The Reading Matrix
Vol. 4, No. 2, September 2004

The TESOL Quarterly Dialogues: Rethinking Issues of Language, Culture and Power
Judy Sharkey and Karen E. Johnson (Eds.)
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.
Alexandria , USA (2003)
Pp. 182
Reviewed by Patricia Friedrich
Arizona State University - West

In one of his contributions to The TESOL Quarterly Dialogues: Rethinking Issues of Language, Culture and Power, Alistair Pennycook points out how refreshing it is to establish an exchange with readers of one’s work (p. 28). He explains that, in academia, a great amount of time is spent in solitude, either construing academic materials and turning them into scholarly output, or waiting (many times in vain) to get some life sign from the readers. As it turns out, one of the major contributions of this TESOL publication is the ability to devise a means for fruitful dialogue to branch out of scholarly work.

Reference to the virtues of dialogue is also made in the Preface by co-editor Judy Sharkey, who highlights the importance of these discussions not only as a source of new ideas, generated from different perspectives, but also as a means of legitimizing teachers’ knowledge of their own classrooms. Out of that concern and realization, a structure for the volume was formulated; one where TESOL Quarterly (TQ) articles published between 1985 and 2000 would serve as the catalyst for dialogue between the academics who wrote them and the TQ readership of teachers, students, teacher-learners and scholars. The result is a 182-page book with article abstracts, reader responses to the articles and, authors’ responses to the readers organized chronologically from the publication date of the articles so as to provide “an interesting and useful perspective on the historical development of critical sociocultural issues and discourses.” (xiii) The book is then complemented by a CD-ROM with the original texts.

The chronological organization of the book and the selection of 10 articles resulted in an equal number of chapters. The editors had originally designed a list with 28 articles. The 10 pieces contained in the volume are the ones which received voluntary feedback from various readers. As a result, the receipt of response became the decisive criterion for inclusion of an article in the book. Each article is then taken up by at least two people, the author and a reader, but many times by several, in case of multiple authors and multiple responses by readers. Some of the featured authors are the afore-mentioned Alistair Pennycook, Elsa Auerbach, Bonny Norton, and Linda Harklau.

The dialogue format is certainly a refreshing and effective feature of the book; it allows academic reflection and scholarly investigation to be shown as applied and applicable to real instructional settings and learning environments. Such use validates not only teachers as crucial promoters of learning but also academics as advocates of knowledge that matters, especially in view of the constant criticism directed at the latter group, sometimes seen as dwellers of an ivory tower somewhere between Dreamland and Utopia. The insight gained through the articles can be and actually is employed in different contexts by practitioners, and the responses reveal that much.

The readers in the volume come from different realities and different instructional settings such as public schools, bilingual programs and graduate classrooms. They also have different backgrounds and relationships with the English language. Their responses are equally varied, non-confrontational and full of anecdotes and real like examples. One of my favorites has become Barbara Marie Jordan’s response to Elsa Auerbach’s “Reexamining English only in the ESL classroom” (1993) in which the former describes the process of making ESL students’ first language an asset rather than a liability in the English classroom. However, if all of these elements of diversity are well represented and celebrated in the book, the one most visibly underrepresented is the reading of TQ texts in EFL contexts.

While one would argue that the editors may have made a conscious move to concentrate on English as a second language contexts, particularly the U.S. and Canada, rather than use the ESL acronym as pertaining to both foreign and second language learning contexts, chapters 7 and 9 would leave room for speculation in the opposite direction. Focusing on Japanese culture as an example of cultural labeling and postcolonial critical praxis for nonnative-English-speaking teachers respectively, these chapters opened the door for EFL issues which are missed in other rounds of the dialogues (except for Roibeárd Ó’Móchain’s and Carolyn Layzer’s responses elsewhere, once more vis-à-vis Japan). In fact, only about 8% of the contributors were living and working outside the Anglophone world at the time of responding. Since TQ has a vast and vibrant readership outside Anglophone contexts, it would be interesting to see how the other articles resonate with readers elsewhere around the globe (some of the readers may indeed be EFL users but they write from an ESL perspective and/or about an ESL setting). In addition, in a volume whose secondary title speaks of language and power, English and its educational role in former British colonies, for example, where so much is at stake given the official status of English, must be a critical pathway, which is, however, not undertaken.

Variation could also be enhanced had multiple articles by the same authors not been included. Both Alistair Pennycook and Elsa Auerbach contribute two articles to the volume and, while their contribution not only to the book but also to the field is undeniable and very appreciated, the incorporation of yet a few more authors would have been a welcomed addition in terms of points of view represented.

These minor observations, however, should not overshadow the fact that The Dialogues are a well groomed and very useful publication which can enhance the practice of teachers, the learning experience of students, and the scholarship of academics. The clever format of the book allows for a variety of approaches and reading experiences. Readers can choose to examine the original articles first and then participate in the exchanges around them, pick and choose individual responses and then read the article that prompted those, or intertwine the reading of the articles and the responses. The book can adequately be used for self-instruction, as a text in graduate or teacher preparation programs, or as referenced material in scientific investigations, all of which will make it appealing to a great variety of people.

 

Patricia Friedrich is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Arizona State University-West, where she teaches Rhetoric, Composition and Language courses. Her research interests include World Englishes and cross-cultural communication. She has published her work in such journals as International Journal of Applied Linguistics and World Englishes, where she has also   guest co-edited a special issue about South America.