Review of The Struggle for Legitimacy
|AUTHOR: Sterzuk, Andrea
TITLE: The Struggle for Legitimacy
SUBTITLE: Indigenised Englishes in Settler Schools
SERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy Studies
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
Dave Sayers, College of Arts & Humanities, Swansea University, UK
Aimed at a mixed audience -- perhaps principally teachers in settler schools --
Andrea Sterzuk’s debut monograph describes racial inequities among indigenous
pupils in a school in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Examining the everyday
construction of racist colonialist ideologies through discourse, the book works
towards proposals for changes to pedagogy. These are designed mainly for the
Canadian context, but are tentatively extended to ''settler societies'' elsewhere.
After an engaging preface by the series editors (Brian Morgan, Alastair
Pennycook, and Ryuko Kubota), Chapter 1, ''Settler Societies and Language'',
guides the reader into the book through an anecdote about a question at a
conference on the book's subject matter. The author cultivates this into a
discussion of postcolonialism, and her own categorisation of Canada (in
particular Saskatchewan) as a ''settler postcolonial'' society. Further terms are
developed throughout Chapter 1, such as ''white settler society''. An undertone is
the importance and prevalence of a kind of collective amnesia/denial about the
sheer scale of genocide during the settlement of Canada -- and other New World
countries -- and the modern day implications of this for education.
Chapter 1 goes on to review relevant academic subdisciplines, before deciding
upon ''radical counternarratives in literacy research'' as the home of this study.
Research participants are introduced, as are salient themes through the use of
primary data, before a discussion of methodology. The relation between
linguistic performance and race is discussed, along with introspection about
subjectivity in researching one's home community, followed by demographic
details of the population, and familiarly bleak racial inequalities in
educational attainment (compared also to similar patterns in New Zealand and
Australia). Illustrative anecdotes are deployed throughout.
Chapter 2, ''Looking at English Language Variation in Schools: Current and
Critical Directions'', reviews discrimination against varieties of English in
non-Canadian contexts, including African American Vernacular English, and the
consequences for educational outcomes. The theoretical basis of the book is then
expounded, reaching into postcolonial theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Suggestions begin to germinate here about making teachers more aware of racial
divides, and of the implicit presumptions that cumulatively create
discrimination. This is with a view to a more productive and egalitarian
multi-racial pedagogy, and specifically to counter the idea that certain
language varieties are inherently deficient. Primary data are then delved into,
to illustrate a contrived ''colour-blindness'' among teachers -- a putatively
politically correct practice which counter-intuitively reinforces
discrimination, by breeding a sense that non-whiteness is a shameful thing to be
In Chapter 3, ''Colonial Ideologies and Discourses'', the author guides the reader
in by relating how, each year, she attempts to disrupt her new undergraduates'
static views of the past. The chapter goes on to review themes of imperialism
and colonialism, and ideology and discourse, before shining a light on the
less-discussed destructive aspects of colonialism in colonial societies around
the world. Primary data illustrate racially differentiated treatment of pupils.
The following passage on page 50 -- which follows an account of the surprisingly
colonialist opinion of a colleague on the linguistic deficiencies of indigenous
Canadians -- sums up the overall thrust of the book.
''When we speak of decolonizing a society, it is the resiliency of colonial and
settler ideologies and discourses that make decolonization difficult.
Dismantling systems and practices that make colonial constructs such as
residential schools and reserve pass systems is necessary but without an
awareness of ideologies and discourses, the danger is that new colonial
practices emerge in their place. Learning to deconstruct colonial discourses
about identities, nations, languages and literacy is a necessary step in moving
towards equitable practices in schools.''
Chapter 4, ''Constructing Race in Settler Seskatchewan'', gives a fuller overview
of the brutal history of conquest in Canada, interweaved with the author's
childhood memories of how this was sanitised in her own childhood school
curricula -- and how that sanitisation continues today. The chapter has no
primary data; its purpose is to expand themes of race and otherness, using
anecdote ''as a way of demonstrating the implications of pedagogy beyond
transmission of knowledge'' (p.71), to underscore an ideologically driven racial
hierarchy which is reiterated through discourse.
