Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Politics of Language Learning

To be sure, in our lower-level language courses there is lots of communication and interaction going on, but how good are we, at these levels, at providing students with rich and multimodal contexts of language use? How good are we at creating communities of practice, the kinds of "temporarily shared social worlds" that create mutuality as well as provide affordances for learning? How good are we at engaging students' ongoing negotiations of their social identities? (Walther, Ingebord. "Ecological Perspectives on Language Learning." ADFL Bulletin, Vol 38.3 and Vol. 39.1, Spring-Fall 2007.)
I've been struggling with this a lot and wondering, as does Walther, about our textbooks, our language curricula, and, more generally, the notion of global education in the liberal arts. I highly recommend the article for its consideration of communities of practice in language classrooms and within the larger social context, including the politics (academic and national) that shape perceptions of languages.

I believe wholeheartedly that the skills one acquires while learning a language must go beyond communication, a fairly a-political notion of human interaction, and quickly introduce students to higher-level processes for organizing their experiences and the world. Certainly the communicative model allows for the introduction of individual experiences and multiple perspectives, but his alone is not enough. Textbooks and our general methods of teaching should allow space for addressing the larger questions raised by linguistic and social diversity. Class, race, gender and power rarely make it into our 100-level or 200-level courses, and this is a shame, for it contributes to the notion that language is a secondary tool and that language courses are merely grammar and multi-cultural tourism. (Of course, we are imperfect, and some of what we do fits this superficial stereotype.)

In a primarily mono-lingual culture such as we have in the U.S., students already realize, however faintly, that the very act of learning another (an Other's) language is political. Such an act, especially when it comes from personal agency rather than as a curricular requirement to be fulfilled, questions monolithic constructions of identity, family and nation. By acknowledging the inherent politics of our profession we can begin to construct a more solid framework of theories to share with out students, and by doing this we can capture the energy of inquiry and participation embedded in socially constructed knowledge. It dawns on me, though, that many of my colleagues would resist such a politics of language learning even as they would acknowledge its presence. The reason for this, I think, is such paradigm changes bring risk to departments institutionally as language departments begin to function more like a social science or as an engaged member of the humanities. Also, such paradigms will no doubt bring teachers to question their own assumptions about themselves, about their social class and the meaning of what they do.

We should do better, and we should start by asking more of our textbooks and ourselves.

[more to come]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tag Cloud Poetry: Fed Reserve Helps Bear Stearns Buyout

motherf****** elite billionaires theft bailout crony capitalism
a**holes bear stearns class billionaires fed buyout collusion
jerks bear stearns profit federal reserve mutual help
employees bear stearns federal reserve collaboration
media public reponsibility fraud

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quote du jour...

Ok, Students. Here's your thought-provoking quote of the day.

[Neoliberal racism] is a racism that works hard to remove issues of power and equity from broader social concerns. Ultimately, it imagines human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship and agency being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility. [Henry Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism 58]
Now, go forth and look for this phenomenon, digging up phrases like "Say 'no' to drugs!" and "Abstinence works!" and "Ownership society" like the weeds they are.

In the not-unrelated category but as a total non-sequitur, here's what I'm thinking:

As the economy worsens and the niceties brought by prosperity disappear, it is likely we will see straight-up power structures gaining ground. That is, as commercial exchange lessens in this environment of willful government non-intervention, as our "ownership" society reverts to bankrupt society without a fiscal or social safety net, relationships of pure power will take over. In the poorest neighborhoods these will be gangs; in the slightly better-to-do, more crime and generally less security will bring more policing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

When the Financial Times doesn't like a republican...

You know s/he must be bad. Yes, contrary to the writer, I think Bush is a worse president and has been allowed to be a worse president in part because he seems so dull. Where do you begin to engage a person like him, who repeats so many lies and does so with such a dumbfounded look on his face?

But McCain has characteristics that make him an extremely dangerous candidate as well...

Financial Times:

It may seem incredible to say this, given past experience, but a few years from now Europe and the world could be looking back at the Bush administration with nostalgia. This possibility will arise if the US elects Senator John McCain as president in November.

Over the years the US has inserted itself into potential flashpoints in different parts of the world. The Republican party is now about to put forward a natural incendiary as the man to deal with those flashpoints.

