Perry Gilmore on her new book, Kisisi

Kisisi Cover

Press link: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1119101573,subjectCd-AN43.html

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

Interview by Alma Gottlieb

reposted from her website: http://almagottlieb.com/2017/05/interview-with-perry-gilmore-about-kisisi-our-language-the-story-of-colin-and-sadiki/

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore

 

AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors toand co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaraguatwin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.

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.

Nina Sylvanus on her new book, Patterns in Circulation

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo25126083.html

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you found yourself sharing a taxi to the AAA conference with a media anthropologist studying Chinese soap operas, how would you explain your book’s major points?

It’s funny that you mention soap operas since some of the names that are given to the (pagne) cloth that features at the heart of the book are named after (or inspired by) the characters of popular Ivorian and Latin American soap operas. A pattern called “Ricardo’s suitcase” for example is named after the hero of a Brazilian telenovela, and there are many others that broadcast images about power and politics, beauty and wealth, and romance and conflict between men and women in global West Africa. I’d probably continue to talk more about the framing and analytical connections between television, cloth, and the global-local mediations of popular culture, but let me get to the book’s major points.

In the book I take a mundane object –the pagne or the boldly patterned wrap that women wear in large parts of West Africa—to trace its origins, paths of circulation, and its technical and social production from Holland to Java, from Togo to the broader West African region, and now from China back to Africa. Drawing upon archival research and multi-sited fieldwork, the book theorizes the material economies of this iconic commodity (so-called Dutch wax cloth), born out of 19th-century Dutch colonial efforts to copy Javanese batik cloth for Southeast Asian markets, and reborn as a cultural and status marker for West African women. I think of this wax-printed cloth as a vibrant object and an assembled commodity, whose fabrication is uniquely entangled in both imperial circuits of commerce and more recent controversies over piracy and appropriation.

At the heart of this work are two metaphors. First is a visual metaphor: “pattern”–the idea of (memorable) recurring forms that we see and recognize across time and space. Secondly, there is “dense materiality” –the notion that there are properties inherent in the cloth that gives it material agency, and yet it is manipulated by its wearer and brought to life by the body. Through analysis of the cloth, my book reveals the making, unmaking and remaking of relationships between things, people, and the institutions that govern them. While the material object is at the center of the story, the book pays close attention to its various uses and to the way it extends out into different spaces: into the market, into the world of national Togolese politics, and into factory floors in Holland and China.

 

Chapter 3 focuses on analyzing wax cloth as a medium central to political spectacle and the formation of Togo as a nation, I was hoping you could talk a bit about the analytical implications of engaging with cloth this way.  Taking cloth to be a medium particularly well suited to the political in Togo allows you to add to Benedict Anderson’s argument about how national identity emerges, and am hoping you can talk about how using cloth makes this a specifically Togolese form of nationalism.

To answer this question is to address the chapter’s central arguments about how a material object such as cloth helped forge national identity in intimate and public terms in Togo. I have to start with the Nana Benz’s role in the representational order of the nation. The term Nana Benz refers to the powerful Togolese cloth traders who controlled the West African wax cloth trade from the 1950s to the 1990s, until political crisis, neoliberal reform and Chinese knock-offs derailed their hold on the economy. Named this way because these market ‘mothers’ used their wealth to buy the Mercedes Benz cars, which they then lent to the long time president-dictator, the Nana Benz built their financial power by controlling the circulation of cloth and embedding the cloth’s semiotic power (and their branding power) into the order of the nation. The Nana Benz made the nation both intimate and palpable, by trading on national associations in the popular pattern names they bestowed on pagne, thus enabling ordinary Togolese to partake in the narrative of nation-building through their everyday consumption of cloth.

Anderson’s argument about print capitalism is useful for considering how wax cloth (pagne) reached the masses, solidifying communal identities while registering national, ethnic, and gender differences. This is what makes cloth a particularly well-suited medium to the political and the specific brand of Togolese nationalism. The efficacy of this particular type of cloth and its association with Nana Benz-style nationalism is reflected in the common stories Togolese remember about the cloth traders, which offer insights into the way the Nana Benz (and their powerful stock in trade) captured people’s imaginations.  My analysis draws out the “dense materiality” of cloth and the way it can at once evoke sentiment and move imaginaries and bodies while grounding the political and the nation in its materiality and visibility. Because cloth provides a surface for multiple narrations and representations (the literal image layered onto the cloth for everyone to see and the bundle of unbridled meaning it generates and that is open for manipulation) it was made to work as a medium that inscribed and disseminated the political spectacle and embodied power. For instance, when the portrait of the Togolese dictator Eyadéma (in power for nearly 40 years) appeared on cloth, the fabric literally captured the body politic during political spectacles when wearing the presidential party pagne became practically obligatory.

