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Commentary on Emily Raboteau’s Endurance: A Novel by Martin Aagaard Jensen

In her presentation “Endurance: A Novel: Gentrification and Its Effects in Washington Heights,” Emily Raboteau invited us into the process of writing her novel Endurance about life in an apartment building in the upper-Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Featuring Manny, a superintendent of Dominican descent, as its protagonist, Endurance depicts the lives of residents in a building on 180th Street. While Manny takes care of the never-ending job of building-maintenance, he simultaneously labors to raise his teenage son Angel who is diagnosed with autism. Confronted with gentrification and changing demographics of Washington Heights, the personal struggles of Endurance’s characters are bound up with social and economic forces that they seek to resist and navigate despite increasingly difficult conditions.

Describing her approach to writing as interdisciplinary, Raboteau explains her methodology to writing Endurance as a process of historical research and ethnographic observation, a methodology meant to capture the changing nature of a neighborhood. Practically, this has meant shadowing her building’s super on a regular basis to understand his job as well as volunteering with kids with autism to better depict Angel’s character. In terms of research, Raboteau studied immigration history and investigated the urban ethnography of Washington Heights.

Explaining how storytellers can bring to life the lived experience hidden behind our statistical knowledge of economic inequality, Raboteau describes a realist commitment to social justice. That is to say, realism’s job is to produce critical reflections on behalf of the reader by conveying the social conditions and conflicts of our shared reality. Thus, the critical question is: how do you capture a phenomenon like gentrification through literary representation? Raboteau’s suggestion is to make the economic forces of gentrification a dramatic driving component of the narrative, by placing Manny’s job at risk due to new management of the building. In turn, this instance of economic change similarly puts Angel’s future at risk.

At the same time, focusing on the life of and in a building—a sort of social microcosm mediating the urban structure at large—allows a novelist to activate gentrification through individual characters. Through this slice of social reality, depicting a group of people with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, large-scale conflicts of dispossession and displacement can be articulated in personal stories. This leads Raboteau to reflect on questions such as: what does it mean to be part of a community? What are our responsibilities toward our neighbors? And what is the role of public institutions in taking care of its most vulnerable citizens, here dramatized through Angel’s autism? Ultimately, asking the question, “to whom does an apartment building belong?” is to inquire about the right to the city.

In Henri Lefebvre’s classic rendering, the right to the city is a political practice in which we collectively transform ourselves by changing the city. I believe it’s fair to say that the same concern informs Raboteau’s literary writing on gentrification, the effect of which is precisely the dispossession of the collective, political claim to reshape the urban spaces we all share.

Written by Martin Aagaard Jensen

Reflections on Language and Power – Tatyana Kleynat at ARC By Sara Vogel

Language and power are tightly intertwined. That was my takeaway from November 16th’s ARC talk featuring the thoughtful, engaged, and critical scholar Tatyana Kleyn, who is an Associate Professor and Director of Bilingual Education and TESOL in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at the City College of New York.

This message about language and power came through in the substance of Kleyn’s talk and the film she screened about how transborder young people navigate language, family, and school as their families repatriate small towns in Oaxaca, Mexico after years of living in the United States. The power of words was also a theme that resonated in the post-talk conversation, including in ways that revealed some tensions in our ARC community that we would do well to address moving forward.

I’ll unpack that conversation in a bit. But first: the talk.

Tatyana is someone I have had the privilege to work with through the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, a project that brings K-12 teachers, administrators, and professors in bilingual education from across the CUNY campuses together to study and improve education for bilingual kids. As Don mentioned in his opening remarks, Kleyn’s work truly embodies the values and mission of ARC. Her research is interdisciplinary, straddling all of ARC’s clusters. She views phenomena such as immigration and multilingualism through the lens of theories that take into account racial, economic, and linguistic power hierarchies. And she is a public scholar, not content simply to write for narrow audiences of academics. Her films about the experiences of undocumented and transborder youth, as well as curriculum and guides for teachers based on the content of the films, are accessible for free online.

Before showing her film Una Vida, Dos Paìses (One Life, Two Countries), Kleyn asked us to consider the power of film as its own language. She argued persuasively that film can be mobilized as a research method, a medium of dissemination, and as service and activism. At the same time that she celebrated the capacity of the medium to “reprioritize whom we listen to” and to bring research participants’ stories alive for wider audiences, she also described some of the limitations and challenges of this type of scholarship. She has had to build strong relationships with her participants, many of them folks targeted in today’s political climate for their or their family members’ undocumented status. In addition, while she prefers not to use voice-overs in her films so that audiences hear participants “direct from the source,” she acknowledged her and her collaborators’ roles in editing and juxtaposing clips to create cohesive narratives.

