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Faculty in Focus: Meet Jill Watson

St. Olaf’s mission statement dictates that the college strives to create an “inclusive, globally engaged community.” One way students gain global perspective is through learning or teaching languages. Assistant Professor of English as a Second Language (ESL) Education Jill Watson might be new to St. Olaf, but she has been around teaching and language-learning for her entire professional career.

“My first professor job was teaching French back in 1986, and I also taught German,” Watson said. “I was always a language geek, with a huge interest in global languages and cultures, equity [and] ethics issues, spirituality and wisdom traditions.”

Watson studied French and German at the University of South Dakota before going on to receive a Master’s degree in French from Middlebury College. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction-Second Languages and Cultures Education from the University of Minnesota. Before coming to St. Olaf last fall, Watson taught ESL and French at the secondary school level. She has also taught courses in both French and teacher education at various colleges, from South Dakota to New York.

“My academic interests focus on best practices for teaching English and academic learning to newcomers, especially those with limited or no prior literacy and schooling in any language, including their home language,” Watson said.

At St. Olaf, Watson serves as the advisor for ESL Club and teaches courses for ESL licensure, which include topics ranging from policy and legislation to teaching methods and assessment. She also teaches Principles of Education, a course designed to prepare aspiring teachers for planning and leading lessons.

Watson proposed a new course, Second Language Acquisition, that she will begin teaching in the coming fall. The course is open to any student interested in how humans learn both first and additional languages, and it will also explore the larger societal trends in language learning.

“There is nothing more important in today’s global society than prioritizing and knowing how to conduct effective, peace-loving, life-giving intercultural relations – which ESL education always is, de facto.”

As the only ESL teacher at St. Olaf, Watson hopes to expand and develop the ways the department prepares students for working with language-learners. She emphasizes the importance of both the theory side of education as well as the practical challenges presented by teaching, such as classroom management and relationship-building.

Her vision includes organizing a major conference at St. Olaf regarding one of her areas of expertise: students with limited or interrupted formal education. She is currently co-authoring a book on the subject and hopes to raise awareness on campus. The conference will take place in Tomson Hall on May 6 and include free food from various cultures.

Apart from ambitious academic goals, Watson aspires to learn Somali (which she has begun), develop a partnership program between a refugee camp school in the horn of Africa and a nearby university, go scuba-diving, learn how to make lefse and more.

“I hope to write a scholarly book on the encounter of orality, literacy [and] digitacy in the context of education and moral and post-colonial hermeneutic theory,” Watson said. “I want to do an interview series with elders from oral cultures, to learn how they have and do conduct education traditionally in their culture … and then propose ways of incorporating those approaches into our overly-standardized classrooms.”

While Watson’s interests and involvements are various, they revolve around her passion for connecting people across languages and cultures. She is excited to share her ideas with students at St. Olaf, and she encourages them stop by her office for chocolate, a conversation and to check out her working model of Starship Enterprise. Watson also advises students to explore their professional calling and how language can fit into it.

“Consider that language learning is not only endlessly fascinating, but also mentioned twice in 1 Corinthians 12. As Heidegger said, ‘Language is the house of being’– clearly no mere matter, a worthy vocation to consider.”

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