Dancing with Covid: Choreographing examinations in pandemic times

The European Educational Research Journal has just published this article by our Associate Director Emeritus Professor Mary Hamilton with an international team led by Cristina Alarcón López of the University of Vienna.

Abstract:

In this paper, we explore the improvisations made in examination practices in higher education during the pandemic of 2020. Drawing on STS, we start from the theoretical assumption that examinations constitute an obligatory passage point in universities and colleges: a sacred point which students need to pass if they want to gain recognized qualifications. We base our analysis of higher education examinations on cases from six countries around the world: Australia, Belgium, Chile, India, Sweden and the UK. We use the analytical heuristic of choreography to follow the movements, tensions and resistance of the ‘emergency examinations’ as well as the re-orderings of actors and stages that have inevitably occurred. In our analytical stories we see the interplay between the maintenance of fixed and sacred aspects of examinations and the fluidity of improvisations aimed at meeting threats of spreading Covid-19. These measures have forced the complex network of examinations both to reinforce some conventional actors and to assemble new actors and stages, thus creating radically new choreographies. Although higher education teaching and didactics are being framed as a playground for pedagogical innovation with digital technologies, it is clear from our data that not all educational activities can be so easily replicated.

Book reviews

The current issue of Community Literacy Journal 15(2) features reviews of two books published in series edited at the Literacy Research Centre. Sam Duncan’s book, Oral Literacies: when adults read aloud is reviewed by Jamie Duncan (not related, we promise!) and Jamie’s book, Researching Protest Literacies: Literacy as protest in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro is reviewed by Catherine Compton-Lilly. Jamie’s book has also been reviewed in the Journal of Sociolinguistics by Daniel N. Silva. If you do not have access to that journal and would like to read the review, contact Jamie Duncan (details on our affiliate members page).

If you are working in the area of Literacy Studies and would like to discuss making a proposal for either series, contact Julia Gillen or Uta Papen.

Censoring multilingualism? Language questions in the 2021 Census. New article by Mark Sebba and Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Mark Sebba, Reader Emeritus in Sociolinguistics and Language Contact, at Lancaster University and member of the Literacy Research Centre has published a freely accessible paper “Censoring multilingualism? Language questions in the 2021 Census” with Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics, University of Cambridge. Their opinion article is in “Languages, Society and Policy” here. They reflect on the inclusion of language questions in the 2021 Census in England.  The authors discuss the shortcomings of the current approach and argue that new and better questions are needed to capture the true extent of England’s multilingualism.

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Mary Hamilton / March 17th 2021

This blog extracts some key ideas from our recent book “Resisting Neoliberalism in Education” edited by Lyn Tett and Mary Hamilton and newly published in paperback by Policy Press, Bristol, UK.

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education

Neoliberalism has been widely criticised because of its role in prioritising ‘free markets’ as the optimum way of solving problems and organising society. In the field of education, this leads to an emphasis on the knowledge economy that can reduce both persons and education to economic actors and be detrimental to wider social and ethical goals.

The book provides innovative examples showing how neoliberalism in education can be challenged and changed at local, national and transnational levels in order to foster a more democratic culture. A number of the contributors to the book focus on literacy education, while the overall collection draws more broadly on a range of international contexts across informal, adult, school and university settings.

As attention focusses on how to build a better, sustainable society post-COVID, the messages from this book have never been more relevant. We are at a point where resetting the priorities of the education is essential.

We welcome comments on this blog and would especially like to hear of examples from your own experience of «resources of hope» that offer opportunities for resistance and change.

Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Lyn Tett, University of Huddersfield and Mary Hamilton, University of Lancaster

In one of his last books, Pedagogy of Indignation Freire argues that neo-liberalism is a deeply fatalistic discourse which ‘speaks about the death of dreams and utopia and deproblematizes the future’ (Freire 2004:110). He reminds us that one of the key roles of critical intellectuals is to reproblematise the social reality of the present and to foster critical awareness of alternatives (see Roberts, 2005). Our aim in this book, therefore, is to offer positive examples of resistance to neoliberal education from across sectors and geographical contexts and to show how these enable neoliberalism to be challenged and changed.

