LINGUIST List 23.418

Thu Jan 26 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Sterzuk (2011)

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Date: 26-Jan-2012
From: Dave Sayers <dave.sayerscantab.net>
Subject: The Struggle for Legitimacy
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AUTHOR: Sterzuk, AndreaTITLE: The Struggle for LegitimacySUBTITLE: Indigenised Englishes in Settler SchoolsSERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy StudiesPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersDATE: 2011

Dave Sayers, College of Arts & Humanities, Swansea University, UK

SUMMARYAimed at a mixed audience -- perhaps principally teachers in settler schools --Andrea Sterzuk's debut monograph describes racial inequities among indigenouspupils in a school in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Examining the everydayconstruction of racist colonialist ideologies through discourse, the book workstowards proposals for changes to pedagogy. These are designed mainly for theCanadian context, but are tentatively extended to ''settler societies'' elsewhere.

After an engaging preface by the series editors (Brian Morgan, AlastairPennycook, and Ryuko Kubota), Chapter 1, ''Settler Societies and Language'',guides the reader into the book through an anecdote about a question at aconference on the book's subject matter. The author cultivates this into adiscussion of postcolonialism, and her own categorisation of Canada (inparticular Saskatchewan) as a ''settler postcolonial'' society. Further terms aredeveloped throughout Chapter 1, such as ''white settler society''. An undertone isthe importance and prevalence of a kind of collective amnesia/denial about thesheer scale of genocide during the settlement of Canada -- and other New Worldcountries -- and the modern day implications of this for education.

Chapter 1 goes on to review relevant academic subdisciplines, before decidingupon ''radical counternarratives in literacy research'' as the home of this study.Research participants are introduced, as are salient themes through the use ofprimary data, before a discussion of methodology. The relation betweenlinguistic performance and race is discussed, along with introspection aboutsubjectivity in researching one's home community, followed by demographicdetails of the population, and familiarly bleak racial inequalities ineducational attainment (compared also to similar patterns in New Zealand andAustralia). Illustrative anecdotes are deployed throughout.

Chapter 2, ''Looking at English Language Variation in Schools: Current andCritical Directions'', reviews discrimination against varieties of English innon-Canadian contexts, including African American Vernacular English, and theconsequences for educational outcomes. The theoretical basis of the book is thenexpounded, reaching into postcolonial theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT).Suggestions begin to germinate here about making teachers more aware of racialdivides, and of the implicit presumptions that cumulatively creatediscrimination. This is with a view to a more productive and egalitarianmulti-racial pedagogy, and specifically to counter the idea that certainlanguage varieties are inherently deficient. Primary data are then delved into,to illustrate a contrived ''colour-blindness'' among teachers -- a putativelypolitically correct practice which counter-intuitively reinforcesdiscrimination, by breeding a sense that non-whiteness is a shameful thing to beskirted around.

In Chapter 3, ''Colonial Ideologies and Discourses'', the author guides the readerin 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 imperialismand colonialism, and ideology and discourse, before shining a light on theless-discussed destructive aspects of colonialism in colonial societies aroundthe world. Primary data illustrate racially differentiated treatment of pupils.The following passage on page 50 -- which follows an account of the surprisinglycolonialist opinion of a colleague on the linguistic deficiencies of indigenousCanadians -- sums up the overall thrust of the book.

''When we speak of decolonizing a society, it is the resiliency of colonial andsettler ideologies and discourses that make decolonization difficult.Dismantling systems and practices that make colonial constructs such asresidential schools and reserve pass systems is necessary but without anawareness of ideologies and discourses, the danger is that new colonialpractices emerge in their place. Learning to deconstruct colonial discoursesabout identities, nations, languages and literacy is a necessary step in movingtowards equitable practices in schools.''

Chapter 4, ''Constructing Race in Settler Saskatchewan'', gives a fuller overviewof the brutal history of conquest in Canada, interwoven with the author'schildhood memories of how this was sanitised in her own childhood schoolcurricula -- and how that sanitisation continues today. The chapter has noprimary data; its purpose is to expand themes of race and otherness, usinganecdote ''as a way of demonstrating the implications of pedagogy beyondtransmission of knowledge'' (p.71), to underscore an ideologically driven racialhierarchy 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 ofindigenous students and an indigenous teacher. Primary data are combined withpersonal anecdote, and reference to research literature.

Chapter 6, ''Supressing Linguistic Alterity in Settler Schools'', considersstandard language ideology and its refraction through a racial lens, tinted withthe settler desire to dominate. Primary data exemplify how ''[n]one of theeducators with whom I spoke in the school [settler or indigenous] had anyawareness of ideas such as language variation; the hybridity of languages; or ofIndigenous English as a legitimate language variety'' (p.97). The culturalinappropriateness of standardised curricula is asserted, and the more holisticmethods of one teacher are held up as exemplary. Awareness and acceptance oflanguage variation, along with more bespoke and imaginative teaching methods,are espoused.

