Miranda Weinberg takes the page 99 test for her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation, Schooling Languages: Indigeneity, Language Policy, and Language Shift in Nepal, is both representative and anomalous as part of my dissertation. In my dissertation more broadly, I investigated how an indigenous minority established a footing relative to the national majority, and within their own community. Specifically, I looked at the implementation of a language policy in Nepal that gives each community the right to basic education in their so-called mother tongue, in particular the case of the Dhimal language. Individual chapters of my dissertation are focused on different levels of scale involved in regimentation of languages in education, from national decisions to community debates over entextualizing the language in textbooks, from discourse practices in schools to interactions at home that teach children which languages they should learn. In the chapter that opens on Page 99, I followed three schools: the two government schools that had begun to teach Dhimal language by the end of my fieldwork, and a third that was seemingly ideally situated to do so but did not. I found that, while the noun phrase the state implies a coherent actor with unified goals, the state was encountered by people and institutions (such as schools) as a momentary and fragmentary phenomenon. The decisions that determined the distribution of languages in schools were more directly influenced by alignments of political party affiliations and activism by an ethnic organization than any sort of force from laws and policies.

Page 99 of my dissertation exemplifies one of my analytical priorities, which was to listen to children. Children and young people are crucial actors in the realms of schooling, enregisterment, and language shift, all issues that I was concerned with in my dissertation. Yet scholars who share these concerns frequently focus on adults without providing full attention to children’s perspectives. In the case of the vignette presented on Page 99 (see below), children’s perspectives showed that they had no problem listing Dhimal as one of their school subjects alongside others, and that they even enjoyed it. At the same time, it exemplifies challenges of conducting research with children, whose claims can be difficult to interpret.

My page 99:

On a sunny afternoon in December, near the end of my fieldwork, I asked a group of second grade students about their favorite subject:

1 MW: ani timharuko sabbhandā manparne bishaya kun ho? And what is all of your favorite subject?
2 S1: malāi manparne bishaya, malāi cahi manparne bishaya, uh, kun ho My favorite subject, uh, the subject I like, um, which is it
3 S2: malāi thāhā cha I know
4 MW: la bhanna ta? Ok, say it then
5 S3: eh bhanna lāunu na Yeah, make her say it
6 MW: la bhanna Ok, say it
7 S2: Dhimal Dhimal
8 MW: Dhimal ho? It’s Dhimal?
9 Teacher: Dhimal bhāshā, Dhimal bhāshā Dhimal language, Dhimal language
10 MW: Dhimal bhāshā ho? Timro favorite? ani Kamalko? It’s Dhimal language? Your favorite? And Kamal’s?
11 S2: bhan Say
12 Teacher: ke bhannu timile What do you say?
13 S1: malāi favorite bishaya Dhimal bhāshā ho My favorite subject is Dhimal language
14 S4: malāi pani Dhimal bhāshā Mine is Dhimal too

:                 (Group interview, 12/2/15)

 

 

On being asked what their favorite subject was, one by one, all but one of the students in the class reported that their favorite subject was Dhimal. The one exception reported that she favored GK, or General Knowledge. This exchange should certainly not be taken as a transparent reflection of students’ feelings: the teacher of the Dhimal and GK subjects was hovering over the conversation and prompting students to answer, the students knew that I frequently attended their Dhimal class, and the less confident students tended to echo the answers of the first few students to speak up.

 

Miranda Weinberg, 2018. Schooling Languages: Indigeneity, Language Policy, and Language Shift in Nepal. University of Pennsylvania, Phd. Dissertation.

 

 

Sonia Das on her new book, Linguistic Rivalries

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/linguistic-rivalries-9780190461782?cc=us&lang=en&

Interview by Lia Siewert

Lia Siewert: Your ethnography looks at how Québec’s Franco-Anglo conflicts, or linguistic rivalries, are reproduced in the language practices of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil-speaking communities in Montréal. How would you describe your book to someone who is not familiar with the politics of language choice in Québec?

