Arnold, Lisa R. “‘This is a Field that’s Open, not Closed’: Multilingual and International Writing Faculty Respond to Composition Theory.” Composition Studies 44.1 (2016): 72-88. Web. o2 June 2016.
Lisa R. Arnold discusses the responses of teachers at the American University of Beirut (AUB) to canonical texts of rhetoric and composition theory, in particular “Language Difference in Writing: A Translingual Approach,” by Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. Arnold notes that in Lebanon, where translingualism is an “everyday reality” (80), the question of how to accommodate and value multiple language practices can resonate very differently than it does in the presumably monolingual North-American context in which the theory was proposed.
As the first director of the AUB writing program, Arnold hoped to provide faculty with professional development opportunities (75), at the same time responding to questions from scholars like Mary N. Muchiri and her colleagues and Christiane Donahue that ask composition professionals in North America to recognize “the diverse pedagogical traditions, methods of research, and values attached to literacy in non-U.S. contexts” (72).
As an “American-style university that is a leader in the Middle-East North-Africa (MENA) region,” AUB presents an opportunity for the study of such issues because it is “unique” among institutions outside of North America in having four “full-time, professorial-rank” lines for rhetoric and composition PhDs; the university also plans to implement an M.A. in rhetoric and composition (74).
In order to further faculty engagement with composition theory, the university offered a ten-session seminar during the 2013-2014 academic year. These seminars, attended by seventeen AUB faculty with varied levels of experience teaching in the program, explored a range of topics addressing writing theory and instruction (75). The final sessions each semester addressed teaching writing in the particular context of Lebanon/AUB.
Arnold attended all seminar sessions as a participant-observer and subsequently conducted interviews with fifteen participants, asking them to focus on what seemed “most relevant” to teaching and to the specific environment of AUB (77). Five faculty who had audited a previous graduate course on writing theory and pedagogy facilitated the sessions. Participants also completed an anonymous survey (76).
General responses indicated that faculty found rhetoric and composition theory to be “open,” “tolerant,” and “concrete,” engaged with students as individual writers (77-78). The issue of translingualism was among the discussions that inspired a range of responses (78), especially in regard to the question of how rhetoric and composition theory applied to teaching in Lebanon (78).
The Horner et al. article, which attendees read during the final fall-semester session, addressed the monolingual audience that presumably characterizes North American contexts. To this audience, according to Arnold, Horner et al. argue that rather than being treated as “an obstacle to be overcome,” difference in language should be viewed through a lens that “takes advantage of and appreciates students’ different strengths in English as well as in other languages and . . . reflects the heterogeneity of communicative practices worldwide” (79).
AUB faculty expressed interest in the theory but also voiced concerns about what it might mean in their context when implemented in the classroom. Many seminar attendees brought backgrounds in EFL or ESL to the sessions; Arnold reports general agreement that a “more flexible approach toward language difference” would be worth considering (79).
Concern, however, seemed to center around the degree to which a more tolerant attitude toward error might impact the need for students to learn formal English in order to succeed in the non-U.S. context (80). Arnold writes that in Lebanon, as in the African contexts discussed by Muchiri et al., universities like AUB are “highly selective” and “English carries a different value for its users” (80). She notes the concerns of “Rania,” who posits that British universities expect less expertise in English from students from “developing nations” who will presumably return home after graduation than from native speakers. Rania fears that allowing students flexibility in their use of English will become a process of withholding “correct English” in order to impose “a new form of colonialism” (81). However, according to Arnold, Rania subsequently appreciated the opportunities for learning offered by a translingual approach (81).
The response of “Rasha” similarly indicates ambivalence toward translingualism. Students either liked the opportunity to use Arabic or, in her words, “just hated it” (qtd. in Arnold 82), but she found that discussions of whether or not such multilingual practice was appropriate increased student engagement with issues of language use itself (82). Other examples demonstrate that students do translingual work regardless of the teacher’s goals, for example, using Arabic for group work (82). A number of the teachers drew on their own experiences as learners of multiple languages to encourage students to embrace the challenges involved in a multilingual context. Arnold reports that these teachers felt empowered by translingual theory to draw on language difference as a resource (84-85).
Teachers like “Malik,” however, highlighted the importance of providing students with the kinds of English skills that would serve them in their culture (83), while “Jenna” expressed concerns that the increased tolerance urged by Horner et al. would lead students to become “too confident” that audiences would understand translingually inflected communication: “[Students] get this false perception of abilities and skills which are not there” (qtd. in Arnold 85).
For Arnold, her experience working with writing instructors charged with teaching English outside of an English-speaking environment gives presence to the theoretical precepts of translingualism. She notes that graduates of rhetoric and composition programs may often find themselves taking jobs or providing resources to colleagues outside of the North-American context, and she urges these graduates to attend to the degree to which their multilingual colleagues are often already unacknowledged “experts in their own right” with regard to working with language difference (87):
[T]here is a complexity to literacy practices and pedagogies that practitioners outside of North America understand deeply, and from which those of us trained in a presumably monolingual context can learn. (87)