Thursday, April 06, 2023

The I stands for I, and the D stands for "dentification"

Identity is a huge thing in my discipline, and many educational disciplines. But there's something that feels contradictory about the way identity is discussed in our field. In the theory and research, identity is very clearly rooted in a post-structuralist paradigm.

Identity is “how people view themselves in relation to the social world, how their view is constructed over time, and from that view, how they perceive their future possibilities.”

Bonny Norton

Identity here is almost an action; it can only by definition be something that shifts and changes from time to time. It's how we think of ourselves, it's the interplay between self-conception and social positioning, it's what we're able to stake out for ourselves in a social world that has certain written and unwritten rules about how to be. 

Yet the way identity is talked about in popular discourse, even by scholars who ostensibly work within this more "fluid" paradigm, is much more fixed and rigid, and about categories: race/class/gender/sexual orientation/disability etc are treated like permanent, finite categories that have obvious major influences on people's "identities."

“... we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
The Breakfast Club   

So on the one hand, we're told identity is an ever-changing discourse, a dynamic and shifting site at the nexus of the individual and society; on the other, it's an immutable and extremely socially pertinent set of boxes you check. Neither of these is satisfying. Most of us experience the world as coherent selves who, despite thinking about ourselves and our relationship to the world in different ways at different times in our lives, ultimately have what Christian Smith calls a "durable identity."

“By person I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who -- as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions -- exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”


Christian Smith

On the other hand, we also experience jarring changes in our sense of ourselves; it is very common to say "I'm not the same person I once was." We've all heard the old chestnut about all our atoms rearranging or whatever, or the ship that is rebuilt piece by piece. Even the seemingly fixed identity categories are things that can change and that we may want to resist. A Japanese person who immigrates to the US may suddenly find he "is" "Asian American." A white American may move to an Asian country and suddenly find she "is" a "foreigner." We may resist being "labelled" and essentialized because we don't like being positioned by other people in ways that feel bad to us. We contain multitudes, often to the point that we can't even really "know ourselves" because we lack the capacity to understand "who we are" outside of our own subjective sense of self at any given time.

"One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all."

Walker Percy

So we cannot know ourselves, we feel that we have a stable self even though we cannot really define it, and we are subject to constantly shifting self-conceptions and social positionings by others. How can we be said to "have" an identity? What is it that makes us coherently human?

You have an identity, not because you have invented one, or because you have a little hard core of selfhood that is unchanged, but because you have a witness of who you are. What you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love. You don’t have to work out and finalize who you are, and have been; you don’t have to settle the absolute truth of your history or story. In the eyes of the presence that never goes away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze.

Rowan Williams

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Professional association thoughts

 Hey, so, I just became president of a professional association. Kind of wild.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately (one of the luxuries afforded by a sabbatical is that I have time to think, kinda), and I'm going to write a more-or-less stream-of-consciousness list of things I think I believe that are maybe going to guide my two years as president. (Note the enormous amount of hedging in that sentence, however.)

1. It's OK for professional associations to move slowly in some ways, but also to be driven by groundswells of urgency, innovation, etc. as they occur.

2. This association in particular (and probably many) has an enormous "diversity problem," but also, diversity is not a 'problem' to be solved. We need to understand why our organization is so white.

3. Outreach seems crucial. We can't control who decides to join the organization, but we can make people more aware of it and make it more hospitable to more people.

4. People who have access to institutional pro-d funds should pay more; grad students, part time employees, etc. should pay little or nothing (for conference, membership, etc. fees). We should use the money we have to pay people to do important work for our association, especially graduate students.

5. We need to understand what our association does well and continue to do them well and better; we don't need to try to be all things to all people. The association is not the discipline, the discipline is not the association. We can be a node in a network; we don't have to be the whole network.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

On religious shibboleths

I've always been really interested in religious shibboleths, and I informally collect them. (Of course the word "shibboleth" itself is religious in origin: in the book of Judges, the way that an army figures out who's on their side and who's the enemy is by forcing them to pronounce this word; if they pronounce it wrong, they get killed (which, according to the account, 2,040 of them were.))

Some favorites off the top of my head:

  • A person who refers to God as "Heavenly Father" without a determiner like "our" is almost definitely a Mormon.
  • Evangelicals refer to proselytizing as "evangelism," Catholics refer to it as "evangelization."
  • A person who refers to an evangelical Christian as an "evangelist" is probably not an evangelical.
  • A person who refers to the Bible as "Sacred Scripture" is almost definitely a Catholic.