Sonia Das: I would start off by saying that in some parts of the world, people are willing to die for their language.  In Montréal this sentiment is very much alive among the folks with whom I conducted my research. Many have participated in movements of linguistic nationalism and fought for their language rights to be recognized and protected in their home societies, in addition to Québec. I would then emphasize how especially contentious language choices are in Québec. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to state that people there always notice which language you choose to speak (or write) at any given time and with any given interlocutor.  Some people get very upset – and will tell you or show you so – if you make what they believe to be the wrong choices. At the same time, some people in Québec want nothing to do with Anglo-Franco conflicts. They would prefer to think of language as a neutral tool in the classic liberal sense and opt out of these debates altogether by speaking English exclusively, yet the law still obliges them to learn and use French for education, business, and government. There are also just as many people who are mindful of the evolving stakes of linguistic rivalries and seek to strategically display their loyalty to both their host and home societies. Upwardly mobile Indian Tamil immigrants generally fall into the first category, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into the second, and their children span the spectrum of political allegiances. No one in Québec truly escapes the interpellating effects of a language ideology that conflates language and ethnonational identity. My book thus explores how the politics of language choice are part and parcel of belonging to a globalizing society that imagines language as the essence of cultural heritage and civic identity.

Lia Siewert: You specifically mention the “voices” you had to exclude from the book’s discussion. Which voices are you referring to? And what kinds of “future retellings and revisions” are you hoping emerge from these omissions?

Sonia Das: This is not only a book about the politics of language choice. This is also a book about the politics of doing ethnography on language choice within the context of a pro-nationalist society that nonetheless seeks to be welcoming of immigrants and refugees fleeing politically turbulent situations and worrying about having their social mobility restricted through the integration process.  As I mentioned in my first response, almost every citizen and immigrant feels strongly about language issues in Montréal, even if it is to simply assert that language occupies too much attention in public discourse.  Some people, however, cannot openly state their opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their residency, or their lives.  I am mindful of the precarious position of many of my informants who have trusted me with their stories and I exclude the voices of the most vulnerable, including undocumented immigrants, children, and Tamil-Canadians who speak critically of the government or the LTTE. I did not want this book to be about war or political conflict in order to avoid feeding into negative stereotypes about Tamil “terrorists” in Canada and also because there are already several books exploring the experiences and memories of war among refugees in Toronto that have come out at about the same time.

Also, even though I received permission from the English school board to work with children attending Tamil PELO classes, I chose to only analyze the talk of children whose parents gave me permission to include them in the transcripts. Outside of schools, I regret not being able to follow up with the Muslim and Protestant contacts that I had made, and so the book depicts a polarized division between Hindus and Catholics that is not fully representative of the diversity of the diaspora. Lastly, this book is the product of an unfortunate decision made by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (French school board) to reject my application to conduct research at French public schools, citing the “political content” of my research as the reason for their refusal. This rejection came after almost six months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops and corresponding with teachers, principals, and government officials, and I was devastated, to say the least. One of my dissertation committee members sympathetically advised me that even this rejection counts as data, and so I started to think more reflexively about how my positionality as a biracial Indian American woman with roots in Québec and with an easily recognizable lower-class Québécois accent meant that certain doors would open for me and others would close.  The revisions that I imagine would involve someone of a different set of interests and occupying a different positionality paying attention to the diversity of these Tamil communities in ways that I could not, and the future retellings would capitalize on recent political changes in Québécois and Tamil societies to explore whether and how language choice and multilingualism are still contentious today.

Lia Siewert: Your archival research is expansive and the conclusions you draw from it are compelling; specifically, it is fascinating that Québec’s Tamil diaspora has produced ideologies and practices particular to Montréal, but drawn from texts in Sri Lanka and India. Could you elaborate on the significance of investigating Tamil use in India and Sri Lanka and the growing ideological separation of forms of Tamil in Montréal?

Sonia Das: When I shared my conclusion with my Professor of Tamil at the University of Michigan that second-generation Indian-Canadians identify as speaking Spoken Tamil and Sri Lankan-Canadians identify as speaking Written Tamil, he immediately corrected me and explained that these diglossic “registers” are the same “language.” Though I clarified my observations as language ideologies, he remained convinced that either my reasoning or my informants’ reasoning was faulty. Having studied “Written Tamil” first at the University of Michigan and “Spoken Tamil” second at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Madurai, it would have been natural for me to have confused the issues, and so I did a lot of cross-checking to make sure that this language ideology was indeed backed up by explicit metapragmatic statements as well as cultural practices institutionalized across different social domains. Also, when I presented my research in Toronto and looked into the heritage language scene there, I understood this to be truly a Montréal phenomenon. There is no recorded evidence of any other Tamil diaspora – whether situated in Europe, Australia, South Asia, Africa, or elsewhere in North America – making similar claims about their languages.  And yet, the idea that Spoken Tamil and Written Tamil are grammatically and stylistically distinct linguistic codes became widely accepted in the 19th century, precisely at a time when British, French, and other Europeans were competing to produce the most authoritative lexicographies and perfected copies of ancient Tamil texts in South Asia. This historical perspective led me to explore in the archives how Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil ideologies of language diverged through a series of ideological mediations and in relation to imperialist Anglo-Franco conflicts which, in all their idiosyncratic forms, have driven much of modern political history.