The problem that Mr McCain poses stems from his ideology, his policies and above all his personality. His ideology, like that of his chief advisers, is neo-conservative. In the past, Mr McCain was considered to be an old-style conservative realist. Today, the role of the realists on his team is merely decorative.

Driven in part by his intense commitment to the Iraq war, Mr McCain has relied more on neo-conservatives such as his close friend William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor. His chief foreign policy advisor is Randy Scheunemann, another leading neo-conservative and a founder of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Mr McCain shares their belief in what Mr Kristol has called “national greatness conservatism”. In 1999, Mr McCain declared: “The US is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history . . . We have every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity’s benefit.”

Mr McCain’s promises, during last week’s visit to London, to listen more to America’s European allies, need to be taken with a giant pinch of salt. There is, in fact, no evidence that he would be prepared to alter any important US policy at Europe’s request.

Reflecting the neo-conservative programme of spreading democracy by force, Mr McCain declared in 2000: “I’d institute a policy that I call ‘rogue state rollback’. I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.” Mr McCain advocates attacking Iran if necessary in order to prevent it developing nuclear weapons, and last year was filmed singing “Bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”.

Mr McCain suffers from more than the usual degree of US establishment hatred of Russia, coupled with a particular degree of sympathy for Georgia and the restoration of Georgian rule over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He advocates the expulsion of Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations and, like Mr Scheunemann, is a strong supporter of early Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Mr Scheunemann has accused even Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, of “appeasement” of Russia. Nato expansion exemplifies the potential of a McCain presidency. Apart from the threat of Russian reprisals, if the Georgians thought that in a war they could rely on US support, they might be tempted to start one. A McCain presidency would give them good reason to have faith in US support.

Mr McCain’s policies would not be so worrying were it not for his notorious quickness to fury in the face of perceived insults to himself or his country. Even Thad Cochran, a fellow Republican senator, has said: “I certainly know no other president since I’ve been here who’s had a temperament like that.”

For all his bellicosity, President George W. Bush has known how to deal cautiously and diplomatically with China and even Russia. Could we rely on Mr McCain to do the same?

Mr McCain exemplifies “Jacksonian nationalism” – after Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century Indian-fighter and president – and the Scots-Irish military tradition from which both men sprung. As Mr McCain’s superb courage in North Vietnamese captivity and his honourable opposition to torture by US forces demonstrate, he also possesses the virtues of that tradition. Then again, some of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century were caused by brave, honourable men with a passionate sense of national mission.

Not just US voters, but European governments, should use the next nine months to ponder the consequences if Mr McCain is elected and how they could either prevent a McCain administration from pursuing pyromaniac policies or, if necessary, protect Europe from the ensuing conflagrations.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vigi-pirate, vigilance, fear

Is any context necessary to explain the following?

The introduction of Plan Vigipirate (1) in France imprinted the equation “vigilance = security” on the national consciousness and made it everybody’s business. The government information service says that “Vigipirate calls upon all French men and women, whatever their occupation or level of responsibility, to participate in this state of vigilance that allows us to make an effective collective response to the threat of terrorist acts” (2).

Since a terrorist threat can come from anywhere – from where it is least expected – vigilance is a state of mind with no specific object. It bears upon everything. Whereas surveillance requires a specific object (a prisoner, a student, a warehouse, a rogue state) at a specific place and time, vigilance is a state of continual attention diluted through space. Vigilance only persists while the threat remains indeterminate, vague and abstract. We must remain vigilant, all the time, day and night.

“Plan Vigipirate allows all us to remain vigilant without unnecessary disruption to administrative and economic activity, or social norms” (3). While surveillance is an activity, with a beginning and an end, vigilance is a permanent state that creates a new relationship between the individual and the world. Even if the exact nature of the threat is unknown, its existence is certain and it is, at any moment, imminent. Every object, every person, every micro-event could be part of or a precursor to this vague threat. (Link)

Vigilant societies are distrustful and suspicious, and their members are simultaneously on the look-out and terrorists. Obsessed by a threat that never actually materialises, people will settle for the nearest suspect if they can’t find a plausible one.

Mike Davis

ZONES, a French publisher, has a good interview with Mike Davis on car bombs, hacking and asymmetry. Don't worry if you don't speak French, the interview is in Enlgish.