III Reconciling Scholarship

Weathering the Translingual Storm

Paul Kei Matsuda

After the rain, the ground hardens.

—-Japanese proverb

Over the past decade, I have come to be known for my “sharp” criticism of what I call the translingual writing movement in U.S. writing studies. It is true that I have used rather striking metaphors to discuss some aspects of the translingual writing discussion. In my 2013 chapter, I described the state of the translingual writing discussion as the “Wild West of language scholarship in U.S. college composition” (Matsuda, 2013, p. 135), with its characteristic “lawlessness in the linguistic frontier of U.S. college composition” (p. 133). I also called the confusion over the terms codeswitching and code-meshing a “terminological mishmash” (p. 133). To describe the tendency to seek interesting and unusual examples of language use in writing while ignoring the mundane reality of multilingual lives, I chose the rather provocative metaphor of “linguistic freak show” (p. 132). In another article, “The Lure of Translingual Writing,” I used its kinder and gentler alternative, “linguistic tourism” (Matsuda, 2014, p. 482), to characterize the fascination with language differences among scholars and teachers in writing studies—with some leading scholars acting as tour guides pointing out novel features. My name is also listed as a co-author of the 2015 Open Letter clarifying the relationship between translingual writing and L2 writing, which was written by a group of second language writing scholars and published in College English (Atkinson et al., 2015).

My commentaries on the translingual-writing movement may have given the impression that I am completely opposed to the idea of translingual writing. From what I can tell, this impression seems to be shared by people of all persuasions—SLW specialists, translingual writing scholars and enthusiasts, scholars, and teachers who tried to integrate both perspectives, and those who are indifferent. For the record, I have not been entirely against the efforts to develop a translingual conception of language for writing teachers. I have also been an accomplice in jump-starting the language movement that facilitated the rise of translingual writing. How, then, did I become one of the most outspoken critics of the translingual writing movement? In this chapter, I address this question by recounting the story of my personal and professional struggle over the translingual movement.

The History of Aversion to Language Issues

As a field, U.S. writing studies has long had an aversion to language-related issues. In the early 20th century, when Charles C. Fries and others tried to promote insights from descriptive linguistics in the teaching of English to LI writers, their efforts were met by strong reactions from humanist writing teachers. The titles of the responses were rather telling: “Dr. Kinsey and Professor Fries” (Sherwood, 1960); “The case against structural linguistics in composition” (Tibbetts, 1960); and “New grammarians—stop being scientific!” (Tibbetts, 1963). In the landmark volume, Research in Written Composition, Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones and Lowell Schoer (1963) dismissed grammar teaching in the composition classroom, and the sentiment was later echoed in “Grammar, grammars and the teaching of grammar” by Patrick Hartwell (1985), who wished to put the discussion of grammar in the teaching of writing to rest for good. The effort to integrate sociolinguistics by Geneva Smitherman and others in the 1970s was met with strong resistance as well, and the development of the landmark CCCC statement. Students’ Right to Their Own Language (Butler & Committee on CCCC Language Statement, 1974), was riddled with controversy.

In 1989, Sharon Crowley reviewed the historical relationship between linguistics and composition instruction and dismissed the value of linguistics, narrowly defined. Attempts to argue for the place of linguistics in writing studies by those who brought a broader conception of language, such as pragmatics (Parker & Campbell, 1993), did not seem to change the general perception in the field. Although the notion of rhetorical grammar (Kolln, 1996; Micciche, 2004)—a kind of pedagogical grammar that links the awareness of language structures to rhetorical functions—has enjoyed some success in the writing classroom, it has yet to reach mainstream status. By the turn of the 21st century, efforts to integrate language issues into mainstream writing instruction had waned as writing scholars with a background in language studies moved on to other areas of scholarship (Connors, 2000) or retired (MacDonald, 2005).

The historical relationship between L2 writing and writing studies up to the late 1990s was rather tenuous as well. Although the presence of L2 writers had been recognized since the early part of the 20th century, the response tended to be to segregate students into separate sections of writing courses to be taught by L2 specialists. (The creation of separate courses was not necessarily a bad idea on the practical level, but the underlying ideology of the myth of linguistic homogeneity—that U.S. college writing courses were still a homogenous space—was a problematic one [Matsuda, 2006J.) The founding of TESOL in 1966 led to the creation of the disciplinary division of labor (Matsuda, 1998, 1999), which systemically split the responsibility of writing instruction along the L1/L2 divide. As a result, the discussion of L2 writing issues disappeared from the pages of major journals in U.S. writing studies.

