Saturday, October 16, 2010

On ethics of writing

I have been thinking about ethics of writing for some time and the responsibility of writing. This started when I was writing my thesis. I remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable about my observations regarding my topic. I was feeling an urgent necessity to write my thoughts while at the same time I was worried that I would end up doing exactly what I wanted to criticize. On top of these confusing feelings, I was struggling with the idea that when I wrote something public I was naked and vulnerable. Today I saw a youtube video that resonated my ambivalent feelings so finally I decided to write this entry.

This video also reminded me of three articles, two by Belcher on academic writing and one by Jane Tompkins about symbolic violence in academia.
Belcher, D. (1997). An argument for nonadversial argumentation: On the relevance of the feminist critique of academic discourse to L2 writing pedagogy. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6(1), 1-21.
The feminist critique of academic discourse has begun to heighten awareness of the agonistic, competitive nature of much academic writing in English. This article considers what the implications of this gendered discoursal consciousness may be for L2 writing educators, both as teachers and as academic writers themselves. Vignettes of two L2 writers who have successfully negotiated nonadversarial academic texts are presented and discussed. Finally, guideposts for a nonadversarial model of academic discourse are suggested.

The video and Belcher's article, which I enjoyed reading very much, made me think about my personal experience.  But before getting into that I start my comments after giving an excerpt from Tompkins (1988).

"I want to switch now to a different mise en scene: an academic conference, where a woman is giving a paper. It is an attack on another woman’s recent book; the entire paper is devoted to demolishing it, and the speaker is doing a superb job. The audience has begun to catch the spirit of the paper, which is witty, elegant, pellucid, and razor sharp; they appreciate the deftness, the brilliance, the grace, with which the assassination is being conducted; the speaker’s intelligence flatters their intelligence, her taste becomes their taste, her principles their principles. They start to laugh at the jokes. They are inside the paper now, pulling with the speaker, seeing her victim in the same way she does, as the enemy, as someone whose example should be held up to scorn because her work is pernicious and damaging to the cause. (For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter what the cause is, what the speaker was right about, or what sins the victim was guilty of.)
Listening to the paper, which I admired very much for the performance values I’ve mentioned, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. The more the audience pulled with the speaker, the more I shrank away. The sensation I felt was fear. I was afraid that this woman might someday turn her attack on me—indeed, in one of her devastating sideswipes, I thought I had already been anonymously grazed by her dagger—and I imagined the audience, which only the day before had enthusiastically applauded my own presentation, turning on me like a pack of dogs. By the time the paper was over, I felt as if I had been present at a ritual execution of some sort, something halfway between a bullfight, where the crowd admires the skill of the matador and enjoys the triumph over the bull, and a public burning, where the crowd witnesses the just punishment of a criminal. For the academic experience combined the elements of admiration, bloodlust, and moral self-congratulation" (pp. 586-587)
My master's thesis was on a tension between cognitively and socially oriented SLA researchers. I was talking to a friend about the intensity of the debate and he recommended me this article by Jane Tompkins. After writing about violence in westerns, Tompkins focuses on the violence in academia. Her candid account and vivid description of violence in academia includes her observations and personal experience. Reading Belcher’s (1997) article reminded me Tompkins’s article and my personal experience writing my thesis.
Now looking back, I realize that what fascinated me the most was the violence involved in the cognitive-social debate in SLA studies. But of course my focus was the content of the discussion not the tone, so I did not have a chance to write about the tone  in my thesis. Perhaps that's why I just have to write this entry. Normally, when you read articles in SLA studies you see a relatively mundane, emotionless—one might find quite boring—language. However, when you look at the language used during the debate the picture you see is quite different. The very same calm, objective and established scholars seem to display a completely different persona as debaters. Below I will give some examples, but before I go into that I want to tell you that this change of persona (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation) was exactly one of the interesting things regarding in my thesis topic. I was amazed by the passion and the intensity of the comments and responses. It was definitely not a nice scene and I have to admit it was a little bit scary for a  novice like me. There were times that I asked myself What am I doing here where things can get so hostile? Can I even survive here? Is it really what I want?’ In light of my observation, my first impression of the field was, to use a metaphor, a battlefield. You know sometimes you see a scene in a movie, you find it revolting, frightening, or violent and you want to look away but for some reason you cannot. Well, that is exactly how I became mesmerized by this debate.
This tone of language in the articles and follow up comments and responses might very well be the reason why I was so amazed by the debate—I have to say, I was and still am a little scared and intimidated. In the following, I will give some examples to illustrate the harsh tone and strong language used by mainstream SLA researchers throughout the debate. Inevitably, I will take these words out of context here but I want to give you some examples so that you can decide whether the language used by mainstream SLA researchers was intense or not for yourself. Here are some examples:
One expects that a reply to a paper in a learned journal will in fact be about that paper, and will contribute to the discussion in that paper. Van Lier's response to the papers in the Special Issue of Applied Linguistics published in September 1993 fails on all three counts. He explicitly states that he will discuss, not what was included in those papers, but rather what was excluded, and then takes the authors to task for not including it; in fact what he discusses was not the subject of the Special Issue. He attributes to us positions we have not taken and claims we have not made, here or elsewhere; he even criticizes our joint position when we do not have one. Needless to say, then, he makes no contribution to our discussion of theory construction in SLA. Thus this is not a piece that can be replied to, even if we thought it worth our while. We invite readers interested in our various positions to do what van Lier has not bothered to do: read what we have written. (Beretta, Crookes, Gregg & Long, 1994)

