Friday, January 19, 2018

On a difficult question

Recently (very recently!) I was asked, in an interview, about my take on a controversy in applied linguistics: what's your political stance, I was asked, on Ryuko Kubota's critique of "multi/pluri" approaches, which she argues are essentially supportive of neoliberalism:

 the conceptual features of the multi/plural turn overlap with neoliberalism and neoliberal multiculturalism, which uncritically support diversity, plurality, flexibility, individualism, and cosmopolitanism, while perpetuating color-blindness and racism. (Kubota 2014)

The question, I take it, was: what do you think of this? Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

I'm a bit haunted by the answer I gave; I think this question is so complicated that I find it almost impossible to answer. What I remember saying was something like: "I have to be honest, I don't really have a political stance on this." I continued to say some things I don't remember well, but mentioning my having studied with Terry Santos and having been impressed by her straightforward defense of pragmatism; having later encountered scholars like Pennycook and Canagarajah, the latter of whom is probably the contemporary scholar whose approach to language I most resonate with, and seen great value in their work; choosing not to enter into "debates" about critical perspectives because I don't find it productive to declare myself in one "camp" or the other.

Several people in the room went back and forth on this -- am I declaring myself "neutral?" Some seemed to think I was. I said I don't think anyone can be politically "neutral," just that I don't have a strong opinion on one side this debate; another asked a question about what the source of my values in this area was, and I cannot remember exactly what I said -- I believe this is where I talked about using different approaches, and mentioned using Matsuda & Matsuda's (2010) approach of teaching about differences and consequences of unconventional language use.

The final few things I remember saying were that it isn't that I want to evade the question of politics in EAP/applied linguistics (in fact literally the first article I can remember reading on second language writing was about this!), but that I think about these questions constantly, that my mind is paralyzed by them, and that I'm still working out what I believe. I described my research as being driven by a kind of "naive, dumb curiosity' about my work -- who am I teaching? what is this class about? why is it done this way? who are my students? how do they write and why? what do they believe? and so on -- rather than theoretical commitments per se.

I remain unsatisfied by my answer -- and I'm sure some others in the room did too -- because there is so much more to say. I've never been able to finish the paper based on a presentation I did about using Wendell Berry's theory of language to critique the embrace of globalization that seems to be inevitable the ELT profession, because I see the issues as so complex, personal, and intractable.

Here are some points I might have wished to mention in my answer, if I could do it over:

1. I am unequivocally "against" any understanding of the world that would emphasize economic benefits to countries and corporations (rather than individuals and families), the "progress" of technology and science (often to the detriment of traditional ways of living and working), and an economic view of people as “human capital” rather than unique beings with inherent dignity. This to me is antithetical to The Good Life, for anybody. 

2. In that sense, I'm "against" supporting "neoliberalism." It might be true that promoting "fluid" approaches to language resonates with "fluid" approaches to economic globalization, which harms a lot of people, but it might also be true that these approaches represent an accurate understanding of how language functions for many people in the world, and it might even lead to better language teaching. I don't think we know yet.

3. Despite all this, we have to recognize where we live and work, who we are and who our students are, in the world of higher education. We all find ourselves -- perhaps for different reasons -- in a world of unimaginable privilege, comfort, and ease, by both historical and present-day standards. The university as we know it is modern western post-industrial middle-class Thing. (Perhaps it doesn't have to be so;  it wasn't always; many other models of education, writ large, are possible.) Many of our students -- and clearly, we ourselves, I myself, as a well-paid, medically-benefitted, defined-contribution-pension-planned faculty member -- am deeply invested in the continuing success of the global economic order even though I believe it is probably, in some ways, intrinsically evil. (Not a term I use flippantly!)

This is a bitter pill, a troubling paradox, and not something I expect to be able to come to terms with for a long time. 

4. On a personal note, when I got into this field, I assumed I would teach immigrants and refugees, who I assumed would be poor and marginalized. Instead, I've found myself teaching mainly relatively affluent international students. There's nothing wrong with being either one of these types of people, of course. I want to teach my students well, and to help them to grow into the types of people they want to be -- to succeed, to flourish, to make lives for themselves that are meaningful. I desire -- I often fail, but I desire -- to live a life that is other-oriented, selfless, driven by compassion and service. I might hope this for everyone else, too, but I don't know exactly what beliefs, what habits of mind and life, will lead to the world I say I want. I shy away from traditional "critical pedagogy" because I don't think its politics are self-evidently truer than any other honest approaches to positive social change, but I want to teach language and about language in a way that will encourage students to use it in ways that contribute to a better world -- however they might understand that.

