Some Thoughts on Disciplinary Division of Labor

Matsuda’s (1999) article “Composition Studies and ESL Writing: A Disciplinary Division of Labor” is one of my favorite works in the field, and I think it is equally helpful for professionals in second language studies and composition specialists. It provides a nice historical overview of the establishment and professionalization of TESL and the description of events that fostered the development of institutional identities of TESL and composition studies, which, as Matsuda argues, “ultimately led to the institutionalization of the disciplinary division of labor” (p. 710). This historical context is important of course not only as a general piece of knowledge for someone belonging to either of the fields, but it also imparts us with a better understanding of the current state of affairs, as well as provides insights in terms of changes that are still to be made.

The topic of L2 writers in composition classes is certainly not new, but some issues addressed in the article are still relevant today. And it seems like both TESOL and composition studies have been finding more and more junctures, which is reflected in many publications in academic journals and presentations at professional conferences. Just to get a sense of this growing interdisciplinary relationship, consider some of the session titles taken from the CCCC 2016 program:

  • Creating successful international L2 writers from the basics
  • Developing practical pedagogical approaches for international L2 writers in the classroom and beyond
  • Language theory into action: Translingual and L2 pedagogy in the writing classroom
  • Literacy development and rhetorical invention in the multilingual classroom
  • The multiple discursive possibilities of L2 writers’ micro-revisions: Challenging the editing/revision dichotomy
  • The accent’s on me: Agency, personal narrative, and the L2 writer
  • Threshold concepts and L2 writers
  • Technical translation as bridge course for technical communication in ESL contexts: A case study of technical translation in China
  • Writing strategies for action: Explicit instruction in digital environments for ESL writing
  • Writing our way to access: L2 writers engage with revision, strategies, and genre awareness
  • Writing with an accent: L2 writers’ authorial identity and silenced voice in academic writing

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. Similar to CCCC’s, the annual WPA conference, which used to be attended overwhelmingly by composition folks, these days, offers more and more sessions on L2 writing issues. And while these sessions, perhaps, “seem to attract only the ESL people who attend this conference” (Matsuda, 1999, p. 714), I believe it can still be seen as advancement, because more likely than not ESL folks feel comfortable—and maybe even “home”—at these conferences if they keep attending them. Finally, the CCCC Second Language Writing Standing Group is a great example of how some scholars try to create their own professional identity as a community at these conferences.

Another issue raised in Matsuda (1999)—still very much relevant today—is teacher training. Last year I was observing an interesting discussion on the SLW-CCCC listserv. The person who initiated this conversation was asking for resources to develop training for experienced writing instructors who work with L2 writers in their first-year composition courses. I was pleasantly surprised to see a good number of immediate responses from the community members who offered titles of books and journal publications. This is the evidence of not only the accumulated literature on the topic, but also the activeness of this professional community. This example also indicates the willingness of some institutions to invest in teacher training in order to prepare instructors to effectively teach L2 writers in their composition classes.

Suggestions for teacher training and professional development that Matsuda  (1999) provided for composition programs, teacher educators, writing program administrators, and composition scholars in general, seems like a logical conclusion to his discussion. But I think that we probably shouldn’t hold composition professionals fully accountable for what is going on in composition classes with regard to L2 writers. Therefore, recommendation should be given not only to the “composition camp” but also to second language folks.

For instance, in their study on teacher attitudes toward responding to L2 writers, Ferris, Brown, Lui, and Stine (2011) said that L2 writing professionals have a responsibility to share “their own knowledge, experience, and expertise with other writing instructors who also work with L2 students” (p. 227). Attending composition conferences and publishing in academic journals are definitely indicators of the zeal that some TESL professionals have, trying to make the disciplinary division of labor a history. And I hope that we have the same enthusiasm when it comes to our local institutions.

Speaking for my teaching context, the Purdue Second Language Studies (SLS) program in the Department of English is an excellent source of teaching resources for mainstream composition teachers, and the graduate students enrolled in the SLS program could spread their knowledge and experience with mainstream instructors. Most SLS students have L2 writing experiences, many have years of experience teaching L2 students, and some even come from the same language and cultural background as L2 students at Purdue. This all could be invaluable for mainstream instructors. I believe that it is part of our professional responsibility to share our expertise with people from other fields who may struggle helping L2 writers. And if our voices are not heard in professional activities and training opportunities implemented in university composition programs, then the division of labor described by Matsuda (1999) will only get stronger and more visible.


Conference on College Composition and Communication (2016). Conference program. Retrieved from

Ferris, D. R., Brown, J., Liu, H., & Stine, M. E. A. (2011). Responding to L2 students in college writing classes: Teacher perspectives. TESOL Quarterly, 45, 207–234.

Matsuda, P. K. (1999). Composition studies and ESL writing: A disciplinary division of labor. College Composition and Communication50(4), 699–721.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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