“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Emerson and Fritz Chapter 3

writing ethnographic field notes
The third chapter is entitled, “Writing Field Notes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page.”  My summaries and reactions:
Recognizing that all writing, even that which attempts to take a neutral stance and remain as descriptive as possible, is a kind of construction, the authors are mindful about what influences this construction and attempt to raise, in this chapter, several of the circumstances, questions, and decisions that factor into the ethnographic description that the fieldworker puts on the page (or screen) after being in the field.
Issues of how soon and how long the ethnographer gets to the desk (as fresh as possible, as soon as possible, ideally an hour writing for every hour in the field, as much unpolished memory as an outpouring can produce) get squared away pretty quickly.  Techniques for recalling the day (use of jottings, initial lists of topics, beginning with high points, turning jottings into extended texts) are exemplified.  These seemed fairly obvious to me, but might be helpful to someone else.  I find myself to be that kind of extensive, compulsive note-taker anyway.  This method sounds like second nature to me.  Sometimes in the course of going from jottings to notes, new or fresh significance emerges, and that’s something I see happening often in my field note taking.
The technique of writing “lushly” (Goffman), depictions of scenes, including spatial arrangements, details of the setting, the appearance of people to contextualize talk and action (while resisting the too-easy categorizing and stereotyping we tend to do in taking in other human beings), casting evocative images… these produces portraits of irreducible importance, where the discovery lies in the ethnographic task.  Otherwise, everything defaults to the bell curve, the expected scene, without idiosyncrasy that makes the scene matter.  Dialogue can flow in and out without repeatedly adding the she saids and he saids, and the authors make their pitch for capturing verbatim dialogue however possible and getting the narratives of the speakers as important artifacts of culture, something which is already my starting point into ethnography.  Aspects of transcription like capturing breaks and rhythm, pitch and prosody, as Hymes and company articulated, create many decision points in transcription, ones that the responsible ethnographer makes deliberate decisions about.  Characterizations are discussed, as is the use of active rather than passive verbs.
Organizing writing about the day’s events can be broken down with these tools:
sketches: like a still-life picture, a multi-sensory scene.
episodes: capturing action, a “slice of life.”
transitional summaries: because a full sequence is often impossible, linking episodes with transitional summaries segments and coheres the account.
Finally, including in-process analytic commentaries or asides also helpfully warrants a discussion here.  Asides are quicker, commentaries are fuller.
As a reflection, the authors describe a “writing” mode where the ethnographer is intent on producing the observation text, and then a “reading” mode that involves looking again, reflection, etc.  It’s helpful to think about the discipline of ethnography, for me, as investing enough in this writing mode to work fully and intently as an observer, before leaping too quickly, all-too-quickly, to the analytical or interpretive mode.
Overall, the chapter feels the driest, but perhaps because this is the most obvious, practical, and re-tread territory, and the authors want to give details and procedures in pretty straightforward fashion without overproblematizing or over-thinking these steps.  The examples are helpful, but for the most part, I’d be more interested in a version of this chapter organized around common dilemmas or problems that the fieldnote taker encounters in attempting the work, and the way these tools are solutions.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Chapter 2