Lia Siewert: It seems like the Ministry of Education’s attention to minority language education attributes value to these languages only in the service of boosting anti-Anglo attitudes—therefore, while languages such as Tamil or Tagalog are given lip service, ultimately their success is meaningless to Québec as long as English is decentered and French is increasingly the language of social and economic mobility. How would you argue for or against this reading?

Sonia Das: Actually, it was not my intention to target Québec’s Ministry of Education as paying mere lip service to Canadian multicultural values.  The fact that you read my book in this way, however, suggests perhaps the leaking influence of two over-determined and partially overlapping interpretations of heritage language education in Québec today. The first of these is a belief that reflects the increasingly neoliberal practices of many governments (and not exclusive to Québec) that values heritage language education insofar as it creates economic and political value for the host society and enables socioeconomic mobility for citizens.  The second reading is more cynical. It claims that heritage language programs were only created in Montréal in 1978 to appease ethnic minority voters who were upset when they first learned that they would have to send their children to French and not the preferred English-medium public schools after the passage of Bill 101. Even if the Ministry had originally intended the PELO as a form of appeasement to ethnic minority voters, I would not conclude that teaching heritage languages boosted anti-Anglo attitudes, for three reasons. First, heritage language classes have been offered in English-medium schools in Montréal since the early 1980s.  Second, the accepted practice of English code-mixing with heritage languages such as Tamil increases the presence of English in French-medium schools and reinforces the status of English as a cosmopolitan language.  Third, even though the greatest number of PELO classes is in Montréal’s French-medium school system, there are neighborhoods where the only school that teaches a specific heritage language is an English-medium one. Additionally, if you were to compare Canadian heritage language programs with bilingual education programs in American and European contexts, for example, the Canadian pedagogy is arguably more expansive and robust. I live in New York City where there are a lot of bilingual schools and bilingual services but where there is no public school that could teach my children Bengali, their heritage language. So, to return to your question, although it is true that one of the Ministry of Education’s primary tasks is to promote the teaching of French and encourage the identification of children in Québec with this civic language, as opposed to English, the fact that significant government resources are being funneled to heritage language schools in an array of languages would argue against a too reductionist reading of this language policy.

Lia Siewert: What is your next project?

Sonia Das: I have two new ongoing projects.  The first, which is an extension of my first book project on Indian and Sri Lankan relations in the context of the Canadian Tamil diaspora, focuses instead on the ways in which language politics influence maritime exchanges and sociopolitical relations between post-colonial Sri Lanka and South India. I use ethnographic, archival, and linguistic methods to investigate how maritime language policies and infrastructural projects of port building and sea dredging have transformed the lived spaces and social identities in and around the Gulf of Mannar, which is a narrow body of water separating the Tamil Nadu port of Thoothukudi and Sri Lankan port of Colombo. I focus on infrastructural projects and maritime policies enacted in the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009) and during the geopolitical race between India and China to control international shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean (2009-present). I also inquire into how language activism articulates with movements for religious, environmental, and labor rights and politicizes both sides of the coast by destabilizing trade and transport and rechanneling the flow of labor migration. Included in this research is a pilot project on the language practices and infrastructural conditions of sociability among Asian seafarers working for the global shipping industry at ports Newark and Montréal.

 

My second project is in collaboration with Dr. Sherina Feliciano-Santos at the University of South Carolina, and it focuses on our shared interests in language and racial inequality. Together, we analyze issues of free speech within police-suspect interactions by investigating the contexts in which a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) suspect’s communicative behavior, which with few exceptions is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, is construed as disorderly conduct or necessitating escalated force. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with over 900 hours of dashcam and bodycam video and audio data and case files of DUI arrests in South Carolina, we seek to identify the linguistic and contextual factors that impact how suspects’ communicative practices are interpreted and enacted upon by police officers. At a time when violence in police-suspect encounters has become a matter of great public concern, we believe that there is an urgent need for data-driven public policy that draws on the strengths of linguistic anthropology to elucidate the relationship between language, race, and criminal justice. It also seems like an opportune time for linguistic anthropologists to contribute to discussions of big data, especially in light of the normalization of surveillance in everyday social life.

