TBT: Language Philosophy Midterm – UMass Boston, Fall 2012

Midterm Paper: Language Philosophy

            “I believe that my language is my voice, my way of making meaning in the world.” This is the first line of my Initial Language Philosophy statement (see Appendix 1), written in our first class in Apling 623, Sociolinguistics, with Professor Donaldo Macedo. For our midterm paper, we are meant to critique, revise, and expand upon this statement in order to “[move] beyond the folk theory that language is merely a tool of communication.” I can assert unequivocally that I have modified my original statement; that this statement appears incomplete and fanciful, even at the beginning of my second year as a master’s student in UMass Boston’s Applied Linguistics program, reveals to me that the more I delve into, critically analyze, and reappropriate from the readings we’ve done in Sociolinguistics (as well as other courses during this program), the more I find myself back at the beginning of my understanding and exploration of the roles of “teacher,” “school,” “student,” and most of all, “language” in our lives as social and linguistic beings that exist within a sociocultural and political framework whose machinations guide and exert control over us on a daily basis. I find it increasingly difficult, no matter what I’m reading, not to look for the folk theories that Professor Macedo refers to in class, these cultural “truths” which are handed down from generation to generation and considered “common sense,” yet oftentimes work to counter any critical thinking as an ‘ideological’ attack on tradition. My concern – central now to my language philosophy after months of a sort of mental gestation period during which I’ve absorbed and grappled with many new ideas, both inside the classroom and out, to be applied – is that we are living in a time when education, and language education in particular, is working to serve the neoliberal end goals of a consumeristic culture, in which values and ideas are directly related to their economic benefit, and where the protection (let alone the liberation and re-interpellation) of subordinated peoples is considered to be secondary, if not threatening, to the cultural hegemony’s preeminence. Assimilation, “being American,” and other phrases guarding the dominance of the American mainstream discourse – characterized by academic language, Western essayist ways of defining literacy, and white, middle-class, heteronormative, Christian, English-speaking values, perspectives, and identities – belie an intolerance and an anti-diversity return to modernistic tendencies in our culture and, by extension, in appropriations of it around the world as a result of globalization.

Along these lines, several of the readings we’ve done related to gender, bilingual education, and academic discourse in Sociolinguistics which I’ve enjoyed working with as a means of sharpening my critical abilities include “Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers” by Deborah Tannen (1998),The Ethos of Academic Discourse” by Patricia Bizzell (1978), and “Politicization and the Schools: The Case of Bilingual Education” by Diane Ravitch (1985). Tannen’s piece, a discussion of the difficulties men and women face in communicating with each other in the context of long-term relationships, is a trite, overly simplistic and reductive way to counsel women who have become fed-up with their partners, i.e., men who speak differently than they do because of their more independent, competitive natures, using, for example ”‘I’ or ‘me’ in a situation in which they [the women] would use ‘we’ or ‘us’” and not becoming “a new and improved version of a best friend” (p. 437-441), issues, Tannen appears to believe are universal to all women. The irony of Tannen’s popularity not as a self-help guru, but as a female linguist and ‘authority’ on the communication differences between men and women is that it lacks basic self-critique: though Tannen wrote the piece in 1998, she is clearly stuck in an essentializing, heterosexist perception of gender that harks back to the modernist period, dividing communication patterns up into an easy binarism of straight men and women that is superimposed on them both by their natures as well as by the sociocultural context into which they are interpellated as members of either one gender or the other. Unable to avoid invoking the easy cultural myths she clearly was raised with and continues to apply to her research, Tannen perpetuates stereotyping and dominant heteronormative thinking in her work.