Chapter 5, ''The Racialization of Space and School in Settler Saskatchewan'',
recounts instances of what the author sees as racially motivated censure of
indigenous students and an indigenous teacher. Primary data are combined with
personal anecdote, and reference to research literature.
Chapter 6, ''Supressing Linguistic Alterity in Settler Schools'', considers
standard language ideology and its refraction through a racial lens, tinted with
the settler desire to dominate. Primary data exemplify how ''[n]one of the
educators with whom I spoke in the school [settler or indigenous] had any
awareness of ideas such as language variation; the hybridity of languages; or of
Indigenous English as a legitimate language variety'' (p.97). The cultural
inappropriateness of standardised curricula is asserted, and the more holistic
methods of one teacher are held up as exemplary. Awareness and acceptance of
language variation, along with more bespoke and imaginative teaching methods,
Chapter 7, '''Radical' Solutions for Schools and Teacher Education'', is the
normative climax of the book, delivering recommendations for pedagogy in settler
contexts. The necessary reforms, it is argued, must not simply focus on
present-day attitudes and pedagogical practices, but delve into the historical
roots of the settler mentality, to unpick deeply woven assumptions about
linguistic deficit, racial inferiority and so on. Specific proposals for teacher
training are offered, in order to lessen the barriers faced by speakers of
indigenous varieties of English. The chapter concludes with suggestions for
Sterzuk is undoubtedly a skilled writer, and her mellifluous yet commanding
style becomes clear early on. Formidable arguments are built up almost without
noticeable scaffolding. Consider this passage (p.6):
''The term 'dialect', and the construct it describes, makes assumptions about the
place of speakers in the world. These assumptions have the potential to
construct our understanding of what counts as a legitimate language. Since this
book intends to trouble our understanding of this very construct, it follows
that alternate terminology is in order.''
Those sorts of ideas are so easy to mangle, and so hard to articulate so
concisely, and so coolly. While going about the routine business of setting out
the terminology used in the book, Chapter 1 also subtly instils real confidence
that reading the other chapters will be time well spent.
Reading this book alongside the original thesis
reveals that a meticulous and thorough overhaul has taken place. The above
passage on dialect is a good example (pp.12-13 in the thesis), and shows a major
boost in critical insight. (Still, the thesis is also eminently readable, and
actually makes a good companion to the book.) In this transformation, the
compatibility between author and editors is clear -- experienced readers will
see the linguistic agnosticism of Alastair Pennycook (one of the editors, as
mentioned earlier) creeping through particularly.
Some readers may find the book a little light on data, and the eponymous topic
too often absent from view (especially detail of linguistic peculiarities).
Large swathes are occupied with race, ideology, discourse, and the present-day
echoes of the colonial past -- themes that are inconsistently tied back to
language variation as such. The book is still highly engaging, but it will
attract some readers on a slippery premise. (Worth mentioning: much more of the
interview data and linguistic detail are available in the original thesis.) The
same readers may also find discussion of certain theories too superficial.
Chapters 2's discussion of the Enlightenment, referencing the likes of Foucault,
Nietzsche and Descartes, is useful, and certainly better than the tokenistic
namedropping one often finds, but it is highly compressed and a little
perfunctory. Chapter 3 somewhat simplifies key authors and their theoretical
contributions, for example Foucault and Fairclough on discourse. But the book is
candidly intended for a mixed audience, and these simplifications do not come
across as brash or over-confident.
At times the loose reliance on primary data is a matter of taste; some readers
will undoubtedly prefer it. At other times it causes stickier problems. For
example, claims of systematic racially motivated differential treatment of
indigenous children, which tend to hover between implicit and explicit, are
based ultimately on some quite isolated and anecdotal evidence (e.g. pp.54-55).
Another example is the assertion that a parent, who took a complaint about
classwork to the (white) headteacher instead of the (indigenous) class teacher,
had nefarious and racially derogatory motivations. Isn't there a chance the
parent was simply a coward? Perhaps she actually was acting solely on racial
prejudice, but that is not really substantiated. There are a few too many of
these apparently hasty racially based assertions; and as they say, the plural of
anecdote is not data. But then, the book is not really designed as a fully
buttressed indictment of existing practice; it is rather a call for change.
