Digital Spaces for Teaching Multilingual Writing

We recently published Creating Digital Literacy Spaces for Multilingual Writers by Joel Bloch. In this post the author explains what we can expect from the book.

As the internet has developed from a place to exchange photos of cute cats to one for new forms of literacy and new ways of sharing them, the design of digital spaces for teaching multilingual writing has increased in importance. My book discusses not just technology but literacy as well, based on my years of teaching writing. I address many of the controversies in literacy, the use of technology, writing pedagogies, and teacher training.

The book first discusses the connections between technology and literacy pedagogies and then provides a chapter on blogging, reflecting on the impact of technology and its evolution for teaching writing. The chapter on MOOCs and flipped learning addresses not only technological issues but also pedagogical concerns that teachers address whether they use technology or not, on the design of the classroom and the roles of teachers and students. The chapter on multimodality and digital storytelling addresses some of the issues existing throughout the field of multilingual writing, particularly in academic writing classrooms. Digital stories can be incorporated into these courses, individually or collaboratively created, depending upon the pedagogical goals of the teachers.

This book is teacher-centric, placing teachers at the center of the questions of design as well as providing a way to respond to controversies in teaching writing, such as translingualism, since they support using language varieties, stories, and the rhetorical forms and artifacts that students bring to the classroom. In my experiences as a teacher, reviewer, and editor, I have seen the disruptive roles of technology on all levels of teaching. Publishing incorporates almost every opportunity and controversy in the field of teaching writing: where to publish and in what language, as well as issues related to choices of English, writer identity, and knowledge creation in the publishing space. The internet has supported expanding places to publish and the connections between writers and readers as well as the issues regarding open access and associated copyright and intellectual property issues. Such openness also has created problems regarding the so-called “predatory” journals and forcing writers to decide on appropriate places to publish.

Most of the book was written before the COVID-19 pandemic; however, it addresses many of the issues the pandemic raised. The chapters on MOOCs and flipped learning discuss both positive and negative concerns with technology and online education. Publishing has been greatly impacted by the need to publish related to the pandemic. Personally, it has greatly expanded my access to professional development. I have participated or listened in on meetings held where I could never physically attend.

Teachers incur the same issues with technology that society faces: privacy, access, inclusivity. One of the messages of the book is that the process will inevitably be messy. When we switched to online teaching, I tried adapting flipped learning to my publishing class, but my end of semester evaluations indicated I had left out some of the social factors that I had written about. The end of the pandemic will not mean that digital literacies will fade. Here in the United States we don’t know what the “new normal” will mean.

William Gibson, the science fiction writer, once said that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. Students and teachers both face disruption from traditional and newer technologies and the growing anxieties that all disruptions bring. Another book on digital literacy may look very different; it may not even be a book. However, this book still discusses the concerns and anxieties teachers and students may face with new technologies that have disrupted teaching and learning to write.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Second Language Writing Instruction in Global Contexts edited by Lisya Seloni and Sarah Henderson Lee.

At the Crossroads of English-medium Instruction and Translanguaging

We recently published English-Medium Instruction and Translanguaging edited by BethAnne Paulsrud, Zhongfeng Tian and Jeanette Toth. In this post the editors explain how the book came about.

As language educators involved with teacher training, the three of us share an interest in how language use is addressed at all levels of education, but especially in nominally monolingual contexts like English-medium instruction (EMI) programmes. While languages have traditionally been kept separate in teaching and learning, the more fluid view of languages and language use found in translanguaging has gained traction among researchers as well as teachers (e.g., García, 2009; Paulsrud, Rosén, Straszer, & Wedin, 2017; Tian, Aghai, Sayer, & Schissel, 2020). Research in these publications has shown us that the scope of translanguaging is more than a pedagogy that involves alternating languages of input and output in bilingual classrooms. Beyond pedagogical practices, translanguaging offers a transformative ideological shift that both challenges linguistic hierarchies and promotes social justice, offering implications for what may be considered legitimate languages for learning.

When Zhongfeng was working with his PhD research on translanguaging in bilingual education in the US, he realized there was very little published research on translanguaging in EMI programmes. A quick search online led him to BethAnne, who was conducting research on EMI and translanguaging on the other side of the world in Sweden. After months of exchanging ideas for an edited volume to address a gap in the field, they invited Jeanette, with her expertise on EMI in Swedish primary schools, to join them. Our editorial team was in place and the book project was launched!