Neoliberalism in education

We understand the defining features of neoliberalism to be a system of thought and practical action within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade that involves deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision (Harvey, 2005). In education this leads to a competitive market approach within which educational goods (such as qualifications, curricula, institutional reputation, expert labour) are branded and exchanged in an international arena (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). This approach prioritises individualisation of achievement and competition rather than collaboration among practitioners and among students. It creates a low trust environment where professionals (and students) have to be monitored and assessed by external yardsticks. The result is that efficiency and monetised values are prioritised over other pedagogical and social values such as diversity, equity, well-being and care. Under neoliberalism education systems have been mandated to develop efficient, creative and problem-solving learners and workers for a globally competitive economy leading to the neglect of its social and developmental responsibilities (Olssen, 2009). These institutionalised practices have been partially accomplished by persuading each individual teacher and learner to treat the effects of neoliberalism as personal rather than structural and so these become accepted by individuals as normal rather than as in need of critique and transformation. A key way in which this acceptance happens is through is the use of a plethora of metrics such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD, 2016). These assessments are used to measure performativity through a focus on market considerations, which does not necessarily reflect the core values of the work, that is, the quality of the teaching, inclusion and relationships (Lynch, 2006).

Our contention is that such a system is in fundamental tension with traditional approaches and understandings of education. Living within such an environment is therefore challenging for all those participating in it. But as Foucault (1998: 95) has argued, ‘where there is power there is resistance’ because resistance involves recognising and questioning socialised norms and constraints through discourse. Whilst discourse ‘reinforces [power], it also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart’ (ibid: 101). Drawing on Foucault provides a way of thinking about resistance that focuses on the role of subjectivity and transgression in refusing to accept the neoliberal practices of performativity (Ball and Olmedo, 2013). This book is an exploration of how people in different positions within neoliberal education are responding to it and where they find resources and strategies to manage the tensions and contradictions they encounter.

Resistance

When we envisage resistance we often think of it as collective, public, political activity but there are many types of resistance. In this book we argue that the concept has two central dimensions: resistance must involve action (physical, material or symbolic) and be oppositional in that actors challenge or subvert dominant discourses and practices in some way. Resistance also needs to be intentional although some actions, such as when practitioners avoid using reporting mechanisms that they consider unfair to the people they work with, may be hidden from the view of powerful authorities. Resistance is also interactional because it is ‘defined not only by resisters’ perceptions of their own behaviour but also by their targets’ recognition of, and reaction to, this behaviour’ (Hollander and Einwohner, 2004: 548). The possible resources and strategies will differ from context to context but a sense of action and of opposition holds these expressions of resistance together.

The different forms of resistance identified by Hollander and Einwohner are usefully integrated within a strand of literature dealing with “everyday resistance”. These are less visible forms of resistance that Scott (1990) links to the notion of ‘transcripts’ (hidden and public) which are established ways of behaving and speaking that fit particular actors in particular social settings, whether dominant or oppressed. Resistance is a subtle form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumour, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity’ (1990: 137). He argues that ‘most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites’ (Scott 1985: 136). Johansson and Vinthagen (2016) add to this framework the term ‘repertoire of resistance’, which they argue is ‘a combined result of the interplay between social structures and power relations, as well as activists’ creative experimentation with tactics and experiences of earlier attempts to practise resistance, together with the situational circumstances in which the resistance is played out’ (ibid. p. 421). This means that groups develop a collection of ways of resisting that they understand and are able to handle that are embedded in relationships and processes of interaction between the resisters and their targets. These repertoires are organised in specific contexts according to the historical and current power configurations, time, space and relationships in which they are embedded.

