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Contested Arrangements and Issues

In political terms, Kumaravadivelu’s perspective as described above illustrates a less strident, and milder style of postmodernist critique of the arrangements and contexts of language interventions. The style of postmodernism to be discussed in this section, however, is a more radical interpretation of it that places emphasis on a critical approach, being derived from theoretical starting points that are strongly at odds with the conventional. The purpose of the critique is often to achieve an insight into the politically contested and contestable issues or ‘sites’ of struggle. In such contested sites, the conflicting and consensual elements in the processes of engaging in an institutional context with plans and arrangements that aim to facilitate learners’ development of a new language are foregrounded.

The political emphasis means that for this style of doing applied linguistics the manifestation of the political is especially pertinent in unequal power relations. In identifying the political dimensions of the way that language education is organised, one might for example ask: How legitimate are national language syllabi? How can teachers accept or oppose a rigorously prescribed syllabus when they have had no say in its formulation? Whose authority is invoked to legitimate the introduction of new language teaching methods on a national scale? Where do the assessments that are required by the introduction of new language teaching methods derive their authority from? Would adult language teaching not perhaps be more beneficial when the learners are allowed to set their own objectives and language learning goals? How do we respond to the predominance of English as a national language in some African countries, or as an international language? What are the implications of the colonial and postcolonial domination of English for the teaching of other languages, especially the languages of those who are politically less powerful? How fair is the acceptance of this domination? How can resistance to the acceptance of dialects, as well as of regional varieties of English in the Caribbean and in Africa, be overcome? How does gender impede literacy, and what can be done to change the situation? What respect is there for minorities and their languages, and how can a lack of respect for these be eliminated? How are racial differences or class privilege reified by language teaching, and how can such a situation be transformed? How do existing language teaching elites justify their position and their domination of the field, and how can this be challenged? What is a proper response to the powerful publishing tnterests that dump old material on developing countries, or, when assisting in the development of local material, make compromises by making deals with the locally powerful, sometimes involving international experts in second-rate textbook development? In this critical style of postmodernist design, issues of domination and liberation are therefore at the forefront.

In South Africa , these political emphases became prominent in the mid-1980s through the work, amongst others, of Keith Chick and his associates (cf. Chick 1985, 1990; Chick and Seneque 1986). As elsewhere, postmodernist applied linguistic perspectives on language education questioned the right of the academic researcher to intervene in the sphere of competence of the teacher. As can be seen from the titles of the works being referred to here, Chick c.s. were, under the influence of Hornberger (cf., e.g., Hornberger 1994), mainly adopting an ethnographic approach (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 133). To those who are more inclined towards the critical perspectives of a postmodern applied linguistics, however, their interpretive ethnographic agenda may at times appear to lack unashamed engagement with the political and i deological i ssues that surround language teaching designs and arrangements. Critical and participatory approaches present an alternative to dominant, mainstream approaches in “bringing into being new schemas of politicisation” (Pennycook 1999 ; 335). Their underlying philosophy is critical of positivist research strategies and pursuits, even of some undertaken from an intentionally postpositivist perspective (Weideman 2013).

A critical approach to language teaching research therefore not merely describes and interprets questions of inequality in learning situations, as happens in ethnographic investigations, but seeks first to challenge, then to change and transform such situations (Pennycook 1994: 691; 1999: 335). The injustice embedded in certain institutional and organizational arrangements for language teaching means that those arrangements must be contested, not merely identified and described.

Although a critical approach might employ a range of research formats to make good its political agenda for the design of language teaching, it “does not imply a particular approach to or method of research but rather is concerned with the extent to which research is answerable to larger moral and political questions” (Pennycook 1994; 692). The adoption of a positivist paradigm would be out of the question, however, since that would constitute a belief “in the efficacy of investigative procedures that emphasize quantification and prediction” (Pennycook 1989; 594). For critical pedagogy there is no neutrality: it rejects the notion of disinterested knowledge, and with that the modernist assertion that science is neutral, and devoid of political or ideological interest. To those working in a critical postmodernist paradigm, the procedures of science, far from being disinterested, are rather the result of unfair advantage that stems from unequal power relations. These procedures, originating from an ideology that is antithetical to a postmodernist approach, should first be unmasked and then transformed (cf. Pennycook 1999: 335).

The illustrations of unfairness and inequality given by postmodernist critiques therefore often concern the ways in which language instruction is arranged institutionally. Their critique of language teaching design, of the plan or arrangement proposed as a solution, therefore often operates at the organizational level. Gebhard (1999: 545f.) points to cases where an unfair outcome resulting from organisational designs and arrangements is almost inevitable: settings in which a second language is taught in classrooms that are deliberately and by design isolated from the remainder of the institutional structures in which they must operate almost guaran?tee unfair outcomes. She cites as examples cases where the organization of language classes within schools may divide learners even before they have enrolled at the school into categories such as “limited English proficient” or even “learning disabled”. This kind of pre-enrolment division often plays a role in exacerbating rather than eliminating what the school has identified as a problem, since the solution proposed entails an organizational arrangement that has low expectations of learners, and is accompanied by low levels of support for them in the form of textbooks and materials (Gebhard 1999: 553). Learners are institutionally condemned to failure, since they will then be likely to be offered exactly the opposite of what they need: a rich variety of materials, high expectations from teachers, and other substantial forms of institutional support (Weideman 2007: 148; Van der Walt 2007). The learners may arrive at the institution with the best of intentions: to develop their language in order to improve their performance to the level required by the institution, yet the institutional arrangements that treat them as less proficient may prevent them from doing so. Street (2000) makes essentially the same point about the development of academic literacy and student writing in higher education institutions: instead of identifying writing problems as ‘skills’ deficits, he argues, we need to refocus the discussion on the institutional context rather than the individual. Gebhard therefore argues (1999: 551) instead for a contextual, and politically non-neutral, theory of classroom second language acquisition, persuasively pointing out that

... institutional structures play a role in the distribution of discourses associated with academic success and school failure ... Therefore, schools reflect and enact an understanding

of . the status of L2 users in society as a whole. (Gebhard 1999: 552)

Whether critical approaches are successful in creating an awareness among learners of the ideologies and power relations that work to the disadvantage of certain people and to the advantage of others - the nurturing of what is known as “critical literacy” - is not always clear. The Achilles heel of critical approaches, as has been admitted by those who subscribe to its perspectives and orientation, has been their inability to follow through from critique to the point that they affect the actual design of the language instruction itself (Lillis 2003), and not only by proposing changes to be effected organizationally, within the institution. In the following chapter, I return to an evaluation of this style of doing applied linguistics, but wish to observe here that the emphasis on becoming and being ideologically aware has contributed more than any previous tradition in the discipline to fostering a sense of accountability for the designs and arrangements we make, both in language teaching and in language testing (Weideman 2003,2006, 2013).

As we shall observe in the final section below, accountability, as an idea regulating designs that address apparently intractable language problems, brings to center stage the social and political dimensions of such plans, as these have been unearthed and exposed by postmodernist approaches. In addition, the idea of accountability may still retain some of its (initially modernist) reference to the theoretical defensi- bility of language teaching and testing designs. In contrast to the regulative design principle of accountability, the endurance of modernism represents the other side of the coin: the retention of a constitutive, founding defense of a design, in the shape of a theoretical rationale for language teaching and assessment designs.

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