Kit Woolard on her new book, Singular and Plural

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/singular-and-plural-9780190258627

Interview by Ilana Gershon

The title of your book, “Singular and Plural,” invokes familiar grammatical categories, but the subtitle “Ideologies of Linguistic Authority….” suggests they have another meaning here. Why did you choose that title, and what do those terms have to do with linguistic ideologies?

Those two terms cropped up so centrally in public discourse about the Catalan language during my fieldwork that it was hard to resist a linguistic pun (and I’ve always had a weakness for those in my titles, anyway). Among historically minoritized languages, Catalan has made an unusually successful bid to become a public language since Catalonia regained political in 1979. That change has involved not only political institutions, but also a shift in the ideological foundations of linguistic authority, and that shift has been from stressing linguistic singularity to plurality.

Traditionally, Catalan has been defended as Catalonia’s “own” language and billed as the defining criterion of the distinctive essence or “singularity” of Catalans as a people. But for more than half a century now, the majority of the population has been of immigrant, non-Catalan speaking descent, creating an uncomfortable ideological tension. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a trend to talk about Catalan society as pluralistic and plurilingual (in pointed contrast not just to monolingualism, but to “bilingualism” with Spanish). Catalonia is now defended – and marketed – as at one and the same time linguistically singular (with the Catalan language as a distinctive brand), and socially and linguistically plural: more open, multifaceted, and fluid than Castilian Spain. It’s important to grasp this in order to understand the surprising strength and complexity of the Catalan sovereignty movement, which is coming to a head right now, with a referendum on independence set for October 1 that has been declared illegal by the Spanish government in an unresolved standoff.  Most outside political commentators try to impose on this either a traditional Romantic nationalist vision of a clash between two primordially distinct ethnolinguistic groups, or else a purely economic motivation, but neither captures the actual, more complicated dynamics, especially their sociolinguistic dimension.

In this age of Brexit, Trumpism, the National Front, etc. outsiders are always surprised and skeptical that there is no xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Catalan independence movement, but there really isn’t (which is not to say that there’s no xenophobia in Catalonia, that’s another story.) This is not a nativist social movement, and that’s consistent with the developments in linguistic ideology that I found in the period just before the current sovereignty movement broke into the public eye.

To understand the basic argument of your book, readers have to understand language ideologies that locate their authority in authenticity versus ones that locate their authority in anonymity, and how these two forms are co-constituted.  Could you explain these and their significance as though to a curious and enthusiastic undergraduate (who isn’t even tempted to text and is nodding vigorously)?

That would be a pleasure…language ideologies allow one language rather than another to look and sound authoritative, giving institutions and speakers legitimacy and persuasive power in people’s eyes and ears. That power is why such ideologies are important (so I hope you won’t be tempted to text yet). What I call anonymity and authenticity are just two of the possible ideological bases, but these are the ones that have dominated in modernity. Languages that draw on the authority of “anonymity” are represented as neutral, belonging to everyone rather than any place or group in particular, able to express any perspective, and available for all to take up. Not surprisingly, they are the dominant languages. We use the term anonymity to capture the way they can come to be perceived, quite literally heard, as a deracinated “voice from nowhere.”

In contrast, the value of ideological “authenticity” is reserved for languages heard as the voice of someone and somewhere very particular. Linguistic authenticity belongs only to speakers who can claim to be rooted in that particular experience. And in turn the language is taken to be suitable for expressing only that particular perspective. So, authenticity ends up limiting the range of a language and its speakers in the name of valuing it, and creates a sense of illicit appropriation on the one hand or betrayal of one’s true self on the other for those who break the mold. This means that these language ideologies are not just important public matters, they can also be intimately intertwined with individuals’ sense of identity, and bring them personal pain as well as joy, as my informants poignantly recounted to me. (Are you still nodding in vigorous agreement?)