Our aim with the volume was to bring together a wide range of studies from different contexts and educational levels, and the response was overwhelming. The many interesting contributions revealed the quality of research on EMI and translanguaging taking place across the world. We are especially excited that several underrepresented contexts are included in our volume, with empirical studies from African contexts including Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa; several Asian contexts including Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, and Turkey; and the European higher education context in Italy. In their chapters, the authors have included some of the best examples of translanguaging to be found, illustrating how teachers and students make use of their diverse linguistic repertoires to make meaning and facilitate content learning at the crossroads of English-medium instruction and translanguaging. In addition, the volume offers contributions that question the English-only ideologies often prevalent in EMI programmes, and instead consider how translanguaging may disrupt English hegemony. We know this volume will be of interest to researchers and teachers alike.

Finally, we must say that we are grateful to have been able to work with such an outstanding group of international scholars – although most we have never even met in person. However, our common passion for understanding the complexities of EMI and translanguaging has made them valued collaborators. As for us three editors, BethAnne and Jeanette still hope Zhongfeng (now a PhD) will make it to Sweden one day so we can actually meet in person as well!

Jeanette Toth, Zhongfeng Tian and BethAnne Paulsrud

For more information about this book, please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like New Perspectives on Translanguaging and Education edited by BethAnne Paulsrud, Jenny Rosén, Boglárka Straszer and Åsa Wedin.

How Does Literacy Work in a Multilingual Context?

We recently published Multilingual Literacy edited by Esther Odilia Breuer, Eva Lindgren, Anat Stavans and Elke Van Steendam. In this post the editors explain the inspiration behind the book.

When we met at one of the first meetings of the COST project on Strengthening Europeans’ capabilities by establishing the European literacy network, we soon realised the importance of research on multilingual literacy – even more so when we had to communicate with each other in our common foreign language English especially in writing, via different media. We experienced first-hand that writing in the foreign language presented us with some challenges. There are so many aspects which one needs to keep in mind! The search for words and for the correct spelling can interfere with your wanting to express yourself, which in turn can have a negative (and sometimes) demotivating effect on communicating with each other. However, at the same time these challenges to establish common ground presented opportunities to learn from the process and from each other. This interesting dynamic in itself was the stimulus and incentive to collect papers that shed light on multilingual literacy from different perspectives.

However, it is not only for us four that foreign language reading and writing has become ever more important: In the 21st century, we are living in a world in which multilinguality has become the standard rather than the exception. Many people have grown up with more than one language, or they have moved to countries in which their first language is not the common language. We are expected to speak fluent English, although it is a foreign language to us, not only in academic but also in many other contexts – and we also often do so in written form, either as the recipients or as the producers thereof.

Reading and writing in foreign languages has thus become the norm – but this does not make the processes easier. It is because of this that it has become crucial for people from many different contexts to explore how literacy works in a multilingual context, and to look for answers to the following questions:

  • What do we already know about multilingual literacy?
  • How do linguistic and social diversity interact?
  • How does multilinguality shape identity?
  • What is the impact of new literacy technologies on multilingual communication?
  • How can we support multilingual literacy?
  • And more generally: What can we learn from each other?

The chapters in the book address these and many other questions and we enjoyed reading them. We are sure you will too!

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society edited by Albert Weideman, John Read and Theo du Plessis.

Family Language Plans: Why and How?

This month we published Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide by Eowyn Crisfield. In this post the author explains what Family Language Planning is and how to go about it. 

When I first set out to write this book, many years ago, I wanted to share knowledge with parents about the key ingredients for successful bilingualism. My idea was to communicate the research base in order to support families’ decisions to raise their children as bi/multilinguals. Over the years of procrastinating instead of writing, I came to realise that most families already understand the why, what they need support with is the how.

Over the 15 years I’ve been working with families, I’ve had to do very little to support their conviction that bi/multilingualism is the right choice, and a lot more to help them design how bilingualism will happen for their children. This process is called Family Language Planning. Many, many bilingual families do not need a plan. People living in multilingual parts of the world may find that bilingualism happens naturally for their children, as it did for them. This is the case in India, and in many African countries, for example, where multilingualism is a way of life, and monolingualism is rare.