writing ethnographic field notes
The second chapter is entitled, “In the Field: Observing, Participating, and Jotting Down Notes.”  My summaries and reactions:
To the wary new ethnographer, chapter 2 provides a lot of reassurances and helpful clarifications.  Telling someone to be an observer and a participant among people, without the “scientific” goal of slicing away variables and maintaining an extremely tight focus, means always tangling with perceptions, reactions, emotions, and positions of self in relation to others.  This prospect can fill you with doubt.  Am I capturing what matters?  Do I pollute my observations with my own feelings or subjectivity?
The ethnographer’s fieldnotes always involve perceptions of significant ideas and facts, but that significance is determined first and foremost by the priority to the perspective from “within,” rather than the outsider’s perspective.  Yes, ethnographic writing wants to include initial impressions and reactions of the participant observer, but not uncritical ones.  Those impressions are good for identifying things that regular participants might take for granted, like when a commonly-used saying strikes the observer as strange or unrelated, or a behavior doesn’t appear logical even though everyone takes it for granted.  But the ethnographer is certainly not satisfied with their own perceptions of weirdness.
Rather, the ethnographer does well to note her reactions and responses, observe the reactions and responses of locals or those being studied, and consider the indigenous meanings, narratives, practices, perspectives that make events significant or not, etc.  How do local actors attribute importance or grant attention?  The authors give an example of the observer in an ex-prostitute’s residential program who notes a brief conversation about a woman’s new haircut, jotted down, easily passed over as insignificant, except that people at the site grant it significance by further talking about the haircut and identifying its significance: it turns out to be consequential because the haircut is a step towards the trappings of a sex worker lifestyle that the observed woman is supposed to be getting away from.
Overall, the authors convey that the writing of fieldnotes is tied in with observation, and observation does not dismiss the subjectivity or judgments of the observer, but must discipline them under the endeavor of the anthropological task.  This includes become a systematic observer and recorder, including being attentive to the “where, when, and whom” that are often taken for granted in events by local people, as well as the “why” and “how” of routine and mundane interactional accomplishments.  Over time, then, the writing can narrow and focus, after starting as a broad net, becoming more and more focused on a set of issues.
The authors then talk about “jottings,” writings in the field done to capture a moment before it’s lost to memory, often in the form of mnemonics to be filled in later with detail.  Dialogue, topics, etc.  Jottings are the ethnographer’s activity but also their mindset, approaching the experience in the field with the thought of capturing for later writing.  These jottings involve
–capturing key components, fragments of talk as focal points, sometimes just as reminders of the specificity of the moment,
–sensory details, needed to later reconstruct the feel of what happened,
avoiding “characterizing scenes or what people do through generalizations or summaries,” which are often used by novices as convenient or efficient notes but not helpful for close descriptions.
–details of scenes, conversations, interactions, quotes, concrete events that show rather than tell.
–emotions– how they are exhibited, what they come out as, etc.
–general impressions and feelings, even if their significance isn’t immediately apparent.
Besides the content of field notes, field workers have to think of the occasions and places they can pull out their notebook or Macbook or whatever writing tools.  This isn’t just a practical question of what feels convenient, because the field worker has to be conscious of how the act of writing interacts with the ethnographer’s presence and participation in the field.  The fieldnote writer is torn between being present in the field and pulling away, whether physically or interactionally, for taking notes.  Where does one position oneself?  Does one begin taking notes during a delicate situation, and risk offending or scaring the participants?  Is the ethnographer distracted by the task of writing and missing the actual cues of the interaction?  Whether jottings are open or hidden, strategic and conscious jotting is a key and sometimes evolving part of ethnographic writing.  And of course, there is the ideal that the ethnographer becomes someone the participants trust and have gotten used to, standing by and writing away and recording the situation where the participants are freely doing what they would do, comfortable with the ethnographer’s work and place in the ecosystem.  But reaching that point obviously takes a long process of building trust and familiarity, and introduces a different sort of “weirdness” to the regularity of everyday life.
It’s a weird stance, a weird place to be, and one that requires my sense of judgment and constant critical analysis.  In my case, especially as something more than just a participant observer, I know the colleagues I work deserve that I am being open and honest, remaining critical and analytical of myself in order to be nonjudgmental of others, and striving to be descriptive and purposeful in my writing.  Those are the challenges of ethnographic writing, but dealing with those challenges is the work that you’re doing.
As I read the chapter, I think of the awkwardness of being a fervent notetaker wherever I’ve been.  I just gave a little talk with some middle schoolers at the school (though not the classroom) where I’m doing my observations, explaining how being a note-taker has changed my life.  (This is all tied to the course’s curriculum, which introduces student skills like note-taking in all classes).  Being an inveterate note-taker has utterly shaped the way I belong to social situations involving work, and balancing that with the awareness of faces and voices and presences that I’ve also worked at being attuned to, that’s hard to reconcile sometimes.  When I’m at the site, sometimes I don’t know whether to pull out the recorder, the scrap of paper, the laptop, the notebook, and when to simply be present and conscious.
I do know, however, that I’m guided by the ultimate goal of ethnographic writing, and that requires the tension between participating, belonging, being fully present and heads-up, and stepping back to think, to capture stories, to consider, to tie in with theory, to identify and sometimes make meaning.  That tension is a familiar one, one that I think has some close overlap between other tensions I try to hold together in my work as a teacher-coach and my work in education as a whole.  I feel like it’s an important posture to maintain, the commitment to live with and understand and learn people, but the devotion to an ongoing conversation of reflection and analysis about that living.  There are specific ways that reflection and analysis goes on, a certain kind of disciplined inquiry that ethnography entails, and those commitments are also vital.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Preface & Chap 1

I sometimes get asked by people who don’t know much about the kind of research I do what it entails.  In many settings I’m in, I’m an incurable note-taker, constantly writing, furiously.  What’s going on in my note-taking, they wonder, and how is it research?  Am I writing private judgments and opinions, copying every uttered word like a stenographer, drawing caricatures of people dressed up as superheroes?

