Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Erasure of Language

The Erasure of Language by Susan Peck MacDonald

Abstract: This article traces a decline in CCCC sessions on language along with a shift toward more reductive definitions. It analyzes early CCCC treatment of language issues, the Students' Right document, changes in demographics and linguistics, and shifts within English departments that have left us overdue for professional reexamination of our role as teachers of language.

I often find reading historical overview articles about neighboring fields quite informative. This article on rhetoric and composition was no exception. It is always good to know the developments in different times and places so that we can see all array of different possibilities and directions.

Below are some highlights from the article

Our professional identity is problematic because we have hesitated to adopt some of the rationalist assumptions common to most academic disciplines or we have shown ambivalence about other common to most academic values regarding research and professional identity.  (p. 586)

This fluidity in our professional identity, in the ways we name what we do and frequently rename and update the names of what we do, is a piece of the historical puzzle that needs explanation. (p. 591)
This made me think about these shifts in the field from applied linguistics to second language studies, from interlanguage to bilingualism, from contrastive rhetoric to intercultural rhetoric/communication and countless others

Our categorizations suggest that language is something we associate with problems, something we expect to occasion hurt or difficulty for students, something we feel anxious about inflicting on others, and something we express little pleasure in knowing about (p. 595)
I think we can observe the same issue in how we SLS people think about how to approach grammar in language classes or how we talk about our participants (language learners) as people who are destined to  struggle and often fail.

The forces that led to the demise of the intensive bidialectical classroom work Wible describes may, like the demise of sentence combining, have involved a new generation of compositionists who lacked the background to sustain the intensive linguistic work of their predecessors, believed they should not do so, or found other rewards greater.
 To be honest, the more popular a concept or idea or trend gets the more suspicious I get about the usefulness of that concept. I'm afraid I suffer from a serious form of hype-aversion, which is probably not a good thing since it makes publishing a little bit difficult. Hot and popular lose their glamor by repetition. More importantly, bandwagons are too crowded and boring. Putting aside the fact that talking about grammar teaching is not cool and its all about communication, which is closely related to grammar whether we like it or not, I have to say I'm a little worried that the same thing mentioned in the quote above is happening in SLS, at least in the study of some particular topics, you certainly cannot see them in SLA journals that's for sure but they are there :-). Lately I have been reading some publications which almost had nothing to do with language, even when the main arguments in the introductions and conclusions how language should be conceived, the role and forms of language were nowhere to be found in the findings. I sometimes wonder if now the trend to focus only on language until the 1990s maybe a little later is reversed so much that some people think we can do away with looking at language altogether. Personally I do not like either extreme. After all it is our job to work with, teach, and study language, of course language is in relation to other things and in situ but still it is about language and discourse, is it not?

The English education majors I sometimes teach...fear learning how to do grammatical analysis, are not prepared for the task, and may have received prior assurances that knowing anything about the grammar of English is either inessential or harmful (p. 605)
Proponents of the SRTOL themselves were often outstanding language scholars of their time and, in endorsing the SRTOL,  they were not proposing that English departments should be run by a future generation of know-nothings about language. In fact, they seem often to have assumed that their own intellectual capital would be built on, added to, and refined. (p. 615)
There is no reason why every English department instructor, including the graduate professors teaching theory and literature, should not focus substantial attention on the language through which we encounter and create texts. (p. 618)
 The last one would help bridge the cultural/disciplinary gap often felt between literature and second language people in English departments, don't you think? Anyway, these are the things that this article made me think.


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