When parents are faced with raising their child with two or more languages without the support of community for each of those languages, things become trickier. We know that input – hearing a language spoken directly to them – is the key to child language development. This is true if you have one language or if you have four. If you have one language, you can be fairly sure that your child will hear enough of it to develop properly. The more languages you have in your family language ecology, the more you need to think about and plan to ensure that your child will have adequate input in each of those languages.

The process of Family Language Planning starts with goal-setting. Parents need to agree on the languages that will be a part of your plan. This will include languages spoken by the parents, the language of school, community, and any other languages that a child will need to communicate in their environment. Once goal-setting is done, then you can move on to planning. For each language you need to consider who will be using it with the child, in what contexts, and for what purposes. Thinking forward to schooling, there are decisions to be made about school choice, developing literacy, and future prospects. The final plan is a dynamic document, and can be changed as needed, when you move house, have a new family member, or need to change schools, for example.

My new vision of my book, seven years on from the first, is that it needs to help parents understand the research base on bilingualism in development first, but then also needs to provide support in the many decisions that parents will need to make on their bilingual journey with their children. I hope that you find it useful whether you are on the beginning of your journey, or further along.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this blog post interesting, you might also like Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele.

Is Dual Language Education Fulfilling its Purpose?

We recently published Bilingualism for All? edited by Nelson Flores, Amelia Tseng and Nicholas Subtirelu. In this post the editors explain the current issues surrounding dual language education in the US.

Bilingualism is many things to many people. In US schools, some students’ bilingualism is taken as a sign of achievement and an investment in a cosmopolitan future, while other students’ bilingualism is treated as unbridled potential but is more readily seen as a barrier. For example, in an essay titled “How to dismantle elite bilingualism”, Nelson Flores argues that a variety of policy decisions and other factors coalesce to create “classrooms where elite bilinguals are framed as gifted and racialized bilinguals are framed as in need of remediation”. In particular, white students from affluent backgrounds are often celebrated for studying languages like Spanish in school, while bilingual BIPOC students are framed as having “gaps” in their achievement and language abilities.

Both of these ways of seeing students’ bilingualism have contributed to the current boom of dual language programs being offered in elementary and middle schools in the United States. Dual language programs grew by a factor of 10 between 2001 and 2015. Proponents of dual language immersion paint a picture of a classroom environment where everyone wins: students classified as English language learners strengthen their English, and other students get the opportunity to develop proficiency in an additional language, such as Spanish, all while building a multicultural community. This vision of inclusive and progressive education offered by dual language immersion programs is tantalizing. But is it being fulfilled?

The question of whether dual language education is fulfilling its purpose in serving vulnerable populations to the betterment of all is a critical topic. As an example, the city where we live, Washington, D.C., is on the cutting edge of dual language education, with many historic and more recent public and charter schools following a dual-language model. However, schools tend to be overwhelmingly white, leading the Washington Post to ask in 2018, “Are dual-language programs in urban schools a sign of gentrification?” This article highlights the popularity of elite bilingualism and a neoliberal perspective of “language as resource” where bilingual education is a hot commodity for white, middle-class Americans, whose needs and norms then dominate the schools, while racialized bilingual students remain marginalized within the same schools, and they and other racialized children are not able to access the schools and benefit from the programs.

Our new book, Bilingualism for All?, brings together the most recent research on these topics and more, from scholars who use a range of approaches to address educational equity. Their work takes a raciolinguistic perspective to examine the reproduction of racial inequities in classrooms, at the school and community level, and at the level of policy. They examine topics ranging from peer interactions, teaching, parent relationships, and school and district policies. Languages covered include Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, and English; research sites range from California and Utah to New York City and beyond. The book raises new questions, such as bilingual education and equity for disabled students, and engages directly with issues of racism and privilege. With the help of an outstanding group of scholars, our aim is for the book to put its finger on the question of whether dual language education is currently for the betterment of all, or increasingly for a select population that already enjoys many social privileges. It is our hope that the book will resonate not only with scholars, but with educators who may see these themes in their own schools and classrooms, and with future teachers. We believe in bilingual education as a critical support for educational equity and achievement, and in dual language immersion as a powerful and potentially transformative model. However, in order to achieve its potential, dual language education must confront the same structural inequities that permeate our institutions and are at the forefront of national debate.