Chapter 7, '''Radical' Solutions for Schools and Teacher Education'', is thenormative climax of the book, delivering recommendations for pedagogy in settlercontexts. The necessary reforms, it is argued, must not simply focus onpresent-day attitudes and pedagogical practices, but delve into the historicalroots of the settler mentality, to unpick deeply woven assumptions aboutlinguistic deficit, racial inferiority and so on. Specific proposals for teachertraining are offered, in order to lessen the barriers faced by speakers ofindigenous varieties of English. The chapter concludes with suggestions forfurther research.

EVALUATIONSterzuk is undoubtedly a skilled writer, and her mellifluous yet commandingstyle becomes clear early on. Formidable arguments are built up almost withoutnoticeable scaffolding. Consider this passage (p.6):

''The term 'dialect', and the construct it describes, makes assumptions about theplace of speakers in the world. These assumptions have the potential toconstruct our understanding of what counts as a legitimate language. Since thisbook intends to trouble our understanding of this very construct, it followsthat alternate terminology is in order.''

Those sorts of ideas are so easy to mangle, and so hard to articulate soconcisely, and so coolly. While going about the routine business of setting outthe terminology used in the book, Chapter 1 also subtly instils real confidencethat reading the other chapters will be time well spent.

Reading this book alongside the original thesis(http://digitool.library.mcgill.ca/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=103297)reveals that a meticulous and thorough overhaul has taken place. The abovepassage on dialect is a good example (pp.12-13 in the thesis), and shows a majorboost in critical insight. (Still, the thesis is also eminently readable, andactually makes a good companion to the book.) In this transformation, thecompatibility between author and editors is clear -- experienced readers willsee the linguistic agnosticism of Alastair Pennycook (one of the editors, asmentioned earlier) creeping through particularly.

Some readers may find the book a little light on data, and the eponymous topictoo often absent from view (especially detail of linguistic peculiarities).Large swathes are occupied with race, ideology, discourse, and the present-dayechoes of the colonial past -- themes that are inconsistently tied back tolanguage variation as such. The book is still highly engaging, but it willattract some readers on a slippery premise. (Worth mentioning: much more of theinterview data and linguistic detail are available in the original thesis.) Thesame 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 tokenisticnamedropping one often finds, but it is highly compressed and a littleperfunctory. Chapter 3 somewhat simplifies key authors and their theoreticalcontributions, for example Foucault and Fairclough on discourse. But the book iscandidly intended for a mixed audience, and these simplifications do not comeacross as brash or over-confident.

At times the loose reliance on primary data is a matter of taste; some readerswill undoubtedly prefer it. At other times it causes stickier problems. Forexample, claims of systematic racially motivated differential treatment ofindigenous children, which tend to hover between implicit and explicit, arebased 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 aboutclasswork to the (white) headteacher instead of the (indigenous) class teacher,had nefarious and racially derogatory motivations. Isn't there a chance theparent was simply a coward? Perhaps she actually was acting solely on racialprejudice, but that is not really substantiated. There are a few too many ofthese apparently hasty racially based assertions; and as they say, the plural ofanecdote is not data. But then, the book is not really designed as a fullybuttressed indictment of existing practice; it is rather a call for change.Teaching practitioners reading this may well pencil in the fuller context, andsee how it relates to their own practice.

The author candidly states (p.17) that she is ''not a linguist'', but her use oflinguistic terminology suits her purpose, and always strikes an appropriatetone. 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 asan explicit act of language politics.

Having identified colonialist ideologies at work, the book unabashedly proffersits own counter-ideologies. In this, the book often feels like a reparatoryjourney for the author, and for readers in similar situations. This is humblyexecuted, and not overstated. In places though, it does cause someterminological doublethink. There is a claim that ''standard language discoursesare evidence of colonialist and nationalist ideologies about 'standardlanguage''' (p.94). Correspondingly, the term ''dialect'' is eschewed forindigenous languages as derogatory, yet it is deployed relatively freely forwhat the book calls white English. Fair enough perhaps, you have to pick yourbattles -- and anyway, racial linguistic divides seem the most salient to herrespondents (p.97) -- but this overlooks prejudice towards non-standard whiteEnglish 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 theseother inequities is probably beyond the scope of the book, but that limitationcould have been acknowledged.

