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Three thoughts on AAAL 2010

Written By: daveski on March 21, 2010 No Comment

Leaving a TESOL conference several years ago with Tom Scovel, one of my esteemed professors from the M.A. TESOL program at San Francisco State University, I remember his words of advice: write down three things you learned from this conference, and connect them with concrete steps that you intend to take in your own work. Otherwise, though your ears may be buzzing and your mind teeming with new ideas on the ride home, within a few days these will be drowned out by work, life, and business as usual. And yet so often, it seems, we remember the advice that we have failed to follow–or, to be a little less hard on myself and others, that advice which we may have kept in mind and even started on, but not realized to its full potential.

aaal2010So with the Atlanta conference of the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL), held just two weeks ago (March 6-9) in Atlanta, but already seeming much further away. Following up on a follow-up discussion at the BLC with Claire Kramsch, Rick Kern, and other Berkeley participants a week ago, I thought I’d record three of my thoughts as building blocks for further discussion and planning. Not particularly connected to each other, except for the fact that they are, of course, assembled together in a rhetorically and personally satisfying list of three (and thanks for that thought, Foucault!).

  1. With my own presentation (#2 below) on Monday afternoon, the next-to-last day of the conference, and given a seemingly incorrigible penchant for last-minute tweaking, PowerPoint creation and, who are we kidding, paper-writing, I wasn’t able to go to all of the plenary sessions. I did hear Christian Matthiessen ventriloquate the plenary address of Michael Halliday (“Putting Linguistic Theory to Work“), who had injured his shoulder and couldn’t make the trip from Australia; I heard Diane Larsen-Freeman of the University of Michigan give her plenary talk, “Complex, Dynamic Systems: A New Transdisciplinary Theme for Applied Linguistics?“. And on the last day I heard Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology give his plenary address, “Constructing a Language“. In all cases I was struck that, more than  making an argument on its own terms (which all of them did, in their own ways), these plenaries really seemed aimed at situating and giving legitimacy to, even justifying, their respective fields. Both Halliday and Tomasello framed their papers as refutations of a (the?) dominant paradigm for understanding language and grammar in a Chomskyan sense–as abstract mental constructs, closed systems, de-coupled from social and cultural processes. Larsen-Freeman, in particular, went to great lengths at the end of her talk to show that, whether they realized it or not, people in all different sub-fields of applied linguistics are in fact doing research that accords with complex/dynamic systems theory: research shows that language learning and language itself is dynamic, organized across multiple scales of time and embedded structures such that prediction and isolation of discrete variables are not nearly as appropriate these days for language research as are what she termed “postdiction” and “negotiating our way” through multiple paths of interconnection. While I found Halliday’s systemic-functional grammar, Tomasello’s perspectives on the social and historical trajectories of cognitive development, and Larsen-Freeman’s take on complex and dynamic systems (what’s the difference, again?) to be powerful tools for thought and further study, I was left a little disappointed in how all-encompassing they made their approaches out to be. What views (other than the decades-old punching bag of Chomskyan linguistics) are incommensurate with each of the worldviews put forth by these theorists? I suppose I wanted to know not just who’s talking to whom, but who’s arguing with whom, and why?
  2. OK, so I suppose I need to keep this down a bit. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that one of the highlights of the conference was participating in an invited colloquium organized by Eva Lam–who, unfortunately for all of us, wasn’t able to be there herself. It was called “Technology and Language in Globalized Contexts: Critical Approaches“, and featured Kevin Leander presenting fascinating off-and-on-and-offline again ethnographic data on Dutch migrant youth’s processes of identity construction; Mark Evan Nelson on the ramifications of iconic re-groundings of language and other symbols being exchanged in an international youth social networking project, and Steve Thorne giving a round-up of the potential of multiple forms of social media (and online gaming, in particular, was a topic of note) for out-of-school development and language learning. I was lucky enough to be part of this group, and presented a mini-case study from my own dissertation data on a language learning & tutoring project that makes use of desktop videoconferencing (a form of “telecollaboration”); I tried to muster an argument that as students learn a foreign language in such online environments they are also learning new modalities of being, acting, and perceiving–modalities which might be transforming the very “foreignness” of the cultural and linguistic other, as notions such as embodied commitment and risk are radically refigured. (And as you can see, I’m still working this through for the fit-for-FIT summary…). But, again, as I reflect on the rich interconnections between the four talks, and the lively and long Q & A period after the colloquium, I find myself going back to a question somewhat similar to the one I’m left with thinking about the plenaries: where is the critical in all this? How is a critical stance to be incorporated into our conception of research problems, in designing methodologies, in defining/collecting/analyzing our data, in informing the interpretations and conclusions we make based on that data, in propelling us forward in our work, and in linking these projects on technology and language to questions of power, privilege, and social transformation? Again, vague questions, but perhaps these are something of the sort that Prof. Scovel had in mind when offering advice to me way back when at TESOL…
  3. And after two broad swipes in wondering “Where was the critical” at AAAL this year (I’m sure it was there, somewhere!), I must say that one of the utter pleasures in going to these conferences–and probably the deciding factor when I think about the kind of privileged, even elite (and dare we say touristic?) space that such conferences are–is the ability to meet those who I’ve been lucky enough to live and think and play and talk with in years past, and who are now spread across the globe. Thinking specifically of those who are not now at Berkeley, and who I can hope to see again before AAAL 2011 but (sigh) know how these things go…Mark, Elana, Michiko and many more folks with whom I can keep one foot in, and one foot necessarily out of the dry conference rooms and overpriced cafeterias…it is the bringing together of dear people and the brief crossings of their professional and personal trajectories in these conference-spaces that makes it worth going back.

See you in 2011!

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