After reading a new monthly issue of blog posts by a group of English teachers in Nepal earlier today, I had to get off my chest something that I’ve wanted to for a long time and pour it into a blog post. So, here it is, especially for friends and colleagues who have been told that you can’t produce good writing without perfect English or that good scholarship needs to meet a certain standard of quality and rigor and whatnot. The standards are usually local (often cast successfully as global and objective for a long time), they’re highly political (used for maintaining structures of privilege), and most of those who maintain the systems of privilege probably believe that it is all meritocratic (so, don’t be too upset with them!).
Scholarship and the Global Peripheries
The word “scholarship” brings to my mind another term, “scholar,” or a highly learned individual who writes to produce new knowledge, who publishes in prestigious venues, and whose ideas lead and shape his [yeah, I still can’t get rid of the male image in my mind] academic discipline. Growing up in one third world country (until high school) and then living and working in another (for more than a decade), I also never considered anyone in those parts of the world as producers of new and significant knowledge in the academic fields that I studied.
In fact, I still struggle in my mind to think about regular teachers (especially those in the developing world) as scholars and writers in the same way as those whose manuscripts qualify among the five or ten percent of total submissions made to established journals in their respective fields at the few global centers. Deep in my mind, the ideas and experiences of people in the global peripheries—outside of the hallowed institutions of knowledge at geopolitical and cultural centers where there are more resources, opportunities, and the power to define what counts as significant—don’t seem to carry as much value, even for their own contexts, even for their own work and lives.
So, yes, I am confessing that I can’t help feeling that the work of the five or ten percent of those who get published at the global centers (and that group is not “them” for me, I am part of it, however poorly, as I write), those who have doctoral degrees and are usually tenured at prestigious universities, those who have made it to the top of the professional ladders … best determine what counts as genuine scholarship. I automatically imagine that the extreme minority of seeming geniuses as the standard bearers of quality, novelty, substance, and significance with regard to content, method, and professional practice in any field.
When I think about scholars and writers in the field of English Language Teaching, I confess that I tend to think about British, American, or trained-in-the-West individuals.
And when I think about scholarship, I also think about double-blind peer reviewed, edited, and proofread texts. Odd syntaxes, imprecise wording, and even features that I clearly know as belonging to a certain nonnative English variety throw me off: when I see these issues on the surface, my mind instantly disqualifies the whole venue (and not just the text I’m reading) as inauthentic, less than professional, not worth reading further. I habitually, automatically define quality by how polished, especially native or native-like, and conforming to standard/mainstream conventions a piece of writing is.
HOWEVER, at the beginning of every month, a severe blow is dealt to the above frame of reference in my mind.
The blow comes from an English Language Teaching (ELT) blog, named “Nelta Choutari” that is run by five English teachers in Nepal along with a former English teacher from Nepal who is now working on his PhD in the US. The blog was launched at the beginning of 2009 when I proposed to two ELT colleagues from Nepal (who were studying in London and Hawaii; I was studying in Kentucky) that we conduct some of the more scholarly conversations that we were having in emails in a wiki (which we moved to the current blog after a few months). The group expanded to six members, developed a monthly blog-zine format and published blog posts by other teachers in Nepal (and often from other countries), and at the end of 2012 handed over the venue to a more locally based group in Nepal. And that’s when I started getting most inspired.
Or that is when I started to most seriously rethink the frame of reference about what counts as scholarship, how to define quality, what makes academic/professional communication and new knowledge authentic, and so on. The quality of “scholarship” by English teachers across a country that has severe deficit in power supply–not to mention internet and bandwidth–makes me question what I have internalized regarding what makes scholars and scholarship, about what counts as genuine and new knowledge.
A New Kind of “Quality”
The scholarship produced outside of the domain of conventional quality can exude a great deal of “unconventional” quality (or qualities)–if we are willing to recognize quality in more ways than one.
And, of course, unconventional quality cannot be measured or understood in conventional terms.
So, for example, if you read the blog posts written by English teachers on the Nelta Choutari blogzine, most or many of them are written in—if we judge in strictly conventional terms—“bad English.”
