Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes

Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham talk about their new book

Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Interview by Alex McGrath

Alex McGrath: Your book very concisely addresses an issue in discourse analysis – that of the lack of a concrete method for analyzing social action unfolding throughout discourse, that is, beyond the single, discrete speech event. Why do you think the discrete speech event came to be the privileged site of analysis for discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology in general?

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: A comprehensive, scholarly answer to that question would require quite a bit of historical work – for example, tracing the development and influence of Hymesian taxonomies that privilege the “speech event” as a coherent unit of analysis. But here we can offer a few observations and speculations. First, it’s important to see that we are describing a traditional approach to discourse analysis that analyzes either discrete non-recurring events, or recurrent types of events. There is a lot of work that claims to describe the structure of discursive events, where the analyst intends to analyze a type of event that allegedly recurs in similar form across time and space. Much of that work is of course useful, and there are in fact types of events that recur and deserve analysis. But we are after a different unit of analysis, a chain of linked events that are not the same from one to the next, but across which signs move and actions are accomplished.

It also makes analytic sense to start with analyzing a discrete event, before one goes on to analyzing a pathway across linked events. As we point out in the book, it is usually appropriate to start by analyzing a single event. One cannot simultaneously analyze lots of events, and you have to start somewhere. If the pathway of linked events is to be the object of analysis, then at some point you have to analyze each of the events that makes up the pathway. So we are not against analyzing discrete events. For studying some social phenomena, however, you need to go beyond this to analyze linked events.

Part of the history that led to a focus on discrete events was technological, we imagine. The tape recorder was a crucial technology which allowed people to record interaction and then play it back repeatedly for analysis. There have been recording devices before, but inexpensive, portable tape recorders democratized access to interaction. This made it easy to find an interesting event, to transcribe it, and to focus on its discursive structure. And there were also traditions of studying canonical events, likes certain kinds of narratives, which led people to focus on high visibility events that were discrete.

Alex McGrath: To what extent do you think the infrastructures of new media shape discourse, and to what extent do you think this should be something that the discourse analyst is aware of? I’m thinking of things like comment threads or the limited social information retrievable from a given speaker on a platform like Youtube, for instance, or the ways that old threads of discourse can resurface years later and become active again. Is this really just a matter of new media discourse having a different space-time envelope than face-to-face communication, or is there something else crucially different about the ways that new media discourse develops that the discourse analyst must account for?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: The general principles about indexicality, metapragmatic regimentation, and the like remain the same across contexts. But it is clearly true that different media and different contexts will have varying structures and affordances that are distinctive. You will not be able to do compelling discourse analysis of a particular medium or a particular context, like the social media contexts that you mention, without knowing about the affordances of the kinds of specific features that you describe.

With respect to social media, it is worth pointing out that contemporary work has begun to show how you cannot make a clear distinction between the dimensions of social processes that take place through social media and those that take place through other channels. In his analyses of mediatization, Asif Agha argues convincingly that we cannot see “media” as a separable domain with its own organization and principles. Instead, there are social processes that are ongoing: social identification, commodification, and others. In the contemporary world significant pieces of these processes take place through media of various kinds. And we have to understand the affordances of those media in order to understand how these processes work. But we are not analyzing media as a discrete site or media processes as discrete processes. Recent analyses by Elaine Chun, Jan Blommaert, and others offer nice empirical examples of this.

 Alex McGrath: Does Discourse Analysis Beyond the Speech Event provide a vocabulary for describing how stereotypes and prevailing ideologies can be contested, or rendered unstable? Could you talk for a bit about how your method accounts for how people exercise agency or resist dominant ideologies and representations?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: We would like to think that our methodology can be applied to study processes of the kind that you are describing. It is not intended to be suited for only one theoretical perspective or other with respect to questions like power and agency. It is important to note that the cross-event perspective which we are drawing on, and applying methodologically, does have something to say about the idea of agency. There was a distinction between structure and agency that was important several decades ago, and subsequent discussions of ”structuration,” which allegedly resolved the issue. A cross-event perspective, as it has been developed over a couple of decades now, tries to move beyond this conversation. Unexpected, emergent patterns cannot always be attributed to a human individual’s action. In fact, there are reasons to be concerned about the Enlightenment perspective that imagines autonomous individuals who issue agentive changes into the world that spring from their intentions alone. The analysis of unexpected patterns is crucial. It is equally crucial not to reduce people to structures or stereotypes, thus removing what is often called their agency. But from our perspective emergence and unexpected patterns derive from chains of linked events, events which are never solely constituted by one individual.