Ideologies are historical creations that take work to sustain, and they can change over time.  I found such changes across the lives of my individual informants as well as in public controversies, and even in linguistic humor, one of my favorite sources of evidence for language ideology. The struggle between Catalan and Castilian for social terrain and persuasive power used to be waged mostly in terms of authenticity – that “singularity” and territorial rootedness of Catalan –  but now there are competing claims to anonymity and cosmopolitanism made for each language. Catalan activists work to debunk Castilian assumptions of the privileges of linguistic anonymity – ‘it’s just a more useful language for everyone; let’s be rational’ – at the same time as linguistic policy and use of Catalan in schools has disrupted the constraints of authenticity that prevented immigrant-descent “New Speakers” from taking it up. I was especially struck by an emerging conception of what I think of as a post-natural sense of personal authenticity as a project, in place of the traditional Romantic vision of the essential, primordial self wedded to a first language. This newer DIY self, no doubt linked to the neoliberal vision of which we are often critical, values willful choice and multilingualism in place of a primordial and seemingly natural relation to language.  I saw this new stance as much in my interviewees’ accounts of how they grew from their earlier monolingual selves as children of working-class immigrants to comfortable bilinguals or multilinguals as I did in public rhetoric. This is one of the ways in which the conception of Catalonia as “plural” appears.

Part of what makes this book such a valuable and insightful take on language ideologies is that you build on decades of research in which you can explore how people’s attitudes and practices have changed over time.  In addressing changes to how authenticity and anonymity are co-constituted, you evocatively claim in your conclusion that “Around the world, people are no longer so certain just what a normal language is.” (304)  How has this uncertainty affected people’s relationships to theirs and others’ linguistic identities?

Catalan speakers and activists have long wished that Catalan could just be a “normal” language, and they even call the goal of extending the use of Catalan “normalization.” By “normal” they mean a language that is used routinely, without fanfare, in any domain of social activity by anyone. In “normal” societies, the thinking went, people “normally” use just one language for all their communicative purposes. We linguistic anthropologists take it for granted that such anonymous monolingual normalcy rarely actually occurs, and where it does it takes work to maintain. But dominant state nationalism became so banal, as Michael Billig has put it, that the work of constructing this “normalcy” remains as invisible to many social scientists and political commentators critical of minority linguistic movements as it does to everyday speakers.

Our era of globalization is unsettling such assumptions. The “normal” languages of the European nation-states, even the larger languages like French, German, and even Spanish that were the model for this normalcy that Catalanists longed for, have surrendered economic, educational, and media functions to global English.  It’s now “normal” for university programs throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and not just post-colonial societies, to function in English; for scholars and professionals to have to publish and work in English or perish; for people around the world not just to consume but to produce even transgressive cultural forms in English. The idea of a standard variety as somehow naturally the best form of a “normal” language has also been challenged by the so-called superdiversity resulting from large-scale transnational immigration as well as the digitally mediated celebration of nonstandard forms, whether in Sheng, AAVE, Estuary English, Rinkeby Swedish….  So, in many parts of Europe and beyond, some formerly taken-for-granted, valued forms and functions of “normal” language are in doubt. This shakes foundations of privilege and of institutions and also creates new forms of inequality and exploitation. But it also opens up ideological space for individuals to form new relationships with a broader set of linguistic forms, and to take pleasure in doing so. I’ve never been known as an optimist about anything, but this is a positive aspect of what I’ve seen developing in late modern Catalonia, in the decades since I first started my research there.

Quite a bit of research on bilingualism privileges high school students’ language ideologies and linguistic choices, yet your longstanding fieldwork in Barcelona shows that this might overlook how language ideologies change over a lifetime.  What does your decades-long research reveal about how language ideologies transform, and why focusing on high school might be too limiting for certain questions?

In hindsight, I guess it’s obvious that people change and we’re not all who we were in high school (fortunately, usually). By the same token, people’s stances toward languages can change, and their uses can follow as they move into the workplace, higher education, romance, parenting. But our sociolinguistic research has put such weight on that adolescent period as both fraught and decisive – for good practical as well as theoretical reasons, and yielding great insights – that I for one lost sight of the obvious. Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit how surprised I was when, twenty years after I had last seen my teenaged informants as pretty determined monolinguals, sometimes ashamed and resentful about the challenge of entering a Catalan-speaking social world, a number of them told me how they had left those fears and constraints behind: “Me, I’ve changed a lot!”  Children of immigrants who had felt shut out from Catalan as teenagers, whether by others or by their own fear of failure, spoke as adults of their pride in exercising new linguistic skills and in leaving behind shame about mistakes and inauthenticity as childish concerns. Of course, change can go in the other direction as well, and ethnolinguistic lines can harden just as they can blur, but most of my interviewees told me of their pride and satisfaction at what they saw as growing up linguistically.

