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News & Press: AAALetter

A Special Interview with the AAAL 2018 DSSA Recipient, Suresh Canagarajah, Penn State University

Wednesday, April 25, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Fabiola Ehlers-Zavala
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Those of us who had the opportunity to attend this year’s conference had a unique chance to join Suresh in his “Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award Address, titled, “Yet ‘Another Fucking Cancer Diary’:  Embracing Language Incompetence and Disability.”  As you can anticipate, it was a talk that deeply touched all of us in the room and ended with a heart-felt standing ovation.  Suresh continues to inspire us all each day with his strength, tenacity, wisdom and a smile that stays with you wherever you go. 

However, especially, for the AAAL members who were not able to attend this year’s conference, as the AAALetter Editor, I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to ask a few questions to Suresh whose answers I can share with the entire AAAL membership in this issue.  It is a way to bring a little bit of Suresh to each of you reading this piece.  As a member of diverse background who is first-generation, I wanted to reach out to him for guidance that I anticipated would resonate with so many of us.  As a colleague, I wanted to ask questions that would continue to motivate us to shape the lives of so many in our field and profession.  Thus, the questions below were intended to seek his advice so that we can remind ourselves of what we can accomplish or help others accomplish under very challenging circumstances.  I invite you to read this brief, but incredibly rich exchange:

  1. Fabiola:  As an established leader in applied linguistics, many of us in the organization and profession are familiar with your work and your professional service.  Who comes to mind as the greatest source of inspiration and/or motivation behind your work?

    --I guess I am a bit atypical in not having strong and lasting mentors.  Starting as a scholar in Sri Lanka, I had many spiritual and social leaders to look up to.  But they were not networked with scholars or publications in the West to be able to be help me in my academic work.  Secondly, I was moving frequently between Sri Lanka, US, and other locations, often under stressful conditions of war and exile, that I didn’t have the stability to establish ongoing relationships with other scholars or mentors.  Though I had good dissertation advisors in Austin, Texas, where I did my doctorate, I soon out grew their specializations with more diverse academic interests.  They couldn’t mentor me in my widening academic pursuits.

    However, this lack of influential mentors turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  I learned not to look at one particular theory, school, or model as authoritative.  I developed the independence to move intellectually to wherever my research and scholarship led me.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t depend on others for influence.  Actually, I look for inspiration beyond a handful of authoritative figures.  I enjoy talking to everyone and learning from them, including my students.  I consider every interaction as a learning opportunity.  In fact, I am easily influenced!  I admire what everyone is doing in their areas of interest.  However, I always discipline myself to reflect on these influences to consider how I can integrate their thinking and scholarship into my own projects in a critical and balanced way.  Sometimes, I am not shy to admit that my previous thinking and publications might be wrong in relation to what other scholars find in their ongoing research.  I am happy to move along with new findings and realizations.

  2. Fabiola--For diverse reasons, you are an inspiration to many of us who have followed you across the years and are fascinated with your professional journey and personal story.  What advice would you offer to novice scholars who want to make a difference in the field of applied linguistics?  What would you say if they were to ask you:  “Where does one begin?”

    I am thankful to my upbringing in Sri Lanka, a poor and conflict-ridden country in the remote Indian Ocean.  Though this setting is far from academic centers in the West, it shaped me in many ways.  The context of poverty and underdevelopment helps scholars there to see academic work and knowledge as tied to improving living conditions for ordinary people.  We don’t appreciate knowledge for the sake of knowledge, or research for the sake of personal or institutional promotion.  That’s a luxury we can’t afford. The free education provided to everyone and the sponsorship of schools and educators from public funds have made us realize that we have to give back to the community through our knowledge.  This motivation provides a critical edge to my teaching and research.  Since I tie my scholarship to improving conditions for students, colleagues, and local communities, I never tire of working.  I am also not easily disappointed by academic failure, because I see all my effort as contributing to social change in small and ongoing ways.

    I also learned to treat the cultural and intellectual traditions from my community as a resource.  Though I was tempted to absorb dominant academic and intellectual paradigms when I started off as a graduate student and junior scholar, I soon learned that relating to them from my own traditions provided a critical perspective.  This doesn’t mean I wasn’t open to critiquing my own community values in the context of diverse influences from elsewhere.  It is simply that I learned to treat my identity and community as the ground from which I should rethink and examine things.  This attitude helped me to approach diverse theories and schools in ways that resonated with my own experience and related to my interests.

    My advice to young scholars, then, is two-fold: 1. Consider teaching and research as related to community development and social change. 2. Don’t run away from your identity, community, or values, treating them as inferior or irrelevant to academic pursuits.

  3. Fabiola--What suggestions would you offer to minority scholars who may want to more fully connect with AAAL to advance their work and bring more diversity into it?

    Our diversity is certainly a resource, even in academic life.  Our different life conditions introduce critical perspectives on established scholarly constructs.  We also bring different traditions of teaching, research, and learning that can help us contribute to something new and different.  Though we might be in the periphery of mainstream academic centers, there is a resistant energy in the periphery that is always a challenge to any established and normative center.  We have to figure out how to introduce our unconventional and unorthodox perspectives into established knowledge and academic circles.

    It is important for us to understand the dominant knowledge constructs and communicative conventions in order to speak relevantly and intelligibly to the academic community.  We cannot assume that we can be simply spontaneous and speak as we want with our full authenticity.  There is nothing called “pure” spontaneity or authenticity.  We are often constrained by communicative conventions.  There might be modifications involved as we adopt existing conventions of the academic community to communicate our knowledge and values with relevance.

    But we can find ways to resist compromising our values and interests by being firmly grounded in our communities, histories, and knowledge traditions.  It is possible to critically engage with the dominant academic conventions, drawing actively from our own backgrounds.  In this way, we can slowly nudge dominant knowledge constructs in new directions.

    Minority scholars fear that academic publications and institutions are totally unfriendly to their conventions and values.  I don’t share that pessimism.  I think there is an evolving healthy resistance to the rigid scientific conventions of the past and openness to more diverse forms of research and communication.  If we are strategic, we can exploit this openness to shift research and communication in our favor—to accommodate the interests of our communities.

    However, originality is always risky.  When we write differently or introduce new forms of knowledge, there is the risk of being misunderstood.  We have to keep our minds open to self-criticism, learning, and trying.  There is no single or simple path to success.  I hope we will find more scholars from minority cultural and identity backgrounds who are prepared to take risks, and be strategic in renegotiating dominant academic conventions in their favor.


Thanks, Fabiola, for interviewing Suresh. The only thing I wish you had asked him is about his presentation at the AAAL "Yet ‘Another Fucking Cancer Diary’: Embracing Language Incompetence and Disability." We were unable, as you pointed above, to attend and we would love to know his argument in this presentation.

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