A Translingual Scholar and Second Language Writing Scholar Talk It Out: Steps Toward Reconciliation

Michelle Cox and Missy Watson

The debate between SLW and translingual writing (TLW) scholars has been undeniably divisive, a division anticipated by Terry Santos (1992) almost 20 years ago:

[TJhat there is, and will be, a clash of cultures between the two disciplines [of SLW and composition studies) is, in my view, beyond doubt, and as long as it remains, the immediate needs of the students will not be met as constructively as they might be if LI and ESL specialists worked jointly and cooperatively.


If Santos’ prediction is right, conscientious efforts are needed to address clashes between SLW and TLW so that, ultimately, we across the two fields may uncover strategies for joining together to better support our students. At the start of writing this chapter, we co-authors claimed opposing ends of this disciplinary debate and, knowing this, came together to hash out our own contrasting stances and the assumptions underlying them. As our chapter shows, we found far more fruitful overlaps than irreconcilable differences, and we began questioning why it took the two of us so long to reach such conclusions. Indeed, how many of us have paused to reflect on why we have chosen the poles we have aligned ourselves with since the debate first erupted and whether these poles still make sense? The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate the value of bringing different positionalities, perspectives, and experiences together in order to confront the assumptions and emotions fueling the divisiveness, while illustrating the fruits of those labors.

The Emotional Labors of Reconciliation

Tony Silva and Zhaozhe Wang’s call for reconciliation prompted Missy (a TLW scholar) to reach out to Michelle (an SLW scholar) with an invitation to coauthor this piece, one that would emerge from “emotional labor interviews,” a method developed by Kate Navickas (2020) that consists of engaging in and analyzing a series of interviews focused on uncovering professional positionality, experience, perspectives, and internal struggle. This methodology seemed particularly promising for facilitating reconciliation as Navickas had developed it to work through the “emotional labor of becoming,” of shifting professional identity: “You are what you do, and professional identities can cause emotional labor and struggle, especially if the identity conflicts with previous internal narratives, disciplinary narratives, or conceptualizations of one’s sense of self and one’s imagined professional identity” (n.p.). Before this project, we were acquaintances who were familiar with each other’s work and who had met briefly but had never fully engaged the other, which made the process of working through emotional labor interviews a particularly vulnerable act. During this project, we met via Skype twelve times for sessions that ranged from three to six hours. During these sessions, we asked each other about our histories with the SLW and TLW debates and communities, our pedagogical approaches, and our interpretations of key literature, while keeping track of our conversations through a shared Google folder. Between sessions, we read literature introduced by the other, reread familiar literature, shared and commented on one another’s reading notes, and reflected on our positionalities.

We were each trepidatious at the start of the project, given the fiery rhetoric that has fueled the debate (Atkinson et al., 2015; Canagarajah, 2013, 2015; Matsuda, 2013, 2014). Indeed, when Missy first contacted Michelle, Michelle agreed only to explore the idea of co-authorship, but didn’t fully commit until the end of a four-hour meeting, at which point she started to see the value of revisiting her positionality and making public the difficult and unsettling work of questioning past assumptions. The more we talked, the more we realized the emotional toll the debate itself has caused. We each recounted stories of feeling excluded, of feeling disvalued, and of feeling delegitimized based on our positionalities.

Our conversations helped us to uncover an array of misconceptions each camp holds about the other and to undo what we came to see as fossilized assumptions. Further, we discovered how the polarization of positions has elided the nuanced ways in which each group of scholars seeks to thoughtfully walk that line between increasing students’ awareness of language politics and supporting them as they develop their linguistic and rhetorical practices. These insights emerged primarily from two important moments of clarity. One came after Michelle traced the history of the SLW Committee at the CCCC, which illuminated why SLW professionals have been so defensive and why

TLW research hasn’t focused on supporting student language development. The other emerged after we compared our pedagogical approaches and realized the main difference was the ways in which we draw on critical pedagogy. This insight led us to reread early literature on the place of critical pedagogy in SLW, during which we realized that arguments made in past debates are notably reminiscent of arguments made more recently by TLW and SLW scholars.