With the influx of resident students in U.S. higher education since the 1970s, some discussion of L2 issues began to take place in the pages of the Journal of Basic Writing, but these, too, declined after the founding of College ESL in 1991 (Matsuda, 2003). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, L2 writing specialists such as Ann Johns, Barbara Kroll, Tony Silva, Guadalupe Valdes, and others made numerous efforts to call the attention of all writing teachers to the presence and needs of L2 writers in U.S. writing programs. Yet, they often found themselves preaching to the choir, as U.S. writing specialists in general had, asjohns (1993) put it, “shown little interest, so far, in who we are, who our students are, and what we do” (p. 86).

Entering the Scene

I entered the world of U.S. writing studies in the 1990s. As a second language writer and international student in the United States, I experienced firsthand the lack of attention to language issues in U.S. writing classrooms. As an undergraduate student, I chose to enroll in mainstream writing courses because, as I reasoned at the time, I wanted to “learn English not as a second language but as a language.” I also did not want to be segregated into a class designed for “foreign students;” rather, I wanted to interact with U.S. students.

Once in the course, however, I discovered that the course was taught by literary studies specialists without much interest or background in teaching writing or language, and classroom activities were not particularly interactive; it was mostly lecture-based with some corrective feedback. I did learn how to use dashes and semicolons and some basics of academic style, such as avoiding sentence fragments and comma splices. But my instructors were not able to comment on or provide any useful feedback on my language issues, except to tell me that I had problems with articles and prepositions. When I asked for suggestions, I was told to get a dictionary of usage (which did not help because they were not designed with language production in mind) and to go to the writing center. When I went to the writing center, I was told that the tutors were not supposed to work on grammar.

I did manage to further develop my language and writing proficiency through frequent practice, self-guided study, and feedback from various instructors and peers. I chose to take various elective writing courses and writing intensive courses, and I majored in communication with a journalism emphasis. My course of study included the history and theory of rhetoric; media ethics; literary and cultural criticism; social movements; and, of course, various courses on journalism. I also wrote news articles for publication on a weekly basis by interviewing students, university administrators, and people in the community. I also became a writing tutor in an attempt to change the current practice and to help other L2 writers like me. I then went on to a master’s program to further study writing, rhetoric, and writing instruction, only to realize that the lack of attention to language issues was a systemic problem. Books and articles in the field did not seem to concern themselves with second language writers, and most of my fellow graduate students seemed to consider language issues to be way beyond the scope of their expertise. Addressing the lack of L2 perspective in writing study became my mission, my passion, and my obsession.

When I attended my first CCCC in 1995, I felt the absence of language issues in the general. There were a few sessions that were related to L2 writing issues, but those sessions seemed to attract the same crowd. I was surprised and excited that the Special Interest Group meeting, organized by Tony Silva, was well attended, with standing room only, but the discussion was mostly around how L2 writing issues were marginalized and mainstream writing teachers and researchers were not paying attention. I was determined to change the situation by addressing this systemic issue by taking on leadership roles, by networking widely with both writing and language scholars and teachers, by mentoring new generations of L2 writing scholars, by helping to build a sustainable disciplinary infrastructure, and by establishing the history and identity of the field of SLW in relation to both writing studies and language studies. I have documented the results of the these and other efforts to integrate L2 writing into US writing studies elsewhere (Matsuda, 2012).

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, SLW seemed to have become a household word in U.S. writing studies. Most people knew what it was and that it was important. With the widespread awareness about the need to consider language issues, the next step was action. Yet, moving toward action was challenging because of the complexity and technicality of studies of language. Language studies has a complex history and diverse traditions. As Hartwell (1985) pointed out, it was often difficult for writing specialists to understand or even distinguish different conceptions of language or approaches to language studies. The strongly empirical orientation of L2 writing research also posed a challenge to writing specialists, many of whom came from a humanities background. In addition, the social turn in U.S. writing studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a growing anti-scientism sentiment (Harkin, 1991); there was a tendency among writing scholars to stigmatize empirical research, which prompted one researcher to publish an article in College Composition and Communication entitled, “Empiricism is not a four-letter word” (Charney, 1996).

