Happy New Year

Turning the page on 2016, looking towards a difficult but pivotal 2017, I’m thankful for:

-friends more resilient to fight than ever, renewed or reawakened as activists and poets in the face of frightening times

-family who gets tighter with each other the more adversity we face, even when it’s uncomfortable

-fellow teachers and researchers who inspire me to study, collaborate, write, and teach with vision and love

-faith, however shaky, in a God who does not falter.

Rolling up the Post-Election Sleeves

The slow dawning crawl of devastation on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, as I watched the election returns, watched on CNN and MSNBC and occasionally Fox, watched the NYTimes needle flip wildly in the other direction in a matter of hours, watched the unthinkable occur, all curled up like a ball of pain and recrimination in my stomach, late into the cruel hours of the night, until I watched with bleary and incredulous eyes as John Podesta dismissed the mournful crowd of Clinton supporters and then Trump took his stage, preening with humility as fake as his entire line of false and unsubstantiated promises to a resentful America that even now he is betraying with his Wall Street and establishment appointments. Eating up in my stomach, this horror, that having put my faith in people (I know, I know– popular vote majority, etc.), in democracy (I know, I know– electoral college system historically built for landowners, etc. ), and in decency (I know, I know– I don’t know, actually…), that right or rationality would prove itself.

The recriminations were about the echo chamber that I was part of. The coastal elites. The cosmopolitan urbanites. Fooled by our own Nate Silver bullets of data and Plouffe-ian ground game and Jon Stewart sneering at the idiocy of the campaign. Recriminations that we were so stupid and shallow ourselves. I had already been incredulous that Trump had gotten this far, and so had sought out the Arlie Hochschild studies and the JD Vance explanations that explained why some would wind up in that place. But the sheer numbers, the proportion that was enough to tip the scale, the “repudiation” of red caps and white college educated women, the haranguing of right pundits and self-flagellation of left, the steady and expected and deeply wounding flow of vitriol and harassment and hate crimes as the dams of civility burst… how could we have overlooked it, all except Michael Moore and this guy? And the Christian in me asks the necessary probing questions– let’s assume all human beings are both rotten to the core and imprinted with God’s image, and therefore in the pain and cry of these voters, yes looking past the egregious unfitness and bigotry, but genuinely hoping and believing in something… what is the source of this pain? How have “we” managed to leave so many of them behind? What is the repudiation of this election a forceful call for? For us to stop correcting their mispronunciations of our names or misattributions of our pronouns? For us to stop the cruel pressures of globalization on the slowest to change, or to at least moderate its impacts for the sake of forgotten towns? Or just to shut the hell up and go back to our countries? What is the cry that is behind the pull to make America great again?

Those were the recriminations. But also, rage. Rage balled up. Rage that so vile a peddler of unsubstantiated boasts, shifty doublespeak, dog-whistle murderous speech, predatory exploitation, bitter skulking, fearmongering hatefulness– nearly everything on the list of things that we try to teach our children not to become— had been elevated by our voters to the highest office of the land and the world’s most consequential seat of power. Charge me with extremist language but only biblical and apocalyptic imagery seemed apt to describe the feeling. And between grappling for these abstractions to speak the horror, I thought long and hard about specific people– that friend going back underground without DACA, those immigrant elderly vulnerable to exploitative health insurance, the stopped-and-frisked young people pushed out of school and into incarceration, our children growing up on a planet careening towards climate catastrophe. Rage at that smug face and those flippant hands who proved himself right, that circular morality that being a winner made you a winner, that you should run for the party of those you think are the biggest suckers because you could shoot someone in the street and they’d still vote for you, so long as you told them what they wanted to hear while installing every policy that will continue to guarantee their future poverty and continued dehumanization, wrapping them in lies that feed on vindictiveness and existential dread and real pain.

All that was Tuesday night, a maze of unfathomable emotion all pinned to the traumatic rendering of red on electronic maps.