Tracing the History of the CCCC SLW Committee

For decades, SLW scholars attempted to persuade compositionists to take seriously issues related to multilingual students and language difference through publications and on-the-ground efforts at CCCC. In fact, the CCCC SLW Committee formed with the goal of addressing the disciplinary divisions of labor between English language teaching and composition studies (Matsuda, 1999) and shifting perspectives within composition from difference-as-deficit attitudes to difference-as-resource attitudes (Canagarajah, 2002).

Michelle attended her first CCCC SLW Committee meeting in 2001. At that point, SLW specialists were frustrated that FYC instructors were treating the writing of multilingual students so differently than that of students who used English as a first language, or LI. Instructors who would take a process or rhetorical approach to drafts written by LI students would focus mainly on language error when responding to the writing of multilingual students (Matsuda & Cox, 2009). They would also over-emphasize error when assessing student writing (Land & Whitley, 1989; Silva, 1997) and would design writing assignments that presumed knowledge of U.S. culture or history (Reid & Kroll, 1995; Leki, 1995). Even more common, composition teachers would balk at the presence of multilingual students in their sections, thinking these students were the purview of English language programs. At the 2001 meeting, committee members discussed how to best persuade FYC instructors to see multilingual students as part of the mainstream and to adopt linguistically and culturally inclusive pedagogical approaches.

Over the ensuing years, the CCCC SLW Committee was strategic in achieving these goals. One approach was to lead pre-conference workshops on SLW pedagogy. These workshops included reviews of SLW literature as well as introductions to linguistically and culturally inclusive assignment design, response, and assessment. The main messages of these workshops were: (1) every composition professional is a de facto SLW composition professional (the title of the 2005 workshop), (2) a universal design approach to FYC creates a more inclusive environment for multilingual students (the explicit focus of the 2009 workshop), and (3) a shift from a deficit perspective of language difference to a difference-as-resource perspective leads to more inclusive writing pedagogy and program administration (the explicit focus of the 2010 workshop). These workshops typically focused more on attitudes toward language and cultural differences rather than language itself: In Michelle’s many years of helping to facilitate these workshops, she did not observe co-facilitators placing a focus on language correction. If anything, the opposite was true: The workshop facilitators were trying to move workshop participants away from focusing on language error and Standard Written English.

A second approach was to move SLW out of the margins of composition studies and into the mainstream by purposefully creating panels and publications that brought together well-known scholars from each field. The results of this strategy include: the 2003 article, “Should We Invite Students to Write in Home Languages? Complicating the Yes/No Debate,” co-authored by eleven authors, among them Paul Kei Matsuda, Peter Elbow, and Rich Haswell (Bean et al., 2003); a 2004 CCCC Featured Panel, “Making Second Language Matter: Transforming the Discourse of Composition Studies” which included Matsuda, Diana George, Bruce Horner, John Trimbur, Suresh Canagarajah, Min-Zhan Lu, and Catherine Prendergast; and the 2010 collection by Horner, Trimbur, and Matsuda, Cross-language Relations in Composition (Horner, Lu, & Matsuda, 2010). It may be said that the 2011 Opinion piece that introduced the “translingual orientation” to writing represents the pinnacle of these efforts (Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011).

These efforts by the CCCC SLW Committee were successful and, to draw on systems theory, a tipping point (Gladwell, 2000) was reached: attention to linguistic diversity spread quickly throughout the CCCC community. Suddenly panels, articles, special issues, and collections taking a progressive approach to language diversity proliferated, but all under the umbrella of TLW, not SLW. Soon TLW was assumed to subsume SLW. In 2013, Canagarajah posed the question: Is second language writing dead? In 2014, the question was raised whether the CCCC SLW Standing Group1 should be renamed the Translingual Standing Group. Then came the 2015 Open Letter, published in College English, in which SLW scholars attempted to regain control of the conversation about multilingualism within composition studies, an effort further displayed by the theme of the 2016 Symposium on Second Language Writing: “Expertise in Second Language Writing.”

