to discuss questioning assumptions, assessing evidence, and crafting sound arguments. But could I have done this differently? I was an “expert,” modeling academic propriety. I might have reinforced Sothearwath’s limited sense of scholarship.
Yet, I also realize that the Cambodians I worked with who are flourishing both there and abroad, demonstrated in many ways that they were engaged and active -- even when our discussion examples were more limited than I would have liked. They made extensive use of our coaching sessions, using the time to consider ideas and transfer knowledge to new situations; they argued and critiqued, sometimes even on risky topics. Sothearwath had been hesitant to accept coaching then; he was desperate to do so now.
Sothearwath -- and many learners like him -- knows he needs more. He needs time, some successes, and continuing coaching from educators. And with this assistance, he can achieve more: the original desire, context and self-assurance necessary for the work ahead of him. In a recent email, he attached a study he’d found and was beginning to evaluate. He was still struggling, but also beginning to make his own way in a world that he knew he had to make his own.