Postmodernism

The sixth style of applied linguistics has already been discussed at some length in Chap. 7. Several references have also been made to the remarkable continuity among different styles of conceptualizing applied linguistic research: second generation links obviously to first, as a refinement and extension. Similarly, SLA research and constructivist perspectives both struck a chord when the CLT designs characteristic of second generation applied linguistics had to be theoretically justified. We should acknowledge, therefore, that one style of designing and doing does not simply fade away completely, never to be heard of again. Such is the nature of training and institutionalization in the discipline that, however dated they may appear, earlier design styles endure, by virtue of still being taught by a band of faithful. So it may happen that various styles of applied linguistic work may indeed have been successively introduced, but now co-exist, presenting themselves as simultaneously occurring options to new entrants to the field. One interpretation of the period directly before postmodernism became the dominant paradigm towards the end of the twentieth century is that there was a greater variety of simultaneously practiced paradigms in applied linguistics than ever before in its history. At the same time, as the subsequent discussion will show, it would be facile to think that the radicalism of postmodernism was a complete break with the past.

To be sure, postmodernist intentions constitute a 180° turn in how the field was to be conceptualized. But even in that, in striving to break with the modernist past, it at least needed the past as historical opponent. This is evident in Pennycook’s observation that rather “than viewing critical applied linguistics as a new form of interdisciplinary knowledge, I prefer to view it as a form of anti-disciplinary knowledge” (Pennycook 2004. 801). In that sense, when the dust settles, one has to acknowledge that postmodernism and modernism are co-dependent. What is more, the acknowledgment of partiality, of a fragmentation of theoretical angles from which to approach a language problem, echoes in its acknowledgement of a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives the prime concern of third generation applied linguistics. The difference is that in postmodernism that multiplicity undergoes a radically new interpretation. A good example of the appreciation that postmodernism brings for a multiplicity of perspectives, or just for variety and idiosyncrasy as such (Allwright 2006. 13) is to be found in the work of the New London Group (2000: 15). They aver that there will “be a cognitive benefit to all children in a pedagogy of linguistic and cultural pluralism”. In what is evidently a struggle and contention within postmodernism between moderate and more radical orientations, and that I shall return to below, Pennycook (2000: 102), Hall and Eggington (2000) is highly critical of such a view, since his “sense of the social and cultural ... is not the liberal dream of equitable social relations and celebratory multiculturalism”. There is no denying, however, that the pioneering insights into pluralism are to be found in the multi-disciplinarity that characterizes third generation applied linguistics. As is the case with other paradigm shifts, there are both continuities and discontinuities with what has gone before. Pennycook is correct, however, in the sense that, despite the continuities that we may note, the postmodernist trend seeks reliance not on a liberal and positivist paradigm, as did third generation work in applied linguistics, but in an emancipatory, postpositivist perspective.

The sixth and third styles of research and design are therefore similar in that each acknowledges in its own way a multiplicity of angles and orientations of which designs must take cognizance. Yet they are different in their starting points, the one proceeding from a belief in the authority of science, the other taking its cue from a contestation of that belief. Postmodernist approaches oppose the hubris of scientific endeavor since the time of the Enlightenment, as well as the idea of progressive improvement (cf. Brumfit 1997: 23, 24; Mauranen and Sajavaara 1997) that is part and parcel of those goals. Pennycook’s (1989: 601) critique of the notion that the application of ‘scientific’ principles to language teaching has achieved progress is a good illustration of this. Rather than steady, linear progress, designs for language teaching in his view constitute merely a “different configuration of the same basic options” (Pennycook 1989: 608). Postmodernism in applied linguistics denies that progress is inevitable when design problems are subjected to ‘scientific’ analysis. Not only is progressivism in science a myth, together with the purportedly authoritative language teaching designs that were thus inspired, but if there is any change, that derives from other, social and political causes.

The postmodernist project therefore is to identify the various “sites of struggle”, and in its multiplicity of perspectives seeks to articulate both the consensual and conflicting powers operative in language teaching and testing. Brumfit (1997: 27) argues, for example, that the contribution of postmodernism in applied linguistics confirms that the discipline needs “a plurality of approaches ... a recognition ... of alternative views ...” He notices kinships in postmodernism in applied linguistics to feminism, subjectivity, and relativity, yet concludes that the extreme relativist positions taken by these may undermine worthwhile theoretical work.