While TLW effectively brought together many of the attitudes endorsed by SLW at CCCC over the years, SLW scholars critiqued it for, among other concerns, not focusing on language development: pedagogy that worked to increase multilingual students’ facility with English language. However, this loss of focus on language originated from the CCCC SLW Committee’s rhetorical approach to bringing a focus to multilingual writers into CCCC. The gap in the strategic actions taken by the SLW Committee just wasn’t apparent until the message was coming from TLW scholars.

Retracing this history led to insights for both of us. Michelle came to realize that, to her embarrassment, she had become entrenched on one side of the SLW/TLW debate around 2013 and hadn’t reflected on her positioning since. Even though she wholeheartedly embraces scholarly and pedagogical inquiry into the intersections among language, culture, and power, she avoided engagement with scholarship identified as translingualist. As recently as 2016, she still found it important to use the term “SLW” in her publications and to include a footnote about her rationale for doing so: to connect her work to this line of inquiry, not the other. Though she was embarrassed to see ways in which SLW scholars defended their territory in the literature and was pained to see how the debate led to fractures in the community at CCCC, she continued to identify with the SLW camp. She also felt ashamed when learning from Missy about confrontations she and some of her colleagues faced after adopting a translingual approach in their work. Missy had come into the field of composition studies excited to talk about language, culture, and power—and was pushed away—discredited—because she happened to come in at the height of the battle. Michelle realized that during this battle, she had focused more on relationships breaking down between longtime members of the community and had neglected to think about the impact on newcomers.

On the other hand, Missy found herself far more empathetic to what she had at first interpreted as unreasonable defensiveness in the arguments made by SLW scholars. Who wouldn’t be frustrated when, after working for over a decade to get compositionists to pay attention to SLW research, folks adopting a TLW approach took the ball and ran, moving on without framing their research in SLW? Learning from Michelle how hurtful it was to see SLW discounted and misrepresented pushed Missy to further reflect on her own post-divide tendencies to consider SLW frameworks as less aligned to her own pedagogies—despite having before identified as an SLW proponent herself, despite SLW research being instrumental to her everyday pedagogical approaches, and despite having defended the field of SLW for years when compositionists repeatedly and incorrectly claimed its research overlooked the political results of English’s dominance. Indeed, it was from SLW research that Missy learned to treat language difference differently—to advocate for English language learners, to acknowledge that all languages are linguistically equal and that students’ language differences should not be reason to dismiss their ideas or penalize their grades. Missy came to see she had fallen into choosing sides as a result of feeling slighted by the claims of SLW scholars, a result of the divide that worked to exacerbate rather than mend differences. Since the debate emerged, she found herself set on clarifying (for herself and through her research) the contributions of TLW rather than on determining and exploiting useful cross-over.

Piecing together this history caused us both to start questioning the disciplinary narratives connected with our professional identities and communities, finding, as Navickas did, that “these disciplinary narratives no longer worked” (2020, n.p.). This emotional labor of shifting positionality in the SLW/TLW debate continued when our conversations about our pedagogy led us back to early debates on critical pedagogy within SLW.

Deja Vu: Walking Through Early SLW Literature

We trace the start of discussions on the place of critical pedagogy in SLW with Terry Santos’ 1992 article, “Ideology in composition: LI and ESL,” as this article prompted a decade-long debate in SLW and TESOL scholarship over the roles of ideology, politics, and critical pedagogy in the teaching of SLW (Allison, 1994, 1996; Atkinson, 1997; Johns, 1993; Benesch, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2001a, 2001b; Pennycook, 1997; Ramanathan & Kaplan, 1996; Santos, 2001). In this article, Santos argued that SLW scholarship had not adopted, as composition scholars had, an ideological view of writing, and teased out several possible reasons for this trend. For one, the divergent disciplinary roots informing composition studies and SLW scholarship, and their effects, run deep. Santos situated composition’s affiliations within literary and critical theory and placed this trend in contrast to SLW’s connections with science and linguistics—fields that are descriptive, quantitative, and have been “virtually untouched by leftist theory” (p. 8). Santos argued that such conflicting disciplinary backgrounds “make LI and L2 composition very different in their assumptions about language and the role of explicit sociopolitical ideology in theory and practice” (p. 7). Santos generalized that “to a large extent LI composition sees itself ideologically,” while “ESL writing may be characterized as seeing itself pragmatically” (p. 8). Putting it more bluntly, she posited that “pursuing political goals and/or changing students’ sociopolitical consciousness is not on the ESL writing agenda” (p. 9).

