Institutions of higher learning in many countries—particularly in the English-dominant centre—are more corporatized, more diverse, and increasingly dependent on international students as “revenue generators” in financially unstable times (Tardy & Whittig, 2017, p. 1).
Those that know me know how religiously I quote Silva’s (1997) article, “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers,” because of how powerfully it speaks to the need to resist the deficit-view of L2 writers and writing. It has become a cornerstone of my professional philosophy. And, something that should, frankly, be required reading for any educator that is going to work with multilingual students. I know that I wish I could force some of my colleagues to read and critically engage with the piece. Now, ten years on, the article is really only showing its age because of how much ground the field of L2 writing has covered. Despite this, it’s still an exceptionally relevant piece.
It is still so crucial that Tardy and Whittig (2017) decided to give it a timely updating for its tenth anniversary. They updated the piece by going into each of Silva’s original four points and speaking of the advances in L2 writing and TESOL that have taken place over the past decade. While we know a lot more now, we still have some way to go as far as the ethical treatment of L2 writers. For example, Tardy and Whittig (2017) point to the need to acknowledge that the distinction between L1 and L2 can create the impression of a monolithic population where none exists; furthermore, we must train both specialist and non-specialist alike to be aware of this fact. The community of writers identified as L2 is, perhaps, even more varied than the L1 population. This variation means that L2 writing specialists must take a very nuanced approach to how we talk about L2 writing issues with our colleagues, being careful not to reinforce an oversimplified view of reality.
Granted, this is very challenging. I was invited to give a talk at a writing pedagogies institute at a university in New York. One of their staffers, a person marginally aligned with TESOL, grilled me during the welcome dinner, asking very probing and highly marginalizing questions about L2 writers. Questions like, “In your professional experience, don’t you find that the Chinese students can’t construct good sentences or paragraphs?” Beyond being insulted and not wanting to offend someone who might someday review my reappointment docket, I politely pointed out that, yes, some have this issue. But, so do some so-called native speakers. And, some first-year Chinese L2 writers are actually particularly adroit at sentence construction. Well once I wouldn’t reaffirm their deficit view of L2 writers, they were done with me and with hearing what I had to say. At least that’s the impression they gave off. And, this happens far too often. When we, as L2 writing specialists, don’t reaffirm racist, deficit views of the population with which we closely work, we begin to lose our street cred. But, to that, I must say resist and persist—for the good of the students.
Another important update that Tardy and Whittig (2017) provided was about the writing courses for English as an additional language (EAL) writers, here L2 writers. L2 writing courses must be more than mere grammar and mechanics courses. Indeed, attention to language and to the linguistic expectations of the academy are important. But, the classes we offer must be more than some remedial reading of the Bluebook of Grammar and Spelling. I, frankly, couldn’t agree more. The so-called problem for L2 writers isn’t one of not enough of something; it’s one of too much. And, like one of the X-men with too much power that accidentally destroys half of the town, our L2 writers have to learn how to wield their multilingual, multirhetorical powers in ways that will provide them access to the dominant discourses of higher education. This means that L2 writing classes should focus on helping students to first understand the expectations for written communication in the academy before moving on to making it clearer to them how they can deploy their multilingual resources to play with and to artfully break those expectations in ways that lead to even more potent meaning making with their chosen audiences. Indulge me as I return to the mutant metaphor from earlier. We as L2 writing specialists need to be more like Professor Xavier and less like Warren Worthington II, the developer of the mutant cure to turn all mutants into ordinary people—just like everyone else. That is, we have to work with our students to show them how to channel their abilities to be more effective communicators.
Perhaps the most crucial update, however, was Tardy and Whittig’s (2017) call to for all L2 writing specialists to be advocates for this student population. To resist, on their behalf, the dominant discourses of the university that continue to marginalize and to silence them. Furthermore, to be ethical advocates, we must also equip these students to, over time, become self-advocates. Note, however, that there are many pathways to advocacy. I don’t think they, or I, would suggest picketing the vice chancellor’s office—but, hey if you think that would work… Instead, this advocacy may take the form of raising the awareness of colleagues and administrators about the challenges and benefits of L2 writers and writing, or holding pedagogy development workshops or pushing for inclusive and ethical campus policies.
TL;DR: Read Silva (1997) and Tardy and Whittig (2017)!
Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31(2), 359-363.
Tardy, C.M., & Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writings: An update. TESOL Quarterly, doi: 10.1002/tesq.405