September 2014
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Personal Accounts
WRESTLING WITH CONCEPTUALIZING BORDERS AND BORDER CROSSING: AN ONGOING REFLECTION
Nathanael Rudolph, Mukogawa Women's University, Nishinomiya, Hyogo, Japan

In early 2011, I began working as a professor in the department of English in a university in west-central Japan. Soon after arriving, I met and became friends with Miwa,1 a fellow faculty member. Our conversations first related to where we had completed our studies and where we had worked in Japan and abroad prior to working in our present department. As our friendship grew, we shared accounts of our ongoing negotiation of translinguistic, transcultural, and transnational identities, both personal and professional.

As time progressed, I sensed a critically-oriented connection with my colleague regarding challenging the discourses of the native speaker (NS) construct, the NS fallacy, and native speakerism. We both believed that glocal discourses of identity have interacted within Japanese society and ELT in the Japanese context, to construct the “idealized NS” of English as Western, Caucasian, and largely male (e.g., Kubota, 2002), and that English language education therein has conceptualized and prioritized the linguistic and cultural knowledge of this idealized NS. As we chatted in early 2013, we noted that space for non-Japanese NNESTs is largely nonexistent in ELT at the university level in Japan. This, we gathered, was due to the fact that these individuals are viewed as neither NSs of Japanese nor English. In addition, we noted that space for NSs, who do not fit constructions of the idealized NS, has been limited and/or eliminated.

By 2013, I was conceptualizing native speakerism as more than the construction of the idealized NS of English. I came to believe that in concert with such constructions, the nature of Japaneseness has been simultaneously essentialized as well,2 limiting and/or eliminating different ways of being and/or becoming Japanese (Willis & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2008). Thus, within Japanese society and ELT in Japan, space for innovation (the creation of new ways of being), and incorporation (something or someone can become “Japanese” or an “owner of English”) has largely been limited or eliminated. As a result, Japanese teachers of English and native speakers of English deemed “worthy” of participation in education are largely confined within essentialized categories and corresponding roles (e.g., Houghton & Rivers, 2013). These categories and roles may relate to how a teacher can and/or should behave both within and beyond the classroom, and what they can or cannot and should or should not “know” and “do.” This, I asserted, approached apprehending how conceptual and practical space for non-Japanese NNESTs and NESTs who did not fit the NS construct has been sociohistorically limited and/or eliminated in Japanese ELT at the university level.

During this period, Miwa and I discussed how critically-oriented binaries (NS/NNS and NEST/NNEST) fail to apprehend individuals’ complex, dynamic negotiation of personal and professional identity (e.g., Menard-Warwick, 2008). We challenged the conceptual account of native speakerism (Holliday, 2005) as a universal, uniform regime of truth (Foucault, 1984), flowing from the West and from global ELT into contexts around the world, privileging native speaker teachers and marginalizing nonnative teachers, thereby shaping a common “NNEST” (and NEST) experience. Miwa and I instead argued for postmodern and poststructural attention to the origin, construction, and perpetuation of discourses of identity that attempt to define borders of “inside” and “outside” being and becoming within society and ELT therein, as well as to the agency individuals assert in negotiating borderland spaces of identity (Anzaldúa, 1987).3 Our discussions led us to attend a conference together, where I was presenting with a panel of Japan-based researchers who were self-described postmodern, hybridized beings; linguistic, cultural, ethnic, national, and academic border crossers. The presentations focused on panel members’ ongoing negotiation of personal and professional identity, and the fluidity of privilege and marginalization we experienced as professors in our respective universities. When I prompted Miwa for feedback later, she simply stated that the accounts of border crossing, shared by the panel members, did not resonate with her own. Shortly thereafter, I would come to understand the significance of her response.

In mid 2014, Miwa and I embarked on writing a co-constructed account of our experiences negotiating borders of identity in our department, for publication. Our efforts stalled, however, during our attempts to conceptualize space, or the lack thereof, for being and becoming. As in my earlier presentation, I contended that my negotiation of identity in the department involved the fluid intertwining of privilege and marginalization, due to essentialized categories of “NS of English” and “NS of Japanese” located therein. I asserted that I had been afforded space and created space for agency within the department, while at the same time experiencing personal and professional pushback from those who perceived my border crossing as a threat to their linguistic and cultural authority derived from essentialized categories of identity and role. My colleague argued that she had experienced no pushback, however, and that she believed she had, in fact, been hired to serve as a linguistic, cultural, and academic border crosser by the university.

As we chatted about the paper, I felt confused: hadn’t we agreed that space for innovation and incorporation in our community, in terms of new ways of being and becoming, was greatly limited or eliminated? Why did she not, for instance, consider the division of duties and the allotment of courses in the department along the lines of “Japanese” and “NS of English” a form of resistance to her “unhindered” border crossing? Why didn’t she link our problematization of a lack of space for non-Japanese NNESTs and nonidealized NSs of English, to the limitation and elimination of space for agency in the department?

Miwa’s answer was simple: that was how she framed her experience negotiating identity in the department. In addition, whereas I chose to conceptualize “hypothetical” borders in the department, along with those I had negotiated, Miwa chose not to do so. In other words, if she had not negotiated a border, it did not exist. We concluded that synthesizing our stories would have stripped both Miwa and me of the power of voice. Stripping us of voice would defeat the purpose of attempting to apprehend the complexity of discourses of “inside” and “outside” and “us” and “them” in our context. This was what had bothered Miwa at the conference. I realized that I had invited Miwa to step into a conceptual trap wherein I was actualizing the very same categorical essentializations of identity and experience, for better or worse, I had sought to deconstruct. And so I reflect, learn, and push on.

1Miwa is a pseudonym.

2An essentialized view of culture and “being” posits the following: We can define “pure” and “impure” in terms of culture and identity. We can therefore define “inside” and “outside”: what is “us” and what is not (e.g., Willis & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2008).

3Holliday (2013) revisits his earlier formulation of native speakerism, arguing for a postmodern approach to identity and approaching equity in ELT.

References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader (P. Rabinow, Ed.). New York, NY: Pantheon.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Holliday, A. (2013). Native speaker teachers and cultural belief. In S.A. Houghton & D. J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-speakerism in Japan: Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education (pp. 17–28). Bristol, England:Multilingual Matters.

Houghton, S. A., & Rivers, D. J. (2013). Native-speakerism in Japan: Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education. Bristol, England:Multilingual Matters.

Kubota, R. (2002). The impact of globalization on language teaching in Japan. In D. Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching (pp. 13–28). London, England: Routledge.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2008). The cultural and intercultural identities of transnational English teachers: Two case studies from the Americas. TESOL Quarterly, 42, 617–640.

Willis, D. B., & Murphy-Shigematsu, S. (2008). Transcultural Japan: At the borderlands of race, gender and identity. New York, NY: Routledge.


Nathanael Rudolph is currently teaching at the university level in Japan. His research interests include postmodern and poststructural approaches to language, culture and identity, equity in the field of English language teaching, and the contextualization and teaching of English as an international language.
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