To avoid fueling the skewed perception of U.S. writing studies (which I have observed among some applied linguists), I must point out that there still were many who were engaging in high-quality empirical studies—many of which were published in Written Communication—and that there were some scholars who continued to engage in language-related scholarship. Yet, what used to be the deliberately multimodal and multidisciplinary field of U.S. writing studies (Lauer, 1993) was becoming saturated with new scholars, who identified primarily with the English department, and arguments based on a social-scientific orientation did not seem to work too well. In fact, I chose the historical mode of inquiry in my dissertation (Matsuda, 2000) and in many of my early publications (e.g., Matsuda, 1998, 1999, 2003) because it was something scholars and teachers in U.S. writing studies from various orientations could relate to.

Historical scholarship was useful in getting U.S. writing scholars’ attention, interest, and even enthusiasm, but understanding and addressing specific issues with language in student writing continued to pose challenges to writing teachers without background in language studies. For this reason, I increasingly felt the need to take a constructivist approach (Bommarito & Matsuda, 2015)—to develop language awareness and knowledge that is situated in the sense of reality shared by U.S. writing scholars rather than transplant existing knowledge from language studies. Fortunately, there were some mainstream writing scholars who were beginning to theorize language issues in the context of writing instruction.

A New Language Movement in U.S. Writing Studies

One of these efforts was being made by Peter Elbow, who was known as one of the key figures in the writing process movement and as a promulgator of free- writing as a way of facilitating writing and idea development. In his retirement, he started organizing summer think-tank symposia to bring experts on various topics together to explore some of the key issues he had identified. In 2001 and 2002, he invited me to participate in two language-related symposia, one focusing on dialect and writing and the other on the use of first language and dialect in writing. The second symposium culminated in an article on the use of LI in writing in Composition Studies (Bean, Cucchiara, Eddy, Elbow, Grego, Haswell, Irvine, Kennedy, Kutz, Lehner, & Matsuda, 2003).

Among the participants at the first symposia was Helen Fox, one of Peter’s doctoral students and author of Listening to the world (Fox, 1994). At the time, she was working on a new edited collection on alternative discourses, which was an extension of Patricia Bizzell’s (1999, 2000) work on hybrid discourse in academic writing. After seeing what Helen described as a lack of insights from language studies, she asked me to meet with Pat Bizzell, one of the co-authors, and to write a response chapter to the volume. Two weeks later, I sent them a draft of “Alternative discourses: A synthesis” (Matsuda, 2002). In it, I highlighted the ways in which alternative discourses can function while also pointing out the danger of being alternative for alternative’s sake. I then concluded:

Finally, we need to always remember that it is not enough for writing teachers to change our assumptions about discourses. If we were to encourage students to use alternative discourses in the writing classrooms, we also need to help students understand the risks involved in using alternative discourses. At the same time, writing specialists need to engage in dialogue with faculty across the disciplines to promote the understanding of the complexity of writing and of the changing nature of the academy as well as their implications.

(Matsuda, 2002, 196)

The caution against the overemphasis on differences and the need for critical considerations of the consequences of being different—which is not often visible to those who do not live with differences—became an ongoing theme of my writing (see, for example, Matsuda & Matsuda, 2010).

The following year, at CCCC 2003, Min-Zhan Lu (Min) told me that she had read my synthesis piece and was interested in getting me involved in the project she and Bruce Horner were working on. She was one of the scholars who had been challenging the dominant language ideology in writing studies from earlier on (Lu, 1992, 1994). She explained her ideas by using the Chinese word “jiao” (3£) as she interlaced her fingers. (The character appeared in her College Composition and Communication essay the following year (Lu, 2004), with the image of the character on the cover of the journal.) I understood her to mean that they were interested in further extending her critique of the dominant language ideology in U.S. writing studies by articulating a more dynamic and interactive view of language. I agreed to participate in a panel on crosslanguage relations in composition at CCCC 2004 in San Antonio, along with Bruce Horner, John Trimbur, A. Suresh Canagarajah, and Min-Zhan Lu. This panel was scheduled on the program as a featured session, and the large rectangular room was filled with an enthusiastic audience.

At the end of the 2004 conference, Min, Bruce, and I sat at a restaurant and discussed how to keep the momentum going. We agreed to develop a special journal issue with an eye toward an expanded discussion in the form of an edited collection. We solicited some new contributors and published the special issue of College English on “Cross-language relations in composition” (Lu, Matsuda, & Horner, 2006). We then added more authors for the edited volume with the same title (Horner, Lu, & Matsuda, 2010). We strategically involved high-profile scholars from different areas of the field, which helped to attract the attention of many others.

Our efforts were paying off. Our sessions on language issues at CCCC were always scheduled in large rooms and invariably were well attended. Publications on language issues were constantly receiving prestigious awards in the field, and major independent conferences in US writing studies held at the University of Louisville (organized in 2008 and 2010 by Bruce and Min) and at Penn State University (organized in 2011 by Suresh) were choosing themes related to language issues, which helped to engage non-specialists in conversations about language. It seemed that language issues had come to dominate the mainstream conversation in U.S. writing studies. But as they say, you should be careful what you wish for. Not having enough attention may be problematic, but too much attention can create a different kind of problem.

The Translingual Turn

After a decade of the new language movement in U.S. writing studies, the constellation of intellectual work that was loosely linked with various key terms were consolidated under the keyword translingual. In 2011, the term appeared in the titles of two articles published in major journals in the field—College Composition and Communication (Horner, NeCamp, Donahue, 2011) and College English (Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011). The term translingual was not new or unique to writing studies (Google N-Gram identifies the use of “translingual” as early as 1933), nor did it seem to denote a specific theoretical construct at the time. Yet the introduction of the term to U.S. writing studies helped to give a distinct identity to the ongoing language movement.

In the same year, Bruce, Suresh, and I presented at a panel entitled “(Re)defming translingual writing” at CCCC in Atlanta with Min as a respondent. The large room was packed as usual. Bruce articulated the notion of translingual disposition, which I thought was significant because it would help to shift the emphasis to the reader rather than the writer or the language (Horner, 2011, April). Responding to the common request from teachers for examples of translingual writing, Suresh shared a text written by one of his students, Buthainah, who used Arabic scripts in her writing without an explanation (Canagarajah, 2011, April). In doing so, he presented a clear case of how the integration of multiple languages were received by her classmates with a generous attitude toward language differences—similar to the way Min famously argued with the example of “can able to” two decades earlier (Lu, 1994).

I was happy that the discussion of language issues had become part of the mainstream discourse of U.S. writing studies, and that it was helping to transform the ways in which writing teachers responded to language differences they encountered in the classroom. Yet the same concern I raised in the synthesis chapter on alternative discourses (Matsuda, 2002) still loomed large. Valuing language differences was one thing; valorizing it was quite another. While the generous acceptance of language differences among writing teachers would create a more positive environment in the classroom, it also seemed to feed what I often call feel-good liberalism. Adopting a widely popular and progressive idea would relieve people of the feeling of guilt, allowing them to stop recognizing or addressing continuing struggles of some students. More specifically, it could compromise the rights of second language writers to receive appropriate instruction that would help expand their language resources, which would in turn help them to communicate more effectively and to negotiate language differences on their own.

Attending conferences and sessions focusing on translingual writing also became increasingly frustrating and painful for me because many scholars and teachers—people who seemed to be attracted by the spectacle—were using various terms without having a clear or consistent understanding of their meaning. They also seemed to be fascinated by divergent language uses that they had yet to experience; many people were asking for more examples of translingual writing, which prompted leading scholars of translingual writing to come up with more examples of exotic language uses and performances. Many were also asking for ways of teaching translingual writing in the classroom before they had a clear idea of what it was. The translingual wind seemed to be speeding up with the heat generated by the audience’s enthusiasm.

