Category: language/silencing

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


“we dance!” (2016) by Pasha Cas (Temiratu, Kazakhstan)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

My first publication: The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants

I’ve published my first solo article, “The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants”! Please find the prepublication “Accepted Manuscript” version of “…” here. Enjoy, share, and give feedback!

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PLEASE NOTE: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Pedagogy, Culture and Society on November 29, 2016, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/…/10.1080/14681366.2016.1263678

 

What immigrants are good for

It’s an interesting question. A crude parallel can be made between this question and the question of bilingualism. Both enrich the host country (the former, the U.S. or any other literal receiving nation; the latter, the “host” of the speaker’s brain/cognitive function), both contribute various forms of diversity, benefitting the economy in the former case and one’s ability to think creatively and adapt to new situations (see here, here and here for examples of associated research), and both add resources in times of deficit and change.

But if you’re not connected to immigrants or a variety of languages through your work or your social environment, why should you care, really? The trope espoused by Donald Trump and others, that immigrants are here to steal work from and violate the native-born, has been soundly defeated by solid research over the years, and yet threads through an American consciousness increasingly clotted with fear and anger as powerlessness and disaffection rise. The brown people he indicts publicly in his displays of chest-beating become a fearsome enemy to be inspected for benefit, briefly, before the doors are shut and walls are built. Demographically overlapping at times though not synonymous with “immigrants,” speakers of languages other than English tend to be found in urban centers, far from the safe belts of White conservatives whose “authentic American” thinking is referred to as politicos and pundits haggle over issues like “political correctness” in critiquing decisions about gender-neutral bathrooms or trans-friendly policies.

In truth, the reasons why foreign-born participants in U.S. society are “valuable” can indict the interests particular to the person listing them. A video showing the fervent arguments of Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics where I study at the Graduate Center in New York, is a case in point. Kaku asserts that foreign-born students benefit the science community in the United States, which struggles with the shoddy fodder provided by our intellectually deficient educational system (with, Kaku states, its rising “stupid index”), buoying up our economy as it is driven by Silicon Valley and other job creators in business. Importantly, the distinction between “immigrant” and “foreign-born” should be made (as it is unfortunately not in the blog post that inspired me to write). Nonetheless, this expresses the neoliberal ideology that defines how we perceive value and normalcy in education, business, and other human pursuits in the 21st century. The value of foreigners, says this viewpoint, is directly related to how they can contribute to our economy, to our ability to compete on the world stage with other major economic powers. Donald Trump himself could not disagree with this, as low-status Mexican workers helped him build major components of his empire. Thus, we can justify their presence here on such apolitical terms that allay American anxiety over the precarious hold we seem to have over our position as leader of the world in so many respects.

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By Субочева Юлия (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what immigrants are good for? I can’t answer this question directly but must instead ask another: Would we suggest that our own children are valuable and “good” for the United States for the same reasons, e.g., their fitting into the puzzle of how to remain in our most assumed position of global economic power? What rings as a reductive stance for our innocent progeny seems somehow acceptable for adults who speak and look different from us coming to this country. Kaku may feel passionate about the need to challenge our ignorance of how we maintain global preeminence in science and technology, but his rather romanticized discussion still invokes a discourse that dehumanizes and constrains human potential, agency, and variety in an apolitical and logical course of events. Foreign-born people should not be commodified and sorted according to how much they keep us on top. Arguing from such a perspective reinforces the same neoliberal model in which atomization, dehumanization, and alienation have become commonplace and, worse, increasingly normal.

Relying on “experts” and the problem of expertise

I teach a class about emergent bilinguals and bilingual education in the United States. This week, we’re talking about what constitutes a “successful” program, a highly polemical topic stemming from Civil Rights Era-challenges to the status quo, though the debate about the official language of America and what language to school our children in has origins in the earliest days of the republic. We’re exploring how — and whose — decision-making determines programming for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs), drawing from empirical study, learning theory, and experiences in different schools across the country. One of our readings for class, Successful Bilingual Schools: Six Effective Programs in California, documented “successes” in spite of challenges relating to funding, political opposition to bilingual education, and the ubiquitous pressures to compete, be accountable, and prepare for future job opportunities which can often shackle schooling to the leg of capitalistic destiny-making.

A question I often ask — and did in class last night — is, who is the expert in this conversation? Whose words and experience carry more weight, and why? It’s often the case that expertise comes with many letters after one’s name, conferring value through years of study and research, as well as official titles like “Secretary of _______________” or “Director of _______________.” But for those of us seeking to reach such generally unchallenged heights of expertise, the truth must always be maintained: we can’t know what happens in all given schools, for all children and parents and teachers, within all communities. An obvious statement, to be sure, but the point our class came to last night is important: Local context matters. Student voice and choice matter. What happens in a New York City French-English bilingual program may simply be implausible in Lubbock, Texas, for reasons ranging from resources to political will to community views of language use to geography.