Wednesday morning, I woke up. Determined to get to work. Determined to roll up my sleeves. Determined to… I wasn’t sure. What was I doing? Where do I take the fight? How do I stand up?

March? Write? Speak? Teach? Reach out? Petition? Conspire? Preach? Cry? Reconcile?

I realized that what I most needed to do was to get busy doing what I was supposed to be doing. Teaching and trying to influence education at the same time, so that we learn civility and compassion as we learn language and literacy. Speaking of a faith that gives grace to the humble and lowers the proud, that stands beside the oppressed and suffers with the hurting. Creating and critiquing cultural engagements that mold and form our consciousness and understanding of one another. Taking care of my family and friends, while learning to speak to those who would make us “other.”

But it’s not just business as usual. There was more I had to do. Withdraw from the sedative of social media, and concentrate my engagement. Stop to listen to discern where I was supposed to spend my time, my energies, my ears, my words. Do better. Do more collectively. Fight smarter.

And I watched as collective action happened around me, from journalists and essayists working harder to understand better, to activists and service workers stepping up to make our presence known, from people of faith coming honestly to prayer and truth-speaking, to progressives redoubling their efforts to combat white supremacy, patriarchy and misogyny, amok capitalism and oligarchies, abuses of human rights and inequality. And I was re=inspired to roll up my sleeves and not just watch.

Over this weekend, I’ve been figuring out how to roll up my sleeves, and where. It’s not worth sharing because it’s so specific and individual. Others are composing great lists of how to act, and those land on my list as well. But first and foremost, I sit and listen. I hear God telling me that despair and depression are a way to death. I hear that for me, right now, it’s time to get to work.

Graduating… from Preschool

Eden Preschool Graduation

Tis the season for graduations. Lengthy commencement speeches endured in sweaty crowdedness. Florid leis and loud hoots reminding us that every kid deserves a family that roots for them, that takes pride in their strut. Pictures, pictures, pictures, and muscling other people for position… for pictures.

In our small household, we “only” had a preschool graduation (someone isn’t done with his dissertation….)  I remember, early in his national fame, Barack Obama on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me ribbing the notion of a preschool graduation ceremony (I think Malia was that age at the time), suggesting wryly that maybe we ought to set our sights a bit higher. I know what he means, but I sure appreciated a little (actual) Pomp and Circumstance, because these first five years felt like they deserved some ceremony, some celebration. Is a preschool career worth that much hullabaloo? I say yes. Not because she’s accomplished the remarkable feat of surviving naptimes. But let’s call it a dress rehearsal for the bigger things that are bound to come, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these years for us.

As we soaked in the cuteness of dance performances and pledge recitations, I reflected on the significance of preschool. I won’t repeat here the promise and power of preschool for all, as has been eloquently argued by one of my heroes, David Kirp. Suffice it to say, there are few social policies that I’m more assured would make a positive impact than guaranteeing quality preschool universally. I know that sounds simple, and it’s not so simple– for instance, preschool teachers in our current system are severely underpaid compared to their K-12 counterparts, so we might be looking at a fairly expensive proposition to expand preschool access. But the investment in those critical years has a substantial body of evidence to show huge long term benefits. Especially if we can make sure the preschool we provide kids is quality.

But I’m immeasurably thankful that our kid got a great preschool education. Truly great. Those teachers of hers are amazing. We really didn’t need them to drill her in the ABCs, she had that covered. We didn’t need subtraction worksheets, or tough discipline for the “unruly” boys who pushed her off a slide. What we cherished was the social-emotional learning, patiently and lovingly rendered by her teachers. The way they comforted her when she was hurt, whether physical booboos or emotional ones. The way they taught her to talk to her classmates about taking turns, or not biting people, or joint projects of Magnatile kingdoms.