The film she screened at ARC introduced us to a group of transborder young people living in Oaxaca, Mexico who call themselves “New Dreamers.” The film captures the complex, mixed emotions that come with “going home” — the feeling of belonging, but also of being “ni de aqui ni de alla” (from neither here nor there). One of the core themes discussed by participants was the role of language in their transitions to life in Mexico. Across contexts in the US and Mexico, languages are used for different purposes and have different statuses attributed to them. While the youth expressed love for the English language, and were often called upon by peers to tutor them in English, they also found themselves lost in classes delivered in Spanish, and felt peers and teachers in Oaxaca sometimes viewed them as stuck-up for their knowledge of English and experiences in the US. In her talk, Kleyn also described how indigenous languages, often regarded as less prestigious in their communities, are a key part of students’ linguistic repertoires, enabling them to communicate especially with older generations.

After Kleyn’s presentation, an audience member asked a question about the young people’s accents. It elicited a strong reaction from some of those present, including one who found it so offensive that he walked out. Rachel Chapman, a fellow ARC student, has provided her take on the question, and her response can be read on our blog here. Kleyn responded by critiquing the premise of the question, arguing that language ideologies about accent are rooted in socially and historically constructed hierarchies that rank speakers based on race, economic status, perceived education, ethnicity, and other markers (see Flores & Rosa, 2015 for more on this).

To me, the strength of ARC is its ability to foster critical conversations about dynamic and complex issues — immigration, inequality, multilingualism, and our digital world — with people at different stages in their academic careers, from different disciplinary, racial, and cultural backgrounds, in order to deepen research and practice in our fields.

Having conversations about complex issues across difference is not easy, however, and this moment at ARC brought those tensions into sharp relief.

Despite a professed desire for open, democratic dialogue, academic communities can reproduce many of the hierarchies they seek to dismantle. As we learned from the student when he returned to the conversation, for people of color, academia can be a violent space. Too often, people of color shoulder the burden and invest much emotional labor into correcting the oppressive dynamics which permeate our institutions. Others (read: white people) need to step up.

At ARC, there are some first steps we can take. There are many incredible organizations such as Border Crossers and the New York Coalition of Radical Educators, among others, which have figured out how to facilitate critical and constructive conversations across difference. I’ve drawn on resources from these organizations as I navigate my role as a white scholar and educator engaged in work with youth of color and their teachers, and have found them exceptionally useful.

To have critical and constructive conversations across difference, relationship-building and setting community norms are key. I noticed that when I began my time as an ARC student, there wasn’t a space devoted to building this community — perhaps such a space could be useful in the future. Some questions for ARC students and fellows to consider as we build community might include:

  • What are the challenges of coming together as an interdisciplinary community?
  • What norms might help ensure our conversations are both critical and constructive?
  • Who gets to study, publish about, and profit from research on inequality, multilingualism, and immigration? Why? In what ways does our community challenge those trends? In what ways does it reproduce them?
  • How might ARC fellows and students not just share our research, but work together to ensure we are also engaged in making our fields more equitable and just?

In many ways, Tatyana’s work offers us a compelling example of engaged, critical scholarship. She began her talk by discussing her own positionality — her own background and experiences, and how she arrived to her topic. She is transparent about how her own power and privilege shape her teaching and research. She forges strong bonds with her study participants, reciprocating in the communities that provide her with data. And her scholarship and teaching go hand in hand with her social justice activism.

I hope the talk from this week is a catalyst for some soul-searching at ARC. Not only might we strengthen and deepen our own work, but we might continue the hard work of dismantling oppressive structures within academia too.

Citation:

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–171. https://doi.org/10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.149

 

By Sara Vogel

PhD Student in Urban Education, CUNY-Graduate Center

Patricia J. Brooks, “Individual Differences in Statistical Learning: Implications for Language Development”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Ian Phillips

In her recent talk at ARC titled Individual Differences in Statistical Learning: Implications for Language Development, Dr. Patricia J. Brooks presented ongoing research examining the relationship between individual differences in statistical learning ability and language development. In this talk, Brooks, Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York and ARC Distinguished Fellow, explored the relationship between statistical learning ability and both child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition. The takeaway message is that statistical learning ability appears to influence the outcomes of both types of language acquisition, though this effect may be modulated by the quality and timing of feedback provided to the learner during language development.

