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Globalization and English Education

Globalization refers to the expanding connectivity, integration, and interdependence of economic, social, technological, cultural, political, and ecological spheres across local activities. In an increasingly globalized society, empowered individuals communicate across cultural and national boundaries as citizens of the world. They have access to new technologies that afford them unprecedented ways to reinterpret, appropriate, contest, and negotiate mass distributed texts in multiple forms. These global interactions force a heightened sensitivity to audiences with different interpretive positions, and necessitate an examination of underlying cultural assumptions and beliefs that frame intercultural communications. As English educators, our goal is to equip students with a knowledge of global literacy and the critical awareness of how globalization defines and positions their languages, symbols, identities, communities, and futures. Consequently, English educators and teachers of English need to envision the subject of English within the contexts of global mass mediation, multimodal communications (i.e., communication which employs multiple modes of expression), migratory populations, and transnational economies.

Part I: Framing Globalization and English Education

Globalization arises through a confluence of mass mediated symbols, words, images, sounds, objects, or activities. While "mass" refers to the recurring and expanding distribution of these material signs in human interactions beyond a local social context, "mediated" refers to the meanings produced when a sign is used to represent, or signify, a meaning for something other than itself. A rose in the garden, in a box with eleven others, pinned to clothing, white, red, or yellow, all stand for something other than the flower itself, and stand for different things depending on the social context or frame of reference (Pierce, 1998; Eco, 1979; Lakoff, 2004). But, when one of these meanings becomes mediated over and over again in human interactions, through many different multimodal signs (Kress, 2003), in many different audiences geographically dispersed, the mass mediated sign constructs globalized meanings and frames of reference.

Globally, no sign mediates a single stable transcendent meaning. The relationship between a sign, its meaning, and its frame of reference in any moment of mediation is mutually constructive. However, communities do attempt to conventionalize the mediation of a sign in order to establish and maintain desired positions and relationships within a social context, such as the family, the classroom, workplace, political party, nation, academic society, or transnational economy. Debates about the "right" meaning of a sign, and attempts to carefully construct messages to influence sign meanings, and their framing beliefs and values, are commonplace. Global news organizations are nonstop re-presentations of sign interpretations and debates, and unfortunately, the debates rarely articulate the values and beliefs of the underlying ideologies that differentially frame the contested signs. Even if the news organization claims objectivity, no framing is value neutral.

Central to the concerns of globalization in English education are differing interpretations, contesting ideologies, and struggles between frames for meaning. The importance of tennis shoes and their global production and distribution exemplify how a sign's value can be embraced so extensively, yet at the same time represent the abuses of capitalism from other frameworks. In mass mediation, a sign and its meanings can change the underlying values and beliefs of a frame just as a frame can mediate the sign with alternate meanings. Both are omnipresent in our globalized multimodal lives, and both demand critical inquiry through the English language arts curriculum.

Part of this critical inquiry involves the global phenomenon of mass migration.  Globalization involves the shifting of populations across domestic and international lines as a result of the intensifying economic, social, and cultural exchanges within different societies. At present, there are over 185 to 200 million transnational migrants from every region in the world, with the United States as one of the leading receiving countries in the northern hemisphere (United Nations Global Commission on International Migration, 2005).  It is important to consider the socioeconomic, political, and demographic realities of mass migration, and to question its link to asymmetrical relations of power while making explicit its roots in colonialism and imperialism.  According to Suárez-Orozco and Sattin (2007), global issues such as child and sweatshop labor, outsourcing, and global warming should have a place in today's classrooms, particularly in preparing students to become critically engaged, responsible, and active global citizens.

The renowned scholar and activist, W.E.B. DuBois, once wrote:

...Here for instance is a lovely British home.... Within is a young woman, well trained and well dressed, intelligent and high-minded.  She is fingering the ivory keys of a grand piano and pondering the problem of her summer vacation, whether in Switzerland or among the Italian lakes; her family is not wealthy, but it has sufficient 'independent' income from investments to enjoy life without hard work.  How far is such a person responsible for the crimes of colonialism? 
It will in all probability not occur to her that she has responsibility whatsoever, and that may well be true. Equally, it may be true that her income is the result of starvation, theft, and murder; that it involves, ignorance, disease, and crime on the part of thousands; that the system which sustains the security, leisure, and comfort she enjoys is based on the suppression, exploitation, and slavery of the majority of mankind...This frightful the indictment of modern civilization... (p. 42).

The socioeconomic reality described by DuBois links distant lands, diverse peoples, and many national economies. It propels us to see that colonialism, postcolonialism, and globalization are historically linked in important ways (Jay, 2000) to contemporary political economies (Bigelow & Peterson, 2002).  English teachers and English teacher educators have a unique role, one that has not yet been collectively realized, in mapping out the discursive possibilities for how globalization is historicized (Weaver, 2003) and discussed (Bourdieu, 2002) and for how globalization is critically connected to education (Lipman, 2000) and student learning (Smith, 2002).