Resources of hope

Lilja and colleagues (2017) have demonstrated the link between these forms of ‘everyday’ resistance and more organised civil-society-based resistance. They point out that the latter ‘can encourage and create yet other forms of everyday resistance through being inspired or provoked into new resistant identities’ (p.52). They also show, however, that if resistance is unsuccessful, it eventually discourages action and people put their innovative energies into more productive issues. So, we aim to encourage action by providing resources in this book that are designed to help us find innovative and productive ways of challenging inequalities in education. In particular, we present those that subvert and challenge narrow curricula and pedagogies that privilege the dominant culture. We agree with Williams that we need to have an education system that is redesigned so that it provides full ‘human relevance and control…[and] emphasises not the ladder but the common highway’, [because every person’s] ‘ignorance diminishes me, and every [person]’s skill is a common gain of breath’ (1989: 15).

Getting to this point though, means that we have to engage with a variety of ways of challenging the dominant culture of neoliberalism. Williams (1977) suggests that such challenges occur not only through struggle and action but also through changes in deep structures of feeling and imagination. In particular, he argues that dominant discourses ‘select from and consequently exclude the full range of human practice [yet some] experiences, meanings, and values are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of some residue – cultural as well as social – of some previous social and cultural institution or formation’ (p.125). These residual resources were formed in the past, but are still ‘active in the cultural process …as an effective element of the present’ (p.123) through people’s ‘practical consciousness’. In addition to these resources there is ‘emergent’ culture which carries new meanings and values, and ‘depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptions of forms’ (p.126). Throughout the book there are illustrations of the use of both these forms of culture as resources with which to challenge and change neoliberalism so that the full range of knowledge can be expressed within education. The themes raised and the conceptual resources deployed reflect a range of perspectives that have the common aim of addressing questions of how the power of the neoliberal discourse might be resisted in education. the book is organised in five sections.

The first three sections are focused on local contexts of resistance and how it is enacted in the fields of adult, school and higher education. The next section focuses on school education while the final one shows how, even at the transnational level, it is possible to disrupt the neoliberal discourse.

10 Key Strategies

The notion of hope is explicitly referred to by several contributors as central to affirming identity and emboldening action.We have taken Raymond Williams notion of “resources of hope” (Williams, 1989) to draw together the rich variety of responses offered by contributors to the book and to identify what Milana & Rapana (2019: pp. 167-180) call “interstices for resistance” – points where it is possible to intervene to disrupt the dominant neoliberal regime and to help emergent, more emancipatory cultures to take root.

Some of these resources are directly relevant to educational practitioners, suggesting strategies that can be used in teaching or other aspects of institutional practice. Some are resources that can guide educational researchers in designing and carrying out ‘resistant’ research that foregrounds alternatives to neoliberal values. Some are principles and rules of thumb that can be used in both practice and research.

Many involve collaboration with others, with the aim of pooling resources and widening the spaces for action. Such collaborations can be formalised through organized public events and networks but the contributors to this book also assert the value of persisting with what may seem like mundane, everyday, acts of resistance that are based on seeing and seizing opportunities to do and say things differently. Such acts are, they argue, the bedrock for fostering wider change. Below we identify ten key ideas gathered from across the chapters that contribute to such changes.

