Critical Pragmatism as a Middle Ground in Discussions of Linguistic Diversity

Todd Ruecker and Shawna Shapiro

The past several years have brought a growing divide between colleagues in L2 writing and translingual writing centered largely around the teaching of “standardized” varieties of English. On the one hand are idealists who are critical of the priority given to the teaching of standardized norms/conventions and have called on writing teachers to resist this privileging of standard norms. One of the most recent and prominent examples of this position was from the 2019 CCCC Chair, Asao Inoue (2019), in his plenary address at the conference:

If you use a single standard to grade your students’ languaging, you engage in racism. You actively promote White language supremacy. . . . We must stop justifying White standards of writing as a necessary evil. Evil in any form is never necessary. We must stop saying that we have to teach this dominant English because it’s what students need to succeed tomorrow. They only need it because we keep teaching it!

On the other side of the divide are pragmatists, who point out that withholding instruction in standard academic English may not help students achieve their goals of success in the academy—and that students themselves expect and even demand instruction in these conventional forms and genres. This view is represented in Jenkins’ (2018) Chronicle of Higher Education piece: “The purpose of first-year composition courses should be to introduce students to the basics of good professional communication—grammar, sentence structure, organization, paragraph development” (Jenkins, 2018, para. 22). While Jenkins softened his argument by noting that “The word ‘standard’ here is not prescriptive,” he uncritically noted that it describes “accepted norms—in this case, accepted in the workplace by college-educated professionals” (para. 4).

The issues raised in these examples have been discussed extensively both online and in-person among writing scholars. In these conversations, as in much of the recent scholarship on language difference (e.g., Canagarajah, 2013; Lee, 2016), participants tended to be positioned on one side of the divide. Yet neither side feels completely ‘right’ to us. As two white scholars often researching and writing about language and diversity from a critical angle, we grapple with finding a middle ground. But this tension between idealism and pragmatism is nothing new—neither to scholars in rhetoric and writing studies nor to those in TESOL and applied linguistics. We have had these conversations before. So, when we learned of this collection and were invited to contribute, we thought it provided an important opportunity to do something we don’t do enough of in academia: look backward in order to move forward.

In this chapter, we focus on one particular concept, critical pragmatism, which we argue can help to bridge the divide between idealist and pragmatist positions. Before moving forward with this argument, however, we feel it is important to note that divisions of this kind are nothing new in academia: Debating new theories and grappling with contradictory findings in research helps push our fields forward into new insights. Yet, all too often, discussions devolve into ideologically rigid camps, which members feel like they have to defend. This limits our ability to learn from these grapplings and see the nuances between different groups. For instance, several scholars (e.g., Canagarajah, 2013; Lee, 2016) have labeled the education and literacy studies scholar Lisa Delpit (1995) a pragmatist. But a fuller reading of her work suggests a more complex position:

I am certain that if we are truly to effect societal change, we cannot do so from the bottom up, but we must push and agitate from the top down. And in the meantime, we must take the responsibility to teach, to provide for students who do not already possess them, the additional codes of power.

(p. 40)

Similarly, Inoue himself has at times suggested that he does see some value in teaching standard academic English. In a piece for Inside Higher Ed, for example, he was quoted as saying “[Just because] I don’t use a dominant standard to grade my students’ writing doesn’t mean that we don’t look at that standard in our classroom, or consider judgments using it (we do)” (Flaherty, 2019, “Lessons,” para. 7).

In envisioning a richer dialogue among scholars that maps out a middle ground and allows for divergent perspectives, we draw on the feminist rhetorical tradition. Within rhetoric and writing studies, scholars such as Ratcliffe (1999) have emphasized the value of listening and have noted that the rhetoric of scholarship has been driven by what has traditionally been seen as a male approach toward winning an argument as scholars “duel verbally” (p. 214). Elsewhere, Kirsch and Royster (2010) have noted that “it takes patience, humility, and honesty to develop well-grounded principles for engagement and excellence” (p. 664).

Within TESOL and applied linguistics, scholars such as Belcher (1997), Kubota (1998), and Tannen (1998) have similarly critiqued this traditional, male-dominated academic culture that thrives on agonistic discourse. As seen with the reductive labeling of select scholars as “pragmatist” and others as “idealist,” Tannen (1998) explained that the need to win often results in simplification or misrepresentation of others’ arguments: “When there is a need to make others wrong, the temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent others’ positions, the better to refute them” (p. 269; see also Ruecker, in press).

Kubota (1998) has argued that this agonistic dynamic often causes scholars to vilify those who question popular pedagogical approaches, creating a “repressive atmosphere in which educators with minority views are silenced or stereotyped, as ‘traditional,’ ‘backward,’ or ‘authoritarian’ by their colleagues is unconstructive and limits the development of not only our knowledge but also of responsive education for all” (p. 407). She suggested that divides between camps and the alienation and hostility that ensues can ultimately harm our ability to move forward as a field. Belcher (1997) pointed out, moreover, that this sort of polarization expected in academic discourse can feel foreign and alienating to students from more community-oriented or collectivist cultures.

