When I became a teacher of English as a foreign language I crossed a strange yet seemingly absolute boundary. I had, a year previously, graduated with a doctorate in Scottish literature from the University of Glasgow, an institution which at that time (the late 90s) was embracing theories and philosophies with a proliferation of “posts” – postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, even postfeminism and postmarxism. I was entirely and happily wrapped up in these continental ways of thinking, eventually producing a thesis which appropriated more than a couple of them, but I don’t think I seriously imagined I would ever become a professional academic in this field. I probably treated the whole experience as an enjoyable intellectual exercise with little currency outside of certain adventurous university departments.
Of course, in one aspect at least I was right. After a year’s post-doctoral drifting, I decided to do the CELTA and try my hand at another way of working with the English language. Although it took a while to sink in, I had now crossed a frontier into a world in which language was viewed in a strikingly different way from that encouraged in my academic training. Here there were no posts, no questions about ideology, about misrecognition; in place of radical doubt about the integrity of the speaking subject, I found unapologetic humanism; in place of psychoanalysis I found cognitive linguistics and other scientific discourses; in place of de Saussure I found Chomsky. On the other side of the line, Chomsky had been roundly mocked. Now I found those thinkers I had read and re-read – Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, mainly – being given similar treatment. Above all, I had entered a world in which the idea that language unequivocally represents a reality external to it, that the intentions of a speaker can be unambiguously understood by an interlocutor, were notions whose truth-value was never even questioned.
I did not object; I started to suspect, but I kept my mouth shut. There were still the few doubts I had about the validity of the thinking I had studied: although I found myself returning to it more and more often, I kept it from others for fear of ridicule, of being classified as an obscurantist. I risked a little poststructural critique in a Diploma essay on the UK’s language requirements for citizenship, and got away with it, but I left it at that.
The views of one of my best tutors at Glasgow, Drummond Bone, neatly encapsulated my position: deconstruction (the branch of poststructuralist philosophy most associated with Derrida) is what happens when you put the microscope on language. When you pull back a bit and look at things more pragmatically or common-sensically, the rules change, much like when scientists move back from the subatomic level to the realm explained by classical mechanics. Students didn’t want or need linguistic quantum theory, I reasoned, they wanted to know how to express themselves. It was my job to help them achieve that – not to complicate the very concept of self and self-expression.
However, my own recent thinking about some of the dominant discourses in ELT – in particular humanism but also scientific rationalism and the new, purportedly revolutionary languages of edtech and adaptive learning – has led me to tighten the microscope once again. In this at least, my reading now feels like something that could lead to some interesting writing. A post on truth on Steve Brown’s blog, and a subsequent discussion between myself, Steve and Geoff Jordan about the validity of a poststructuralist approach to predominant modes of thinking in ELT, have been the spur to this blog: an attempt to find a productive space for deconstructive analyses of our industry, the ways it represents itself and the competing discourses which criss-cross it. In so doing, I guess, I am looking for a way to bridge that gap I unwittingly crossed when I took my CELTA, to think my way through this and other irreducibly grey areas.
In the next post I will revisit the comments section of Steve’s blog and try to clarify what I understand by the many posts which have popped up in this one.
Neil McMillan, August 2014, Barcelona.