Sarah Benesch has been a key proponent of critical pedagogy in this debate. In response to Santos (1992), Benesch (1993) argued that it is not so much that ideology is absent from SLW as that it is overlooked: “L2 composition, like all teaching and research, is ideological whether or not we are conscious of the political implications. Educators who do not acknowledge or discuss their ideology are not politically neutral; they simply do not highlight their ideology” (p. 706). While she acknowledged several examples of SLW scholarship that already addressed social and economic forces, she called for further research on ideological concerns in teaching SLW and especially in English for Academic Purposes. Benesch challenged Santos’ view that “self-professed pragmatism” is a sign of avoiding ideology and argued instead that “it actually indicates an accommodationist ideology, an endorsement of traditional academic teaching and of current power relations in academia and in society” (p. 711, emphasis added).

Santos and Benesch rehashed their differing positions in their contributing chapters to Silva and Matsuda’s (2001) collection, On Second Language Writing. Benesch (2001b) argued that “L2 composition does not have to choose between pragmatism and critical teaching” (p. 162). Instead, she advocated for what Pennycook (1997) termed “critical pragmatism,” which she claimed “is not a compromise position but rather a way to broaden the discussion of students’ needs to consider not only what is but also what might be” (p. 113). She outlined the common arguments made by the “Santos camp,” which posit that addressing ideological and political issues would

  • • present a “cognitive overload” to students (based on the assumption “that a level of proficiency must be attained before students can begin to question the status quo”);
  • • be a “cultural imposition” (based on the assumption that “critical thinking is uniquely Western” and would, thus, impose on students in colonizing ways) (p. 113); and
  • • “overwhelm the field, shutting out other theories and approaches” (p. 116).

To counter these critiques, Benesch argued that each is based in myth: the myth that students cannot gain proficiency while examining power relations; the myth that teaching English language standards is less culturally and ideologically contaminated than applying more critical approaches; the myth that multiple pedagogies cannot co-exist and that critical pedagogies attempt to colonize all other approaches. (Interestingly, we can see these same counterclaims in Canagarajah’s 2015 article among others.)

In her chapter in On Second Language Writing, Santos charged the proponents of critical pedagogy in SLW with

  • • unfairly categorizing critical approaches as more ethical and pragmatic approaches as “vulgar” (citing Pennycook, 1997) for their uncritical focus on students’ proficiency in academic language and discourse;
  • • idealistically expecting universities to “adapt to students’ discourses rather than vice versa;”
  • • narrowly assuming sociopolitical approaches are appropriate across contexts and student bodies; and
  • • radically claiming that “EAP and L2 writing courses should challenge and deconstruct academic discourses . . . rather than encourage students to accept and practice them” (p. 179).

Her review led her to conclude that she remained “not only in disagreement with both the theoretical positions and pedagogical recommendations they espouse,” but further felt a “closer embrace of pragmatism, vulgar or otherwise, as a far more satisfying approach” (p. 180). Indeed, she argued, “critical approaches seem to me extreme—extreme in terms of the mainstream—as well as out of touch with the reality I see of people in schools and universities actually living their lives, at least in the United States and other countries I have lived, worked, and traveled in” (p. 180). She argued that the critical approach advocated by Benesch “takes the moral high ground” and likened such an approach to those of religious fanatics (p. 181). (Interestingly, we can see these same arguments in Atkinson & Tardy, 2018, as well as Williams & Condon, 2016, among others).