We agree with these scholars that dichotomous thinking around pedagogy can be harmful, and our chapter aims to resist this dynamic, modeling a process of “engaging in dialog by listening to each other” (Kubota, 1998, p. 408). In our case, the “listening” involves re-visiting work from the past. In the remainder of this chapter, we define critical pragmatism and then trace past scholarship to “rediscover” the middle ground between the two polarities of pragmatism (which is often framed as assimilationist) and idealism (which is often framed as resistant to linguistic norms). We outline the history and pedagogical iterations of critical pragmatism and discuss how it influenced the development of Critical EAR In this way, we illustrate how scholars and teachers working in these areas have helped students learn the conventions of academic writing while also engaging with critical perspectives on those conventions. We conclude with examples from our own pedagogical practice and professional development work to illustrate how we might reinvigorate/rediscover the critical pragmatist tradition in our work with linguistically diverse writers.

The What and Why of Critical Pragmatism

To understand the concept of critical pragmatism and its relevance to the teaching of academic writing, we must first consider the underlying tensions and scholarly conversations to which the term was responding. In the early 1990s, discussions about the role of ideology and politics in the teaching of language and literacy began to intensify—particularly among EAP practitioners. Some scholars argued that SLW/L2 scholars should try to avoid politicizing their work and should focus solely on “pragmatic” concerns. Santos (1992) outlined such a position in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Second Language Writing, claiming that LI composition “sees itself ideologically” while “ESL writing may be characterized as seeing itself pragmatically” (p. 8; see also Reid, 1989). In an invited response to the piece, Johns (1993) agreed with Santos’s characterization but attributed L2 compositionists’ focus on “pragmatic choices at the expense of ideology” (p. 84) to the marginalized position of ESL/EAP professionals in relation to their LI counterparts: “We are too busy attempting to survive in hostile, incompatible, or ‘English-only’ environments” (p. 84), adding that “our plates are too full” to focus on ideological issues (p. 86).

Notably, both scholars presented pragmatism as “baked into” the subfield of second language writing. Pragmatism was portrayed as benign—a way of emphasizing SLW’s empirically rooted, student-centered, approach—in contrast to politically or ideologically driven approaches which were seen as dominant in LI composition. Some scholars questioned this portrayal of pragmatism as benign; in a 1993 TESOL Quarterly article, Benesch argued that “all forms of ESL instruction are ideological, whether or not educators are conscious of the political implications of their instructional choices” (p. 705). She further claimed that pragmatism is an ideology—one that is often used to justify the status quo and to avoid “more inclusive and democratic practices” in the classroom (Benesch, 1993, pp. 713-714). Near the end of the piece, Benesch (1993) introduced the term “Critical EAP” as a way to capture her belief that a student-centered, pragmatic orientation to teaching could retain a sense of possibility for “opposition and change”—not just an “accommodationist ideology” (p. 714).

This attempt to fuse pragmatic and critical orientations was echoed by Pen- nycook (1997) who distinguished between two types of pragmatism: vulgar and critical, drawing on the work of Cherryholmes (1988). Whereas vulgar pragmatism prioritizes “functional efficiency” and is rationalized through a “discourse of neutrality,” critical pragmatism recognizes the “political and ideological contexts of language” (Pennycook, 1997, p. 264) and considers possibilities for reform. He went on to argue that a critical approach to EAP might actually improve the status of English language specialists in higher education, by resisting the view of EAP as institutional “service” (p. 264).

Hence the concept of “critical pragmatism,” instantiated in Critical EAP approaches, helped to resolve two key questions for SLW scholars: (1) How do we maintain our commitment to pragmatism while still interrogating the status quo? (2) How can we (re)define our work (and our field) as doing more than “service” or “remediation”?1

Critical Pragmatism in Practice

A number of scholars offered principles and case studies for how to approach EAP from a critical pragmatist perspective. Benesch (1996) described how needs analysis and curriculum design could include attention to institutional and sociopolitical context: “[CJritical needs analysis acknowledges existing forms, including power relations, while searching for possible areas of change” (p. 732). In developing an EAP course paired with a psychology lecture, for example, Benesch examined the assumptions and constraints at the institution and department level, looking for contradictions. She and her students then looked for ways to highlight and respond to contradictions within the EAP curriculum.