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw is a book I’ve been waiting to read, timed with the beginning of qualitative research I’m conducting for my doctorate.  (For anyone keeping count, it’s the fourth of five books I plan to read simultaneously and record on this blog, along with occasional journalism, academic articles, pieces of culture, etc.)  From my skimming, it will package up and remind me of what I learned from taking courses with and hanging around anthropologists as a graduate student, and what I have taken away as the intellectual practice of being-in-a-place and taking-notes-while-there, which I think is a theoretically important, rich, and potentially weird thing to do.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw (2nd ed)

The authors begin by pointing out classic works on ethnographic writing, analysis, and fieldwork (Geertz, Sanjek, etc) that, despite their import, don’t provide an organized introduction to the act of writing while in the field, or taking fieldnotes.   The authors describe very different uses and conceptions of fieldnotes in practice– how they’re done, why (or whether) they matter to the ethnographer, how organized or idiosyncratic they should be– which make it difficult to transparently discuss or teach how to do fieldnotes.

Transparency, or “making explicit the assumptions and commitments [held] about the nature of ethnography as a set of practical research and writing activities,” is the authors’ response to the different conceptions about fieldnotes specifically and  ethnography generally.  In that spirit, the authors are ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists, which I think gives them sensitivity to “mundane” practices that compel them to think this carefully about fieldnotes as a kind of habitual practice for ethnographers.  Their experiences teaching courses about taking fieldnotes and their imagined audience of not just ethnographers in anthropology and related fields, but also people in experiential education and service learning– those are interesting to me as a writing educator.  They talk about writing not only about the “critical incidents” one encounters “in the field,” but also the everyday practices, habits, and routines that get taken for granted, which is of course core to the ethnographical enterprise, but also important to learning and reflection for people who don’t consider themselves academic researchers.

The book’s organization is structured based on the actual processes by which takers-of-fieldnotes, including non-experts, experience them, beginning with the notetaker’s assumptions and stances, then moving to the step-by-step aspects of writing, describing, developing analyses, organizing, etc.  The first chapter begins with detailing the place of fieldnotes in ethnographic research, essentially the interconnected activities of being in the field and writing about it.  Here, the ideas of social worlds, the interactional accomplishments of everyday situations that are defined between people, and the interpreted meanings of interactions, those kinds of concepts that ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism are concerned with, become developed between the ethnographer’s participation in the field and all that’s entailed in writing description.

Being in the field means the immersion of body, self, personality, in the social situation, not as objective outside observers, but as participants in the lives, interactions, and practices of the people studied.  Then, the ethnographer can understand the ways of thinking, the struggles, and the meanings of people in that setting.  But because of this, writing isn’t just noting what you observe and witness impartially, but working through perceptions and interpretations that you the ethnographer make.  The authors provide the examples of three different descriptions of supermarket checkout lines in LA to exemplify how “orientations and positionings” of the observers change the accounts, the representations in writing.  These show how fieldnotes involve selection, emphases, choices, filters and lenses of interpretation.

Therefore, fieldnotes involve a kind of inscription, a notion from Clifford Geertz, where the ethnographer takes “social discourse,” passing events happening in moments, and turns them into writing through a transformation, onto paper, of the events.  Selection, framing, and other reductions are involved, of course, and that’s why method matters.  What are we selecting for, looking for, viewing for?  And yet, even while defining those lenses, the ethnographer’s job is to be aware of context, details, factors, influences, all that might go into a “thick description” (Geertz again) that understanding people requires.

The four implications the authors draw: (1) data is always tied to the observational processes, and whatever the method is always the data at the same time; (2) the ethnographer is always looking for indigenous meanings, local interpretations, not imposed though mediated through the ethnographer; (3) writing fieldnotes contemporaneously is necessary, though not sufficient, to build the account, because the writing nearest to the occurrence maintains the character of contingency and specificity of the moment; and (4) the everyday activities, the mundane interactions, the microscopic moments– those are the ethnographer’s concern, with detail, attending to sequences, eventually leading to identifying processes, to document life.

The authors conclude by summing up some different takes on what’s involved when ethnographers write down the cultures and localities they’re immersed in– is it, as Geertz called it, inscription, putting into words a moment?  Or is that too much like “salvage ethnography,” the rough notion that anthropologists are about capturing and bottling up disappearing languages and heritages before they pass into extinction?  Is it narrating, translation, or “textualization,” as Clifford calls it?  Each perspective tells us something about what’s involved in fieldnotes, the authors explain, and yet none adequately parse out what’s involved in the daily “way of life” that ethnographic fieldnotes invites a researcher into.