Critical inquiries into globalization will certainly arise through the new technologies of Web 2.0 such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, videocasts, or RSS feeds and yet to be realized Web 3.0.  The challenges associated with differences in geographical distances and time zones are becoming less of an issue in cross-cultural communication and information exchange due to high speed, multi-format and multimodal synchronous and asynchronous data interchange platforms, artificial intelligence, as well as broadband and satellite connectivity. These new technologies have the ability to facilitate interaction and content sharing almost anytime and anywhere among those who have access to these technological innovations. Tools such as Resource Description Framework Schemas (RDFS) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL)--data banks for computer-generated exchange of knowledge, language, resources, and a data-centric language--will further encourage database creation and management within a global community, reflecting the voices and cultures from all over the world.

Of critical importance however in such a highly technologized global world, with information collectively owned and managed among their users, will be to understand the strengths and limitations of the newer technologies for meaning making and information exchange. As Farrell (2003) argues, the differences in the users' relationship to these new technologies (e.g., technology savvyness, education, gender, religion, ideology, culture, or identity) and in their ways of appropriating such tools for communicative purposes will both enrich and challenge communication and information exchange within and across communities of practice. In other words, the ways of appropriating and communicating with new technology tools in one culture, one context, one language, or one medium are not going to be necessarily the same in another culture, context, language, or medium. This is because technology users from different cultural, ethnic, economic, ideological, and social backgrounds are likely to differ substantially in both their understanding and use of these tools for communication and information exchange. Such differences are often reflective of the sociocultural and technological milieus where their members get socialized into the ways of thinking and being around technology that are characteristic of their own culture, ideology, resources base, and other idiosyncrasies shaping their unique digital societies.

Uncovering such differences among the members of a global community, learning to collaborate and co-develop collective knowledge, understandings, and experiences, as well as respecting and celebrating their diverse contributors' ideas and perspectives will need to become the core principles of online and offline global communication, information literacy, and digital world citizenship within the English classroom and beyond. Fostering such principles in innovative English teaching and in our increasingly global virtual environments will help our students be accountable to the global community through a commitment to high quality communication and lifelong learning.

Part II: Linking Globalization and Critical English Education

As English educators, we need to explore how globalization is (re)shaping and (re)defining literature, language, composition, and mass media in the following ways:

  • Literature is broadening in terms of authors, audiences, genres, and modes of representations. Readers have an expanded set of possible identities, discourses, subjectivities, communities, and modes of interpretation.

At a time when the globe is becoming increasingly accessible because of instantaneous communications, the corpus of print literature is expanding almost exponentially because of the number of works either being written in English or being quickly translated into English.  The consequence is that in some departments the privileged place traditionally accorded British and American literature in high-school anthologies is giving way to courses in world literature and diverse cultural authors.  Prospective teachers of English, as well as English educators, must now be much more attuned than they were in the past to works being written by major authors outside the United States or the British Commonwealth.

Non-print literature--television and motion pictures--is an invaluable literary asset in providing viewers with a sense of verisimilitude about the diverse physical and social worlds of the characters.  For a given historical period, geographic setting, or futuristic world, television and film can realistically depict the eating habits, clothing, means of transportation, class system, work habits, societal concerns, religious practices, and family life in the context.  However, what they are incapable of doing is revealing artistically, as can print literature, the complex inner lives of characters, the psychological wellsprings which give rise to thoughts and emotions that precipitate outward behavior.  In short, English educators and their students should recognize the strengths of both non-print and print literature in providing a sense of the outward and inner worlds of persons different from themselves.

With this expanded set of authors and modes of representation, the interpretive responses of students to literature provide a basis to examine identities, relationships, values, and beliefs in terms of local and global contexts.  Global literature education will depend upon the ability of English teachers to generate critical interpretive dialogues among students from diverse cultural positions within and beyond the classroom. Through such dialogue, English teachers might foster greater respect among their students for international authors and simultaneously discourage responses to world cultures that center on strangeness and exoticism.

  • Language is changing the role of English in global contexts, resulting in uses and forms that diverge from a single standard. Communicators have multiple Englishes to mesh for rhetorical purposes within and across cultural discourse practices.

While researchers and teachers of English in the US have been stating for over thirty years that the formal teaching of grammar in isolation from the teaching of writing is simply not effective (Weaver, 1996), in a globalized world this statement becomes more relevant than ever. There is not one English, but a plethora of world Englishes through which our students could communicate (Canagarajah, 2006). These world Englishes may vary according to the culture or nation in which they are spoken and resultant convergences with that nation's native language.

