WP241 Soto & Pérez-Milans 2018. Language, neoliberalism, and the commodification of pedagogy

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This paper argues that, although research on neoliberalism and language commodification has helped reveal the material conditions under which language education programs are implemented worldwide, existing sociolinguistic literature has not yet

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    Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies ______________________________________   Paper    241   Language, neoliberalism, and the commodification of pedagogy   Carlos Soto (  The University of Hong Kong   ) & Miguel Pérez-Milans (  University College London   ) 2018  This is an earlier version of a manuscript to be published in the journal Language and Intercultural Communication     Language, neoliberalism, and the commodification of pedagogy Carlos Soto The University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong) Miguel Pérez-Milans University College London (UK) Abstract This paper argues that, although research on neoliberalism and language commodification has helped reveal the material conditions under which language education programs are implemented worldwide, existing sociolinguistic literature has not yet adequately addressed pedagogy. As a result, processes commodifying “objects” other than language as a product have often gone unnoticed in educational settings. Drawing on a four-year ethnographic project, we explore the changing neoliberal political economy and systemic reforms under which pedagogy became a “discursive space” (Heller, 2007) in Hong Kong. In particular, we detail the processes whereby social actors formulated pedagogy as a “commodity register” (Agha, 2011) used to create distinction and value, index normative roles and desirable social personae, and adapt to market pressures. We also show how some social actors concurrently constructed pedagogy as a resource for advancing ethnic-group linked activist concerns, leading to unpredicted institutional tensions, interpersonal dilemmas, forms of inequality, and social relations of labor. 1. Introduction As nations intensify economic selective deregulation, internationalization, and privatization, (Harvey, 2005), schools adapt to centralized policies, since the state retains control over distribution and allocation of symbolic resources, through monitoring, evaluation, measurement and standardization. Simultaneously, schools face a political discourse of autonomy insisting on accountability for providing work forces with specific sets of (linguistic and non-linguistic) skills (Urciuoli, 2008; Heller, 2010), and are also pushed to create social distinction by turning languages  perceived as “international” into symbolic indexes of competitiveness. This is evidenced in public educational systems where English is becoming a widespread medium of instruction. Swept by bilingual education programs funded by national and supranational bodies, schools have institutionalized English, as an add-on subject or as an instructional medium. These moves are rationalized with discourses emphasizing preparation of citizens for competition in the new global market (see overview by Codó & Patiño-Santos, 2017). In educational systems traditionally using English for instruction, this logic has also contributed to the institutionalization of other languages, including Mandarin Chinese (see Pérez-Milans, 2015, for United Kingdom ’s case ). Such changes are recursively framed as related to shifting policies, discourses and ideologies about economic development, collectively termed as neoliberalism, that impact on how the relationship between the state, the market and the individual is imagined (Foucault, 2008; Harvey, 2005). Neoliberalism understands the market and competition not as natural reality, but as requiring the regulatory practice of government. Moreover, it proposes extending economic rationality to all social life, so individuals allocate limited resources to their goals (Lemke, 2001), and also manage anxiety, induced by self-reflexivity, regarding their material and symbolic well-being (Neilson, 2015). Critically-oriented work linking neoliberalism to escalating social inequalities has re- revealed how practices and discourses about language and communication shape, and are  shaped by, changing forms of political economy (Heller, 2010; Flubacher & Del Percio 2017). Away from languages discursively constructed as emblems of ethnonational belonging that regulate access to unified national markets, these new neoliberal arrangements are linked to commodification processes regularly framing language as an object “rendered available for conventional exchange in the market” ( Heller, Pujolar & Duchêne, 2014, p. 545). Thus, access to late-capitalist service-based economic industries in the new trans-national market is dependent on individual social actors’ ability to master new multilingual practice s in which monoglossic norms (e.g., bilingualism as parallel monolingualisms) and prestigious discourse registers regulate access to material resources in ways that contribute to reproducing existing socioeconomic hierarchies in each national context (Duchêne & Heller, 2012; see also Jaspers, 2018). Under such conditions, individual competitiveness becomes a  principle, as “[t] he dynamics that turn market-governing processes into modes of social organisation and modes of self-constitution transfer the process of self-capitalisation to subjects who