As I said at the top, these are ideas I’ve been familiar with and have influenced me, but I appreciate the clarity and coherence with which the authors introduce ethnographic fieldnotes in the larger context of what ethnography is.  As a qualitative researcher (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an anthropologist or ethnographer formally, since my discipline lets me pick and choose what’s most useful and necessary to answer whatever research question), I am pretty aligned to these authors’ perspectives about research work.  There are more critical questions about research and communities that the authors haven’t taken up yet– in the “immersion” experience, we can’t forget that the farther and faster we “swim” into the waters, the more we push out waves that ripple through the ecology of the lake.  But I appreciate this refresher as I set up the infrastructures to take fieldnotes in my own work.

“A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners” by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera

From the Review of Education Research, this literature review piece does the kind of job that makes me thankful for literature reviews, assembling and organizing the existing research within certain boundaries.  In this case, the authors, researchers at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, gather research since 2000 that describes academic language, research on how it is taught, and the implications for teacher education and professional development.  It’s a valuable piece that puts together much of the research I read, a piece that I’ll share with others, and definitely cite in my work on academic English.  A rough outline of the piece, before some of my own thoughts:

I. Introduction: Language’s important in teaching/learning and schools, “hidden curriculum,” and CCSS emphasis.

II. Methodology: Marking the boundaries for inclusion in this review

III. Conceptualizations of Academic English in the Literature:

   A. Differentiates Academic vs Social English

   B. Explicates Features within and across Content Areas

      1. Vocabulary

      2. Grammar

      3. Discourse

      4. Science, Mathematics, History/Social Studies

      5. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math

   C. Addresses the Social Function of Language

IV. Research on Academic English Instruction

      1. Instruction in Academic Vocabulary

      2. Instruction in Grammar

      3. Classroom Discourse

V. Implications for Teacher Knowledge

VI. Conclusions and Research Priorities

My Commentary:

Like any literature review, or really any work covering extant knowledge, the authors/reviewers have to gather, select, and justify their selections.  Sometimes, that’s the most interesting part.  For example, from the paradigms of evidence these authors are working within (the piece is based on an unpublished report commissioned by the US Department of Education), they need to cite the “scarcity of research” to justify a broad inclusion of studies with different research methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative studies.  They cover empirical studies with various approaches, including linguistic studies, educational ethnographies, and even works of theory.  I’m presuming here, but with an audience sector that tends to privilege quantitative, gold-standard research, adding those notes about the inclusion of qualitative research is a necessary move.  But there is a feeling of, why should those have to be justified?  Qualitative studies are necessary to get at the depth and detail of phenomena like teaching and learning or structures like academic English.

Anyway, if I have any critiques of the piece, they aren’t ones where I would fault the authors for the shape of the review.  Instead, they would be things I’d add as I shared the piece with others in order to say, “this review covers many important perspectives well, but if you wanted to think comprehensively about the topic of ELLs and academic English, I’d also include consideration of these things.”

What are “these things?”  They’re related things: a somewhat attenuated discussion of “English Language Learner,” a little short shrift to social and cultural dimensions of both ELLs and academic English, and a few other perspectives that could have been included somehow.  Some of these oversights are a matter of a lack in the research, not in the reviewers, and some of it is alluded to in their conclusion.

First, while the article repeatedly specifies work on English Language Learners and not the general population, this seems more like a useful limiting or boundary line for a segment of work than an exploration of all that goes on under that label in relation to language.  In that sense, this review addressing “English Language Learners” is a little bit like the uses of the label itself: useful for focusing, categorizing, and specifying, but not quite ready to take on the full-blown implications of addressing the population of immigrants and children of immigrants.  The complexities of the population (which have huge impacts on their relationship to, and learning of, academic English) aren’t really discussed, and they could have cited scholars like Kate Menken, Laurie Olsen, Ofelia Garcia, Tatyana Kleyn, and many others.  Granted, those researchers may not always be doing work directly concerned with the linguistic or learning aspects of ELLs, so I can understand their omission from the review.  But some parts of education have a habit of ignoring the concrete social dimensions that both research and teacher instincts tell us have a primary role in student learning and achievement, such as whether groups of immigrant youth are isolated, overlooked, or embraced in a school community.  Like I said, if I were tasked to write a similar review, I know such considerations might end up on the cutting room floor, but when we talk about language and immigrants in pre-service and professional development training, I’d hope we have a bigger-picture conception.

