By engaging in the discipline of educational linguistics we’ve made it pretty clear– we care about social realities, about people, power-structures, parole, and how they intertwine. We’re out to make the world– or at least the multilingual classroom– a better and more equitable place. Across academia there are plenty of scholars who would say they’re not out to change the world, just aiming to describe or understand it. To be clear, that’s fine with me, this post is not intended to change anyone’s mind. Rather this post is directed at those of us who are trying to figure out how to create real social benefits through our actions as scholars, individuals and community members. There are many of us who agree with Hymes’ assertion that “Ethnography must be descriptive and objective, yes, but not only that. It must be conscious of values and goals. It must relate description to analysis and objectivity to critical evaluation. […] [E]thnography that ignores values and goals is sterile” (Ethnographic Monitoring. 1980, p. 104). We could extend this to any kind of social research that does not engage with the context in which it occurs.
Having chosen this discipline, what is the best way to pursue social engagement? There are many different areas of activism that aim to address social, political, environmental, economic, and countless other imbalances & injustices. When I interact with people who are working towards social justice from other angles, such as food security, public health, or government transparency, I often find myself wondering what my discipline can contribute to the conversation. As Educational Linguists, what are the tools we bring to this larger effort? Here are a few thoughts in response:
We have certain ways of thinking about language & education (and these ways of thinking can lead to certain kinds of inclusive, pluralist language education & policy actions). These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Human communication (language use) is inherently diverse
- Communicative diversity is a resource
- Hierarchy or prescription of language use is always political; Language use is inherently equal outside of context
- (This principle of relativism can come in conflict with social change agendas that set priorities & take sides, but it is ultimately an important check-and-balance that ensures the local relevance of the form of social change pursued. This is a complicated balancing act that warrants plenty of discussion in its own right, but I’m going to skirt around it here.)
- Humans are capable of, and generally benefit from acquiring & using multiple systems of communication
- Learners are not blank slates, but bring funds of knowledge with them
- Social realities are negotiated and co-constructed by all participants; imposing a top-down change will always be problematic
- Legitimate knowledge
We can produce evaluations of the effects of social programs or processes, and make recommendations that are socially validated or recognized due to the status of our discipline as a social science. In reality, the ‘knowledge’ produced may not have immediate or direct effects if it’s only shared through limited genres, jargon, or among a narrow audience.
- Action research
Forms of practitioner and action research are fairly well accepted within the discipline of education and allow for direct efforts to create improvements.
- Education practices
As teachers we have the opportunity to put our paradigms into practice directly.
So we have a few conceptual and practical tools, as well as some social capital to back up our work.
As Educational Linguists what tools do we need to develop to be more effective in supporting positive social change? The above list already implies the importance of disseminating knowledge more widely and finding ways to join in policy and planning conversations. Colleagues who are forging new directions in multimedia research are contributing to improvements in this area. The humble contributors of this very blog make similar efforts. In fact there are colleagues doing all kinds of great outreach, advocacy and action research, but we don’t always share our strategies or consolidate our lessons learned. We would benefit from more conscious reflection and study of social change itself in order to improve our ability to pursue positive changes as a discipline. An activist or advocacy agenda can fit fairly comfortably within the scope of the Educational Linguistics or interactional Sociolinguistics discipline, yet the how of activism and change is not given the focused attention and concentration that it deserves.
Hymes reminds us that “To achieve equality within a given language, it would never be enough to change the way people speak. One would have to change what the way people speak is taken to mean” (Ethnographic Monitoring. 1980, p. 110). Meaning is a slippery thing, and changing social meanings (e.g. prejudices) seems like a daunting task. It is one part of the social change puzzle which Educational Linguistic tools may help to achieve, however, through analysis and deconstruction of naturalized (yet arbitrary) hierarchies, through the construction of egalitarian discourses, and through educational practices that recognize and strengthen diverse voices.
I think there’s plenty of room for more social change tools in our disciplinary toolbox– I’d love to hear what other people find useful, and I hope we can all keep a conscious look-out for new tools to try our hands at.