National Writing Project

New Literacies for New Times: The NCTE Assembly for Research Convenes at UC Berkeley

By: Melanie Sperling, Christian Knoeller
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 6, No. 3
Date: May-June 2001

Summary: Centered on the language theories of Soviet psychologist Mikhail Bakhtin, NCTE's midwinter conference at UC Berkeley drew hundreds of educational researchers and teachers to think about and discuss language learning.


The University of California, Berkeley, was this year's site for the midwinter research conference sponsored annually by the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research. This year's conference was organized by Assembly Co-chairs Sarah Warshauer Freedman of UC Berkeley and Arnetha F. Ball of Stanford University. Around the theme "New Literacies for New Times: Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Learning," it drew several hundred educational researchers, teacher educators, and English teachers from throughout the country and abroad.

As the theme suggests, the centerpiece of the conference was the language theories of Soviet psychologist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) who has been embraced by literacy scholars for his ideas on the social and cultural nature of language. Bakhtin believed, for example, that as individuals, we learn language on the basis of communication with those around us, not, as conventional wisdom would have it, on the basis of dictionaries and grammars. He also suggested that no individual can be considered the "sole author" of what they say or write "except in the physiological sense," since language is infused with socially and culturally shaped meanings and values. Bakhtin's theories invite teachers and researchers to think of language learning--both speaking and writing--as fostered by students' verbal interactions with one another, and they support classroom learning that involves such interactions.

Conference events, centered on such Bakhtinian ideas, included prominent keynote and plenary speakers, as well as a host of smaller roundtable sessions, and were enthusiastically received by participants. The praise expressed by Peter Renshaw of the University of Queensland, Australia, for example, echoed the positive comments of the many participants: "Certainly a high-quality conference. The quality of speeches was outstanding, I thought . . . and to think about the presentations in comparison to each other. There was something quite powerful [happening], I think."

Writing project teacher-consultants in attendance also found the event provocative, including Susan Katz of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP)/University of San Francisco: "This has been a real help for me . . . I feel armed . . . I want to share that with my colleagues. . . . It's been really refreshing to be able to listen to everybody's ideas and think about how it could apply to my work now and just what the repercussions are." Others discussed the potential of such conferences for connecting researchers and teachers. Such connections, Joan Cone (BAWP/El Cerrito High School) points out, need to be made more often. "What's occurred to me this morning," Cone noted, "is that we're having these wonderful conversations, you know, those of us who have read Bakhtin, or are beginning to read, or learning more about this. . . . But there's this other conversation that's not being held, and it's not being held with teachers . . . teachers need to be a part of this conversation."

The opening panel discussion on Friday evening, "Language Learning in the Twenty-First Century," featured Guadalupe Valdes and John Baugh, both of Stanford, and addressed especially issues of linguistic diversity. Valdes discussed the need for researchers and practitioners who hail from different avenues of language and literacy scholarship--including ESL, bilingual education, English education, and rhetorical studies--to "cross-pollinate" and inform one another's ideas about language diversity. Several preconference workshops earlier in the day allowed participants to engage in discussion of how specific theoretical frameworks, particularly those inspired by Bakhtin, might shape language and literacy research. The conference focus was not solely about conducting research, however; it also concerned implications for educational policy and classroom practice.

Saturday's sessions opened with a talk by Carol Lee of Northwestern University, addressing "instructional discourse based on African-American English discourse," showcasing digital video clips of classroom interaction among vernacular-speaking African American students. Lee explored the complex reasoning underlying the students' discussion of a novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Participants such as Tami Roe Schwartz of the University of Cincinnati commented on the value of such research for teaching and teacher preparation: "Carol Lee's talk this morning . . . watching her talk about classroom improvisation and [seeing the] couple of examples of the discussions that the students had. . . . I wish I could take those [videotapes] into a teacher preservice class."

Other featured speakers Saturday included James Gee of the University of Wisconsin who spoke about language and literacy as cultural capital. In addition, researchers from a number of campuses throughout the University of California system addressed general sessions: Anne Haas Dyson (UC Berkeley) examined the ways that first grade writers draw on both classroom texts and popular culture when composing, while Judith Green (UC Santa Barbara), Kris Gutierrez (UCLA), and Glynda Hull (UC Berkeley) presented a wide-ranging panel entitled "New Visions for Writing Instruction" that spanned topics from the consequences of policy changes in bilingual education to innovative applications of instructional technology such as digital autobiographies.

A generous assortment of roundtables were interspersed between general sessions throughout the day, and participants commented on how much they valued the variety. "The idea that we were able to come back from the whole group to the roundtables and share some of the ideas . . ," Elizabeth Hirsch of the University of Queensland, Australia, pointed out, ". . . [the roundtables were] small enough that I felt that I got to know people, quite a lot of people, and to share lots of wonderful ideas."

Rounding out the conference, Sunday's general sessions and panels featured additional noted researchers from throughout the state and around the country, including Shirley Brice Heath and Andrea Lunsford of Stanford; Jabari Mahiri and Donald McQuade of UC Berkeley; and Timothy Lensmire of Boston College.

The event seemed to meet the varied expectations of teachers and researchers in attendance, including longtime Assembly for Research "faithfuls," such as Deborah Appleman of Carleton College, whose remarks put into perspective the exceptionally large turnout this year. "I have been an assembly member for about the last 12 years or so, and it's been a really important part of my professional life," Appleman said. "And one of the reasons I like it so much is because it's really small, so I'm a little worried about how big it is [this year], and I'm excited to see so many people from all levels excited about literacy theory." Other researchers new to the group suggest that the event represented the cutting edge. "My goal really was to get caught up and [find out] where the research is going," said doctoral student Loretta Kane of UC Berkeley. Similarly, Kevin Leander of Vanderbilt University remarked, "I think the really important thing about the conference has been the introduction of some new perspectives on Bakhtin . . . especially to bring in some of the issues of ethics [and] morality."

Many felt the significance of an event such as this conference is found in its potential contribution to dialogue among those involved with the issue of language education in a variety of contexts. Joan Cone may have put it best, saying, "In teacher training programs, we have to read Bakhtin so that we can become participants in the conversation--so we can acquire the discourse. . . . Universities have to open themselves up, have more and more of these [conversations] . . . teachers need to be invited in so that we can see ourselves positioned as belonging to this community." Her comments, from a National Writing Project perspective, also seem a call to action for all of us to be involved.

About the Author DR. CHRISTIAN KNOELLER has taught high school and college English in Alaska, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, and, currently, Indiana, where he serves on the faculty of the English Department at Purdue University.

About the Author MELANIE SPERLING is an associate professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches courses on literacy, writing research, and discourse. She is affiliated with the Bay Area Writing Project as well as the Inland Area Writing Project in California.

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