  1. Many chapters make the point that a core aspect of resistance in a difficult or hostile environment is to find ways to create dialogic, emancipatory spaces which are affirming, positive and culturally sensitive for those participating in them. Identifying and forcing open such spaces requires sustained effort and strong commitment. In practice this can be done via pedagogy and curriculum and making opportunities for professional exchange of experiences, opinions, learning, collective action and mutual aid. It is not just the collective action itself that gets results, but the process of developing this action that builds knowledge useful for resistance. Sometimes it is a matter of looking for the potential in existing places, and perhaps working to revision these.
  2. Prioritising learner perspectives. We need to change the centre of gravity of whose perspectives count within curriculum and pedagogy, to overturn negative classifications of learners and to revision students of all ages as agentic subjects and citizens with rights.
  3. Harnessing communication technologies to amplify local and submerged voices and to model citizenship within educational practice. A local dialogic, emancipatory space has much more power if it can be shared as a model and replicated or extended across many community settings and digital technologies make such sharing readily achievable.
  4. Explicit sharing of core values among practitioners enables them to resist negative changes and to counter neoliberal values of commodification and competition. Underpinning professional values make everyday tactics meaningful and can be effectively supported by informal professional networks and by more formal trade union action.
  5. Fostering Creativity both directly with learners and in dealing with the institutional demands of policy. Narrow, assessment driven curricula can be countered through interdisciplinary partnerships between teachers, visual artists and writers, incorporating performance and artistic activities inspired by indigenous knowledges into the curriculum and multiple modes of expression. Such pedagogies change the dynamic between teachers, children and peers. At the institutional level, creativity involves resourcefulness in reinterpreting policy discourses, finding ways to compromise with these in order to obtain needed resources, looking out for and seizing opportunities to do things differently.
  6. Collaborating with new groups who share similar values; including international colleagues and organizations.. For discursive shifts to happen a wider range of people need to be assembled around the policy tables, creating an enlarged policy space for working on designs for new forms of education.
  7. It is important to use both horizontal (peer alliances) and vertical (institutional) strategies to pressure for change, combining strategies from all interested participants – students, support staff, parents and citizens. Tactical work arounds become more meaningful when combined with a good knowledge of how institutional structures work and awareness of realistic possibilities for change. It is important to develop understandings of how soft power operates, making a technocratic expert system open and transparent so that you can act to intervene if appropriate.
  8. Developing and encouraging a “knowledge commons” using and strengthening possibilities for open access to information by resisting paywalls and the domination of large-scale publishing companies. It is urgent to keep libraries open as physically ungated and welcoming spaces which can offer support for discussion, mutual aid and everyday workplace acts of resistance.
  9. Encouraging both learners and professionals to take shared responsibility for promoting education as a common good rather than assuming it is for someone else or some institutional force to change the neoliberal status quo. This involves encouraging forms of educational provision that are based on active citizenship and inclusive values.
  10. The final key point – and perhaps the core contribution of this book – is about the possibilities of using educational research itself as a resource for hope and for making change. Since many contributors are researchers as well as experienced practitioners, they have developed strong arguments about this which complement the practice-oriented strategies outlined above. Firstly, they assert the importance of documenting local experience and valuing participant perspectives in investigating research problems, Offering alternative concepts and analyses of issues can help people make new meaning of their experiences and to understand that discourses have material social outcomes. This can also be achieved through research which makes institutional systems and spaces of governance transparent through offering information about less visible aspects and dynamics of governance. Researching history can recover lost or submerged knowledges, help maintain and strengthen “residual cultures” and identify continuities in change, evidenced through the actions and statements of certain ministers and officials. Historical research can reconnect us with core alternative values and show the continuity of these values into the present.

References

Ball, Stephen J. & Olmedo, Antonio 2013. Care of the self, resistance and subjectivity under neoliberal governmentalities, Critical Studies in Education, 54:1, 85-96

Foucault, M. 1998. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.

Freire, P. 2004. Pedagogy of Indignation, Boulder and London: Paradigm.

Harvey, D. 2005. NeoLiberalism: A brief history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollander, J. A., & Einwohner, R. L. 2004, December. Conceptualizing resistance. In Sociological forum 19:4, 533-554. Springer Netherlands.

Johansson, A. & Vinthagen, S. 2016. ‘Dimensions of Everyday Resistance: An Analytical Framework’ Critical Sociology, 42 (3) 417-435

Lilja, M., Baaz, M., Schulz, M. & Vinthagen, S. 2017. How resistance encourages resistance: theorizing the nexus between power, Organised Resistance and Everyday Resistance Journal of Political Power, 10:1, 40-54, doi:10.1080/2158379x.2017.1286084

Lynch, K. (2006). Neo-Liberalism and Marketisation: The Implications for Higher Education. European Educational Research Journal, 5(1) 1-17. 

