Active, passive, and professional voices

— Shyam Sharma

I just finished reading the book Writing in the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History, which historicizes reductionist views about writing among scholars and teachers in the disciplines across the university. The author, David Russell, argues that most scholars outside the discipline of writing itself tend to believe that writing is a transparent tool for transcribing ideas (and not a tool for exploring and learning ideas), that the problem of poor writing should be solved as early as possible by those who are assigned to teach writing (and not that teachers across the disciplines should help students learn to do increasingly specialized writing along with their advancement in the disciplines), and that one size fits all program for teaching universal writing skills, if done well, is enough to deal with the challenge of writing in the university (instead of integrating writing within the disciplines and through the learners’ disciplinary careers). That is why most scholars in most disciplines punish students for poor writing (because poor writing is caused by the fault of the student and their English/writing teachers): they don’t see poor writing in advanced levels of education as caused by their own disregard for writing as a learning tool at all levels, in all disciplines.

When I finished reading this book, I could not help thinking about similarly problematic views about scholarship, about research, and about professional discourse in general in our own scholarly communities at home. Consider this: editors of our blog magazine Nelta Choutari have been urging fellow NELTA members to please kindly contribute any teaching stories/anecdotes, general blog entries in the form of reflection on ELT, branch updates, anything—and we’ve got some very interesting and useful stories and reflections. However, on the one hand, there has been generally a scanty response to this solicitation; and on the other, even when we are lucky enough to receive contributions, which are always great, these materials do not elicit as much response and discussion from the general community as do the topics of grammatical rules on the mailing list. Of course, the mailing group is a more established forum and the email “posts” also prompt response by reaching everyone’s inbox—unlike the blog where users need to either revisit or be reminded by someone that a discussion is going on. But this technological reason aside, if we look at the level of enthusiasm towards subjects of larger import of the profession among the general members of our community, we see a striking need for us to engage more in larger discussions of the profession, to share our stories, ideas, arguments/debates on issues larger than grammar. We need to talk about grammar, but we also equally importantly need to talk about more substantive issues about our profession: we are yet to see that balance. Here I want to reflect on some possible reasons for the relative lack of interest in discussing larger issues of the profession than in the nitty gritty of language.

In general, the Nepali culture is hierarchical. What is a bit intriguing is that even teachers don’t seem ready yet to rethink the internalized hierarchy and focus on more liberal and professional relationships among ourselves. Individuals with higher academic credentials/degrees, those who have more political clout in the academic/professional community, more administrative power, more years of experience in the field, or simply more years in their lives are seen as more important, more respectable. Too often, they are respected for no other reason than due to our internalized acceptance of hierarchy for its own sake. Needless to say, people with more degrees (and sometimes more marks on their certificates), more experience, and simply more years in their lives are likely to have more knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, more refined professional skills, and more confidence. But that is only half the story, the other half of which is my subject here.

Our internalized sense of hierarchy makes us believe that older, more experienced, and more credentialed people naturally/logically have more knowledge, that they must not be challenged, and—this is my point—that the younger, less credentialed, and less experienced people must not be so “disrespectful” as to speak up, challenge, or even contribute their ideas to the professional community. Even when we do participate in discussions, we tend to stick to the ground. This sense of hierarchy, whether conscious or not, and if that is what is keeping the line of division intact, is not only irrelevant today but also harmful for our social, intellectual, and professional progresses.

To illustrate my point, let me share a story. I taught Manoj Khadka in 8th grade, when he was 14, in a public school in Biratnagar, 15 years ago. Manoj is now 29, and say he is an assistant professor of education, has done extensive research and impressive publications, and is leading a major educational project that helps develop educational resource for English teachers across the country. Now, whenever I get a chance to talk to Manoj, he not only considers me his “teacher”—not former teacher but a forever “guru,” and he is forever my “student”—but he also makes sure to praise me for things like how well I taught active and passive voice. He knows that I am still in the field of education, pursuing my own goals, but he and I have not shared much intellectual/professional substance. He found me on Facebook last year, and we are in touch through that medium, besides occasional emails. Since we reconnected, I found out about his professional works and his project, and I have tried to learn more about them—in vain. He says, “ke hunu sir, eso ali ali.” His emails are intimate but there is something fundamental in his language, and the lack of substance, in his writing that seems to inhibit him from talking to me like a fellow professional, a colleague. He rarely seems to have the confidence to describe his fascinating resource development project with me; he downplays its significance, if not refuse to discuss it altogether. I become uncomfortable because I wonder if my own internalized sense of hierarchy has made me somehow sound patronizing to him in my communication, forever guru-like, forever on a higher pedestal. I am not sure….

