The value is in the contrast

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‘Damned linguists…’I said that with amusement to a fellow language and literacy in Education PhD student whilst at a symposium on language held by the Linguistics Departments’ of several universities. I had naively thought that we were all there to speak about language and we were, it just became more obvious to me (like a car without a parking space) that various frames or knowledge systems were present and differed in significant ways from mine. Though the presentations were very interesting in terms of their discussion on language use and their choice of research sites, their conclusions hovered and stopped just about where literacy in Education research would start. I was left with the question ‘so what comes next?’ after each presentation. From a language and literacy in Education perspective, their research would contribute to what literacy Education researchers would call the context, or dynamics of interaction or toward understanding the problem. What became obvious to me was that whereas Education is about action and practice and for me about transformation, these linguists were largely observing what is.

What was even more troubling to me was that though I wanted to talk about the boundaries and gaps between the disciplines, I could not articulate it right then. I realised later that the value of hitting that invisible disciplinary wall was in the contrast, in the differences between language in education and sociolinguistics and linguistics. Noting these differences was an opportunity for me to think about and craft a response that sets out clearly the parameters of my orientation to language in Education within a multilingual context, specifically in South Africa (we have 11 official languages and 6 of these are dominant and locked into a hierarchy of public use that places English first). My primary ideas on language are filtered through Vygotsky’s (1962) statement that “All thought is mediated through language” (cited by Morrell 2008:4). I would argue that language is a resource and that access to multiple languages mean access to multiple resources. Education, I believe needs to use rather than expunge or excise the languages learners and students bring to the classroom. In addition to this, I also believe that learners should be allowed to express their ideas in multiple modes that include images and a range of other sign systems.

What is at stake between disciplinary differences, and my reason for saying that educators cannot remain satisfied with representing what is, is illustrated by Janks’ (2004: 34) portrayal of what happens when multilingual African language children are forced by policy to learn exclusively through poorly acquired English. It shocked me when I first saw that graphic depiction and remains with me still. It is a sober reminder of how a monolingual approach to language and literacy inhibits expression. “Figure 1 is a Grade 3 child’s visual representation of the playground which shows children skipping, fighting, playing hopscotch, playing a chasing catching game” (Janks 2004: 33). In figure 2, when asked to write about the playground in English “The same child’s written text is sparse by comparison…and appears to bear little relation to the drawing” (Janks 2004: 33). It is the sparse English version that would be valued and assessed in school.


So while I acknowledge, appreciate and value the tools, theory, research and insights offered by sociolinguistics and I believe that bridges always need to built, connections made and knowledge shared, I have a new respect for the diversity of disciplines, for the differences and for the contrast. While linguists and sociolinguists are observing what is within the parameters of their field, their analysis of language in schools frustrates the educator within me. This educator, like my inner writer is troublesome. It wants to make learning a positive and an expansive inclusive experience. It is still working out how one does this in the face of various challenges and for various learners young and old but it persists in trying. Often what an academic finds impossible to say is best expressed in the words of a poet “another world is possible and we pledge to make it real” (slam poet Saul Williams, ‘Not in Our Name’).

Theory into practice

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I am reading on critical literacy, for my thesis of course. The importance of ‘the multiple’ is an agreed upon thread in critical literacy theory (we’ll acknowledge the myriad of disagreements in other aspects of the theory and practice and leave it at that). Critical literacy practitioners acknowledge, multilingualism, multiple roles and identities, multiple cultures, multiple perspectives, multiple pedagogic strategies, multiple theoretical strands and multimodalities (to name a few).

This emphasis on the multiple is in opposition to how we so often close ourselves off, choosing our tribes and theoretical allies within the same academic and social circles for years and sometimes even decades. As conflict churns the university and the globe, mixing us up and forcing each of us into the other’s company we are being pushed to embrace the multiple. We are either closing ourselves off or some of us are entering each other’s spaces and entering into dialogue, discussion and exchange. Teachers are doing it for learners and students, we might already be doing it for friends and neighbours. Families are doing it for partners and spouses and showing evidence of my mother’s adage, “Who you hate is going to join your family (forcing your issues front and centre) so make the effort to understand and get on with everyone”.

To what end, you may ask? I keep coming back to Anthony Appiah’s (2008) “cosmopolitanism” which Gutiérrez states is “characterized by the ideals and practices of a shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange in which difference is celebrated without being romanticized” (2008: 149). All of which I think relies on a commitment to remaining open. While I agree with Appiah’s overall argument, I  would exchange the idea of ‘boundaries’ for strands. I would need to reflect on which strands I hold and which I believe constitute aspects of my identity. It means being prepared to be uncomfortable while I try to figure things out. It will mean letting go and re-examining long held beliefs. There will be jokes I no longer find funny. Which new strands I accept will be my choice.

So while our PhDs are forging our reading and scholarship into answering specific questions and narrowing down into the micro, when I read about the importance of multiplicity to critical literacy, I try and remind myself that in other contexts theories play out differently so there is value in getting to know people and learning what they know. There is also value in getting to know people with different theoretical points of view even if they contradict my position because it enriches my scholarship and helps to make me more articulate about what I am expressing through my PhD.

Now go, reflect, then shut up and write.

‘It’s all in my head, I just have to write it’

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It’s mid-afternoon and I have an abstract due for a presentation but it’ll keep because the words, structure and main ideas are all in my head, I just have to write them down. It’ll be a cinch, one hour of concentrated effort at the most.

How many times have you thought or said those very words? How many times do you treat ideas like pennies in a moneybox that if tilted the right way would just fall out and roll onto the page? How many times did you wish the words would just fall out, actually pour out of your head and arrange themselves in the correct thought provoking and theoretically astute order with quotations and challenging questions strategically placed for maximum citation spawning effect?

