As you know, the theme of this year’s AAA conference in Chicago is “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”  As I read the thematic description on the AAA website, I was struck in particular by the second part, current engagements.  The description asks, among other things, “How can we rethink collaborations beyond the categories of researcher/subject, expert/lay, or anthropologist/other?”

For the past five years, I’ve been involved in a collaboration with a group of rural teachers in northern central Nicaragua.  It is not an example of ethnography, nor would I say that we are primarily doing research. Other faculty members and students at my university had begun a partnership with a Nicaraguan NGO to assist with the development of a new English language program, an add-on to a rural secondary program known as Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial, or SAT.  After a few months I was invited to join. Knowing that I was about to start my sabbatical year and would have a bit more time than usual, I said yes.  What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that this collaboration would involve peeling away so many layers of assumptions, both among the US university team members and among our Nicaraguan NGO partners. One rather obvious assumption was that we were supposed to be the “experts” and the Nicaraguan NGO staff and teachers were the ones in need of our expertise.  But many other assumptions were equally, if not more troubling.

Take the initial reason for the partnership, for example.  The assumption is that an innovative secondary program for rural, Spanish speaking Nicaraguan students, based in notions of community sustainability and Freirian-type problem posing and consciousness raising, needs to have English language instruction. But why?  What good is English instruction for students in remote rural areas of northern Nicaragua?  It turns out the main reason is that it is a requirement for a secundaria diploma that is recognized by the Ministry of Education. It is important for students to have a diploma that counts, so English had to be added for instrumental (and political) reasons. We haven’t spoken directly with Ministry officials about why they instituted the English requirement, but when we ask Nicaraguan educators and citizens, they refer to globalization, economic opportunity, and the need for Nicaraguans to be world citizens. “Hay mas apertura ahora” (There is more opening now).  This globalization rhetoric normalizes English instruction as the logical and natural necessity for those who would be global citizens. In theory, this applies equally to all Nicaraguans regardless of regional variations in the actual need for English.  But in reality, the different regions of the country have very different language ecologies.  Extended dialogues with rural teachers reveal their “maps” of the different language ecologies, from tourist areas where there is a clear benefit to speaking some English; to the Atlantic Coast where several languages (including indigenous languages Miskitu, Sumu-Mayanga, and Rama as well as Garifuna and Nicaraguan English Creole) are still spoken; to the rural areas in the north, where Spanish is the only local language and English has very limited (but identifiable) uses.

Another assumption is that rural teachers who speak little to no English can teach it (or can at least be quickly taught to teach it). It is surprising to see how widespread this assumption is among both US and Nicaraguan educators and policymakers, almost as if there were some magic bullet of curriculum plus pedagogy that could be handed over to rural teachers and the English issue would be resolved. Teachers who speak little English shared with us the deep sense of fear and intimidation they feel in being “bajo la presión de tener que saber inglés” (under the pressure to have to know English). Clearly, it is an impossible task and an unreasonable burden to place on them.  We often hear from US educators that the solution should be English speaking volunteers.  But typically, volunteerism is short term and leaves local capacity building unaddressed.  Again, by questioning these assumptions in dialogue with rural teachers, locally meaningful alternatives emerge.  Recalling that SAT is already grounded in an approach that is inquiry-based and very much situated in rural Central American realities, we have begun to ask, do rural teachers really need to be experts in English language and pedagogy in order to satisfy the Ministry policy?  Or is it more aligned with local practices for teachers to extend what they already do in SAT (that is, facilitate student explorations of content by guiding them in inquiry strategies) into the exploration of English for locally meaningful purposes?  According to teachers, such purposes include, for example,  explaining coffee cultivation techniques to English speaking visitors; reading and understanding agricultural instructions on imported products; learning how to sing a favorite song in English; and carrying on a basic conversation with visitors.  In collaboration with these teachers, we are developing an approach that uses the already familiar SAT inquiry strategies, but this time, repurposed for exploring a foreign language.  Experienced local teachers are assuming more and more leadership in this approach, offering coaching and workshops for less experienced teachers.  As these local teacher leaders are increasingly recognized as the experts, our own role as outside experts is rightfully reduced to one of collaboration.  It would be disingenuous to suggest that the aura of being from a US university doesn’t still carry a lot of weight and power, but over time, a dialogic space has opened up where teachers are able to question powerful assumptions that have limited their sense of agency. They are beginning to move away from passive acceptance of language education policy and toward a more engaged, critical, and locally meaningful stance toward the introduction of English into the curriculum.

For me, this example underlines one of the enduring lessons I learned from studying anthropology—the idea that we can and must question under the surface of what seems to be true, and that one of the most critical questions to ask is “Whose expertise counts, and why?”

Rosemary Henze, CAE President and  Professor in Linguistics and Language Development at San José State University.

Melissa Fellin (U Western Ontario) is the contributing column editor for the CAE AN column. Suggestions and contributions can be sent to mm.stachel@gmail.com.

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