One quite soothing aspect of the writing style is a frequent and skilfullyhandled movement between two registers, academic and anecdotal: for examplemoving from a literature-based discussion of colonial ideologies, to an accountof how the author reacted to a particular passage and discussed it with acolleague over coffee (pp.49-50). It is hard to describe how this does not smackof first year undergraduate navel-gazing, but as the author demonstrates, thekey is to distinguish clearly the anecdotal from the academic, deploying theformer as an illustration -- never an extension -- of the latter. She neverattempts to dress one register up as the other. This tactic takes a great dealof skill to pull off convincingly, and it is managed here expertly. For acomparison, 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 onrace will powerfully engage a certain audience, but it also causes a problem,related to the terminological doublethink noted earlier. There is muchcontemporary debate over whether the ''cultural turn'' in the social sciences hasoverly re-interpreted inequities as culturally driven, undermining socioeconomicclass as an explanatory factor, and stealing attention from larger structuralimbalances (e.g. Crompton 2008: 43-44). The book is clearly in the firing linefor that criticism, especially evident in Chapter 5, which describes theeast-west split of the city where the research took place, with the west mostlyindigenous and mostly poor, and the east mostly white and mostly affluent. Thisis a familiar correlation, and the book makes an impelling case that theideological shadow of the colonial past looms large in maintaining thesedivides. Nevertheless, there is a sense that these segregations and inequitiesare excessively subsumed within race, to the point of ignoring class. Forexample, Chapter 5 asserts that white parents avoid sending their children to apredominantly indigenous school because they see the problems of the school, andits neighbourhood, as linked to race. Little is said about possible prejudicetowards the poor. Again, the book has a particular battle to fight and anaudience 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 theissues discussed. At times it is clear that the interview technique is a littleunpolished (this is based on PhD data), with some leading questions andinterviewer interjections; but the interviewer contributes by far the lesserpart of the quoted data, with the interviewees' contributions are given the mostspace.

The aforementioned tactic of register juxtaposition fits well with the book'saim to be a conduit between highfalutin academic theories and everyday classroompractice. It is this kind of manoeuvre that sets up the deftly articulatedquestion: ''How does an idea like terra nullius get introduced in the 1500s inEurope and then surface in a settler school in Saskatchewan in 2002 out of themouth of an elementary school teacher?'' The objective is to wedge open the mindsof practitioners and students alike, and reveal the racist undertones ofeveryday 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 moreacademic or data-driven discussion. The unorthodox structure of the book maycause additional frustration in such quarters, and fans of theintroduction--review--methodology--data--discussion--conclusion format may bedisappointed. Quite a bit of primary data spills out in Chapter 1 (theintroduction), before the first mention of methodology on page 14 (which itselfonly very briefly mentions semi-structured interviews). Data then resurfacessomewhat unannounced part way through Chapter 3, makes no appearance in Chapter4, and comes up again in Chapters 5 and 6. (This is another contrast with theoriginal thesis, which is more conservative.) The book is no less readable forthese quirks, and indeed for the most part gives an ineffable sense thateverything is perfectly well in hand. Still, there could have been a few moresignposts 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 secondlanguage to increase their sensitivity to linguistic difference. That wouldsurely be on top of normal teaching duties, and may get short shrift fromteaching unions. Another suggestion is to make more use of contrastive analysiswith indigenous students, systematically comparing home language and standardlanguage for more effective mastery of the latter. This is inspired by similarprogrammes reported for African American English speakers, and the exemplarypractice of the teacher mentioned earlier. But the suggestion that this berolled out more widely does not answer the problem that dogged the AfricanAmerican case, namely negative reactions from parents (including AfricanAmericans) 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 thecommunity 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 schoolcontext […] for example […] in New Zealand''. There are similar less explicitcaveats here and there, but these are countered at times by frequent genericreferences to ''settler schools'' (and other unqualified plurals). Theseoccasionally give an impression of transferability, which is tenuous when theteacher interviews were limited to one school, and the participant observationto a single class. Still, the author may be wagering that these insights willresonate with teachers in Canada, and further afield. The assertions made in thebook do seem intuitively reasonable, and based on the author's prior experiencethe wager may well come good.

There are some other little vitiating problems in the book: a few too manycopy-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 soneat 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 totheir practice. The book's occasional imbalances are understandable given thecontext and intended audience; and from the looks of Sterzuk's online profileshe is working towards positive change in pedagogical practice on the ground.

This evaluation section has ended up as something of a compliment sandwich: goodpoint, bad point, repeat. Readers may feel the same way, but on balance, forthis reader, the good points outweighed the bad.

REFERENCESBlommaert, Jan. 2001. The Asmara Declaration as a sociolinguistic problem: Notesin 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 REVIEWERDr. Dave Sayers is an Honorary Research Fellow of the College of Arts &Humanities at Swansea University, UK. His research is on language policyand planning, and sociolinguistics.

Page Updated: 26-Jan-2012