Category Archives: writing second language

Xuemei Li


Dr. Xuemei Li is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Her research interests include TESL/TEFL curriculum and methodology, second/additional language writing, ESL support in schools and communities, migration and newcomer integration, and identity issues in additional language contexts. She teaches, supervises, and publishes in these areas. Dr Li’s current SSHRC-funded projects investigate language and social support for newcomers (immigrant, refugee, & international student) in Canada, and particularly in Newfoundland. She also explores EAP (English for Academic Purposes) writing instruction and teacher education in Chinese universities.

Interviewed by: Khalid Al Hariri and Hami Suzuki

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Lisya Seloni

NNEST of the Month
May 2010

lisyaseloni [at] gmail [dot] com


Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to be an educator?

Dr. Seloni:I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. Growing up in Istanbul, I was surrounded by various languages: Turkish, my native language, and Ladino and Hebrew, my heritage languages. Due to my ethnic background, I was exposed to, and acquired some receptive knowledge of Ladino (Ladino is a Romance language used among the Sephardic Jews in the Balkans and Turkey), also called Judeo-Spanish (djudeoespanyol), while I was growing up in Istanbul. It is mostly the elderly members of families who spoke Ladino, and my generation was usually kept distance from this language due to various political and sociocultural reasons. During my primary and secondary education, I learned some Hebrew at school. And, of course, while I was growing up, there was always this dominant narrative that English was the language that one needs to master to be able to get ahead in life. So, I attended an English language institute on weekends while I was in high school. Being a member of various overlapping communities, one of the things that I vividly remember was the variety and richness of the kinds of literacy practices that my peers and I were carrying out within and beyond the school contexts. Although I lost most of my heritage languages due to not being able to use them on a daily basis, being part of a minority group raised my awareness on various social, political and linguistic issues that became much more significant in my adult life later on. And, what I now find interesting is that I didn’t realize the richness and importance of my heritage languages while growing up in a multilingual context In Istanbul until I pursued my graduate studies where I grew a deep interest in how people use spoken and written language to create communities and certain identity categories. My current scholarship and teaching always bring back these early literacy experiences. .

As the first generation college graduate student in my family, reading and writing has always been a central part of me growing up. Although my parents did not receive college education, they have always emphasized the importance of reading and writing by sharing with me various anecdotes and stories during my childhood. Sharing and interacting with people to construct knowledge and experiences have always excited me, so striving to become and be an educator has been my life passion. Due to having come to a decision about pursuing language education, I majored in English language education as an undergraduate in Istanbul University where I specialized in sociolinguistics and teaching English using drama.

Before moving to the United States in late 2001 to pursue my graduate degree, I worked in various capacities in Turkey teaching English as a foreign language. I was especially passionate about working with the economically disadvantaged population in Istanbul. My most memorable experiences include teaching in a small language institute for more than 3 years where I taught English to kids from shantytowns. I recall having students from various age levels, and sociocultural backgrounds, and this always made my classes so very interesting. While I was in Turkey, I was also a part of an organization called Cagdas Yasami Destekleme Dernegi (CYDD). CYDD, which is a nonprofit association in support of contemporary living, is one of the largest organizations in Turkey that harbors various educational projects aiming to promote equality in education in Turkey. There, I taught reading, writing and speaking in English to adult medical students from different parts of Turkey who did not have the economic and material access to English education in their colleges.

I came to the US at the end of 2001 to pursue my graduate degree. I remember how tough it was to get acclimated in a new culture and a new institution while the country was in turmoil. Having completed my MA degree in TESOL at University of Central Missouri in 2003, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to pursue my doctoral degree at the Ohio State University and completed my degree in August, 2008. During my doctoral education and beyond, I have been very fortunate to have had an opportunity to interact with so many inspirational scholars such as Alan Hivela, Keiko Samimy, David Bloome, Shelly Wong who did make a big impact on how I view schooling, learning and teaching.