 

During the course of your research, how to be a successful trader transformed to such a degree that who was or could be successful shifted dramatically.  Could you explain how trading cloth changed to such a degree during those ten years that the Nana Benz was replaced by the Nanette?

One of the most dramatic events that fundamentally changed the nature of the regional cloth trade was the 1994 currency devaluation of the West African CFA franc: when the price of cloth doubled over night and practically turned an everyday consumer good into a luxury item. At the same time, shifts in global production, the liberalization of Togo’s political, economic and public spheres and the undoing of the old system of cloth distribution, which had granted the women traders exclusive retail rights to the (Dutch) designs, all weakened the Nana Benz’s place in the market. With the breakdown of national protections in post-Cold War Togo –amidst the crisis of the state, the unraveling of the dictatorship and national structures (Charlie Piot describes this process brilliantly in Nostalgia for the Future)– the Nana Benz’s position as entrepreneurial nationals diminished, if it wasn’t devalued all together.  So when this system fell apart, a new set of female Togolese entrepreneurs, the Nanette, began collaborating with Chinese companies to produce better and better imitations of Dutch wax, undermining the very basis of class distinction in Togo as well as throwing wax cloth production and distribution into chaos.

Over the course of a decade-long fieldwork (2000-2010), I witnessed the struggles, and in some cases the financial ruin, of the old guard of cloth entrepreneurs whose profit margins continued to decline while some Nanettes accumulated fortunes. Although the Nana Benz initially denigrated the new China prints that the Nanettes distributed to cash-constrained consumers as fakes, some of the older women entered the China trade with varying degrees of success. For the new trade required a new kind of entrepreneurial subjectivity and savvy, including the ability to operate multiple trades at the same time.  As subtle neoliberal actors, the Nanettes fashioned themselves entrepreneurially through the flexibility of cloth, moving themselves and cloth in and out of Chinese factory floors. But tinkering with cloth design, engineering copies while teaching Chinese manufacturers about the qualia of cloth — its texture, color, and smell— to enhance its sensuous and aesthetic properties is also a high-risk affair. I saw several Nanettes ruin themselves when the containers of cloth they had commissioned arrived at the port with unsellable (that is, faulty) merchandise. Navigating the fluctuations of a market where profit is made from the speed of copying and moving things transnationally, requires a distinct set of entrepreneurial dispositions. A successful Nanette not only appropriates neoliberal logics but she mobilizes an autonomous set of practices and subjectivities by constantly moving herself and cloth, cultivating close relationships with powerful port brokers, and involving herself with innovative open-source design and production.

 

What does the story of China’s role in Africa look like when one begins by looking at the trade relationships surrounding cloth?

The circuit of capital built in the corridor between Africa and China is often portrayed as the new axis of South-South exploitation in Western media and policy discourses. Lurking behind this new axis are often ideological fears about the decline of the West in the world and the appearance of new global empires. Simplistic descriptions of Chinese neo-colonialism fall short in accounting for the complex ways that objects enter into and make social life, history and transnational trade. Looking closely at the materiality of trade and cloth allows moving beyond clichés about new forms of colonialism to ethnographically study what Chinese investment in Africa means for the people who work and live there.

What I try to show in the book is how China-in-Africa or China-in-Togo for that matter is made through complex patterns of coproduction and cross-positioning. Nanettes traveling to China leverage considerable agency with Chinese manufacturers who depend on the women’s deep knowledge about the qualia of cloth and consumer taste. These are intimate encounters, when traders spend weeks at a time on a single factory floor and become producers of their own brands. Which does not mean that traders and consumers view the dominance of Chinese goods on local markets as unproblematic. There are many symbols, metaphors and stories that are associated with Chinese traders who dupe the population with low quality goods in the city. Yet beliefs about the aggressive business practices of Chinese traders are often contradicted by the traders’ actual practices.

I am currently in Togo to work on my new project on Chinese investments in the Lomé port (Harboring the Future) and have had time to reconnect with the China-trading women in the market. While some complain that there is no longer money to be made in Chinese cloth (partially because there is too much of it), others speak of a strengthened partnership with their Chinese manufacturers. Certainly, what this trade relationship surrounding cloth reveals is the patterning of a new phase of global capitalism–whether that is capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” à la Aihwa Ong or a new form of (last) frontier capitalism remains to be seen.

