The TESOL Quarterly invites commentary on current trends or practices in the TESOL profession. It also welcomes responses or rebuttals to any articles or remarks published here in The Forum or elsewhere in the Quarterly.

The Rhetorical Construction of * Multilingual Students
RUTH SPACK Tufts University

Students are remarkably diverse, and thus no one label can accurately capture their heterogeneity. Yet that does not stop teachers and researchers from labeling. It may be that we use labels such as ESL—even if they do not match students’ profiles—to provide us with a shared shorthand by which we can talk about learners. But even if our reasons are well intentioned, we need to consider that, in the process of labeling students, we put ourselves in the powerful position of rhetorically constructing their identities, a potentially hazardous enterprise. At worst, a label may imply that we sanction an ethnocentric stance. At the very least, it can lead us to stigmatize, to generalize, and to make inaccurate predictions about what students are likely to do as a result of their language or cultural background. Even if we cannot eliminate all problematic terms, we can interrogate the casual and seemingly innocent ways in which we use them.1

* This contribution is an expanded version of a paper presented at the 30th Annual TESOL Convention, March 1996, Chicago, IL. I thank Vivian Zamel for her helpful comments on an earlier draft. 1 Although I am writing from my perspective as a teacher in the U.S., the issue I am discussing has global implications, as Nayar’s (1997) article reveals.

TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997


The first time I became aware of the problem of labeling was when I took my present job 17 years ago, at which time the program was described as English for foreign students, a label I was uncomfortable with. When we call students foreign, what identity are we constructing? Any dictionary will tell us that foreign means “alien,” “strange,” “not natural.” Its other meanings are no less satisfactory. They include “inappropriate,” “nonessential,” and “irrelevant.” Furthermore, the label foreign is intimately connected with U.S. ethnocentrism, which is reflected in the canonical literature. In Henry James’s Daisy Miller, for example, an American character refers to an Italian man he meets as a foreigner, even though both men are in Italy at the time! Because of these concerns, the term foreign was changed to international at my institution, but I have become increasingly concerned about the social and political implications of even that label. For one thing, the term international typically but unaccountably does not include all students, at least when it is used in the U.S.: U.S.-born students, permanent residents, and immigrants are verbally excluded when this label is used. Of even greater concern is the term’s association with the elitist field of international (intercultural) education, which, as Noronha (1992) points out, traditionally has isolated itself from “troubling racial or ethnic issues,” indulging instead in a “romanticizing of international over multicultural education” (p. 55). Although the L2 field is presumed to be inclusive and accepting of diversity, teachers and researchers have a tendency to use labels that, wittingly or unwittingly, preserve a system that situates people in dominant and subordinate positions. The major organization that unites teachers in this field, TESOL, calls students speakers of other languages. Other than what? Other than English, of course. By implication, English is the norm against which the other, the different, is measured. Why is English not the other language? Could not students be learning English as an/other language? But more to the point, instead of using language that sets us apart from one another, we should be in the business of using language that brings us together. That, of course, means that we need to examine the use of the term different. When we construct students’ identities by calling them linguistically different, we assume a standard that measures what is different against what is not different. That standard must be speakers whose L1 is English. As one of those creatures, I wonder about the wisdom of setting myself up as the norm. This could lead to a dangerous agenda. History is replete with examples of attempts to reconstruct people who are deemed different to make them more like the representatives of the dominant culture. Instead of perpetuating the myth of English-language superior766 TESOL QUARTERLY

ity, we should be in the business of using language that promotes linguistic diversity. That would mean putting an end to the use of the label limited English proficient (LEP). The first time I saw this term I thought it was an oxymoron. How can one be proficient and limited at the same time? But, more to the point, why call the students we teach limited ? What message do we send about students with such a word—other than that they are deficient? Who can benefit from such an identification? Certainly not the students. And certainly not the academy, which is enriched by contact with diverse learners and would be limited without them. Instead of using language to focus on deficits, we should be in the business of using language that emphasizes the numerous strengths students bring to the teaching and learning experience. We also need to examine the ideological implications, especially in the U.S., of labeling students nonnative speakers. If they are nonnative, what is a native speaker? A speaker of English, of course. The British who colonized this territory and the Americans who later founded the country certainly thought so. But the first residents of this land actually were not native speakers of English. They were native speakers of a multitude of Indian languages. When European Americans called them natives, however, they were not referring to their language status. When they did refer to their language status, they employed a neat trick of rhetorical inversion, and the natives became nonnative speakers. Given the deplorable history of forced English language teaching to American Indians, we should of course think twice before labeling Native American students nonnative. The question is whether a label that begins with non-, and that thus effectively erases identity, is appropriate for any student.