One of the critics of mainstream SLA studies, Block (1996), described this response to van Lier, as “the ultimate insult a solicited reply can receive” (p. 80). Van Lier did not respond but the editors of the journal published a very short commentary defending van Lier.
Here is another one from Beretta (1991)
Self-perpetuating social systems are the vehicle for scientific knowledge. It is necessary to ensure the continuity of this “tribal” system, so there must be mechanisms in place to reward loyalty and censure defectors. Thus honors may be awarded for mediocre cognitive contributions, and ‘hostility or disgust” mobilized against out groups. This is true of schools of thought within a discipline and of disciplines as a whole. Each tribe must be led. (p. 511)
This is one of my personal favorites, which appears in the notes of a response article. “By the way, what—indeed, what the hell—is the phrase “negotiation for meaning” supposed to signify? I just thought I’d ask.” (Gregg, 1993, p. 291)
Here are some other quotations:
Long (1998) ”It is also probably one of the several reasons why so much air-time of late has been provided at conferences and in the SLA literature for some ideas that would in a more mature discipline quickly be shown the door” (p. 86).
You might be thinking that I chose some extreme examples or reported them all but believe me these comments are not the only ones; they are not even the worst ones. There were tens of articles regarding this debate and mellow language was the exception, not the language I cite here. Perhaps using this kind of language is normal and acceptable. I do not know. To me at least it is not. I come from a modernist country and my conception of science was more idealistic. I did not think that so well educated people, respected researchers would go ballistic, not in the public domain anyway. I guess I was naïve. Violence is part of us. Human all too human Nietzsche would probably say.
As you may guess, in my thesis, I could not write my impressions about the harsh language used during the debate. I wanted to say, “This should not be acceptable. This is not right.”  I wanted to say, “Please stop this.” But how could I make such assertions about these names? Who was I? So I kept what I thought to myself. I remember finding relief in thinking that this was an event of the past. But perhaps I was too optimistic. I recently read Kevin Gregg's review article about Larsen-Freeman and Lynn Cameron's book on complexity systems framework, which I believe was a very nice and stimulating book, and realized that this violence is not something of the past. I was quite upset about seeing that Gregg's article, which in my opinion failed to do justice to Larsen-Freeman and Cameron's work was published like this. There is not a single positive comment in Gregg's account of the book. There must be a better way of disagreeing. Maybe if we focused on understanding before criticizing and accepted our responsibility when we write we could put a distance between us and the book burners of the Medieval times. I'm just upset and disappointed that such sharp minds like Gregg's are not put to better use than this.
Yet again, the same questions haunt me. What is the responsibility of writing? What do I do with my writing? What do other people do when they write? What are the ramifications? What is the ethics of writing, reading, being an editor? Do I have the right to write? Where should we draw the line? Is it an issue of freedom of speech? Is is too much to ask for common courtesy?  Should I be scared for writing this entry?  Should I remain silent? Am I the only one who looses some of her respect to people who use symbolic violence when they write? 
What do you think? 

For interested readers below is Gregg's abstract.
Complexity theory is a field of physics that studies the nature and behavior of complex systems, systems whose elements interact in complex and unpredictable ways. Recent years have seen a number of attempts to extend its scope to the biological and social sciences, and now Larsen-Freeman and Cameron offer a view of applied linguistics from a complexity perspective, claiming to show the relevance of the theory to various aspects of the language sciences. In this review of their book I look at their claims, and point out some of the reasons why these claims do not hold.

Belcher, D. (1997). An argument for nonadversarial argumentation: On the relevance of the feminist critique of academic discourse to L2 writing pedagogy. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6 (1), 1-21.
Beretta, A. (1991). Theory construction in second language acquisition: Complementarity and opposition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13(3), 451-512.
Beretta, A., Crookes, G., Gregg, K. R., & Long, M. H. (1994). A comment from some contributors to volume 14, issue 3. Applied Linguistics, 15(3), 347.
Block, D. (1996). Not so fast: Some thoughts on theory culling, relativism, accepted findings and the heart and soul of SLA. Applied Linguistics, 17(1): 63-83
Gregg, K. R. (1993). Taking explanation seriously; or let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics, 14(3), 276-294.
Gregg, K. R. (2010). Review article: Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4). 549.
Long, M. H. (1998). SLA: Breaking the siege. University of Hawaii's working papers in ESL, 17, 79-129.
Tompkins, J. (1988). Fighting words: Unlearning to write the critical essay. Georgia Review, 42, 585-590.

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