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Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Learning

reviewed by Becky Flores - 2006

coverTitle: Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Learning
Author(s): Arnetha F. Ball and Sarah Warshauer Freedman (Eds.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521831059, Pages: 349, Year: 2004
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Arnetha F. Ball and Sarah Warshauer Freedman, editors of Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Learning, have an impressive aim: To help better prepare teachers and students for literacy learning in the twenty-first century. Underscored by Bakhtin’s heteroglossic notion of multivoiced discourses and a sense of ideological becoming in a changing world, at its core is an inherent sense of advocacy for praxis – a term with much currency for practitioners of critical pedagogy/literacy – one that offers a “framework for mediation, a way to consider the kinds of dialogues that could lead to change” (p. 28).  In this way, the book meets its mark.

Yet, while the desire to authenticate the disenfranchised through critique of a singular, authoritative literacy is laudable, when so many of the contributors come from high-profile institutions such as Stanford, Brown, and Purdue, we might be forgiven for wondering if the text’s promise to be a “model of heteroglossia” is in itself imbued with ivory-tower authority. If there is multiplicity, it’s not so much in a diverse array of voices as it is multidisciplinary application – from the contexts of adult learning, to multiculturalism, to second language acquisition and sub-literacies, to literacy in the sciences and the performing arts. The editors invite readers to “push the boundaries of current thinking on Bakhtinian theory,” but in terms of critical pedagogy/literacy, overall the text too often endorses mere acknowledgment of – and respect for – many voices rather than addressing the very real potential for de-authentication of voice when there is a lack of genuinely critical discourse. Paradoxically, however, the omission of this important distinction is both the weakest part of the text and yet quite possibly also its greatest strength.

Arranged in three sections, with a fourth serving as a reflective summary, many of the chapters offer a starting point for critical discourse. Part I, “Ideologies in Dialogue: Theoretical Considerations,” opens with Freedman and Ball’s cross-national perspective on literacy teacher-training drawn from extensive research in Rwanda and Bosnia Herzegovina. This chapter traces the “ideological becoming” of Dorene, a South African teacher for whom strategically designed readings “helped her to gain the strength … to be an active agent of change” (p. 16). Yet, examination of Dorene’s narrative reveals a proliferation of generalizations and little evidence of the internalized tension that can result from strong dialogical inquiry. “I have come to the realization,” Dorene writes, “that in order for the teacher to be effective … she needs dedication … should be supportive … and not have a teacher-centered class” (p. 16). Where is the challenge to authoritative discourse here? Where are the “clashes that occur when disparate people come together” (p. 3), as promised by the authors? What’s the alternative? That teachers are not dedicated to what they do? Not supportive? The unanswered question is whether Dorene has critically reflected on what “teacher centered” or “supportive” or “dedicated” means, or if she has just “learned the lingo” of contemporary critical pedagogy? On this note, readers will need to know the Deweyan lingo of transactional, interactional, and self-actional learning experiences in Mark Dressman’s dry chapter that merges the theories of Dewey, Rosenblatt, and Bakhtin, because no explanation is provided and, moreover, the diagrams are inexplicably confusing.  And, while Charles Bazerman blends discursive intertextuality with Bakhtinian parody as a critical tool to examine the power structures on which language and literacy rest, it is difficult to wrangle with the Kristevian conundrums defining intertextuality as “a mechanism whereby we write ourselves into the social text, and thereby the social text writes us” (p. 54) and almost unforgivable that Bazerman takes Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, yet neglects to convincingly present the importance of parody and satire as a critical tool of transgression. Finally, although Guadalupe Valdés presents a nicely balanced look at the discursive gap between TESOL and K-12 ESOL communities (dys)functioning “like the blind men hoping to describe the elephant” (p. 81), in a chapter that discusses the role and place of ideology – and in a section of the book that takes this word as part of its title – it is surprising to see that the seminal work of Louis Althusser, specifically in regard to the workings of ideological state apparatuses, is relegated to a small “see also” reference.