Brooks started off by exploring how individual differences in statistical learning ability might underlie individual differences in linguistic skills. Statistical learning—aka procedural learning or implicit learning—is an inductive process in which the learner becomes sensitive to probabilistic patterns in the input. As Brooks pointed out, statistical learning is operative in infants and research suggests that it may facilitate acquisition of vocabulary, phonemic categories (language-specific sounds), and grammatical dependencies (e.g., subject-verb agreement). In further developing the relationship between statistical learning ability and language acquisition, Brooks presented her results from a meta-analysis of recent studies that show evidence that individuals with a language disorder known as Specific Language Impairment (SLI) also have a statistical learning deficit (Obeid, Brooks, Powers, Gillespie-Lynch, & Lum, 2015).

Brooks’s main argument is that immediate positive feedback is crucial to language development and this kind of feedback interacts with the statistical learning mechanisms that underlie language development. To illustrate how this interaction affects language development, Brooks weaved together evidence from three of her recent studies utilizing a variety of data collection and analysis techniques. Brooks first presented her research examining how environmental factors impact language outcomes in infants enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project (EHSRE) to show that positive feedback from the caregiver is the biggest predictor of child language development (Poulakos, Brooks, & Jewkes, 2015). This study focused on investigating how the characteristics of mother, child, home, and social interaction when the infants were 14 months old affected language outcomes at 14 and 36 months, with the goal of determining whether the quality of social interaction with the caretaker impacts language development. In this research, Brooks analyzed data for 791 infants from low income families where English was the only language spoken at home and used a cumulative risk model to analyze the interactive effects that multiple factors—including maternal mental distress, negative interaction, maternal education, gestational age, child cognition, and child gender—had on language outcomes at 14 and 36 months. The analysis showed not only that a large percentage of the infants in the study were significantly delayed in language development at 36 months compared to all children in the EHSRE data but importantly at both 14 months and 36 months, joint attention—the factor indexing positive caretaker-child social interaction—was the biggest predictor of child language development.

After establishing the link between social interaction and language development, Brooks presented a second study in which she analyzes child-caretaker interactions in the CHILDES Clinical English Weismer SLI Corpus to determine which specific aspects of social interactions affect language development in late talking children (children using no words at 18 months, and fewer than 50 words and no word combinations at 24 months) (Che, Alarcon, Yannaco, & Brooks, 2015). This analysis shows two important findings: first, for late talkers at ages 30, 42, and 54 months, mothers and children show close to 20% overlap in each other’s speech, where overlap is defined as an imitation that may be either expanded or reduced; second, maternal overlap of child speech at 30 months is the single best predictor of a child’s mean length utterance (MLU; a standard measure of language proficiency) at 54 months of age—this factor is more predictive of language development at 54 months than child overlap, child MLU at 30 months, or the amount of mother speech. Brooks noted that this overlap is the critical just-in-time feedback needed for language development and cites research suggesting that this type of feedback provided by caretakers during social interaction facilitates language pattern extraction or rule learning.

After detailing how child language learning is affected by social interaction, Brooks shifted her focus to adult second language learning and presented a final experiment showing how individual differences in statistical learning ability predict language learning outcomes in adults (Brooks, Kwoka & Kempe, submitted). In this experiment, English-speaking college students completed three two-hour language learning sessions over 2-3 week period where they were exposed to spoken Russian phrases in a question-answer dialog using a computer program. Importantly, during the training phase of the language learning experiment, participants were provided with the type of immediate feedback that Brooks argues is crucial to language learning—they heard the correct phrases repeated immediately after answering each question. The results show that performance on both language comprehension and production tasks during each of the three language learning sessions is predicted by individual differences in statistical learning ability, as measured by two separate statistical learning tests.

There is much debate about the mechanisms that underlie both child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition. In this talk, Brooks presented new evidence suggesting that general statistical learning ability plays an important role in language development in both children and adults. Brooks complemented research showing the importance of social interaction for child language learning with new evidence that suggests that what’s important about social interaction is the just-in-time positive feedback. While this work is important for language acquisition research, it also has implications for developing interventions to close reported gaps in child first language acquisition and applications for adult second language learning.

Patrik Svensson, “From Lab to Lounge: Liminal Spaces for Learning”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Hamadi Henderson

Access to information has changed drastically in the information age. Originally, knowledge and access to higher learning was limited to a select few; confined to ornate halls and ivory towers. However, it is now freely available to the public. Where, in the past money and prestige were the only keys that granted access, today all that is needed is a low-end tablet and a Wi-Fi connection. The change in the accessibility of knowledge does not only impact who has access but also where there is access. In formal learning environments, learning is typically viewed as occurring in designated spaces with formal structures and floor plans. However, this ignores the learning that occurs in between these formal spaces. For example, in grade schools it is typical for teachers to display student work on boards outside of the classroom. While students may not actually read the displayed student work, the intent behind the display highlights the concept of learning in liminal spaces. Students in transition from one formal learning environment to another have the opportunity to learn. But is this more effective? What does it mean for the learner to learn in between these formal environments?

One of the key aspects of liminal spaces is the diminished formality. The relationship between the student and teacher in the classroom is very clear. The teacher is placed in a position of power either standing tall among seated students or seated among the students in an authoritative position. However, this dynamic changes in liminal spaces like the halls between classes, in study lounges, or even teacher offices. The question arises: what is the pedagogical value of this diminished formality? To answer this question we must first address what primarily drives learning in formal learning environments? Is it the instruction of the teacher or the motivation of the student? If the latter, liminal spaces offer students the opportunity to learn in accordance to their motivations. This would mean that liminal spaces are learner-focused, driven primarily by the learner’s educational needs. But if this conjecture is accepted as truth, the subsequent question that arises is can this effect be replicated in a non-liminal space? In academic setting there is a tendency to create a physical space with a fixed purpose. There is a computer lab and a biology lab. There is a classroom, a study room, and a thesis room. Would it work to create a “liminal room” where one does all the things one does in a liminal space? To dissect this question we have to think about what are the physical elements of a liminal space. This is a difficult concept to discuss simply because the very existence of liminal spaces is predicated on the existence of formal learning environments. But this is an issue addressed, to some degree, by the configuration of the space. If there is a desired set of behaviors for a space, the configuration of the space can elicit the desired behaviors without overtly specifying them. Additionally, it can simply be a matter of allowing formal spaces the flexibility to be used outside of their designated purpose.

In conclusion, the physical layout of a learning environment can greatly impact the how learners engage with the space and learn within it. The questions that remain are what are the elements of the space that are most conducive to learning and how do we promote their existence in to current learning environments? I find this to be a very interesting and important direction for educational research. Answering these questions can have great implications for the use of technology and the increase in equity of education.

Steven Jones: The Priest and the CEO

The digital humanities did not spring up out of the ground, nor was the movement an inevitable byproduct of computing, information technology, or the internet. Instead, the emergence of DH has been a dialogue, an intersection of society and technology that renders in miniature the wider cultural tensions between the digital and the physical.

In his forthcoming book The Priest and the CEO, Steven Jones traces the pre-history of the digital humanities, focusing particularly on a 1949 meeting that has become the mythical origin of the movement.  In this encounter, Father Roberto Busa, a Jesuit scholar, met with Thomas Watson, CEO and chairman of IBM, to propose a collaboration on what would eventually become the Index Thomisticus, a lemmatization of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas. Though often recognized as the founding story of the digital humanities, relatively little serious historical research has been done on this seminal meeting. In his talk at the ARC Praxis seminar on November 13, Jones brought archival research and contextual analysis to bear on an event that has, until now, been more legend than history.

In contextualizing the Busa-Watson meeting, Jones drew a number of connections between the nascent technology at IBM and the “eversion,” or the rise in the early 2000s of digital technologies that made inroads on the physical world. Just as technologies such as GPS and social media refigured interactions between humans and machines in the early years of the 21st century, the mainframe era celebrated its own paradigm-shifting platforms and devices in the 1940s.  However, despite the optimism surrounding IBM’s machines in an era of sales copy and Madison-avenue hype, Busa’s proposal was an audacious one: “I knew, the day I was to meet Thomas J. Watson, Sr., that he had on his desk a report which said that IBM machines could never do what I wanted.”

Famously, Busa used IBM’s own self-assured rhetoric against Watson, persuading him by producing a company poster claiming that “the difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer.” Yet Jones observes that this phrase, which echoes the motto of the British Navy’s corps of engineers, connects the Busa story to a larger postwar milieu. Busa served in World War II, first as a chaplain and later as a member of the partisan resistance, while IBM’s data storage technology served a darker and more controversial role in the war. In this light, Busa’s exchange with Watson mirrors the complex diplomatic relationships between the United States and European powers at the time of their meeting.

SSEC at IBMBusa’s “impossible” project did indeed take a little longer. Over thirty years, the collaboration between the Jesuit and the iconic American firm pushed storage, processing, and retrieval to their technological limit.  Given the state of card technology in this era, even data entry for the index took years. Yet the outcome was entirely novel, a “mixed marriage” between computing and linguistic research. The project wrestled with challenges, such as keyword context, that would become central concepts in the field of data analysis. In 1949, not only was IBM flexing its computational muscle with its innovative SSEC mainframe, but its nascent collaboration with Busa prefigured computers that could work not only with numbers, but with words.