Similarly, Johns (1997) articulated a vision for the EAP classroom as a place where students could share challenges and concerns from their other academic courses and develop strategies for problem-solving and collective advocacy. This model was adopted by Benesch (2001b) as well, who pointed out that while her EAP courses—often linked to lectures in areas such as anthropology—taught coping strategies such as note-taking and reading skills, she also helped students “mobilize ... to collectively get what they needed” from their other courses and teachers (p. 117; see also Benesch, 2001a and the 2009 special issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes for more examples of this approach).

Another approach to critical EAP involved sustained focus on a prominent, possibly controversial, social issue. Benesch (1998) described a unit on anorexia and other eating disorders, which she developed for an EAP course linked to a psychology lecture. Similarly, Thompson (2002) centered his course on the topic of aboriginal land rights—an issue of great local concern in his community. While questions about course themes and amount of content were prevalent even before Critical EAP became a focus (cf., Spack, 1988), one rationale for “sustained content”—that is, lingering with a particular topic/theme—was that it could promote deeper engagement with course materials, including opportunities for developing critical thinking skills (Pally, 1997).2

Another form of content-based Critical EAP involves practitioners building courses around their own areas of expertise, such as cross-cultural communication (Matsuda & Silva, 1999) or sociolinguistics (e.g., Helmer, 2013; Siczek & Shapiro, 2014). Experiential learning is another component of some iterations, such as in Morgan’s (2009) course for pre-service teachers, which included a “social issues project” in which students write to promote “transformative action” (p. 86; see also assignments from Pavlenko, 2003; Casanave & Van- drick, 2003; and Morgan & Ramanathan, 2005, which incorporate a critical perspective).

SLW scholars continue to articulate course designs, content themes, and assignments that are rooted in critical pragmatism, although the phrase ‘Critical

EAP’ seems to have fallen out of fashion in the past decade. It is noteworthy, though, that a critical stance toward ‘standard’ academic English was not a prominent focus of this line of research. While many practitioners encouraged critical conversations about academic norms, as alluded to earlier (see also Chun, 2009, and others in the JEAP special issue), few if any questioned whether the very enterprise of teaching (and assessing for) these norms was just. The teaching of these norms was the “pragmatic” element that remained relatively consistent in this work. As Morgan and Ramanathan (2005) put it, “[Cjritical EAP literacies invigorate, rather than replace, conventional academic skill sets” (p. 156). Yet EAP/SLW scholars did not see the teaching of norms as a betrayal of linguistic diversity—in fact, they called for policies that recognize language difference as an asset and as an ethical imperative for fair treatment of multilingual writers. For instance, the CCCC “Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers,” revised in 2009 and reaffirmed in 2014, urges writing teachers and program administrators to “develop instructional and administrative practices that are sensitive to [students’J linguistic and cultural needs.” Under “assessment,” the statement urges teachers to focus on various aspects of writing rather than overly penalize students for language concerns. It also encourages teachers to build on the competencies students bring to the classroom, which in part involves recognizing the “fluidity” and “global variation” of English and recognizing students’ ability to communicate with people who use different varieties of English.

Critical Pragmatism in Our Own Practice

Ultimately, we suggest that Critical EAP and the concept of critical pragmatism can serve as a useful conceptual umbrella for approaches that pursue a “both/and” approach to standard academic English—both teaching and prob- lematizing the norms. Moreover, it offers additional insights into how to build criticality into academic writing courses as indicated previously, through consideration of course goals, topics, assignments, and instructional practices. In the remainder of our chapter, we discuss how we have incorporated critical pragmatism in our work in our own institutions and classrooms. Here, we give examples from three areas of our practice: programmatic policies and practices, course design, and classroom pedagogy.

Course policies from a critical pragmatism perspective need to ensure that writing courses for L2 writers meet those writers’ needs without having a punitive or stigmatizing effect (e.g., Shapiro, 2012). At our institutions, we have been able to offer credit-bearing L2 courses that are taught by permanent instructors, rather than adjunct faculty. At Todd’s current institution, he is exploring the idea of developing a studio-style writing course (Cf. Davia & Elder, 2017) for students who would be traditionally placed into a writing course in the intensive language program before being able to gain credit for their first-year writing requirement. Shawna has been able to get additional general education designations for some of her courses, which helps to draw in students who might otherwise be reluctant to take a writing support course.

The content of our courses also reflects critical pragmatism. Both of us aim to make language diversity a central focus in our writing courses. These courses offer opportunities to include interdisciplinary perspectives on language- related topics. For example, we have each developed a course themed around World Englishes, as we have found that this particular topic attracts a wide array of multilingual writers, and offers opportunities for critical conversation about language and power, language and identity, etc. This theme also allows us to include perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, education, history, political science, psychology, and literary studies. Todd’s “Professional Writing in Global Contexts” course starts with critical framing on issues such as native speaker privilege and the interconnections between capitalism and the spread of English. We incorporate essays and poetry by authors such as Julia Alvarez, Gloria Anzaldtia, and Amy Tan—as well as such scholars as John Baugh (2005) and Rosina Lippi-Green (2012). We have developed other courses with a critical pragmatism lens, such as Shawna’s “English Grammar: Concepts and Controversies,” which meets the needs of students who wanted more sentence-level work, as well as those planning to become tutors or teachers.