I’d like to take a moment to mention the tremendous gratification that returning to my research site and finding these earlier informants twenty years later brought me. Maybe this is familiar to more traditional anthropologists, but I do urban ethnography in a metropolitan area of some four million people, using a patchwork of methods.  I had little expectation of finding the students from a high school classroom study twenty years earlier (and we could talk another time about the social conditions both of my expectation and the outcome). It was the most moving experience of my research career to get their phone calls or emails (some from Australia and England) answering the letter I had sent to their old addresses out of the blue, and to talk with them and learn what thoughtful, complex adults had grown from the perennial teenagers of the ethnographic present engraved in my mind. One of them still had the notebook I had given each one at the end of my research when they were fourteen, and he showed me that he still used it to jot down brief ideas for his music projects. In fact, he just emailed me this week to say again how much it meant to him as a teenager and still means to him now – thirty years later! – that someone came from such a distance not only to ask about a teenager’s opinions and experiences but to write them down for other people to learn about. I hope he finds that I did justice to them in this book.

Daniel Ginsberg, Math Teaching and Learning

On page 99, I am a conversation analyst. The top of the page features two of Schegloff’s transcripts illustrating two different sorts of repair initiation: the kind of thing you might say if I asked a question and you didn’t understand, followed by what you’d say if *you* asked *me* a question and didn’t understand my answer. I bring up these patterns to highlight their absence in my own field work. Schegloff’s examples come from everyday conversation, but I conducted research in mathematics classrooms, and teachers and students do not ask for repetition and clarification in such a democratic way. In one classroom, I saw a teacher orchestrating class participation such that students would provide corrections to their classmates’ mistakes. In another, I observed what happens when the statement you didn’t understand is not spoken aloud but written in chalk on a blackboard. And in both cases, I realized that “understanding mathematics” was equated with “finding the right answer,” as all conjecture, supposition, incomplete learning and conceptual knowledge were eclipsed by the authority of the teacher and the textbook.

Now, in general, I am not a conversation analyst. This is simply the methodology that I selected for that chapter, which dealt with the question, *How do sequences of classroom interaction realize ideologies of mathematical knowledge?* Elsewhere, I considered the utility of mathematical notation alongside other communicative systems such as language and gesture, as well as the ways that students think about “math person” as a kind of identity that may be more or less in conflict with other aspects of their self-concept. These areas of inquiry required different methodologies: multimodal interaction analysis, narrative analysis, ethnography. And yet, in every case, the data led me to similar conclusions: it’s often difficult for students to see themselves as successful mathematics learners. Educators know this—we all do—but my point is that their difficulty is wrapped up in particular practices of talk and interaction. Put into practice, this knowledge may suggest ways to make mathematics instruction more equitable.

Daniel Ginsberg. 2015. “Multimodal Semiotics of Mathematics Teaching and Learning.” Ph.d diss., Georgetown University. <https://www.academia.edu/19577481/Multimodal_Semiotics_of_Mathematics_Teaching_and_Learning>

Daniel Ginsberg is a Professional Fellow at the AAA.

Twitter: @NemaVeze

daniel.ginsberg

Blum on the publication of her new book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College

 

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100926720

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the author:

If you were stuck in an elevator with a colleague from another department, and had just been asked what your book was about, what would you tell them?

It is a critique of higher education, and of schooling in general, that shows a mismatch between the ways human beings learn in almost every context in life outside school, and the ways schools structure learning. Using understanding of human learning derived from anthropological inquiry everywhere (across time and space, as we love to specify), as well as insights from psychology and cognitive science, I explain why so many wonderful young people go through the motions of doing what they are told, in order to accomplish goals completely unrelated to learning: getting good grades, fulfilling requirements, pleasing teachers, getting credentials. It is true that these are necessary in the actual world we live in, but that doesn’t mean institutional education should be this way. Tinkering with classroom elements can help, to some extent, but it is the system overall that requires revolutionary change. It is not possible for an individual professor or teacher to solve these systemic problems. And they are wide and well known problems, leading to a tragic waste of time, energy, and money.

 

You are very present in this book – you talk about your educational background, how much you love learning, and quite a bit about the moments you despair as a teacher.   I would love to know more about your writerly decisions in representing yourself.  Did you see yourself as a character that you needed to describe in certain ways?  How did you decide when to insert yourself into a chapter, and when to reveal particular things about yourself and your family?

