Why do I use SFL in my teaching?

The first #SFLchat has begun, and it has had a good start. The first question is, “Why do you use SFL for teaching?” I can’t really answer this question in a Tweet, so I decided, following the general advice of my colleague Angus Grieve-Smith, that I blog rather than thread.

After my first semester in graduate school linguistics, I was frustrated. My introduction to linguistics proper had taught me a great deal of new theory. It was one of the most exciting and interesting times of my life. But I was struggling to understand how I could apply this new knowledge–and especially in my classroom. As part of my graduate study, I had a teaching assistantship in first-year composition. And since language was a central topic in the curriculum, I was eager to incorporate what I was learning in my linguistics courses. But that was easier said than done.

I was trained in the Minimalist program for syntax and exposed mostly to a generativist perspective on language. We read Pinker’s The Language Instinct, drew binary-branching trees, and modeled meaning in first-order logic and later Lambda calculus (the latter eludes me a bit still, I will admit). Trying to apply this knowledge in the teaching of writing was a challenge. Some elements of my lexical semantics class helped, but in general, knowledge about language was not easily or immediately applicable to language education–something that struck me as odd. Margie Berns’s Sociolinguistics course was the one area where my newfound knowledge about language was applicable, but it was disorienting. After Intro to Ling chipped away at prescriptivism, Sociolinguistics reframed standard English for me in a way that I still wrestle with. The course radically changed my pedagogy and philosophy of education.

But I was still frustrated because, while Sociolinguistics gave me a necessary new frame for writing curricula and assessment, the day-to-day instruction of writing still lacked something.  Sociolinguistics demonstrated the oppressive nature of standard English over other varieties of English and over other minority languages. So should I teach standard English or not? And if yes, then how to do it ethically? And what should I teach about standard English? I was confused. And frustrated. I didn’t know what to say.

So I crafted an independent study one summer. My Anthro Ling professor, Myrdenne Anderson, directed it. I called it, Linguistics of Teacher Talk. I literally just wanted to know what to say and how to say it in my classroom–hence the scope of the course. Anderson, a brilliant researcher and renaissance woman who has a greater breadth of knowledge than anyone I’ve ever known, recommended a book to me: Classroom Discourse Analysis by Frances Christie.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Christie’s book was my introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). I wanted to know more, and I don’t know who introduced us (probably Anderson), but I met Luciana de Oliveira, the only scholar of SFL at Purdue. de Oliveira changed my professional life. In the time I was there, I was able to take two of her courses on SFL–that was all the formal instruction, by the way, many of us North Americans got in SFL. So apologies to my Australian colleagues who get stupid questions from me. de Oliviera organized a research group I worked in, read my Masters thesis, co-chaired my dissertation committee, and mentored me throughout the majority of my graduate school, teaching me SFL throughout. And she introduced me to SFL genre pedagogy.

SFL genre pedagogy was what I had been looking for ever since I became a teacher of writing. It was the answer to most of my questions. Being introduced to it was akin to a religious conversion experience–and that’s something I’m not particularly comfortable with, but it’s true. I suppose it’s like that for a lot of people when you find an answer to a big question.

Being introduced to SFL genre pedagogy helped me realize that my big question was bigger than just the can of worms that Sociolinguistics opened up. It was personal. It sat at the core of who I am. It was growing up in rural Indiana. It was the people I grew up with, some of them children of poverty. Most of us didn’t come from money, at least. We were the kids of factory workers and farmers. And academia, the gatekeeper to lives many of us wanted to pursue, was shrouded in mystery. It was the mismatch of cultures. I won’t pretend to be of the culture I grew up in; I didn’t fit in there. It was the fact that I could write a research paper, but I didn’t (and still don’t) know what to say when all the men stood around the chicken fryer and talked. That genre eludes me to this day. But even if I could write a research paper, I didn’t really understand why I was any good at it. I didn’t really know how academia worked, and a lot of my high school and undergraduate work betrays my misunderstanding of the rules of the academic game.

And still, even though I never fit, I never lost a sense of values my home culture taught me–and immense respect for practicality and straightforwardness. Finally, when it came to it, I knew that in my current way of teaching, I couldn’t help my students learn how to write because in every student, I saw someone I grew up with and I heard their objections, questioning the practicality and wanting to know what was expected of them really.

Write this research paper.

Why? What good is that gonna do me?

You don’t have the right tone. It needs to be more formal.

Well, how do you make it more formal?

This is choppy and doesn’t flow well.

Well, how do you make it flow?

I didn’t have answers to these questions that satisfied me or some of my students. But SFL changed that.

Why? What good is that gonna do me?

Writing this research paper will enable you to write papers in other classes that are in the same or similar genre–because you will know the goal, the audience, the stages, and the language necessary to succeed in that genre. And that will enable you to earn your degree to get the job you want and the social status you want. And the money and time you want to do the things  you want. Knowing how to write a research paper gives you more power to succeed in college so that you can have more power over your future. There will still be challenges, prejudices, and systemic discrimination that can hold you back, but knowing this genre will give you the ability to resist these challenges because you will be able to demonstrate your skills and knowledge in a way that the academy respects. And that can give you a better chance at succeeding in getting what the college grants–a degree.

Well, how do you make it more formal?

You complete all of the stages of the genre, accomplish the goal of the genre, and address the audience of the genre by making the appropriate language choices we’ve discussed–Declarative Mood to demonstrate knowledge; median-high Modality to express your relative certainty about your argument; Material and Relational Processes to classify things and ideas and to show causal connections; abstract and general Actors, Identifieds, and Carriers to argue and defend generalizable claims; orbital Thematic organization to structure the text so that a single thesis can be defended with multiple arguments.

Well, how do you make it flow?

You complete all of the stages of the genre, accomplish the goal of the genre, address the audience of the genre by making the appropriate language choices we’ve discussed–orbital, linear, and static Thematic organization for differing purposes, depending on your paragraph or textual goal; and use of cohesive devices like substitution, repetition, hyponymny, and meronymny, to connect different parts of the text to other parts of the text, creating a unified meaning throughout.

And then, the objection from colleagues.

Why use that complex language?

Because that’s what that functional components of written language are called.  And the kids I grew up with would understand that. They didn’t demand less complex terminology when they were learning how to fix their cars, tractors, or lawnmowers or when they were learning how to take care of their livestock. Language and writing are at least as complex as these things.

So why do I use SFL in my teaching?

Because now I can teach my students what to write so that they can have a better chance at doing what they want with their lives.

Because it demystifies the academy so that you know what to say, how to say it, what it means, and how it gets to mean that.

Because one professor taught me how it could empower students of many backgrounds.

Because if students have to use language as a tool to accomplish the goals of school, they should know a lot about that tool if they are going to use it well.

Because it answered my questions. And gave me new ones to pursue.

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