Suppose we were to eliminate language labels. Suppose we did not call students foreign, or other, or different, or limited. How, then, would we name them? One obvious answer is to be specific by constructing students’ identities according to culture group, for example, by calling them Chinese students or Russian students. There are times when this labeling might make sense, for example, when we are referring to linguistic issues—for instance, the lack of articles in Chinese and Russian languages. But when we talk about culture, there is a tendency to conflate it with the idea of difference, and thus, again—as we do with language—inevitably to identify U.S. culture as the norm from which students are deviating. It is a short step from that position to falling into the trap of developing and perpetuating stereotypes—and ultimately of underestimating students’ knowledge and their writing skill.

Too many composition scholars who write about cross-cultural rhetoric depend on an archaic view that defines culture as “a set of patterns and rules shared by a particular community” (Connor, 1996, p. 101). In so doing they ignore what anthropological theorists now identify as the “blurred” spaces in which cultural identities are formed (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 209). The students we teach have multiple identities and draw on multiple resources. As scholars in this field, we need to conduct research and write in such a way as to reflect the complexity and hybridity of culture when students literally and figuratively cross borders. If we essentialize students, we give others permission to do so. And there is evidence that we are perpetuating cultural myths from one article to another in our own publications. To demonstrate this disturbing process of constructing a fixed profile of traits for a particular cultural group, I will focus on several works in which various scholars write about the experiences of students from Asia who study in U.S. colleges and universities, often building their arguments on questionable sources. In her discussion of literacy instruction in China and Japan, Carson (1992) attempts to differentiate between the two educational systems. She also initially acknowledges that “regional and individual differences” (p. 38) exist in the backgrounds of students from China and Japan. But in her discussion of the implications of her findings, she conveniently elides the many differences among the students between countries and within each country. And in so doing, she unwittingly fosters the problematic notion that students from Asian countries are interchangeable, regardless of each country’s history or interaction with diverse cultures. To explain why students from China and Japan might have difficulty fulfilling certain types of writing assignments, for example, Carson cites Johns (1991), who reports on a case study of a student from Vietnam:
Writing topics that focus on personal opinion are likely to be most difficult, since this type of writing can be at odds with the Confucian notion of education as knowledge transmission, not as personal invention ( Johns, 1991). (p. 54)

Connor (1996) states that Carson (1992) charts a “beneficial direction of research in ESL” (p. 21), and Leki (1991) refers to Carson’s study (which was in press at the time) as a “careful investigation” (p. 130), but my investigation of Carson’s study suggests otherwise. In trying to trace the origin of the “Confucian notion of education,” I arrived at a dead end. Curiously, Carson’s source of information—Johns (1991)—makes no mention of Confucius or of a Confucian view of education as knowledge transmission. I may be able to account for this discrepancy. In an unpublished version of her article (which by coincidence the author sent

to me in 1990), Johns did make a statement about Confucius and an Asian tradition of transmitted knowledge when she quoted another unpublished manuscript. But by the time her manuscript reached publication, that quoted passage had been eliminated. Perhaps Carson was thinking of this earlier, unpublished version. But by ascribing to Johns information that did not appear in the published version, Carson quite literally demonstrates the phenomenon of rhetorical construction.2 What Carson and other scholars who cite her do with those constructions is cause for concern. Carson (1992) has not conducted her own ethnographic study but bases her theory on someone else’s research, as is evident in the following example:
The primacy of the group in China results from Chinese notions of “guan”— control and regimentation (Tobin et al., 1989). The group is linked to order, is vertically organized and teacher-directed; it exists to serve the collective good. (pp. 43–44)

Although Carson provides no evidence about writing groups in Chinese or Japanese schools, and although the Tobin, Wu, and Davidson article she cites is about preschoolers, she nevertheless makes the leap in her article to generalize about college-level learners. We learn, for example, that “the Japanese and Chinese” who are enrolled in writing classes in the U.S. may find the focus on individual needs in group work “disorienting” because they “have come to expect to develop their sense of shared identity from the group” (p. 54). Such statements are never examined critically, but once they reach print, they are treated as cultural truths and then applied inappropriately to other cases. Nelson and Murphy’s (1992) article is one of several that illustrate the snowball effect when constructions of this sort enter the literature:
[T]he function of the group in China and Japan is to serve the needs of the group, whereas the function of peer-response groups in writing classes in the U.S. is to serve the needs of individual writers (Carson, 1992). (p. 173)