My wife and I teach adolescents, so early childhood’s not necessarily our realm of expertise, but we know enough to know that what’s going to be most consequential for her future test scores, earning power, and whatever reductive social indicator you want, is how capably her preschool teachers helped her to set goals about what crafts she made, how gently and persistently they taught her to respect boundaries, and how patiently they listened while she practiced using her words. What made our kid’s preschool quality was not how they “pushed” her towards “achievement,” but how lovingly they included and integrated all of the kids: the non-English speakers, the inattentive squirmers and handsy pokers, and all the four year-olds parroting their parents’ home-brewed inanities to one another– including ours. So three cheers to her preschool teachers, and to preschool teachers and staff everywhere.

I mentioned the dress rehearsal for things to come. As a teacher, one of the pleasures of the job is to see families come out to celebrate their children’s graduation. Especially when you have an inkling of the dedication needed to wake up every day and send them to school fed, the trials and tribulations to make sure their children aren’t left behind, and even the struggle with teachers and principals sometimes to broker a fair shot for their kid. Despite all of my family’s advantages and privilege, I can think of many times when my ability to provide the right steerage and environment for my daughter’s learning was tenuous. So I can only imagine the challenge if a parent is raising multiple children at different ages and stages, perhaps on their own, dealing with financial or legal insecurity. Parenting a child, even through those first five years, takes tremendous resilience.

A preschool graduation is a little oasis, a foretaste for those parents of those rewards, and a reminder that the efforts, headaches, and arguments were worth it for the wonder of the little one who is becoming her or his own person with every milestone.

 

 

Thank you, Revolutionary Mamas

magnificatCircumstances in my life have helped me to appreciate mothers much more in the last five years than I imagined I would when I entered my thirties.

But I’ve become convinced that, against the neglect, brutality, and arrogance of a broken, patriarchal world (I’m complicit), motherhoods are a kind of revolution. The kind we most need. I have a long way to go in fathoming this, even longer in living according to its lights. But today, specific to my flesh-and-blood mother, to the indefatigable mother of my daughter, and to the mothers in my community, I salute and give thanks.

Cultivated Gardens and Cacophonous Circuses


We don’t have many mirrors in our house, but sometimes I’m shuffling around rooms and I catch a glimpse of myself on some reflective surface. What an unpleasant intrusion! Besides the disconcerting reality of my actual face and proportions (so different from the picture of myself in my head…), those glimpses also reveal to me how often I’m in this house with a screen in my hand, a device in my ear, a pair of VR glasses enshrouding my visage. Just kidding, I don’t have VR glasses. Why, do you know where I can get some?

My point is, there are a lot of electronics in our house. I’m responsible for every one of them. I look around a room and say to my wife, “Looks great, but you know what’s missing? A twenty-two inch monitor!”I hate gardening. 

For some reason, maybe because I’ve turned our house into a buzzing den of energy-sucking machines, my wife has taken to gardening in our backyard. Our garden areas are comparatively tiny, and the flowers and plants she and our daughter nurture aren’t anything grand. I see her find the right time, in the cool of the evening, to water them, repot them, consider their colors and the shapes of petals, the red rotundity of three strawberries. It’s beautiful. And I’m already bored and impatient. Should I go heat up some dinner for us? 

Thanks to my friend, Pastor Albert Hong, I’ve begun reading The Cultivated Life by Susan S. Phillips. She’s a spiritual director and Sociology professor at New College Berkeley, and the book contemplates the spiritual cultivation (read: agricultural metaphors, nurturance, organic growth, other stuff that takes a long time) that runs counter to our contemporary noisiness. Her metaphor for that noisy world is the circus, crowded with entertainments and artifice, sideshows and sugar, flashing lights and fast rides. 

It’s hard to deny that pretty much all of us are intoxicated by the instant pokes and persistent vibrations of our super-programmed digital environs. And actually, when people begin tirades against our “digital media age” and the short attention spans our children are apparently condemned to because of the marketing and manipulation we’ve inflicted on them, I actually bristle a little bit. I think we overstate the case, imagining our own fanciful weekday afternoons bicycling by the creek under tree-shaded sunsets granting us the Wisdom of Ages, waxing self-congratulatory nostalgia against the kids we see who seem perpetually Snapfeeding memekatz or something superfluous like that. It’s classic curmudgeonliness sometimes, to condemn the channels and pay so little attention to what goes through them. Thank God I’m not like those teenagers, obsessed with their cell phones, while they are posting, Lord have mercy, I’m disgusted with myself…

Not all gadgets are evil, and not all gardens are good. That’s beside the point, though. The reality is, I find in my life a wasteland of dead crops, metaphorically speaking, of Genetically Modified Organisms instead of fruitfulness and flowering. Strewn around my soul are enclosures of desiccated, trampled grasses and flooded, gasping planter boxes. 