5. One thing about Kubota's pushing back against "multi/pluri" approaches that I agree with is questioning the degree to which it benefits the scholars who promote it -- among whom I count myself. A troubling aspect of social science publishing is that it can look like a kind of "mining" -- we, affluent scholars in peaceful, developed countries, clearly use research about and thinking about people in other parts of the world, people who don't have it as well as we do, to further our careers. We just do. We can work for justice and help those people in whatever ways we deem appropriate; I try -- I often fail, but I try -- to literally give a percentage of my income to benefit them, but I benefit from my writing about them just the same. This is troubling, but it also don't feel totally wrong to me. I am reminded of what the writer Chris Hoke, whose work is about Latin drug gangs, said when I asked him whether he felt conflicted about telling other peoples' stories when he himself is a middle-class white dude. He said that the typical response he gets from his gang-member friends is, "Yeah, I want you to tell my f---in' story!"

I wish I could have said all this, and more -- that ultimately, I believe, if you couldn't tell by the somewhat coded religious language I frequently use when talking about this stuff -- that every human person is of infinite worth and dignity, that the only possible way forward in education and in life is "acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to promote well-being when responding to acts or structures of existence that promote ill-being” (to quote the theologian Thomas Oord), and that I don't know what that means when it comes to debates in contemporary applied linguistics but that I want to continue pursuing it, even if I do it badly, at all costs.

But I didn't say any of this; at the time, I felt like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites when an editor asks her to define "irony." Today I feel a little more like Ethan Hawke. (Not a sentence I often produce.)

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Notes toward a plenary talk

Incredibly, I am giving a closing plenary talk at CASDW 2018 in Regina. I'm not sure how this happened but here are my ideas for titles. Will probably go with the third one for maximum sexiness*.

Who teaches writers? Mutilingual students and the disciplinary division of labor revisited

Who will teach writing? Mutilingual students, writing, ESL, and the disciplinary division of labor revisited

“They Literally Can’t Write a Sentence”: Ideologies of writing, multilingual university students, and disciplinary divisions of labor

Disciplinary Division of Labor Revisited: L2 writing and composition across the (Canadian) university

In a nutshell, I’ve been interested in looking at who is tasked with teaching “writing/ language/ communication” to an increasingly multilingual student body in Canada/North America, and how disciplinary divisions and ideologies contribute to how writing/language/communication instruction is conceived of and carried out at the institutional level and whether there is hope for rapprochement between, say, composition/writing studies, applied linguistics/TESL, and other general areas/approaches.

*I overuse the term "sexy title," but it really captures what I mean for it to mean -- a sexy title in academia is one that provokes people into being interested using something they already feel strongly about, often a current theoretical approach or topic of interest in the field, or in this case, a common experience many have likely had of hearing a colleague say something.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Love and education (to be continued for a long time probably)

The 1989 Statement of Education Policy Order sets out the vision of an “educated citizen” who will “think clearly and critically” and “adapt to change.” “The broad aim of the public school system should be to foster the growth and development of every individual, to the end that they will become and be a self-reliant, self-disciplined, participating member with a sense of social and environmental responsibility within a democratic, pluralistic society.”

BC Teachers' Federation Members Guide, AGM resolution, 1994.

"What we to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire." 

R.R. Reno

Listen: "To know the world we have to love it." (Wendell Berry) If I can? When I'm able? Should the circumstances allow? If I have the time? The permission? The funding? The right school? The right kids? No. Love is not an outcome of the right circumstances but a cause of right circumstance.

David Jardine

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

starting year 3 (or 11?)

This September marks my tenth year as a university instructor (2 in China, 6 during my PhD, and 2 as a "real" faculty member). Here are ten things on my mind at the beginning of the eleventh.

1. Starting the schoolyear with a concussion feels like an apt metaphor for my present life. Everything makes me tired, and I have aches and pains that come and go unexpectedly and are troubling, but underneath it there's a grim determination to carry on and do good work under the circumstances. Maybe a little more slowly.

