Goodman, “Acts of Negotiation”

I’ve been interested lately in a stream of new work coming out on language politics in global higher education. Yesterday I came across a new paper on English language instruction in Ukraine: Bridget Goodman’s “Acts of Negotiation: Governmentality and Medium of Instruction in an Eastern Ukrainian University,” just published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly. It’s a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of what’s at stake in teaching in multilingual situations.

Since I’ve started teaching in Stellenbosch, South Africa, language politics have come to the forefront of my institutional experience. The place I teach is a historically Afrikaans-speaking white university that has historically represented itself as a sort of cradle of Afrikaans language and culture, yet that is now under immense pressure from non-Afrikaans-speaking student populations to teach instead in English, which is a language perceived as more cosmopolitan and as less linked to the history of Apartheid. Already in 1973, the ANC wrote that “Afrikaans — as the language of the conqueror, the administrator, the policeman, soldier, location superintendant, and pass officer — is detested by the non-Afrikaans majority in South Africa.” My initial reaction when I arrived here was that English is also a colonial language, so I couldn’t understand why it was perceived as such an improvement, but I’ve since understood that you can’t just read off the political significance of a language from a cursory image of colonization writ large. In that context — our interests always evolve as our circumstances change, no? — it gets interesting to see comparatively what English means in different sites around the world.

This brings us back to Goodman’s paper about English in a Ukranian university. Goodman rightly departs from the more generalizing versions of Foucauldian political theory that focus on population-level governance technologies or individual-level self-governance. Her methodological point of departure instead draws on modern discourse/conversation analysis, for which social structures is fundamentally the result of negotiation, and in which all alignments between discourse are achievements, not givens. Thus:

Alignment can be explored not only among state institutions but also between the state and the individual, and the individual and the institution. Moreover, I recognize that individuals have space to choose whether to align themselves with governmental processes and that any alignment is achieved through negotiation. (40)

Since English is not the official language in Ukraine and it may have a fraught status given the geopolitical tensions surrounding Ukraine’s relationship to Russia and to the West (EU), the status of English in a university situation becomes a potentially politically controversial choice.

I wondered whether courses are being offered in English in accordance with national policy or in spite of it, or whether EMI is possibly being offered as a way to circumvent the use of Ukrainian as a medium of instruction. (41)

It appears that the university in question — Alfred Nobel University, in central Ukraine — is officially a Russian-speaking establishment, but that there is an “openness and fluidity” that permits switching between Russian and English in nominally English-speaking classes (44). Ukranian was a more marginal language in the context, I gather. Nevertheless — and this was I thought one of the most interesting moments — it seems that teachers at times have to encourage students to speak English, even pretending not to understand other languages to encourage their kids to talk. In that sense, even if students have some latitude in choosing their languages, it seems to be a latitude that only emerges under pressure from above.

In interviews, students were generally indifferent (as far as I could understand) to the national-level geopolitics of language. Goodman asked numerous students if it was somehow inconsistent with the official national language (Ukranian) to study in English. Students generally responded by framing their use of English as a purely individual choice and seemed not to have strong views about national language policy.

Goodman suggests that this individualism is an index of “a broad lack of faith in the current legitimacy and future sovereignty of the Ukrainian government” (47). I did wonder a bit, though, whether even the presence of a more “legitimate” Ukranian government would make students care about state language policies? My experience is that many undergraduate students (especially ones who don’t identify as activists) are not deeply invested in policy questions one way or another, especially given the abstruse and dry language of most policy discourses. I suspect that generally speaking, students are more affected by the social capital (cultural opportunities, work potential, etc) that a language represents than by the national politics thereof. (Thus in France for instance, in spite of very real national resentments about English, most French people of my acquaintance consider English to be a useful asset if they can speak it, rather than a source of political embarrassment.)

At another point in her conclusion, Goodman notes that postsocialist states are in any case aligned with “market principles,” and that this partly explains why English (as the currently hegemonic global language) is a plausible choice for Ukranian higher education:

The authority of the Ukrainian state over EMI at Alfred Nobel University… is aligned with postsocialist market principles of the private university’s need for a foreign language. In the choice between Russian and Ukrainian, however, the national policy seems to silently yield to individual and institutional preferences. (48)

Again it seems to me quite normal that state policy is a very broad guiding discourse, with diffuse and indirect effects on the ground, rather than a totalizing machine that manages to regiment every aspect of daily practice.

But when I think about this further, I end up having a further reflexive thought. Perhaps my feeling of being unsurprised by Goodman’s findings is merely a product of my own socialization in the U.S. political system, where state power in education is traditionally a fairly diffuse and indirect affair. If I had been socialized in the Soviet Union — or even in statist, Republican France — perhaps my expectations about the efficacy of state policy would have been quite different. This in turn makes me wonder whether Foucault’s governmentality theory, which Goodman is in effect responding to, was not itself always a highly culturally specific artifact. Surely Foucault’s theory of politics was partly a response to the Gaullist, state-centered political culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and to the reshuffling of these Gaullist politics after the 1968 uprisings (which were said to have made a big impression on Foucault and his subsequent work).

In any case, Goodman’s paper is quite useful data for scholars interested in the geopolitics of language in higher education, and I wish I had time to draw out the comparison with South African language politics in more detail. It left me wondering, in the end, about the possibility or impossibility of comparative theoretical exchange. To what extent can micro-linguistic analysis, with its focus on extremely short strips of social interaction, effectively be in dialogue with much larger-scale conceptual genealogies of modern power, of the kind that Foucault sought to develop? Is there not a disjuncture of theoretical scale that is hard to bridge?


See also our small but growing bibliography on academic language policy.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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