I find myself obese with media, gluttonous of connectivity, and vomiting communications all over the spiritual terrain of my surroundings. I could easily have the same problem without technology. Just come over and check out the piles of books and boxes of DVDs wallpapering our home. But the problem with my iPhone, tablets (yes that was plural), and laptops is that they torrentially pour this kind of contact into a garden that’s meant to be sprinkled and watered. We’re created to laugh out loud, to poke, to comment, and to share… but at speeds and in seasons that were supposed to be subjected to the rhythms of life. 

So here are a few simple moves of tiny salvation: 

-My phone has stations in my home. It can stay there. I will hear your call/ text/ FaceTime/ FriendRequest/ LinkedInEndorsement when it’s the right time. 

-My bedroom will be a sanctuary of materiality. Tunes with no i, candles with no Kindles, and friends with no profiles.

-I will spend time in the garden, allergies be damned. I will contemplate branches. I will leave my Macbook inside.

Nasir and Kirshner’s (2003) Cultural Construction of Moral and Civic Identities

This piece, in Applied Developmental Science, already over a decade old, points out the missing analysis in studies of moral and civic development (at the time) of examining the cultural context.  In sociocultural fashion, the authors suggest a cultural practice approach to youth moral development, which does not only look at moral exemplars or study individual development, as others had done, but methodologically orients towards examining the nested layers of institutional context, cultural activity, and social interaction that are involved in “development.”  Here, as in all sociocultural psychology since Vygotsky, “development” is not the individualistic development of the atomized person.

This emphasis on cultural practice seeks to address questions of how moral and civic identities are formed by considering the practices within institutions and cultural contexts that shape them.  Other research shows little connection between moral thinking/reasoning and moral action, but higher correspondence between moral identity and moral action (see the work of William Damon and collaborators and Daniel Hart and collaborators).  In other words, if moral action is important to your sense of who you are and what your purpose is, then moral action is likely to follow in your life.  But the formation of identity has been shown again and again to be a contextual and cultural matter, one which does not happen divorced from cultural influences, practices, and discourses.  As such, Nasir and Kirshner’s is a welcome reframing of the questions of moral and civic development.

In the time since, there have likely been many more elaborations on this perspective of civic development, and I’ll try to connect them as I read more of them.  But this framework is foundational to my understanding of civic learning and engagement.  Youth act out what they come to learn that they are, and they come to learn what they are through a process of social and cultural learning.  The analytical lens that takes in the cultural practices of the environment provides an important impetus to look beyond bootstraps moralism toward the structural and institutional resourcing and building that fosters civic engagement.

Translucency in a life of faith

I’m thinking about a moving conversation I had with a good brother yesterday, one where the content of a sermon he preached plus an extent of depravity in my own life conspired together to move me to recognize how perversely I had been running away from integrity, from truthfulness, from God.  It was so clear, momentarily, fleetingly, what I had to do, what I had to be.  I had mucked things up.  I had to own that.  I had to come out of hiding, and repentance meant honesty, and honesty meant having to reveal the thing I had been hiding to the person I’d been hiding it from.  And then being willing to accept the relinquishment of autonomy that would result from submitting as an act of love.  