After completing my degree at the OSU, I was hired to as a tenure-track faculty in the graduate studies in Composition & TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I feel fortunate to be able to do what I love doing: teaching and writing. It’s a true privilege to get paid for thinking and creating scholarly work.

Ana Wu: With Marcia Farr and Juyoung Song, you co-edited the book Ethnolinguistic Diversity and Education Language, Literacy and Culture, first published in 2009. 

a. Tell us about the making of this book. Why is this topic important to you? Where did the idea come from? How long did you work on it? How was the experience of working with 18 renowned authors?
Dr. Seloni: With this book, our primary goal was to explore crucial issues that emerge at the intersection of language diversity and literacy education in the United Sates. I am very excited about this book mainly because the collection of articles not only provides a very recent overview on sociolinguistic research but this collection also discusses important pedagogical application on how we should fight against the monolingual ideology and standardization movements in many educational contexts. In this project, my main responsibilities were to collect the manuscripts, edit the chapters with Marcia and Juyoung, and co-author an introductory chapter. I am delighted and extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to work with some stellar scholars such as Marcia Far, Walt Wolfram, Samy Alim, Ofelia Garcia , Alan Hirvela, Teresa McCarty and Terence Wiley. I believe that this book will be a great contribution to our understanding of ethnolinguisitic diversity in the 21st century throughout the U.S. educational contexts.

The idea of this book derived from the New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) conference that we hosted in 2006 in Columbus, Ohio. Marcia Farr, with whom I was working at that time, suggested that we work on an edited collection where we collect manuscript that specifically explores the dominant language ideologies and how these enact in different educational contexts in the U.S. We invited the presenters of NWAV conference, worked on the proposal of the book and began collecting manuscripts. So, it took about 3 years to compile the manuscripts, revise the drafts and publish the whole book. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Marcia, her vast publishing experience in the areas of sociolinguistics and teaching of writing really helped me to expand my knowledge base on what goes on in compiling and editing a book. As an emerging scholar, I learned a great deal about the process of editing the book. The process was a long and arduous one, but my overall experience was a very positive one, especially since Marcia and Juyoung were extremely easy to work with. Because of these reasons, editing process was easier than I had imagined.

b. What advice would you give to our members who want to publish a book or edit an anthology? How does one start?
Dr. Seloni: I’m still learning the practices that go in editing or publishing a book. In my opinion, it is important to read widely and identify areas in which one wants to make a contribution. One’s knowledge in the field is an important asset and factor when it is time to write about the focus of the collection and the audience the volume aims to address. Finding contributors who have important things to say regarding the topic in question is crucial. You want to make sure that the sections of the book are consistent in terms of their quality, and length; and of course, choosing the right publisher is another important step. The book proposal you submit to the publishers receives feedback from external reviewers, and you need to make sure that you sufficiently address their feedback. As far as I remember, modifying our proposal was the part that took the longest. We worked hard to thoroughly address the publisher’s questions about the potential contribution of this book and the questions that were raised by the reviewers. Editing a book can take a long time, but it’s a very good learning experience especially for the emerging scholars. 

Ana Wu: You have been the NNEST IS editorial assistant since the end of 2005.

 a. In this position, what are the challenges and what do you enjoy the most?
Dr. Seloni: My work as an editorial assistant was one of the most fruitful international service during my graduate school. As a member of the editorial team, I had the opportunity to work with Sandra Zappa Hollman and Kyung-Hee Bae. The collegiality and the vast writing experiences of my co-editors brought with them certainly helped raise the quality of our work. Reading the manuscripts and taking an important role in proving feedback have been most enjoyable aspects of this position. There is something very empowering in reading contributors’ first drafts, negotiating and working as a team to improve a manuscript. One can learn so much through such interactions. I also witnessed how professionals can get to know one another in the digital environments, and do quality work via online interactions.