Amelia Tseng, American University
tseng@american.edu

Nicholas Subtirelu, Georgetown University
Nicholas.Subtirelu@georgetown.edu

For more information about this book please see our website.

Representing Ethnographic Research as Drama

This month we published Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese. In this post the authors explain why they chose to present their research as a play script.

Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama is an outcome of a large, team linguistic ethnographic research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities (TLANG). As part of the research project we conducted ethnographic observations in an Advice and Advocacy service in a Chinese community centre in a city in the Midlands of England. We were interested in people’s communicative practices in a context where clients needed help to negotiate bureaucratic systems related to welfare benefits, health, education, insurance, immigration status, and so on.

Following comprehensive analysis of data, we produced a rich, detailed research report. However, we were not convinced that academic writing alone was adequate for the task of representation of social practice. Although we are thoroughly invested in the tradition of writing ethnography, we recognise a need to reach beyond its limitations. With this in mind, we chose to represent the life of the Advice and Advocacy service as Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama, which takes an arts-based approach to the representation of research outcomes.

In linguistic ethnography we typically observe, and ultimately explain, the lives of others. But we wanted to move beyond explanation of cultural life, which can be reductive. We chose to represent the social practices of the Chinese community centre as ethnographic drama because it is a form which by definition resists explanation. It was not our intention to explain or make meaningful the lives of Chinese or Chinese-heritage people in the UK. We were instead concerned with all aspects of communication.

The community centre proved to be a rich site at which to observe the communicative practices with which advice workers render the world more just for their clients. We peered into the hidden spaces where, day after day, mediation, translation, and interpretation enable those with limited capital to gain access to resources which are otherwise elusive, and often out of reach. Through ethnographic drama we did not attempt to explain these cultural practices, but we made them visible.

Ethnographic drama enables us to show the complexities of interactions in which Advice and Advocacy workers are essential figures who keep the city moving. Beyond making social space more habitable, they have the potential to make life better for those who come to them for help. In our observation of the advisors’ practice, more than anything we see people concerned to improve the lives of their clients. In the nooks and crannies of social life they keep the superdiverse city moving. In showing the world rather than telling it, ethnographic drama offers a representation of social life that has the potential to enhance, heighten, and expand understanding, and to bring ethnography to wider audiences.

We are very grateful to Mutlilingual Matters for their generosity and vision in enabling us to take off creatively, turning field notes, transcripts, and other ethnographic material into drama that shows communicative practice in an often-concealed part of social life in the superdiverse city.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like the authors’ previous book, Voices of a City Market

The Unique Challenges of Language Education in South Africa

This month we published Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society edited by Albert Weideman, John Read and Theo du Plessis. In this post the editors describe the unique challenges of language education in South Africa and the value the book will hold for a wider audience.

How do language testers respond to the challenges of education in an environment that is in transition, and in many respects unprepared for change? The short answer is that they do so as language testers in most environments would: as responsibly as they can, using the professional tools at their disposal.

South Africa is not alone in respect of the challenges thrown up by rapid massification of higher education since the last decade of the previous century. South Africa’s transition, however, was different from the challenges of massification elsewhere: it was complicated by the difficulties to move from an unjust system to a constitutional democracy. Its past considerably inhibited what needed to be remedied. That was not the only complication: there was also the constitutionally enshrined multilingual character of the country. A third difficulty lay in the degree of preparedness of new students arriving at university to handle the demands of academic language. How, in such a case, does one first identify, and then provide opportunities for language development to those who need it most? Once again, South Africa is not alone in noting that too low a level of academic literacy may be detrimental for the successful completion of a degree. Enough challenges, one would say, for a whole lifetime of work if you’re an applied linguist.

A quarter of a century on, we have now taken stock of the professional response of applied linguists to its transition, and this book is the outcome. The responses of our applied linguists may in certain respects be different from those in other environments, so it is a pity that the international language testing community still knows too little about how these challenges have been tackled. Indeed, the format and content of the innovative solutions of South African applied linguists to these large-scale language problems are noteworthy. Described in Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society, their solutions offer several new insights into how they set about designing them, and are well worth a look.