The authors do have a useful section talking about the social function of language, which I notice draws heavily on the work of James Paul Gee.  I can understand why and I’ve done the same; Gee has a way of pulling together theory, research, and practice from language, literacy, and education research in very accessible, comprehensive, and still sophisticated ways.  There’s also work cited from Systemic Functional Linguistics like Halliday and others, who have done great work on academic language analysis with awareness of its social dimensions.  But I wonder about the missing perspectives from fields like language socialization (ie Patricia Duff) and sociocultural and other socially-inflected approaches to second language acquisition (although Lourdes Ortega and others within these schools are cited, but not explicitly discussed).  Again, their omission may have to do with research not directly addressing ELLs in P-12 schools and things like that, so it’s understandable.  And it’s a relevant question whether, when we talk about ELLs and academic English, we’re talking about second language acquisition, first language acquisition, or something that really busts those simplistic categories (see Ortega and folks like Ofelia Garcia for that stuff).  But really important thinking and research still left out, which I think is highly relevant to ELL education.

All of these concerns are triggers for my own work, and people familiar with my research projects (still in progress… grad student… ) will see these as familiar concerns coming from me.  But my work needs the knowledges and awarenesses from the research reviewed in DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera’s piece, for which I’m grateful.

“What Kind of Citizen” by Joel Westheimer 01: “Introduction” and invitation to read with me

Education, Democracy, Civics

Education, Democracy, Civics

Joel Westheimer opens his book by asserting his overall thesis, that schools teach civics and are concerned with civics, and not just in Civics class.  The kind of society we want, what it means to be a good society, who’s in and who’s out, what it means to participate and how to participate in civic life… these are dimensions always mentioned by teachers, administrators, and parents when they imagine the purpose and role of school.  Though so much of the talk about schools is about competitiveness, achievement, and results, even people who name those objectives would not say that they ought to come at the expense of thinking how we’re shaping young people to lead and create the society we become in the future.  The democratic impulse of education is deeply embedded in our political consciousness and our beliefs about schools.  That’s a good thing, because whether we think about it or not, schools shape how kids ultimately engage in society in huge ways.

Do you want to read this book with me?  I’d love some company.  My plan is to post every Tuesday about a chapter a week, going through the ten chapters and inviting discussion about them on Facebook and maybe also on comments on these pages every week.  If you are interested in thinking about how our schools impart a sense of civic responsibility and learning to our children, and what that means for our society, it would be great to have you read along with me.

Roughly, the schedule for reading the book with me, when I’ll post a summary and some questions to talk about, as well as links to relevant other readings:

Tue., June 30: Chapter 1, Changing the Narrative of Schools

Tue., July 7: Chapter 2, No Child Left Thinking.

Tue., July 14: Chapter 3, No Teacher Left Teaching

Tue., July 21: Chapter 4, How Did This Happen?

Tue., July 28: Chapter 5, What Kind of Citizen?

Tue., Aug. 4: Chapter 6, Personally Responsible Citizens

Tue., Aug. 11: Chapter 7, Participatory and Social Justice Oriented Citizens

Tue., Aug. 18: Chapter 8, Thinking, Engaged Citizens

Tue., Aug. 25: Chapter 9, Seven Myths about Education

Tue., Aug. 1: Chapter 10, What Kind of School?

Join me, and let me know if you’re interested!

Not enough.

My lesson plan is cooked up.  On some days, I rely on the same old eggs and toast, but this time, I whipped up something special, seasoned with inspiring sense of purpose, custom-made from time-consuming assessment of student work.  If they listen, if I can keep their attention for just a few minutes, if I get this thing rolling, it’s going to be good.  They’re going to feel motivated, confidently glide through the steps I’ve laid out, take away a sense of satisfaction from what I’ve led them through, accomplish some breakthroughs in their academic language use while taking away an increased sense of efficacy, start imagining themselves as scholars and leaders.

Before class has even begun, the train starts coming off the tracks.  My technology is glitchy, and my eyes and hands are preoccupied fidgeting with it.  Kid-with-no-filters marches into the classroom somehow simultaneously distracted by a video game on his cell phone and filling the airspace with unprocessed nonsense questions designed to annoy.  A pack of guys saunters in a passive-aggressive thirty seconds late, right as I’m gaining momentum in my attention-grabbing opening salvo, deflating my speech completely.  Suddenly, my passion is shading into anger.  Nine student start class short of the basic starting point: no pencils, headphones in the ears, hoodies covering eyes, head on the table, and/or KickOff page nowhere to be found.  Addressing these nine, even efficiently, leaves me breathless for the rest of the students, who copy the KickOff prompt and then stop short of the actual thinking part of the task.  Only four students try; of these, only two have appropriately applied the simple language lesson we have been repetitively practicing with little variation for two full weeks now.

