When I woke up this morning, mommy pajamas still on, I fell into my role as the foreman of the household. In my “Mom Me” voice, I orchestrated drinking of chocolate milk, brushing of teeth, putting on of shoes, and zipping of rain jackets. I then changed into a pair of Old Navy Pixie ankle pants (delighted that they fit me like regular pants, and there’s no hemming required), donned a long open cardigan, and slid my feet into boots with sensibly low heels to go to work, disguised as “Teacher Me.” I packed some raspberries, a yogurt, and some leftover penne vodka, and I was off! I taught my classes, stopped at HomeGoods, as “Public Me,” and came home to immediately remove the Pixie pants and cardigan, and put on a pair of leggings. Aah! “Home Me.” Later, I will hop in the shower, get dressed for dinner in my nice denim jeans, high heeled boots, black blouse, and leopard sweater, to become “Social Me.”
While I was reading the Harvard Educational Review’s article, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” a validating, insightful, and, at times, a little-too-Marxist-for-my-personal-taste look at multiliteracies, I couldn’t help but connect the authors’ ideas on “three realms of our existence: our working lives, our public lives (citizenship), and our private lives (lifeworld)” (p.65) to my ever-towering pile of laundry, and its various identities. I’ve always bemoaned (usually late at night, when I’m still fluffing and folding and sorting) the need for so many wardrobes, to fit so many roles and identities and occasions. And I’ve always acknowledged, sometimes comically, the need to use “different voices,” different personalities, tones, inflections, when speaking and when writing. But I’ve never actually connected those ideas to pedagogy in the classroom before reading this article. In that way, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” was deeply validating, if, for nothing else, for making those connections to phenomena about which I was already keenly aware.
And the article was insightful in the implications about language it raised: that there’s a language for work, a language for power, and a language for community. I’d actually argue that one of the main shortcomings in this article is actually its limited scope for the various languages people need, possess, and employ throughout their lifetimes. And I really enjoyed how the article tied together two seemingly disparate premises: that there are now different media channels and outlets for language, which has broadened the scope of multiliteracy, and that there exist, as a result of ever-expanding globalism, coupled with increasing tribalism among subsets of communities, giving way to different languages and varieties of speech. From a mathematics-perspective, the multiplication is simple: where there used to be one public sphere and one national identity, there was only one type of literacy. Now there are many spheres of public and private life, and a rich array of identities and speech varieties, so there are multiple types of literacy needed.
Indeed, the root of many problems in social circles is the misuse of language, the “wearing of the wrong outfit,” if those clothes were words. Did “Mom Me” condescend to my husband? Did “Teacher Me” give my waitress the wrong impression? Did I accidentally let “Social Me” speak in the classroom? So much of what we teach our students with regards to multiliteracies has to do with audience and purpose, with tone and style and voice. It’s the reason a student’s too-casual email is perceived as rude, or why a teacher’s too-professional reply is received as aloof.
It’s why, as the authors state, “With a new worklife comes a new language.” (p. 66) Walk into any (pre-COVID) teacher’s lounge, and drown in the alphabet soup: SGOs, PDPs, and ILTs, RTI and GCN, IEPs and PLEPs and 504s… This type of jargon, and industry-specific language certainly is the result of the “postFordism” the authors described, although the mini-walk through US labor history was slightly tangential. (Or so I thought…More on that topic later…)
I really perked up when, finally, the authors arrived at the point I had been waiting for: educational implications! A thrice-underlined, exclamation-mark punctuated “Yes!” is scribbled in my margin next to: “Our job is not to produce docile, compliant workers. Students need to develop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to critically engage with the conditions of their working lives.” Amen! This is our mission! This is our goal! This is the endgame of education: to create critical thinkers, students who have power and agency, and the literacy skills to express themselves successfully, and to fully engage in this world!
I was elated, too, that the article seemed to embrace the pluralism on which its ideas were premised: “…we have called this utopian possibility productive diversity, the idea that what seems to be a problem- the multiplicity of cultures, experienes, ways of making meaning, and ways of thinking- can be harnessed as an asset (Cope & Kalantzis, 1995).” (p. 67) And, while I was a little hesitant at the use of the word “utopian,” I was pleased at the authors’ conclusion: Our diversity is our strength.
Alas, in the words of Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay.” Enter: Marxist theory. The authors seemed to veer sharply off the topic of multiliteracy in education, and into the realm of sociology. And it was very apparent: Capitalism is evil, a new communism is “Indicative of a new world order [in which] liberalism… eschews the state.” (p. 68) The rest is a self-proclaimed “manifesto,” rambling on about how to use schools as petri-dishes for social reengineering, churning out students adept at “negotiating” between working, public, and private worlds, fluent in Newspeak, and using language to create “symbolic capital” (i.e. virtue signaling). The section was actually concluded with the frightening line: “This is the basis for a new social contract, a new commonwealth.” (p. 73) Wow. Just, wow.
Honestly, as an educator, this felt a little dirty. Even great summations, like “One and the same person can be different kinds of people at different times and places” (p. 74) weren’t enough to rinse the lingering bitterness of Communism out of my mouth. Reading this article was like eating a bunch of raspberries, red, juicy, and sweet, and popping a rotten one in my mouth last, with a sour little seed getting lodged in my back molar. I think, over all, the ideas in this article were solid, and I would have enjoyed its content more if I didn’t have to ransack my desk drawer in search of a toothpick!
Thankfully, Paul Kei Matsuda offered me that toothpick, in his “Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World.” This article was, for me, not only more personally relevant, but also much more practical than theoretical. Matsuda offered a decent overview of school-related topics and terms (ELS, ESOL, ELL, etc.) and quickly go the subject of multiliteracy. He acknowledged that there is a “dominant variety of U.S. English,” (p. 40) but that even native speakers do not all access this dominant variety in the same way.
Much the same is true of my own experience learning a foreign language. I can still remember my classmates, who spoke various flavors of Spanish in the home, opening up class dialogues which usually began with the tag, “In my country, we say it like this…” There were different phrases and constructions, depending on whether my classmates were of Cuban or Dominican descent, from Columbia or Peru. My teacher’s response, however, was always the same: “We are learning Spanish from Spain.” She meant it to put the debate to rest, but what she was really doing was asserting one standard as the dominant variety, and establishing everything else as the variant. And we teachers of English often do the same: “We are learning to write in proper English” or something to that degree, I’m sure, would draw snickers from teachers in England, or Australia, or South Africa, or Ireland, or any other English-speaking country in the world. And it really drives home the idea that there is no such thing as “one language,” even within one language! This naturally begs the question: how do we teach ELL’s English when there’s no consensus as to “which English” we teach?
Matsuda then goes on to outline how to approach teaching ELL’s at various stages of their English acquisition, and, I think, provides important points to note in each phase. He then finishes with a few “Intellectual Issues and Controversies” that don’t seem too controversial to me (but I just escaped a Marxist bait-and-switch, so maybe my barometer needs recalibration). Over all, Matsuda’s essay was the toothpick: very valuable for getting the job done, as long as you didn’t try to eat it.