Unsurprisingly, in an effort to identify and tackle the challenges early, the professional attention of language testers soon turned to the education sector that feeds into higher education: the school system. Here, too, there are language solutions that will interest a wider audience. Fortunately, the professional efforts of applied linguists in South Africa have been well recorded, though thus far mostly locally. This book offers a selection of the most significant innovations in conceptualization and design for the attention of a global readership.

In compiling a volume about language assessment at university level, co-editor John Read was the first international scholar to notice the lack of attention to the designs described in this book, and he was also the first to propose putting all of this together. His diligence and professional approach are evident in the content of the book.

We would welcome enquiries and discussion with colleagues. If you have an observation or an idea to share, please contact the corresponding editor, Albert Weideman: albert.weideman@ufs.ac.za.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa by Liesel Hibbert.

Q&A with Clare Mar-Molinero, Editor of “Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts”

We recently published Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts edited by Clare Mar-Molinero. In this post the editor answers some questions about her research and the inspiration behind the book.

How did you become interested in this field of study?

As a sociolinguist I’ve always been interested in multilingualism and its impact on society but initially I studied this through my interests in the Spanish-speaking world. More recently, however, and inspired by the work of people such as Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton, Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese, amongst many others, I started to think more about the impact of migration to urban centres particularly, and also realized that there was much to explore and investigate on my own doorstep in Southampton.

What was the initial inspiration for the book?

This book continues this focus on multilingualism, migration and urban contexts but shifts my emphasis to the research methods we use to explore these. A conference at the University of Southampton that I organized (funded by the MEITS/OWRI/AHRC) invited contributions and discussion round these themes and paved the foundations for the book’s chapters.

As you compiled your book, did anything in the research particularly surprise or intrigue you?

As the contributions developed it became very clear that there was a strong consensus and focus from all of us on the growing understanding of translanguaging, the importance of (self) reflexivity as researchers, the multi-modality of linguistic communication (and therefore the usefulness of linguistic landscapes) and the core role of the researcher-researched relationship.

What is your next research project?

I am hoping in the medium term to consolidate many years of working with Mexican academics (many as former PhD students) to put together a volume discussing language policies in Mexico – the role of global English, of neoliberal education policy (or the current AMLO regime’s claim to move away from this), the integration of returnee migrants and their language practices, the recognition (or not) of the indigenous languages, and how this all varies hugely across a very large and diverse country, with the ever-present dominating shadow of their US neighbor.

I also continue to have a strong urge to explore and research the challenges of multilingual practices in contemporary football: How is it managed? What issues does it present? What wider lessons does the phenomenon tell us about how multilinguals work together, etc etc. I have tried to study this with our local premiership team, with various false starts, as access for the researcher is difficult and often impossible, not helped by the constant changing circumstances of owners, players and managers, all of different nationalities, coming and going.

What books – either for work or for pleasure – are you reading at the moment?

I’ve indulged my love of magical realism and read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which also centers round other of my passions: the Spanish Civil War and the Pinochet era in Chile. It turned out not to be one of her more magical realist novels, but gripping nonetheless. I’m also struggling to read Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which should tick many of my interest boxes: travelling across the US, the scandal of the US immigrations treatment of Latin American migrant children, an interest in ‘soundscapes’, etc, etc. Despite many rave reviews, I’m finding it hard going, though, and maybe over self-conscious.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Using Languages in Ethnographic Research edited by Robert Gibb, Annabel Tremlett and Julien Danero Iglesias.

The Perks and Perils of Peer Interaction: Creating a Classroom Where Linguistic and Social Aims Align

This month we published (Re)defining Success in Language Learning by Katie A. Bernstein. In this post the author explains the “double obligations” of peer interaction at school and how they can be turned into double opportunities.

Interaction is a critical part of learning a new language. It provides input in the new language, as well as chances to practice producing that language. For young language learners (emergent bilinguals), peer interaction is particularly important to this learning.