Milana M. and Rapana, F. 2019 “The appropriation of cultural, economic and normative frames of reference for adult education: an Italian perspective”, In Resisting neoliberalism in education: national and transnational perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press

OECD, 2016. PISA 2015 Results, Volume 1, Paris: OECD http://www.oecd.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-i-9789264266490-en.htm

Olssen, M. 2009. “Neoliberalism, Education, and the Rise of a Global Common Good.” In Re-Reading Education Policy: A Handbook Studying the Policy Agenda of the 21st Century, edited by M. Simons, M. Olssen, and M. A. Peters, 433-457. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Rizvi, F. & Lingard, B. 2010. Globalizing education policy. London: Routledge.

Roberts, P. 2005. “Review Essay: Pedagogy, Politics and Intellectual Life: Freire in the Age of the Market, Pedagogy of Indignation.” Policy Futures in Education 3:4, 446-458. doi:10.2304/pfie.2005.3.4.446

Scott, J. C. 1985. Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of resistance. London, Yale University Press.

Scott, J. C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. London, Yale University Press.

Tett, L. and Hamilton M. (2019) (Eds.) Resisting neoliberalism in education: local, national and transnational perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press

Williams, R. 1977, Marxism and literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. 1989. Resources of Hope. London: Verso

What linguistics could be – a preliminary sketch

These are personal reflections towards ideas on decolonizing linguistics.

What could linguistics be?  Communication is always multimodal.  The long twentieth century project of shifting linguistics away from an illusory abstracted notion of what language might be, according to the “intuition” of white men thinking primarily in English, has, fortunately, long broadened. Although it must be added that this paradigm of thinking itself seeded many fertile signposts towards a decolonisation project. For example since abstracted systematic theories needed to be applicable to all languages, then to be viewed as a linguist in the US in the middle of the twentieth century one had to engage with at least one Indo-European language.  This continues to be a vital component of linguistics courses.  I’d recommend anyone to take even a short course; a brief glimpse into an unfamiliar language; it’s one of the most useful exercises one can take, to broaden horizons on diverse and unexpected ways of thinking. Who would have thought that Mandarin the USA is rendered as “the beautiful country?”  

 

Face with tears of joy emoji in Unicode U+1F602 (according to Seargeant). WordPress would not allow me to upload unless embedded in an image such as this one.

Nonetheless, writing about the discipline of linguistics in general, it can be said that as the influence of Chomsky and his magnificently ambitious Universal Grammar project has waned, linguistics has shifted its attention towards authentic language in use. This entails thinking about the material qualities of language, along with all the other features we might wrap up with the word “context” – although posthumanism is fruitfully calling the possibility of any such peculiarly shaped notion into question. For the time being then I focus on materiality.  Spoken language is as essentially material as sign languages and written language; all make use of diverse combinations of mode.  Materiality is as important if language is spoken between two people, talk is broadcast through a recording technology, or communicated online through texts and images.  Morphemes are units of meaning in a language (manatees/manatee – having encountered the first term in the news this week; I deduce the singular). Written languages may make use of morphemes or have quite other bases, such as being logographic, as Mandarin. The arbitrary nature of matching primary symbols to meanings is well known.  That is to say the “m” of manatee does not convey a meaning to us by itself).  In his fascinating reflection on the links between language, writing and technology, Philip Seargeant shares that emoji, picture images that convey meanings on digital devices, are encoded through essentially arbitrary choices of combinations in Unicode.  What systems we can make use of, on our smartphones, face to face or in any communicative condition, depends on what technologies we have access to and the interlinked factor of our semiotic repertoire. 

The primary insight of Systemic Functional Linguistics – that we make choices from the repertoires available to us to make meaningful communication – was helpful in its turn to functionality from structure, although I admit I always found its frameworks unconvincing. Materiality was not originally highlighted; although writers such as Kress and Van Leeuwen addressed this with their powerful arguments for bringing multimodality into linguistics.  But language was previously always and inescapably multimodal; it has not become increasingly so with the digital revolution; multimodality is an inescapable property of all communication.

An Edwardian postcard from my collection. One of those that evokes contemporary social media communications.