To me, the hardest part as an editor, was handling the feedback process. Asking the contributors to make substantial revisions in their manuscript, whether the revisions are related to stylistic issues or issues of organization, is not an easy task. I have been too conscious about not changing the authors’ authentic voice, but I also could not help but ask myself “what does changing one’s voice mean in the context of editing?” Does asking the contributors to change their lexicon choices or the way they write organize the paper mean that I am interfering with their voice and their writerly identity? When we offer substantial changes to the manuscript, I try hard to be faithful to the gist of the paper, but again this is not an easy thing to do. I think this was the question that popped up quite often in our discussions in the editorial team. I am still struggling with this question as I respond to my students writing, or serve as a manuscript reviewer for multiple journals. 

b. What would you say to our members who are interested in applying for an editor or editor assistant position, but do not have enough self-confidence or experience?
Dr. Seloni: This is certainly a great place to gain experience with editing and revising scholarly work in the field. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. No one is born as a confident teacher, scholar or an editor, you become one. I believe that such roles require performative actions that we learn by doing and by interacting with more experienced peers, and by being engaged in various discourse communities. So, my advice would be, to go for it and take a leadership role and not wait too long to be a part of an academic community. Graduate school teaches us many important skills to navigate our way in academia, but I do believe it’s not the only place. Since I became a member of TESOL in 2005, I have been learning so much regarding what it takes to be a contributing scholar by attending the meetings, interacting fellow educators in conferences, and participating the NNEST newsletter work.

Ana Wu: As an assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, your research areas include Social Justice issues in Language Education, among Second Language Literacy, Educational Ethnography, and Applied Linguistics. In terms of educational inequalities (class, race, gender, etc) in the TESOL field,

a) what do you think ESL/EFL instructors can do to make schooling more effective to minority students and to those who speak vernacular varieties of English?
Dr. Seloni: We need to remember that with the movements of globalization, the field of TESOL has gone through various methodological and theoretical shifts in terms of its conceptualization of language, culture, literacy, learning, and identity. I am glad to witness that the field is gradually gaining a more interdisciplinary nature, opening itself to various sociocultural, political, and institutional issues, and more importantly, it is orienting itself to students’ various needs and expectations and taking into account their diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Today, it is almost impossible to have totally homogeneous classrooms wherever we teach.I think even the work homogeneous does not reflect the make-up of any class in any society today.

If we are talking about teaching minority students in the US, one of the things that I learnt from my reading and research experience is to make sure that we not only understand the ethnolinguisitc richness they bring but legitimize those by incorporating the rich “funds of knowledge” (Pratt, 1991) students bring into the classroom discourse. Critical Pedagogy teaches us the importance of student participation and incorporating their backgrounds meaningfully. For instance, Ira Shor (1992) says “ the goals of [critical] pedagogy are to relate personal growth to public life by developing strong skills, academic knowledge, habits of inquiry, and critical curiosity about society, power, inequality, and change” (p. 15). To create an optimum space for democratic and dialogic community for minority students, we need to start with participatory classrooms. In other words, it is important to go beyond the banking concept of education (Freire, 1970) and create collaborative and participatory classroom activities that will legitimize and recognize non-standard variations, whether it is linguistic, social or cultural. It is also important to establish a community in the classroom where there is multiple spaces for socialization and wide range of ways of doings. To create this community, just like many scholars in our field emphasize, we need to start from the student and what they bring to the classroom. Hence, we need to carefully analyze how our classroom practices (activities we promote, languages we use, texts we bring for students to read, constructing the seating arrangement etc.) marginalize, promote, affirm students who come from nondominant cultures and languages. Our students’ identities and lives, just like ours, are constantly in flux and changing in relation to their context. Therefore, we need to redefine and reconceptualize how we view schooling, learning and teaching. It is my firm belief that if we, as language educators, do spend considerable amount of time on multiplicity of voices that students bring in to class and strive to create alternative spaces for them to express themselves and, meanwhile teach them, as Lisa Delpit always says “the culture of power”, we will be closer to creating a democratic society in which each individual is valued and seen as a contributing member of their personal, academic and cultural lives.

