Modernist and Postmodernist Interpretations

Thus far, we have explored mostly the modernist beginnings of the discipline of applied linguistics. In subsequent chapters the postmodernist emphases in applied linguistics will be discussed in greater depth and detail. For the moment, however, we should note that both modernist and postmodernist understandings of applied linguistics have enriched the discipline. While modernist definitions of the field have emphasised the theoretical, scientific basis of the discipline, postmodernist definitions have identified ( social and political ) accountability as the critical feature of its disciplinary endeavor (for the latter orientation, cf. Weideman 2003a).

Common to both understandings, however, is the idea that the discipline of applied linguistics finds its characteristic feature in the moment of design. The feature of design is acknowledged not only in the modernist concept of applied linguistics devising a solution to a language problem, as might be inferred from Corder’s (1972) definition referred to above. It is acknowledged also in postmodernist work, as is evident from the following remark of Bell (2003: 333), made in the context of a discussion and review, amongst others, of the work of Kumaravadivelu:

... postmethod strategies and principles can be understood as articulating the design features ... of the current paradigm of CLT. What is so refreshing about these design features is that they contain within them the tools - learner autonomy, context sensitivity, teacher/ student reflection - to construct and deconstruct the method that inevitably emerges from the procedures derived from them.

The same holds true for the discussion of the various postmethod frameworks discussed by Kumaravadivelu elsewhere (2006: 185-214). It is perhaps the case that within postmodernist approaches not enough attention has been paid to what Lillis (2003 : 193) calls constructing “a design space”. Lillis works fully within a postmodernist, and in certain senses post-critical framework, and certainly within what would in terms of the history of different models of applied linguistics work fall squarely into the kind of work associated with that style of doing applied linguistics that was associated, since the mid-1990s, with the close examination of political and power relations in language teaching, and the accountability of the designers of interventions. Lillis’s plea is that an academic literacies approach to student writing at university - the problem that in the case she is referring to needs attention - should be developed as a “design frame” specifically for the pedagogy of writing. Rather than continuing to promote what she calls the “oppositional frame”, so characteristic of postmodernist approaches, and that serves only as critique, she is in agreement with Kress (2000: 160-161) that design shapes the future. She observes (Lillis 2003: 195; for a rejoinder, cf. Lea 2004):

I am using ‘design’ here in the broad sense of the application of research understandings to pedagogy. [T]his broad sense of design connects with Kress’s particular notion of design in relation to critique .The point that I want to make here is simply that, to date, little explicit attention has been paid to exploring how an academic literacies stance might inform the theory and practice of student writing pedagogy.

Though the concept of design is often strongly tied up, in postmodernist applied linguistic work, with language and the use of semiotic resources (cf. Kress 2000), there is, as is evident from Lillis’s (2003) observations, enough commonality with conventional understandings to make a further exploration of this idea worthwhile. Nor is this emphasis the only one: Janks (2000: 177), for example, notes that design “encompasses the idea of productive power ... (and) recognises the importance of human creativity.” Similarly, design is a significant concept in the contributions to the work of the New London Group on multiliteracies that was published under the editorship of Cope and Kalantzis (2000a). Cope and Kalantzis (2000b: 7) remark, for instance, that this idea is central to understanding the work of the New London Group: “The key concept we developed . is that of Design, in which we are both inheritors of patterns and conventions of meaning, while at the same time active designers of meaning.” The commonality is most evident in the view that adherents of this approach have of language teachers, who “are seen as designers of learning processes and environments” (New London Group 2000: 19). Yet, in line with the social and political purposes that have always been associated with this style of applied linguistics work, the end goal of bringing “creative intelligence” to bear on the solution of practical problems remains the transformation (often with a capital ‘T’) of practice (New London Group 2000: 35; Cope and Kalantzis 2000c).

Once an applied linguistic intervention has been planned, its implementation is always done in a specific context. In executing the plan, there is a relationship between technical means (the resources available to address the problem, especially theoretical, scientific resources or analyses) and technical ends (the purposes to which the solution will be put). Modernist or technicist conceptions open themselves up to critique by overemphasising the means, while postmodernist, politically sensitive notions, in their emphasis on accountability, focus perhaps too exclusively on the ends of the creative and imaginative plans that are made. But both propose plans, and plans are the articulation, as has been argued here, of designs.

A good illustration of how the notions of both ‘design’ and the ‘transformative’ agenda of politically conscious applied linguistic work are articulated within an applied linguistic intervention can be found in the design of the dual-medium BA degree in Contemporary English Language and Multilingual Studies offered at the University of Limpopo (Ramani et al. 2006( . Given its goal of promoting both knowledge of and competence in English and in Sesotho sa Leboa for academic purposes, this degree program is so designed that it uniquely affirms the resources of an indigenous language, and celebrates a commitment to multilingualism.

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