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Susan Bosher

Interviewed by Catherine Richards

September 2016

Q: Who are you, what do you do and how long have you done it?

My name is Susan Bosher and I am a Professor in the English Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.  I have been working at St. Catherine since 1997 and in the area of English for Nursing since 1999.

Q: As an ESP researcher, what exactly do you do?

As a Professor of English and Director of ESL, I primarily teach a variety of courses, including writing and immigrant literature courses for non-native speakers of English; language studies courses, including a TESL course; and courses on immigration and the immigrant experience.  My work as an ESP researcher in the area of English for Nursing developed from the needs of immigrant students at my university and was initially funded by a grant from the federal government.  I have also worked in the area of linguistic modification, reducing the linguistic complexity of multiple-choice test items for a major test developer to increase their readability for non-native speakers of English.  In addition, I have consulted with nursing departments on topics related to ESL students in nursing, most notably, reducing linguistic bias on multiple-choice tests and responding effectively to ESL student writing.  Most recently I have been working on materials development for an online nursing education program in East Africa.

Q: How did you become an ESP researcher?

From 1999-2002, I worked on a 3-year grant at my university from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to recruit and retain multicultural and other underrepresented groups in nursing.  In connection with that grant, I conducted a needs analysis of immigrant and international students in the baccalaureate-degree nursing program; developed materials and taught courses on English for Cross-Cultural Nursing; and conducted several research studies on the effects of linguistic modification on ESL students’ comprehension of and performance on multiple-choice nursing course exams.

I have also conducted needs analyses, developed materials, and taught courses in English for Library Workers and English for Eco-tourism.

Q: What is your background? Do you have a medical background?

My background is in applied linguistics.  I have an M.A. in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Minnesota, with emphasis on second languages and cultures education, linguistics, and composition and communication.  I do not have a medical background per se, but for the three years I worked on the DHHS grant, I attended nursing lectures, labs, and clinicals to learn all I could about nursing and the language-related skills and tasks that nursing students must be able to perform successfully in the nursing program and in the clinical setting.  In addition, I have collaborated with nurse educators on a number of projects, including an anthology of essays on creating a more culturally inclusive environment in nursing education and two textbooks for ESL nursing students, one focusing on academic skills and the other on communication skills in the clinical setting.

Q: What qualifications, if any, are needed to become a language researcher?

In my opinion, it is necessary to have graduate-level education in applied linguistics, including second-language acquisition, best practices in language teaching, discourse analysis, and materials development.

Q: What skills are needed to be a good researcher?

A researcher needs to ask the right questions to discern the key issues related to a topic.  The researcher also needs to know how to access resources and learn as much as possible about the topic; how to design a study or conduct a needs analysis, the results of which can be used to determine the best course of action; how to design a program or curriculum and develop materials and other resources to meet the needs of students and other stakeholders; and how to evaluate the success of the project from multiple perspectives.  The researcher must also be a good communicator, not only to access resources about the topic, but also to disseminate the findings and ensure the sustainability of the project after the researcher’s work is done.

Q: What are some of high points of your career to date?

I love the consulting work I do, as I am interacting with people outside my area of expertise, who can benefit the most from presentations about acquiring academic literacy in a second language and the linguistic and cultural challenges that immigrant students face in higher education.  At the same time, nurse educators are a challenging audience because they have to worry about patient safety and professional standards.  There is often a real give-and-take at these presentations as they bring a healthy scepticism to the table, but at the same time, they recognize the importance of creating a more culturally and linguistically diverse nursing profession and really want to bring out structural changes even if they are not sure how.

Another highlight of my career has been the books that I have worked on.  Each one has been a tremendous amount of work that has taken several years to complete, but the feeling of accomplishment in the end has been worth it.  One of the books, an anthology on creating a more culturally inclusive environment in nursing education, which I co-edited with a nursing colleague, won an award for faculty excellence at my university, which was also very rewarding.

Q: What are some of the challenges associated with your job?

As my work is primarily as a Professor at my university, my challenge has been finding the time to do the project-based ESP work that I so enjoy.  When I have worked on federal grants (from 1999-2002 for the work in English for Nursing and 2004-2009 for English for Library Workers), I have received course releases to do the research and materials/course development.  But, usually these projects have been in addition to my full-time job.

Q: What are the hours?

The hours are in addition to my regular responsibilities of teaching and service to the University except when working on federal grants, as mentioned above.  However, I have been able to count the ESP research that I have done toward the expectations for research and publication at my university.

Q: What about the money?

There is no additional compensation in connection with federal grants; indeed, academics are obligated to take course release(s) when they are working on a federally funded project so as not to exceed their regular work load.  However, because my research benefits the students and faculty at my university, I have also received internal grants in more recent years to conduct research studies, develop materials, and work on book projects.  These grants mostly pay for expenses incurred in connection with the project but they can also include a small stipend for faculty.   In addition, I am able to arrange consulting fees individually with universities and other organizations.

Q: Where could interested people go for more information?

Professional organizations, such as TESOL and IATEFL that have an ESP Special Interest section, are an excellent source of information.   Conferences that focus on ESP or on a particular area of ESP, such as English for Medical Purposes, are another highly effective way to learn more about the field and to meet people who have done work in ESP.  Several excellent books have been published in recent years that explain how to conduct a needs analysis and develop materials in ESP, and the journal English for Specific Purposes provides examples of research studies and curriculum development projects that have made substantial contributions to the field.  Finally, there is a Medical ESP list-serv that disseminates information about conferences and publications of interest; it is also possible to ask for information or advice about a particular topic by posting it on the list-serv.

Q: Any advice for people wanting to get into language research?

What are the areas of need for immigrant and international students in your locale or place of employment?  What are local or national sources of funding for educational initiatives that could help to meet those needs?  If you are enrolled in a graduate program in TESOL or in a related field, choose topics for research projects that will give you practice in assessing and meeting the needs of students in a specific area of ESP.  Such projects will not only give you invaluable experience in the field, but it could also put you in touch with experts in the field.  Since ESP practitioners often have to collaborate with experts in the field, such contacts could prove useful for future projects.

Q: Anything else you think is useful to know?

Accept every project that comes your way, within reason, as it will improve your skill set in some way, increase your contacts with experts in the field, and add to your portfolio that could lead to other projects in the future.