Research Isn’t a Second Language, Students Aren’t a Foreign Culture

“After teaching for twenty years, I had come to suspect that my own training as an academic had made me a member of what is almost an entirely foreign culture in contrast to that in which our students live.” (Susan D. Blum)

“Learning the language of research requires students not only to perform the action of research, but also to synthesize the learned information and be able to explain it to others. This, we suggest, is much like learning a foreign language.” (Paula McMillen and Eric Hill)

It’s a compelling metaphor. I have conducted my own work as a language editor and writing coach under the heading “Research as a Second Language” since I started over ten years ago. But recently the thought occurred to me that this way of looking at things has led me astray. By extension, it has led my students and clients astray. That’s a pretty big idea to get my mind around. But the possibility is definitely worth taking seriously and this post is a first attempt to do it.

Susan Blum’s suspicion (in my epigraph) is understandable, but her very next sentence is more instructive still. She quotes Clifford Geertz: “Foreignness does not start at the water’s edge but at the skin’s.” It gives us a clue, I would argue, to why we shouldn’t think of our students as members of a foreign culture, nor teach academic literacy on the model of a second language. It suggest that it’s only if we are always foreign to everyone that the metaphor holds. Research is a second language only in a very peculiar sense: the sense in which it has no native speakers. Indeed, we are foreigners here only if there are no natives anywhere.

On this view, there is no authoritative way of speaking and writing the language of research. And that implies that people constantly speak with the foreigner’s innocence of the “true meaning” of their words. Worse, it implies a constant state of moral relativism. Academics are forever in Rome doing as the Romans do, never at home doing what is right and good, never where the heart is. When at school we do as scholars do, but our hearts, perhaps, aren’t in it. It is no wonder we are in the midst of a crisis.

I say it’s a compelling metaphor and a misleading one. But it’s also obviously a shoe that often fits. And I have played my part in selling it. It’s going to take me a little while to think my way out of this again.

What we have forgotten in our adoption of this metaphor is that research and schooling are integral parts of our culture. We use our first language in school and in our research. (Except, of course, in the cases where we are literally using a second language, as when I, a Dane, moved to Canada when I was 9 years old and learned English and also attended school. Or when a Chinese student enrolls at an American university.) More importantly, research and learning are not primarily about acquiring language skills. It is about acquiring knowledge.

Consider the implications of academic literacy as a second-language competence. We learn how to read and write academically from other academics, as students from our teachers. But how did they learn to do it? From their teachers, of course.

“Watt had watched people smile,” writes Beckett in his famous novel, “and thought he understood how it was done.” There’s something unsettling about this way of describing a smile. Indeed, there is something unsettling about Watt’s smile, as we read a bit later on:

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Watt smiled.
No offence meant, said Mr Spiro.

Stanley Cavell has linked Beckett’s masterful sense of the uncanny with Wittgenstein’s decision to open his Philosophical Investigations with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions about how he learned his first language.

“When they (my elders),” [writes Augustine,] “named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements … and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” (To glimpse the oddness, [notes Cavell], imagine the final sentence as from Samuel Beckett.) (In Quest of the Ordinary, p. 166)

In another place, Cavell (or perhaps it is Marjorie Perloff) notes the Beckettesque quality of Wittgenstein’s question, “What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?” (PI§286, cf. Beckett’s How It Is). The idea that we “train” our mouths to form words (or smiles), or that we need an “idea” of the feelings of other people, is uncanny because we don’t actually acquire our first language as consciously as Augustine makes it sound. There is something suspect about being conscious, something too “calculating,” we might say.

Geertz picks on Wittgenstein a little after his remark about the foreignness of everything beyond the shores of our skins.

The sort of idea that both anthropologists since Malinowski and philosophers since Wittgenstein are likely to entertain that, say, Shi’is, being other, present a problem, but, say, soccer fans, being part of us, do not, or at least not of the same sort, is merely wrong. The social world does not divide at its joints into perspicuous we’s with whom we can empathize, however much we differ with them, and enigmatical they’s, with whom we cannot, however much we defend to the death their right to differ from us. The wogs begin long before Calais.

But is that actually true? Is Geertz right about this? Are we really “foreign” before we are “home”?  Do we have to “train our mouths” to form words in our mother(‘s !) tongue? Do we learn how to smile from watching others do it?

I believe that Beckett and Wittgenstein were dealing with a distinctly modern experience, namely, “alienation”–our estrangement from our immediate experience. And I believe that we have, with perfectly good intentions, reproduced this estrangement within our universities by thinking of our community as “problematic” from the skin outwards. The most important parts — the most natural, the least uncanny parts — of Augustine’s description are the phrases “I saw this and grasped” and “their intention was shown”. Augustine understood immediately, intuitively, what they meant. He recognized his elders as the masters of the world into which he was born as an apprentice.

This notion, that teachers are “elders” in the youthful experience of students, that they are masters to the students’ apprenticeship, is being lost by construing our students as members of a foreign tribe with elders of their own (on TV, presumably, or online). We have abandoned our positions of authority in precisely the context where that authority should be taken for granted, given willingly by the students who are there, explicitly, to learn from us. We are not teaching them a second language because we did not come to the university as we come to a foreign culture. We, too, were raised within it, by the elders, not of some exotic culture, but of a general culture (“European”, “Western”, “modern”, “civilized”, call it what you will) that values learning. We were part of the culture before we enrolled, and our students remain part of it after they graduate.

There is no such thing as “academic culture”.*  Academia is an institution within our culture. The university is an institution in a culture to which the students already belong and it is, properly speaking, merely a passage in their total acculturation, replete with all the rites that such a passage implies. Research is not a second language. It is a refinement of our first language. An academic, a scholar, a student is not an exotic kind of human being, not an abstract subject engaged in an isolated “language game” or “form of life”. Scholarship is merely a deliberate, communal way of knowing things. You come to master it like you learn anything else. By respecting the elders who already know and submitting to their discipline.


*Update: This is an overstatement. I’m not going to argue that universities don’t have an identifiable culture. I’m trying to push against the idea that it might be “foreign” to the students of a university. They are simply a part of it. And going to university is already a part of their culture, long before they get there.

2 thoughts on “Research Isn’t a Second Language, Students Aren’t a Foreign Culture

  1. A few years ago, I tired of the insistence by deans and deanlets at my university insisting that students are our customers. I expressed my insistence that they (particularly the most committed students) wanted to be part of the organization, not its clients/customers. They wanted to be active in the production and dissemination of knowledge, in governance, and in defining/creating the culture. I was treated as a heretic.

    But I am able to see the students as “interior to” my teaching (and my learning) and my research. I agree that they come to the research program as members of the academic community, with enthusiasm and some lacunae to be filled in. We speak the same language, but my vocabulary is more complete than theirs at the outset of their studies. But after a year or two, my vocabulary and grammatical facility are improved by them. I stopped being amazed by what I learn from my graduate and undergraduate research partners.

    Thank you for this post, Thomas. It will be on the agenda from my “lab meeting” next week.

    1. Yes. I’ve got a follow up post in the works that begins with Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius. “The great learning … is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow.” Pound also said,

      “There is no man who knows so much about, let us say, a passage between lines 100 and 200 of the sixth book of the Odyssey that he can’t learn something by re-reading it WITH his students, not merely TO his students.” (ABC of Reading, p. 85)

      This idea of being WITH our students is also undermined by our construal of them as foreign.

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