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Problematising Intellectual Engagement

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    The concept of criticality needs some explanation. I do not refer here to ‘criticizing’ in the sense of disagreeing with or objecting to something, although that could of course be part of it. I am following Pennycook (2001: 5) in describing three different approaches to criticality in relation to applied linguistics. The first approach that Pennycook identifies is what he refers to as critical thinking, associated with the liberal educational paradigm. This is also often referred to as ‘taking critical distance’ – the term already suggests there is assumed objectivity in this perspective. This approach develops ‘questioning skills’ in the learner and involves bringing a ‘more rigorous analysis to problem solving or textual understanding’ (ibid:3). Critical thinking in this paradigm assumes certain universal ‘rules’ of thought, which are based on rationality, logic, evidence, precision, and clarity. In my context of work, it was this perspective on criticality which was dominant at the time in which this study is set. As I explain further in chapter 4, it also used to be an element in my own teaching practice, in analyzing texts partly in relation to argumentation structures, and emphasizing cohesion and coherence and generally the need for clarity in students’ own writing. It also formed a small part of the course I taught the year I collected the data for this study, and as I describe in relation to the empirical data in chapters 5 and 6, the incommensurability of these approaches led to a certain confusion amongst students.

    The second approach of criticality that Pennycook refers to, is what he calls the modernist emancipatory position. This approach is associated with the neo-Marxist tradition and is based on Critical Theory. This approach sees an engagement with political critiques and social relations as the most important aspect of critical work. It aims to work towards social transformation and to tackle social inequality and injustice. In language teaching, this approach is taken on by the Critical Language Awareness (CLA) movement (cf. Wallace, 2003; Fairclough, 1992; Fairclough and Wodak, 1996), where texts are analyzed for the way they construct ideological positions legitimizing domination and social and economic inequality. Whilst my own view was less about unmasking dominant power positions and ideologies, but more about discursive construction in general, I felt the modernist position to be a useful one for its focus on discursive constructions in texts. Also, this critical paradigm offered available frameworks for text analysis, notably that of Wallace (2003), from which I borrowed for my own pedagogy.

    The third approach to criticality is generally associated with the ‘post’ philosophies, such as feminism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism and queer theory. Pennycook refers to it as problematizing practice, which consists of ‘mapping discourses’. This position is also inherently political as it articulates a skepticism about truth claims made in texts (Pennycook, 2001: 42). In mapping discourses, it asks questions about the social, cultural, and historical locations of the speaker. It seeks a broader understanding of ‘how multiple discourses may be at play at the same time’ (Pennycook, 2001: 44). It is this approach to criticality which particularly underpins my own pedagogy, because of its concern with discourses in general, although the other two approaches to criticality, ‘critical thinking’ and critique of ideological power positions are also present. My aim was for students to be able to deconstruct the text positions and be able to respond to the ‘truth claims’ in a text rather than reading a text at face value as if it contained an ‘existing truth’. This aspect of criticality also allows for culture to be brought into discussions around language, communication, and texts as I conceive of discourses as the practice where language and culture are merging. I develop this idea further through the idea of ‘cultuurtekst’, which I describe in chapter 3.

    I did initially conceive of these levels of criticality as pedagogical stepping stones. The first stone of ‘critical thinking’, I considered as a useful perspective on text to sharpen students’ critical ability, to query and question what a text is about and whether its structure, presentation and argumentation will stand up to scrutiny. This, I felt was the first step towards the more sophisticated levels of critique which are embedded within the other two approaches: particularly the third level of critique, which involves the problematizing of meaning and texts by acknowledging complexity.

    At the time of data collection, I was aware that I applied theoretically incommensurable elements. The ‘critical thinking’ paradigm assumes a view of objectivity, which clashes with the ‘problematizing practice’ of critique which asks questions, eschews simple straightforward answers, and demands self-reflection of the learner. Yet, I felt that this incommensurability reflects the complexity of the linguistic, social, and cultural world we are introducing the learners to; this is after all fluid, messy, and full of contradictions and inconsistencies that students need to deal with in their everyday life.

    This page titled Problematising Intellectual Engagement is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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