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Thoughts 24 Apr 2023: Language activism, slowing down, stopping
towards new ways of being
Recently I’ve become fascinated by the idea of ‘language activism’. I set out this morning to write about it having encountered it in Ian Cushing’s paper1, but having looked further into it, I realised that writing about it might give the impression that I’d somehow understood it, which is far from the case. I intended to write about what I’d now understood about what it might mean to be a language activist2 in a secondary school classroom, drawing theory together with my daily experiences as an English teacher. I thought writing about this might be a way into understanding the field of Raciolinguistics as a whole — previous attempts to summarise it in a Substack post proved impossible.
All this is to say (and, I disclaim, that if this post seems rambling it’s because it is; I’m using this as a way to share ideas in a rather raw state, so please do not take this as authoritative but as a vital part of the learning process3) that I’m having to change things. A lot.
I’m referring to several different changes that I’m either trying to bring about or that are happening to me anyway, sometimes on the very hinterland of my awareness. The first is that my attitude towards and awareness of my own language is changing. It’s a slow and strange process, but it is one, I remind myself, that I have the (white) privilege of choosing to enact, and so if I want to try to work past that privilege I must engage, lest I perpetuate that privilege. Second, the certainty and authority and ease with which I usually write has gone: at least, when I am exploring matters of decolonisation, race, raciolinguistics &c. I cannot write about these subjects from any sort of authority (the opposite, in fact: I feel like a child, which is not a bad thing by any means) which kneecaps my speed, fluency, and confidence. I’m used to getting the words out there fast. Writing doesn’t come that hard. Don’t mistake the rapid blurting of this post for ease, though. I am writing it in a weird state of tension: trying to just let the words get out there while trying to be mindful of what the words are doing.
And therein lies the tension. I want to take care, but in order to do so I have to change the way I write. My writing cannot be how I used to write. It has to be exploratory. This is not the finished product. This is externalised thinking.
All that said, I am going to slow down and work through an idea that (I think) is helping me engage with new ways of thinking, being and seeing:
Stop trying to ‘get it’
This might seem a ridiculous statement given everything I’ve written above, but I am referring to an ingrained white way of seeing I’m trying to unpick. I’ll illustrate by way of anecdote.
Year 9’s class reader was The Art of Being Normal, a YA novel narrated by two transgender teenagers. While we were reading students were receptive, but I could sense some discomfort. Eventually one student gave in:
‘I just don’t get it, sir. Transgender. The whole thing. It just doesn’t make sense to me.’
I asked the students whether it was important if they ‘got it’ or not. I asked the students about a few different things, to see whether they ‘got’ them or not, such as quantum gravity, money, or how their fridge works. Naturally they did not. I asked them whether or not ‘getting it’ was a barrier to belief, to acceptance. It was not. It’s not important to have to ‘get’ everything, because nobody ever does. And this is especially true of human beings. I have found that my (white) way of thinking, calcified by years of British education4 assumes that I have to understand things. I have come to realise that ‘understand’ doesn’t mean what I have told myself it means. It has come to mean make this fit with your current ways of thinking. What if it simply doesn’t? Discard. Sometimes this is a useful heuristic: it works pretty well with conspiracy theories. It’s the structure of my thinking, the whole architecture. The edifice needs razing to the ground. Therefore, I’m trying less to ‘get it’, which also means:
I don’t stop. I talk all the time. And it means I’m not really listening. And it means that I hurtle from one bias to the next. If I want to change my thinking, I’ve got to stop. I foreclose and erase so much otherwise. Don’t mistake this post for me not stopping, but rather the result of having stopped.
If you’ve got this far, you might be thinking that there’s not a lot of specific critical substance here. This is not an essay, at least not in that sense. This is just part of a conversation; it’s an update on how I’m thinking right now. Specifics will come; I am thinking a great deal about how language can be a force for immense good within the secondary classroom, but I am aware it can be (and often is) the precise opposite. To get better at understanding this, I’m currently exploring:
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.
Flores, Nelson, and Jonathan Rosa. ‘Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education’. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 85, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 149–71, https://doi.org/10.17763/0017–8055.85.2.149.
Cushing, Ian. ‘Raciolinguistic Policy Assemblages and White Supremacy in Teacher Education’. *Curriculum Journal*, Aug. 2022, [https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.173](https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.173).
One of the reasons I’m not writing much about it as originally planned is that the term has much wider application than within my context. LA is the practice of actively preserving indigenous languages from erasure, which is vital work because language is identity — to erase these languages is to erase the knowledge encoded within and the people who speak them; without LA, we face cultural deforestation. My ignorance of this vital sense of the term makes me very cautious about using it.
I think I need to elaborate here. I find it near impossible to think without some sort of outlet for it. I used to go by the mantra ‘Writing is thinking’, but I’ve broadened it now to’Externalise your thinking’. If I want to understand something (NB I have used the word ‘understand’ while knowing that I’m probably going to problematise it later in this post) I need to get it ‘out’ there. An example: when I’m teaching, I tend to bring in things I’ve been learning myself, incorporating them into the lesson. Students are used to hearing, ‘So, I was reading x last night, and it reminded me of …’. What’s happening here is something I try to stress a lot to my students: that we’re always revising what we think in light of new experiences; we are always learning new (to borrow Berger’s titular phrase) ways of seeing; these ways of seeing open up new ways of mutual being in the world. Once an idea is ‘out there’ it can become part of something wider than oneself, something generative. All this is to say that this post is such a thing: it’s a way to get my rather siloed thinking out into the world so it can get better.
I have started to read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, in which she refers to Western pedagogy as obsessed with a ‘banking system’, wherein the acquisition, storage and assimilation of knowledge is all that counts.