Assimilation and Appropriation

Two things to avoid, right? Perhaps . . . but perhaps NOT! (Cue music from a mystery movie: Dun dun dun!!)

No, in true ENGL 431 form there seems to be more nuance to the issue than “things to avoid when you’re working with writers.” Though the reading was a bit expansive, the ideas give us lots to work with.

In Reading an ESL Writer’s Text Matsuda and Cox’s theory of “reading” (which really seems like a theory of responding, not solely reading) focuses on ways to work with ESL texts, what they call writing by students whose native language isn’t (just) English: international students, heritage speakers, Generation 1.5, multilingual writers. They want to consider how tutors and mentors respond when confronted with “difference”–writing exhibiting some but not all of the features of NES or SEAE writing–and they place ways of responding on a continuum, from assimilation to separatism.

As a refresher, from p. 42:

  • Assimilation: “When a reader takes an assimilationist stance, the reader’s goal is to help the ESL writer ‘write linear, thesis-statement and topic-sentence-driven, error-free, and idiomatic English as soon as possible,’ encouraging the writer and their text to assimilate into the dominant culture. The assimilationist, then, reads differences as deficiencies–errors to be corrected.”
  • Accommodation: “The accommodationist reader’s goal is to help the writer learn new discourse patterns without completely losing the old, so that the writer can maintain both their LI and L2 linguistic and cultural identities. The accommodationist, then, reads differences as, well, differences. explaining to the writer how some differences may be seen as deficiencies by some readers; it is up to the writer ‘how much like a native speaker’ he wants to sound.”
  • Separatism: “The separatist reader’s goal is to support the writer in maintaining separate linguistic and cultural identities, and to advocate for NES readers to read ESL texts “generously” with more appreciation for multicultural writing. The separatist, then, reads to overlook, and therefore preserve, difference.”

Please get into groups of 3-4! (How much of this we do will depend on what our discussion leaders do at the beginning of class.) Talk about a time you were working with an ESL student and your approach the characteristics of one of the above. As Matsuda and Cox say, “The stances come down to ways of reading difference, and whether tutors should read to ‘correct’ difference, explain difference, or overlook difference.” It’s important as well to note that stances change over time, especially as one gets to know a writer over repeated visits.

The complexity for me lies in their assertion that if tutors are assimilationist, it may be because they feel the professors are as well–and that they want to spare the social stigma of having writing called out by instructors who aren’t linguistically astute.

NOTE: we can also do this with Carol Severino’s article, Avoiding Appropriation! (That is, we’d get into groups of 3-4 and talk about times we’d worked with an ESL writer. To what extent has an “act of appropriation” occurred?)

Severino’s definition of appropriation:

Appropriation usually involves the writer feeling, as I did when reading my Italian professor’s corrections, a loss of voice, ownership, authorship, or emotional and intellectual connection to the writing and how it was composed. Such an event–when control of a text is removed from an author who then feels alienated from it–might be considered an “act of appropriation,” although undoubtedly one can still learn language and about language use from the experience. On other occasions, however, when language has been reformulated in whole or in part by a teacher, tutor, or editor, for example, with the consent and participation of the student, we might conclude that the student’s writing has not been appropriated.

To Severino, “Most commonly, the issue of appropriating second language writing in general arises not in relation to control of topic or content, but to control of language. Here the disparity is in linguistic knowledge, not cultural knowledge; the linguistic repertoire of a tutor who is a native speaker of the language is far greater than that of her students.”

But again, depends on what the discussion leaders decide.


Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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