There are many more. But I've been long haunted by one that hit me like a ton of bricks, and it's connected to another of my abiding interests, which is the seemingly mysterious and unknowable Something that makes marriage what it is. I have an extremely high view of marriage for a variety of personal, cultural, and religious reasons, but I've never really been able to understand what makes some marriages work and others fail, or what exactly it means to join yourself to another person when it's apparently extremely difficult to truly know another person well. 

Anyway, here's the story:

Some years ago I was out and about with my family one Sunday afternoon when I noticed a kid we knew from church was at the same park we were at. I looked around and eventually saw his father, who I didn't know well but who I knew was estranged from his wife, who I also knew (not super well) from church. I knew the guy didn't attend our church, but that was about it. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and then he said something like "so, are you guys just coming back from Mass?"

I was almost struck dumb by the amount of information I suddenly felt I knew about this guy. I literally didn't know what to say.

If you're an evangelical, there are literally no circumstances under which you would refer to any time you attend your church as Mass. Not a Sunday morning, not a wedding, not a funeral, not Easter, not Christmas, nothing. It's an utterly, utterly foreign word. It is not even remotely within the realm of possibility that his wife had ever referred to attending church as Mass in the entire time she would have known and been married this man.

So first of all, I knew that he was probably raised Catholic or was somehow exposed to enough Catholic culture that he thought of church attendance as "going to Mass."

Second, I felt I also knew -- and maybe this is an unfair judgement, but it struck me just the same -- that this guy barely knew his wife at all.

This is such a basic thing to get wrong about how evangelicals talk about church that I had to assume they'd never even spoken about her faith, which was presumably quite important to her, or he'd never taken enough notice to note that the linguistic habit he'd acquired of referring to church attendance as Mass was not a part of her life.

I can't overstate how enormous of a shibboleth this is. It would be like asking why an Italian restaurant didn't have any kimchi, or referring to the Beatles as a metal band, or saying "G'Day, mate" as a greeting to everyone you meet while you're in Ireland.

I don't really have a moral to this story. It's just that I don't think I've ever been struck with such a stark, sudden realization based on hearing the utterance of a single word. And the couple did, sadly and perhaps predictably, end up getting divorced.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Lower-quality regional open-access journals across the academic lifespan

Defining the terms

Lower-quality: journals that immediately evince features of failing to meet basic norms of academic publishing such as copyediting, rigorous peer review, having an editorial board that is actually reading and making decisions about articles, and so on. Often the term "predatory" is used to described these journals, but they often exist in a symbiotic relationship with scholars from the regions below (and others) who are pressured to publish in "international" and/or "English-language" journals for promotion and financial incentives by their employers.

Regional: I hesitate to use this word and perhaps should not, as it implies that journals based in North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand are not "regional." Of course they are. This whole enterprise depends on the fact that there is a worldwide archipelago of academic institutions, publishers, and scholars who represent a kind of elite in a given field, and that a large number of others are shut out. Ironically, journals in this elite category rarely if ever need to refer to themselves as "international," whereas journals that are shut out from this for reasons of, say, language, or resources, specifically use that word.

The "regional" journals I have in mind typically have a majority of contributors and editorial board members from the following regions:

China (but not Hong Kong)
Middle East
Eastern Europe
Southeast Asia (but not Singapore)
South Asia
Some parts of Africa

You'll note the lack of Spanish-speaking countries here. I assume that this is because publishing in Spanish is prestigious and 'international' enough to serve the demands of those places, though I cannot be certain as I'm not familiar with this area.

It's tempting to draw a distinction between more and less economically "developed" (a loaded term, to be sure) regions here, if we note the exclusion of Hong Kong and Singapore. There is a sense of these scholars being shut out of geopolitically organized knowledge regimes, and LQROAJs are an attempt, perhaps, to subvert this.

Open Access: OA doesn't mean "bad," but the OA infrastructure makes it easy to set up highly accessible and professional-seeming journals (of varying degrees of actual quality) very quickly.

Academic lifespan: from undergrad to grad school to professorship.


