Understanding identities in practice, discourse, and activity: English lecturers' experiences in the context of mainland China higher education reform

  • Feng Teng

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The traditional academic ranks for regular faculty in Mainland China universities commonly include assistant lecturer, lecturer, associate professor, and professor, with no clear differentiation between academic and teaching tracks. Recent education reform in Mainland China with the aspiration of world-class, high-ranking universities, however, has brought about unprecedented challenges to academics at the rank of lecturer; they are suffering from contract requirements that rise as the requirements for university ranking increase. In an attempt to reach the bar set by Western research universities, the vast majority of Chinese universities have embraced higher education reform that emphasizes a "publish or perish" ideology. This thesis employs a multiple case study, with a focus on four English lecturers' teaching and research engagement. The four cases included English Language Teaching (ELT) teachers who had received a doctoral degree and were trained to do research, as well as ELT teachers who were initially recruited to teach language courses but were later required to transform their professional identities to be teacher-scholars. ELT teachers have reportedly exhibited a weak research capacity compared with university teachers in other subject areas, making this study on a professional group of English lecturers meaningful. It is therefore the aim of this study to systematically explore English lecturers' identity construction pertinent to teaching and research engagements in the contested and evolving higher education reform in Mainland China. Drawing upon communities of practice, discourse theory, and activity theory, this study brings new knowledge to identity-in-practice, identity-in-discourse, and identity-in-activity. Data were triangulated through narrative frames, interviews, field observations, post-observation informal talks, and documents. Data analyses included "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches; the former refers to analytic induction where meaning is grounded in data, whereas the latter helped the researcher arrive at a holistic understanding of participants' professional identities by referring to theoretical concepts. The findings revealed an array of identity options (e.g., "gardener", "innovator", "researcher", "scholar", "poorly paid laborer", "temporary worker", "traitor", "blind follower", "game loser", "robot", "teaching machine", "sojourner", and "publishing machine"). The factors that shaped identity construction included shifting value of being an English teacher-researcher under higher education reform, intensified "publish-or-perish" ideology, and changing institutional and societal circumstances. This thesis proposes a tripartite conceptual framework of identity-in-practice, identity-in-discourse, and identity-in-activity to contextualize the practical and discursive identity construction of English lecturers. The tripartite framework of teacher identity based on these findings extends the notion of professional development upon which English lecturers should draw to empower themselves. By reflecting on contextual and personal resources relevant to their professional development, English lecturers are expected to utilize societal resources from the broader academic community to transcend institutional constraints to their personal and professional identity construction. This study concludes with implications for educators and administrators to provide responsive support for English lecturers' professional development. Further research is needed to integrate the tripartite framework of practice, discourse, and activity to examine the complexity of teacher identity construction.

Date of Award16 Dec 2019
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJing HUANG (Supervisor)

User-Defined Keywords

  • English language
  • English teachers
  • Identity (Psychology)
  • China
  • Study and teaching

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