Some of the book emerged from my own efforts to figure out what I thought, but as I turned fragments of reflection and research into a book, I did make “writerly decisions” to be frank and open about the involvement of an actual, bodily, socially situated, affective human being—because all teachers have to bring their personhood to the encounter with students, who do this as well. Since one of my many aims is to demonstrate that learning cannot possibly be successful, in most cases, if it aims to be purely cognitive and purely individual, it seemed relevant to show all the ways my own biographical context shaped what and why I learned. Motivation is another of the key themes here, and until I was motivated by a need to understand all the ways students differed from me, I did not. Further, in anthropology and the human sciences generally, for at least three decades we have been explicit about the misleading pretext of disembodied “objectivity,” a view from nowhere, and efforts have been made to situate the viewer, to show that all observation is limited. Reflexive writing has been common in anthropology since the 1980s, but we might also see its roots in the psychoanalytic writings of anthropologists from much earlier.

Beyond all this, in writing this book I wanted it to feel like a story, almost a detective story, of beginning with a mystery and ending with a solution (the solution is understanding, not primarily a prescription for action). Readers tend to be sympathetic to flawed narrators, and I certainly reveal many of my own flaws. I have experienced quite a bit of fear at revealing so much cluelessness on my part, but I put my vulnerable self into the hands of readers, and rely on their compassion—just as I now hope that students can reveal their own vulnerability to teachers rather than pretending to be something they’re not. Without lacks, gaps, mistakes, there is no room for growth. Learning is one form of growth.

I also bring my family into the story because they were formative in my re-education. This is a feminist decision to reveal my relatedness, rather than to pretend that I am a self-contained all-knowing purely rational individual deriving insight only from theorists and ethnography. One of my daughters, Elena, helped edit the introduction. I did get general permission from all of them to include stories, though they did not read all of them prior to publication—and I have worried a lot about the ethics of that decision.

 

As a professor myself, I am very aware of how much institutional constraints shape my teaching. First, I received remarkably little training on how to teach.   Currently, I have to develop undergraduate courses that will appeal to a large enough number of students to even run, and to appeal to even more students if I want to help a graduate student have a TAship.   At the same time, there are significant institutional pressures not to spend too much time on teaching.  As you beautifully pointed out the constraints on students, I kept wondering about those on faculty.  If you were to add a chapter of ethnography with faculty members, what do you think you would focus upon?

That’s a great idea! And several people have assumed that the book was about faculty, because faculty are suffering.

I would write about fear and love, about the constraints and the changing metrics of evaluation. I do mention that in the chapter on grades and “audit culture,” “‘What Do I Have to Do to Get an A?’: The Real Skinny on Grades,” because many of the constraints on students are mirrored by constraints on faculty. As universities become more corporate, and assessment appears to be the goal rather than a means for arriving at a different goal (perhaps learning or contributing to knowledge, or becoming a well-rounded citizen), both students and faculty become adept at “the game of school.” And games can be thrown.

Marilyn Strathern has edited a book on Audit Culture: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy (2000). Audit culture is more developed in the UK than in the US, though in the sixteen years since that book was published, our universities have become much more similar.

Much has been written about the precarity of adjunct faculty, the adjunctification of faculty, working with no job security or benefits for poverty wages, despite having top credentials and experience. (I taught that way for six years, myself.) And this shameful employment situation is real and must be more widely known.

The economics of higher education affect all the decisions throughout every institution, from the need to have classes of a certain size to teaching loads to funding available for travel to conferences to filling empty faculty lines with personnel of a certain rank.

But I would focused on secure faculty at well-resourced institutions to show that there is a problem even here, as I have done with my focus on high-achieving students. Faculty arrive with love for our subject and love for the enterprise of learning, only to be confronted by a need to police our students, to cajole them into reading, to get them to care at least a little about our class, to prevent corner-cutting (including cheating and plagiarism, the topic of my previous book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture [Cornell 2009]), to get strong teaching evaluations, to please students while also demonstrating “rigor” to our faculty colleagues. All this has to be squeezed into some limited amount of time because at institutions of higher education at a certain level of prestige, teaching only matters for tenure if it is substandard. As all faculty know, it is publications and grants that “count”; poor teaching could derail a strong publication record, but excellent teaching can’t substitute for a weak publication record.

Faculty at most institutions now are demoralized; there is tension with administrators and trustees and students and “the public.” Faculty are exhausted from constant interaction on social media, including email, and on supporting undergraduate and sometimes graduate student participation in conferences and research—writing dozens or hundreds of letters of recommendation every year—and advising undergraduates engaged in research. Technology changes all the time and we have to keep up with that, along with the publications in our own and adjacent fields. We have to become expert at writing committee reports and filing expense reports; senior faculty evaluate junior faculty. We all apply for grants and evaluate manuscripts and participate in conferences—but the Holy Grail is peer-reviewed journal articles.