must enhance their own productivity by their own decisions ” (Mar  tín-Rojo, 2018: pp. 555). Consequently, speaking subjects become objectified through equating the competent speaker of profitable languages in a flexible market, one the one hand, and an entrepreneurial project in human resources and managerial literature, and in language industries, on the other (see also Allan & McElhinny, 2017). However, as Del Percio (2017) notes, imagining social actors as fully responsible for employability, via self-training and self-actualization, conceals structural accounts of un-employability. In sum, this work on neoliberalism in education reveals: a) the material conditions under which new language education programs are implemented; b) the social inequalities engendered by them; and c) how such programs impact the daily lives of the institutions and agents implementing them (Codó & Patiño-Santos, 2017). However, this sociolinguistic literature has not yet adequately focused on pedagogy, which in our view, leaves processes commodifying “object s ” , other than language as a product, unexplored. Indeed, English-medium based educational models are spreading internationally, with sets of educational values and principles  –   and the social personae indexed by them  –   functioning as key symbolic resources for culturally producing distinction (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2017), instead of just the language of instruction (see Sunyol, 2017). In this paper, we build understanding of the three strands above by exploring the discursive commodification of pedagogy within an English-medium program in Hong Kong, a process set against pedagogy as a resource for enacting social change. In this light, we return to our 4-year ethnographic and discourse-based research (Pérez-Milans & Soto, 2014; Pérez-Milans & Soto, 2016), focusing on a low-prestige secondary school, which we call MAT, that underwent a major reorganisation to conform to wider institutional transformations in the Hong Kong educational system. Facing difficulties in meeting the minimum government-required student in-take to keep maximum public funding, the school set up and marketed an English-medium-of-instruction-based (EMI, hereafter) section to attract working-class students with primarily Nepali and Pakistani backgrounds (so- called “Ethnic Minorities” in the Hong Kong context)  while maintaining a Chinese-medium-of-instruction-based (CMI, hereafter) section serving the school’s majority working -class ethnically Chinese student population, and keeping the EMI section unavailable to them. While the choice of “English” could be seen here as a “key marketing device” in itself (Urciuoli, 2003), the new school policy ’s enactment  placed discourses and values of pedagogy at the centre of daily-lived struggles. In what follows, we first outline our research approach to pedagogy through the lens of commodification (Section 2), followed by an account of the educational reforms that created the institutional conditions that we describe at MAT, in the context of the political-economic  reforms of post-1997 Hong Kong (Section 3). Later, we turn to MAT, focusing on the process of enrolment of ethnic minority (EM hereafter) students at the school and the creation of spaces for tensions and contradictions that participants navigated and used for enhancing strategic reflexivity (Section 4). We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings for further critical language-based research in the field of education, as well with consideration of the limits and possibilities for the emergence of new structures of feeling and cultural structures for action within local markets, both as new inequalities, and as interactional subjective investments in a better future (Section 5). 2. Discourse, pedagogy and commodification: A research approach  Our social/discursive approach sees pedagogy as knowledge that is socially (historically, politically, economically) situated, and rejects its representation as ideologically free (Apple, 1979; Harris, 1979; Popkewitz, 1984; Simon, 1987; Giroux, 1988). We also align with Pennycook  ’s (1989: pp. 608-609) reminder that knowledge about pedagogy must be examined without taking for granted that it reflects what actually happens in the daily life of situated educational spaces. These claims offer two important avenues for studying contemporary neoliberalisation processes in education through critical and communication-based lenses: 1) a critical focus on politically and historically situated forms of knowledge about teaching and learning, including an interest in the socioeconomic consequences that these have; and 2) an epistemological direction on how to adequately describe the production, circulation and consumption of such knowledge forms, so that we can account for what actually happens in specific settings. The first avenue places pedagogy as a relevant “discursive space” (Heller, 2007) in which who gets to decide what counts as proper teaching and learning cannot be detached from wider institutional and historical struggles over legitimization of broader social/moral categories concerned with competence and citizenship  –   including the very conceptualization of “language” in th e case of language education (see Dendrinos, 1992). In choosing this path, we acknowledge that drawing on Karl Marx’s ( 1904 [1859]) notion of commodity, we risk extending the metaphor of the market where it may not be an ontological reality (Block, forthcoming). But we believe that