Ironically, Nelson and Murphy treat China and Japan as identical although this is one case in which Carson (1992) has been careful to draw distinctions, for she maintains that the top-down structure of the group in China is “quite different from the Japanese notion of the group as an egalitarian unit” (p. 44). Nevertheless, by the time her discussion of

2 I would add to the caveat about the dangers of rhetorical construction that scholars should be cautious in their citations of unpublished manuscripts, given what can happen when inaccurate or unsubstantiated information is disseminated in the field.



the group is cited in an article she coauthored (Carson & Nelson, 1994), the distinction between China and Japan has disappeared, and Carson (1992) has replaced Tobin et al. (1989) as the source of information:
ESL writers from Japan and the PRC . . . are familiar with group work as a technique for knowledge acquisition and as a method that teaches and reinforces the group ethic of their collectivist cultures (Carson, 1992). (p. 23)

The process of construction and reconstruction continues when Carson and Nelson (1994) are subsequently cited by Connor and Asenavage (1994) and by Carson and Nelson (1996) as the source of information on what they call “the group ethic of [these] collectivist cultures,” which in the latter article unaccountably include Taiwan as well as China and Japan. That several of these articles are qualitative research studies suggests that ethnographic or teacher research is not necessarily an antidote to the phenomenon of rhetorical construction. When researchers bring a (faulty) conceptual framework to their work, it shapes the design of their studies. To interrogate Carson’s (1992) premise about Chinese education rather than accept it at face value (which I initially did when I first read her article in 1992), I examined one of the sources on which Carson’s assertions rest, specifically to learn how Carson came to the following understanding of the relative value of critical thinking in China:
The philosophy underlying Chinese education is a Confucian focus on selfimprovement. Confucius was more concerned with presenting moral precepts than with advocating a method of critical thinking, and the notion that lessons should contain moral principles remains the traditional function of Chinese education. In modern China, Mao Zedong, like the dynastic leaders before him, prized education as a means of ordering relations on earth according to a supreme blueprint, . . . wanted a schooling devoted to ethical and collective ends, and . . . valued the combination of knowledge and action (Cleverly [sic], 1985, p. 14). (p. 43)

These statements are based on Carson’s reading of Cleverley’s (1985) The Schooling of China, but I discovered that Carson is selective in drawing from Cleverley’s research to support her claims. Although Cleverley does indicate that Confucius “was more concerned with presenting moral precepts than with advocating a method of critical thinking” (pp. 8–9), he also makes the point that, throughout history, those claiming to follow Confucius’s thoughts “have interpreted and reinterpreted them to suit their own ends” (p. 12). Carson also ignores, among other things, Cleverley’s discussion of the centuries-old debate between Confucianism and other schools of thought, the introduction of Western ideas in the

schools with the advent of missionaries and colonizers, Mao’s antiConfucian campaign, Chinese university students’ criticism (albeit suppressed) of the educational system, and the “range of educational strategies [that] is tolerated” in contemporary China (p. 270). In short, Carson neglects to report that Chinese education and its underlying ideology have always been in flux. Carson’s selective scholarship has damaging consequences when it is applied to classroom teaching and influences the way teachers think about students. For example, Atkinson (1997) cites Carson (1992) to support his contention that “TESOL educators should be cautious about adopting critical thinking pedagogies in their classrooms” (p. 71).3 Most alarming is Ramanathan and Kaplan’s (1996) use of Carson’s article to imply that Chinese students may not be able to think in the critical way that allegedly characterizes U.S. university education. In the process of challenging the notion of a universal logic, Ramanathan and Kaplan define the “‘critical thinking’ skills” of the dominant U.S. culture as the ability “to see relationships between various cultural phenomena” and “to assess the credibility of different kinds of sources . . . and . . . weigh various kinds of evidence” (p. 27)—skills that Ramanathan and Kaplan themselves do not apply to the Carson source—and then argue that these skills are not necessarily valued in Chinese culture:
Many Chinese, who are, to some extent, Confucian in their outlook (Carson, 1992), may be likely to lay greater store by Confucian sayings to support their views than they do by what the North American academic mainstream considers viable “evidence” . . . . (p. 27)

