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.)