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How do we find the grounds for “subversive teaching”?: A 3-part post on H. Douglas Brown’s BLC lecture

Written By: daveski on April 6, 2012 No Comment

It’s common practice to publish blog posts after a significant event–to question, re-interpret, and basically put a new spin on what happened and what was said. For today’s BLC lecture by H. Douglas Brown, Faculty Emeritus from San Francisco State University’s M.A.-TESOL program, I thought I would give this blog format itself a little spin, by opening with a few questions before the lecture, doing a liveblog segment in-between, and then picking up the post again afterwards.

First I should say I feel lucky for this chance to reunite with Dr. Brown, many years after I studied and worked under his direction, as a Master’s student in the TESOL program at SFSU. Looking back, I can think of no teachers of mine who have more embodied the principles they espouse in their lectures and writing. And the title of today’s talk, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity–Revisited” not only provokes questions formed and re-framed by several years as a PhD student here at Berkeley, but reminds me of the purpose that (as I remember it) he brought to the classroom in training future teachers of English: language teaching can and should be a political act as much as an intellectual one; concern with students’ development of ‘skills’, ‘vocabulary’, and ‘grammar’, necessary as they are, should be put in service of their self-reflection, situated knowledge of others, and activist dispositions.

And, it would seem, activism of a sort is the topic of the day (although as of writing this I should say I haven’t yet reviewed the presentation slides and handout that are available at the lecture link above). “Teaching as a subversive activity” echoes back to a book chapter Dr. Brown wrote in 1994, “Teaching global interdependence as a subversive activity“–a title that, he indicated, looked further back to Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Perusing this book, we can see that Postman and Weingartner’s main argument that “change–constant, accelerating, ubiquitous–is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and [our] educational system has not yet recognized this fact” might well be a critique that merited repeating in the 1990s, and again now in the 2010s. Indeed, in his book chapter at the time, Brown asserted, “Those of us who teach languages have a special responsibility to subvert attitudes and beliefs and assumptions that language teaching is neutral, sterile, and inorganic and has nothing to do with political issues; that global conflict and other forms of international aggression are no longer serious threats in the ‘post-cold-war’ era; that there is no particular urgency to act assertively to stave off an immanent global environmental crisis” (p. 174).

While the second and third points about international conflict and environmental problems would seem to have been dramatically redefined in the intervening years, the question of whether language teachers have a “special responsibility to subvert attitudes and beliefs and assumptions”–and how they are to do so–seems, to me at least, to continue to be one that is most often not asked, and probably not thought.

As the minutes tick down before today’s lecture starts, I have to sign off now by wondering out loud whether part of this difficulty of imagining language teaching as a site of activism may not be because, as Postman and Weingartner pointed out decades ago, language is still (and maybe to an even greater degree today than before) considered a transparent medium, separate from whatever “content” it “delivers”. Then, perhaps, one way to find subversive teaching might be in means to make the medium visible, not just as a conduit, but as content. To be seen as we move on to the live blog part of the post…

DB’s focus today: Not so much teaching method but “what the heart has to say about language teaching”. He begins with a lighthearted look at some of the ‘gimmicks’ of language teaching: J<–>E “washable dictionary”; English learner’s toilet paper (!).

Now ‘warmed up’, we look at questions of ‘who we are morally, ethically’ as language teachers, drawing on Postman & Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. If the “media blitz”, advertising language, bureaucratic language, ideological language was a problem in 1969, then how bad is it now? A key question, then, is “How do you as an educator help your students think through these waves of media?”

One vision of embodying a critical pedagogy provided by Giroux & McLaren 1989, he says: (quote) “Teachers should embody in our teaching a vision of a better and more humane life”. [see handout, link above] Teachers like to see themselves as “agents for change” promoting communication across (political, national, religious) borders. Yet languages, he says, are so intertwined with users’ identity & culture that you can’t teach language without teaching values–how not to teach to one culture, but to teach across? Language teaching is an opportunity to engage students in debates over controversial issues, and stimulate critical thinking–“to examine all sides of issues”: the question of whether we have students use language to grapple with critical, controversial issues is paramount.

DB then asks, if we agree that we have a moral imperative as teachers, can we be agents for change without revealing our own beliefs and convictions? Should we? What values are we teaching as we teach? How do we treat issues in a balanced way, and what do we do if we offend and polarize students? He gives examples in which students are led–>forced to imagine alternate realities in their work, examples of teachers bringing strong religious beliefs to the sites of their teaching, etc.