Another concern was that translingual writing sometimes was being promoted at the expense of second language studies. The discourse of translingual writing was creating a binary distinction between traditional and translingual, associating the former with everything old and out-of-fashion, and the latter with the new and fashionable. As Peter Elbow (1993) pointed out in “The uses of binary thinking,” there is a long-standing tendency in the Western rhetorical tradition to create a binary opposition and privilege one element while stigmatizing the other. It seemed that many people were beginning to distinguish second language writing and translingual writing as if they were mutually exclusive. It also seemed that people somehow thought SLW represented the traditional view of language and that translingual writing was an alternative (and better) approach.

I saw the seed of this problem in 2007, when Bruce and I (along with Tom Fox) were invited to lead a professional development workshop at Virginia Tech. For his part of the presentation, Bruce distributed a handout articulating the differences between monolingualist and multilingualist orientations to language. In a footnote, he characterized the field of second language acquisition (SLA) as having a monolingualist orientation. It made me cringe. I could see how the traditional view of SLA can be construed as monolingualist, but I knew some SLA scholars were also beginning to challenge the monolingual ideology in SLA. I wanted to raise the point in front of the audience, but I decided not to. I did not want to detract from his main message by pointing out what may have seemed to many like a trivial point. (I quietly pointed it out to Bruce later.)

Increasingly, I felt caught in the dilemma of wanting to facilitate the field-wide discussion of language issues in U.S. writing studies while being concerned about its rhetorical excess. I knew that translingual writing had already picked up such speed and force that resistance was futile. But I felt I had to do something to at least slow down the developing storm. For my part of the presentation at the 2011 CCCC panel on (re)defining translingual writing (Matsuda, 2011, April), I changed the topic from what I had originally proposed and engaged in a critique of translingual writing. I pointed out that translingual writing was still a term in search of its meaning, and then raised a series of questions to explore its possible meanings and limitations. I also emphasized the importance of audience disposition rather than focusing on the novel linguistic performance by writers who come from diverse language backgrounds. I concluded my presentation with the following statement: “Translingual writing is not a new kind of writing. It is an acknowledgement of how language and writing has always been.”

I felt like such a party pooper.

Struggling with my growing discomfort with translingual bandwagonism, I was beginning to withdraw from the translingual movement around that time. When Bruce invited me to give a lecture at his university in 2010, I chose to speak on the history of post-process, not translingual writing. (After the talk, he mentioned he had hoped that I would address language issues.) In 2011, when Suresh invited me to speak at the Penn State conference, I presented on the politics of knowledge making in Taiwan, not on translingual writing. After the 2011 panel, I chose to join panels on other topics at CCCC and avoided addressing the issue of translingual writing altogether. The only exception was the CCCC workshop in 2014, entitled “Crossing BW/ESL/FYW Divides: Pedagogical and Institutional Strategies for Translingual Writing,” for which I agreed to serve as a discussion leader. I came out of the workshop feeling that the translingual storm had already grown into a massive typhoon.

The popularity of translingual writing was so obvious that many people were trying to take advantage of the rhetorical exigency. An increasing number of manuscripts I reviewed for major journals in writing studies used language issues as the impetus for their work, but the actual concepts and data had nothing to do with language issues. I—and many others who have been working on language issues for many years—constantly received comments from reviewers (who did not seem to know much about language issues) who asked us to situate the article in the current discussion of translingual writing even when the topic of the article had nothing to do with translingual writing.

In early 2013, I was asked to run for both CCCC Chair and American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) President positions. Knowing that CCCC and AAAL Executive Committee meetings would overlap for the next several years, and given the amount of work involved, I had to choose one or the other. In the end, I chose AAAL partly because I felt the need to evacuate from the CCCC, which I had attended continuously since 1995. I did attend CCCC 2014 on only one day to attend the meeting of the Consortium of

Doctoral Programs, and in 2015, gave a video presentation for the Second Language Writing SIG. After the 2015 conference, one of my former students who attended the conference saw me at TESOL in Toronto. When I asked about the experience, she broke into tears. She told me how distressed she was to hear the ways in which second language writing was being characterized. When I asked for details, neither she nor a few others who had similar experiences was able to tell me anything specific, which probably meant some people were talking behind my back. I decided not to react to unconfirmed and unspecific information. I just had to stay away until the storm passed.