From there, I’m damned both ways.  If I rely on routines, students who have struggled with the actual cognitive challenge but managed procedural displays of the activities might toss a few bones my way, but by this time of year, few routines have not been drained of their original intent.  If I introduce a new activity, the instructions, the risks I ask them to take, the confusion because of half-understood instructions, whatever it is, makes the prospects of a properly functioning and useful (let alone engaging and curiosity-stoking) activity pretty grim.

At the end of a rough class period of cajoling, preaching, reflecting and asking for reflection, reviewing, reading student work, I am spent.  Is the curriculum centered around relevant inquiry questions, social justice and personal interest related?  Yes.  Are my activities appropriately scaffolded, with progressive sharing of responsibility, and thoughtfully backwards-planned?  Yes.  As I maintaining positive relationships of trust, support, and accountability with students?  Insofar as I can.  Do I give students immediate, direct feedback that they can act on to improve, take the next steps, and push themselves to an appropriate level of challenge?  I think so.  I try.

What would I tell myself if I were coaching myself?  If I were watching this class every day, seeing what I tried, understanding what was going on with these students?

I would say, keep on.  Keep at it.  You think enough about what to do, and you’re already doing what you can do.

And when I heard that from myself?  I would shake my head.  It’s not enough.  It’s not enough.

Academic Language as Generative Tool

Months ago, in August, I started to blog about the academic language workshop I conducted, and never finished detailing its contents.  Today, with a special shout-out to Rebekah Caplan of the Bay Area Writing Project for pointing me to some of the ideas and references I’ve been putting into practice, I’ll continue describing my approach to thinking about and teaching academic language.

Like all registers, dialects, and languages, I think academic language has multiple aspects, including the systematic/structural/patterned aspects, the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions, and the dynamic/emergent/idiosyncratic phenomena that keep it constantly changing and evolving.

Teaching one aspect without consideration of the others can lead to misfires in our attempts to impart that knowledge on students.  For instance, teachers often try to correct and conventionalize students’ writing, but their red-inked feedback falls on deaf ears because the students have found the academic register in general to be irrelevant at past and alienating, colonizing, or otherwise antithetical to key aspects of their identity, so even when they know its importance in school and society, they resist internalizing it as part of their repertoires of language.  This is trying to attend to the systemic/structural/patterned aspects of language, teaching grammatical structures or punctuation rules, without attending to the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions.

One illustration of this phenomenon is a conversation on an episode of Slate Money (first third of the show) about the jargon used in the banking industry, where the commentators debate whether bankers use such jargon as code to keep out the non-specialists and circle the wagons as a special club, or whether terms such as “credit default swap” are, in fact, efficient intra-group communication shorthands for complicated processes, devices, products, etc. that would take too long to explain or capture in a truly lucid title.  The answer they come to is, unsurprisingly, both: jargon is both shorthand and gatekeeper.

Academic language can be thought of in this way too.  Many aspects of academic language (which we will examine in a subsequent post with the help of some experts such as Mary Schleppegrell, Douglas Biber, and Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli), such as the density of the vocabulary and the ordering of its syntax, turn out to be very efficient ways to communicate a large amount of ideas, including the kind of abstractions and generalizations that academic language is often in the business of discussing.  At the same time, no language is without its associations, the “air” it gives off, the kinds of social contexts and social meanings it takes on to people.  With these associations, results will vary, of course: a Southern accent can be taken by one as genteel, by another as backwoods, by yet another as wizened.  The degree to which a student identifies with those associations matters a lot to how they will receive it being taught.

Of course, however a student might affectively react to academic language, isn’t it reasonable to think that anything taught in an accessible way can grab a student’s interest, especially if it’s something of so much important in society?  I think this is what most teachers assume, and because of the power that schooled knowledge has in society, I think that presumption is indeed true most of the time.  Most students don’t take a shine to academic language because they’re not good at it, because they’ve struggled with reading or writing or classroom discussion, because they don’t feel themselves to be good students and proficient users, and if they only had clearer instruction, or a chance to fall in love or become totally enraptured with a book or a documentary or political heroine or whatever it is, they’d be very interested in how to “sound smart” in the same way.  Yes, I think it’s true that as teachers, it’s incumbent on us to make academic language accessible, remove the “gatekeeper”-status of it by making its structures and patterns more transparent to students.

But I also think we cannot neglect the reality that oftentimes, as a “gatekeeper” language, academic registers are associated with people, institutions, and traditions that have been exclusionary, hostile, or authoritarian, and sometimes that language intended to keep out or to wound rather than to empower groups of people.  However, what makes language such a fascinating cultural tool to study is that it is so readily and so often appropriated, taken on by other users and invested with new meaning.  In other words, for many students, especially those most estranged from the contexts where academic language is used, recognizing how it can be used as a gatekeeper but teaching how it can be appropriated for purposes that are meaningful to themselves and their communities is crucial.  And it helps when teachers themselves understand academic language that way– as a code that we who are benefactors of a schooled society have gained from, but a code we are trying to share more broadly as part of the project of a more equitable and just society.