A complicating issue is how we, as progressive thinkers in education, involve students’ communities, especially their parents, in the conversation about bilingual education. This is an asset view of students’ cultural knowledge, arguing that their family backgrounds, cultural knowledges and practices, and community histories inform their ways of experiencing and making meaning through schooling. I struggle with the asset view at times, because it’s a theory that often meets resistance on political and economic grounds. Many parents are often unable to participate more as they are pushed away, outside, beyond the walls of a school by prejudice or struggle with pressures to earn money and work harder to support their family. Some schools think they are including parents in decision-making when in reality, they are simply dictating what parents’ behavior should be. Other parents feel that this is exactly what schools should do: make all the decisions and manage their kids for 7-8 hours per day. Another issue stems from beliefs about rightness in language use. Is it a service provided to “low-status” families to help them assimilate, or a process of enrichment like a foreign language, or else the building of political opportunity and ability to participate in civic engagement?

Schooling in general is complicated, and it is experts that are invited to weigh in on what is best for our nation’s youth. Yet I’m glad that we finished the class last night with the question far from resolved. I emphasize the power that teachers, educational scholars, and policy makers have over others, a power that is too often underproblematized outside and even within the academy. Our ability to tell someone, “Yes, this is right” is historically determined and therefore contingent. While we can argue we have years of expertise, we don’t live the life of our students, and the portal via which we attempt to see in — empirical study — is fraught with complications that include bias, silencing, and misinterpretation. The posture of inquiry and uncertainty, uncomfortable though it may be, is an important one given the risk of replicating injustices past. Considering the current state of affairs when it comes to racial achievement gaps or disparities in educational outcomes for ELLs compared to American-born children, we clearly need to be asking why all of our highly-paid experts haven’t resolved these problems yet.

Immersion and the bilingual “every-child-USA” narrative

Students who are first-language speakers of a language other than English are, in America, categorized as English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our country’s history of working with these learners has been complicated and politically fraught. Oftentimes, references to federal decisions such the landmark Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols in 1974 or state-level legislation such as California’s Proposition 227 in 1998 come into the conversation as markers of the pendulum that swings between conservative and progressive viewpoints. The former view tends to advocate for an assimilation-minded view favoring transitioning students into the mainstream classroom as quickly as possible, in which ELLs’ home language is seen as a barrier to academic, social, and economic opportunity (and, in earlier times, a form of deviance deserving of shaming and punishment). The latter, in contrast, asserts that ELLs’ home language is a cultural resource and a dimension of their identities which must be incorporated as a necessary dimension of equitable and ethical education.

Sometimes, through all of these important and lofty ideas, the actual local experience of a learner can get lost. We in academia argue passionately about what Paulo Freire would say, how Gloria Anzaldúa expressed this struggle to self-identify as a linguistic being in the face of intersecting, possessing forces, what Ofelia García argues is the politically committed way of thinking about the education of linguistically non-dominant learners…yet the imagination can get bound up with constructs and move away from lived experience.

I found a short movie today that brings this lived experience, different for every learner, into focus for overthinkers in the ivory tower. The movie, called “Immersion,” tells the story of Moises, a young Spanish-speaking boy who struggles to navigate education in an English-only classroom, in modest yet potent tones. The 12-odd minutes are worth the reconnection to the complex and fragile,”every-child-USA” narrative told through his eyes. (For more information on the movie and how to get involved, check out the website at http://www.immersionfilm.com/.)

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The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS
ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

Discourse, voice, and rightness in an animal rights activist talk

Tonight I attended a talk at the Blue Stockings Bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan with a friend, where we partook in a conversation about animal rights called Animal Rights Campaigning and Racism. Interesting questions framed the talk:

  • How can we campaign for animal liberation while being self-aware of privilege, xenophobia, imperialism, and the ongoing instrumentalization of animal welfare issues by racist parties and groups?
  • Who has the “right” to criticize “other” cultural practices?
  • What role does our language and imagery play?
  • Which targets should we choose?
  • How are we to remain sincere to our anarchist, emancipatory ideals for total liberation?

My friend, a near-vegan and animal rights proponent, had invited me to join her and I was looking forward to learning something new, especially with such a critical frame. Topics like decolonization, anthropocentrism, and speciesism came into the thread, and some of the important racist dimensions of the construction of animals-as-inferior, which include anti-indigenous and genocidal practices in the past and present, were discussed by the moderators, three young people of color who had studied, participated in, and taught about animal activism.

I struggled with some of the discourse generated by the talk. A recurring theme was the indictment of the White Eurocentric settler colonialist tradition, which is absolutely important to discuss in terms of topics relating to oppression and consumption. Yet at times it seemed reductive. American thinking tends to be very race-centric as a way of constructing difference, and there is so much more to explore when thinking about the cultural relationships we have to our environments as human beings, including geography, religion, economics and labor relations (though capitalism and neoliberalism, in fairness, were referenced a couple of times). At times where someone brought up a point not considered supportive of the overarching theme mentioned above, like a comment by a young woman about food deserts, it was shot down fairly quickly either by the moderators, or with their support.