Peer interaction is also where young children construct their social worlds, navigating friendships and identities as students and playmates. For emergent bilingual students, peer interaction is therefore what Shoshana Blum-Kulka and colleagues (2004) called a “double opportunity space”: a place to learn language and a place to create social relationships.

But, as I explore in my new book, (Re)Defining Success in Language Learning, those double opportunities also mean double obligations. For young emergent bilinguals, it is impossible to only use peer interaction for language learning without simultaneously having to attend to the social consequences of those interactions.

The story of four-year-old Kritika, one of the students at the center of the book, illustrates the tensions this double obligation can produce. Kritika was a Nepali speaker learning English in a US prekindergarten. At the start of school, she quickly earned a classroom identity as a competent and authoritative playmate and student. (To find out exactly how she used all her communicative resources to do this, you’ll have to check out the book!) However, across the school year, Kritika made many fewer gains in vocabulary and syntax than some of her less socially and academically successful peers. I found that, for Kritika, the double obligation of peer interaction produced a double bind: Maintaining a social identity as a competent student and playmate was, as Philp and Duchesne (2008) put it, “at cross purposes” with taking the kinds of linguistic risks in interaction that support language learning.

Other researchers have also noticed this double-obligation at work. Rymes and Pash (2001) noted it for a first grader in their study, Rene, who was from Costa Rica and learning English in a US school. When Rene arrived in the school, he carefully mimicked his peers’ actions to establish a social identity as a competent student. But Rene then avoided wrestling productively with content or tricky language, so as not to “blow his cover”. Cekaite (2017) noticed a similar pattern with seven-year-old, Nok, a Thai speaker learning Swedish in school in Sweden. Nok was willing to take language risks with teachers but tried to stick to language she was confident using when talking with classmates. This strategy helped her look competent, but it also meant missing out on language learning.

What role do teachers play in creating this double bind? While teachers aren’t the only socializing force in classrooms, they are powerful shapers of the status quo. In Kritika’s classroom, her teachers often made comments connecting English to other social skills. For instance, one day, when a young emergent bilingual student named Maiya grabbed a toy from an English speaker, the teacher explained to the toy-snatching victim: ‘Maiya doesn’t speak English too good yet, so we’re gonna help her. Say, “Here, let’s share.”’ While the teacher likely meant to help the English speaker build patience and empathy for his peer, her comment also served to equate language learning with struggling socially.

So, how can teachers create classrooms where struggling with language learning doesn’t equal social and academic struggle, but is considered productive and positive?

Two ways to start:

1) Elevate the status of language learning and multilingualism: Talk about how special it is that emergent bilingual students are on their way to knowing two (or more) languages. Ask them to teach some of their languages to the class. Validate and praise students for taking linguistic risks – both emergent bilingual students and students who try out what their emergent bilingual peers are teaching the class.

2) Model productive language struggle: Work on learning the languages of the students in your class. If you already know the home language of most of your students (say, Spanish), work on learning other languages (Maya, Mam, Arabic, Somali). Model legitimate not-knowing. Model being OK with discomfort. Ask students for help. Make public mistakes and be publicly proud when those mistakes lead to learning.

It is within teachers’ power to create a classroom where peer interaction is truly a double opportunity and linguistic and social aims aren’t “at cross purposes.” Creating such a space is one key piece of supporting emergent bilingual students’ learning.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Using Linguistically Appropriate Practice by Roma Chumak-Horbatsch.

Online Academic Collaborations in Situations of Forced Immobility: Lessons from Palestine

We recently published Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance edited by Giovanna Fassetta, Nazmi Al-Masri and Alison Phipps. In this post the editors explain how the Covid-19 pandemic has given the world a taste of the forced immobility faced by academics in Palestine.

The moment we had been working towards for almost two years was announced to us via an email that said:

Dear Contributor

“Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance” is now published. Your copy will be sent out shortly.

We gladly shared this happy news with our Palestinian colleagues at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), and elsewhere around the world, who contributed to the edited collection with their reflections, experience and expertise. The news, however, came at an unprecedented time for many of us: as we were celebrating our joint effort, huge numbers of people around the world were still experiencing severe restriction to their freedom of movement and to their ability to meet with others for work, family or pleasure, as the Covid-19 pandemic meant widespread and severe lockdown rules in most countries, including Palestine.