The first strand of work within what can be called a postmodernist applied linguistics without doubt lies in the emphasis on ethnographic investigations, that were discussed at some length in the previous chapter, in the section on “Ethnographic orientations”. As in many other disciplines, this was the outcome of the ‘linguistic’ turn in the twentieth century towards an interpretative, qualitative research orientation. Yet for many politically sensitized applied linguists this orientation, in its adherence to a detailed description of the environment, sometimes did not go far enough. For them, the arrangements proposed by applied linguistics had to take a step further, into the realm of laying bare power differentials. To be sure, many who would consider themselves to be working wholly within an ethnographic paradigm had already taken that step, by considering “the role that language and policy planning . plays in fostering (or constraining) linguistic diversity in education” (Hult and King 2011a: xx; see too Gebhard 1999).

In a volume commemorating the groundbreaking work of Hornberger (Hult and King 2011b), ethnographic investigation is allied with the concerns of educational linguistics , the beginnings of which were noted and discussed above, in Chap. 3. Not only is the focus here on the role of language in learning and teaching, but on “pressing real-world questions” that “concern how best to provide equitable access to language and education for all students”, and in particular for disadvantaged students (Hult and King 2011a: xviii). Where the alliance with educational linguistics comes in is with the involvement of the latter in examining how language planning and policy-making may either inhibit a multiplicity of languages from fulfilling their rightful role in education, or how such plans and policies may allow them to flourish (Hult and King 2011a : xx; McCarthy 2011). Spolsky (2010: 138) in fact defines educational linguistics “as a form of language management”, i.e. as concerned with the plans and designs for making institutional language arrangements. As the diversity of studies brought together in Hult and King (2011b) shows, the concerns raised by and in ethnographic work go beyond mere description, and, while remaining concerned with the particular (see Creese 2011), even beyond the immediate institutional context. The reach of the political questions that are posed may in fact reach beyond the immediate institutional context to consider the (unequal) distribution of power within society as a whole (McCarthy 2011: 110). Ethnography becomes directly relevant to educational linguistics, specifically in the concern of the latter with language planning and policy, by enriching “our understanding of the role of educational language policy in promoting or constraining ... language development” (McCarthy 2011: 116), in instructional settings as well as in society at large.

Even at an individual level, where ethnography of the classroom gives way to autoethnography (Vandrick 2009; Paltridge 2014) there is evidence of an acute sensitivity to injustice and politically or socially shaped inequalities.

Like ethnography, autoethnographic narratives and analysis are squarely postmodernist in approach, in opposition to modernist claims of rigor, ‘objectivity’, and other conventional attributes of scholarliness (Ellis et al. 2011: 7). Its practitioners therefore refuse, as a consequence of widely acknowledged methodological and paradigmatic differences, “to debate whether autoethnography i s a valid research process or product”, viewing “research and writing as socially-just acts; rather than a preoccupation with accuracy” (Ellis et al. 2011: 8). Acknowledging and accommodating subjectivity, authoethnography resists exploitation, sterile research and the pretense of being value-free or ‘objective’ (Ellis et al. 2011 : 1-2), striving through narrative processes (cf. too Bell 2002) to give us thick descriptions that reveal both the individual’s personal commitments and beliefs and approaches to institutional arrangements and social participation. In the latter, it is allied with reflexive practice (Schon 1983, 1987), an emphasis on which is characterisable as opposing modernist representations, and recommendable “as a principal method for excavating new (anti)-foundations for the analytical and representational exercise” (Macbeth 2001: 37). The emphasis on the individual is important, since it can include those who have otherwise been excluded, either through social prejudice or cultural bias. Narratives therefore “function in opposition to elitist scholarly discourses and. their use in research offers an opportunity for marginalized groups to participate in knowledge construction in the academy” (Bell 2002: 209).

The identification of conflicts and agreements especially within institutional environments has placed postmodernist critiques of the conventional squarely and unashamedly in the realm of political analysis and action. Brumfit’s (1997) observaTable 8.1 Approaches to writing (Lillis 2003)

Theory of language

Pedagogy

(1)

Language as autonomous system

Skills approach

(2)

Language as individual meaning

Creative self-expression

(3)

Language as discursive practices

Socialisation into these

(4)

Language as genres with features

Explicit teaching of these

(5)

Language as ideological practice

Challenging the status quo

Table 8.2 Discourses of writing (Ivanic 2004: 225, Fig. 2)

Discourse (paradigm)

Approach

(1)

A skills discourse

Skills approaches

(2)

A creativity discourse

Creative self-expression

(3)

A process discourse

The process approach

(4)

A genre discourse

The genre approach

(5)

A social practices discourse

Functional approaches

(6)

A sociopolitical discourse

Critical literacy

tion is that we should take seriously the valid criticism by postmodernist orientations of potentially and actually abusive, exploitative, unequal power relations (see Street 2011: 62) within the environments in which applied linguistic designs for language teaching, testing or policy-making will operate. As Kramsch (2008: 390) articulates it: “We approach language learning and language use as a ... site of struggle for the control of social power ...” She adds (2008: 406) that the perspective on language education that she shares with Van Lier (2008) and others - language ecology - can therefore be defined as “a politics in so far as it is an art of the possible”.

