New Elective: Politics of English

phot_burkettThis spring the MAT program introduced a new elective.  Taught by visiting faculty member Beverly Burkett, the course has proven popular.  Here, Bev talks about the experience of developing the course, its content, and what she is learning through teaching it.

The new course, The Politics of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages came about partly as a result of a discussion at the end of our Approaches class in the Fall. My students asked me how teaching has been a political act for me; how, particularly in my experience in South Africa, teaching has created change. This was followed by a discussion with Elizabeth Tannenbaum, the Program Chair, in which she suggested developing an elective course for the Spring Term. The role of English in the world has been a topic of conversation with the MAT faculty for a while. We touch on it, from different perspectives in different courses but, until now, we had not specifically focused on it.

In this course we look at the role of English in the world today and consider some of the political, economic, ethical and cultural implications of teaching it in different contexts. Current issues, such as the effects of globalization on the uses of English, standards for English (whose English and why?), the role of native English-speaking teachers and non-native English-speaking teachers, and changing models of English language teaching, are studied and discussed. The students have done case studies of English in different parts of the world. The goal is to have a deeper understanding of the role of English in the world today and of the choices (and responsibilities) they have as teachers of English.

The topic is something I’m deeply interested in, as I have experienced firsthand both the positive and the negative effects of the demand for English on societies and groups within societies. We can’t deny the link between access to English and development, but this can be at the expense of others’ languages and cultural heritage /values and it can also become a gate-keeping mechanism to economic and political power. At the same time English is now spoken by more people for whom it is an additional language than by native speakers. These users of English communicate with other speakers of English as an international language. This phenomenon necessitates a different approach to teaching the language.

Teaching the course has been both challenging and stimulating.  I’m learning from the students as they do their case studies and it’s got me engaged in researching current debates on the topic. Probably the most valuable aspect of it has been to bring the debates ‘home’ – to ourselves as teachers and the choices we can make in our classrooms, wherever those may be. Even though things may seem to be way out of our control, there are areas in which we can decide what to do and how we do it. And that makes all the difference.


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