 

Goebel interviews Lauren Zentz on her new book

http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?K=9781783098460

Interview by Zane Goebel

Briefly, what is this book about?

In this book I explore the history of power and human movement throughout the Indonesian archipelago in order to understand the scaling of language forms that has taken place over centuries, during colonialism and the development of the post-colonial state, and now in an Indonesia coping with the processes of ‘globalization’. I collected my data during a 2 month stay in Central Java in 2008, a 10 month stay in the 2009-10 school year, and another 2 month stay in the summer of 2013. My participants were English majors at a Christian university; I spent the 2009-10 school year teaching courses in their department ranging from Sociolinguistics to introductory speaking for first year majors. I recruited my focal participants in my Fall 2009 Sociolinguistics course. Over the course of our year together I interviewed the participants in individual and group settings, and spent time with them and other students outside of classes over dinner, coffee, church, or at their family homes.

In this book I first discuss the theoretical concepts I used to interpret my data, then I explore the history of power and migration throughout the archipelago. I relate this history then to the development of Indonesian as a national language, and to contemporary use and ‘loss’ of Javanese, the primary local language of Central Java. Finally I discuss the overwhelming presence of English in Indonesia, and how the ‘state project’ generally relies on and resists English and its presence in the country. In all, this is an examination of how these three languages fit within the national project, and how the state continues to try to influence the ways in which they are used and the ways in which they are tied to the national, local, and global identities of their citizens.

Which field(s) do you think your book engages with the most?

This book engages with the fields of Sociolinguistics, Linguistic Anthropology, and Applied Linguistics. I’ve been a lifelong ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, and so I prefer to reach across disciplinary boundaries as much as possible in trying to gain a holistic picture of my research context. It is in this sense that I find it useful to rely on the label of Applied Linguist, as through this title I feel less beholden to any one field, and I feel like I can drive my work toward my long-term end goal of improving societies through education, language learning, and intercultural exchange. I am also not a fully ‘pedigreed’ Linguistic Anthropologist, and so it is possible that a reader from the field of Linguistic Anthropology will find my work ‘not anthropological enough.’ And so again, the application of the Applied Linguist label, I feel, allows me more freedom to take my work in whatever directions I feel interested in for the purposes of the project at hand and for my own long-term goals.

Who have been the main scholars that have inspired you as you have written this book?

I have most strongly latched onto in my work the writings of Jan Blommaert, Alastair Pennycook, and Monica Heller for theory, and onto Anthropologists of Education for my methods, namely through foundational coursework with Perry Gilmore for Discourse Analysis, with Norma González for general field methods, and with Richard Ruíz for Language Policy studies.

Besides the normal suspects of Linguistic Anthropologists, Applied Linguistics folk and Indonesianists, who do you see as your main readership?

This is clearly a book for graduate students and professionals in the field. I hope that readers will take away from this book the importance of situating our work within deeper historical contexts. Part of this importance for me comes from the desire to explain that Indonesia’s current historical context is not the way it is simply because of the development of the nation-state in reaction to European colonialism. Many of Indonesia’s current sociolinguistic facts are due to human currents and power dynamics that have been going on for far longer. Those deeper historical dynamics are possibly much more evident on islands farther away from Indonesia’s political and cultural ‘centers’ like the islands of Java and Sumatra. It is probable that in Java we in fact see some of the consequences of colonialism and statification as much more influential in contemporary life, or at least that we see them quite differently across contexts within this one expansive country.

What do you think were your best strategies to help you get this book completed?

For me the answer was keeping a schedule. I’m no proponent of one size fits all solutions, but for me, having a life outside of my work is a serious key to maintaining sanity. During summer writing periods I would keep a regular 8-5ish work schedule with exercise before or after (or in the middle if I was getting antsy) work time, and I would take regular work breaks consisting of a walk outside (100 degree Fahrenheit heat be damned!). During semesters, I would limit teaching work to teaching days, and I would keep the other days of the week as research-only days. Tasks like grading were reserved for times when I was too tired to do much thought-intensive work.

As you wrote the book and reflected on your research methodologies, did anything strike you as something in need of change?

For me the biggest thing was adding the historical component. As I began writing my book I just felt that this was an empty story without that. So I spent a lot of time during the writing process digging into historical accounts of how Indonesia has come to be. Another important thing to me was taking time to problematize terms that earlier I did not have the time nor the experience to problematize; words such as ‘globalization’ and ‘translanguaging’/’polylanguaging’/etc. For the former I reached across disciplinary boundaries to see how other fields approach this term, and for the latter I took more time to delve into writings on these topics, from across linguistic fields.

