Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Teaching Students as Peripheral Participants

After reading Canagarajah's article on peripheral participation, I've come to realize that we can help our students position themselves as discourse participants trapped in a similar situation.  As students, they lack both the positions of power necessary in order to be heard and the background knowledge to fully participate in the discourse.


In my teaching, I try to be practical.  At Hopkins, my focus was supposed to be teaching students the "fundamentals" of creative writing - here at ISU, my focus is supposed to be about teaching the fundamentals of "writing research."  In both cases, though, I felt the pressure of a very serious bind: my students are not actually able to take part in the discourse communities for which I'm supposed to be preparing them.  Most of the time, I can't even fully take part - I'm not qualified enough, or I'm not experienced enough, or I don't write a story "compelling" enough.  Sure, I can take comfort in the fact that I'm successfully moving forward toward a degree which confers a recognition of expertise - my own writing is helping me make progress.  But can I say the same from my English 101 or English 145 students?

With the Canagarajah article, we actually see the type of purpose-driven and successful writing research that we're trying to help our students use.  When Canagarajah talks about not having the recording technology for "proper" linguistic studies or not having access to the most recent books and journals, we see some very strong parallels with the situation our own students face.  They haven't had the opportunity to fully read into the disciplines they're attempting to enter.  "Keeping up" is impossible when you're still in a position of having to learn the basics.

To complicate this problem still further, our students typically have not had the linguistic exposure necessary to identify differences in language usage, let alone adapt to changing contexts of language.  In Canagarajah's article on World Englishes (WE) in Composition, we see that ESL students feel uncomfortable using English in academic situations because "classroom English" can contribute to a "sense of exclusion or marginalization" (592).  Yet we see a similar effect for native speakers of English, too - or native speakers of any language, for that matter.  The genres of academic and professional discourses use different terms and assumptions than the familiar genres of conversation and Facebook.

The challenge for teachers, I think, is that we need to help our students feel comfortable experimenting with language in the types of ways that will keep them writing and learning.  As Canagarajah writes in his WE article, "Valuing the varieties [of English] that matter to students can lessen the inhibitions against dominant codes" (592).  As You helps us see in his articles, Chinese workers who use English in relaxed online communities are able to express very personal and very relevant information through a second language, and these experiences no doubt help participants become more proficient in the use of English.

The problem, though, is that we haven't been charged with preparing students for relaxed discourse communities - the types of fluid locations of language which can adapt terminology to quickly match the evolving language needs of a bilingual group of speakers.  Instead, we've been tasked with preparing students to enter some very unforgiving discourse communities - communities which demand precise language which has never been explicitly defined.  What I would recommend, then, is that we ask students to imitate Canagarajah's approach in selecting the current sites of discourse (whether they're academic journals or websites) and then working to meet the expectations of that field.  The downside, of course, is that there is a bit of an ethical dilemma - as Canagarajah admits, he was often citing sources that he himself had never laid eyes upon.  However, it would be better to have students see this situation, discuss it, and address ethical approaches than it would be to continue on our current approach of asking students to prepare papers which push them to hide the fact that they are following less-than-ideal ethical practices in research and citation.

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