Similar to Tannen’s perhaps inadvertent subservience to the cultural hegemony is “Politicization and the Schools: The Case of Bilingual Education” (Ravitch, 1985), which discusses bilingual education in a slightly dated but still very relevant traditional view of schools as a important place of cultural reproduction of American ‘values’ (read: hegemony). Ravitch rails against “crusaders outside the schoolhouse” (p. 255) in what appears to be a plea for a return to the mythic purity of an erstwhile ‘apolitical’ educational system, free of the influence of “single-issue groups” (p. 257) who seek to ‘politicize’ schools by pursuing bilingual education for students who are non-native speakers of English while subverting the public school system’s primary goals of educating American children; Ravitch even refers to the “ethnocentrism” (p. 258) of pro-bilingual education activists fighting for the right of all children to equal access to comprehensible and socioculturally meaningful educational practices. Especially telling is Ravitch’s citation of the intervention by the courts in order to desegregate public schools as an example of how politics can dangerously intercede in the public school system, a commentary which belies her latent belief that status quo and the internally determined values and goals of schools – determined, that is, by educators whose position in society is one of command over the ivory tower of academia, an edifice empowered by certain cultural myths (such as the notion that academic language/discourse is the ‘correct’ mode of expression in the public realm, a view that permits those from a similar home discourse full access to potential for academic/professional success) that include the powerful folk belief that schools and teachers are unbiased and apolitical. In my first reading of this article, I wrote in the margins, “And what’s the alternative? Racist, unequal business as usual?” and “You assume that the current pedagogy is fair!”, statements which a year ago I might have been less confident in making.

“The Ethos of Academic Discourse” (Bizzell, 1978) is review of the sordid state of affairs in academic writing allegedly bemoaned by professors in universities everywhere, and is an extension (though perhaps a more subtle one) of the same expression of anxiety and frustration about the challenges of dealing with students who, according to Bizzell, demonstrate substandard or ‘extra-standard’ “skills of elucidation and validation and sequencing in expository writing.” (p. 351) She references the problem of the “honest face ethos” which students evidently employ to make their points rather than follow the “’rituals’ of academic discourse” (p. 353), which she clearly prefers as the ‘correct’ mode of expression in the educational context. Bizzell outlines several principles that educators should keep in mind in guiding learners in improving their writing, mostly rooted in culturally-situated knowledge and assumptions; in doing so, she tips her hand: “I realize that any attempt to outline such a compendium [of required knowledge related to academic discourse] lies open to charges of cultural bias—but in a way, that’s just the point…[T]he student who is attempting to master academic discourse is attempting to pass for a member of a particular cultural group who shares this ‘common stock’ of knowledge.” (Bizzell, 1978, p. 354) Bizzell tries to get out of personal and professional responsibility for the cultural and social ramifications of making an argument like this by stating that “we [educators] must be willing to be self-conscious about the value we place on academic ethos…[as well as] the social ramifications of this ethos…” (p. 355), without ever addressing the next logical step in such a process: self-analysis and critical awareness of her own socioculturally situated biases in educational and discursive preferences and their impact on her research and pedagogy.

It is this very blasé way of washing one’s hands of responsibility, of the contributions one makes in the cultural reproduction of power-based inequalities and cultural myth-based structuralistic views of our society – which takes place in its most centralized version in education – that occurs in every school in every part of our country; reading academic papers which show a similar resistance to non-standard, non-mainstream ways of thinking and to critical self-awareness as a means to creating a critical pedagogy (Giroux, 2011) inspires me to review my language philosophy with a much more careful eye. I do refer to power in my statement, saying: “I believe as a language teacher, understanding that language and culture are powerfully linked means that I must observe how powerfully power plays a role in the language classroom.” However, I don’t think I addressed at the time my own role as a language teacher in bearing out the hegemonic forces which inform the discourse and objectives of education; to simply leave off and say, “well, I should be aware that this exists” is akin to how Bizzell finishes her own paper, with a vague allusion to the fact that there are implications to going with the flow of power and social stratification in the halls and classrooms of all educational institutions, without any personal or professional commitment to making change. This critical self-analysis, including an analysis of my pedagogy, experience, praxis, and values, must include an honest exploration of the parts of my work as a teacher that reflect the comfort many educators take in maintaining their positions of power; this is especially important for those among us who belong to the dominant discourse and dominant identity, like myself.