The words “It’s all in my head, I just have to write it”, is usually met with a moment of silence that you rush to fill with convincing arguments of how into your project you really are…In reality they know and you know, trying to rush writing is like trying to catch dandelion seed. It all looks so easy from afar but when you reach for the seed, it floats away. You might think when people nod at you that they believe you but they’re actually nodding to themselves thinking, ‘Yep, delusional procrastinator’.

Actually, I had four possible approaches in my head which I wrote down and then I used a very reliable method of selection – I trusted my gut, literally. I imagined question time after my presentation and then I discarded all the topics that generated a queasy feeling. Finally my abstract is done and reads well, but then everything does at 3am.

The gifts of age

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I was talking to an academic, she is one of two older academics who are experts in critical and academic literacy, my field. When they talk of retirement and being old I feel slightly panicky, I feel like I am not ready, like the field needs them, like I need them to stay for another five maybe even ten years. When I look at them all I see are their decades of experience, decades of reading, teaching, writing and learning and I am in awe.

Iyanla Vanzant in ‘Acts of Faith…’, tells the story of Nia, who succeeds an old wise woman in the village and as part of the succession, she inherits the wise woman’s tome. The book is decorated with precious jewels and the ceremony where the duties and book are handed over is long. Eventually the heavy book is carried to Nia’s rooms by two men. Alone with the book at last Nia opens it, only to discover that she has inherited a book of mirrors. Annoyingly anticlimactic and thought provoking, I know.

Despite the cautionary message behind Nia’s story and it is quite selfish I admit, I feel like I cannot surrender them to retirement until they have each written a book, left a treasure map. I’d even settle for a book of errors but since one of them has taught me as a graduate, I know that it will be an intellectual inheritance that echoes and reflects the time and energy they’ve spent on uplifting, guiding and challenging both students and colleagues.

When I see them, I have to stop myself from saying, ‘I’m fine, thank you. Now, go ‘shut up and write… the book …please’

Wrestling my inner writer

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When the #FeesMustFall protests and the resulting fall out with the university management and police happened I had the urge to write, to blog. My mind spun off in myriad directions and I mentally started and discarded countless pieces, eventually though I pushed it all back, hard. I was too emotional, angry and bewildered. I was trying to find the threads of why in a democracy the police were called on campus and were shooting teargas at students. We had after all paid for this democracy in time, blood, dreams and with our humanity. All of us, had paid and continue to pay in some way since apartheid authorised violence on so many levels; between state and citizen, teacher and learner, parents and children, men and women. I and most South Africans think,’ time to stop blaming the past and move on’. But as the title of Karole Truman’s (1991) book on mental health reads “Feelings Buried Alive Never Die” and South African society did a lot of burying.

Wrestling my inner writer, I realised, that my inner reader is a pampered entity, it gets fed daily with readings for my thesis, it is indulged with fictional reading when I could be doing more reading for my thesis. Mostly, it gets what it needs and then some. I’m the type of person who reads cereal boxes and gum wrappers. I used to tick my mother off reading the newspaper I was peeling potatoes on (learned not to do that whilst in her company).

My inner writer however, I’ve come to realise is constantly repressed. I think, ‘no there’s no time to write that’, ‘no you’re not going to write that’, ‘nice idea but just how much of your own murky depths do you want to reveal?’ I think all that time training to analyse other people’s writing makes me self-analyse before the words are even written. I spend a lot of time thinking and composing and then banish thoughts that want to be written and my inner writer into a time-out corner. It misbehaves, twitching and thumping until I can’t ignore the noise and write. It gets me back, refusing to produce on demand, refusing to go faster when I have deadlines. It is a pretty stubborn creature.

But as the unwritten chapters of my thesis loom, I am starting to realise that to write my thesis, I shall have to make my peace with it. I shall have to admit that I am a reader and a writer. I shall have to nurture the writer like I nurture the reader. I shall have to let it out not only to work but have patience with it when it wants to play.

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Yes, there truly is such a website…

Schizophrenic note-taking

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Once in a while amidst random searches in the library, you find a book that speaks directly to your thesis topic. So good that you read the introduction and you just have that feeling you will probably end up owning a copy of it. Despite time pressures, you are going read this book from cover to cover and it will be a labour of love.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting such a book. Whilst reading the introduction, I found myself engaged in three types of noting taking in one sitting: on computer for a conference paper; in a notebook as I’m summarising the introduction; and on a notepad for my thesis. And here I mean an old-fashioned spiral notebook in bright pink with white dots and big red cherries on the cover. I felt a bit like an actor playing four different roles, the bellhop, the desk clerk, the waiter and the cook. Sliding and shifting through hats and identities in an attempt to meet different demands.

When I read, I take notes to remember the main points and to stop myself from underlining text in library books. If I read a book in which someone has underlined the text I find myself trying to follow that person’s trail and train of thought. The marks of others are so distracting that I will erase pencil lines before I start reading. Marking a library book in pencil is one thing, but using a permanent ink pen is a bit like pissing on a tree that everyone is using for shade. Yes, we know you were using the text under pressure and it makes it easy to find quotes if you just underline the text. Yes, you were marking the fact that you passed through and that for a short time the book was on your intellectual path but still…It’s just not polite.

My note-taking becomes even more frantic when I glance at the publication date…2004 that leaves me about a decade behind when the ideas were originally written, cheese and crust. My only solace is that students all around the world are still trying to figure out Shakespeare, Foucault, Bourdieu and Bernstein and others. I tell myself “It’s not a race. It…is…not…a…race. Think of yourself as a designer, using materials, practices and principles to create something unique”. The book and the notes are just raw material. Now go use the raw material and Shut up and Write.