Has this book motivated you to start the next book/project? If so, then can you tell us a little about your new work.

I’m not sure if writing a book inspires anyone to write another one! But I will admit that having written a first book makes me feel more confident in having a go at another one. That being said, I am currently reminded daily that having this experience under my belt does not make a second project go any faster or smoother. I have moved on to two new projects – neither in Indonesia – and starting from scratch is simply starting from scratch, no matter whether it’s your first, third, or fifth research project. It all just takes lots of time, reading, data collection (and revision and revision and revision), note taking, and patience.

 

Erin Debenport on her new book, Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibilty in Indigenous New Mexico

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https://sarweb.org/?sar_press_fixing_the_books

Interview by Shannon Ward

You identified commonalities in the processes of creating the San Ramon dictionary and pedagogical texts, as well as in the speech genres and cultural practices they encode.  For example, both texts are continually refined, or “perfected,” through editing meant to closely control the circulation of knowledge about certain linguistic and cultural practices. Also, both texts contain chronotopes that link authoritative knowledge about the past to present community issues and the potential future implications of cultural and linguistic loss or revival.  How do these features of the texts intersect with other socialization strategies practiced informally within families or among community members? That is, how does the use of these texts fit into broader language and cultural socialization within San Ramon?

The most visible socialization strategies that connect to ideas about perfectibility at San Ramon were approaches to childrearing and the associated transmission of knowledge. Although outside the focus of the book, I noticed that caregivers—both men and women, parents, non-parents, adults, and teenagers—felt comfortable “correcting” children, telling them to be respectful, to listen, or simply stop what they were doing if they were misbehaving. This connects to the idea that the responsibility for the transmission of knowledge is shared among all community members. Related to this, adults would often correct or comment on behavior even when the child was performing a task correctly or behaving themselves.  Once I heard a Head Start teacher say, “That’s the way, Amber. You don’t go messing up the play area when you spend time there,” almost keeping the master/apprentice “channel” open between teacher and child. A new way that texts are figuring into broader patterns of language and cultural socialization at San Ramon and the other Pueblos is through the use of Facebook. When posting about community events or commenting on tribal policies, I have noticed that the past is often invoked in this new context, as in “Make your ancestors proud and help clean up the arroyo this Saturday.” Processes of perfectibility are apparent here, too, as users craft elaborate comments, replies, and visual materials while composing Facebook posts.

 

The student authors of the Keiwa soap opera, As the Rez Turns, artfully employed characteristically Pueblo speech genres, extracommunity genres, and non-Native images of indigenous people to create subtle social and political critiques. How does this project differ from young people’s everyday interactions that may (or may not) similarly display multiple intertextual links? What does it suggest about changing possibilities for young people’s community-directed action?

I think the soap opera project differed in that the abstract notion of a “language dialogue” provided enough distance for participants to employ such intertextual links while discussing things like tribal politics, “tradition,” and Native identity. Usually the two “realms” are quite separate: the copious use of pop culture references and the production of intertextual links on one side and the serious work that is being an engaged community member on the other. As far as changing political possibilities, I think this is an example of how new spaces for critique are opening up almost within new forms of language circulation. I would not go so far as to say that Facebook and other platforms are singlehandedly enabling youth participation and political action, but I would say that I continue to see social critique within such spaces, spaces that are considered to be frivolous or unconnected to tribal history and values by older community members.

 

You argue that language revitalization projects perform culturally and linguistically meaningful work beyond preserving grammar and phonology. For example, language revitalization projects serve as metapragmatic resources for reproducing cultural practices and morality, as well as for enacting social critique (pg. 112). Participants in these programs thus tend to view them as beacons of hope for future linguistic and cultural revival, even in the absence of data proving the successful reverse of language shift (pg. 112-117). What possibilities do you envision for expanding recognition of and support for these other facets of language revitalization, in San Ramon and beyond?

I think that one potential influence of the U.S. educational system and dominant approaches to parenting in this county is that increasingly younger tribal members insist on being given credit “for trying” or for attending language classes regardless of their linguistic abilities. In such moments, youth connect attendance and participation with “being Indian” or being a good community member, invested in the future of the Pueblo. I have started to work with an additional Pueblo community, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (not a pseudonym) in El Paso, Texas, and these kinds of connections are much more overt there than at San Ramon. Due to their distance from the other Pueblos, intense discrimination, state educational policies, and the predominance of Spanish in the region, the Southern Tiwa language was largely lost at the Pueblo. Their language program has been an incredible success, however, with the emergence of several advanced speakers who have learned the language as adults. While meetings with other Pueblos or native speakers of the language can be stressful for these learners, they often say that the fact that they are trying to learn shows that they are true Pueblo people rather than being able to speak Southern Tiwa without making any mistakes.

