Interview with Tang T. Heng

This interview is with Tang T. Heng, Assistant Professor in the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Tang has written extensively about deficit and homogenising narratives associated with international students in addition to the need for more socioculturally-attuned engagement with them. Her work can be reviewed here.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a researcher? What is your background?

Tang: I taught and wrote curriculum for secondary Geography as well as worked in both the public and private education sectors for several years before embarking on my doctorate. To be honest, I went into my doctorate assuming that I’d primarily be teaching at a post-secondary institution upon graduation. I love teaching and that is a large part of my identity. However, my graduate education at Teachers College, Columbia University inspired me to be a researcher when I saw the relationship between research and knowledge (re)production. I realised that what is considered “truth” is complex and shaped by historical, institutional, cultural and political forces. It was then that I embraced my new identity as a researcher. I feel privileged to be able to teach/research and enjoy what I do for a living.  

Interviewer: What interested you in specifically doing research with international students?

Tang: I was an international student in the U.K. reading Geography for my undergraduate. It was not the easiest experience for me transitioning from the Singapore to British education environment. While hard, I got through it and did not think too much of it. Returning to the U.S. for my masters and, later, doctorate education, I felt better prepared given my undergraduate experience. However, I observed peers who were international students struggle in their own education. At the same time, I reflected upon my living and working experiences in Singapore, Cambodia, China, and the U.S., and realised that what vexes me is intercultural miscommunications–I’ve often felt that the world would be a better place if we could better understand what drives the perspectives of whom we perceive as the “other”. I wanted to do something to bridge understanding across both the international student and host communities: that was how my dissertation was born, and why I’m still doing research with international students.

Interviewer: What is your overall impression of this research subfield? Where do you see it going in the next 5-10 years?

Tang: I think research with international students has become an extremely lively subfield given the exponential growth in international students over the past decade. I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s interesting that previous phases of research appeared to be predominated by researchers researching on international students, but current phases are diversifying into international students themselves researching on the phenomenon (research with/by international students). This development, no doubt, will shed different insights given how positionalities shape knowledge production. What I expect will be a wider coverage of international students’ perspectives beyond the usual psychological, intercultural, or linguistics, amongst others, framings. For one, critical and decolonial perspectives are gaining major momentum (as evident in this and other websites), and I expect that there will be further nuancing around the critical perspectives in time to come. Beyond framing, I also anticipate more explorations in other aspects of international students’ lives—for instance, education-work transitions, spouses / families of international students—as well as more research on international students in “non-traditional” destinations. International students now have a much larger variety of places to choose from. China, for instance, is now the top host destination for international students in Asia.

Interviewer: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing research with international students right now?

Tang: One challenge is elevating research on international students beyond factual findings and ensuring research has strong theoretical or conceptual framing. This is pertinent as, without theoretical engagement, findings on international students tend to be isolated and it is hard to see transferability, or generalisability, across contexts. Relatedly, it’s rare to see research that takes place across countries. I suspect, to some extent, that may have to do with securing funding and the difficulties of cross-country collaborations—e.g., institutional red tape preventing funding or data from being transferred—notwithstanding the usual collaboration issues involving managing schedules, building trust, etc. Another challenge has to do with the assumption that international students are a smaller group within an institution and, therefore, few institutions care to invest the time and energies to understand their needs. This, of course, differs across contexts.

Interviewer: Your research often argues against stereotypes and deficits about international students – where do you see these most present in research and practice?

Tang: When a single piece of research presents the problems (deficits) of international students without explaining why, it is taken in isolation. I recognise that, first, not all research needs to explain why, given the nature of the research method and questions asked. Second, researchers start from a place of care in wanting to help international students. Third, we’ve been trained to start with a “problem statement” in research, hence it is natural to write about the problems international students encounter. The issue arises when many pieces of research examine the problems of international students without explaining why. This creates a meta-narrative that works against international students and potentially stereotypes them. Therefore, moving forward, given the increased volume of research on international students we may need to pay more attention to what meta-narrative(s) we’re creating. Interestingly, I used to see a lot more research on the “problems” of international students, but noticed that, increasingly, research has sought to frame international students from a more agentic lens, no doubt reflecting the changing positionalities and identities of the researchers who are engaging in such work.

Interviewer: What advice would you give to researchers who are developing a new research study with and about international students?

Tang: Do a thorough literature review. This is a critical starting point of all research. For a start, there have been some wonderful literature reviews done over the recent years that a quick search would show up; the Journal of Studies in International Education as well as Journal of International Students are other good places to look into for literature reviews. I’d also like to make a recommendation for the upcoming book “Research with International Students“. The editors—Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer and Kalyani Unkule—have done a terrific job putting together this book which features both conceptual and methodological ideas to guide researchers. I wished I had this book when I started out on my own research journey!

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