Jamie Shinhee Lee is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where she worked with Professor Braj B. Kachru.
Interview by: Ju Seong Lee (John) and Cristina Sánchez-Martín
To begin with, could you please tell us about your academic and professional backgrounds?
I am an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the review editor for the journal World Englishes, which Prof. Braj Kachru launched, along with late Prof. Larry Smith, about 35 years ago. I am a sociolinguist, and my research interests include World Englishes, language in popular culture, globalization and language education, bilingualism, and Korean discourse analysis/pragmatics.
What factors influenced your decision to study linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and become Dr. Braj B. Kachru’s student? What led you to become interested in the research areas you have worked on in your career?
I was an English major in Korea and have always been interested in language issues in general. My first academic degree in the US was a Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education. Upon graduation, I went back to Korea to teach for a couple of years but quickly realized that I had the desire to pursue a more advanced degree and work as an academic for the rest of my life. Initially, I considered a few other programs in the US but ultimately decided to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When I joined the Linguistics program at UIUC in 2000, my plan of study was not concretely determined. I knew that I wanted to do research on bilingualism, but I did not decide on a specific “track” when I started my coursework at UIUC. I debated between psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics. However, the World Englishes seminar I took with Prof. Kachru made my decision-making process easy. Here is what I wrote about Prof. Kachru in the acknowledgement section of my dissertation: “His seminar on Sociolinguistics of World Englishes in my very first semester at the University of Illinois ignited my intellectual curiosity and desire to learn more about sociolinguistics. I needed ‘just one’ course with him to know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my academic career.” Before meeting him, my research interests centered mostly on language acquisition and psycholinguistics. He really changed my life!
You worked closely with Dr. Braj Kachru. Can you please tell us about your experiences working with Dr. Kachru?
He always had something wise to say, and I was tremendously impressed with his sense of humor. I worked for him as his research assistant for several years, so I was able to develop a keen sense of who he was. He had a remarkable ability to inspire people. It seemed that everyone who met Prof. Kachru in person instantly became his fan. He was charismatic, but it was not one of those ostensibly overpowering kinds. He and his late wife, Prof. Yamuna Kachru, were very kind to me. I always felt welcome whenever I was invited to their place. They treated me like family.
We know that Dr. Kachru as an influential authority on World Englishes. What was he like as a teacher, mentor, or just as a person? Could you share any vivid memories of working as a graduate student under the tutelage of Dr. Kachru?
Prof. Kachru was a brilliant scholar and an amazing human being. He was one of the greatest teachers and mentors that I know and anyone can hope for. He was not a hands-on thesis advisor. He encouraged me to think independently about my academic endeavors and allowed me to initiate projects on my own. He was there for me when I needed his advice and guidance, but I was never explicitly told what to do when it came to my own research. We discussed general plans, so he was involved in drawing a big picture. However, regarding specific decisions, I was pretty much in charge and he rarely stepped in. Some students may not work well under this kind of minimum supervision, but it worked for me. I think he was the same way with all of his Ph. D advisees. I am grateful for his faith in his students. When I joined the program at UIUC in 2000, Professor Kachru did not offer many classes because he had other important administrative responsibilities. So the seminar I took with him in my first semester was the one and only class I had with him. From day one I could tell that he knew how to engage students in discussions, and the students seemed to remain interested in what he had to say throughout the semester. He showed personal interest in everyone in class and genuinely cared about his students. He was passionate about the subject matter, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I always looked forwarded to his class.
As a person, he was warm and funny. Nothing seemed to make him anxious or worried. I am sure some things bothered him or made him worry. That is human nature. But he never showed any frustration, annoyance, or fear. He had some medical issues and had to undergo serious operations or procedures while I was at UIUC, but even in bed recovering from major surgery he was joking and making people laugh. I think he would have made a great diplomat, if he had not chosen to be a linguist. I once told him that he was like a swan, looking so calm and poised above water but paddling diligently underwater. He never lost his cool or spoke ill of others. He always tried to see the good in people, even those who disappointed him and caused grievance for him. I try to model that in my own life, even though I don’t always succeed as he did.
How would you describe the most important contributions of Dr. Kachru’s work in our community?
Prof. Kachru was an innovative thinker and courageous pioneer. When no one paid serious attention to varieties of English other than so-called native English, he initiated academic endeavors which have given voice to marginalized varieties of English. It is not an exaggeration to state that he revolutionized the field of English Studies. In collaboration with late Prof. Larry Smith, who cofounded the journal World Englishes and the organization International Association for World Englishes, Prof. Kachru forcefully and convincingly challenged the view that deviations from the norm are mere mistakes and errors. For those who view the word ‘Englishes’ is a typographical error or a grammatical mistake, it must be noted that the word is now part of a well-established, serious academic subfield of sociolinguistics. Prof. Kachru made that happen.
Please tell us about your current engagements/projects such as writing a paper, publishing a book and teaching courses at University of Michigan-Dearborn. What advice would you give to us and other PhD students trying to publish their work?
I am currently working on a couple of projects regarding linguistic globalization including the multilingual landscape in South Korea and transnationalism and language education. Getting your work published is a long and arduous process, which requires careful planning, patience, good work ethics, and intellectual tenacity. As an academic, you have to get used to the idea that your papers would not always be positively evaluated and perceived as publishable. Your journal submissions will sometimes get rejected, which can be disappointing and frustrating. Even if they are accepted, you are always expected to revise your original submission. Sometimes they will accept your paper conditionally with a major revision request, which may consist of a list of seemingly impossible questions to answer or changes to make. You may get tempted to give up altogether because some critical comments are so harsh that they can really break your spirit. Whenever you encounter a moment of self-doubt and fear as a young scholar, remember that if you retry you will have a 50/50 chance of success but if you give up, you get a zero chance of success. So press on! If your academic work gets overwhelming, walk away from it for a while and do something you enjoy with people you love and come back with a refreshed mind, then you may feel that the project is not as insurmountable as it initially appeared.
Thank you for your sharing your valuable experience with us Prof. Jamie Shinhee Lee!