I’m reading Rowan Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, revisiting some of the articulations of life/faith that have shaped me in the past decade: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and academic/ecclesial Anglicans.  He argues in tne introduction that, post-Bakhtin, encamping Dostoevsky in the question of God’s existence in modernity is quite shallow.  The question for Dostoevsky is not God, present or absent, but how it can be that God is seen, known, related to, in the tumble of this world.  I love Karamazov because holiness feels all around, devilry feels all around, and it swirls around humans, humans who are human indeed, rotting and decaying, but always somehow imperfectly flickering the image of grace, the image of holiness.  Even in Ivan’s haunting gallows, in Alyosha’s searching, in Grushenka’s provocations.  Evil is always near.  God is always near. 

I feel like we search and aspire to be unvarnished mirrors or transparent vessels, or else we resolutely or rebelliously embrace our opacity to the spiritual, but those pendulum swings only keep us from accepting that the life of faith is a matter of translucency– always blurred, always faded, always tarnished, but always refracting something we cannot easily snuff out or deny.  God’s alive and speaking, though our language will never speak or embody him.  

 

Rather than a day off, good friday is a reminder of courageous conversations…and their limits

The courage of my friends’ convictions inspires me to write zealously, unafraid of the inevitability that I will be wrong, shortsighted, or dismissed or despised.  Today I enjoyed some conversations (necessary indulgences of friendship, continued delay of work) with friends I cherish who reminded me that most of the things worth saying, I cannot be sure about enough to assume are unassailable, but need to be said enough that I can’t shirk from the risk that comes with loving, hard truth.

I don’t post here on this WordPress site as often as I intended to.  This is because the internet can be a brutal place.  But so are the publics that Jesus, Socrates, Moses, Martin, Dorothy, Fannie Lou spoke to, fearlessly, to much realer brutality, with much higher stakes.  I want to make writing here a regular discipline of exposure, indeed of vulnerability.  Making peace with being seen as wrong or misguided as I am, being short of words or too tired to articulate carefully enough, making peace with absorbing opposition and trying to reply with grace.

Those particular friends today talked about walking the tightrope between academia and teaching as a profession, or contending as a confessing follower of Christ.  Inhabiting multiple spaces with integrity often requires contortions of language, of the symbols we project and the identifications we clothe ourselves in, a hard labor of multivocality.  That’s difficult for me.  Can I speak “Jesus” without being painted with the broad brush of  “right-wing nut,” or write about the moral tarnish of economic inequality without being marked as a marxist?  Can I admit to hopeful admiration of the hard work of teachers without being written off as a compromised cog in the machinery of social reproduction, or talk about “discourse” or “racialization” without being condemned to ivory tower irrelevancy?

Such fears cannot hold back honest engagement, because often, to love is not to hide.  So I confess my timidity this good friday, and I take from my Lord the example of public disgrace, of public foolishness, for the hope of joyful forgiveness set before me, for the chance to find spaces of reconciliation.

This good friday is not a day off for me.  It’s a day to remember that courageous conversations about our thirsty souls and our bankrupt systems need to be engaged in.  But good friday is also a reminder that, though we might speak up in the hopes of dialogue, we should often expect debate, or even still, dismissal, disgust, disgrace… death.  Silent sheep before shearers.  Good friday is a reminder that such eventualities do not remove the burden to speak, nor permit us to do so without love in our hearts and others before ourselves.  Because courageous conversations begin needed dialogues, but redemption requires pain and sacrifice, wounds of love.

 

 

Rod Ellis’s Study of Second Language Acquisition: The “Before…”

Sorry… this is a long one… as you’ll see, I not only talk about the larger context of my orals, I also review a book that tries to cover a huge amount of research literature, a whole field in fact, at the time of its publication, 1994, right before the field is going to get pulled in a different direction, a direction that the rest of this orals area will follow.  So this is lengthy because it’s a “I’m going to demonstrate that I know the broader field before I focus in on one perspective within it (which turns out to be a critique of the whole field…).”