Of course, many of the posts are mind-blowing in the quality of their writing itself–not only when they are written by established scholars in ELT from the UK and the US but also when they are written by emerging ELT scholars in Nepal. Also, generally, the language and writing skills of the editors, who are more experienced teachers/writers, are usually at par with those of “published” scholars in traditional venues at the global centers.
But the blog posts contributed by local teacher-writers often go all the way down to seemingly insignificant content, seemingly incoherent paragraphing, and seemingly inhibitive diction and syntax.
HOWEVER, if we look at the bigger picture—the place of these authors in the local and global geopolitical dynamic that shapes the world of scholarship—the fact that more than just the five or ten percent even share their ideas demands that we put the quality of these writers’ work into a broader perspective.
There is something far deeper than the bad English on the surface that is going on. These new writers are on to something more significant than what we see in conventional venues of publication. Their participation can and should be taken seriously as a means for changing the world.
A more careful look at the context of emerging phenomena like the Nelta Choutari tells us that it is time that we start seriously rethinking what we mean by “quality” of scholarship.
Outside of the scholarship produced and shared outside peer-reviewed journals—not just in the global peripheries but also in the global centers—how are we going to assess quality? What are the terms of reference that will help us acknowledge the quality-as-value of the ideas, conversations, and impact-on-professional-development produced by the new phenomena in the world of academic/professional conversations like this blogzine?
Scholarship doesn’t have to be limited to a minority of scholars writing for highly limited and limiting venues of publication: there are simply as many venues of publication as we need today, with as many pages as we want to publish.
New knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds, with new communities—from near and far—being able to join to instantly share their ideas. Scholarly communication can now involve not just unlimited number of participants, it can also be far more interactive, convenient, and quick.
The disciplines can now be shaped by the multitude; expertise can come from experience, experience of many, many more than we used to read from.
Scholars from far beyond the traditional centers of knowledge creation can now participate in professional conversations and produce and contribute to the knowledge of their fields, on local and global scales.
There is no need any more to define the “quality” of a publication by just the percentage of rejection; it is also possible to flip that view and consider the number of people who were able to share their ideas as the basis of “quality” of a venue. For instance, the total views on Nelta Choutari as of this writing, less than five years after its launching, is about 132,000! More than 300 writers have written blog posts; more than 500 visitors have shared about 1000 comments on posts; more than 200 teachers/scholars from different countries have subscribed/followed; and some prominent scholars from around the world have participated by contributing posts or responding to others. Scope and intensity of participation can and should define quality as well.
And if rejection has been based on one kind of definition of quality, we can replace the regime of rejection with one of acceptance, engagement, and encouragement—and that doesn’t even have to reject the ideas underlying the conventional notion of quality which seems to have been perverted over time.
Quality can and should be defined in terms of relevance. Quality can and should be defined in terms of meaning and value to those who learn from those who write; so, if a Chinese English teacher can learn the most relevant and meaningful idea for teaching a lesson from another teacher in her local context, then nothing that a British ELT expert says about teaching that lesson will be a match.
Quality must be defined within context. If in the local context of Pittsburgh a local education researcher investigating local issues/problems of education can provide the best theoretical frameworks and practical solutions to her local teachers and school administrators, then nothing that a researcher in Boston says may be as relevant and useful.
Good writing can be done in bad English. Quality need not be defined in terms of how well written the sentences are, how standardized the word choice sounds to an external “reviewer,” how accurately the writers use the mechanics of a certain citation style.
Good scholarship—in the sense of relevant, useful, meaningful scholarship—can be produced in nonnative, non-standard, non-mainstream varieties and styles. Such writing not only can but also should be produced and shared locally first; audiences beyond the local context can be considered once the local context, purpose, and value are considered. The broader the audience that professional conversations can reach and serve, the better; but the top down should not trump the ground up.
Relevant and useful scholarship can and should be produced by whoever do the work of teaching, service, research, and development of academic and professional programs. Most meaningful and purposeful scholarship can and should come from those who may not have doctoral degrees, are tenured at prestigious institutions, live in global centers, and have mastered a certain local discourse, adopt certain methods/perspectives, and embrace the world views of their local sociocultural institutions.