Some of the greatest pieces I’ve yet read in the Apling program that have been included in the Sociolinguistics syllabus include bell hooks’ “Teaching New Worlds/New Words” (1994), Judith Butler’s “On Linguistic Vulnerability” (1997), and Lilia Bartolomé’s “Understanding Academic Discourses” (1998) (though I would also include “The Colonialism of the English-Only Movement” by Macedo and “Discourses, Socio-Culturally Situated Educational Theory, and the Failure Problem” by James Paul Gee, which have been formative for me but can’t be discussed for space reasons). Reading these first three authors – all of whom belong to marginalized identity/ies vis-à-vis American culture (Latina/child-of-immigrant parents, lesbian, and African-American, respectively) – as they discuss issues relevant to the subordinated members of our culture who are subordinated due to their way of speaking, being, and making meaning in the world inspires and excites me to find the answers to the questions and challenges in my mind after reading papers like those of Bizzell, Ravitch, and Tannen. hooks flags the power of English as an oppressor’s language (echoed also in “The Colonialism of the English-Only Movement” (Macedo, 2000)), even as she uses it to speak to the presumed reader of her words. She speaks of “transforming the oppressor’s language” and reminds the reader of African-American Vernacular English as a means of “[resisting] white supremacy [and creating] a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies…crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic worldview.” (hooks, 1994) A white, English-speaking middle-class reader of this paper (especially one not apprenticed into the critical discourse of the Apling department at UMass Boston) might well see this as a ‘controversial’ or ‘ideological’ way of seeing language use, a ‘political’ way…and he/she would be right. To add to an examination of my own interpellation and discursively guided motivations for keeping cultural status quo (albeit unconsciously) as mentioned above, I must also value discourses and voices unlike my own – white, academic, heteronormative, middle-class, SAE-speaking – and address the implications of this in my classroom through a critical pedagogy which contributes to educational reform; I cannot do so simply by nodding my head and then turning the page.

The observation of language’s power to subordinate threads through “On Linguistic Violence,” a paper about our existence as linguistic and social beings whose subjectification positions them to use language conventions – and the force behind them – to subjectify, and sometimes to injure, others. Butler challenges the reader to explore the potentially performative force of injurious speech as interpellative of the addressee by constituting him/her at the moment of speaking as a social and linguistic subject (while also subjectifying and interpellating the speaker) in the discourse in which the speaking takes place. (Butler, 1997) According to Butler, the particular power of injurious names derives from their invocation of convention, the ritualized signification of the terms being used through time, a signification which subordinates the addressee and works as a “site for the mechanical and predictable reproduction of power.” (p. 19) She moves to discuss (and argues against, finally) the potential for classification of these speech acts as conduct, which, if considered injurious, would validate a bypass of the First Amendment, a step which she considers equivocal in its validity and subject to political bias. While her argumentation is dense and she references philosophical and literary thought in her writing, Butler’s points are extremely powerful. She leaves the reader with a clear sense that language, our use of it and subjectification by it as its users, contains extraordinary power and influence over our interactions with each other, and yet we as the linguistic beings existing within it are able to resignify and reshape it through its performativity as political and sociocultural discourses shift. Like hooks, Butler’s critical approach challenges me to rethink traditional notions that I may inadvertently follow in my pedagogy, praxis, and perceptions of the subject I teach, by investigating the real groundings of the power of language and our sociopolitical responsibility to its life and death. She also encourages me to rework the notion that the government has my/our best interests in mind as it limits our freedom to use our linguistic and social power to shape language and thought, an active part of my membership in what is supposed to be the democracy inherent to American discourse.