So to clarify where these posts are going, I’m trying to articulate for my Dear Reader the direction and insights of my readings for orals.  Since my first post, which outlined the area “Literacy and Social Action,” I’ve gotten feedback that I need to shorten that list significantly, which is both a relief and a hard task.  The same is true of this area, my second area, which is “Second Language Acquisition in Globalized Perspective.”  The general outline of this area (and I’m learning that if I can’t say it briefly, I don’t have it narrow enough) goes like this: Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a field that used to be limited to psycholinguistic analysis of the language and mind of the language learner, but has gradually broadened to an awareness of social context and sociolinguistic concerns (meaning the study of language in relation to social groups, such as regional variation or interactional language uses).  In other words, whereas Second Language Acquisition research used to primarily put under the microscope how language learners thought in their heads, how they gained language with mental/cognitive tools or structures, and what that language ended up sounding like (in contrast to native speakers’ language), it gradually became more aware of the influence and issues of identification and identity, race and class, social hierarchy, language mixing and contact, and things like that.  Now, the field is very interested in what one might think would be an obvious interest from the outset, the impact of globalization (more on that later) on language and how it’s learned by non-native speakers.

Rod Ellis’s big purple book, The Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994), is kind of a point of departure.  It’s a textbook that is a pretty solid summary of the “before” of SLA, from which I’ll eventually narrate an “after.”  In fact, in the introduction of the 700 page book, Ellis describes how the field is in the process of evolving even from what’s represented in the book, and the very first way he names is the broadening of interests in the field, particularly to the sociolinguistic dimension.  But I’ll get there.  For now, it’s enough to just know that Rod Ellis 1994 is a good summary of what concerns dominated SLA up to that point.

And what were those?  He breaks them down into four concerns, into which he’ll include several sub-categories:

description of learner language. This is a focus on describing the language of second language learners.  “Describing” is an important word in linguistics because it’s a cherished principle of linguistics to be descriptive and not prescriptive, or in other words, to capture the actual facts and systematicity (or structuredness, logic, orderedness) of language rather than to arbitrate what is good, bad, or even accurate language.  Think ‘Enry ‘Iggins in My Fair Lady, the part where he’s fascinated by Eliza Doolittle’s language, not where he’s trying to correct her.  Anyway, this area of SLA was interested in what kinds of (systematic, consistent) errors second language learners made, what patterns second languages developed in (things like the natural order hypothesis, which predicted that certain language structures would come first and others would come in a certain pattern), the variability in learner language (which might sound like the opposite of the last idea, but we’re not talking about random or individual variation, but systematic variation, like variation in styles depending on the context where language is used), and the pragmatic features of learner language.  Pragmatics is an important word to know in this area.  It’s the branch of linguistics (as it tends to be categorized in North American linguistics) that deals with norms of usage and interaction, kind of the catch-all “everything else” beyond sounds, phonemes, morphemes (meaning chunks, like affixes or roots), words, syntax or grammars, and all that other sentence stuff.  (Basically, whenever you hear “Pragmatics” in the future in relation to Linguistics, think about the difference between learning words and grammar in your French textbook and actually, “practically” knowing how to ask for something among French speakers without sounding rude or like an idiot.)

explaining second language acquisition: external factors.  These next two areas are heavily influenced by the prevailing theory (at the time) of language and the mind generally, the one most associated with Chomsky, developed in SLA by many but most notably Stephen Krashen.  The idea here is that the brain is like a special computer with a unique and pretty remarkable ability to “pick up” language, as if it were specially designed to capture the language around it and feed it into an internal processor made specially to hold the complex structures of language within.  Think of how amazed we are when a toddler picks up this or that bit of sentence structure and fills it with all kinds of new and creative pieces.  Analyze the potential variety but remarkable accuracy of that child’s language, even before the child can control pee or hold a pencil, and you can see why theorists thought there must be an in-built language acquisition device in human brains.