This second, politically oriented strand of sixth generation applied linguistics has already been referred to above (in Chap. 7, in the section “Contested arrangements and issues”). It is not sufficient, we have observed, merely to identify abusive arrangements: a critical, postmodernist perspective will inspire the applied linguist to transform these into a more equitable set of arrangements.

A working out of what a critical, postmodernist orientation can contribute to applied linguistic designs can be found in a number of approaches to writing (Lillis 2003 ; Ivanic 2004). What is more, in these discussions of the history of writing, there is a remarkable similarity with the periodization of styles of doing applied linguistics that I have been discussing in this chapter. Here are adapted versions of their perspective on successive styles of teaching writing. The first is from Lillis’s diagrammatic representation (2003: 194) (Table 8.1).

Please confirm the inserted call-out for Tables 8.1-8.3.I'm not sure what 'call-out' means, but, with the necessary changes noted, they seem to be OK to me.

The second is from Ivanic (2004: 225) (Table 8.2).

These similarities between characterizing orientations in the teaching of writing (and cf. too Johns 2005) and those in the broader field of applied linguistic designs for language teaching and language assessment (Green 2014: 173ff.) will be referred to again below, when a summary of styles and traditions within applied linguistics is presented. It should come as no surprise that according to these two surveys the approaches in which this design history culminates are characterized respectively as “Critical literacy” and as a pedagogy of “Challenging the status quo”. When one considers their descriptions of what that approach and that pedagogy entail, it is noteworthy, in addition, that there evidently also remains a reliance, for those who subscribe to critical approaches to the teaching of writing, the fifth and sixth paradigms above, on second generation applied linguistics. Despite the domination of critical, postmodernist approaches to designing such instruction, it is evident from the discussions of the various ‘discourses’ or ‘theories’ of language that these interventions are still influenced by the assumption that applied linguistics relies solely on linguistics, or at least on a rich (social) notion of language, that was characteristic of second generation applied linguistics. Hence Pennycook’s (2000) - in his perspective - legitimate critique of these.

Besides Pennycook’s doubts, there are also several others that might be mentioned. The first is that in these discussions by experts of the various periods and styles in the design of writing interventions, it is evident that the actual acquisition of writing has not received enough attention. Perhaps that potential neglect derives in part from the anti-assessment or even anti-empirical stance in postmodernist orientations. Secondly, if the design of the teaching of writing had not become isolated from applied linguistic work in general, as writing experts readily agree has been the case (Johns personal communication), and as I have elsewhere argued (Weideman 2007b; Van der Walt 2007), it might well have benefited more from the less regarded but empirically serious styles of third and fourth generation (multi-disciplinary and SLA) applied linguistics. In conjunction with this, thirdly, there is the issue of the contradiction embodied in postmodernist designers of writing interventions being critical of all manner of institutional arrangements that might be prejudiced against learners, but their acceptance at the organisational level of an isolation of the teaching of writing by institutionalizing it either in a specific faculty (in the USA not education, that conventionally monopolizes ‘reading’), or in a dedicated center, or in the teaching of a single course in ‘composition’, organizationally removed from equally useful institutional resources in applied linguistics. Such institutional arrangements clearly have political effects that are detrimental to language development in students, yet they seem to escape the proponents of political critique where the context of their own institutional employment is concerned.

It is unfortunate that the design of writing interventions from a postmodernist orientation has in these contexts become estranged from applied linguistic work, and the contributions that the field might have made to their design (Lillis 2003). We find further instances of the separation in the contents of two well known handbooks on applied linguistics. The in my opinion more authoritative one, the Handbook of applied linguistics (Davies and Elder 2004), derives from a British publisher, and contains not a single chapter that refers in its title to writing . The other (Kaplan 2002), which has an editor from the USA, provides a substantial discussion on second language writing (in a chapter by Leki 2002). Yet it contains nothing on the critical turn in applied linguistics represented by postmodernist orientations. It is no wonder that commentators like Kumaravadivelu (2006), Moita Lopes (2006) are highly critical of what is perceived as the self-congratulatory way in which the compilers of the handbook originating in the USA (Kaplan 2002) omit some of the most prominent topics and themes within applied linguistics at that time.