To finish with Bartolomé is to end with an educator whose work I always find clear-eyed and full of all the questions that academics like Ravitch, Bizzell and Tannen either refuse or forget to ask. In “Understanding Academic Discourses” (Bartolome, 1998), Bartolomé executes a superb critical analysis of the cultural myth surrounding the ‘objectiveness’ of “de-contextualized language” embedded in the worship of “academic discourse conventions [which] are seldom explicitly taught to working-class, linguistic-minority students” (p. 3-4), directly addressing the invisible power of this discourse as a means of conferring membership on those who have access to it through their home discourse while veiling its exclusionary realities. (p. 7) My takeaways from this paper are twofold: one, I’ve added Bartolomé’s discussion to my understanding of the inherent biases school discourse – and its operationalizers, those who teach – and the educational ideology it is founded on as an internecine means of subordination of lower-class, non-native-Standard American English-speaking learners; and two, that in addition to my re-evaluated understandings of my role in power dissemination and concretization as an educator, I must perceive my learners as members of their families, their communities, their discourses. To attempt to excise them from this identity, through a separation of each learner into an apolitical, acultural linguistic tabula rasa to be molded and reformed, is, according to Bartolomé, to perpetuate the devaluation of their understandings, language, and culture, to replicate the “symbolic and real violence perpetrated against it by the middle-class white school culture” (p. 12) and to position myself as an ideological instrument of cultural reproduction of assimilation and cultural white-washing, like so many educators before me.

This is where I am left, then, in consideration of my Language Philosophy as I first wrote it, compared to what the concept means to me now. I am powerfully aware of all that I don’t know philosophically, politically, culturally, and pedagogically, and I feel that a critical exploration of authors whose work is critical, politically honest, and daring is where I must continue. I cannot attempt to be ‘apolitical’ any more than I can attempt to close my eyes to what is true about our country; doing so will never give my students an equal shot at success, probably the most unbelievable American cultural myth still commonly held today. As Paulo Freire stated, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” (Freire, 1984) I fail my learners when I assume that they are accounted for in a neoliberal society that purports to be egalitarian just because the Declaration of Independence insists that “all men are created equal” (Declaration of Independence – Text Transcript, n.d.), a foundation for the belief that schools, the place where American values are taught, engender this same democratic ethic as relates to language use and perceptions of learning. Seeing each of my students beyond sociocultural and political assumptions, valuing their voices and dialoguing with them and their families and communities (and seeing and hearing myself as well), and knowing that as an educator and citizen, every action I take, even that of non-action, has direct impact on the democratic potential and power distribution in our country…these are the ideas I must keep in mind in critically approaching and continuing my work as a language teacher.

Appendix 1: Initial Language Philosophy

I believe that my language is my voice, my way of making meaning in the world. It is my culture, a force which shapes me and which I mold into new situations on a daily basis. I believe as a language teacher, understanding that language and culture are powerfully linked means that I must observe how powerfully power plays a role in the language classroom.

There are no rights and wrongs, no absolutes in language. There is “mine,” “yours,” “ours.”

Works Cited

Bartolome, L. (1998). Understanding Academic Discourses. In L. Bartolome, The Misteaching of Academic Discourses: The Politics of Language (pp. 1-15). Toronto, Canada: Harper Collins.

Bizzell, P. (1978). The Ethos of Academic Discourse. College Composition and Communication, 29 (4), 351-355.

Butler, J. (1997). On Linguistic Violence. In J. Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (pp. 1-42). New York, NY: Routledge.

Declaration of Independence – Text Transcript. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Archives and Website Administration: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

Freire, P. (1984). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey Paperback.

Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching New Worlds/New Words. In b. hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (pp. 167-176). New York, NY: Routledge.

Macedo, D. (2000). The Colonialism of the English Only Movement. Educational Researcher , 29 (3), 15-24.

Ravitch, D. (1985). Politicization and the Schools: The Case of Bilingual Education. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , 129 (2), 254-262.

Tannen, D. (1998). Talk in the Intimate Relationship: His and Hers. In J. Coates, Language and gender: A reader (pp. 435-445). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.


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