A Reluctant Critic

Although I withdrew from CCCC as a way of dealing with my conflicted feelings, I was not so successful in avoiding the entire situation. After the conference focusing on translingual writing at Penn State, Suresh, who was the organizer of the conference, circulated a call for papers among the presenters at the conference. Not feeling comfortable with the blind enthusiasm among many of the participants, I chose not to participate. But then, I received an email from Suresh asking me to contribute a chapter. He told me that one of the reviewers said that the collection as proposed was too one-sided and it needed to include a critical perspective. I reluctantly complied. In other words, the Wild West piece (Matsuda, 2013) was written at Suresh’s request.

After sending my draft to Suresh, I thought I had expressed all my concerns, and I was ready to put the whole issue to rest. But I received an email out of the blue from the editor of PMLA (which stands for the Publication of the Modem Language Association), a publication that is considered one of the top journals in English and modern language departments. The journal was planning a special section on controversies in the field rhetoric and composition. The only controversy fresh in my mind, of course, was that over translingual writing. Once again, I was reluctant to write, but I agreed to write a spinoff piece (Matsuda, 2014) to clarify my key concerns with the translingual movement—not translingual writing itself but its uncritical acceptance—for a broader audience.

My participation in a third piece, the Open Letter published in College English (Atkinson et al., 2015) was also somewhat involuntary. I received a request for a closed meeting at the 2014 Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW) to discuss the issues, and I agreed to add the meeting to the program. (SSLW provides rooms for open and closed meetings—on a space-available and first-come-first-served basis—for groups who have meeting needs on business related to SLW.) When the meeting was about to begin, one person, an advocate of translingual writing, came to the door and demanded that she be allowed to attend the meeting. Since it was a closed meeting requested by some participants, I had to ask her to leave the room.

At the meeting, the group discussed the general confusion among writing and rhetoric scholars about translingual writing and SLW, which affected SLW specialists’ ability to work effectively in advocating for second language writers. Once again, the main issue we were trying to address was not translingual writing itself but its rhetorical excess and the tendency in U.S. writing studies to construe translingual writing as a replacement for SLW. The confusion seemed to have serious impact. Manuscript reviewers for writing studies journals often asked authors of manuscripts related to SLW to cite articles on translingual writing even when it was irrelevant. University faculty positions that were being created to address issues related to international students were being offered to translingual scholars without expertise in facilitating language development. (There are scholars specializing in translingual writing who also have expertise in SLW, but it is not always the case.). Clarifying the relationship between translingual writing and SLW seemed like an urgent matter.

I knew I was cashing in the cultural capital I had accumulated over the last two decades. But it seemed important to do what I could to tame the storm and minimize the damage.

The Aftermath

In 2017, when both CCCC and AAAL were in Portland, I did the “night shift” at CCCC—that is, I attended receptions and social gatherings after AAAL Executive Committee meetings. I had a great time catching up with old friends, but the topic of translingual writing never came up. In 2018,1 returned to CCCC to show support for the conference chair, Asao Inoue, a friend who was soon-to-be one of my colleagues at Arizona State University. I also wanted to assess the damage after the storm.

There were a handful of sessions that mentioned the term “translingual” and its derivations, but the discussion seemed much more balanced, with some generative explorations as well as a healthy dose of critical discussion. Translingual writing was not dominating the conversation at the conference, and most spectators seemed to have returned to their own corners of the field, minding their own business. Perhaps a group of committed people will continue to pursue, as they should, topics that are loosely related to translingual writing (or whatever alternative terms they may come up with) and their implications for teaching, research, assessment, public language attitudes, and policies.

As for SLW, the house I had helped to build over the past 25 years seemed to have been severely damaged. But as the Japanese proverb goes, the rain had hardened the ground, providing an even more solid foundation to build on. And, unlike when I started, there are a large number of young, energetic, and talented SLW specialists from around the world who are already starting to build bigger and better houses—in conversation with translingual writing scholars. I hope more SLW specialists will take heed of the language sensibility promoted by the translingual movement.

Postscript

As I was reflecting on this conclusion, it occurred to me that my historical account here and in the “Wild West” piece failed to mention what may be the most successful language movement in the history of U.S. writing studies: second language writing.

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Matsuda, P. K. (2014). The lure of translingual writing. PMI.A, 129(3), 478-483. Micciche, L. R. (2004). Making a case for rhetorical grammar. College Composition and Communication, 55(4), 716-732.

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