Answering the question, ‘Who do you think you are?’

“Who do you think you are?”  In the incident that bell hooks relates, that question was meant to shame and humiliate, not prompt “existential self-reflection.”  In the original context, the question enforces hurtful boundaries, but that only makes the questioners wrong, not the question.  “Who do you think you are?”  I see that as one of the most important questions anyone can ask of themselves.  In bell hooks’ case, social oppression was used to define her as a child, and the academy she strived so hard to excel in continues to try to define her in subtle and powerful ways.  But this attempt by the world’s social and institutional structures to tell us who we are is not limited to this particular group or that one.  Try as these powerful forces might, however, they can only tell us who we are if we believe them.  Bell hooks recommends having vigilance to resist the pressures to conform and the courage to transgress.

As I read bell hooks’ article as a companion piece to the Matsuda article on the challenges of teaching ESL students, I wondered at first what the connection between the two could be.  Perhaps there are many, but for me, the connection is language.  Few things figure more powerfully in our understanding of who we are than language.  As native speakers in a homogeneous language group, we use the subtle tools of language to tell stories about ourselves, to define ourselves.  Moving to another language group as a non-native speaker must surely be a challenge to anyone’s answer to the question ‘who do you think you are?’.  Many new forces are at work in an attempt to define such a person in relation to his or her position in the language group as a foreign speaker learning the new language, perhaps English as a second language.

Matsuda’s discussion about the turf war between the TESL community and the teachers of composition who encounter ESL students in their classrooms seems in many ways to outline a discourse in search of somebody to define.  Concerns about status as professionals and hierarchies of terminology about who can teach and what is to be taught may have their place.  But while these groups engage in defining themselves and their division of labor, they are also by extension supplying certain answers in advance to the ESL speakers/writers who are their students.  Perhaps some of these answers are valid, but very likely others are less so.

As a means of creating greater understanding among the two primary disciplines that teach English as a second language, both to speakers and to writers, Matsuda recommends greater sharing of resources at conferences and in professional journals, more accounting for NNS in research projects, more focus on ESL writing in grad programs for teachers, and administrative fostering of “ESL friendly learning environments” (716-7). No doubt these measures would be steps forward.  But in any case, I think bell hooks own recommendations for persistent vigilance and resistance strategies in the face of institutional pressures that seek to define both professional academics and students in particular ways can be additional individual contributions for the good of all.

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