October 2016
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Interview by Elena Shvidko, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

Elena: The theme of this year’s Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW) is “Expertise in Second Language Writing.” Could you tell us how and why this theme was chosen? How do you personally define expertise in second language (L2) writing?

Paul: Since the first SSLW in 1998, I have been using the term “experts” in referring to the invited speakers. However, at the same time, I have also been struggling with the question of who the experts are, what makes them experts, and, conversely, who are not experts. Defining expertise is especially important these days because some people who have some interest in writing and language but limited expertise in L2 writing seem to be claiming that they have solutions to complex issues that L2 writing experts have been working with. In order to maintain the integrity of the field, it is important to articulate what it is that we know and do.

I don’t think it’s possible to draw a clear line that distinguishes experts from nonexperts because expertise is a matter of degree, but I thought it would be important to reflect on what L2 writing experts know and what they can do to distinguish themselves from other writing and language teachers, researchers, and program administrators. It would also be useful to think about how expertise develops.

In general, I think expertise in L2 writing is a set of knowledge and skills that enables us to work with L2 writers and in L2 writing. The specific set of knowledge and skills may vary depending on the context, and different people need different degrees of expertise. For instance, teachers in the classroom need to be able to teach, but teacher educators need additional knowledge that enables them to mentor other teachers. Teachers who specialize in English for academic purposes (EAP) may need to know about genres and processes in specific disciplinary contexts, but to teachers who teach beginning language learners, it may be more important to understand how to facilitate language development through writing instruction. Beyond these context-specific knowledge and skills, I believe there are certain types of expertise that all L2 writing teachers need to have and continue to develop, which are the kind of knowledge and skills I teach in introductory graduate courses in L2 writing.

In any case, you can’t become an expert in L2 writing instantly. It is something that develops with ongoing engagement, reflection, and practice. I also think it’s useful to conceptualize L2 writers’ development as the development of expertise. I think the term “expertise” gives us a constructive way of seeing what L2 writers are doing, which is developing additional expertise in writing in a new language.

Elena: As one of the founders of the field, you are certainly an expert in L2 writing and someone whom many teachers, researchers, and graduate students look up to. At what point might a professional in our field consider himself/herself an expert? And what would be your personal piece of advice for someone striving to develop expertise in L2 writing?

Paul: Again, there is no clear line between expert and nonexpert status, but here is a list of different levels of expertise that might help illustrate the development of expertise in teaching L2 writing:

Expert Practitioner—an L2 writing teacher who can teach L2 writing well.

  • A teacher who has been teaching L2 writing courses.

  • A teacher who can design and teach an L2 writing course.

Community Expert—an L2 writing teacher who can provide leadership within a community of L2 writing teachers.

  • A teacher who can share course design and teaching strategies with other successful L2 writing teachers both within and outside the program.

  • A teacher who can mentor other teachers who are learning to teach L2 writing courses in similar teaching contexts.

  • A teacher who can mentor other teachers who are successful L2 writing teachers in similar teaching contexts.

Field Expert—an L2 writing teacher who can provide leadership nationally and internationally.

  • A teacher who can mentor other teachers in various teaching contexts.

  • A teacher who can evaluate courses and programs and mentor other mentors.

Now, anyone can claim to be able to do these things, although not everyone is really good at it. Being able to assess and document the level of success (e.g., through student evaluations, peer evaluations, portfolios, publications, and workshops) is important. External recognition (e.g., teaching awards, publications, invited lectures, workshops, and plenary talks) is also an important element.

Elena: Going off of these skills and your definition of “L2 writing expert,” how did you and your planning committee develop the program for SSLW 2016? And from your perspective, how can the upcoming symposium help professionals in the field develop their expertise in L2 writing?

Paul: We chose two plenary speakers, Alister Cumming and Diane Belcher, who are internationally known experts themselves and who can theorize expertise in useful ways. We will also be offering a series of workshops to help participants develop various types of expertise. We also plan to have some time for reflections at the end of the day to facilitate the discussion of the theme and other salient topics.

Elena: It sounds like it is going to be a great professional event worth attending! Now, speaking more broadly, could you tell us a little bit about your recent professional activities, as well as your future agenda?

Paul: Since the symposium is now an annual event, planning and organizing these events have become a big part of my professional activities. I have also been working to improve and expand second language writing research and instruction outside North America. For this purpose, I have been offering graduate courses, lectures, workshops, and webinars in various countries. I have also been writing and speaking on topics related to professionalization and the development of expertise, from research and publication to mentoring and conference organization.

In addition to my continued effort to engineer the field, I have been thinking and writing about issues such as audience, technology, and classroom assessment, which I believe are important issues but are not well represented.

Elena: Could you please tell us about some recent positive developments in the field?

Paul: The most positive development is that there is a growing number of scholars—especially young scholars—from around the world who identify themselves with the field of second language writing. This is particularly important because a field is as good as the people who align themselves with it and what they do.

In the early years, the field of L2 writing tended to focus on issues that were particularly relevant to North American higher education. I and many others in the field tried to expand the scope to include other levels of education and to include voices from other regions, but it was a slow process at first. Over the last 10 years, I have seen a significant growth of interest in L2 writing research and instruction at different levels of education and in other parts of the world, especially East and Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania. They have done much to enhance our understanding of L2 writers and writing. In some regions, they have developed different traditions of inquiry—theoretically and methodologically. The emergence of diverse traditions of inquiry is a welcome development because it will help us put things into perspective and avoid intellectual stagnation. I hope we will continue to learn from each other and challenge each other to think beyond our local contexts, but without losing sight of the L2 writers and writing teachers who we work with locally.

Elena: On this positive note, where do you see the field of second language writing in the future, say in 10 to 15 years? What do you hope for?

Paul: I’m not sure how to answer this question, but I do hope that we will continue to develop the knowledge base related to L2 writing, writers, and writing instruction, and that we will continue to provide resources for the wider public.

Elena: Thank you!

Elena Shvidko is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Purdue University. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.

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