How did you decide to become a University professor?
I guess I am a bit of an odd case. I distinctly remember in high school, I think I was a junior, telling my Spanish teacher that I was going to get my Ph.D. and teach Spanish. Then again, perhaps I just said I was going to teach Spanish and left out the Ph.D. part, which seems more plausible since I was 16 at the time. In any event, I attended Furman University, where I majored in Spanish. I have always been inquisitive, and I found Furman to be a very supportive environment where I was able to explore my interest in research. I also had the opportunity to become a TA for a few courses, and I taught Spanish for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (http://www.furman.edu/sites/OLLI/Pages/default.aspx), which was an extremely rewarding experience. Although I was already fairly certain that I wanted to pursue graduate work in Spanish, these experiences further solidified what would become my career. Two professors in particular were fundamental to my success, Dr. Bill Prince and Dr. Maurice Cherry. I often look back on conversations I had with them as some of the most important and formative moments of my education.
When and why did you become interested in Spain / Spanish language?
Studying a foreign language was a requirement at my high school. I was planning on picking French, mainly because that is what my friends had decided to study, but my Mom convinced me that Spanish was the better choice. I actually intensely disliked it the first year. In fact, it was my least favorite course. I did not understand why the professor insisted on speaking to us in Spanish most of the time. Of course now I look back and laugh, because research supports that sort of methodology, and I likely owe a great part of my success in language learning to my teachers’ insistence and patience throughout the Spanish courses I took in high school. From the start of the second year, I really started to love Spanish language and culture. I took Spanish every year, including AP Spanish Language. My other passion has always been science. When I entered college at Furman University, I was trying to decide between majoring in Spanish or in biology, leading to an eventual specialization in molecular biology and immunology/epidemiology. I chose Spanish, but my love of science has never diminished. I found linguistics in my junior year, and thus my passion for scientific inquiry and language and culture came together. I have been both fascinated and challenged by the discipline ever since.
Did you have any study-abroad experiences as a student and / or faculty member? What are the more memorable stories?
I studied abroad in Spain and Chile as a student. Although I enjoyed both programs immensely, I fell in love with Spain (Madrid) because it was my first experience abroad. I met one of my best friends on the trip, Dr. Katie Vater. We studied at Universidad Antonio de Nebrija, taking the same advanced grammar course, although we were on different programs. As part of our experience, we needed to complete a certain number of cultural outings. I convinced her to visit the Casa de la Panadería. When we arrived at the Plaza Mayor, in the center of the city, we wandered around for at least thirty minutes before stopping at the tourist bureau to ask for information. It turns out that the tourist bureau was the Casa de la Panadería. That was the quickest cultural outing we had, and we still look back and laugh about circling the Plaza Mayor again and again searching for the building.
At Georgetown, I was an assistant director on the Barcelona summer program. It so happens that a number of my friends, including Katie, were in Spain at the time as well and came to Barcelona to visit. My dear friend Dr. Silvia Marijuan organized a dinner at Can Recasens (http://www.canrecasens.com/) per the recommendation of Dr. Cristina Sanz, the program director. The restaurant has two seatings and specializes in cured meats and cheeses and salads. We were a party of five. On the menu, there was a prix fixe option for four diners consisting of a meat and cheese plate, salad, dessert plate, and bottle of wine. Since we were five, a friend asked our server if they would be able to provide the same menu for five people. To our surprise and delight, the server was actually one of the owners of the restaurant, and told us that we could have whatever we wanted. Needless to say, it was a wonderful night. We ended up staying at the restaurant for three hours, during which time we had three salads, two meat and cheese plates, two dessert plates, wine, and limoncello, the latter at the insistence of the server who joined us. It was one of the best meals of my life, exceeded only by the superb company, and one I will never forget.
What are your research interests? How did you become interested in this area? Why do you think this area is important and worth working on?
Ever since I started studying Spanish, I have been fascinated by its pronunciation. This became my area of expertise, second language pronunciation, but I also maintain broader interests in the relationship between accent and identity, and the notion of performance. I can trace these interests back to a particular experience. I was at a summer enrichment program, the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, in Spanish. One day a friend of mine remarked upon the fact that I spoke Spanish with an American accent. Of course I knew that I did not sound like my peers who had spoken Spanish at home, but nobody had ever framed it in those terms. Curious, I asked my friend Carla about it, and she suggested a few specific sounds I should focus on. I worked tirelessly from that point on to improve my accent, which I suppose laid the groundwork for my eventual interest in the topic. In graduate school, I discovered phonetics and phonology and began to conduct research on language learners’ acquisition of Spanish pronunciation. One particular scholar that influenced my thinking early in my graduate career was Dr. Alene Moyer, who has published extensively on the phenomenon of passing as a native speaker. I believe this area of research is important because so much of what people perceive us to be is rooted in our speech patterns, the instantaneous web of associations that emerges upon the articulation of a single word, or even a single syllable. From a pedagogical perspective, I am also deeply interested in the role pronunciation plays in the foreign language curriculum.
What do you like most about teaching?
The thing I like most about teaching is that you get to know students as they are developing a new, additive sense of identity in their foreign language of choice, in this case, Spanish. In my opinion, language learning is as much about the process as it is about the outcome. Thus, in the classroom, I tend to present students with language data to analyze or a particular task to accomplish. It is incredibly rewarding to see students leverage their interests, skills, and knowledge to complete these assignments in unique and interesting ways, especially when they are able to reflect upon the process and develop broader analytic skills that will support future learning. In these cases, I learn as much from them as they do from me.