Language is essentially dialogic, that is formed through interaction. I find Bakhtin’s ways of thinking about the communication of meaning through language highly productive. Bakhtin used the term polyvocality to argue that what is integral to all use of language is that our understandings are informed by our histories of use. Our previous interactions with others inform how we understand any language we come across.  In producing, or reusing language we shape our own sense of meaning through responsivity to what has come before and contribute to interactants’ own understandings in turn.  However, Bakhtin and those taking on this dialogic turn, are often engaged with meanings in language; it is the proliferation of text types, of communication channels, that has exploded since the digital revolution that has served to draw more attention to material elements and lay out some of the preconditions for a newly exciting posthumanist project.

But again I draw back from the multidisciplinary posthumanist turn, at least for now, to look again at meaning in language, as a central concern for linguistics.  Rommetveit developed insights by Bakhtin, Volosinov and Kristeva to propose that meanings proffered in interactions are “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” (Rommetveit 1992: 22). This addresses what he powerfully calls, “the myth of literal meaning” – the argument that no lexical item possesses a meaning untethered from its context of use.  His illustration (yes, one of those abstractions beloved of philosophical linguists that can I admit be so powerful) is that of Mrs Smith who answers the telephone to two enquirers about her husband.  To one she describes Mr Smith as “working” because he is mowing the lawn, to the other as “not working” because he has not gone to his place of employment.  Rommetveit’s proposal of the “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” makes room for the essential instability of language, the impossibility of any such thing as “literal meaning”, but also for the notion of discourse communities.  For much of the time many of us at least are fortunate enough to sufficiently share meanings with those in our social contexts to get by.  Here, though, “many of us” – my phrase in the last sentence – glosses over relations of power.  I write as a white cis woman in a position of privilege.  What gets heard, what gets understood, what gets taken up: relations of power are inextricable with language in use.  In the linguistics community many are mourning the recent loss of Jan Blommaert.  Future projects on decolonising linguistics will grapple with the concerns that troubled him; what happens to language and literacies – language in all forms then –  in the profoundly inequitable conditions of contemporary globalised capitalism.

To begin with one illustration of power: national governments are associated with defining languages.  That is to say, even if they cannot determine everything, they can assign powerful positions to named languages and fail to recognise others.  An important component in the vitality of sign languages is the degree of official recognition.  The labelling of languages can become synonymous with national boundaries; be extended through empire, be razed to the ground.  One reason I enjoy my single undergraduate lecture on the history of English each year is to explain how the language almost disappeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was the third language of this country below Norman French and Latin; only used by the lowest classes.  If this had continued, it would have died out, but the Hundred Years War with France led to a new emphasis on English.

The concept of translanguaging is shaking up the association of languages with codes and national boundaries, making more visible the enduring impact of colonialism.  Ideas around transduction and transposition have long hovered around Bakhtinian ways of thinking about language, but have are now fruitfully bursting through into other domains of work, as resemiotization is brought to the fore.  Li Wei (2018) argues, “Translanguaging offers a multilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource that human beings use for thinking and for communicating thought.”

In 1984/5 I was learning Slovak in Czechoslovakia, one of only a handful of medium term British visitors in a highly repressive state, controlled by the Soviet Union. The regime was seemingly almost impregnable, having endured decades of oppression since the attempted “Prague Spring” and subsequent military and political control.  I got into the country to study Slovak since I possessed a Russian degree, had attended a Summer school and was sponsored by the British Council.  I learnt Slovak quickly, I can say without false modesty, since the first thing I had to say to people after my arrival was, “I am sorry I am speaking Russian but I am English. I am here to learn Slovak……” and then I would stand a chance of getting to my real question such as where to buy toilet paper.  Only with the rapid preamble would an interlocutor on the street engage with me for long enough to ask my question.  Toilet paper was on sale in stationers, not in grocers, and I soon adapted to a more effective Slovak introduction.  In Czechoslovakia language in every form was not immune from interference.  Russian, for example, had a privileged place in the university.  But nobody’s lives were exempt from linguistic control; even the days of the week were not immune from interference.  The regime would announce that to enhance productivity next Saturday would become a “Wednesday”: all transport timetables, schools, universities and most importantly of all of course factories and farms would all act as if it were Wednesday.  One month the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were obliterated. 

