An Interview with Prof. Li-Shih Huang, University of Victoria, British Columbia
Interviewer: Madhukar K C
- Thank you very much for joining us on the NNEST-of-the-month blog. Could you briefly tell us about your background and how you got interested in learning language and becoming an educator, especially a teacher of English?
Thank you for the kind invitation and the opportunity, and above all, for what you and the NNEST-IS members do in your advocacy work for NNEST in our profession. Since I am someone who tends to shy away from talking about myself, I will instead focus on the serendipitous occurrences in my life that led me to where I am today. Before specializing in second language education, I had worked in the advertising industry and subsequently for a prestigious group in the hospitality sector for seven years. During that time, I was also teaching EFL at private schools any time I got a chance. While moving through the organization’s ranks, working long hours on all the major holidays because of the nature of the business, an opportunity arose for me to take on teaching English for Specific Purposes at a hospitality university, which I took. Discovering that teaching, and not the success of climbing the corporate ladder or securing major sponsors for hosting over a hundred events a year, was what really spoke to my heart, I decided then to return to Canada to pursue a master’s degree in education, enrolling initially in the comparative education program. But then one evening while waiting for my class to begin, I decided to sit in on a class in second language learning taught by Birgit Harley, and that evening changed the trajectory of my life. The next day I switched to another program, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
- What are your main areas of interest for research, publishing, and presentation at conferences? How do you think your academic publishing and your presentations at conferences contribute to the literature of NNEST issues, World Englishes, ELF, and EIL?
My interests in research and scholarly dissemination extend quite broadly, including areas such as EAP needs and outcomes assessment, corpus-aided teaching and learning, learner strategies in language learning and language testing, and reflective learning. Gratefully I’ve had support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for my work in these areas. In publishing and presentations, I try to devote my attention to both scholarly and professional audiences, perhaps the latter more, as I expressed in this op-ed, which I authored a few years back. This choice is also evident in the nearly five dozen articles or posts I have published for teaching purposes. I’m not certain how much I have contributed to the areas you specify, but an area I have devoted regular attention to is raising the awareness of learners and instructors about ways to support NNES learners and teachers. Over the past decade, these efforts have included 291 presentations and workshops I have delivered across 25 units, both within and beyond my institution.
- Could you share with us your memories of some of the opportunities and challenges you encountered as a consequence of your NNES identity while working as a language-teaching professional in Canada?
I am fortunate because I have been afforded opportunities to continue to develop my skills and expertise, and I rarely, if ever, have felt that my differences impeded me from pursuing what I do. Although it’s been pointed out that pronunciation may be the linguistic feature that faces the most judgment as it is the most noticeable, such that one’s accent can easily evoke bias in others, people’s perceptions about who we are do not define us. Rather, our accents and linguistic backgrounds are part of who we are, as I have often shared with my students since the late 1990s, when the “native-like” pronunciation model and accent “elimination” reigned supreme. I intentionally, and critically, use pedagogical tasks in my own teaching to question previously held assumptions, to honor my students’ voices, and to shift how learners view themselves as they come to see that differences are not deficiencies to be eliminated but rather can enrich our voices and facilitate our development. To me, perhaps the biggest challenge lies not in teaching the what-and-how of communication, but in expanding the ability to suspend judgment and to question our own assumptions and interpretations, since these assumptions, which are often deeply rooted in our upbringing and experiences, are critical to transforming our perspectives. Challenges surely abound in what we do every day, challenges that may relate directly or indirectly to our NNES identity and, by extension, to our qualifications to meet our students’ learning needs. Challenges, however, often come with meaningful and rewarding moments that let us know that what we do matters, that we are making a difference in the lives of language learners. My position has indeed enabled me to see the challenges of learners from the viewpoints both of someone who has been trained to tackle those challenges, and someone who has gone through those challenges herself. These perspectives have in turn uniquely benefited me in designing and implementing various research and service programs in my areas of specialization.
- You were awarded the Mary Finocchiaro Award for Excellence in the Development of Pedagogical Materials by TESOL International owing to your expertise and creativity in designing pedagogical materials. You were also the recipient of the 2014 Humanities Teaching Excellence Award and the 2017 TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper on NNEST Issues. Could you highlight the main thrust of your research paper on NNEST issues to our valued readers from TESOL community and beyond?
