Prosem RR #2: Naming and Un-Naming

Last weekend, Ben and I walked into downtown Ferndale to grab brunch.  It was an early morning walk, warmed by the 8 a.m. sun and a heated conversation about the role of naming.  Ben shared a Joseph Campbell quote, reminiscent of Kenneth Burke’s “parlor conversation,” to illustrate why he thinks humans rely on naming: “Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.”  As a result, when we first show up to the movie, we need labels and categories in order to begin to make sense of the scene we’re entering, an entré into Bloom’s first level of “remembering” what we are learning, where we “name” in order to build schema around a new concept.  

Now, I should back up and give you some context since you are being dropped into this scene: our conversation was inspired by a recent conversation with several of our close friends, several of whom are in the (perhaps never-ending) process of negotiating their sexual and gender identities.  One, who I will call Our Friend, had shared that as she is beginning to claim “lesbian” as part of her identity, she is discovering a whole new world of identity-based conflict, from the fear of being viewed as a, “baby lesbian,” a burden that some are unwilling to take on when choosing a potential partner, to the complexity of potentially shifting sexual identities later on down the road, a decision that would lead to adopting the name of, “bisexual,” or, “heterosexual,” which some within her community view as traitorous.

As Ben and I talked through this on our journey to The Fly Trap, we found ourselves grappling with what seems to be a human propensity to name and the tension it poses in the context of accepting what is really actually more fluid and non-binary about human beings.  We both found ourselves wondering why Our Friend couldn’t simply remain “nameless” in this regard, and as I read de Oliveira Andreotti’s piece, Strategic Criticism and the Questions of (In)Accessibility of the Other, I couldn’t help, but think back to this conversation.  Like de Oliveira Andreotti, I wonder “[h]ow can we think differently about self and Other beyond the trends of fixing identities, forging new ‘forwards’ collectively without losing track of our past and the origins of our own underserved (i.e. historically inherited) epistemic privilege (so that we do not evade our complicities in structural/material and cognitive/epistemic injustices)?” (140)  I have often wished to rip off the societal constructs that seem fixed to me, wondering what it would be like to be entirely free of the expectations that come with being viewed as woman, daughter, teacher, heterosexual, or young.  Likewise, I have wished to disrupt the unconscious biases that I have absorbed over the years, to break down the imaginary constraints that have been built around my own perception of diverse identities, but to do so without presuming to un-name.  

I am reminded of Madeleine L’Engle’s second book in her Time Quintet young adult series, A Wind in the Door, where “Naming” is an act of love, of recognizing and accepting another’s innermost self while “Un-Naming” is an act of destruction, of making others not know who they are.  When I connect L’Engle to de Olivereira Andreotti, it seems that “Un-Naming” could be an apt term to describe the process of naming to separate: “Coalitions have fragmented/separated us–by naming, by signifying, and therefore creating these so-called differences.  ‘As human beings we have a sacred connection to each other, and this is why enforced separations wreak havoc in our Souls.  There is great danger then, in living lives of segregation’” (140).  Seen in this way, the act of naming seems to be a presumptuous act whereby I determine that I know enough about the essence of another to grant it its signifier and thereby draw a boundary around it to separate it from me and the other ways I name myself.  

To return to mine and Ben’s brunch-bound conversation, I hope that Our Friend can find a way to be named or unnamed in whatever ways reflect the fluid and boundless development of her identity.  Like de Olivereira Andreotti, I believe, “Education should be conceptualized as coming into a plural and undefined world,” where, “the Other can teach us…the limits and thresholds of our own cognitive-affective-relational assemblages and the magnitude of an undefinable universe of unexplored possibilities” (144).  Just as these false bounds of the identities we name limit our perceptions and expectations of what the Other is and can be, so too do these illusory definitions limit our capacity to see and understand the world.

Prosem RR #1: Moving Beyond the Shadows

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Socrates and Foucault may agree: conventional education may only prepare us to see the shadows–and now we need to push beyond our prior training to be able to think critically, diagnose problems, and craft solutions.  As teachers we need to move from seeing the shadows of our practices to being able to reason about them from a multifaceted perspective, an application of being educated as opposed to merely trained. This multifaceted perspective involves inquiring into education using the tools of social theory, schooling, training, education, political economy, and ideology.  With these tools, we can more closely examine, understand and know how culture/social class are interconnected and exert influence on students and schools. This is not to say that through this examination and knowing we will ever be able to know the truth–but we can create well-founded theories to understand social phenomena.  In this way we can see the intersection of knowledge and power.