Oneof my photos from Slovakia in 1984. The banners say: “Peace is the idea of socialism”

Censorship was such it seemed as if little subversive communication could get through; policing was as thorough as the guns and watchtowers overlooking the Iron Curtain around Bratislava.  But one evening I was taken to a children’s puppet show.  It had become extremely popular and difficult to get into. Unsurprising perhaps since puppetry, mime and entertainments for children had a strong cultural history and were greatly valued in a regime that permitted so little arts expression.  However, everybody craned their necks and their ears to watch a joke that had escaped the censors; it was a performance of hitting a spoon on a boiled egg – was the pointy or round end hit? This was a much appreciated reference to the bald head of the prime minister.

Traditionally, linguistics has had a focus on speech, sometimes exclusively so.  Even now, occasionally handbooks on research methods in linguistics will firmly hold to this.  In one collection of Research Methods in Linguistics the only chapter on writing treats historical writing as a resource from which we can learn about historical speech.  I was immensely lucky very early in my career to work with Angela Goddard, who later led the introduction of the English Language ‘A’ Level into the UK and did so much to encourage the notion that everybody has a linguistic and semiotic repertoire fertile for research. This remains a wonderful starting off point for investigations of language. 

One of Angela’s practical and enormously influential books

Angela worked in an innovative Department of Human Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Later, owing to standardisation by pan university authorities the name had to be changed; since prospective students would look mostly for departments of “communications” or “linguistics” and overlook “Human Communication”.  I used to wonder if it would be a better title for a linguistics department, finally ridding us of the surely ridiculous divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics.”  Now though the posthumanist lenses are prompting a view into the embedding of language and communication into materiality, into all the conditions of the world, nonhuman and human, as endlessly dynamic.  This entails more profound considerations of ethical engagement with the world than linguistics has been used to, it seems to me. Increased attention to power and social justice may be a result of posthumanist enterprises, although this could be an optimistic view.   I’d definitely no longer want to see Departments of Linguistics (with or without “English language”) called Departments of (Human) Communication.  A better reason for avoiding “communication” is that the existing discipline of communication has its own tenets and practices, being far more entwined with media studies and sociology than incorporating insights that only detailed engagement with texts can give us.  So all in all I think the route to take is to forget the divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics” but rather discuss decolonising linguistics: what might linguistics be?

Julia Gillen

This is a hasty sketch, written on 17th February 2021.  It does not represent the Literacy Research Centre. 

References (partial, in both senses)

Bakhtin, M. (ed. M. Holquist) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) (1986) Speech Genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2008) Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 1-61.

Gillen. J. (2014) Digital Literacies.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Goddard, A. (2012) Doing English Language: a guide for students.  Routledge.

Goddard, A. and Gillen, J. ([2004] 2013) ”Bye Alligator”: Mediated discourse as learnable social interaction: a study of the language of novice users of communication channels. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/66197/1/Bye_alligator_2004_posted_2013.pdf

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986) Revolution in poetic language. In T. Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Kusters, A., Spotti, M., Swanwick, R., & Tapio, E. (2017). Beyond languages, beyond modalities: transforming the study of semiotic repertoires. International Journal of Multilingualism, 14(3), 219–232. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. (eds) Research methods in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Rommetveit, R. (1988) On literacy and the myth of literal meaning. In R. Säljö (ed.) The Written world: Studies in literate thought and action. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Rommetveit, R. (1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical alternative: towards a theory of language and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2019) The Emoji revolution: how technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage: Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia.

Volosinov, V.N. (1995) Language, speech and utterance. In S. Dentith (ed.) Bakhtinian Thought: a reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Wei, L. (2018) Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics 39(1) 9-30.