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Engaged scholarship, a bridge between language classrooms and the city?

Written By: daveski on April 17, 2012 No Comment

Last Friday, as several Berkeley folks were busy discussing innovations in language and literacy education at AERA in Vancouver, and others were re-visioning the present and future of multilingual subjects and societies at the Multilingual, 2.0? symposium in Tucscon, I had these topics in mind as I joined dozens of participants at the ACES Symposium at the Townsend Center here in Berkeley. In particular, I was wondering if and how the city with its multilingual and monolingual voices, both visible and audible in neighborhoods not far from the classroom, might become more of a learning resource for language students at Berkeley. And with the American Cultures program at Cal celebrating more than 20 years of existence, and 16 AC engaged scholarship courses bridging community service, activism, and partnership with classroom learning, I figured this would be a rich forum for ideas.

It was. But in this post I won’t try to capture the event’s overall significance, since I’m a relative newcomer to ACES, Cal Corps, and other campus groups; there are also language instructors here at Berkeley who have been active practitioners of service learning in Spanish, Finnish, and other language classrooms for some time now. I do want to jot down some thoughts I gleaned from the opening keynote speech, though, because it was both viscerally moving and, through its incitement to a more activist and engaged pedagogy, seemed to point in valuable directions for both multilingualism and multiliteracies in the language classroom.

George Lipsitz, Professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of How Racism Takes Place, gave the keynote. In it, he sounded a tone of crisis both in U.S. society and in higher education, arguing that teachers in our era of testing, tracking, de-funding, and vocation-oriented curricula need to think of new ways to cultivate thinkers and not, as is growingly the case, obedient workers. These days more and more, he said, “market time and market space are the only important times and spaces” in the life of the growingly privatized and virtualized (UC) university; gate-keeping and credentialing have largely supplanted knowledge, and the only strategy left for teaching as critical intervention is to look for, create, and make use of “insubordinate spaces” that make tactical use of, but take place outside the strategic discourses of, existing institutional structures.

If this little summary so far sounds plausible in general but lacking in concrete applicability to day-to-day questions of teaching, that’s my fault and not characteristic of what Lipsitz actually said. Actually, it may be nobody’s fault: as he drew from a sweeping variety of examples of social injustices, economic inequities, and educational deficits in the U.S. today, Lipsitz argued that no good answers are likely to be found in the immediate future. Instead, he advocated thinking in terms of “the middle run”—designing educational policies and practices, from the classroom up, that aim to make a difference not next year or the year after, but in 10 to 20 years. And one means for doing so, he said, is to cultivate new partnerships between the university and the community, where teachers’ and students’ self-reflective, critical practice engage with voices that have been largely excluded from the university. Indeed, the transformative potential of engaged scholarship seemed, to my ear at least, to call into question the very division of roles between “student and teacher” and “community”, to the degree that their relationship is growingly mediated by privatized interests calling themselves “public”.

So what does this all have to do with multilingualism and multiliteracies as they (ought to) influence language teaching at Berkeley? I’ll just leave that question for the middle-run, beyond this blog post. Maybe some others in the classroom, or just back from AERA or Multilingual, 2.0? would like to weigh in? In the immediate-run, though, with respect to engaged language learning in the linguistic landscape, Lipsitz’s keynote address and the symposium in general leaves me with questions like these:

  1. Which of the languages taught at UC Berkeley are visible in the city of Berkeley and surrounding communities? Where do they appear, or not? (Which are noticeably absent?)
  2. In what settings, for what purposes, and by whom are these languages used in the public life of the city?
  3. What are some of the historical, political, and cultural reasons for 1. and 2.?
  4. With respect to the previous questions, what similarities and differences can be traced across the different languages that are visible, audible, or absent from the city?
  5. What evidence is there in outside discourse (e.g., representations in educational materials, the media, the arts) of cultural, and historical associations that attach to the “target language” in U.S. society?
  6. How do language departments and programs envision students’ competence in the target language, and the purposes to which their language skills are to be put? And how do the values underlying these standards, whether expressed explicitly or implicitly, position the students to engage with the role of their “target language” in the local community, in the media, in U.S. society and beyond?
  7. With an eye to possible classroom-community projects such as  language documentation, research, advocacy, storytelling, archiving of local histories and experiences, and creation of multimedia resources (as discussed by Lipsitz), what new sites of dialogue and knowledge can be opened around L2s in/and public space? How can benefits be realized by community actors and students of language across…
    • …different university language programs and departments?
    • …”heritage” and “foreign” language tracks?
    • …beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of competency?

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