2. I watched a small boy throw up on his desk in a kindergarten classroom this morning. This also felt apt.

3. I'm realizing more and more that I can't force people who have more power than I do to make better (in my eyes) decisions. The challenge is to figure out how to balance what "the System" says you have to do with what you think is genuinely beneficial to students. If I let myself get too discouraged by fighting losing battles about curriculum, I'll go nuts.

4. I'm less certain than ever about how research intersects with my job, but still plugging away at some possibly interesting projects.

5. From Sept 1, 2015 to Sept 1, 2017, my yearly salary has increased by approx. 13%. This is mostly due to union stuff -- collective bargaining, cost of living increases, etc. -- but some of it is merit-based, and I feel very blessed.

6. On an unrelated note -- or perhaps not -- a senior colleague recently commented that it was too bad I couldn't get a "good position." I feel more acutely the TT/NTT divide than I used to. I'm not sure if this will continue, and I hope that whichever side of that divide I were on I'd want to engage it, because it's weird and bad.

7. Somewhat related to #3: one of my main goals for the centre where I work this year is to lead a committee looking at an initiative to implement a university-wide first year EAP program. I'm really excited about this, but I can also imagine getting so wrapped up in it that I get really burned out and disappointed by the inevitable roadblocks. Looking at student language/writing stuff from the institution's perspective -- or from administrators' perspectives, I guess -- can be very disorienting and discouraging to a workaday instructor. But it doesn't have to be.

8. Another major project this year: I'm co-chairing the Symposium on Second Language Writing here in Vancouver, the first weekend in August. It'll be held at the downtown campus of my university. This will be a ton of work, but I'm looking forward to it.

9. I'm also supposed to be working on/finishing a book for Cascade, which I really want to do but haven't been able to find the time to.

10. Also, I have to apply for permanent residency in Canada this year, ASAP, so I can keep my job. Yeep!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tips on (or Genre Features of) Academic Blogging

I wrote this for a class I taught last year, but I thought it was useful enough to post here.

Academic blog posts can be written in a freer and looser style than traditional academic writing. Feel free to write about academic subjects in a more conversational way – using contractions, slang, and colloquialisms is appropriate, to a degree. You don’t have to do this, but getting your point across is more important than following the conventions of Writing a Good Term Paper or whatever.

Think about how much ground you’re trying to cover. A short blog post (1000 words is more like a maximum than a minimum for blog posts) can only probably cover one issue in detail – don’t try to tackle every aspect of a complex issue, but focus in on what interests you (and readers) the most.

Write for a “general reader.” (Even though multiple editors have told me that no such person exists.) Imagine a well-educated reader who does not know much about your topic – maybe a well-read fellow student who hasn’t studied the things you have. This will mean avoiding jargon and explaining things that might not be familiar to non-specialists.

Linking is one of the great advantages of academic blogging – rather than having to scroll down to a reference list, readers can click right on whatever you want to point them to. There are no rules about how to do this, but in general, it helps to give readers a sense of what they’re getting into when they click – probably at least some combination of author, title, publication, and general topic will be useful. Feel free to link to anything you think will be of interest.

Brevity and readability are probably bigger concerns in blogging than they are in traditional academic writing. Consider writing in relatively short paragraphs. (Speaking of paragraphs, indentation is not necessary and looks weird online – leave a space between paragraphs instead.) The use of lists and bullet points can be beneficial in getting your point across.

On a related note, images and other design considerations, like headings, fonts, the use of space, and so on, are much more important in blogging than in traditional academic writing. Think about how the visual organization of your post impacts the reader. Would supplementing a post with an image of the thing you’re writing about help readers understand your topic? Would headings help readers understand where you make shifts in topic or argument? Could visuals that are not directly related to your argument add something to the post? 

(Don't forget to use images that you have permission to use without paying for – read this for a useful primer.)

Finally, the following articles offer useful advice on academic blogging in general:
  • Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer Pat Thomson, Times Higher Education academic-writer
  • Effective Academic Blogging
    Joe Essid, Writer’s Web
  • How to Write an Academic Blog
    Corey Tomsons, Thought Capital