Thursday, July 10, 2008

Diversity and Language Differences

Introductory Bio

Paul Kei Matsuda is perhaps the most recognizable scholar addressing second language writing issues today. He is Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University, where he also serves as Director of Writing Programs. He is founding chair of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing and of the Symposium on Second Language Writing, which began as a biennial gathering of second language writing scholars, but which has grown into an annual international event. He is editor of the Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing, and he has edited or co-edited numerous collections and special issues. A prolific and award-winning author as well, Paul's widely cited work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, College English, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, English for Specific Purposes, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, Journal of Basic Writing, Journal of Second Language Writing, and Written Communication. He is consistently invited to give talks, lead workshops, and teach courses in the US and abroad. In 2007, Paul was a visiting scholar at Nagoya University in Japan and at the University of Hong Kong.

Editor's note: Please check out Paul's list of publications on his beautiful webpage at:

Blog Entry

How do you address the topic of “diversity” in your scholarship, teaching, and service?

When people hear the word “diversity,” they may think of categories that are now highly conventionalized—race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political views, etc. The term has been appropriated widely and its meaning has become somewhat diluted, but many of the original issues and concerns that prompted people to recognize, celebrate and covet diversity still remain relevant today. At the same time, many of the same issues that were invisible in the early discussion of diversity continue to be overshadowed by visible categories of diversity. I’m thinking particularly of language issues, of course.

Over the years, the effort to increase the visible diversity on campus has also intensified the issue of language diversity, although institutions for some reason don’t often recognize them as closely-related issues. For decades, U.S. institutions of higher education have been finding ways to compete for visible diversity by experimenting with admission procedures, by creating financial incentives, and by recruiting more aggressively in certain communities to increase visible diversity on campus. Many of these students come from diverse language backgrounds that are distinct from traditional students. At home, they may speak a variety of African American Vernacular English; a contact variety of English commonly referred to as Tex Mex or Spanglish; Appalachian English; or another language altogether—be it native American languages or languages, like English, that came from other continents as people migrated into this country.

U.S. colleges and universities have also been competing for international students who benefit institutions tremendously. Many of those students represent the best and brightest from all over the world. Many of them contribute to the visible diversity and enhance the international flavor of the campus. They would bring foreign capital—they are required to demonstrate that they have sufficient financial means to fund their entire course of study and cover the cost of living. They pay full tuition because they don’t qualify for many scholarships and financial aids. At state institutions, they usually pay the out-of-state rate because they are not considered residents even when they pay full taxes in the state. They also maintain full-time status because their visa status requires it. They also bring cheap (and legal) labor to campus because they are not allowed to work off campus due to visa regulations.

At school, these students may speak English with a distinct accent that is commonly (though sometimes erroneously) associated with their race and ethnicity. They may also speak their “own” varieties of English or languages among students from similar linguistic backgrounds. Or they may code-switch to a variety of spoken English that is familiar to the dominant language group in an effort to fit in, which can mask the level of linguistic diversity on campus as well as the struggle they go through as they try to write in the dominant variety of English they are not familiar with. Some of them—especially if they are Caucasian (a term some White students have never heard of)—may be able to pass as a native speaker of the dominant language; others may actually be native speakers of the dominant variety and people still perceive an accent—just because they look Asian.

How do I address these issues in my scholarship, teaching and service?

In my scholarship, I have been pointing out the lack of attention to language issues in U.S. higher education and particularly in rhetoric and composition studies, and suggesting ways to expand the field. To this end, I’ve written historical articles showing the ways in which the field has been responding to the presence of language differences in the contexts of first-year composition ( “Composition”; “Myth”; “Situating”), basic writing (“Basic”), and Writing across the curriculum (Matsuda and Jablonski, “Beyond”). I have also suggested specific ways in which the field as a whole and writing programs might think about and respond to the presence of language differences productively (“Alternative”; Matsuda and Silva, “Cross”). I’ve also edited books and special journal issues to provide resources and to further the conversation about language differences and their implications (Politics; Second Language Writing in the Composition Classroom; Second Language Writing Research).

Language issues also figure prominently in my teaching. In first-year writing courses, I try to raise the awareness of the positionality of the variety students are often expected to use and learn in U.S. higher education. I have also taught a theme-based first-year writing class where the focus was language issues of various kinds, such as different views on grammars, second language acquisition, language policy, and language teaching. In linguistics courses, I also invite students to think of not just the linguistic structures and changes but also of the historical and political aspects of language development and their symbolic functions.

At the graduate level, I have been incorporating language issues into core courses—such as composition theory, the history of composition, and research methods. I have regularly assigned readings on language issues, inviting students to try on a new theoretical lens and to reexamine the business as usual point of view. I have also been teaching a graduate course on second language writing on a regular basis to provide an opportunity to dig deeper into those issues.