We find it of no minor significance that Santos’ essay, the article that spurred a decades-long debate, is the first article in the first issue in the first volume of the Journal of Second Language Writing. In essence, her essay situates, literally on page one of the field’s principal journal, that what most distinguishes SLW from composition studies are differences in attitudes toward critical theory and pedagogy. Indeed, some of these debates happened in composition studies at about the same time as the Santos-Benesch debate (e.g., Stewart, Boothby, Bruffee, & Hairston, 1990; Trimbur, 1990). While critical pedagogy has since become incorporated into the fabric of composition studies, it has continued to be seen as outside of mainstream thinking in SLW. The dispute over whether and how to take critical, ideological, and political approaches to SLW pedagogy is, thus, not only a major theme recurring in the discourse of the field; it has been central to the fields’ construction of a disciplinary identity from its start.

While scholars in the 1990s debate explicitly placed critical pedagogy as a major source of the opposing views, the 2010s debate between SLW and TLW has not. If the extent to which critical pedagogy plays a role in the teaching of writing remains a fundamental difference between the two camps, then it is safe to assume that divisions will endure, as pointed out by Santos (1992) in the quote with which we opened this chapter.

Rather than interpret the inevitable contentiousness over critical pedagogy as reason to be pessimistic about easing tensions between SLW and translingual scholars, we instead feel hopeful that uncovering a more precise line in the sand allows us to better explore rationales for different positions on and manifestations of critical pedagogy when teaching writing to linguistically diverse students. We don’t have to agree on or mirror each other’s pedagogies to reach consensus over and respect the value of each other’s work.

Turning back to the 1990s debate, we can recall Ann M. Johns’ (1993) response to Santos (1992), “Too Much on Our Plates,” wherein Johns pointed out how the differing contexts of SLW and FYC instructors impact how critical pedagogy is taken up. She pointed out that SLW scholars and practitioners are often “homeless” and oppressed on their campuses, have little exposure to and a “lack of training in composition theory,” must rely on “a limited set of textbooks and translated LI research and theory,” and “are splintered by the need to serve a large variety of students who represent considerable diversity in cultures, languages, previous educations, future needs, and economic status” (p. 85). Here Johns highlighted and acknowledged the very real constraints facing SLW instructors that prevent them from engaging and applying certain pedagogical theories (see also Silva & Leki, 2004; Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997; Zamel, 1995). Johns also shed light on why FYC instructors are, alternatively, better poised and well positioned to take more ideological approaches in their teaching: “With a certain homogeneity in status, common enemies [being ‘the inequities of the American political and educational systems’], and a specified student population, LI composition instructors, with the open encouragement of their professional associations, can agree upon the ideological and pedagogical issues that face them” (p. 86).

Certainly, compositionists likewise are marginalized in their institutions, lack important training in SLW theories, and must rely on a handful of translated accounts of SLW research and theory, so we acknowledge the dire working conditions across both camps. Truly, none of us are capable of familiarizing ourselves with the scholarship of an entire discipline, much less two. However, what we wish to emphasize here is that while the contexts and student populations compositionists work with are also diverse and continue to diversify, there is undeniably a different level of student diversity in a mainstream composition classroom in comparison to the diverse array of contexts in which SLW professionals teach, necessitating that approaches to critical pedagogy remain different and flexible. Typically, students enrolled in U.S. first-year composition are already using the English language and have been exposed already (albeit to differing degrees) to academic reading and writing in English. The students most compositionists work with thus have the language background needed to gain them entrance into U.S. higher education and place them into FYC. As Johns pointed out, this makes fora more easily targeted student population, and so leads to a more easily unified pedagogical approach.