This is good to observe, as a budding professor and future moderator of conferences (I hope). I felt that the way the moderators spoke implied (a) a strong belief in one’s rightness, which was drawn from what were assumed to be common understandings among the group, and (b) an emphasis on pontification and proselytization. As a participant, this became a sort of drone that I ended up taking little away from.

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This really signals the important question of voice, which resonated with questions I have about how to manage my classes in a way which is fair and values all participants. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the night (it went on too long for my taste, with too much showing-off of knowledge, intermingled with teary accounts of one’s deep convictions and struggles), I’ll just say that events like this are instructive. They remind teachers like me that any leadership posture we have in a group confers power over internal norms and language use, terminology, processes of inclusion and exclusion, and other ways of shaping how the group interacts. And I hate to say it, but after this, I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of a “group” like this again.

Transculturation: a new culture of signs, new signs of culture

Cultural transformation and the movement of immigrants into, among, within, and across cultural repertoires is an idiom, un modismo, which requires a shift in thinking. Those of us whose realities are nested, in earlier contexts if not the current one, in mainstream thinking, being, and knowing must challenge our assumptions about what is truewhat is valid, and, in fact, what is, period. Ofelia García refers to Fernando Ortiz’s conceptualization of this disruption to cultural standards in Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice as a process of transculturación, which she says “dissolves solid differences while creating new realities. We are not in the presence of a synthesis or even of a hybrid mixture. Rather, we are in a space that creates a new reality because not one part of the equation is seen as static or dominant, but rather operates within a dynamic network of cultural transformations.” While García’s discussion refers to the dynamic potential of translanguaging, a framework for theoretical and pedagogical change that prioritizes the voice of minoritzed language speakers in majority classrooms, the possibilities can be extended to many other spheres and intersects with different cultural practices. The “trans” mode of thinking serves to provide new ways of perceiving the education of immigrants; as people who have cultural ways of being and knowing that are pluripotential, iterative, dynamic, fluid, and anti-categorical (compared to American stock categories of race, ethnicity, ability, and even language use), they are different learners from those born and raised here. It could be argued, even, that disruption is less an act of political change and more of an uncovering, a challenging of fixed categories that perhaps never really describe any of us except to confer power to those who name, separate, and fix us into receiving postures.

Where else do we see transculturación, translanguaging, transculturing, and disruptions of meaning in spontaneous and heretofore unseen fashion? Many places, but one of my favorites is hip-hop as a dance form. I’m no expert, just enjoy watching the videos online. But considering how a hip-hop dancer becomes a spontaneous user of a cultural idiolectic by observing some traditions, dashing others, and creating new ones, there is a lot to be said for the new culture of signs, and new signs of culture, that occur in every dance. One of my recent favorites: Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) @_TriciaMiranda Choreography – Filmed by @TimMilgram I recommend watching all the way through, and again. 

A call to action: adult immigrants as heterogeneous learners (too)

Tonight, Ofelia Garcia and Jim Cummins, two of the world’s most well-respected linguists and educators, spoke at the Graduate Center of CUNY where I am doing my PhD. I work with Ofelia and tonight, my graduate students got a chance to tune in with me to watch the discussion, which dealt with multiliteracies and multilingualism in North American public education. Garcia, a Cuban immigrant who started her teaching career as a public school teacher in the 1970s in the United States, has seen and written about the tectonic shifts in American public discourse about education, particularly the practice of bilingual education in its various manifestations. Garcia’s work has inspired a paradigm shift in how language is used in the education of language minority students, especially through her popularization of Cen Williams’ concept of translanguaging, which she articulates as both a theory and a pedagogy that accesses and values students’ diverse linguistic repertoires. Doing so, she reasons, constitutes a political act as well as a strategic commitment for a better and more just education for all learners, including immigrant children.

Garcia spoke of his this conversation has changed since she was a public school teacher, as immigrant students who are “linguistic minority” are now the speakers of Chinese, Urdu, and Romanian, rather than Spanish. “Teacher education has to address this larger heterogeneity,” she affirmed, a point I was heartened to hear. Ethnolinguistic identity is central to learning that is inclusive and to moving in a politically and ethically honest direction. I hope such a comment comes through the voice of a trendsetter signaling a coming sea change, rather than as a drop in the bucket. If I, her epigone (one of hundreds), could add a quieter second call to action, I’d add to this challenge that teacher education must open up its own repertoires to include adult immigrant learners whose languages are diverse and who they themselves are ontologically, culturally, and sociopolitically different than children, even those from their own families. This is a blind spot and an unsung place of heterogeneity that has been conveniently avoided in teacher education for too long.

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