Here's what interests me about the possible influence of LQROAJs across the academic lifespan in, say, the context where I work. In no way am I suggested that scholars from the regions represented above cannot do good work, or that we should not diversify academic publishing. What I am concerned about is that students are frequently being socialized into academic literacy -- both on the "source use" side as students and the publication side as emerging scholars -- in ways that are counter to what their mentors might wish to be apprenticing them into. In fact, they might be being socialized into these things by automated processes -- search algorithms, spam emails, bibliometrics -- that simply cannot help them separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to discerning the quality of academic texts. Again, it is entirely possible that we should in fact be mentoring students into more geographically diverse practices in these areas, but the fact remains that there are many academic articles of very dubious quality available online, and many younger students and scholars may not be able to recognize them as such.

The following are fictional, but based on actual things I have seen.

A first-year undergraduate is given an assignment to choose five relevant sources for his research essay. He uses Google Scholar or her library database, and finds articles whose titles appear relevant and seem to appear in journals with impressive-sounding names. Unfortunately, three of the articles he chooses are from LQROAJs, and are rife with spelling and grammar errors and dubious claims, and are based on what would be considered by his professor to be outmoded theories.

The student (wrongly) learns that it is easy to find open access articles about any topic and you can often click on the first few results and get something that works OK for your paper, and that apparently (if he reads the papers closely, which, let's be honest, he may not) you don't have to be all the great a writer to get something published. Without guidance about what to look for in sources, the assignment has not improved his 'research' skills.

A first-year masters student is writing a literature review for a course about a topic she may be interested in doing research on later in her program. She searches for very specific key words in order, she hopes, to keep the amount of literature manageable. Many of the articles she ends up with are from LQROAJs, and as such are often not based on empirical research, but are themselves literature reviews.

The student (correctly!) learns that there are a TON of articles out there about the topic she's interested in, but without someone pointing her toward which journals are considered the most important in her field, she's lost.

A PhD student receives an email purporting to be from the editor of a Canadian academic journal in her field. She's delighted to have been contacted by someone who read an article she published in a small conference proceedings, and submits a paper she wrote in one of her classes to the journal. The paper itself was given a B by her instructor, who told her it had a weak theoretical framework and made conclusions that weren't well-supported. The journal accepts and publishes the paper within three weeks.

The student (wrongly) learns that good academic publishing opportunities are easy to come by and have no relationship to mentoring, networking, and learning how to 'read' the signposts and approach the gatekeepers of her discipline. She publishes in a journal that some of her current and future colleagues consider "predatory" and when a search committee sees this publication on her CV, her application is ranked lower than it might have been otherwise.

A senior academic at a Canadian university has written a paper reflecting on a course he developed some years ago, but has been unable to find a venue to publish it. When he receives an email inviting him to submit to the International Journal of Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences (I made this name up, but I wouldn't be surprised if it exists) and complimenting him on his eminence in his field, he sees an opportunity to submit this long-neglected paper. It is published in the journal's next issue alongside forty other papers, most of which are written by junior scholars from Ukraine*.

The academic wrongly assumes that because someone reached out to him, they know and appreciate his work, and that the impressive-sounding IJEHSS is, indeed, a worthwhile publication venue. He has potentially done intangible harm to his own and his department's reputation.

*Again, there is nothing wrong with being a junior scholar in Ukraine! These people need opportunities to publish and refine their work like anyone else!

Qs to follow up:
- Won't LQROAJs eventually become HQIOAJs (higher quality international open access journals) if given the time and space to grow?
- By sheer numbers, despite their often extremely poor quality, aren't LQROAJs actually often already widely accepted and successful?
- What gives you the right to call my journal an LQROAJ, a**hole?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why Summaries Are Hard

Something I have been aware of for a while but have trouble articulating:

Most of my students, when they first write a standalone summary for my first year writing class, write it as though the author of the original article doesn’t exist. The author is almost never mentioned unless I explicitly tell them to mention him/her. Why might this be? Perhaps because the students are predisposed for whatever reason to think of texts mainly as containing information to be understood, absorbed, reacted to, analyzed, etc., but not to set them in a larger context. Maybe it isn’t until university (or even later?) that you begin to see texts as situated and rhetorical, constructed by people with particular aims and agency, rather than simply neutral transmitters of information.