On the other hand, the teaching contexts and student populations for SLW instructors vary significantly more, taking place all over the world and across different levels. Teaching beginning-level elementary school children in China will look very different from teaching English to displaced refugees for a nonprofit organization in Australia, which will look very different from teaching in a cram school in South Korea designed to boost TOEFL scores. In these contexts, where the social inequities prompting more critical pedagogies vastly differ, the SLW instructor may understandably prioritize language acquisition. Even in writing courses designated for multilingual students and situated in the U.S., the SLW instructor must account for students’ national backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and motivations for learning English language and literacy, which will affect the extent to which ideology and politics are addressed. Context matters, as folks from across the recent divide have occasionally acknowledged (e.g., Gevers, 2018, p. 77; Canagarajah, 2015, p. 429).

To be clear, and to add our own perspectives in regards to the extent to which critical pedagogy should be applied across contexts, we both feel strongly that we can and should do both: address language issues (e.g., genre, conventions, syntax) and address ideological issues (e.g., the politics of standardized English, the harms caused by monolingualist ideologies) (for more on striking this balance, see the chapters by Ruecker & Shapiro and Schreiber, this volume). But the balance between the pragmatic and the ideological will alter, for good reason, depending on the context. The mistake we make when taking a stance on one side or the other is to vilify those approaches that do not match our own, wrongly assuming that doing more pragmatic work suggests that ideological concerns are ignored and doing more critical work suggests that pragmatic concerns are ignored. And what is more worrisome is the likelihood that most teachers of both FYC and SLW remain undertrained, overworked, and are possibly overlooking the importance of applying critical approaches altogether. Rather than getting sidetracked over whose pedagogy is critical enough or pragmatic enough, we ought to concern ourselves with the fact that most teachers (who may not be participating in or even aware of this debate) are not supported sufficiently and are thus likely enacting deeply entrenched English-only practices to the detriment of our students.

Moving Forward Together

As we hope this chapter demonstrates, it is worth the time and the risk to engage in the emotional labor (Navickas, 2020) of working through what may be a contentious process of discussing disciplinary and pedagogical differences. Such efforts, in our case, led to a greater understanding of the histories of SLW and TLW, of the nuanced roles of politics and ideology across approaches and contexts, and of the many shared goals across both camps. As a result, we now question the usefulness of the terms SLW and TLW as professional identity markers, as they are more divisive than useful. We recommend that scholars describe their pedagogical efforts and stances, rather than identify with one camp vs. the other.

Thus we end this chapter not as a SLW scholar and TLW scholar on opposite poles of the divide but as two writing scholars who both attend consciously, carefully, and ethically to linguistic diversity; increase student awareness of language and power; increase writer agency; and, ultimately, advocate for the valuing of language difference within our departments, across the curriculum, and within society at large. While our respective foci on language and language politics may manifest differently in our work, we both use “language” as a centerpiece of our pedagogical and professional efforts, making collaborations not only possible but practical and beneficial.

This chapter represents the only chapter in this collection co-written by scholars who had been positioned on different sides of the SLW/TLW divide. More collaborative efforts across the divide are needed, especially those aimed at addressing language difference and combating monolingualist ideologies. These efforts could and should go “wider”—beyond the classroom—to ensure our work has a greater impact and that it reaches a wider audience. While SLW and TLW scholars have been squabbling behind the closed doors of our discipline, the public discourses in universities and the wider culture about linguistic diversity are not improving. If anything, they are becoming worse, as xenophobia is on the rise, the public rhetoric about immigrants becomes more insidious, calls for a border wall get louder, the availability of student visas become increasingly jeopardized, and relationships have frayed with countries that historically have sent many international students to the U.S. In our squabbles, we have lost sight of the larger goal of shifting the culture of the broader community to become more linguistically and culturally inclusive. Returning to this larger goal not only serves our hope for reconciliation; it also unites us in the project of seeking linguistic justice.


1. The CCCC Second Language Writing Standing Group was started in 2013, and grew out of the CCCC Second Language Writing Special Interest Group, which had been established in 1995 by Tony Silva. The Standing Group existed simultaneously with the CCCC Second Language Writing Committee until the committee was disbanded in 2016, as it had fulfilled its charge.


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