J.L.Lemke On-line Office


Language and Academic Identity 

I’d like finally to offer some comments that may be more specific to the practical concerns of people who follow discussions such as ours. I imagine them to be language teachers and teachers of subject matter, such as science. I don’t think they would be likely to dissent from my view that to become fluent in another language we have to extend our identities in ways that make us at least somewhat new people when using that language, nor from the parallel claim that to be able to make use of scientific knowledge we have to learn to see the world somewhat as scientists do, to make meanings from their viewpoint, and so, if not necessarily to adopt a scientific identity, at least to model some functional response to it in ourselves – to be able to imagine somewhat accurately what it might feel like to perform such an identity.

 Some interested parties will also be concerned about both issues together: what does it take by way of identity development to make meaning like a scientist in another language? to extend and partially transform an identity as a scientist or prospective scientist formed in one language and cultural community to constitute an acceptable scientific identity in another language community? to newly form a scientific or science-responsive identity in a language itself new to us?

 I don’t think it will be surprising to hear me say that I don’t think schools are structured at present in ways that adequately support any of these tasks. They isolate students from the larger communities in which these identities are naturally formed, exhibited, modeled, and performed in the course of routine activity. In doing so they also isolate students from the diversity and heterogeneity of natural communities in which we learn by interacting with many others who are at all stages of pursuing similar developmental goals to our own. They also organize experiences for learning only on shorter timescales and not also on longer ones natural to the lives of students in and out of school.

 Indeed, in many cases, ‘natural’ learning communities may not exist. What we call the ‘scientific community’ itself excludes most of its early apprentices, as do most other professional communities. Some scientific laboratories, especially those in large universities may well include a high school honors student, a few undergraduates, many graduate students, a post-doc or two, a couple junior and at least one senior professional scientist (cf. Ochs et al. 1996). At scientific conferences the mix may approach a representative age-sampling of the professional community as a whole, but still mainly excludes everyone below the academic level of senior graduate student.

 I do not believe that younger students could learn professional science merely by ‘peripheral participation’ in science laboratories and conferences (cf. Lave & Wenger 1991). An active apprenticeship model would be needed in which the sharp divisions between teaching and research, science education and science practice were allowed to blur again by reducing the ‘work of purification’ (cf. Latour 1993) needed to keep them separate in a community. Our present stringent division of labor between work and teaching, learning and participation, seems dictated more by narrow productivity demands than by our interest in creating humane communities and more widely successful academic learning.


Simulation, development, and multimedia

 Simulation is the order of the day in both language teaching and science teaching. In both cases progressive practitioners are looking to mobilize new information and communication technologies to better simulate realistic practice, in large part because the institutions of schooling and professional practice obstruct first-hand participation. CD-ROM based multimedia seek to immerse language learners in interactive virtual settings where they can use a new language with the support of both real and virtual interactants and all the multimedia cues that attend real speech. CD and webserver-based simulations in science try to recreate settings in which the full context of scientific problems is made visible and investigable to science learners, and in which collaborative investigations can be conducted on digitally simulated phenomena. With newer DVD technologies and already on the web, it is possible to simply switch the activity from one language to another (but not to mix languages in the same activity, another instance of purification).

 In all these cases, we need to understand a great deal more about multimedia semiotics. How do we integrate visual representations with linguistic ones? How do different semiotic resources such as interactivity, hypertext, animation, video, graphic images, page layout and text itself support, alone and in combination, various learning and communication styles and identities? How do they favor some over others? 

The same fundamental questions remain relevant if we imagine learning taking place under fewer artificial constraints. How much better to learn a language, after or alongside some initial basic study, in the context of real social activities with both native speakers and a range of language learners both more and less advanced than oneself. Even then, however, we need to understand better what visual cues are attended to that help us understand the language used and how expectations based on the meanings of actions also support language comprehension and active learning. Most arguments which deny that enough information is available to language learners to understand semantic and syntactic conventions without innate assistance do not take into account that a great deal of relevant information about meaning is available through nonverbal channels and from the many on-going activities and settings on many nested timescales. Greatly augmenting meaningfulness greatly simplifies the task of modeling syntactic differences, by helping us to discriminate patterns not just formally, but also functionally. Linguistic input alone could never be sufficient to learn to speak a language successfully in natural settings.

