A Revolutionary Vision

Professor Diane E Pecorari
Professor and Head
Department of English

Building on its reputation as a world leader in applied linguistics, CityU’s English Department can expect to receive further recognition from the global academic community for its teaching and research in both linguistics and literature. That is the vision of Professor Diane E. PECORARI, the new Head of the English Department.

Pecorari, an expert in educational linguistics, believes in research informed teaching. Students, in the broadest sense, are her inspiration, with the term taken to include anyone from colleagues writing papers for respected journals to undergraduates working towards a first degree. “They motivate me to explore new research ideas and original teaching methods,” she says.

Before joining CityU in January 2017, Pecorari worked in the English Department of Linnæus University in the Småland region of Sweden.

Over the years, her research interests have focused on English in second language writing for academic purposes. Among her ongoing projects1, one explores whether the English proficiency of graduates automatically improves if they use English in an academic setting during their university education. Some teachers, administrators and students make that assumption.

“I developed this research topic based on my observations in the classroom,” she says. “We look at the outcome of English-medium instruction, including what the possible preconditions for success are.”

The project began with a three-year grant equivalent to HK$6.5 million and involved three universities in Sweden. “The questions we asked are highly relevant in Hong Kong too. I’m preparing my first UGC grant application, and hope to continue the work on English medium institutions here.”

For Pecorari, research and teaching should create synergies and have an impact on society. Ideally, research findings should have applications in the classroom and lead to all-round improvements. “This project has components which explore if students have the necessary skills to succeed in an English-medium university. We have developed a testing mechanism focused on academic vocabulary, which is at the final stage of validation. This will be available to scholars around the world as a useful tool to help predict whether students have good preconditions for success in an English medium institution.”

The project also explores the connection between universities and the workplace. It aims to establish if graduates have acquired skills required by future employers and does so by questioning students from when they enter university until they become part of the workforce. “We have gathered data from tests with around 2,000 students. The workplace data is mainly qualitative.”

A new culture and management role

Since arriving in Hong Kong, Pecorari has been adapting to the organisational culture of CityU and the department. “It is a fantastic place, and my colleagues have so much dedication and drive. Every day I see them working on first-class research and developing pedagogical innovations. In Scandinavia, universities exist to serve ‘the middle’, to offer everyone who wants to go to university an education that is ‘good enough’. They don’t pay much attention to rankings. I respect that ethos, but at the same time, it’s exciting to be part of the competitive buzz of an elite university.”

Having been a department head elsewhere, Pecorari can draw on extensive experience in management, research and teaching. “When you teach, you want to support and motivate students and fill the ‘knowledge gap’, so they can maximise their gains and achieve the best possible performance.”

Probably the most important thing I have learned from my previous jobs is the importance of communication in an organisation and what it takes to encourage an open exchange of views. - Prof Diane Pecorari

Her role also entails acting as a bridge between her team and CityU’s top management. “One of my primary tasks is to communicate upward and within the department,” she says. “I listen to the expectations of management and ensure my English Department colleagues understand them. I also have to be their channel to senior leadership for concerns, comments, creative ideas, and so on.”

All this requires a high level of interpersonal and communication skills, something Pecorari has developed over the years. She describes herself as someone who takes a structured and analytical approach to problems and is familiar with the kind of strategic thinking required in a managerial role. Her style is to listen attentively, not leave people guessing, and to create a good basis for communication with everyone so that no one feels isolated in the academic setting.

“Probably the most important thing I have learned from my previous jobs is the importance of communication in an organisation and what it takes to encourage an open exchange of views. There should be channels to ensure everyone can express their thoughts.”

Quality assurance for English Language Centre

To provide enhanced quality assurancefor the English Language Centre (ELC),the director will now report directly tothe head of the English Department.This change will promote an activeinterface between the EnglishDepartment and the ELC, also makingit easier to deliver research outcomes inthe classroom.

“I’ll work more closely with the ELC on courses for academic literacy that give students the skills to do well in an English-medium instruction university,” Pecorari says. “CityU has invested heavily in this area and every student is now required to take two courses to improve this vital skill set.”

The ELC will continue to provide the necessary courses and resources, while the English Department has responsibility for providing the pedagogical leadership. Faculty members will be involved in designing courses and will act as coordinators. To ensure meaningful collaboration between the two units, a mandate from senior management also requires each member of the English Department to teach one section of the Gateway Education course, though the majority of courses will still be taught by ELC teachers.

Pecorari emphasises that the ELC remains a separate, independent unit.

“Our goal is to further improve the quality of courses and teaching which, in turn, will enhance learning outcomes,” she says. “The ELC already has very good teachers and courses, but there is a fantastic opportunity to marry research expertise with practices in the classroom. Research has to inform teaching to improve outcomes. That will also feed back into our research as we will have real-life situations to show us what else needs to be researched.”

Outside work, Pecorari is a committed runner and sees running as a wonderful way to explore her surroundings and interact with the environment. “I have a high energy level, so running helps burn off some of that. When I go out for a morning run, I feel fresher and mentally sharper,” she says.

A passion for applied linguistics

Pecorari took a bachelor’s degree in political science with a special focus on US-Soviet relations. A passion for languages led her to study Russian, Latin and Spanish at college. She began to develop an interest in applied linguistics when tutoring students in Italy and undergraduates in her native United States. “I was interested in knowing why some people find it easier than others to pick up a second language, “she says. “I taught academic writing to US undergraduates and speaking skills for international students. Later, I enrolled in a PhD programme in applied linguistics at the University of Birmingham.

“When you study English for specific academic purposes, you end up looking at how people use the language in the university. You read research papers on different topics, so you learn a tiny bit about fields as diverse as molecular biology and dentistry. It’s just like being in the midst of a really interesting cocktail party.”

1 Research grants of Professor Pecorari include:
• Professional Literacies in English, funded by the Swedish Research Council, US $735,000
• English Vocabulary Acquisition (co-investigator), funded by the Swedish Research Council, US $445,000