 Alex McGrath: How would the discourse analyst account for unfolding discourse in which multiple channels of semiosis are key in establishing pathways, or co-constitutive with other semiotic channels in solidifying indexicals? Cases in which, for example, a color becomes a salient indexical along with certain formal linguistic features, strengthening pathways and shaping alignments, as in Norma Mendoza-Denton’s account of high school cliques in Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs (2008).

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: That is an excellent point and example. It is absolutely the case that sometimes crucial indexical signs come in various media — visual, auditory, and so on. Obviously, in order to study multimedia signs we need recording instruments that give us access to them for analytic purposes. That means video, at least, in addition to voice and text. The analytic framework we offer in the book is flexible enough to include indexical signs from multiple different modalities. But the logistical challenges in recording and then analyzing signs from multiple modalities are substantial.

Another important issue your question raises is what counts as a sign (linguistic or otherwise) in the first place. Our approach is committed to tracing what is attended to as a sign, so what participants orient to is absolutely key. Researchers could have all of the recording equipment in the world, but we should not be romanced into believing that these technologies bring us closer to an unmediated truth about some reality. As analysts, we need to privilege participant perspectives: what they attend to as a meaningful sign in the world, rather than what we researchers believe these to be.

 Alex McGrath: Lastly, were there any challenges or surprises to writing a methods book? Did the development of this project differ from your previous projects in any significant ways?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: When one writes a dissertation, and subsequently has to do empirical projects, one realizes that methods are critical. Theories and conceptual speculations are a dime a dozen. People make them up all the time, and they publish them, and you can always make up your own or find relevant ones out there. But having a systematic method is absolutely crucial to moving forward, and the method has to have a certain level of systematicity and validity in order to be worthwhile. With respect to the practicalities of getting academic work done in the real world, methods have a crucial place. With this in mind, we wanted to make the book useful to people doing empirical research. Thus we focused on a couple of key examples and tried to work through them systematically. We also tried to offer systematic guidelines, overviews, and procedures. We wanted to make complex concepts clear but not simplistic, so that people from various disciplines at various stages could see the full methodological value of linguistic anthropological theories of discourse. We hope that our approach is useful to others in their research.


Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”


References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.

Elizabeth Kickham’s “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning”

“Is Ford Madox Ford’s statement “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” accurate for the dissertation?

In short: not really.

Especially for long winded texts such as my own, titled “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning (University of Oklahoma, 2015),” page ninety-nine likely occurs in an early chapter. In fact, my page ninety-nine, occurring in the methods chapter, rather dryly details survey design, contacting and consenting procedures, and interview and observation timeframes. Not only is the content of this page rather boring, it does not relate the more interesting methods substance, which, in my opinion, concerns the collaborative and reflexive nature of community-based sociolinguistic research and issues in representing voice.

This entire chapter, to my thinking, with its dry tone and disconnected content, fails to represent the work. It does illustrate, though, the challenges in writing for two audiences, as necessitated by writing a dissertation with and for a community while attempting to satisfy an academic committee. The methods chapter stands apart from the remaining content, presented in a first person ethnographic style, in which I and my consultants share voice. (In fact, the final written product is the result of collaboration and careful review, word by word, by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Committee.) The remaining work attempts a sensitive and critical examination of how Choctaw language ideologies impact teaching practice and learner motivation, and, ultimately, language persistence. Page ninety-nine addresses none of the ways that ideology shapes conceptions of authorization, standardization, orthography choice, and socio-linguistic authentication.

So, perhaps page ninety-nine is not as accurate a test of the quality of a dissertation as for the novel, Ford’s subject. Then again, to a non-academic audience, page ninety-nine of the dissertation, whether describing methods or actually delving into findings, may just represent the rather esoteric, sometimes unapproachable, and, let’s face it, boring nature of much academic work. Perhaps if dissertations were written as are novels, to engage the reader, page ninety-nine would be a fair test of quality. After all, when dissertations are revised for publication, the early chapters are often summarily cut. Page ninety-nine of my dissertation is fated to footnote status, where, I firmly believe it belongs.

Kickham, Elizabeth. 2015. “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning.” PhD dissertation, University of Oklahoma.

Elizabeth Kickham

Elizabeth Kickham, Adjunct Professor at Oklahoma University, Norman