 Nor is it sufficient to learn to use scientific representations successfully. Science is an inherently multimedia enterprise, not just, as with all language and representation (apart perhaps from pure mathematics) because we make representations about the experientially observable world, but because many of the particular aspects of experience most salient for science are those which depend on quantitative co-variation. As discussed above, language deals with types and kinds and has short schrift for matters of quantity and degree. Visual and motor resources for meaning are much more powerful for these purposes, and mathematics has traditionally formed the bridge, both extending the semantics of natural language toward quantification of degree and linking algebraic-linguistic to geometric-visual modes of meaning (see discussions in Lemke 1999, 2000b, in press -a, in press -d).

 In my recent work on multimedia semiotics in science and science education, in print publications (Lemke 1998), classroom activities (Lemke 2000b), and most recently websites for learners and professionals (Lemke 2000c), I have been trying to understand just what the multimedia literacy demands are and how meanings are made across media. As with language learning, a pure apprenticeship is not very efficient, especially at the earliest stages of learning; there are too many basics that remain implicit in professional (or native speaker) practice. The learning curve is too steep, especially as we grow older and slower at learning patterns significantly at variance with basic past assumptions, now too implicit to query. So science education would also be best conducted with parallel (and integrated) experiences of basic learning in an educational mode and participatory learning in some range of para- to fully professional activities and settings with other learners at various learning stages (including the junior and senior professionals, of course). The same basic multimedia issues and identity formation issues are at stake again, but now the range of topics registers and genres is more restricted, and there are many more specialized multimedia forms employed.

 Identity and responsibility

 Ultimately, of course there is a convergence between these two examples. Learning a language cannot be anything other than mastering some range of its registers, from those in more common general use to those that are specialized for scientific or other kinds of activity. To know only the general-purpose registers, and any amount of grammar, is not particularly useful, except to tourists. If one wants to take up a professional role in a community using the new language, or just integrate occasional use of the new language into professional or other specialized activity mainly conducted in another language, we have to go beyond those general-use registers. Doing so requires not just additional language specialization, but learning how the new registers and genres are integrated appropriately into professional or specialist activity. It means, to some degree, acquiring or modelling responses to the identities, viewpoints, beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral styles and dispositions that distinguish these activities and those who are shaped by intensive participation in them.

 Language teaching, or science teaching, becomes a less morally and politically neutral activity to the extent that we accept that its success depends on the response of students’ longer-term identity development to the identity demands of the particular language or discipline we are teaching. In all education we are asking, on behalf of the community which generated the forms and practices we disseminate, that students alter or extend their identities, actually or virtually. We require them to change themselves at some fundamental level that involves not just knowledge, but beliefs, values, and attitudes. Knowledge is socially useless without an accompanying identity response. In the field of language teaching there is great ambivalence about teaching cultural styles and values ‘along with’ the language. In science education there is general support among teachers for promoting scientific values, beliefs, and identities, but curriculum designers are very reticent about just what is required at a personal level.

 In both cases, we who teach too rarely ask what potential harm our teaching may do. We are so focussed on intended benefits that we neglect this basic professional responsibility. At the least, we need to inquire critically into just what the identity preferences and biases of our disciplines and our methods of teaching may be. Historically, it is a very good bet that we push students towards more stereotypically masculinized, upper-middle class, middle-aged adult, and culturally northern European identities – if only because our disciplines and methods have been for centuries themselves mainly the products of people with such identities. What happens when we push such identities, undeclared, on those who would resist them, or demand such identities, unannounced, of those for whom they are simply alien or unnatural? In failing to foreground such questions we have also failed to focus research on just how identity is linked with learning and teaching, with media and methods of instruction, and with disciplinary conventions. We have deflected attention too often to more neutral-seeming questions about short-term cognitive processes, despite our better sense that such processes are only ancillary to academic development and that emotional and interpersonal engagement, and identity consonance, have much more to do with longterm educational success and failure.

 In our desire to escape from some of the moral and political dilemmas posed by our teaching and research, and from the many unpleasant conflicts that arise over issues that matter to people more than just academically, we have too often narrowed our view of learning to the individual as a unit of analysis isolated from other levels of ecosocial organization and focussed too restrictively on the very short-term, ephemeral timescales of learning-in-the-moment while neglecting to inquire into the longer timescale processes that enable those moments to become learning-for-a-lifetime. I hope that the view of learning and identity development that I have tried to briefly sketch here can ultimately help us to imagine and build more successful and humane learning communities.


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