This “shadow labor,” or “shadow work” in Ivan Illich’s term, is as real in institutions supposedly devoted to the production and dissemination of knowledge as it is in more mainstream corporations, but despite the motives that got faculty there, there is a real danger that the shadow labor could overtake the important work that keeps faculty employed. Faculty get “mentored” to teach them to juggle the many balls and the constantly changing metrics of evaluation; there are excellent organizations such as the heroic Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development. But these are needed because it is all so hard.

I could imagine shadowing several faculty; asking them to do time-use studies; interviewing faculty in several disciplines, at various levels of employment and at diverse institutions. I actually do keep up pretty fully with the trends in faculty experience. And what I see is faculty trying to retain some degree of dignity and balance while they feel themselves assailed from all sides and running ever faster just to keep in place.

 

You discuss several different approaches to grading to engage more productively with the fixation students have on grades.  Which ones have you found more effective for your purposes, and why?  

People have asked what I would do to change higher education, and my responses are varied. Ultimately I think we need far fewer people getting to a much smaller but still varied form of tertiary education, but meanwhile if I could make only one change, it would be to eliminate grading.

Among many other critics of grading is Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Prasie, and Other Bribes changed my life. The problem with grades is that they make the goal extrinsic to the learning experience itself. Then the grades can be sliced and diced, compared and analyzed, and like all other assessments come to be seen as objective, precise measures of what are actually diverse and complex phenomena: human beings learning multifaceted and complex subjects.

In my own classes, among students who have diligently regarded “getting good grades” as the central purpose of their young lives, I try to downplay the importance of grades. I don’t talk about them much. And I ask students to evaluate themselves. Students like rubrics, which have a downside (it feels like a recipe or formula, which reinforces the sense that grades are the goal), but I aim to have them reflect on their own purposes for learning, both in the medium context of the course as a whole and in the immediate context of the particular assignment, and them to evaluate how successful they have been at meeting their own goals. I invite them to explain why they might have fallen short of their goals (“not enough time” is by far the main explanation) and to request help for things they may not quite understand. Some students try to fool me by saying that everything is excellent, but over the course of the semester most students are pretty honest. I ask them to give themselves a grade, although I have also discussed with them by then the flattening of information that accompanies a grade. Is excellent content with flawed writing—maybe A plus C—the same as pretty good content and writing? Do they both get a B? Wouldn’t it be far more useful for the student to receive a narrative evaluation—not as justification for the grade but as helpful information for the goal of improving and learning?

I also ask students to suggest a final grade in the course, based on the cumulative record, their engagement, their learning. In very small classes, under twelve or so, I try to meet with every student several times a semester to talk about how things are going.

Most students have been very positive about this, though some resist because it is more work. An ironic solution is to give credit for the self-evaluation.

This is very unfamiliar for many of my students, who have spent at least twelve, if not fifteen, years, in pursuit of a grade bestowed by a powerful teacher. It takes most of a semester, in many cases, to explain what I’m talking about.

 

You end the book talking about a wonderful class that you taught, in which the students liked it so much that they would meet at lunch to talk more about linguistic anthropology.   How has teaching been for you since finishing this book? 

It’s been very hard! The semester just before the book came out was one of the worst I’ve had in a decade with regard to teaching, for a variety of reasons, but the one during which it came out was again very successful. I try to bring all my students along with my viewpoints, to show that I understand their predicament and am not focused on judging but on working with them to learn. At my previous university, University of Colorado Denver, it was not difficult to explain social class, because most of our students were first-generation college students, working nearly full-time, but at Notre Dame it is more abstract a concept. Similarly, students suffering in schooling understand the irrationality of the system instantly while those succeeding at it have a little harder time. But the strain on high-achieving students has increased so drastically in the last two decades that they readily recognize their own oppression. The widespread scourge of mental illness among college students is real and worrisome; I don’t scoff at their “helicopter parents” nor at their own thin skin. As an anthropologist I am not inclined to blame individuals for not measuring up to some abstract ideal model of liberal arts learners devoted to cultural literacy—or whatever the latest Fall from the Golden Age trope has it—but to grasp the entire sociopolitical and sociocultural context.

That is harder to change, though, even if I can analyze it. So sometimes it is frustrating to see the ways the system goes on, even though my own critique is so clear to me.

Susan Blum is a Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame.  “I Love Learning; I Hate School” is available through Cornell University Press, 2016.