Blind peer review still has its value, but it may also need to be supplemented by open spaces where knowledge is generated in interaction, in context, while getting things done—not in a process that is separated from the realities of work and world. Editing and proofreading are important, but it may also need to be supplemented by work that may be rough around the edges but is driven by the content, by the passion, by the connection it makes, by the inspiration it spreads.
Intellectually substantive, professionally valuable, and socially engaging scholarly conversations can happen through odd syntaxes, grammatical awkwardness, and nonnative turns of phrase. There is a place for polished writing, but given that the mode of publication, diversified language identities of participants, and the very nature and purpose of publication have dramatically changed, it makes little sense to assess the quality and value of scholarly writing by giving too much weight to how “edited” it looks on the surface.
Every month, when I read new issues of Nelta Choutari, I do have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I look at the blog posts and wish that the editors had a better mechanism of “correcting” and improving the drafts before they are published. Even though I am personally inspired to read what the teachers write on relevant networks, I find the writing awkward because they lack quality of writing conventionally defined (lack of a driving “thesis,” lack of focus and flow, awkward language and grammar). On the other, I know that in their own local context, these writings are the best things in the world. I know that if one were to try to make the blog posts conform to conventional standards, they would have to be rewritten, essentially replaced, or just rejected! That is, there are times when I can’t overcome the feeling that a mere blog where most essays are written in poor English is a different, inferior paradigm than the scholarly journals (especially in places like Europe and America) that have gone through the review process. But, more significantly, I am aware that if Nepalese teachers do not recognize the unique value of their own writing in a venue that allows so many of them to write, and if they only look to the journals that have gone through the standard process and at the global centers, they will forever place themselves in an inferior position—regardless of the relative irrelevance of the scholarship coming out of global centers and conventional processes.
So, I increasingly realize that good writing that may have been done in bad English can also be a means for achieving great good in the world. If teachers and scholars and researchers in all contexts and countries learn to define quality in terms of relevance and significance to their own contexts, needs and purposes, their own writing—even as they practice their writing—will make a big difference to their work and lives.
What We Need
We need more adaptive platforms and modes of production for new knowledge, pedagogies, and practices. The traditional medium of scholarship/publication discourages the majority, doesn’t allow interaction, takes too much time and has too little space, doesn’t offer incentive and inspiration for those who are outside of small groups at the center (both at the centers and in the peripheries).
Whether it is in the global peripheries or even at the global centers, when teachers, scholars, and other professionals cannot or do not publish their ideas for the rest of their communities to read, we assume that they lack the knowledge, skills, passion, or incentive to do so. But in reality, the problem seems to lie with the irrelevance of traditional publication/scholarship to many communities outside the centers, much more than the other way around.
Something deeper than just a straightforward “lack of ability” for or “lack of interest” in scholarship/publication could be missing when teachers and scholars do not “get published”: value in investing the amount of time and energy in a process that seems too scary, too limiting, too exclusionary, and even outdated and seemingly unnecessary for many members of any professional community. In reality, there is no doubt that any community needs to engage its members in meaningful professional conversations; that is how new knowledge is created and also transmitted.
What we really need is an abundance of space and opportunity, perspectives that help us understand and value quality in terms of contexts and purpose, encouraging mentors and peers, and vibrant communities and social/professional networks that allow and promote the sharing of ideas in all kinds of languages and styles and voices.
It certainly is not easy to regard academic/professional conversations that don’t use a standardized language, established writing conventions, and familiar methods and perspectives in the same way as the scholarship that demonstrates these conventional markers of quality.
But if we can assess the value of ideas produced by those who do the teaching, researching, and otherwise contributing to their own societies and the world at large, then we can start to recognize how much value-as-quality there is in the scholarship that is conducted even in awkward writing.
We live in a wonderful time when even “bad English” is able to serve as a powerful means to achieving a great deal of good in world! Indeed, even those of us who write in better English may have something to gain if we start looking for good ideas even among writing that is done in bad English around the world.