Anyway, this area of inquiry for SLA was interested in the external factors, the “inputs” that made it possible for the language acquisition device to activate and work for gaining a second language.  These include various social factors, and here are the precursors to the lines of inquiry that will concern me as we go on in SLA.  For example, Ellis mentions Jim Cummin’s basic interpersonal communication (BICS) vs cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) here, as well as differences between classroom settings and immersion settings, sociolinguistic variables (age, sex, ethnicity, economic status), and John Schumann’s acculturation model (that’s a future post).  These are precursors because later, the “social turn” in SLA will really blow out these questions, but at this point we’re still under the basic overall framework of trying to understand mental structures and factors to learning the target language.  Besides these social factors, external factors to acquisition also include the kinds and amounts of input and interaction, two key sets of concerns.  Keep in mind the model where the second language learner is like a computer that’s trying to use the bits of linguistic data around it to calibrate the internal language processor to the structures of a new language.  What kind of data it’s surrounded by, how it’s delivered (as in, maybe, how teachers talk to language learning students, or what level the texts the might read), and how much of it gets processed is all part of the concern with input.  You can also think here about the teacher term comprehensible input.  Others pushed the question beyond input and noticed that it’s not only what the learner hears and reads, but how the learner speaks and interacts that are determinative, so types and qualities of interaction were also studied among external factors.

explaining second language acquisition: internal factors.  When we say “internal,” we don’t mean going in the specific minds of specific people (that’s the next category…sort of), but into the internal workings of the computer system/program that is the generic human brain.  Here is where what’s called “Cognitivist SLA” (in contrast to “Social SLA,” the terrain I’m going to end up on eventually) is most visibly demonstrated.  What goes on in the brain of the language learner?  One area of this involves the ways that transfer occurs between a first language and a second language.  Another set of concerns looks at what kinds of mental models best explain what’s going on in the mind of the language learner, and here one of the important terms in SLA, interlanguage, arises.  Interlanguage is, to put it in a certain way, my immigrant dad and your immigrant mom’s English.  My immigrant dad’s English is certainly not the language structure of Chinese, but it’s also not the language structure of a native English speaker, quite.  But despite inconsistencies, in his head, it’s probably pretty systematic and has moved through phases, developing in systematic and patterned ways.  Figuring out what’s going on in the learner’s computer system is trying to understand how this interlanguage is evolving, and perhaps what keeps it from getting quite all the way there to native-speaker-level English.  (If you want a clue to what critiques of these perspectives are coming up later, you can think about this idea: we all speak interlanguage, even native speakers, don’t we?)  There are some other concerns regarding the internal factors in SLA, but some of those debates and questions are fairly esoteric.  Suffice it to say that competing and complementary attempts to understand what goes on in the mysterious black box of the brain as an adult learns a language was the central concern here.

the language learner’s variations and individual differences.  Of course, despite the efforts to grasp brain universals and understand the underlying workings of the language machine, everyone’s different.  Your immigrant mom and my immigrant dad might have a similar length of stay in the US, but they’re still different.  What conditions the language learner to result in those differences.  Something about learning styles?  Previously held aptitude?  Attitudes or disposition?  Being given the right strategies?  A factor that is tricky to study but seems intuitive to us is the degree of motivation to learn.  But what’s wrapped up in motivation?  What’s to say one person’s motivated where another is not?  Very complicated.

This sounds like an overview of all the concerns of the book, but they’re actually succinctly summarized in the first couple chapters.  What they show is the general trends and concerns in the field… roughly up to this point. But as we’ll soon discuss, there are a lot of assumptions and theories behind these various approaches, which can be critiqued without altogether throwing out the insights of this large body of research.

Want an example?  I hinted at this earlier, but much of what I described above hinges on the idea that there’s this ideal native speaker of a language who knows how the language should work and is part of the community that reinforces “the standard” of the language.  Who is that?  Is it James Earl Jones?  A mid-western house wife?  God?  Isn’t James Earl Jones just one version of English, and probably he speaks different versions depending on which context he’s in and what character he plays?  And what are the implications of imagining that the mid-western house wife is the “standard,” or the “measuring stick” of English?  Or if you aggregate the hypothetical world of mid-western house wives and James Earl Joneses, then the 99% overlap of their English is the “standard,” right?  Okay, even if we granted you that hypothetical “standard” English, in that English is it acceptable to use the word “negro,” or to say “didja” instead of “did you” when talking to an authority figure?  These questions are meant to poke holes in a construct that, the more you think about it, can be easily poked to be almost empty, and yet serves as such a pillar of the ways of thinking about second language acquisition in the field that I described above in Ellis’ 1994 book.