Despite the assessment by some applied linguists (e.g. Lillis 2003; Janks 2000; Shohamy 2001a, b, 2004; Norton and Toohey 2004) who work within a critical, postmodernist paradigm that this orientation has not yet done enough as regards practical proposals as to how designs can be made more sensitive to power differentials, there are, as has been noted above and in the previous chapter, examples aplenty of where this style of design has had an influence on language teaching and testing practice. As regards the former, the several examples mentioned in the previous chapter are cases in point, and as regards the latter, there are many instances of how postmodernist sensitivities have influenced the administration of language assessment (Weideman 2009; Rambiritch 2012), making it more transparent, accessible and accountable.

There is widespread appreciation, therefore, of the beneficial influences of a postmodernist approach to the design of language teaching and testing. Yet there are also commentators who have voiced their concerns. Johnston (1999), for example, acknowledges being professionally and personally influenced by critical pedagogy in his teaching, but he takes issue with a number of tenets of critical approaches, in particular the centrality of politics. He would prefer that pride of place should go to moral concerns and interaction (cf. too Rampton 1997 : 12): “It is my belief that critical pedagogy, though it frequently acknowledges the moral and ethical dimension of teaching, fails to perceive its centrality in the educational enterprise ... Such a position, in my view, falsifies the essential nature of education” (Johnston 1999: 561).

Any historiography of the field of applied linguistics would have to acknowledge that this sixth style of applied linguistics has prompted us to be much more sensitive than before to issues of power and compulsion in our designs (McCarthy 2001: 130-143). Yet there is a paradox in the critical strand within a broad postmodernist approach to applied linguistics in that it went mainstream and became, in the last decades of the previous and the first decade of the current century, the dominant orthodoxy. This paradox - of how the critique of the conventional prevails and itself becomes conventional - may be an embarrassment to those whose revolutionary intentions position them permanently in the anti-establishment camp. Billig (2000) declares quite flatly that “the growth of respectability entails the loss of critique as an intellectual activity.” Moreover, is it not ‘progress’ when fairness, as proposed by critical approaches, prevails? Billig (2000: 292) notes: “We might talk of progress: the establishment of a critical paradigm, even as an intellectual orthodoxy, represents an improvement of what came before and what goes on elsewhere.” It seems to be the old revolutionary problem: a conventional temptation arises the moment that the anti-conventional has prevailed. In the domination of critical approaches in applied linguistics, as well as in their institutionalization in the training of a generation of new applied linguists, we have evidence of just such a potentially unhealthy domination of a tradition that limits the power of others. I have argued elsewhere (Weideman 1999, 2002) about the need to avoid making new entrants into the discipline of applied linguistics or those many end-users of our designs the victims of design and tradition. For all its critique of historical and institutional power, postmodernist applied linguistics must find a way of coming to terms with its own relativity as a paradigm, a point that I shall return to below.

In the six successive traditions of doing applied linguistics that have been discussed so far, we may also observe, at least as far as our views of language are concerned, a “progression [that] can be seen as a continuous dialectic between an autonomous and idealized vision of language and a socially accountable view” (Brumfit 1997: 22; for these terms, cf. also Rampton 1995; Street 2000; Street had apparently used them as early as 1984). It is clear that accountability, not only for our views of language, but also for the pedagogy and institutional arrangements in which applied linguistic designs are embedded, is the rallying point where postmodernism has taken applied linguistics as a discipline. An observation made by Pennycook (2004: 798) is once again relevant:

Critical applied linguistics is not about developing a set of skills that will make the doing of

applied linguistics more rigorous, more objective, but about making applied linguistics

more politically accountable.

More than any other, that idea embodies the defining orientation of design work done within this tradition, and it is the idea of accountability that distinguishes it from the other five styles of doing applied linguistic work discussed above. For all its distinctiveness and revolutionary bluster, however, the politically inclined strand within postmodernist applied linguistics also shows, as has been observed above, several continuities with design traditions that have gone before: in order to articulate its own postmodernist position, its revolutionary tack needs, as its opposite, the opponent that it finds in modernist applied linguistic traditions; its celebration of fragmentary perspectives shows some kinship with the multi-disciplinary agenda of third generation work in applied linguistics; and in its emancipatory agenda for language course and test design, it harks back to the revolutionary tack taken by the ‘humanistic’ approaches and fringe methods associated with one interpretation of communicative language teaching (discussed above in Chap. 6).

The earnestness of postmodernist critiques is reflected in the work of many posttwentieth century applied linguists, work that has contributed to its becoming the dominant paradigm of the early twenty-first century. Will it endure, however? The missionary zeal of its origins in the previous century makes it susceptible, after becoming the orthodoxy, to an overestimation of what it can do, and potentially to a lack of humility. We turn in the next section to a first serious paradigmatic challenge to postmodernist approaches.

 
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