In my research under one of my current SSHRC grants, I am working to contribute to refugee resettlement efforts by developing culturally sensitive language training, which is critical to integrating refugee learners into the Canadian workforce and society. Faced with limited funding and resources, Canada is having to address enormous challenges related to language training as it seeks to resettle an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees. As headlines have reported, over 36 cities across Canada are encountering critical problems related to language training for refugees. My work, which draws on approaches to teaching language that are backed by the most up-to-date theories and research, aims to identify the language-learning needs of the Syrian refugees and integrate them into a language-training program that builds on their own rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The project incorporates several sources of data to capture their specific needs, including needs assessment surveys, interviews with learners and teachers, and learner corpora. This work will also help practitioners working with refugee learners, and will be extended to any instructor interested in developing lessons or units that are grounded in theory and empirically substantiated, and that draw on learners’ own languages to scaffold English-language learning based on task performance. The final phase of this work will involve empirically substantiating the instructional materials and approach.
- You are currently an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and the Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence. What courses do you teach for graduate programs at UVic? As an NNES teacher educator, what opportunities and challenges have you experienced working at your university so far?
I teach mainly core courses that survey key areas in the broader field of applied linguistics and research methods. A great deal of my time in the graduate program is devoted to mentoring the students’ research projects required for their doctoral candidacy papers or theses/dissertations. These have involved a wide range of topics, including testing and assessment, learner strategies, refugee resettlement, EAP needs, instructional approaches and methods for French as a second language, language-teaching methods in language revitalization, Japanese pedagogical material development, second language writing, game-based learning, and vocabulary learning in Russian. For me personally, one of my biggest ongoing challenges, as for many of us in our line of work, revolves around work-life balance. I am often asked whether or not I sleep! Maintaining a high level of engagement and time commitment to do the job well and meet personal and professional expectations is time consuming. Being an NNES instructor and imposing high standards of work on myself often doubles the amount of time I need to complete my work. There are also the issues posed by the growing evidence for inherent gender and race-related biases, whether explicit or implicit, in student evaluations. So being acknowledged by awards for pedagogical material design, teaching, and research and being placed in the category of “a very small, very exceptional coterie of professors who earn top ratings from students” has been truly uplifting and heartening. As an NNES teacher educator, I see a great many opportunities working with the next generation of teachers and teacher educators. This past term, for example, among three articles published by ELT journals in 2017 that I offered as options for my students to choose one to explore (following my approach detailed in my article), the group selected the article about equity and enrichment in the TESOL practicum. The wonderful discussion that ensued inspired in all of us a great deal of hope and optimism about the progress of the profession in the hands of these future teachers, NES and NNES alike, with whom I have had the privilege to work. Raising awareness is a first step to creating ripple effects that can transform our own individual and collective practices, and thereby change the state of our professional community.
- What advice would you give to your NNES students at UVic and TESOL professionals who wish to succeed as EFL instructors and researchers in Canadian schools/colleges/universities? What advice would you provide to graduate students (Master’s and Ph.D.) trying to publish their research works in peer-reviewed journals?
I’m not sure I have the best advice to offer those wishing to succeed as instructors and researchers in Canada because this work has been a life-long quest of my own. In my work of training future ELT professionals, my deep commitment to connecting theory, research, and practice is known to any student who has taken my courses. These courses are carefully built around facilitating various tasks and activities that require students to experiment throughout the term, so they can learn experientially how to apply the theories and discussions they have read in research articles written for practitioners. Specifically, they make the application through their own experimentations in a recursive and cyclical process involving feedback, reflection, and revisions, as they build their professional practical knowledge and repertoires. Never stop experimenting with your approaches and methods, and never stop challenging your own assumptions, are not only words of advice for my students, but are also what I practice personally. For practicing teachers, I would go a step further to encourage them to share their discoveries with other instructors, whether informally or through presentations and publications, as I have also sought to do over the years. For instance, I have written many posts for various trade publications that are the fruit of such experimentations.
It’s fair to say that in order to connect theory, research, and practice in this way, I believe that practitioners must stay abreast of the literature and research on pedagogy so they can make informed decisions. I am a firm believer that no one can tell you unequivocally what will work best for you in your own teaching contexts, or that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to your teaching challenges. And certainly, no study in the sea of literature can tell your particular story or directly answer your own teaching-related questions. It is only through experimenting and testing our own hypotheses—whether informally through trial and error, or formally if your institution supports such professional development through action research or SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning)—that we can continue to reflect on our experiences and improve our practices. Seek out peers or colleagues who share similar interests and would be interested in collaborating on research directly relevant to your own teaching. Then mobilize or translate that knowledge so that those who share similar challenges can benefit from your insights. For early career teachers, my advice would be to seek out opportunities to hone your skills and develop your expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, the countless hours I have put into developing a lesson, course, series, or program, whether remunerated or not, cannot be replaced by any amount of training, classroom learning, or textbook reading.