b. which seminal paper(s) inspired you? Which ones would you recommend our graduate students in applied linguistics or TESOL programs read?
Dr. Seloni:There are so many scholarship areas that have inspired and continue to inspire me that it’s really hard to pick a few to recommend. The scholarship and teaching of my own mentors that I mentioned above have certainly influenced how I view language teaching. Since my interests have mostly lied in the intersection of second language literacy, critical pedagogy, discourse analysis and educational ethnography, there are various important scholars who inspire me. Alastair Pennycook, Suresh Canagarajah, Ryoko Kubota, Ulla Connor, B. Kumaravadivelu, Cynthia Nelson, Brain Morgan and many more in the field of TESOL and Applied Linguistics. I recently taught a course on Intro to TESOL and my text choice was Kumaravadivelu’s Cultural Globalization and Language Education. I also used parts of his Beyond Methods and Canagarajah’s Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching. I think both of these texts aim to move the TESOL field beyond the transmission model of education and promote localized and context sensitive by carefully problematizing some of the standard ideologies that permeate in the field.

Ana Wu: Congratulations on being the symposium organizer of the Academic Literacies Symposium in February, 2010. Being so involved and committed in your teaching career, how do you balance work with family? What do you do to avoid being burned-out?
Dr. Seloni: Thank you, Ana. The conference was a wonderful experience. It was great to be able to talk about various issues related to academic Literacies with so many wonderful scholars.

Balancing work and family is, as many will agree, never an easy thing. While juggling so many balls, learning how to prioritize is something that I, as a multilingual junior faculty, am striving to learn. One thing that I have been observing is that many graduate students and junior faculty members have the fear of being criticized and compared to, which, I think one of the many reasons people in the academy, especially women scholars, are burned-out. We live in a society where we always compare ourselves with the “other” whether it is the other junior colleague or a seasoned teacher in the field. This is an exhausting feeling if it takes you in. It becomes all about how you perceive yourself as a scholar and how you think you are being positioned by others. To avoid being burnt-out, I am trying to teach myself that as long as I strive for progress (not for perfection, as the saying goes) and do what I do because I am passionate about it, not because of some tenure requirement, I will establish a healthy relationship with my colleagues, with my work and stop fighting with my different “selves” who do not always collaborate with one another. I know it is an idealistic outlook, but the feeling of making a contribution to the field instead of my tenure box is what keeps me going.

It is also important to recognize that many scholars, especially international scholars, have nomadic lives. It’s the same in my situation. I am always on the go, traveling to various places to participate in academic and social communities, especially in the lives of my family. As a multilingual woman scholar who is trying to carve her own space in academia, it has never been easy to build and maintain a community in which one can grow as a scholar. People have segmented lives and once you are out of graduate school you are pretty much by yourself in terms of building that community. This is another type of a burn-out for me (i.e, trying to build a community), and one of the best ways to deal with this has been going to conferences and engaging in discussions with mentors and peers who have been going through the same challenges.

Traveling between states and even countries to see my family has been tough. However, as odd as it may sound, there is always something refreshing in not belonging to anywhere, living in between various cultures and worlds. Traveling to see my family in Istanbul is a way for me to travel throughout time and history. In one year, many things change. People change; history changes. As a returning person, you are never totally at the center of this change nor are you at the periphery. Oddly enough, this middle space gives you some sort of privilege to claim a “learner” identity who can act critically. It is also funny but I get a lot of writing done when I travel by plane or train. I wish I can always travel so that I can produce more. I think traveling and passing through and interacting with so many lives and spaces have a magical power that inspires me to reflect critically and write more passionately.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview and good luck in your next project!


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. (M.B. Rabos, Trans.)

Pratt, L. (1992) Arts of the contact zone. Profession 91.(p.33-40).

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education. Critical Teaching for social change. The University of Chicago Press.