He asks, in response, whether these are “universal” values: equality of human beings, freedom of individuals to speak and write their opinions without censorship, a culture of open-mindedness and acceptance of diverse points of view, non-violent resolutions of conflict, and responsibility as stewards of the earth for the preservation of the planet. Teachers, he says, always run the risk of imposing their own ideologies. With this, he presents a set of:

“Guidelines for ‘subversive’ teaching”: 1. Allow students to express themselves openly; 2. Genuinely respect students’ points of view… [see handout for full list].

A key question that came up in the Q&A period was, basically, how is the discussion of questions of taboo topics and a teacher’s handling of ideologies and values specific to the interests of language teaching? Are language classes different, unique, specific in the larger ecology of educational settings? And what are the differences between addressing these issues as a teacher in English classes and in foreign language classes?

As I remember it, he responded to these questions about the particularities of the language classroom–and of the foreign language especially–with respect to the transmission of ‘beliefs’, ‘attitudes’, ‘values’, and the like by saying that, in essence, they are not necessarily unique; perhaps they are one educational site where the transmission and inculcation of values and ideologies are questions that are easily looked past, ignored because of a prevalent (mis)understanding of the language classroom as a site of skills acquisition.

Looking back to Postman & Weingartner’s book, however, it seems to me that there are at least two important questions to be raised/lessons to be learned from the case of the second or foreign language classroom as a site for “subversive teaching”. A first is that language classes offer a unique opportunity to enact what Postman and Weingartner called an “anthropological perspective” for students’ ability to “detect crap” in the value-laden popular discourse that surrounds them both inside and outside the classroom; drawing from Erich Fromm, they note that “quite arbitrarily, one’s perception of what is ‘true’ or real is shaped by the symbols and symbol-manipulating institutions of his tribe,” and assert that “those who are sensitive to the verbally built-in biases of their ‘natural’ environment seem ‘subversive’ to those who are not.” Then, the language classroom, as a site where different worldviews (immanent in the other language(s) that students and teacher already know) come into contact, would seem to be a site perhaps better equipped than others in educational institutions to lay bare and relativize the various social, political, and cultural problems of the sort that Postman and Weingartner, and Brown after them, identify. How, we should ask, are language classes taking advantage of the discrepancies, the tensions, and the differences between the language-and-culture(s) being taught and the languages already present in the classroom?

A second question, in my view, has to do with the role of the media. Postman and Weingartner, writing in 1969, are clear that the media that they view as so problematic in the lives of school children is the mass media, a form of top-down information dissemination and control that has a potentially brainwashing effect: “No one can reach many people unless he [sic] has access to the mass media,” they write. However, in 2012, it shouldn’t be controversial to state that the ‘mass media’ is not the only means to reach many people. In the age of social media, where the ecology of information creation and transmission (“sharing”, in today’s Web 2.0 language) has vastly expanded and changed, language teachers, more like other teachers in this sense, may be dealing with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, researching, collaborating, creating, sharing and promoting educationally relevant materials has become more democratic in many ways, with many digital tools now available in and for classrooms and in students’ homes (equity in access to these being a huge problem, however). Yet, on the other, with students consuming media made by other students and peers, whether local or far-away, and as they endeavor to create media to learn languages and other subject areas, the assumption that problematic “values” and “ideologies” reside only ‘outside’ in the mass media must also be called into question. As Postman and Weingartner themselves write, drawing upon the work of Marshall McLuhan, “when you plug something into a wall, someone is getting plugged into you. Which means you need new patterns of defense, perception, understanding, evaluation.”

“Crap detection”, the important skill that Postman and Weingartner said was all-important to sift through the media’s distorted messages about civil rights, drugs, pollution, nuclear energy and other “problems” of the late 1960s, is now, according to media scholar Howard Rheingold, an all-important literacy skill for anyone who uses the Internet today. As we in second and foreign language education specifically think about teaching as a subversive activity, we might also need to teach our students to hear the ideologies, values, and assumptions in their own thoughts and words, and in those of their classmates, as they articulate across the multiple worldviews of the language classroom. In light of considerations about the relativity of worlds-in-languages, and the increasing ‘mediatization’ of the language learner, such a task might require a kind of delicacy, care, and commitment from the language teacher that goes well beyond good intentions.


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