In all of these cases, I try to avoid the in-your-face approach to diversity, which, in my opinion, only threatens students and puts them on the defensive; this does not lead to productive conversations or intellectual developments. Instead, I introduce those issues gradually—exposing students to new and intriguing issues, inviting them to explore the new territory, challenging them to think critically about their own assumptions, and providing additional resources to them for further exploration.

As teachers, we often recognize the need to be patient and to give students some space in order for them to grow. But we also know that, when it comes to issues that are near and dear to us, it’s difficult to be patient—to overlook a slight hint of apathy or resistance. I try to think of it this way: It’s all about treating students with the respect they deserve while facilitating their learning and personal growth. It’s easier said than done, I know. But the result is definitely worth the effort.

I also believe in service. (It’s a dangerous thing to admit, I know.) But in order to influence the field and to bring important issues to light, it’s not enough to be publishing or teaching.

I started by serving as a secretary for the CCCC SIG on Second Language Writing, which Tony Silva created in 1995. I took over the SIG and chaired it for a few years. In the late 1990s, I also started a series of workshops at CCCC, starting in 1998, and I continued to be involved in it until just a few years ago. But all of these efforts seemed rather temporary and uncoordinated; to remedy the situation, I spoke with Victor Villanueva, who was the CCCC chair at the time, about creating a committee on second language writing, which happened in 1998. The committee developed a Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers for CCCC, and coordinated various activities at CCCC, including workshops, SIG meetings, and an open meeting, where people discussed the status of second language writing at CCCC and developed plans for the following year.

At TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.), I served as the chair of the Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL (NNEST) Caucus. Although people are increasingly uncomfortable with the dichotomy between native and nonnative English speakers (or users, as I would prefer to call them), the perception of the difference remains, and what some people call the native speaker myth—the undue privileging of the native speaker in language studies—still persists. In North American higher education, there are many English writing teachers who are themselves multilingual users of English; in the world, there probably are more English teachers who are nonative English users than those who are native English uses (though this is ultimately a false binary). It is important to raise the awareness, and sometimes the best way to do that is to create a movement rather than to talk about it in publications (although that also helps, too).

I am also active at the American Association for Applied Linguistics, where I have been engaging in conversations on writing, among other issues, to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary understanding and cooperation. In this context, my job is to raise the awareness of the vast amount of knowledge that has been developed in rhetoric and composition, to enhance the study of writing in applied linguistics as well as to help applied linguists provide their insights more effectively to rhetoric and composition specialists.

My involvements are not limited to these national and international organizations. In the late 1990s, I felt the need to create a space for people who specialize in second language writing (because neither CCCC nor TESOL provided a space for highly specialized discussion of second language writing issues), and with Tony Silva, created the Symposium on Second Language Writing. The first meeting in 1998 was successful, and we decided to make it a biennial event. In 2007, we had our first symposium outside North America, and we also made it an annual event. This year, it is being held in June 2008 at Purdue University, and in November 2009, it will be taking place at Arizona State University.

I also edit a book series on second language writing, published by Parlor Press. This series also addresses the same issue I was trying to address when Tony and I created the Symposium—to create a space where second language writing specialists could speak to other specialists in the field.

My service efforts are not just limited to second language writing. Because I define myself broadly as a bona fide rhetoric and composition specialist as well as an applied linguistics and TESOL specialist, I get invited to work in many different capacities for various organizations and publishers—in evaluating manuscripts, serving on various committees, and participating in special initiatives like this blog. These activities are not as highly valued as research and teaching are, but I still take them seriously. As I have explained in one of the book chapters (“Coming”), I do what I do not because they count toward tenure and promotion but because I want to make a difference in the field—or in the world. Being involved also helps me better understand my fields as well as people in them; it also creates more opportunities to participate in meaningful conversations about issues that matter. I hope this piece will also generate a lot of interesting discussion and, more importantly, action.


Susan Gardner said...

The latest guest blogger inspired me to ask a question on this list: is there much information or research out there on teaching academic writing in English to the demographic known as Generation L1.5 (students who speak a "native" language at home, and who are fluent English speakers, but whose writing in English is problematic--and who don't like being told that)? Some years ago I worked in a multicultural writing center at the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University, and it was the most fulfilling teaching of my life. I'd like to prepare myself for a second career in retirement, in this area. Thank you! Susan Gardner.

Paul said...

Hi Susan,

I'm glad you brought up the issue of "Generation 1.5" college students.

I did not use the term because I am increasingly concerned about the lack of consistent definition and the unintended effect of detaching this idealized group of students from the existing reality. (I've heard too many people talk about this population as a completely new group when in fact long-term and short-term resident students have been in U.S. higher education for many years.)

Aya Matsuda and I have addressed the issues surrounding this term in a forthcoming volume on "generation 1.5" edited by Mark Roberge, Meryl Segal and Linda Harklau (to be published by Taylor and Francis).

