AAAL 2013 wrap-up: linguistic practices, professional practices

I’m just back from the AAAL conference. If you couldn’t make it and you want a sense of what went on, check out the Twitter channel.

I spent most of my time going to papers from two strands, Educational Linguistics and Analysis of Discourse and Interaction. In those sessions, plus the plenary talks, a couple of themes stood out to me:

On a theoretical level, it might be more productive to think about our communicative resources as a diverse set of linguistic or discursive practices rather than discrete entities called “languages”. This was one of the major points of Monica Heller’s plenary address: why do we think of standardization as being “normal” while variation is problematic? If you take a long view of human history, shouldn’t it really be the other way around? After all, to take one example, there have been people using language in the area currently known as France for millennia, but the Academie Française is only a few centuries old. This theme came out in parallel sessions in different ways; for example, Nelson Flores presented a critical view of the self-congratulation inherent in a lot of European talk about “plurilingualism,” and Rachel Wicaksono and Wendy Scheder Black proposed the idea that intercultural communication breakdowns might sometimes happen not because of nonnative speakers’ lack of linguistic competence, but because of native speakers’ lack of language awareness.

On a professional level, we have a responsibility to make our research findings relevant and appliable, at least to our research participants, if not to the broader communities they belong to. This theme came out in Srikant Sarangi’s plenary talk, which called for us to reconsider the role of our participants in developing research programs and building interprofessional relationships within what he calls “communities of interest.” Heidi Byrnes’s distinguished service award talk also touched on this: we may understand that language learning is a social process of developing meaning-making potential, but what does it matter if we don’t use this understanding to improve language teaching practice?

Among educational linguists, I noticed this call for greater engagement being implemented through projects that focus on participants’ awareness of linguistic structures at the discourse level. That is, teachers know something about grammar — they know that language is structured at the sentence level — but broader structures such as interactional patterns, speech registers, and discourse genres are outside of most speakers’ conscious awareness. So, to educate teachers about discourse:

  • Deborah Romero, Jingzi Huang, and Margaret Berg offered a professional development module using Vygotsky and systemic functional linguistics to help teachers integrate language and content instruction
  • Meredith Doran and Matthew Jadlocki observed international teaching assistants in math and science to identify how they use language to construct a teaching persona, with the aim of eventually figuring out how they can best communicate with American undergraduates
  • Li Li and Steve Walsh suggested that “classroom interactional competence” should be added as a third strand in teacher education aside from pedagogy and content knowledge; to this end, they looked at teachers’ reflections on their own teaching practice, in order to figure out how to foster productive reflective dialogue
  • Catherine Evans Davies and Matthew Wolfgram proposed a university teaching assessment process that uses qualitative research, specifically discourse analysis, to help college instructors improve their teaching

Imagine how excited I was to observe all of this; the idea that discourse analysis could be used to improve classroom instruction is exactly the reason I went back to get my Ph.D. in the first place.

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7 comments on “AAAL 2013 wrap-up: linguistic practices, professional practices
  1. My significant other, who studies TESOL and World Englishes, has introduced me to the idea that the onus of communicative acts lies equally between the interlocutors, so the native speaker lack of language awareness struck home to me. But talking to non-linguists, it seems controversial–as if they are giving up some power they have as native speakers. It’s a really interesting idea. I wonder if cultivating language diversity awareness in FYC might help with disrupting this power dynamic.

    Wish I could have gone to the SFL panel.

    Also, I went back for my PhD for similar reasons–I wanted to understand how I could use linguistics to better inform writing instruction. Teacher talk has also been a secondary research interest–how do teachers know what to say and how to say it when they start class each day? Should pedagogical content knowledge be an object of linguistic study? It looks like the field is trying to addresses these questions–it’s very encouraging.

    Thanks for the update–wish I could have been there, although I did have a colleague who presented at the poster session. Did you happen to meet Heejung Kwon or Marshall Klassen?

    • Daniel says:

      There were a few SFL panels. Another one featured teachers who used SFL to teach critical literacy in ELA and history classes. One teacher got her AP English students writing about Mood analysis in Othello. I can look up names if you’re interested. Since, as Mary Schleppegrell says, all teachers are language teachers, it can be really empowering to give students some tools for functional linguistic analysis. I wonder how it would play in FYC.

      I didn’t run into your colleagues but I’ll look up their poster abstracts.

      • No need to look up names of SFL presenters–I’ve got enough to read already. Although I appreciate it.
        I have used SFL in FYC for about two years, and I’m still working out the kinks. I’ve seen some very powerful results and some confusion as well. We’re actually talking Mood and Modality analysis this week. And Mary Schleppegrell was my professor’s–Luciana de Oliveira–advisor. Wise words. But I think a lot of content area teachers are understandably nervous about the content area literacy direction the CCSS is pushing them towards. Many of them did not receive any training in teaching literacy–so obviously we need more opportunities for PD in this area.
        Heejung was the only one who presented. Marshall was just along for the ride. 🙂 Just thought you might have met them. Oh well. Hopefully we’ll run into one another at a conference some time.

  2. Also, redesign on the site? Looks good.

  3. Gavin says:

    Hi Daniel, cool blog and nice post! Just got back from AAAL myself, I was actually thinking of seeing your presentation but they scheduled everything I wanted to see around the same time! Anyways, I’m glad I discovered your site and I’m looking forward to your reading your posts.

    Aloha,

    Gavin

    • Daniel says:

      Sorry you missed it. Here are a couple of relevant blog posts about the same project:

      This is a summary of the paper, using only the 1000 most common words of English.

      This post is about how I was trying to work with the initiation-response-feedback model, and this one is about how it didn’t quite fit with my data.

  4. Gavin says:

    Thanks for sharing the posts! It’s interesting you’re exploring how SFL and CA might compliment each other. I haven’t really worked with SFL too much except in designing some L2 writing activities to raise students’ awareness about academic discourse, and not too many people here in Hawai‘i do SFL unfortunately. Beyond the IRF sequences you were looking, what do you think the benefits of a combined approach might be? Any irreconcilable differences? Since SFL and CA originated from different disciplines, but for similar reasons, it seems that it might offer a way to get at an understanding of how longer stretches of discourse in interaction cohere, I think you mentioned that in one of your posts. Do you know of any studies that have combined these two approaches to look at face-to-face conversation?

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