Critical pragmatism also informs the assignments we develop. We include more traditional genres that we know are used frequently across the curriculum, such as response papers, persuasive/analvtical essays, and library research projects. But we also include assignments that work ‘against the grain’—in particular, assignments that invite students to bring all of their linguistic resources to the table: Todd, for example, adapted a rhetorical analysis assignment so that it treats bilingualism as the norm:

Choose and read one of the pairs of news articles I will post: the topics you can choose from are immigration, drug violence, stem cell research, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. The first two topics have articles in English and Spanish, so you should be bilingual in those two languages if you chose one of those options.

For other assignments, he often adds language such as “You’re welcome to use sources in English and other languages” to encourage students to draw on their linguistic resources. Shawna’s courses often end with a “writing beyond the classroom” assignment. The instructions include the following: “Possibilities for this project include editorials, informational or persuasive websites/prezis, creative nonfiction (e.g., essays, speeches), and creative writing (poetry, plays, short stories, etc.).. . . Work in other languages (with a separate English translation) is welcomed.”

When students do choose to integrate other languages into their writing, we work with them to make sure the piece is accessible to a broader audience, using translations, footnotes or other strategies. Todd discusses various options, including which language(s) to include in-text, and which to put in footnotes. He encourages students to make space for the original non-English text within the body of the writing.

Even the language we use in class exemplifies critical pragmatism. For instance, Todd will often make comments such as: “If you speak more than one language, you have an advantage.” This does not mean we avoid discussing needs and resources related to language support. Our syllabi often include statements such as: “If you’re learning English as a second or additional language, then I can provide additional support and direct you to particular resources.”

We bring a critical pragmatic orientation to our work with faculty development and teacher education, as well. We include insights and readings from applied linguists and translingual scholars, selecting work that offers concrete strategies for support in meeting the norms of U.S. academic writing (e.g., Ferris & Hedgcock, 2013) as well as examining CCCC position statements (Students’ Right to Their Own Language, “Second Language Writing and Writers”) and other influential documents. When training writing center tutors, we invite students to draw on their own language learning experiences and ask tutors to discuss what multilingual writers bring to academic writing—not just what they “lack.”


In this chapter, we have argued that the concept of critical pragmatism provides useful framing to think about bridging idealism and pragmatism in the teaching of academic writing. Notably, we are not proposing a new scholarly or pedagogical direction. Rather, we hope we have helped to highlight and name an approach that is present in both second language writing and translingual scholarship—an approach that focuses on both teaching and questioning standardized varieties of English, with the ultimate goal of increasing rhetorical and linguistic agency for all writers (cf. Shapiro, Cox, Shuck, & Simnitt, 2016).

Translingual scholars themselves have begun to frame the explicit teaching of norms as a viable part of a student-centered, socially just curriculum. In a discussion of the “New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative,” Canagarajah (2015) praised the document for using “translingual practice” as a useful “scaffolding device” in students’ development of Standard English, acknowledging that “scholars have to articulate how translingualism can meet policy-specific needs, norms, and agendas . . . |including| meeting (in fact, exceeding) currently dominant literacy standards” (p. 436). Elsewhere, Lee (2016) recognized that “Both the idealist and pragmatist positions represent well-intentioned desires to promote student learning, and it would thus seem that both can be considered inherently invested in the promotion of their own means to linguistic social justice.” (p. 180).

Even Lu and Horner (2013), two of the earliest and most prominent voices in translingual scholarship, have highlighted the problems with the false dichotomy between conformity and resistance, showing how it disadvantages students and confuses teachers who aim to empower them. Lu and Horner (2013) in fact have (re)defined a translingual approach as “a disposition of openness and inquiry toward language and language differences” (p. 586), including toward standardized English. “Taking such an approach,” they argue, “can also enable us to move beyond debilitating debates pitting students’ language ‘needs’ against their ‘rights’: debates that assume a stability not only to students’ identities, desires, beliefs, and values, but also to the languages they need, and have a right, to use” (p. 597).


  • 1. It is worth noting that Harwood and Hadley (2004) distinguish between “Critical EAP” and “Critical Pragmatic EAP,” but few, if any, other scholars make this distinction.
  • 2. There appears to be a connection between these approaches and the cultural studies approach advocated by scholars such as Berlin (1988) in first-year writing classes, which led to a polarizing debate prompted by Hairston’s (1992) piece in College Composition and Communication. It is evident that this critical/pragmatic divide has arisen at various points in our different disciplines’ histories.


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