"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Being barbie in a post-barbie world: a voice from the borderland

Thank you, dear literacy friends, for your willingness to participate in my cloud-barbie-rock weirdness last week in class. Just for fun,  I’m resurrecting the barbie metaphor for this post.   

So, on with the weirdness…

I’m deep into the readings for my seminar project and have also begun a linguistics class “second language acquisition” (SLA).  I’m finding a curious parallel between the field of SLA and my home field of adult ESOL/ literacy (ESOL).  So, how does this relate to my seminar project?  Well, I’ve morphed my project—a literature review—into a lit review of trends in SLA and ESOL research.  For the purposes of my paper, I’m defining SLA as a branch of linguistics that studies the acquisition of a second or subsequent language, not necessarily English.  ESOL is the education side of teaching English as a second language and putting English into practice.  Anyway, it’s not about definitions, it’s about the curious parallel. Being in the borderland between LING and ESOL is weird and affords me an outsider’s view of both scholarly fields. 

For me, the TEDU seminar was set-up and framed by the epistemology stuff.   I (we) looked at much of the research in terms of what kind of knowledge it produced and how different kinds of knowledge are valued and applied to our field of adult literacy.  Bill shared his paper with us, and it presented an argument about an imbalance in the adult literacy research field.  This imbalance is perpetuated in the ways research is being funding, in the ways policies are being made, and in the directions our field is going.  The imbalance results in more of one kind of knowledge being produced and valued, and this one kind of knowledge is not able to address all of the issues and questions in our field.   

We learned that episteme, and an episteme approach to research, is valuable in answering some kinds of questions, while phronesis, and a phronesis approach to research,  is valuable for answering others.  We discussed the imbalance in the ways episteme is valued over phronesis. We asked how we could be a scholarly field if were close-minded to this imbalance, right?    

In SLA, the self-described ‘divide,’ or imbalance, is an ontological one (let’s say I’m citing several names here) between theoretical and methodological approaches to research and the ways one kind of  theoretical framework and line of reasoning is valued and positioned as ‘scientific’ over another.  What I am discovering is that the ‘cognitivists’ who define SLA (and the field of linguistics as a whole) as a purely cognitive science, one which values inductive reasoning and experimental, controlled research as the foundation for and uniting umbrella of the field.  This positivist mindset asserts that truths exist about language and language acquisition, and that socio-historic context is not relevant to language acquisition.  

On the other hand, there are the socioculturalists, the ‘relativists,’ those whose methodologies are grounded in a different approach, and one that is perceived as bringing chaos to the field (and let’s say I’m citing several more scholars here). 

The curious parallel that I see between LING and ESOL is in the way certain kinds of knowledge and research, those that would produce episteme and result from an ontology of positivism, are valued over those that would produce other kinds of knowledge and come from an ontology of relativism.  I know my use of –isms and –ologies is crude at this it at this point; please bear with me.  I’m also making broad, sweeping generalizations just to wrap up my blog post; but, there is a perceived imbalance in both fields, and these imbalances are confronting me as I do my review of literature on trends in both fields and consider my future course of research.

Finally, I called this a curious parallel because I think it raises other questions: Why do we, as a society, seem to value and position certain kinds of knowledge and ‘scientific truths’ over others in the LING and ESOL fields (I’m sure many other social science fields as well)?  Is this just us Anglos / North Americans / whatever being ethno-centric?   Is it the result of economic, technologic, socio-historic forces at work? How do I avoid being pulled into a side once I insert myself into the fray?  These are the questions I'm left with after all of this learning.

This is my sayonara, adult literacy M.Ed. friends.  I’m one lit review away from a diploma!  I will treasure everything I have learned from you in this program—barbie.


  1. Hi Susan, What an exciting place your are in now! I love how you have opened up your area of interest through examining the connections betweens LING and ESOL! I feel you are on to something that will redefine how you see those two separate areas of study and the surprising connections you will find along the way. Best of luck and great post!

  2. Susan, thank you for this excellent synthesis. I am confused by how you are using the term ontology, but otherwise, I agree with everything you are saying about phronesis and episteme. As for why episteme wins out in the political domain, we could point to neo-liberalism and the "commodification of everything" as Mark Sandel says. But, just as likely, we could attribute to something more less ideological and more basic: the human need to know things. We want certitude and also, bureaucratese need a fair method for awarding scarces public resources. It is a whole lot easier to communicate incremental increases on test grades that to convey through thick description the transformative ways readers and writers are being-in-text. So, we press on, hoping our stories will move policy makers and others. But let's not mistake how difficult this is: we are not merely challenging a method for measuring outcomes; we are challenging what it means to get an education!


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