On Pedersen’s “Negotiating Cultural Identities through Language: Academic English in Jordan”

My second article/review reading in the December 2010 CCC is Anne-Marie Pedersen’s “Negotiating Cultural Identities through Language:  Academic English in Jordan.”  I should point out at the outset that I haven’t read much of anything on English as a second/non-native/additional language since graduate school, and even then, I didn’t read much.  So the general area of Pedersen’s article is largely something I haven’t studied and am not that interested in.  Not because it’s not important, of course– it is; it’s just something that hasn’t been much an issue for me in my teaching and in my main scholarly focus.

The first thing I thought about in reading this article is this would be a good one to show to grad students in the fall when I teach English 621, which is our sort of research methods/capstone/get ready to work on your MA project class.  Pedersen’s essay is an excellent example of the structure and genre or “research essay” of the sort that a lot of our students do involving subjects:  she introduces the problem, explains her methodology and interview subjects, discusses and concludes (while at the same time drawing on lots of relevant scholarship in the field), and she includes a couple appendixes about her research subjects and questions, notes (including reference to IRB), and a works cited.  Her project involves 24 subjects, which is quite a bit bigger a project than most of MA students should/would tackle, but it looks to me like this work was the basis of Pedersen’s dissertation.

I also like how Pedersen’s project asks a “manageably-sized” question about English use among a set of scholars in the Arabic world (specifically Jordan).  That’s it.  She isn’t trying to find the answer to “life, the universe, and everything,” which is a problem I see frequently with MA students, especially when they start their projects. I tell students you don’t want a project that is like a big shaggy wet dog leaving fur and drool and who knows what everywhere; rather, you want a small and well-groomed lap-dog of a project, the kind of dog/project where the reaction is “aww, that’s adorable.”  So when I say that Pedersen’s project is like a well-groomed lap-dog, I mean that as a compliment.

Ultimately, she finds that her subjects’ relationships with English are complicated.  They rely on English for their scholarship and their teaching, but they value Arabic in their day-to-day lives.  English is the language one of her subjects uses for his phone because he had not bothered to learn how to use Arabic on it; it’s the language another subject uses to communicate with their Philippine (sp??) nanny because she doesn’t speak Arabic, and it’s the language of the TV shows this subject’s kids watch; and it is the language another subject uses to write things that are somehow politically charged.  So on the one hand, English is problematically hegemonic; on the other hand, it is simply the common and accepted language of scientific discourse.

There are only two issues/questions I have about all this.  First, I wonder what the results would be had Pedersen studied language use among scientists or academics in a country that had not had some sort of English colonial history.  I am not sure that English is as necessary or empowering among scholars in places like Russia, France, or Brazil, for example.  Second, she’s talking specifically about science here.  I heard on the radio the other day about a site called Three Percent, the amount (evidently) of the literature written not in English that is ultimately translated into English.  In other words, I can see why it would be critical for scientists participating in an international discourse to know and use English, but I’ll bet you there are plenty of Jordanian and other Arabic poets and fiction writers who are quite successfully practicing their art without English.

On Vandenberg’s and Clary-Lemon’s “Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies”

This is a little early for a New Year’s resolution, but I guess now is as good as time as any to share it: I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve reached the end of the rope of my “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project. I think I’ve gotten plenty out of it, actually– a sabbatical, a number of good conference presentations, maybe an article or two if I get around to it. But I just have a hard time believing I’m going to get to the next level of a book project out of this. That’s kind of a bummer, but it is what it is.

Anyway, one of the things I decided about all this was that before I even think vaguely about starting another big project, I thought I should spend some time actually reading some scholarship. After all, academics spend all this time producing this stuff, but who actually reads it? I don’t, at least not on a regular basis, not when I’m not trying to write something myself. So this year, my main goal is to do something novel and actually read for the sake of reading and see what I come across. I’ll post some reviews here, hopefully at least one a week.

To kick that off, I thought I’d start with the first essay in the December 2010 CCC, Peter Vandenberg’s and Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s “Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies.” In brief, it’s an article that historicizes the place of the MA degree in graduate study in general, and then describes several MA programs in Writing, suggesting the importance of local conditions for the role of the MA. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but something that still has to be said.

As an interesting “small world” footnote, one of the people they quote is Marcia Dalbey, who was the department head here at EMU when I started back in 1998. Go figure.

Anyway, Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon wonder why there are so many more students in these “in-between” degree programs, and they lament the way “the MA has functioned in the field’s collective mindset as little more than a Büchner funnel, employed to screen an undesirable element in a process of purification. Yet as the discussion above makes clear, the MA in writing studies for some time has been a flexible, responsive, self-standing enterprise, with intrinsic value rooted in the kinds of knowledge and skill it can produce in local conditions (277).”

I’m not so sure about the scientific/chemical metaphor there, and while I’m also not crazy about sports metaphors, I prefer to think of MA programs as being more like the minor leagues or a farm system, at least in relation to PhD programs. Many students in our MA program– though certainly not all, as I’ll mention in a second– are essentially testing the waters and trying to decide if they want to take the leap into a PhD program. This seems like a really good thing to me. After all, entering PhD studies is a life-changing event, and it is not the sort of thing that people should pursue without careful consideration.

Incidentally, this is at least one reason why there are many more MA students than PhD students. I have had very good MA students here at EMU who had intended to go on to get a PhD, but then when they learned more about what they were getting themselves into– through coursework, through experience as a teaching assistant, from talking to other students and faculty, etc., etc.– they decided getting a PhD was a bad idea. Or they realized they didn’t really have “the chops” to succeed academically and professionally at that level.

In any event, what I’m saying is I think the “filtering” role of MA programs is important for both PhD programs and for students. But I also think that it’s important to point out, as Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon do, that MA programs are as often an ends to themselves. They give several examples/ “case studies” in their article about different MA programs, which I might want to research some more as we consider revising our MA in Written Communication here. Our MA has been around a long time– at least 20 years, maybe more– and it has definitely been changing with the times. Well, at least the students have changed.

We have two emphases in our program: Teaching of Writing and Professional Writing. Back when I came to EMU, I would guess that about 70% or more of the students in the Teaching of Writing strand were practicing secondary school teachers who were coming back to get their MA so they could receive a pay raise and other benefits from their school districts. For all sorts of reasons, those students have largely disappeared from our program. Now the majority of our students focused on Teaching of Writing are interested in teaching in community colleges (a lot of our graduates are full-time or part-time at many area CCs), thinking about secondary school teaching (though it isn’t a certificate program), they’re thinking about the PhD, or they are interested in pursuing a graduate degree generally to see where it takes them. As one of my MA students told me a few years ago, in a job market where “everyone” has an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree– any graduate degree– distinguishes you from other applicants. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it seems possible to me.

Things have changed in the Professional Writing side of things too. It used to be that a lot of area employers would pay for for their employees to earn graduate degrees, so the Professional Writing emphasis was almost entirely made up of students who had real jobs that could be broadly described as “Professional Writing” and they were attending on the company’s dime. That’s changed a lot in recent years. In fact, with the economy as crappy as it is in Southeast Michigan, we now have many students in our MA in both the Teaching of Writing but especially the Professional Writing program who are attending (in part) to gain professional experience they hope will make them more employable.

These changes (among other things) are causing us now to reconsider the arrangement of our MA program, though that’s something that has taken years, and it will probably take us a few more. My point though is this: we have lots of students who have no intention of going onto a PhD program, and we have always had these students. We have always been an MA program that has mostly attracted students in Southeast Michigan and that has responded to those students’ local plans and needs.