While Professor Jones avoided drawing premature connections between his archival research and recent technology-fueled cultural developments, his work on this historic meeting clearly relates to issues at the heart of the movement. Whether lexical analysis, storage and retrieval, or search, the founding myth of the digital humanities prefigures a shift toward new modes of interaction between people and machines. In reflecting on the origin of the digital humanities, The Priest and the CEO may well give us insight into the movement’s future.

The Priest and the CEO: Towards A Prehistory of Humanities Computing

Professor Jones shared his ongoing research project on early humanities compuuting. It’s the canonical founding myth of the digital humanities: In November 1949, the Italian Jesuit scholar, Father Roberto Busa, came to IBM headquarters in New York to meet with the founder and head of the company, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., seeking support for the project of mechanizing the building of a concordance to the collected works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Drawing on Father Busa’s papers, recently accessioned in Milan, as well as IBM archives and other sources, Professor Jones aims to complicate the myth with history. Based on a book in progress, this presentation looked at a few details of that 1949 meeting, using the metaphor of the exploded-view diagram used by engineers, descended from examples in the notebooks of Leonardo, for example, suspending and zooming in on a few constituent details in order to understand the story as part of a larger history of computing in the 1940s and 1950s, and as part of the prehistory of the digital humanities.

Radical Archival Practices and the Digital Humanities: The Early Caribbean Digital Archive

As much as digital archives promise to make cultural materials accessible to broad audiences, they also present a danger of repeating the power structures that are implicit in the way many Western archives have traditionally been structured. In her talk Thursday, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon discussed a project that is attempting to avoid this reinscription: the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s analysis of the archive as a means of knowledge production and on Ann Laura Stoler’s work on the epistemologies implicit in colonial records, Dillon made a case for a form of archive that deemphasizes the figure of the author, while encouraging a consideration of the complex relations between people, texts, and historical events.

As a way of illustrating some of the problematic features that archives can exhibit, Dillon discussed the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) project. The SNAC Web site includes brief biographical notes about historical figures along with links to related texts in multiple databases. But, as Dillon points out, the people included in the SNAC database are almost all white men—a consequence, she argues, not just of the sources from which the archive draws, but also of the form that it takes. SNAC’s biographical records largely imitate the structure of administrative records, and the way the archive represents the relationships between people and primary texts—drawing a sharp distinction between “creator of” and “referenced in”—places an emphasis on the voices of people who were able to claim authoriality over published works. On account of this structure, the archive tends to privilege the voices of the colonizers over those of the colonized.

Dillon discussed two ways in which the ECDA project attempts to avoid repeating colonial power structures—remix and relationality. By remix, she refers to the idea that images and snippets of text can be presented in contexts that can challenge, rather than reflect, the intentions of the author. As an example, she discussed a story about a slave called Emanuel that appears in a book written by Sir Hans Sloane. According to Sloane, Emanuel feigns an illness, and although he deception is eventually found out, he manages to disrupt the activities of the slavers through the distraction he creates. While Sloane presumably meant the story as a demonstration of his own medical acumen, it can also be read as a demonstration of Emanuel’s knowledge of how to enact resistance against his oppressors. Remix, Dillon argues, offers a way of viewing material in a context that emphasizes the agency of people who are not the authors of primary texts.

3a207b871bd136aa454bf1f34ace3550The other strategy that Dillon discussed, relationality, allows for a more complex and polyvalent way of understanding the connections between persons and texts than the notion of authorship. One way ECDA emphasizes relationality is in its use of personography and placeography, the creation of informational records about persons, places, and the relationships between them. The project uses a data model that can account for anonymous persons as well as those represented in colonial records, and that places authors on equal footing with people who are only mentioned in texts.

Dillon concluded her talk by opening some theoretical questions about the possibility of escaping colonial epistemologies while employing digital technology, and the discussion continued in a similarly theoretical vein. Do the limitations of ECDA’s sources cause it to miss things? Are some of the problems that she discussed “baked in” to digital technologies? Dillon argued that scholarship about the Caribbean can take advantage of the fact that texts often say more than they mean to, which is what enables narratives like the one about Emanuel to be recontextualized as anti-colonial. In response to the question of whether computer technology is inherently problematic, she suggested that the humanities could play a central role in understanding the structures of power that are implicit in technologies. One way that we could do this would be by following the advice with which she ended her talk: that instead of treating a technology like a black box, digital humanists must ask who made the box and what it occludes.