While a pandemic is an exceptional experience for everyone, some of the effects of lockdown are not new for our colleagues at IUG. The Gaza Strip, where IUG is located, is a tiny territory (only 365 m2) which is home to nearly 2 million people, the vast majority of whom are refugees from other parts of Palestine. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth. IUG’s academics, like all other people in the Gaza Strip, have been enduring a 14-year blockade that has crippled the economy and severely limited people’s freedom to move from/to the Strip for work or personal reasons. Being unable to travel and having to rely on online tools to remain in touch with the rest of the world is thus not a new experience for academics at IUG and the other educational institutions in the Gaza Strip.

Discussing the political and military situation in Gaza is beyond the scope of the newly published book, but the humanitarian, economic and academic repercussions of the blockade – further exacerbated by frequent bombings of the Strip by the Israel Defense Force – are not. Maintaining and expanding knowledge and scholarly work under circumstances of economic hardship, crumbling infrastructures and constant disruption, pressure and fear is beyond challenging. It requires a lot of determination, resilience and the steadfast refusal to give up hope for a better future which is the main component of ‘Sumud’. Sumud is “[…] a very distinct, Palestinian, idea […] the art of living to survive and thrive in the homeland in spite of hardship and under occupation practices” (Marie et al, 2018). This includes the strengthening of academic life through the online national and international exchanges of knowledge and expertise that are a core part of academic growth and advancement.

Driven by the need and the will to be equal partners in international academic collaborations despite the blockade and virtually impassable borders, IUG has, in the recent past, developed online, multilingual collaborations with a range of Higher Education Institutions worldwide, especially in Europe. These involve a large number of academics from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, and academic partners in several countries around the world who strive to connect with their Palestinian colleagues despite the challenges that come from having to work without being able to meet face to face.

Our book Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance collects reflections and discussions by seventeen academics from Palestine, Europe and the US who worked hard (online) over many, many months, and through frequent challenges and disruptions, to put together a book that primarily aims to convey the importance of online and multilingual academic collaborations as a form of ‘Sumud’ and of ‘virtual academic hospitality’ (Phipps, A. and Barnett, R., 2007). The interdisciplinary, intercultural nature of the chapters are the book’s strength, although they have also meant many compromises, tricky online discussions, changes, and delays. Different research approaches and subject traditions; unequal availability of resources such as books and journal articles; distinctive academic conventions and expectations have all been negotiated over several months to produce a book that, we hope, is informative in its contents but – crucially – offers an insight into what can be achieved when the will to collaborate and work together is stronger and more powerful than the difficulties faced along the way, especially in contexts of protracted challenges, crises and emergencies.

Drawing, among others, from expertise in TESOL, educational technology, the arts and humanities, architecture and teacher training, the chapters discuss research and capacity building projects that have used (and/or use) multiple languages and online technologies to ensure collaborations across borders. The crucial importance of online communication tools to ensure academic and intercultural collaborations when borders are impassable are at the centre of each chapter, meaning that the authors (unintentionally) anticipated a shift that most academic institutions worldwide had to face in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. As we were putting the final touches to the book’s manuscript, the online teaching and research which the book was discussing suddenly went from being an option needed by a few academics working in exceptional circumstances, to being the only available way to continue working for most educators and researchers worldwide.

However, most of our fellow academics can hope that, in the not so distant future, lives will go back to ‘normal’, and that well-known practices will be resumed. This is not currently an option for our colleagues and friends in the Gaza Strip (nor for other colleagues in similar contexts of protracted conflict and crises) for whom online collaborations will remain the norm even once the Covid-19 pandemic is a thing of the past.

What Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance shows is that, even though it cannot and should not replace the freedom to move and live a life free from fear, online collaborations can be fruitful (as well as crucial) when they become a way to resist and defy constraints and a means to reach out to others, to share experiences, to foster mutual growth, and to offer – and receive – academic hospitality. What this book also shows is that the extremely difficult experiences our Palestinian colleagues have had to endure for well over a decade, and the individual and collective resilience and steadfastness (the ‘Sumud’) they have maintained throughout, can be a source of inspiration – and a lesson – on how to keep on going, and growing, through challenging times.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.