 

While Pueblo secrecy radically affected your participation in the community of San Ramon, you also harness secrecy in your ethnographic writing, for example, by focusing on cultural and linguistic knowledge production without revealing the content of this knowledge. What aspects of ethnographic methodology aided you in continually adapting to the changes and complexities of your consultants’ relationships with outsiders?  That is, how did your ethnographic training help you reconcile your initial expectations of your anthropological endeavor with the constraints (and associated possibilities) you encountered in your fieldwork, analysis, and writing?Your description—“continually adapting to the changes and complexities”—really captures my experience perfectly! Having to always revise my new and ongoing projects keeps this concern at the forefront of my thinking and research, too. I think that two parts of my ethnographic training continue to inform how I research and write in and about Pueblo communities: being introduced to the ideas of informed consent, harm, and language ideologies; and being introduced to literature on knowledge production and power. I first experienced the former when preparing my IRB, which was a surprisingly nuanced process at my graduate institution (there was a separate IRB for social sciences, so I felt guided by scholars working on comparable projects). My advisor also shared with me instances where he chose not to circulate language examples as part of a language project to which he contributed. Also, critiques of language revitalization discourses by scholars including Jane Hill, Robert Moore, Joseph Errington, and Peter Whiteley alongside work on language ideologies and literacy (especially by Paul Kroskrity and Justin Richland who have worked in Pueblo communities) really paved the way for being able to think about such projects as both objects of analysis and potential sites for conflict or collaboration. However, it was really being in the field and realizing the stakes involved with keeping secrets that led directly to the choices I eventually made in the way I presented data in the book. Lastly, works in anthropology, social theory, and science and technology studies that analyzed the ways that anthropologists produce and circulate knowledge had a tremendous effect; Bourdieu, Foucault, and Fabian were key.

 

 

Anna Weischselbraun’s Constituting the International Nuclear Order

My dissertation examines how the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for verifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can remain technically authoritative in its judgments despite the fact that it is often accused of being politicized. What I describe on page 99 of my dissertation is a crucial moment in the way that the IAEA conceptualized the nuclear safeguards it carried out for treaty verification (see below). This moment was precipitated by the IAEA’s failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. I argue that a significant epistemological shift was required from a fundamentally quantitative-administrative logic to a qualitative-dynamic logic in the methodological transformation from considering only the activities a state had declared to the IAEA to attempting to evaluate all of a state’s nuclear-related activities (in particular, those relevant for the development and production of nuclear weapons). And, I further argue, this shift undermined the epistemic ideology of bureaucratic objectivity through which the organization had historically come to be seen as authoritative. Epistemic ideology–based on notions of language or semiotic ideologies–is a set of assumptions and values about what knowledge is authoritative and the forms of representation that render it such. By theorizing the production of authoritative knowledge as a semiotically mediated process, I develop a framework for studying knowledge and power in the world that takes into account the epistemic norms and representational conventions that most participants remain largely unaware of. This approach goes beyond reductivist narratives that explain what happens at international organizations in terms of competing national interests, to provide an alternative understanding of the aspirations and limitations to projects of international governance.

This is a critical and significant shift in epistemic mode. The original epistemic mode of accounting for the type and quantity of nuclear material in a state, previously the bedrock of the IAEA safeguards system, becomes in this new epistemic mode only a component (if an important one) of the entire approach to nuclear verification. The detection of clandestine nuclear activity requires a larger view of the state’s activities and relies on the accumulation and synthesis of information critically related to a state’s industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure. In this way, IAEA safeguards inspectors no longer exclusively focus on how a state might pinch off nuclear material from its safeguarded facilities when an inspector isn’t looking, but first attempt to identify the “technically plausible” paths to a nuclear weapon a state might pursue. This methodology requires the involvement of “analysts” whose expertise is constituted as language skills, subject matter familiarity, and technical knowledge, and whose work involves gathering a variety of data on industrial and scientific activities in the state that are relevant or potentially related to the development and production of a nuclear weapon. The work of analysts and the contribution they make to the evaluation of the “state as a whole” has been viewed with deep suspicion [by member states].

Anna Weischselbraun. 2016. Constituting the International Nuclear Order: Bureaucratic Objectivity at the IAEA.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.

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.