With that cautionary note, I would encourage you to take a look at Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition, edited by Linda Harklau, Kay Losey and Meryl Segal, which introduced this term. By the way, I don’t mean to criticize their work—they have done a tremendous service to the field (and students) by making the presence of resident ESL writers part of the shared reality. But because of the elusive nature of the term, it seems to have taken on the life of its own with unintended consequences.

I have also discussed the relationship between this population and international ESL students in a chapter included in issues related to the teaching of this population in Writing Myths, edited by Joy Reid (published by University of Michigan Press).

I would also encourage you to read the special L2 issue of WPA: Writing Program Administration and recent issues of the Journal of Second Language Writing, where you will find the discussion of various issues surrounding this population of students.

If you haven't had the chance, you might also be interested in taking a look at Second-Language Writers in the Composition Classroom (published by Bedford/St. Martin's Press), which includes articles that address issues surrounding this population.
Finally, I would encourage you to attend second language writing related sessions and meetings at CCCC. Since TESOL and CCCC don't overlap this year, there will be many second language writing specialists (very nice people, I might add) who would be more than happy to talk with you about this and many other issues.


Asao B. Inoue said...

I must admit that I often neglect language diversity, or perhaps assume it more or less unproblematically, in my discussions of racism, diversity, and the like. Paul, you've encouraged me to be more careful. Your posting also makes me curious: Language use as a marker of race, class, economic position, gender, even at times sexual orientation, is a less visual marker of diversity, yet languages create difference. On my own campus, we have many students who fit this 1.5 or multilingual English user category (I'm struggling with the terms). Some might say most of our FYC students fit this description. We in the composition program try very hard to not identify them as ESL, but others outside the program looking in often say otherwise. I personally struggle with way to acknowledge the rich languages, Englishes, that we have inhabiting our program yet still administering a writing program that demands that students meet particular outcomes that are clearly organized and oriented toward standard Edited American English. I know there are no quick answers here, only long struggles. But perhaps there's other concepts or frames that help you as a WPA make sense of these complicated issues with those who are less familiar with writing studies, rhetoric, and issues of language diversity?

Asao B. Inoue
CSU, Fresno

Lee Carleton said...

On our campus we even have a special administrative office to promote 'diversity' but as you note, too often this diversity is merely visual - outlook & motivation remain homogenized to the tune of corporate consumer culture.

What we need most is a genuine intellectual diversity, a variety of perspectives, different solutions, alternative systems.
And we need a decrease in the parroting of corporate slogans that have infected the academy like "preparation for competition in the global marketplace." Considering current economic conditions, it's clear that corporate claims do not match experienced reality.

Education has been reduced to commodity fetish merely to gain employment rather than serving as the intellectual preparation for responsible democratic participation. A democratic approach would be more interested in communication differences and their value for an expanded understanding of the world.

Finally, you hit the bulls-eye by boldly exposing the myth of meritocracy - just one of the conditioning litanies that prevent us from realizing our connection to and responsibility for community.

"Meritocracy is a myth – we all stand on the shoulders of others. The key is realizing where we’ve been helped, where we may have unfairly taken advantage, and how to be responsible for those who made our lives “here” possible."


utahn00b said...

Paul mentions that diversity is a topic that he integrates into courses more or less gradually, accounting along the way for students' experiences and opinions and bases of knowledge. This, for me, connects to another issue: namely, how "diversity" is represented institutionally. I agree that certain kinds of "in-your-face" introductions to diversity can preempt productive conversations with students. And the overt "tagging," if you like, of "diversity" AS "diversity" also leads to situations in which "diversity" is easily avoided as a topic.

For instance, when students in a class I just finished teaching--on African American rhetorics--came into class the first day, many of them had no idea it would be a course on African American rhetorics. The course is listed under a generic "studies in rhetoric" designation, and my specific title was not listed in the online summer catalog. I had 35 that day and 23 the next. Now, I didn't follow up to ask why so many left, but several who stayed said that they saw the syllabus and were tempted to leave, because they didn't think it was relevant for them. They stayed because, according to them, they reasoned that it was at least possibly relevant because I was the teacher, and I have fair skin and blue eyes (like a lot of them). At least one student affirmed that he might have left if I had "looked" African American.

Of course, this episode raises several issues, but the one I want to focus on has to do with a lot of students' presumption that there's a time and place for diversity--a presumption a lot of colleges and universities support by creating "diversity" designations. At my own university, students are required to take 3 credits of "diversity"-tagged courses in order to graduate, which may well lead to the assumption that education about diversity is a box to check on a major/degree advising sheet.

On the specific issue of how to handle language diversity in first-year writing courses, there's been a difference of opinion for some time: do we "tag" courses that will, for instance, integrate native- and nonnative-English-speaking students in some way, or do we simply allow those courses to be listed alongside all others for that semester/quarter? Do we advertise those courses as such, thus running the risk of giving students (another) excuse to address diversity explicitly within their classrooms? Or do we let such courses go unadvertised and run the risk of getting students who feel as if they're being indoctrinated, especially if their ability to move into other sections is constrained by scheduling?

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