Which is the starting notion, for me, for thinking of academic language primarily as a generative tool.  For both the students who would embrace academic language if it could become accessible to them as a system, AND for the students who would embrace academic language so that it can become a tool of the oppressor to use in the liberation of the oppressed, thinking of academic language not as a set of arcane rules or evaluative gotchas, but as an arsenal, a repertoire, a toolkit, a code bank, a set of moves and series of resources, all to be used in the service of developing a voice that can speak powerfully and effectively in those arenas in which academic language has weight and prestige… that’s a reframing of academic language that can be powerful.

I tell the story of walking into an art store one day as a teenager, dressed in a way that had some cultural cache as a Tupac-era adolescent: shaved head except for bangs, baggy jeans sagged low, backwards baseball cap.  I dreamed of being an artist, and I was interested in the tools of the trade.  Seeing me browsing uncertainly in his small store, the owner behind the counter asked me what I was looking for.  “I’m not sure, just looking,” I answered.  With a stern thumb, he pointed out the door, and muttered an obscene non-request to leave the premises.  I guess I looked like a shoplifter.

I was angry, defiant.  I didn’t want to dress differently.  In fact, I left with a more rebellious strut than I walked in with.  I’ve thought now and then of going back to that store with a rock for the window, or my award for outstanding leadership from my high school graduation, or my Berkeley diploma, to stick in the face of that old white man.  But I never think to tidy up and walk in with a suit and tie.  I want to dig up that old baseball cap and those baggy jeans, or the present day version of them, for whatever great comeuppance I would unfurl.

But sometimes I imagine a different encounter.  What if that gentleman had the patience to find out that I was socially uneasy, but actually, very curious about what a bottle of black india ink looked like, and art gum and Strathmore bristol board?  What if a proper apron and hands-free pants (with a belt) were what it took to get my hands dirty as an artist, he would eventually convince me?  What if a suit and tie were the appropriate apparel of the gallery exhibitors whose community I then felt a part of?  Wouldn’t I trade my Giants cap and baggy jeans in a second?  Or at least mix and match for the version that was true to me as an artist and as a young person?

Tools are meant to be learned with careful instruction and modeled apprenticeship.  They’re also meant to be put in the hands of human beings for the purposes of creation and expression.  They should be calibrated for accuracy and appropriateness for audiences and users.  But they should also begin to feel at home, organically linked to the experts-in-the-making who wield them.  They should be held correctly, benefiting from the accrued learning and development of generations of previous tool-users.  But they should also be flexible, adaptive, re-fashioned whenever new uses or new challenges require their manipulation.

This is my general perspective of academic language.


My qualifying exams take place on Monday, and if I (fingers crossed) pass them, I will have overcome the biggest barrier keeping me from blogging regularly here: not the actual work of studying (this exam is five years of study and work and research in the making), but the psychological hurdle of not feeling like I have any right to spend time blogging when I ought to be studying or writing.  But preparing for these orals has helped me to see what I often fail to see otherwise: it’s my community that makes me who I am, that teaches me what I know, and therefore my community has schooled me in preparation for this moment.  Each day for the last two weeks (nearly), I have written to friends and supporters who are praying for me and cheering me on, trying to articulate to them what I’m studying, what it means, why it’s relevant.  Thinking about who I’m writing to, what they care about, what might communicate to them, has been my breakthrough.  It reminds me that writing here represents an ongoing attempt to engage with and be verbal in that community, and therefore worth my time and work.

Reflections on Coming Back to the Classroom

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I didn’t teach in a high school classroom for two years, and the year before that, my sole class was a group of seniors I had known for years in a “zero” period class that was designed to support their college applications and readiness, so not the most challenging class.  This year, I’m back in the classroom for one period, teaching 9th grade English Learners who inspire and motivate me every day, who show great resilience and character, but who also face numerous struggles.  I find myself, with two years of graduate school in Education intervening, a slightly different teacher than I was when I last left the classroom.

Certain characteristics remain the same: I talk too much, I’m better in front of students than on the back-end organization, I primarily try to “discipline” through engaging instruction that confronts power, language, and students’ cultures.  But I also find myself matured in a few aspects.  Here are three:

1. Self-Advocacy and Self-Monitoring.  I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this change, but I’ve become much more conscious than the teacher I was five years ago that I’m not only trying to inspire students and connect with them in my own class, but I’m trying to facilitate the growth of those self-monitoring and self-advocacy tools that they need in all areas of life.  I think this results partly from a combination of re-reading John Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers and from being exposed to the brain research that helps us understand the importance of executive function.  But even more important an influence is the thinking I’ve done (thanks to being a researcher) about how youth are positioned by their social world into particular roles and expectations, how having some say over those roles and expectations requires youth to be able to grab hold of who they are and to manage themselves, and how intensely interested adolescents are in that management of perceptions.