For graduate students trying to publish their work, there is no shortage of advice offered by those who have dedicated their lives and work to helping other emerging (and established) scholars publish (e.g., @write4research, @ThomsonPat, and @explorstyle). This is a complex area that deserves more than a brief response, but if I had to choose one piece of advice from which I would have benefited during my early career (and as I look at the manuscripts I never returned to!), I would encourage these students to look at “revise and resubmit” in a positive light. (This is one reason I encourage graduate students in all my courses to revise and resubmit their work as many times as they like.) Take heed of the astute advice offered by Robert MacIntosh and the wise words of Robert Graves: “There is no such thing as good writing. Only good rewriting.” Writers have different approaches to writing, and there are no right or wrong answers; find out what works optimally for you—when, where, how, with whom, and why. Learn to deal with (even harsh) rejections because they come with the territory, and write your own story of perseverance.
- We often come across discriminatory job advertisements on social media, websites of various ELT/TEFL/TESL industry (i.e., universities, colleges, private language and training schools) that tend to perpetuate the ideology of native speakerism. Could you shed light on Canadian EFL/ELT academic contexts with regard to hiring policies and practices? How do you think ELT/TESOL educators should address this prevalent issue of bias and discrimination to bring social justice and professional equity?
This is a really challenging, sensitive, and emotionally charged question for many, and one that is difficult for me to respond thoughtfully and succinctly. I cannot speak to the Canadian ELT context with regard to hiring policies and practices because I do not have the expertise, nor have I immersed myself in the literature enough to form an objective viewpoint. However, I do think it fair to say that it is not uncommon to come across or experience discriminatory practices. My most recent encounters have been related to, in one case, serving on a search committee where I experienced overt biases that for me shattered the façade of the hiring process. Another case relates to a hiring post listing “no Asian face” and “native speaker only” as among the qualifications shared by an admirable, outspoken twitter user. The eye-opening experience was the number of responses arguing that there was nothing wrong with making “native speakers only” one of the eligibility criteria, which underscores the challenges ahead of us. Having said that, I also recognize that in recent years, because the ideology of native speakerism has risen to the surface, our collective consciousness of its ramifications has also increased considerably, thanks to scholars and practitioners whose work has prompted reflection and a call for change. Various professional bodies have also taken a strong stance on equity issues related to our profession. My own awareness of these issues, though not necessarily related to hiring, has also greatly increased because of recent life occurrences heightened by the current geopolitical climate. I’ve learned that statements about diversity, inclusion, and equity are not enough, nor are they sufficient in combating implicit or structural bias and discrimination. In the post-secondary context, it is, however, encouraging to see the work by Frances Henry and other race-focused and social justice scholars who have joined forces to push us to think and examine more deeply the ways that race and racism play out on Canadian campuses over issues related to equity in pay and hiring, the lack of visibility of racialized faculty, and racial discrimination. These have been treated using empirical evidence in their work titled “The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities” (2017).
Certainly, we still have a long road ahead to affect changes at the micro- and macro-levels, but I also believe in my heart of hearts that, first and foremost, one does not have to engage in discriminatory practices in order to be an impediment to equity in our profession. Silence will do it. Silence is never neutral. As Nelson Flores has encouraged us: “Disrupt the notion of right/white ELT qualifications by sharing experiences of racist nativism in order to prompt reflection” (2017). Above all, I hope that we will all consider lending support to our less privileged colleagues. It’s one thing to proclaim to care about equity and diversity, but another thing entirely to put such a proclamation into action. To borrow the words of Deb DeHass, “It is everyone’s responsibility, every day and at every level, to create the culture that can make [inclusion] happen.” It starts with me, with you, and with the voices of many other people.
Work cited in order of appearance:
Huang, L.-S. (2012, October 2). There’s a disconnect between “scholarly value” and how we reach audiences who need research. LSE Impact Blog. The London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/10/02/huang-disconnect-scholarly-value-audiences/
Flaherty C. (2016, January 11). Bias against female instructors. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/11/new-analysis-offers-more-evidence-against-student-evaluations-teaching
Huang, L.-S. (2015, September 25). Getting the horses to drink: Three ways to promote student ownership of reading assignment. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/three-ways-to-promote-student-ownership-of-reading-assignments/
MacIntosh, R. (2018, February 1). Career advice: How to handle ‘revise and resubmit’ requests. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/career-advice-how-handle-revise-and-resubmit-requests
Henry, F., Dua, E., James, C. E., Kobayashi, A., Li, P., Ramos, H., & Smith, M. S. (2017). The equity myth: Racialization and indigeneity at Canadian universities. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Flores, N. (2017, September 20). Not having the right/white qualifications for English language teaching. Retrieved from https://educationallinguist.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/not-having-the-rightwhite-qualifications-for-english-language-teaching/
Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2017, August 3). Deloitte’s radical attempt to reframe diversity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/08/deloittes-radical-attempt-to-reframe-diversity