Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus
Ana Wu: Prof. Matsuda, you majored in journalism. Could you tell us your background and why you became interested in being a professor in rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL?
Prof. Matsuda: I was born and raised in Japan, and in junior high school, English was one of my least favorite subjects. I didn’t really start learning to use English until I was 16, when I signed up—out of peer pressure—for an English journalism class taught by a Canadian journalist. Trying to learn how to write news articles when I didn’t even know how to make a small talk in English, I knew I had a lot of catching up to do. So I started reading books about language learning and teaching to find out how best to develop my own English proficiency.
In that process, I encountered two dominant ideas about language learning that I didn’t like—the Critical Period Hypothesis and the primacy of speech. All the odds seemed to be against me; I was already well past puberty, and I didn’t have easy access to a community of English speakers. But these obstacles ended up fueling my desire to succeed in learning English; I was determined to disprove both of these notions by learning English primarily through reading and writing. I read English newspapers and magazines every day, and I wrote one news article after another. By the end of the year, I was able to write news and feature articles as well as edit other people’s writing. By the time I graduated from senior high school, I was able to read and write well enough to function in college-level courses in the United States.
When I came to the States at the age of 18, I was interested in studying journalism. But I was intimidated by the thought of competing with my NES peers, so I waited until the end of sophomore year to declare journalism as my major. As luck would have it, the teacher in my introduction to journalism course was an NNES from Korea who had worked as a news reporter. He would ask us to rewrite news stories and put them up on the screen anonymously for us to critique. At first, I felt a bit embarrassed to share my writing with my NES peers, but I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t able to tell the difference between my own writing and what my NES peers had written.
I decided to go to graduate school because I wanted to teach writing and not necessarily ESL, but when I entered a master’s program in Rhetoric and Composition, I discovered that writing specialists were not paying enough attention to language issues and that L2 specialists were not paying enough attention to writing issues. This sense of problem became one of my major research agendas—to describe, problematize and change the interdisciplinary relationship between composition studies and second language studies. And one of the best ways to change the situation seemed to be to teach Ph.D. students in both fields, so I developed dual specializations in rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL through my own Ph.D. studies.
Ana Wu: You were the 2002-2003 Chair of the NNEST Caucus. Also, you are the founding co-chair of the Symposium on Second Language Writing. What’s the secret of your success? What advice would you give to NNES graduate students or novice teachers and researchers who are just starting their careers?
Prof. Matsuda: This is no secret, but what drives my work is not the desire to succeed for its own sake or to publish for tenure and promotion. Instead, I do what I do because I see various language-related problems that need to be addressed, and I see research and scholarship as a way of addressing at least some of those problems. To me, the immediate outcomes that people tend to focus on—such as publications, tenure and professional recognition—are means to an end; they can enhance the credibility of my work and make it easier for me to accomplish my ultimate goal—which is to create a better environment for L2 learners (and their teachers).
One piece of advice I have for all graduate students is to read, read and read. Trying to read everything that has ever been written about the topic of current investigation is a given; I also encourage my students to learn about new theories and methods even though they may not seem relevant to what they are currently interested. I do realize, of course, that having read everything is ultimately an unattainable goal. But it’s important to keep trying; without a broad knowledge of the field, we can’t fully understand the significance of anything—including our own work—which is always situated in a network of meaning in the field.
I try to familiarize myself with a wide variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives so I can use them freely in addressing important issues in the field. But I remain critical of the tendency to serve a particular theory, method or discipline without considering the long term implications for students. This stance, of course, requires a broad-based knowledge of the field and how it works—both from historical and contemporary perspectives.
Ana Wu: You have been teaching master’s and doctoral students. What are the differences, if any, when mentoring NES and NNES graduate students? What advice would you give to professors of TESOL or applied linguistic graduate programs who have international students?
Prof. Matsuda: Having taught and mentored NES and NNES graduate students who are studying at various institutions and in various countries, I’ve come to see that what I believe about NES and NNES professionals in general also apply to graduate students: What matters is not whether someone is NES or NNES; instead, we need to see graduate students in terms of various factors—not only in terms of their language and writing proficiency levels (which can be an issue for both NES and NNES graduate students) but also their intellectual capacity, their breadth of knowledge, their involvement in various professional activities, and their commitment to the profession and to their students.
In working with students who come from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, one of the most important things to keep in mind, I believe, is to not take anything for granted. Educational institutions and practices tend to develop only with the idealized dominant population in mind (see Matsuda, 2006). To make graduate programs more inclusive, I believe we need to make explicit the tacit values, assumptions and expectations of the profession. I try to do that by providing opportunities to witness and participate in what goes on behind-the-scenes. I try to reflect openly on my own professional development efforts not only in the classroom but in informal conversations as well as through my lectures, publications (e.g., Matsuda, 2003; Simpson & Matsuda, in press), and websites (http://matsuda.jslw.org/blog.html).
One advantage I have as an NNEST and former international student is that I can draw on my own experience in talking about various issues that NNES international students might face in graduate programs, on the job market and in the profession. Although mine may not be a typical story, my own experience does provide a glimpse of what it could be like for others. I also try to learn from the experience of my students and other professionals in the field—both NESs and NNESs—to provide a broader perspective on various aspects of professionalization.
Ana Wu: I find it very inspiring to see you, your wife Aya Matsuda (also a professor and active member at TESOL) and your little daughter at TESOL conventions. As you both are professors, how do you two balance career with family?
Prof. Matsuda:How do we balance career with family? That’s a good question—and a tough one to answer. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t feel I have found equilibrium, and I suspect that’s how most of the dual-career parents feel. (If not, I’d love to hear their answers to this question.)
For me, the pendulum keeps swinging from one extreme to another: There are times when I feel like giving up my career so I can give all the time and attention that my daughter needs and wants; then there are times when I think about getting a small condo so I could focus on my work without being interrupted every half an hour. But I know neither of the options is realistic, and neither of them is really what I want.
We sometimes take our daughter to conferences out of necessity—because both of us are presenting or are involved in various committees. When we do, and if the schedule works out, I make a point of taking my daughter to sessions and meetings because I feel I don’t see enough men carrying kids at conferences. We are lucky that, so far, our daughter has been able to travel well and sit through sessions without making too much noise, and our colleagues have been very understanding and supportive.
If we can get anything done at all, that’s because our daughter works harder than the two of us combined—she goes to preschool from 8 to 5 every day. But we did consider our childcare options carefully, and we are happy with what we have. Our daughter comes home energized, and we feel her social and developmental needs are being met much better than if she had stayed home. Although we started sending her to childcare so we could keep working, we now joke about how we should continue to work so we can afford to keep sending her there.
So, I guess all we can do is to do our best and hope for the best—and be thankful to everyone for their understanding and support.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this insightful interview!
Matsuda, P. K. (2003). Coming to voice: Publishing as a graduate student. In C. P. Casanave & S. Vandrick (Eds.), Writing for publication: Behind the scenes in language education (pp. 39-51). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Matsuda, P. K. (2006). The myth of linguistic homogeneity in U.S. college composition. College English, 68(6), 637-651.
Simpson, S., & Matsuda, P. K., (in press). Mentoring as a long-term relationship: Situated learning in a doctoral program. In C. P. Casanave & X. Li (Eds.), Learning to do grad school. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.