What I think I see happening is the student writers appropriating the identity of the original authors themselves, if that makes sense — taking on the role of the information-transmitter. Things not attributed to other voices by the original author are simply written without attribution. In fact, most first-time summaries I get are written with no attribution to the author of the text, but the student writers often go out of their way to attribute ideas to the other people/organizations/texts mentioned in the original text. Most of the articles I have them summarize are reported pieces, so in essence the student takes on the role of the reporter. It’s interesting to me how frequently they will go out of their way to quote things that were quotes in the original article — again, as if they themselves were the reporters, and that their job as summarizers is to report “who said what” in the original. It’s just that the author of the original text is rarely considered as one of the “who said whats” to include.

What’s so hard about summarizing is that we ask the students to write a wholly “objective” report of what’s in the original text — to keep themselves and their opinion out of it, if you will — and this makes it very hard for them to realize that they still have to establish some kind of authorial identity. Ironically, it is through attribution to the original author that the student writer can come to distinguish his/her voice from that of the original text. When a writer carefully attributes ideas to other writers, they’re able to carve out a space for themselves, even in a seemingly neutral, objective summary, as the curator, organizer, and interpreter of the text they are summarizing.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of English as an Additional Language in the Expanding Circle

These remarks were delivered on Friday, June 28, at the 12th International Symposium on Bilingualism in Edmonton, Alberta for the panel "Multilingualism in the Expanding Circle: English as an Additional Language" organized by Suzanne Hilgendorf and featuring her, Bouchra Kachoub, and Elizabeth Martin.

The three papers presented today offer an empirical look at the complex ways in which English functions in what world Englishes (WEs) theory has traditionally called the "expanding circle" (EC). In theory, the EC has been a useful construct to distinguish regions which have no colonial history involving English, or where the language has not taken root to be used in everyday, intranational contexts. In practice, as these papers have shown, it has become more and more difficult to conceive of the EC as comprising settings in which English is truly “foreign.” In the 35 years since Kachru’s concentric circles model of WEs was proposed, it has become clear that the EC is perhaps the most dynamic of the circles, and that there is a need to reexamine how we conceive of English and its uses in these widely divergent contexts.

Each of these papers complicates that notion and forces us to consider the social, cultural, and sociolinguistic functions of what I will call "L1 + English bilingualism" with more nuance.

Hilgendorf's paper about the penetration of English language-media in Germany -- a country where the German language, which is spoken by 100 million people worldwide, dominates everyday life -- shows that Germans have a degree of facility and familiarity with English that we might not expect to see in a setting where it is considered a "foreign" language. While she showed that English language film and television have long been a staple of German media consumption, in variously dubbed, subtitled, or other formats, she also showed that the emergence of transnational video streaming platforms like Netflix allows further linguistic choice, and potentially thus more exposure to English media. It seems likely that more Germans will, in fact, choose to consume television and films in English to some degree, though further research is needed in this area.

Kachoub’s paper on the use of English on shop signs in Casablanca shows that English language signs are common even in the non-English-dominant Morocco. The English in Casablanca's linguistic landscape goes beyond simply the presence of international companies from the inner or outer circle; English has a variety of local functions and it comfortably coexists with other local and transnational languages. This is not simply  the 'pseudo English' or 'display English' of, for example, nonsensical English language T-shirts in Asia (which themselves actually ought to be an object of more serious study!) but English with semantically rich meanings, aimed at a cosmopolitan community of multilingual speakers – perhaps we can call them speakers of “L1+English bilingualism” – for whom the language and indeed its mixing with other languages is intelligible and appropriate.

Martin’s paper, which builds on her previous work on the status of English in advertising in Quebec and France, confounds our expectations of what should be found within the boundaries of an “Inner Circle” country like Canada and an “Expanding Circle” one like France: there is much more English in French advertising, and almost none at all in Quebec. This is due to differences in both local language policies and language practices that differ considerably even though both regions are Francophone and share certain linguistic and cultural similarities.

What, then, can we say about how our understanding of “L1+English bilingualism” – or simply a local multilingualism of which English is one part – in the EC should be shaped by the empirical work we have seen in these papers today?

·    First, there does not seem to be a clear relationship between the spread of English to EC settings and either the wholehearted embrace nor wholesale rejection of the language. English emerges as one language among many, an important part of local linguistic repertoires in some domains such as media, advertising, and signage, but not necessarily in others. The EC, then, is not a place where English is a wholly foreign language, but one “local” (yet transnational) language that can be taken up and used depending on specific local needs and purposes.