Where is this going?  Eventually, all of this must be reconsidered in view of social context.  And social context is shaped by many things, but perhaps most significantly of all, globalization…

Literacy and Social Action

This Area is my treatment of the field of literacy studies.  Literacy is a concern for many different disciplines, which of course have a different take on literacy.  For neuroscientists, for instance, literacy is a human mental action or function that can be studied for how it works, what it triggers neurologically, etc.  For philosophers, thinking about literacy involves the use of written signs that somehow compete with or combine with other forms of language and communication, making words and what they convey into material things detached from speakers.

My study of literacy is an attempt to harmonize two different perspectives of literacy.  One is the study of literacy as a sociocultural phenomenon, based on historical and anthropological work that conceptualizes literacy as an evolved, human cultural practice.  This body of work has itself evolved over time, and spawned a sub-field called literacy studies.  Overlapping with this kind of study of literacy is another, the perspective suggested by the term critical literacy, which has some relationship to critical pedagogy more generally, and even more generally than that, critical theory.  What I will try to argue in this area is that, from a pedagogical perspective, critical literacy efforts, which have a commitment to fostering literacy as a type of social action (in the sense that organizing a union, staging a protest, or writing a subversive poem is social action), need to grasp some fundamental insights of literacy studies.  In addition, literacy studies as a research field is theoretically interested in literacy as social action in a different sense, in the sense of social action as a means that humans engage in cultural and communicative interaction.  Insofar as literacy studies wishes to make sense of contemporary dynamics of texts, readers, and writers, it also has to do business with critical literacy as a force and factor shaping who reads and writes and what it means to read and write.

This argument begins with some definitional works on the meanings of “critical,” “sociocultural,” and “social action” from the research literature.  First, I will review some readings that describe the pre-history of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy, and trace how a certain idea of the meanings and purposes of literacy evolved part and parcel with late 20th Century revolutionary movements which were a reaction to modern forms of domination, political, institutional, and cultural.  Then, I will analyze some key texts of Freire himself, and subsequent critical literacy and critical pedagogy works, to demonstrate that critical literacy is full of contradictions owing to the particular sociocultural circumstances of its emergence and development.

Then, I will present readings that summarize the development of the field of literacy studies, which began by trying to apprehend the landmark shifts in human communication, cognition, and society that resulted from the spread of literacy.  This trend of proclaiming how literacy changed everything eventually gave way to an alternative view, the “New Literacy Studies,” which argued for more carefully contextualized and particular ways that literacy made a difference than the grand, universal claims of previous works.  The New Literacy Studies (NLS) more carefully and descriptively detailed the uses and effects of literacy, with studies that identified how literacy operated as a social practice in particularly situated ways– not “literacy equals this or that,” but “in this context, literacy meant this and literacy meant that.”  But that perspective is increasingly challenged by its shortcomings in accounting for the dynamics, movements, and scales of influence that actually constitute what literacy is and how it is practiced today.  I offer a reading of New Literacy Studies that the field itself contended with contradictory conceptions and roles of power and knowledge.

Then, I arrive at a more careful review of various syntheses of the critical literacy and sociocultural literacy perspectives.  These works try in different ways to reconcile the divergent theoretical frameworks, knowledge commitments, and objectives of literacy studies and critical literacy.  These various works, taken together, represent my view of literacy as social action–both a descriptive research approach and a pragmatic social project.

I end by pointing to some various avenues that I think take up this challenge of treating literacy as both a sociocultural phenomenon and as a social-critical task.  These include some forms of participatory and action research, some forms of discourse analysis, and some kinds of teaching practice.  In sum, I hope to demonstrate that literacy “can’t be neutral on a moving train,” to use Howard Zinn’s phrase, and literacy researchers and educators must recognize and act on that.