In concrete terms, rather than pull students aside and vent my frustrations or try to win a moral victory over them, as I was more likely to do in the past, I now resort more often to the reflective sidebar where I ask students what they are achieving, how they perceive themselves and their situation, what they would like to become, and what they should attend to in order to get there.  I talk a lot about who they think they are acting out, whether that’s true to who they want to act out, and what kinds of signals or tools they can appropriate to project the person they want to project.  I leave the decision-making much more to the student.

When students have difficulty, I’m more likely to put them in a meta-cognitive position of evaluating their social and interactional situations and considering what choices they may not know they’re making.  And I’m learning the long-term payoffs of this; students know I’m indeed on their side, invested in their development, not trying to antagonize them but to help them grow in their understanding, perception, decision-making, autonomy.

2. Language in Use.  I had the same tendency in the past that many classroom teachers had of expecting the classroom teaching and classroom assessment become the telos, the end or final product, while the rest of the world abstractly existed out there as “do well in school ->do well in the world one day in the future.”  I find myself much more conscious of the molding and shaping effect of the outside context interacting with the classroom context.  My previous tendency was to think, “before we read this text, I have to build background knowledge and activate prior schema about this thing we’re reading.”

Now, especially in my writing instruction, I’m more prone to recognize that reading and writing for real life audiences, as part of actual social interaction with stakes, makes those tasks more meaningful to students.  In the past, I used to do a project or a unit that involved writing some kind of text or piece that others would see, usually something about community or social change.  Now I realize that both those tasks and the aesthetic and cultural ones, the ones engaging about literature or arts, as well as the ones that weigh in on complex social issues that don’t lead to immediate action but do involve real deliberative dialogue, ought all be part of the students’ writing portfolio and purview.  In other words, everything should be written for real-life audiences.

Those real-life audiences who we hear from and speak to are the ones who shape, normatively, what language looks like, what’s acceptable, what’s powerful and persuasive.  This does include using more model texts and mentor texts, but it also includes underscoring the social messages, meanings, groups, and gathering places that give life to those texts.  Students see a text with “researchers at Brown University”– I have to show a picture, talk about what they think researchers are like and what they do to gather information and draw conclusions.

These are the people they are writing to and in dialogue with.  That perception needs to start early for them, so they grow up believing and habituated into the idea that they have the voice and power to interact with the broader community, where their voices have impact, and where they must therefore fine tune their spelling, syntax, and stances to be heard.

3. The Long Arc.  In my last stint of teaching before going to grad school, I got to stay with a group of students for several years, some of them for all four years of high school.  When I first started teaching, the push to get more of these students along the same path that I went on, SATs, Honors classes, four year universities, helped me to maintain high expectations and ambitions for students who others might have written off, and I think that was important.  But this time back in the classroom, part of the seasoning of years of experience is recognizing the longer arc that exists for students, the multitude of possibilities and pathways, and the actual constituent elements of lifetime positive change.  I am less gung-ho about college, more concerned about students’ reconciliations with their own communities and families, the broader academic and professional world, the potential varieties of schooling and the implications of social class and civic participation.  In other words, I’m less college-driven, more attentive to a broader range of social and human imperatives, all of which can matter, none of which is meant to crowd out any other.

With this year’s freshmen, I realize that I have to continue to instill a vision of college, but having sold previous generations of students that bill of goods without having equipped them with what they need right now to get there or succeed there, I recognize more clearly the steps in-between we need to build: the support structure, the socioemotional development, the sense of mastery over youth’s own current environs and immediate futures as roads to who they are becoming.

All this alongside a more mature concern over not just what individual students are becoming, but what we are becoming as a community, including the school, our families, and our collective generation.  Although I have always talked about returning to your community, serving your community, making an impact in your community, I think that notion always felt more ideal and abstract than it does to me today.  As Gustavo Gutierrez challenged, (paraphrase here), if you claim you care about the poor, then tell me their names.  I am differently aware of the struggles and challenges of my students’ families and communities, especially as they become and resemble more and more my own.

All this makes me more interested in the long arc of what students are becoming than the urgent, short-term payoffs of having this many students enrolled in this or that many who make it past that bar.  Those ambitions are often healthy, but can become self-serving.