·     Second, what Alastair Pennycook has called “global linguistic flows” and “transcultural flows” are in fact of utmost importance in our understanding of how English functions at both the societal and individual levels in the EC. It’s not just that people in EC settings use English for communicating with international interlocutors, but that “local culture” itself in the EC in fact includes English in important social and cultural domains, because of cultural globalization. One example: in one of my graduate courses last week, a student showed a video of a popular Chinese “streamer” – someone who makes videos of himself playing video games – whose videos depict him interacting with various international gamers in English, with Chinese subtitles. What is significant here is not just what the gamers are doing, but that this is a locally made cultural product for a Chinese audience that includes English as an important resource for meaning.

·     Third, I have used the word ‘local’ several times to refer to EC settings, but we need to expand or redefine what we mean by “local” beyond the nation. Martin’s paper includes a specific region of Canada, Kachoub's a specific city in Morocco. This empirical work shows us wisdom of Paul Bruthiaux’s 2003 critique of the three circles model when he advocated “moving away from a focus on nationstates in favor of a sociolinguistic focus on Englishspeaking communities wherever they are found.” Cities, regions, provinces – and going beyond geography to diasporic communities, online communities, or even specific physical locations, as in linguistic landscape research – could become sites for research about how English works in the EC.

I do believe that engagement with Expanding Circle Englishes beyond borders is necessary, and this means, probably, more engagement between world Englishes research on the one hand and ELF research on the other. I won’t go into the theoretical disagreements between WE and ELF scholars here, but regardless of whether we identify more with WE or ELF approaches, or see merits in both, scholars should have an interest in seeing research and pedagogy regarding the varieties and uses of English across the world develop and flourish, and we need to be reading and charitably engaging with each others’ work for this to happen productively.

“English as an additional language” has emerged as one of the most useful and flexible terms to describe the role of English is many people’s lives. “Additional” avoids the presumed monolingualism of English as a “second” language, but it also avoids the parochialism of calling English a “foreign” language when describing contexts in which the language is very much a meaningful (though by no means dominant) part of peoples’ everyday lives. The work we have seen today on English in the Expanding Circle suggests that English, is, indeed an additional language – and perhaps, for many, the additional language.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

To Say Something and Not Mean It

What does it mean to say something and not mean it?

I think about this a lot. I first thought about it when I wrote a paper on oath-taking in legal settings for a sociolinguistics class during my masters degree. I didn't and still don't understand how oaths can function without the underlying assumption that we might otherwise be lying all the time, and further, in current society oaths themselves also do not appear to act as the guarantors of truth-telling they once were. In fact, I think we've now bizarrely inverted things; I assume that in a court case where various parties have taken oaths they are more likely to be lying than in everyday, non-oath-underwritten speech.

This notion of making promises or oaths or really any utterances with no intention of truthfulness also came to mind when I thought about musicians who started their careers when they were Christian or otherwise religious and later disassociated themselves from their religious beliefs. Having been a Christian rock fan in the 90s, I've noticed this about a few bands who've reunited recently.  What does it mean when the sing the songs they wrote earlier? Conversely, what does it mean when I sing along with XTC's "Dear God" when I hear it on the radio ("Dear God/ I don't believe in you") even though I do believe in God?

What does it mean when someone promises to bring their child up in the Catholic faith at a baptism, even though they do not consider themselves Catholic and have no intention of doing so?

What does it mean when someone proclaims that they join themselves to another person until death, but at some point -- whether before or after making that proclamation -- decides that they may not or will not be joined to that person until death?

I write about religious things here because religious speech acts seem to be particularly exploitable in this way -- side note: did you know that in the US is not illegal to preach a faith you do not actually believe, thanks to a pretty weird and fascinating Supreme Court case? I mean, I don't know why it would be illegal, but it does seem..bad?

Bourdieu wrote that Protestantism essentially ONLY comprises language, which I think if you're religious you can't really believe, but the fact is, one can say something, something that is presumably meant to only be uttered with sincerity, that appears to have no this-worldly guarantor, and not mean it. Satire exists, of course, but what I'm talking about isn't satire -- it's fulfilling a ritual by making a (potentially) false utterance.

What does it mean to say something and not mean it?