Dr. Saenkhum is Assistant Professor and Director of ESL in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She has recently become the TESOL Second Language Writing (SLW) interest section chair-elect.
Interviewer: Cristina Sánchez-Martín
Thank you for joining us on NNEST-of-the-month blog. Could you briefly tell us about your linguistic, academic, and professional background and how you got interested in becoming a second language writing specialist and ESL educator?
I am pleased to be joining the NNEST-of-the-month blog. Thank you for the invitation!
I was born and raised in Thailand, and I grew up speaking Thai as my primary language. My formal exposure to the English language was when I began studying English in Grade 5. I received my undergraduate degree in mass communication, majoring in journalism. While I was working on my master’s degree in journalism, I worked as a columnist for a women’s magazine. I also spent five years working as a journalist for an English newspaper in Thailand. As you see, my background had nothing to do with teaching. However, as I wrote in my book chapter (Saenkhum, 2015),
Through many years of such experience, I discovered how much I loved writing, even though it was challenging to write in a language that was not my mother tongue. As a journalist, I worked under deadlines and pressure, writing on variable subject matters for a wide audience (p. 112).
Reflecting on my career path, I told myself: “Being able to write as a journalist was a big stepping stone to my other career goals” (Saenkhum 2015, p. 112). Then this happened:
… I thought about changing my career since I no longer wanted to write as a reporter; rather I wanted to pass on my knowledge of writing to those who were interested. All of a sudden, the idea of teaching came into sight; I wanted to be a writing teacher. But I did not have a teaching degree; ‘How could that be possible?’ I asked myself (p. 112).
As you may imagine, I decided to quit my job and pursued my second master’s degree in TESOL at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), where I first learned about second language (L2) writing and “the serious journey of my academic career began” (p. 112). After two years at SIUC, I continued my doctoral studies in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics at Arizona State University (ASU), where I specialized in L2 writing with a focus on writing program administration for multilingual writers. At ASU, I had various opportunities to broaden my L2 writing and writing program administration scholarship. For example, I served as ASU’s Assistant Director of Second Language Writing and Associate Chair for the 2009 Symposium on Second Language Writing.
I graduated in Spring 2012 and secured a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. At UT Knoxville, in addition to researching and teaching, I have served as the university’s ESL Writing Program since 2013.
In your book Decisions, Agency, and Advising: Key Issues in the Placement of Multilingual Writers into First-Year Composition Courses (Utah State University Press, 2016) you report on a study on the placement of multilingual writers in first-year composition courses. In the study, you found out that students’ attitudes towards their placement in composition courses varied from acceptance to negotiation. You also argued that students’ self-assessment should be a component of their placement. What would an ideal placement process look like? Are there any negative aspects regarding students’ self-assessment?
As I argued in my book, students’ perspectives should be included in the programmatic placement of students into writing courses. We should listen to our students. An effective placement procedure/process should include related placement stakeholders, including students, academic advisors, writing teachers, and writing program administrators. Essentially, students should be informed of all necessary placement information so that they can make well-informed placement decisions.
In my book, I also demonstrated “the essentials of self-assessing in placement decisions” (Saenkhum, 2016, p. 52) to make a case for students’ own agency in their placement decisions. Self-assessing, for example, is an act of agency that students performed while they were in the process of choosing a first-year writing course. For students to be able to self-asses, they must receive complete placement information distributed by various sources, including academic advisors and writing programs.
You are currently the director of the Department of English’s ESL Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. You also teach graduate and undergraduate courses on ESL, second language writing, writing program administration, etc. What have you learned from both administrative and teaching responsibilities? What practical advice would you give to graduate students who would like to follow your career path?
My research informs my teaching and my writing program administration (WPA) work. I use a writing program as a site of my research (Saenkhum, forthcoming), and I have applied what I learned from my research to streamline the placement procedures for multilingual writers at my current institution. In the same book chapter (Saenkhum, 2015) mentioned above, I discussed how I developed some strategies for negotiating the workloads as a tenure-track assistant professor who takes on administrative responsibilities while working toward tenure. As a researcher, teacher, and writing program administrator, “I am learning to strike a balance between research (working on my writing), administrative work, and teaching; at the same time, I want to make sure that I have a well-rounded, healthy life” (p. 123).
My advice for graduate students who are interested in WPA is to understand the nature of the work WPAs do. Ask yourself the following questions: How do I see myself in the next five years? Where do I want to work/teach? At a teaching institution? At a research university? What is my research interest? If you have answers to these questions, you will know what you want to do in your career!
You co-authored the article “Writing Teachers’ Perceptions of the Presence and Needs of Second Language Writers: An Institutional Case Study” (2013) with Paul Kei Matsuda and Steven Accardi. How was the experience of collaborating in writing the article? What advice would you give to emerging scholars who are trying to publish their work in prestigious journals like the Journal of Second Language Writing?
Collaboration is fun and provides great writing experience for me as a researcher and writer. I enjoyed working with Paul and Steve and learned a lot from working with them. I value collaboration and would like to encourage collaborative work. Getting to know the journal you would like to publish your work with is one of the most important things. Also, understanding the nature of work published in such journal is essential. Try co-authoring and submitting to your dream journal!
In that same study, you call for the improvement of teacher training in regards to multilingual writers, since teachers “identified various resource needs, including more professional preparation opportunities, common curriculum and materials, and common diagnostic tools” (p. 81). From your experience, what are the most essential skills that writing instructors should develop in order to work with multilingual writers?
First and foremost, writing instructors should know who their students are. Second, they should be able to address individual students’ needs in the writing classrooms. Third, they should be willing to spend more time working with their multilingual writers.
You are currently working on a study on the history of English writing instruction in Thailand. What are the implications from your study for English teaching?
This is an ongoing project that consists of different phases of data collection. The goal of this study is to generate an understanding of second language writing and the teaching of second language writing in Thailand by considering the country’s development of English language learning and teaching from a historical perspective. I hope the results from my study will provide some implications for English writing instruction in the country.
Finally, congratulations on being the TESOL Second Language Writing (SLW) interest section chair-elect! In your opinion, what are some of the ways in which scholars in the NNESTs and SLW interest sections can work together towards developing scholarship and more just pedagogical principles for the English classrooms?
Thank you! Collaboration between the interest sections should be encouraged. In the past, SLWIS has worked with the NNESTs, putting together panels for InterSection sessions at TESOL. I also think we can collaborate on research projects that seek to understand L2 writing/writers from NNEST perspectives or vice versa.
Matsuda, P. K., Saenkhum, T., & Accardi, S. (2013). Writing teachers’ perceptions of the presence and needs of second language writers: An institutional case study. Journal of Second Language Writing, 22(1), 68-86.
Saenkhum, T. (2015). Choices in identity building as an L2 writing specialist: Investment and perseverance. In K. McIntosh, C. Pelaez-Morales, & T. Silva (Eds.), Graduate studies in second language writing (pp. 111–125). Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.
Saenkhum, T. (2016). Decisions, agency, and advising: Key issues in the placement of multilingual writers into first-year composition courses. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Saenkhum, T. (forthcoming). Working toward being a tenured WPA. In P. K. Matsuda, K. O’Meara, & S. Snyder (Eds.), Professionalizing second language writing. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.