Canagarajah’s call to action (research)


I recently came across an article Suresh Canagarajah wrote back in 1993, which I feel is still relevant today as a reminder to keep constantly reflecting on our teaching. In it Canagarajah describes his study of the graffiti or “glosses” that his Tamil students made in their textbooks during their mandatory first-year university English classes. The study itself is interesting in the way Canagarajah uses the data of the graffiti to gain insights into his students’ flailing motivation, but what struck me was the introduction. Here Canagarajah declares a kind of call to action for teachers to conduct classroom-based research as resistance to the external forces of applied linguists and materials writers:

Implicit in the notion of teacher-conducted classroom research is the empowerment of the language teacher to critically interrogate the political forces outside the classroom which govern the learning process, and to challenge the inequalities of knowledge production in the ESL establishment that have marginalised the teacher (see Pennycook, 1989). That is, rather than letting academic researchers study and theorise conditions of language acquisition and prescribe the implications for classrooms, to be slavishly implemented by the teacher, now teachers will themselves generate disciplined insights into language learning that will guide their practice. Secondly, rather than letting textbook publishers and curriculum specialists define the form and content of teaching through pre-packaged materials which have gradually deskilled the teacher, teachers will now interrogate the ‘interests’ embodied in textbooks while designing their own materials based on the specific background and needs of their students. Thirdly, rather than letting the forces outside the classroom carry out ideological domination by treating the teachers as passive ‘technicians’, teachers will now act as ‘intellectuals’ with the capacity to examine the hidden curricula in language teaching in order to fashion a pedagogy that empowers their students. Thus, in turning the classroom into a research site, teachers become researchers, curriculum specialists, and intellectuals who critically negotiate the political and peda-gogical commitments of their profession. It is such changes in the status and function of teachers that Henry Giroux envisions when he invokes them to be ‘transformative intellectuals’ (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985).

– Canagarajah (1993, p. 143)

The idea of ‘deskilling’ the teacher here, aligns with Tudor’s (2003) critique of “technological” perspectives on language teaching, which fail to account for the complex and contextualised nature embodied in an “ecological” perspective, and treat teachers as automatons executing the curriculum. Although I don’t completely agree with the kind of binary construction of teacher researchers in opposition to ‘academic’ researchers, I feel like this is a good reminder to constantly maintain a critical approach to the materials and strategies that we use in the classroom. More than 10 years after this article was published, are we being transformative intellectuals?

 

References

Canagarajah, A. S. (1993). American textbooks and Tamil students: Discerning ideological tensions in the ESL classroom. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 6(2), 143-156.

Tudor, I. (2003). Learning to live with complexity: Towards an ecological perspective on language teaching. System, 31(1), 1-12.

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