New Identity Under Construction

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Image Credit: http://www.simplysogood.com/2013/04/glitter-play-dough.html

Last night, Amy asked me more about the new program. She was in awe when I told her that my doctoral program is fully funded. Not only that, but it also comes with a bunch of other great perks–like a (sort of) living wage, health insurance, and even free books! That’s not to say that I won’t be living off a college student’s budget for the next five years, but I will be able to get by while doing the work I am deeply invested in. For the millionth time, I am filled with so much gratitude for the opportunity to truly do what I love and to make a living, though it is a bare one. Thinking back across the week of the things I have been reading and writing and thinking and talking about, it is exciting to see that not only do I get to do the good work of an educator, but I get to push the agenda I am invested in as it relates to social justice, equity, language, literacy and identity.  

Over the course of the summer (and maybe even the past year and a half), I have been reflecting on what it means to make this identity shift.  I am keenly aware, having had to construct my identity as a teacher almost a decade ago as well as reconstructing that identity any time I’ve entered a new job or professional community, that this shift into a dual role as both student and teacher will perhaps be more profound than other shifts.  I have always gone about the work I do as an educator from the perspective that I am constantly learning–so I am always the student–but undoubtedly, this feels a bit different.  Part of that may be because over the past decade (and especially in the first few years of my career), I felt underlying pressure to establish myself as the expert in the room with regard to teaching English learners.  Having had to take on the task of running two different ESL programs since Day 1 of my career undoubtedly played a role in that (along with the undeniable fact that I look very young).  But in order for me to be a leader, an advocate, an agenda-pusher, I have had to find ways to ensure others knew I knew what I was doing–or that I would find ways to figure it out–without presenting myself as presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, or full of hot air.

I have also learned over the years that while adopting this persona served me well as an administrator, it is not always the most warm and collegial identity.  And in truth, it has not always felt like the most authentic version of myself–but it was what I felt I needed.  I have learned the value in positioning myself as a co-learner with my partner, family, friends, colleagues, and students.  

Making the shift to be a doctoral student reminds me of how much more critical it will be for me to position myself as a co-learner (but also to bring my expertise to the table when and where appropriate).  I talked through this a bit earlier this week with my advisor when I mentioned to her that in certain contexts, I feel the tension and inadvertent posturing that seems to happen in the world of academia.  (And I’m not sure if I can truly substantiate this, but it seems even more true with women as opposed to men.)  In multiple circumstances, I have felt a colleague “elbow” his or her way into the conversation with comments that felt unnatural and seemed to be a way of establishing their “dominance.”  And honestly, I’ve played the game myself.  On this side of things, though, I want none of it.  

I told Carrie (my advisor) that my current approach is to ask myself what is my underlying motive before I talk.

  1. Am I trying to posture?  If so, why?  What is my underlying fear?  What is the story I’m telling myself?  
  2. Am I adding to the conversation in ways that will push it forward in productive ways?  
  3. Or should I just keep my mouth shut and continue listening?

Along with that approach, I consistently remind myself of the adage my father taught me when I was very young: listen twice as much as you talk.  I am more likely to be an active and engaged listener when I take this approach–as opposed to negotiating when I should enter the conversation.  I’m also better able to check myself and my intentions.

What I have also found myself chewing on in the past week or so is the fact that as a growing “academic,” (and I guess I’m putting quotes around that label for now because I am working on adopting it as a part of my self definition), is the fact that this field can seem intensely competitive.  I’ve had a couple moments where I’ve hesitated to write an idea in a public context for fear that it might be some of new and profound “ah-ha!” that will be at the heart of my dissertation three years down the road.  And god forbid someone read it and steal it!  But I’m calling bullshit of myself and even the competition in this field.  Ultimately, I’m committed to this work because it is the path I’ve found to improve the world in which I live.  And undoubtedly, this work can only be accomplished through collaboration, through shared thinking and dialoguing, through layers and layers of shared knowledge and action.