Teaching practitioners reading this may well pencil in the fuller context, and
see how it relates to their own practice.
The author candidly states (p.17) that she is ''not a linguist'', but her use of
linguistic terminology suits her purpose, and always strikes an appropriate
tone. In some areas her insights are every bit the equal of critical linguists,
as with the way she sees through the concept of dialects and deconstructs it as
an explicit act of language politics.
Having identified colonialist ideologies at work, the book unabashedly proffers
its own counter-ideologies. In this, the book often feels like a reparatory
journey for the author, and for readers in similar situations. This is humbly
executed, and not overstated. In places though, it does cause some
terminological doublethink. There is a claim that ''standard language discourses
are evidence of colonialist and nationalist ideologies about 'standard
language''' (p.94). Correspondingly, the term ''dialect'' is eschewed for
indigenous languages as derogatory, yet it is deployed relatively freely for
what the book calls white English. Fair enough perhaps, you have to pick your
battles -- and anyway, racial linguistic divides seem the most salient to her
respondents (p.97) -- but this overlooks prejudice towards non-standard white
English dialects, and for that matter immigrant dialects, not to mention
(perhaps the most popularly despised) innovative urban vernaculars (see e.g.
Blommaert 2001 on similar problems elsewhere). A fuller consideration of these
other inequities is probably beyond the scope of the book, but that limitation
could have been acknowledged.
One quite soothing aspect of the writing style is a frequent and skilfully
handled movement between two registers, academic and anecdotal: for example
moving from a literature-based discussion of colonial ideologies, to an account
of how the author reacted to a particular passage and discussed it with a
colleague over coffee (pp.49-50). It is hard to describe how this does not smack
of first year undergraduate navel-gazing, but as the author demonstrates, the
key is to distinguish clearly the anecdotal from the academic, deploying the
former as an illustration -- never an extension -- of the latter. She never
attempts to dress one register up as the other. This tactic takes a great deal
of skill to pull off convincingly, and it is managed here expertly. For a
comparison, the same register juxtaposition is deployed in John Maher's (2005)
excellent and witty discussion of ''metroethnicity'' in Japan.
Clearly the author cares passionately about the plight of indigenous Canadians,
and sets her sights on a disruptive emancipatory endeavour. The primary focus on
race will powerfully engage a certain audience, but it also causes a problem,
related to the terminological doublethink noted earlier. There is much
contemporary debate over whether the ''cultural turn'' in the social sciences has
overly re-interpreted inequities as culturally driven, undermining socioeconomic
class as an explanatory factor, and stealing attention from larger structural
imbalances (e.g. Crompton 2008: 43-44). The book is clearly in the firing line
for that criticism, especially evident in Chapter 5, which describes the
east-west split of the city where the research took place, with the west mostly
indigenous and mostly poor, and the east mostly white and mostly affluent. This
is a familiar correlation, and the book makes an impelling case that the
ideological shadow of the colonial past looms large in maintaining these
divides. Nevertheless, there is a sense that these segregations and inequities
are excessively subsumed within race, to the point of ignoring class. For
example, Chapter 5 asserts that white parents avoid sending their children to a
predominantly indigenous school because they see the problems of the school, and
its neighbourhood, as linked to race. Little is said about possible prejudice
towards the poor. Again, the book has a particular battle to fight and an
audience in mind, but the issue of class and poverty, irrespective of race,
could at least have been caveated out.
In all, the interview data are well chosen, and effectively illuminate the
issues discussed. At times it is clear that the interview technique is a little
unpolished (this is based on PhD data), with some leading questions and
interviewer interjections; but the interviewer contributes by far the lesser
part of the quoted data, with the interviewees' contributions are given the most
The aforementioned tactic of register juxtaposition fits well with the book's
aim to be a conduit between highfalutin academic theories and everyday classroom
practice. It is this kind of manoeuvre that sets up the deftly articulated
question: ''How does an idea like terra nullius get introduced in the 1500s in
Europe and then surface in a settler school in Saskatchewan in 2002 out of the
mouth of an elementary school teacher?'' The objective is to wedge open the minds
of practitioners and students alike, and reveal the racist undertones of
everyday life in settler schools. This objective the book achieves adroitly,
gently, and magnificently, over and over again.