understanding pedagogy as a discursive terrain does not prevent us from situating it in a wider market of economic exchanges in which it acquires use and exchange value with consequences for the social relations of labor out of which such forms of knowledge are produced. Taking onboard criticisms that question language commodification on the grounds that language is seldom constructed as a bounded object of conventional exchange in the market (see McGill, 2013), we think that pedagogy is relevant for examining discursive practices without concealing the so- called “material realities of  production of the commodity” (Simpson & O’Regan, in press). The second avenue demands an explicit epistemological approach as to how institutional processes of commodification are to be empirically addressed. Regardless of whether or not our position favors a separation of discursive practices and material realities, we hold the view that any research about the social world needs to engage with human activities, and that these activities are always mediated by discursive/semiotic practices 1 . This view is aligned with Agha’s (2011) concern that in studies of commodification there has been considerable attention to exchange-value at the expense of use-value  –    using Marx’s (1904 [1859]: 34) conceptualization of the different values of commodities. Accordingly, this paper analyses the situated dynamics of discourse production, circulation and consumption that typify pedagogical values as commodities, with attention to how social actors negotiate stances,  social personae, social relations, and attribution of value through daily activities, as well as to the socio-institutional consequences they face in accessing material and symbolic resources. We do so by drawing on ethnographic approaches to communication in which discourse is conceptualised as a mode of practical action (Goodwin & Duranti, 2000). Stemming from a long-standing linguistic anthropological tradition first laid down by Malinowski (1923), these approaches presuppose that meaning does not come “ from contemplation of things, or analysis of occurrences, but in practical and active acquaintance with relevant situations ” (Pérez-Milans, 2018; p. 325). In other words, discourses (or texts) are seen as empty signifiers that only acquire meaning through instances in which such discourses are re-contextualised and transformed through the meaning-making practices of those acquainted with them (Silverstein & Urban, 1996; see also Blommaert, 2005: pp. 39-67). With these ontological and epistemological lenses as the backdrop, we conducted a 4-year  joint investigation that began in 2011 at MAT school. Carlos (paper ’s co-author) taught English and Liberal Studies and Miguel (paper ’s co-author) conducted research in Carlos’ classes. Following Carlos’ departure from the school in the fall of 2014, we continued working for another nine months with ten students from MAT who joined a student research program we designed and ran at a community centre. Throughout these four years, our research also involved a network of other social actors, including school teachers, social workers, ethnic minority community leaders, and university researchers. Our data corpus includes: audio/video recordings of school and out-of-school interactions, field notes, classroom materials, school’s institutional documents , screen captures of social media and messaging platform practices, photos, interviews, questionnaires, online and print media coverage involving our participants and our parti cipants’ multimedia files from self-recorded events. In making sense of data, we scrutinized the discursive construction of pedagogical progressivism both as a commodity register (Agha, 2011) and a resource for projects of empowerment; that is to say, as an “ emblematic si gn” (Agha, 2007) a ttached to a set of aspirational values and types of personae that became reflexively manipulated for different purposes by different social actors at MAT. Though this discursive work contributed to attracting the desired student ethnic profile, it also led to unexpected dynamics among the school ’s  administrators, newly-hired teachers, and parents and students across the English- and Chinese-based divisions, over normative forms of participation (i.e. appropriate ways of teaching/learning) and social categories (i.e. “good” and “not -so- good” teachers, administrators and learners). But before developing our story of pedagogy at MAT, we must detail the institutional conditions that allowed opening the International Section (IS hereafter), in the context of (neoliberal) political economy of the region shifting after Hong Kong’s handover to China . 3. MAT, quality education and Hong Kong post-1997 reforms MAT was founded by an industrialist and philanthropist, in 1984, with the aim of offering pre-vocational courses for working- class families, and in response to the 1977 government’s mandate to offer compulsory secondary education to upgrade the skills of the industrial labour force for a growing economy. After the management of the school was designated to an industrial organisation, in-line with government’s desire to have sponsoring bodies be accountable for provision of education, t he school’s official medium of instruction became Chinese (spoken Cantonese and written traditional characters), following an official policy promoting “ mother-tongue ”  instruction in Hong Kong. In addition, the school’s curriculum  
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