As evident in the above semi-fictional example of my relationship with a former student, the hierarchical relationship among the different generations of scholars in our professional community seems to me to be the most important factor behind the scholar-teacher division that is so prevalent in our discipline, as well as our society in general. Those who have PhDs are scholars, others are teachers. Those who taught you should talk like scholars, not you, in any forums where both are present. Those who are older should be listened to, not talked with. Those who do research, those who publish books, those who present conference papers, those who write in journals, and those who are capable of writing in online forums… they are scholars, the bidwans, gurus: the rest, younger, without the PhD tag, second-division walas, those who are not authors of journal articles or books, or worse those who haven’t even done a conference paper… these may at best call themselves teachers—actually, look around before you use the word “teacher,” in case there are real teachers nearby: “hoina, sir, ke teacher bhannu. Yeso ali ali jyan palne meso ni.” In between the “jyan palne” not quite even teachers and the awe-inspiring “educators,” there has been and continues to exist a great gap. In some academic disciplines, especially ELT, that gap seems to have somewhat decreased recently, for instance, as indicated by the quiet “hijacking” of the very word “educator” by younger scholars. This can be seen in email signatures and resumes: “Manoj Khadka, Teacher Educator, X Campus.” But the hegemony still basically replicates itself—it’s such a diehard thing—and even with the advent of “loktantra” and “ganatantric paddati,” the academic sphere doesn’t seem to think or act very differently.

Does this mean that we should stop giving the respect that is due to people who have spent their lives contributing to the academia and the society? NO. Should we respect them less? NO again. The question is what kind of respect makes sense and what kind of respect doesn’t make sense. Let us respect and promote ideas and productivity and contribution to the progress of our profession and the society, not respect for the person, their age, political clout, degree, region, sex, culture, class… Let the younger scholars lead new initiatives, invite the older generations to contribute and inspire.

Does this mean that we should start giving more respect to younger scholars than we are used to giving? Yes. But, again, it’s not a matter of “respect” to the person: we need to appreciate younger scholars’ contribution to the professional community, encourage them to share more ambitious ideas—and not be too humble, lacking in confidence before older scholars, just waiting to hear what guru will say. I want Manoj Khadka to share his ideas with me, to tell me how he is doing better work than our professional community has conventionally done, to engage me in much more serious discourse than his emails that simply say things like “dear sir, how are you? … I still remember how you taught active and passive voice…” I have asked him to put more substance of professional significance into his writing; but the more I do that, the less frequently he writes to me! I want Manoj to initiate discussions on subjects that have larger professional significance than the correct use of preposition or conversion of active to voice—or on top of those subjects.

I am not entirely sure—and I want to offer this for discussion (please comment)—but it makes me very uncomfortable when I think that Manoj’s participation in our discussion forums is limited to active and passive voice, preposition, articles because he doesn’t consider himself qualified to engage in discussions of larger issues of our profession. It is possible that Manoj is uninterested or unwilling to go beyond grammar in our discussions because he has a limited view of the profession, or because he subscribes to the division of roles whereby the scholars play the “higher” roles of scholarly discussion, research, and publication and the mere teachers should stick to talking about grammar.

The separation of scholar and teacher is in itself a very troublesome problem for any profession, and it is not unique to Nepal. But that separation becomes even more troublesome when it is reinforced and perpetuated by an internalized acceptance of hierarchy and hegemony and not just due to conscious choice to remain “practitioners” on the part of younger scholars, the non-PhDs, those who don’t have first division written in their certificates, those who live/teach outside Kathmandu, those who don’t have cozy connections with the “big” people at the center, and so on.

Therefore, dear Manoj,
As much as I love to read anything you write—including when you write about articles and prepositions—it would be even nicer of you if you could initiate and participate in other larger subjects about our profession and our development as a professional community.

Your once-upon-a-time teacher, and today a fellow ELT scholar/teacher,

Shyam Sharma

1 thought on “Active, passive, and professional voices

  1. Shyam, another shot again, after that in your manaviki blog. Yes, the hierarchy stuff is bothersome. You, because you have greyed with age no matter whatever you did to come up to this, and because you hang some venerable tag before the name, define scholarship and the role of young who are trying to explore more dynamic, professional niches from the worn-out system. And the young are too slow to realize their own worth in the jumbled crowd — of scholars, leg-pullers, professionals, sycophants, teachers, tea-cheers, educators and what not. This gets on my nerves. I would consider anyone my guru, who has the knack of doing what he is entitled to, irrespective of any tag. I would invite anyone to learn from me if I have continuously tried to work with or ahead of time. Where do age and hierarchy come in the ‘knowledge’ community? In fact, why should they?

    But, I sometimes feel that it is possible for our generation to go along with the atrophying old lot because they don’t do more than pass smug judgments and revel in self-dissemination. Some of our own generation, who either don’t lift their legs for a new venture, or pull other outrunning legs at crucial hours, are to fear, retaliate, eliminated or corrected! The last would be the first option to do, though. That’s why you and I and the team are throwing punches time and again. Kamal sir, in this issue itself, does a great contribution by striking the outworn values. You have done it again. I wanted to do with this response.

    Let us continue.

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