The register splicing will, no doubt, annoy some who would prefer a more
academic or data-driven discussion. The unorthodox structure of the book may
cause additional frustration in such quarters, and fans of the
introduction--review--methodology--data--discussion--conclusion format may be
disappointed. Quite a bit of primary data spills out in Chapter 1 (the
introduction), before the first mention of methodology on page 14 (which itself
only very briefly mentions semi-structured interviews). Data then resurfaces
somewhat unannounced part way through Chapter 3, makes no appearance in Chapter
4, and comes up again in Chapters 5 and 6. (This is another contrast with the
original thesis, which is more conservative.) The book is no less readable for
these quirks, and indeed for the most part gives an ineffable sense that
everything is perfectly well in hand. Still, there could have been a few more
signposts dotted about as to where the book was going.
The normative proposals in Chapter 7 are generally clear, and mostly sensible,
suggesting relatively straightforward yet powerful changes to curricula,
referral practices, and approaches to linguistic correctness. Some proposals,
however, will raise eyebrows, for example requiring teachers to learn a second
language to increase their sensitivity to linguistic difference. That would
surely be on top of normal teaching duties, and may get short shrift from
teaching unions. Another suggestion is to make more use of contrastive analysis
with indigenous students, systematically comparing home language and standard
language for more effective mastery of the latter. This is inspired by similar
programmes reported for African American English speakers, and the exemplary
practice of the teacher mentioned earlier. But the suggestion that this be
rolled out more widely does not answer the problem that dogged the African
American case, namely negative reactions from parents (including African
Americans) about the perceived legitimisation of a stigmatised language variety.
That goes beyond the classroom, into areas not considered in this book.
The author is usually cautious to limit conclusions to the school and the
community being researched, and there is a caveat in Chapter 7 (p.111) that
''[n]ot all the suggestions I make […] will be pertinent to every settler school
context […] for example […] in New Zealand''. There are similar less explicit
caveats here and there, but these are countered at times by frequent generic
references to ''settler schools'' (and other unqualified plurals). These
occasionally give an impression of transferability, which is tenuous when the
teacher interviews were limited to one school, and the participant observation
to a single class. Still, the author may be wagering that these insights will
resonate with teachers in Canada, and further afield. The assertions made in the
book do seem intuitively reasonable, and based on the author's prior experience
the wager may well come good.
There are some other little vitiating problems in the book: a few too many
copy-editing oversights, like redundant words that survived a sentence re-write,
and missing colons and apostrophes that drive the eyes back for a second try.
These are not massively frequent though, and the writing style is otherwise so
neat and disarming that minor gaffes are easier to forgive.
Overall, ''The Struggle for Legitimacy: Indigenised Englishes in Settler Schools''
is personal and intimate without being garrulous or excessively introspective;
it is transparent and readable without being condescending or over-simplistic;
and it relates clearly to a target audience with clear proposals for changes to
their practice. The book's occasional imbalances are understandable given the
context and intended audience; and from the looks of Sterzuk's online profile
she is working towards positive change in pedagogical practice on the ground.
This evaluation section has ended up as something of a compliment sandwich: good
point, bad point, repeat. Readers may feel the same way, but on balance, for
this reader, the good points outweighed the bad.
Blommaert, Jan. 2001. The Asmara Declaration as a sociolinguistic problem: Notes
in scholarship and linguistic rights. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5(1): 131-142.
Crompton, Rosemary. 2008. Class and stratification. Bristol: Polity Press.
Maher, John C. 2005. Metroethnicity, language, and the principle of Cool.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176: 83-102.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dr. Dave Sayers is an Honorary Research Fellow of the College of Arts &
Humanities at Swansea University, UK. His research is on language policy
and planning, and sociolinguistics.