Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to Theory

For my current article, I am delving once more into theory, (re)reading the poststructuralist theories of identity that I first encountered in high school English, then undergraduate linguistics, then graduate sociolinguistics and second language acquisition.  Luckily for me, despite the fact that I often struggle with incorporating these theories into my work (since you can't just straightjacket understudied contexts into them), I never really get tired of reading them.  I find the concepts difficult to work with, but this is part of the point--if everything could be neatly categorized, we would never have needed to move beyond structuralism.  Most of all, I am coming to appreciate the possibilities (or "transformative power" as the theorists would say) of these theories for my teaching, research, and life.  Having the words to express what is wrong with essentialist categories, instead of just feeling frustrated at their essentialized nature, turns out to be quite useful.  It makes the world a less certain place to be sure, and more difficult to navigate if you can't just rely on your essentialist gendered, racial, national, etc. categories to tell you what you should do with your life and spare time, but on the other hand, it means that there are many, many possibilities, and this is appealing to me.

Since SLA has borrowed these theories from other fields of the humanities/social sciences, I tend to think of these fields as more advanced theoretically.  This is one reason I wanted to be in a literature/cultural studies department rather than an SLA one* and so it is always surprising to me when I run into say, a cultural studies professor who specializes in critical race theory, but espouses essentialized gender categories, or a literature professor who focuses on issues of identity in the work of female poets from a particular century and country, but doesn't seem to realize that these same issues and theories apply to their teaching of the language of said country.  For me, the value of post-structuralist theories is not just in their rather messy applications to my teaching and research, but also as a way of understanding life, and so they are useful everywhere, at least until I find something better.

The place I find this contradiction most striking and frustrating is in the organization of language departments (including every one I've ever been associated, this post is not about Andalus U), where students take "language" classes followed by "content/culture" classes.  As noted in a previous post, one of my major issues with these language classes is not offering enough hours to get students to a reasonable proficiency level (like Advanced on the ACTFL scale, which is not actually all that advanced in terms of life, but which many students never reach despite six or more semesters of language classes).  However, as I move from my happy theory bubble to the reality of the views of certain language instructors I encounter, I see that these classes are often rooted firmly in a structuralist tradition: glorifying and prescribing the langue at the expense of the more useful parole, or tossing in the obligatory song, traditional dress pictures, and food items for "culture." Part of the problem, in my view, is the division of labor that occurs in language departments, where "anyone" can teach language classes, especially lower division ones, whereas only researchers with PhDs can touch the "content/culture" ones.  This is obviously problematic even from a structuralist perspective of acquiring structures, but for me it is also problematic in terms of incorporating current theory.  If language classes are devalued as not requiring the theoretical knowledge that the content/culture classes do, can we really expect them to be better? If the teaching of language classes is given to people assumed to be uninterested in theory (lecturers, although obviously this isn't always true) or not yet competent enough in it (grad students, again, not necessarily the case) how can we expect theory to be implemented in these classes?

Luckily for me, I am my own little diktatora in terms of building Arabic section at Andalus U, so I can mostly ignore this ridiculousness.  However, it frustrates me when I encounter or read about these types of language classes outside of my own, or when I encounter pompous idiots (not at Andalus U so far) who assume that if I am interested in language teaching or have a PhD in SLA, I can't possibly be interested in or know anything about literary or social theory, and reference things like "dialogism" or "imagined communities" with a condescending offer to explain "because I know you don't study this".

This is not something I have the power to change alone (just look at the struggles in ESL teaching, where they've been on top of these theories for decades) but progress sure would be nice!

*That and reading/discussing the positivist/structuralist research that still dominates a portion of the field makes me want to rip my hair out


1 comment:

  1. I empathize with your frustration - I am the only person in my department who has a terminal degree in-field, and I am constantly fighting back against the idea that just because my research is literary and cultural studies, that must mean that I'm a "bad teacher" (in the world of my colleagues, the only goal of our program is for students to become bilingual. sigh.). I think part of this stems from an ideology that thinks that the process of language acquisition is what a Language major does, where I think that language acquisition is a skill that allows students to explore literary and cultural studies. Unfortunately we don't have a linguist and I am not qualified to teach students SLA or history of the language, etc.

    In other words: from the literary and cultural studies side of our sorts of departments, I observe the same thing. I know in many institutions it seems to be a generational issue, but that doesn't make things better for our students right now.