Mere Rhetoric

[acoustic guitar music]

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, and every time we do Mere Rhetoric, I hope you feel like it's a cozy introduction to some of the people who have been part of rhetorical history at different times and places. But it's rare that I actually get to talk about somebody who I've sat next to, and I've eaten lunch with. And in fact, I got to eat lunch twice with today's topic, Suresh Canagarajah. Canagarajah is kind of a hero of mine, and he's a really amazing scholar and just a really nice human being. I met him for the first time when I was a beginning graduate student, and I was at a really small conference -- small enough that they were willing to pay for us to eat lunch together every day, and I got to sit next to Suresh Canagarajah, who is one of the superstars of that particular conference, which focused mostly on multilingual writers and different writing traditions.

So it was such a big honor to get to meet him. And not only did I get to meet him, but he was really nice and sort of soft-spoken. Later, I actually got to see him, talk with him a little bit at this last year's MLA in Vancouver. And again, he was just really nice and generous, and... I don't know, I just really enjoy spending time with Suresh Canagarajah. So today we're gonna talk little bit about him, and I hope you spend time with him right now and get to enjoy the time that you spend here.

Okay, so the reason why I was a little cowed by Suresh Canagarajah is he's done some really important work. His book, Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, won the MLA's Mina Shaughnessy award in 2000. Later, another book that he wrote, Geopolitics of Academic Writing, won the Gary Olson Award from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition in 2003. So he's kind of a hotshot. His work focuses, like I said, mostly on different ideas of teaching English, and the ways that English becomes part of the cultural capital in other traditions. And to be able to get at this idea, he focuses at the very beginning in the former British colony of Sri Lanka, which is where he's from. Canagarajah himself is a multilingual writer who had to negotiate identities as a Sri Lankan, as well as a scholar in rhetoric. So his background sort of uniquely prepares him to be able to talk about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching. This book focuses on how, quote, "The classroom culture is a site where the agendas of the different interest groups get played out, negotiated, and contested," end quote.

Teaching English in a country where they have other linguistic traditions is always going to be a question of power. And there's conflicting attitude and behavior about students regarding English study. On one hand it opens up a lot of possibilities for them, especially economically and in terms of power. But on the other hand, they have, quote, "conflicts in having to indulge in a communicative activity, from which they have to keep out their preferred values, identities, conventions, and knowledge content," end quote. So you can feel a little bit like you're betraying you own language, our own writing tradition, and even your own values when you engage in academic writing -- or any other type of writing -- in English. These students have to, quote, "negotiate with English to gain positive identities, critical expression, and ideological clarity." And they will become insiders and use the language in their own terms, according to their own aspirations, needs, and values. This seems like a high order for teaching English and making sure that the people who come from other language backgrounds aren't isolated, that they can use the dominant discourses from the perspective of their vernacular standpoint to creatively modify the codes, not just buy into the standard American English, but sort of have a way to feed back to American academic English from their own traditions, and bring what they have to the table as well. This of course has application in the classroom.

So he says, "The end result of this pedagogy is a critical awareness of the rationale, rules, and consequences of the competing discourses in the classroom and outside." So there's a lot of emphasis in Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching, on the teaching aspect. But everything that he says about teaching can apply to other ways that English remains the lingua franca of academic writing. So you can think about this in terms of articles that get published in academic journals, or the way that conferences are conducted -- the fact that when I go here Canagarajah speak, he has to speak in English, and that puts us at a different power dynamic than maybe it would be if I had to meet him and speak in Tamil.

So when he goes about talking about the potential for linguistic imperialism in teaching English, he comes at it from an ethnographic perspective. Particularly an ethnographic perspective that takes in his own culture. In some circles, talking about sort of your own lived experience can be called autoethnography. Autoethnography looks at your own group, your own circle, and sort of yourself as a participant in this particular group. Canagarajah defends the use of autoethnography because, he says, "It gets you into doors that you wouldn't get into otherwise." For example, he points to closed faculty meetings, or casual conversations. When he talks about autoethnography, it's perhaps a controversial methodology because there can be questions about how much disclosure he has in those closed faculty meetings and other situations. But on the other hand, it makes you sure that you're proceeding from an insider's perspective and not being imperialistic in the ethnography that you're doing.

Now, his book about resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching was controversial sort of itself. Robert O'Neil argues that people learn English, quote, "to communicate with people who do not speak the same language," end quote, instead of communicating with your own people. And that it's not just about the sort of insider, talking to each other situation. There are nationalists, as well as universalists, who either reject English study as nationalists, or embrace an English that is, quote, "expansive, malleable, and neutral." Canagarajah is sort of proposing something else, where English is not neutral at all, but it's sort of a necessary -- I don't want to say evil, but a necessary [inaudible] for a lot of people to enter discussions of power.

Canagarajah draws on a lot of other theorists, including Phillipson, who really focuses on the native speaker fallacy, which is this idea that if you're a native speaker, somehow you understand English than somebody who isn't a native speaker. And Phillipson's work has been really important in questions of TESOL. And it's kind of fitting that Canagarajah has just recently become the editor of TESOL Quarterly, which is the journal that focuses on teaching English to speakers of other languages. So it's -- You can see sort of a clear trajectory in the work that he does.

More recently though, his work has sort of expanded from looking at world English’s in terms of groups that speak English outside of the United States, to linguistic and dialectic variety in all of its situations, including African American vernaculars. He's interested in how new forms of globalization, quote, "lead to fluid, discursive, and linguistic practices between communities." And he's interested in all of the different ways that we look at English, and why we can find other strategies that will treat English, quote, "as a heterogeneous language, made up of diverse varieties of equal status, each with its own norms and system." This work has also sort of applied to different ways that people publish in English in different situations as sort of diaspora communities. The panel that I was able to listen to him speak at MLA focused on these multiple English’s, and what might be termed as experts' right to their own language. That is to say, once you get enough cachet, you can bring in your own linguistic tradition and your dialect, and nobody's going to think twice of it. But if you're a novice, then you might be stuck speaking something that looks a little bit more like bland, imperialistic American academic English. So Canagarajah is a really amazing scholar, and he's really done some interesting things. I recommend you, check out some of the books from him -- especially Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching.

No matter how you feel about the role of English in American academic writing, it will definitely spark some conversations that you can have with other scholars, or even just thinking about it yourself. But even if you don't get a chance to read Canagarajah's work, I can hope for you even the greater honor that you will be able to meet him at a conference sometime.

[guitar music]

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Canagarahjah.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT