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I could, so I should

This article originally appeared in the 2016 BCTEAL newsletter. We have included a copy of it hear for the convenience of our academic audience.

At this year’s BCTEAL conference, I presented on the language materials I developed to support Vantage College’s first year Arts students.  Here, I’d like to get into the agency, rationale, and impact of some of that work.

In the Academic English Program (AEP) at Vantage College, we don’t have language text books, in no small part due to the fact that we’re using the theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and Genre and applying them to a Content & Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach.  At times it’s overwhelmingly ambitious, and textbook publishers have understandably focused their resources on less demanding, less specialized markets.  But beyond the exponential learning curve, this need to create resources has given me significant creative and intellectual license.  Where so often English as an additional language (EAL) and English for academic purposes (EAP) instructors are told to teach this course with this textbook, my context isn’t so prescriptive.  There is significant agency as an instructor I just couldn’t pass up.  I could, so I should.

My students take a full first year course load, including three credits of POLI 100.  To supplement their English language proficiency, and prepared in conjunction with my fellow Academic English colleagues, students also take VANT 140, a three credit course in which we analyze and work with how language is used to construct meaning in the disciplines.  I teach the Political Science (Poli Sci) portion of this language course, working one hour a week with students. Authentic texts are used as much as possible, as students are expected to do literature reviews and to prepare several research papers.  In the first year of the course, most language tasks were built around the Poli Sci textbook.  While logical, this approach wasn’t ideal.  It had the unintended impact of positioning my course in a service role, with some students using it as a tutorial for Poli Sci rather than getting deeper into critical language work. Heading into the second year of our program, and having had the experience of working with research articles through the VANT 140 course of Geography in year one, changes were made.  Instead of drawing on weekly textbook readings (which had the consistent voice and objective, descriptive tone one would expect of a textbook), I wanted to use fewer texts and look at them repeatedly, for different language features and in comparison to one another.  This would require more authentic articles in which we could look for shared patterns of Poli Sci discourse, how definitions were contextualized and extended, and how different authors constructed arguments, referred to other scholars, and contested, even contradicted each other.  A curated selection of authentic Poli Sci research articles would facilitate this, but they needed a focus for coherence.

In the first year of our students’ research practices course, they had read from some articles around Idle No More and Indigenous activism.  This focus wouldn’t continue for the second cohort of students, leaving the articles available for me to use.  The Poli Sci professor was quite happy to highlight her lecture themes in these articles, so we had our focus.  She would point out the Poli Sci theories of normativity, sovereignty, and effects of colonialism in the articles and I would develop lessons on language features.  But that makes the work sound accidental and tentative.  The reality was that I wanted to roll up my sleeves, participate more in the academy, and better connect the classroom and community.  At about the time this thinking and course revision work was going on, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very present in the news.  I was galvanized.  As an educator, parent, and citizen, I needed to do something.  Hearing more truth, I needed to contribute towards reconciliation.  Fancying myself something of an agent of change, acknowledging that I had benefitted from many privileges through my life, and now working with young scholars in the context of critical language analysis and Political Science, what better opportunity?

Not everyone embraces working with the communities of international students BC attracts.  There are complicated differences in culture, socio-economic status, academic, and social expectations.  While I genuinely like working with these young people, I readily admit I have missed the more grassroots, community-based satisfaction of settlement-based language work in which I started my EAL career many years ago.  How satisfying it was to work with topics and language functions of real impact and importance to my new neighbours and prospective fellow citizens.  This critical yet touchy topic of First Nations and Indigenous activism was perhaps an attempt to reclaim that sense of purpose and greater social investment.  It was also an attempt for me to be as brave as the students who move halfway around the world to participate in our classrooms and social fabric.

Often, both general EAL courses and even EAP courses have unspoken guidelines of taboo topics, commonly referred to as “PARSNIP.”  Avoiding controversy even more assiduously than a TED talk, most EAL and EAP texts and curricula stay away from politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms, and pork.  But how does that prepare students for grappling with Political Science?  How does that facilitate students’ respectful intercultural communication development?  And what practice does reading about and discussing dreams, the weather, novel business ventures, or a simplified ecology cycle really do for students’ social, critical and academic engagement?  If my international students were going to work through concepts such as positive and negative freedoms, totalitarianism, communism, and self-determination, surely I could be brave enough to lift the curtain on my nascent understanding of some current issues facing First Nations in Canada.

So we started.  With my acknowledgement that I’m not an Indigenous scholar.  That, in fact, I’m from settler stock.  That language has power, and that the choices we make in using language position ourselves and others.  Then we looked for and at examples.  For the prevalence of Greco-Latin morphemes and nominalizations that imply presumed knowledge.  For inductive reasoning building a case for different ways of understanding and knowing.  For causation developed not through explicit discourse markers, but through contributing factors more subtly suggested in particular verbs and sentence structures.  And for responsibility and agency erased through the use of passive voice.

At the beginning of the term, I tasked my students with a warm up asking them what they knew and wondered about the academic discourse of Political Science and First Nations in Canada.  At the end of term, I returned students’ initial impressions to them to revisit and reflect on.  I asked them to describe what they had learned; here are some insightful, verbatim responses:

Nowadays, I am aware that First Nations suffered great genocides, they were almost annihilated by discriminatory policies. Moreover, that discrimination persists until now. Regardless of that First Nations stand up and face those policies. They are showing up all the injustice they have suffered from the colonization. I am conscious that they are not passive subjects any more, they started to leave people listen to their voice and people are eager to help them. They want people to know that better policies regarding them and the environment can be created. -Vantage Arts student, 2015

The feature of political science discourse I want to describe and explain is the functions active and passive voices. One of the major functions of passive voice is to hide the participants. For example "the bill C-45 was violated in...", the people who violated the laws were not mentioned in the sentence. When newspapers and social medias used the passive voices in this way, they are trying to remove the social responsibilities of participants. When we read sentences written in passive voices, we need to critically think who are the participants.  -Vantage Arts student, 2015

And what of it all?  It has been really intellectually and socially rewarding work.  I’m reading content I would never have imagined, and I’m reading it more critically.  I feel like a bona fide, contributing member of the academy.  I feel honoured and humbled by my students’ engagement in the work and my opportunity to work alongside them.

by Jennifer Walsh Marr