Part II, “Voiced, Double Voiced, and Multivoiced Discourses in Our Schools,” opens with Eileen Landay’s valuable chapter that examines a critical gap between public voice and private reflection. Claiming that authoritative discourse, and students’ passive resistance to challenging it, can be overcome through combining literacy and theatrical performance, Landay draws from Bakhtin’s sense of critical interanimation, or what happens when “discourses come into dialogic relationship with one another” (p. 111). Moreover, her discussion of a correlation between low socioeconomic class and high dropout rates has salient application to the issue of retention – a point echoed in Cynthia L. Greenleaf’s and Mira-Lisa Katz’s chapter that considers the ways urban students are “often positioned as unable, unwilling, unknowing, and/or unskilled” (p. 172). Pointing out that teachers are often resistant to change, this excellent chapter chronicles “the voices of participating teachers themselves” as they struggle to reconcile “multiple internally persuasive discourses” (pp. 173, 178) and who, in the process, discover tangible ways to “enact new literate identities and practices in the classroom” (p. 172). Similarly, Carol D. Lee considers ways in which teachers might authenticate the “double-voiced discourse” of African-American Vernacular English as literate practice without diminishing the identities of those who use it. Lee, however, does not provide much evidence of her students moving beyond what they know, nor does she address the very real risk of mistaking expression of cultural voice for authentic, critical discourse. The final chapter, Christian P. Knoeller’s foray into student narratives of “rethinking” through his own narrative of “rethinking,” is a potentially intriguing application of Bakhtin’s sense of outside-oneself, yet falls short of the mark. Although Knoeller claims that Eva, the student on whom he focuses, demonstrates Bakhtinian notions of appropriation and dual voicing that involve internalizing the words of others, the evidence is unconvincing.

Part III, “Heteroglossia in a Changing World,” crosses both geographical and paradigmatic borders to consider what literacy in the 21st century might look like. Melanie Sperling’s chapter, providing a detailed linguistic analysis of teachers struggling to reconcile conflicts between the ideal and the real within the U.S. school system, is particularly useful here, as is Judy Kalman’s insightful glimpse of rural Mexico and the infrequently addressed topic of adult literacy education. Jabari Mahiri’s web-based graduate course, “used as a ‘text’ for discussion and analysis” (p. 213) shows how a dialogic community of learners use technology, specifically asynchronous communication, as a means to both posit and reflect on ideas and beliefs. A word of warning, though: Despite Mahiri’s claim that the program prepared new teachers for the challenges of e-learning, those expecting cutting-edge discourse over online pedagogy may be disappointed. The jewel of Part III, however – indeed, the whole book – is James Paul Gee’s chapter. Although asserting that he has “nothing novel to add to Bakhtin scholarship” (p. 298), Gee’s work is startlingly and critically acute. Drawing from contemporary television culture and fantasy game-playing, Gee posits that because the world has moved from an industrial Fordist age of old capitalism to a globalized and high-tech new capitalism, we need to recognize the overlap between old and new literacies. Rather than achieving a minimum standard of literacy, one that will perpetuate existing class divisions, Gee outlines a literate practice characterized by what he calls “portfolio shape shifters.”  In light of the current emphasis on mandated testing and the implications of the No Child Left Behind policy, Gee’s discussion raises urgent questions about the ways we are preparing our students for a changing world.

Reflecting a commitment to engaging discourse, each of the book’s three parts concludes with contributions entitled “Voices in Dialogue.” Ostensibly to demonstrate the use of dialogue as discourse, these sections record exchanges between students and the text’s contributors about each of the chapters. From a perspective of critical discourse, however, the dialogue is disappointing. Vague, generalized assertions such as “Knoeller’s response …brought forth opportunities for us both … to construct new ways to mean” (Delp, p.207), “we can now engage in more meaningful interactions with Bakhtin’s texts” (Brettschneider,  p.103), and that “machines and new technologies … [will] help us to more fully realize the expression of our humanity” (Miano, p.313) do not demonstrate critically reflective inquiry, nor engender the type of critical tensions that underscore the possibility of change. And yet, this may be a useful point of convergence to examine in a classroom setting, bringing me back to where I began in relation to the paradox of this text. The act of, in Bakhtinian terms, applying a “publicistic discourse” that criticizes and polemicizes the words and ideas of these authors can engage us in critically examining the points of view in which they are grounded (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 353). This process can open the possibility to reflect on our own selves, our own sense of literate place, and how that might affect the ways that we teach and learn. For Bakhtin, communication is “concerned with what happens when real people in all the contingency of their myriad lives actually speak to each other” (Holquist, 1986, p. xvi). Such a concept, poignantly articulated by Gary Saul Morson in his concluding chapter of this text, involves striving for honesty and openness in a world of difference and uncertainty. For language and literacy educators, those involved in professional development programs, and their students, Bakhtinian Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Learning provides a theoretical place for such conversations to begin.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In M. Holquist (Ed.), C. Emerson & M. Holquist (trans.). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.  

Holquist, M. (1986). Introduction. In M. M. Bakhtin. Speech genres and other late essays. C. Emerson & M. Holquist (eds.), V.W. McGee (trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 91-95
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12072, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:49:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Becky Flores
    Del Mar College, Corpus Christi
    E-mail Author
    BECKY FLORES is an instructor of English at Del Mar College, Corpus Christi. Her Ph.D. dissertation theorizes a critical pedagogy for teaching college English drawn from Husserl, Derrida, and Bakhtin. She has published in TETYC and Radical Pedagogy, and studies French, German, and Spanish languages.
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