Technology not only is bringing world Englishes into daily contact, the nature of digital communication is aiding in the demise of a "standard English."  Instant messaging, text messaging, and other technological forms of communication are creating new writing practices that often undermine traditional, standard English for the sake of faster, more effective communication. While one might effectively argue that teaching standard English remains important for formal or business communication, it is also fair to say that English is becoming more complex than ever, and our students will need to be flexible and efficient users of a vast array of discourses that isolated, drill-oriented grammar lessons simply will not teach.

  • Composition modes, purposes, and audiences have expanded exponentially as emerging technologies have revolutionized written communication. Authors commonly have multiple modes of representation available to them and increased opportunities for interaction and collaboration as they create texts.  

Composition has moved beyond the rejection of writing the five-paragraph essay to also include multiple modes of creation and expression using visual and collaborative components. Thinking creatively and imaginatively becomes even more important as students must not only devise thesis statements and bullet points, but must decide first on a form to best reflect their argument and then frame this argument to take advantage of the conventions of the chosen form, whether that be a website, a blog, a wiki, a video essay or documentary, or even a traditional written document.  While technology has expanded the modes of composition, it has also dramatically changed the rhetorical context for writing in school.  Students now have access to many global audiences through web publishing, increasing their value for revision and quality compositions far beyond the assignment context and single teacher audience.

  • Mass media has increasingly become a global means to convey dominant ideologies and discourses that demand critical analyses. In recognizing the identities and values being promoted through rhetorical techniques, audiences use critical strategies to achieve greater agency and consciousness in their future consumption and production.

Teaching media literacy is more important than ever as students grow up in a world where they encounter media messages hundreds of times daily, from advertisements on websites to billboards, TV, radio, and popular music. It is important that they become critical, meta-aware readers of media texts so that they can be thoughtful, critical agents in a world where they are increasingly encouraged to be passive consumers of information, materials, and goods.  To accomplish these goals, the English teacher must seek multiple texts on curricular topics published in multiple modes in multiple global communities; this juxtaposition of texts supports the identification of cultural frames of reference in order to evaluate the values and beliefs constructed through the messages.

Part III: Recommendations for Pedagogy

Literacy teaching is progressively becoming more complex. As information technologies and a so-called "flattening" world (Friedman, 2005) make global communication and collaboration more ubiquitous, teachers of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing are being forced to change the way they instruct their students.  No longer is it adequate to teach literature by asking students to answer simple comprehension questions about a text. No longer is it sufficient to teach composition as if it were only an act of placing written words on paper. No longer is it useful to teach students to speak and compose using a single, standardized English grammar.  All of these activities in the English classroom of the past were framed by a single discourse standard seeking a more homogenous cultural identity.  Instead, 21st century literacy educators must broaden their curricular horizons and align their teaching with the real-life multicultural and multimodal communication needs of their students who increasingly live and work in a globalized society.  Through such critical literacies, students can communicate and collaborate across cultural and national boundaries through technologies that afford them unprecedented ways to reinterpret, appropriate, and negotiate texts in order to participate more fully in local and global communities.

The teaching of critical thinking plays a central role in the teaching of such critical literacy. As the world becomes more complex, increasingly flattened, and, one might argue, ever more interesting and challenging, our students must be prepared to enter it as competent, thoughtful, and agentive readers and communicators. In order to prepare them effectively, we as literacy educators must make changes to literacy curricula that traditionally view knowledge making and communication as straightforward, text-based, and individualized, a perspective that was only appropriate before the recent explosion in communicative technologies and resulting economic, social, and cultural realities. To prepare students who can be active and effective world citizens able to make thoughtful decisions and solve global problems, we must first help them to be critical, meta-aware thinkers and communicators.

In the future, today's youth will be required to actively address economic, environmental, and cultural problems that could have widespread and long-term consequences for themselves and their world. In order to be active problem solvers, they should be able to think with clarity, imagination, and empathy. Literacy instruction is one avenue through which such contemporary critical thinking might be taught. By teaching literacy skills through intercultural reader response theories of literary interpretation, social-cultural methods of language study, global rhetorical approaches to writing, and juxtaposed multimedia representations, students can begin to think critically and globally in a world that, increasingly, will require a politically and socially active citizenry.


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This report was created in part as a result of the 2007 Conference on English Education Leadership and Policy Summit, Don Zancanella, CEE Chair, and Dawn Abt-Perkins, CEE Leadership and Policy Summit Chair.
Participants and authors in the "What is the role of English education in responding to the changes being wrought by economic globalization?" thematic strand group of the CEE Summit included:

Co-Conveners: Janet Alsup and Jamie Myers

James Cercone, University at Buffalo
Ed Farrell, Emeritus, University of Texas
Korina Jocson, Stanford University
¥Valerie Kinloch, Columbia University
Carmen Kynard, Rutgers University
Ewa McGrail, Georgia State University
¥John O'Connor, University of Illinois at Chicago

¥ Did not attend the CEE Summit but participated in online discussions.

If you wish to respond to this CEE report, please leave your comments below or email and specify which report you are commenting on in the Subject of your email.

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