"They're bringing a wealth of knowledge and a thoughtful approach to learning."
When Kristine Billmyer joined Penn’s payroll more than 20 years ago she felt she had “just entered the gates of heaven.” Hired to teach English as a second language in the English Language Programs (ELP) division of CGS, Billmyer loved teaching. She also realized that Penn, with its strength in applied linguistics, was the perfect place to pursue her Ph.D.
“The application of the study of second language acquisition to what I was doing in the classroom every day led to other things.” Those other things included designing new courses and, as director (and later executive director) of ELP, revamping the entire Intensive Program curriculum.
Billmyer’s leadership skills—navigating ELP through the collapse of the Asian economy and the aftermath of 9/11—were noticed, and last summer she was tapped to serve as interim director of the College of General Studies. In January, she was named Associate Dean.
Q. What is it about teaching English as a foreign language that has held your interest for so long?
A. I was a foreign language major myself and I realized that to become competent in a second language it’s fairly easy to get through the beginning stages but then to acquire a real communicative ability, that’s a whole other level of language learning. That fascinated me, and my dissertation was about whether instruction can improve the rate of acquisition of pragmatic competence. In fact, it can.
Q. What is pragmatic competence?
A. Here’s a good example. Most people believe when you’re complimented the appropriate response is “Thank you.” In fact sociolinguistic research has shown that for Americans at least that’s not the typical response. The typical reply is a deflection. “Oh, I got it at Lord and Taylor,” or “My mother gave it to me,” because to say thank you means you’re agreeing with the praise and there are socio-pragmatic rules that say you shouldn’t engage in self-praise. Rules differ very widely from culture to culture and it’s difficult for learners to know what to do with compliments.
Q. How did you progress from ELP to being associate dean of CGS?
A. It wasn’t so much a progression as a leap, although as director of ELP I moved from the focus on curriculum development … into becoming director and having some real challenges in terms of leadership, such as the Asian financial crisis when so many Asian economies collapsed and suddenly enrolment in our programs dipped precipitously. We had to look long and hard at what we were doing and make sure we didn’t allow ourselves to be so vulnerable to a single region of the world. … And that made me develop another interest—leadership and good management. I wasn’t leaving ELP so much as embracing something larger.
Q. What are some of the challenges CGS faces?
A. Nowadays what seems to be the hottest areas for students who are coming back to the academy are business and management and that could be a hardship for a school of arts and sciences but I actually think it’s a tremendous opportunity when you think about the fact that the school is really the intellectual center of Penn and it can very easily connect with the professional schools. That has tremendous appeal to the kinds of students we’re likely to attract, who tend to be working professionals who are motivated by a real sense of purpose and a sense of urgency. They need knowledge. They may be working in a knowledge industry where the knowledge is changing very quickly. That’s so true in bioscience, in medicine, in physics and so on, and what better place than a school of arts and sciences to come back for that kind of renewed knowledge? There are also interesting things happening in the world of psychology right now and CGS is developing programs in applied psychology with our School of Social Policy and Practice partners. Knowledge is being created [throughout the University] and CGS is the point where it can then be delivered in an applied format to people.
Q. What’s a typical CGS student?
A. Many of them are our own alumnae and they’re alumnae of other elite institutions. They’re intelligent people who are devoted to their workplace, their families, their communities. They have this practical and applied bent so when they’re coming into the classroom they’re bringing a wealth of knowledge and a thoughtful approach to learning.
Q. So this is an exciting time for CGS?
A. There are times when you know this is the moment when you really have to do it and not let this opportunity go by. We have a new president, a new provost, a new dean of arts and sciences. Everyone’s thinking about the next thing we’re all going to do. I believe that having Penn provide increased opportunities for these students who are working professionals, who want to come to Penn, now is the time to do that.
Originally published on September 8, 2005