“Having a certain image of students is not problematic in itself; images of students are inevitable and even necessary. Without those images, discussing pedagogical issues across institutions would be impossible. An image of students becomes problematic when it inaccurately represents the actual student population in the classroom to the extent that it inhibits the teacher’s ability to recognize and address the presence of differences.”
–Paul Kei Matsuda
Key Terms: Myth of linguistic homogeneity
In his 2006 article, “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition,” Paul Kei Matsuda makes it his mission statement to question and problematize issues of language difference in the composition classroom, in particular what he terms “the myth of linguistic homogeneity”–that is, “the tacit and widespread acceptance of the dominant image of composition students as native speakers of a privileged variety of English” (638). This myth renders students “invisible in the professional discourse,” while “pedagogical practices based on an inaccurate image of students continue to alienate students who do not fit the image” (639).
“The Image of College Students and the Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity”
Matsuda criticizes the current methods used to teach composition, in particular the common lack of attention to sentence-level and language issues, citing that “It is not unusual for teachers who are overwhelmed by the presence of language differences to tell students simply to ‘proofread more carefully’ or to ‘go to the writing center’; those who are not native speakers of dominant varieties of English are thus being held accountable for what is not being taught” (640). This, Matsuda points out, is inappropriate because students do not come to the college composition classroom “having already internalized a privileged variety of English,” at least not in terms of the increasing number of international students attending college in the US (640).
“The Policy of Linguistic Containment in U.S. College Composition”
This approach to composition instruction, Matsuda asserts, comes as part of a long-standing tradition of linguistic containment. “The perpetuation of the myth of linguistic homogeneity in U.S. college composition has been facilitated by the concomitant policy of linguistic containment that has kept language differences invisible in the required composition course and in the discourse of composition studies” (642). He characterizes the history of first-year composition and placement exams, dating back to Harvard in the late 1800s, as based in the effort to segregate first-year college students from the rest of the university until their writing has been sanitized–made to agree with standardized, institutionally privileged language.
Matsuda does, here, make an argument that I have to resist somewhat. He states, citing the work of John Trimbur, “Even when language differences are recognized by the teacher, those differences are often contained by sending students to the writing center, where students encounter peer tutors who are even less likely to be prepared to work with language differences than are composition teachers” (642). While I will certainly concede that the proper training and preparation of peer tutors in a writing center should always be a concern and priority, his repeated dismissal of the writing center as a vital and even integral part of composition pedagogy is one that I cannot share. I’ll come back to this thought a bit later.
“Waves of International Students and the Policy of Containment”
The assumption of the “native-speaker norm” that is central to the myth of linguistic homogeneity, Matsuda argues, has its roots in mid-nineteenth century attitudes toward composition studies–and at that time, he concedes, it was “more or less accurate” (643). However, he also points out that at the time, “native speakers of nonprivileged varieties of English did not enter higher education in large numbers because the ability to speak privileged varieties of English was often equated with racialized views of the speaker’s intelligence” (643). Despite this, he also notes that international ESL students have been attending US colleges since at least 1784, and the “first sizable influx” of such students came some time after 1850, and a second came in the early twentieth century (643-645).
However, US higher education offered “little or no institutional support for international students’ cultural and linguistic adjustments,” and this forced many such students to attend remedial preparatory schools for language instruction (644). Eventually, by 1923, colleges began to develop remedial instruction courses for the purpose of linguistic containment, and some intentionally separated international students from one another to force them to interact and assimilate with native students (645-646). Despite the continued influx of international students throughout the twentieth century, sufficient instruction was seldom available to help students “fit the dominant image,” so they “continued to bring language differences to college composition courses” (647).
“Embracing Language Differences as the New Norm”
By this stage, I editorialize, I am both convinced of the the truth of Matsuda’s criticisms and uncertain how to respond to them. I find myself asking, “But what can be done?” And Matsuda, while pointing out the persistent nature of these issues to the present day, offers a much more even-handed response than one might assume. He concludes:
“By pointing out the problem of the policy of containment, however, I do not
mean to suggest that these placement practices be abandoned. On the contrary,
many students do need and even prefer these placement options. […] To deny these support programs would be to further marginalize nonnative speakers of English in institutions of higher education where the myth of linguistic homogeneity will likely continue to inform the curriculum as well as many teachers’ attitude toward language differences. Instead, composition teachers need to resist the popular conclusion that follows the policy of containment–that the college composition classroom can be a monolingual space. To work effectively with the student population in the twenty-first century, all composition teachers need to reimagine the composition classroom as the multilingual space that it is, where the presence of language differences is the default.” (Matsuda 649)
I certainly believe that Matsuda’s point here is an apt one. To accept the myth of linguistic homogeneity is to engage in delusion, and to accept–even embrace–the linguistic diversity of students seems only logical. My only point of contention, really, is based entirely in pragmatism and partially in my previously mentioned disagreement about supplemental instructional spaces, such as writing centers.
My Reflection on the Composition Classroom
The composition classroom is a place of many tasks, and to be frank, by the time students arrive in college, the central task is seldom one of linguistic prowess. True, students can usually benefit from instruction in matters of style and encouraged to experiment with their prose, but much of what must happen relates to apprehending, discussing, analyzing, arranging, and presenting ideas. I do not believe, myself, that a student–or, indeed, any writer–is somehow necessarily less talented or skilled because of linguistic variance. So long as they are able to make their point, I am far more concerned–as I tell my students–with what they can tell me than where they put their commas.
This is not to dismiss language issues, but rather to place them in context. With the problem of class sizes being generally too large and instructional hours generally being too few, it is difficult to give sufficient time over to language instruction. Indeed, I struggle every semester with how to include a balance of working with ideas and working with language. (I still haven’t gotten it “right” yet, I feel, but I keep trying new things. Most recently, I’ve been using T. R. Johnson’s concept of stylistics, which I find promising.) The point, though, is that with the limited ability to address these issues in the classroom, there must be support systems in place. Matsuda is not dismissive of all of these–indeed, as his conclusion above noted, he acknowledges their importance. This is reassuring, save for his repeated dismissal of writing centers.
So, I feel the need to note here a word of advocacy for writing centers: If they are run well, and if tutors are properly sensitized to language issues, then they can be sites of exceptional support for international students. In my own past as a writing center tutor, I often found such students to be the very best candidates for my help–to generalize, they generally took our sessions much more seriously, and I was always eager to work harder at understanding and helping students who took the work seriously. Sadly, this was not as common an attitude amongst the native speakers I worked with in those days. They tended to look upon our meetings as an unwanted obligation, imposed upon them by their teachers. So, while I entirely agree with Matsuda’s call for a more enlightened attitude to language instruction in the composition classroom, I also feel his attitude toward writing centers–based entirely upon my perceptions in this article, I should point out–is perhaps unfortunate.
Matsuda, Paul Kei. “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition.” College English 68.6 (2006): 637-51. PDF File.