I am keenly aware that I’m not just pursuing a degree or a new job path.  I am really creating a new self with new heuristics and habits.  I picture myself molding a play-dough version of “Christina” with each reading or piece of writing or conversation.  And, wow, how powerful and weighty it is to have this metawareness this time around as a college student!

As the year continues, I know I will be able to be more balanced and healthy if I continue to meditate on this ideas as well as this list of questions:

How do I perceive my dual role as both student and colleague?

  • What do I envision for my program? Who am I creating? What path am I carving out for myself?
  • How will I ensure I have a healthy work/life balance?
  • What do I want for my first year?
  • What is my central area of interest? What are my peripheral areas? How can I bring them together?

For now, I know that I want my first year to be my shitty first draft of myself as a growing academic.   I want to explore and wonder and create.  I want to take risks and make mistakes.  I want to be messy and to embrace it.  I want to dive into this work with my typical level of passion and gusto, letting my curiosities consume me–but only to a point.  I want to continue to develop my ability to notice when I’m not taking care of myself or my relationships.   I want to protect my other identities by carving out time for who I am outside of this work.  After all, these other parts of me ARE ME just as much as this new identity I’m constructing.  

Daily Links (weekly)

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Initial Thoughts on Translanguaging and Teaching Future TESOL Educators

I had my first meeting with the TE4 94 team this afternoon. It’s interesting teaching a class I’ve taken it before and to see how it has changed since I took a decade ago. Here are some of my thoughts about today:

First, I found it interesting to hear that TESOL is not really considered a separate subject area within the university or the state of Michigan. That explains so much about why ESL and TESOL have been relegated to the back burner within the educational context. It makes me wonder how the program could evolve here at MSU–or to see how maybe the state of Michigan could push this agenda forward and then see that trickle down to university setting.

It was also really fascinating to begin dialoguing about translanguaging in the more practical context of the course. Currently, my conceptualization of translanguaging is based on the idea that each individual has their own language system. Within each of our language systems “live” many things, the type of discourse we typically use, which most would call language. It also includes what Sandro explained are other semiotic signs (e.g., visuals). I also tend to think that this could include body language, music, or any of the other things around us that we used to make sense of the world. They don’t even necessarily need to be used for communication with others. They could simply be used within ourselves to build schema and store ideas.

If we think about each individual having their own language system in this way, then it no longer makes sense to teach language in the way that we’ve been doing it, where we give power to one supposedly superior form of English discourse over another, which then de-prioritizes another language system–and disempowers its users. This has implications for emerging bilinguals as well as others whose individual language practices or systems may have more differences than similarities with what is considered more standard or legit than other systems within society–hence delegitimizing the language (and identities) of the Other.

From a practical standpoint as an educator this means that I can look at each of my individual students as having his or her own language system; my responsibility is not to “give” them my variation of English, but to build opportunities where they can co-construct meaning with their peers, our classroom texts and myself, which will help them develop their ability to co-construct meaning outside of the classroom. As an educator this also means that I have a responsibility to make this transparent to my students, so that they can navigate and negotiate these systems of power. This makes language learning a social justice issue (and many even a human rights concern).

On a separate, but related note, I think it’s also interesting to think about this in the context of personal relationships. When I am communicating with others or I am reflecting on my own experiences and perceptions, I’m negotiating meaning that may or may not align with the ways in which other people negotiate meaning. This makes clear why miscommunication happens–why people may think they have differing beliefs when really they have different vocabulary or different lexicon that they are using to talk about those believes.

In a similar vein, Sandro talked about his love for Paulo Freire and his belief that love is the great thing governing us all–regardless of what system or belief system is above all of that. I left his office thinking about the fact that like the complex communication system between trees and fungi, we have learned to communicate with each other in order to share resources and build capacity to survive.

And this is what I would call love. It is the desire to survive together. It is the desire to connect. It is the desire to co-construct our lives together. So ultimately language is a vehicle for creating meaning within and between humans, which we might then call love. And then therefore, translanguaging is actually about survival.

Ideas for class:

  • Integrate instructional materials and strategies to model promising practices in working with emerging bilinguals
  • Offer opportunities for students to create visual or audio responses in certain cases instead of written responses
  • Create collaborative personal dictionary for terms from class
  • Find out what prior experiences students have had as well as what their other areas of interest are, where they hope to teach, what level they are planning to teach at, whether they know another language, and what their level of familiarity is with course concepts