Such static constructions of and generalizations about Chinese rhetoric and Chinese students are challenged by researchers who actually examine academic writing in two languages (e.g., Bloch & Chi, 1995; Mohan & Lo, 1985; Taylor & Chen, 1991). These studies reveal that Chinese rhetoric is constantly changing, just as Western rhetoric is, a process that began centuries ago. Furthermore they show that, contrary to the prevailing notion that Chinese academic rhetoric draws only on a tradition of transmitting information, there are forms of Chinese rhetoric that are similar to those found in Western rhetoric.4 Not only rhetoric but also rhetorical behaviors have been shown to be similar across languages. In Arndt’s (1987) comparative study, the individual writers’
3 In one instance, Atkinson (1997) quotes a passage about self-expression versus group solidarity that Carson (1992) had quoted from a book about preschool education in Japan and then incongruously applies the quotation to writing instruction in Chinese schools. 4 Conversely, Western rhetoric has a tradition of knowledge transmission. The student whose work across the curriculum I studied for 3 years was rewarded for writing in a repetitionof-ideas mode in more than one course (Spack, 1997).



composing activities in English mirrored their composing activities in Chinese.

I am sensitive to the argument that L2 writing experiences are not identical to L1 writing experiences; students’ approaches to writing in English undoubtedly are shaped by their educational backgrounds and rhetorical traditions. But teachers and researchers need to view students as individuals, not as members of a cultural group, in order to understand the complexity of writing in a language they are in the process of acquiring. We will then see that cultural identities are not static but are “always in motion, not frozen for inspection” (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 217). My own case study of the reading and writing strategies of a college student from Japan, conducted over a 3-year period, reveals that this student was in a continual process of change, a process that began long before she entered a U.S. college (Spack, 1997). The most striking finding in Arndt’s (1987) protocol-based investigation is the difference in writing behaviors among members of a group—postgraduate students in China— who are assumed to be homogeneous. Likewise, Murray and Nichols’s (1992) case studies of the literacy practices of students from Vietnam show that “individuals within the same culture experience literacy in differing ways” (p. 175). In fact, any survey of studies in contrastive rhetoric will reveal contradictory findings about any particular cultural group (e.g., Connor, 1996). To demonstrate her understanding of the fluidity of culture, Tucker (1995) describes mistakes she made in analyzing the essay of a student named Najla. In chapter 1 of Decoding ESL, Tucker explains why she thought that the “flowery effusions” in Najla’s writing were the product of the rhetorical traditions of Najla’s “native” Afghani culture. In chapter 2, entitled “Rereading Chapter 1,” Tucker reveals how she learned through interviews that those flowery effusions were actually the result of Najla’s imitation of the style of the Harlequin romances she was fond of reading. Not essentially Afghani, Najla’s still-evolving identity was also formed in the U.S. (and in Pakistan, as it turned out). For the reader of such students’ writing, Tucker cautions, “it is difficult to discern precisely where one collection of customs and assumptions leaves off and another begins” (p. 57). As we respond to student writing, we need to take into account the fact that students who crisscross borders are not just products of culture; they are creators of culture. A healthy dose of skepticism in regard to our scholarly publications (and I include my own work in this cautionary note), similar to Tucker’s “Rereading [of] Chapter 1,” will serve us well in the long run. Studies that create static models may be reassuring in that they provide a sense of

control over the complicated and perplexing endeavor of teaching English. But such models inevitably lead to stereotypical representations of students. A tolerance for anomaly and uncertainty may be difficult to internalize, but it can allow us to engage in an ongoing and ultimately enriching process of revising the conceptual frameworks that shape our work.

The rhetorical construction of a student’s identity may at first glance appear to be merely descriptive in nature. But when teachers and researchers exercise the power to identify, we actually may be imposing an ethnocentric ideology and inadvertently supporting the essentializing discourse that represents cultural groups as stable or homogeneous entities. Certainly we are limiting our own world view. If we are concerned about the construction of students’ identities, perhaps we should ask not “What should we name students?” but “Should we name students?” Cultural anthropologists are reconstructing a long-held view of their own identity as “detached observers” as they grapple with the postcolonial reality that their “objects of analysis are also analyzing subjects who critically interrogate ethnographers” (Rosaldo, 1993, p. 21). They recognize that those whom they traditionally have studied can now “speak for themselves, represent their own lives” (Friedman, 1994, p. 71). As teachers and researchers of English, we also need to examine our own identities, to own up to the position of power from which we name students, and to find room in our pedagogy and scholarship for students to name themselves and thus define and construct their own identities.
Ruth Spack, director of ESL Composition at Tufts University, is author of Guidelines (St. Martin’s Press, 1996, 2nd ed.), The International Story (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), and articles in TESOL Quarterly, College English, Written Communication, and Legacy. She is coeditor with Vivian Zamel of Negotiating Academic Literacies (Erlbaum, in press).

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