Scholarly article on topic 'Sustaining Diversity in Higher Education: Engaging the Critical Literacy of Multilingual Students in a Malaysian Postgraduate Classroom'

Sustaining Diversity in Higher Education: Engaging the Critical Literacy of Multilingual Students in a Malaysian Postgraduate Classroom Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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{"Critical Literacy" / "Learner Diverstiy" / Pluritliteracy / Multilingualism / "Cultural Politics" / "Diverse Ways of Knowing"}

Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Koo Yew Lie

Abstract This paper reports the findings of an action research which examines postgraduate student voices in terms of a pedagogy committed to building situated critical literacy for multilingual students through a Critical Literacy Awareness (CLA) Perspective and Method. It examines a student‘s reflective logs as a point of entry into her negotiations of identities and knowledge. The findings indicate that for it to be empowering of learner diversity, teacher talk and interventions have to inter-culturally engage with student‘s unequally valued multicultural resources in context and to work with the discourses which are recognised as legitimate in education and the workplace.

Academic research paper on topic "Sustaining Diversity in Higher Education: Engaging the Critical Literacy of Multilingual Students in a Malaysian Postgraduate Classroom"

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Procedía Social and Behavioral Sciences 7(C) (2010) 389-397

International Conference on Learner Diversity 2010

Sustaining Diversity in Higher Education: Engaging the Critical Literacy of Multilingual Students in a Malaysian Postgraduate Classroom

Koo Yew Lie*

School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi, 43600, Selangor, Malaysia


This paper reports the findings of an action research which examines postgraduate student voices in terms of a pedagogy committed to building situated critical literacy for multilingual students through a Critical Literacy Awareness (CLA) Perspective and Method. It examines a student's reflective logs as a point of entry into her negotiations of identities and knowledge. The findings indicate that for it to be empowering of learner diversity, teacher talk and interventions have to inter-culturally engage with student's unequally valued multicultural resources in context and to work with the discourses which are recognised as legitimate in education and the workplace.

© 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: Critical Literacy; Learner Diverstiy; Pluritliteracy; Multilingualism; Cultural Politics; Diverse Ways of Knowing

1. Introduction

UNESCO (2004) speaks of the importance of critical literacy (Street, 1995; Wagner et al, 1999; Robinson, 2003) in an age where symbolic violence and oppression of diverse views threat democratic civic life. Paulo Freire (1973) politicizes literacy in terms of how the conditions of 'illiteracy' are constructed by dominant and/or oppressive sociopolitical and economic structures that engender and maintain illiteracy. With rising awareness of the social and economic oppression by hegemonic and privileged systems of power, come the recognition of a need for political awareness and sensitivity to the learner's needs and diversity. Higher education should emphasize critical literacy awareness among multicultural learners in equipping and empowering them to take on their participatory roles of being global citizens.

This paper investigates a bilingual Malaysian student's intercultural negotiation of plurality and ambiguity at a culturally contested space, characteristic of any classroom. I believe that democracy can only be fostered in

* Corresponding author. Tel.:+6012- 2067-216 fax: +603 8925-4372 E-mail address:;

1877-0428 © 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.10.053

environments where diversity is encouraged through democratic institutions and the classroom teacher has to be allowed the autonomy to socialise individuals into processes of participatory democracy by being critical meaning-makers that is people who create and construct meanings through their reading-writing-speaking-listening and designing of texts. The classroom is itself a contested space for meanings and values, subject to cultural politics.

1.1 Malaysian Context

There are multiple discourses which have framed the predispositions and attitudes of students in terms of the critical thinking of a culturally mixed group of postgraduate students as those involved in the current action research which I am reporting. At the risk of essentialising, the majority of postgraduate students do not seem to articulate what they are thinking, perhaps reflecting the socialisation experiences in schooling and higher education. Some have attributed a lack of critical literacy of Malaysian students to the examination system (Molly Lee, 1999; Koo, 2008), the dominant schooling and higher education system privileging rote learning, a hierarchic position-oriented social structure (Koo, 2008), and a history of self-censorship (Wan Abdul Manan, 2008). This has been argued and supported in the theoretical (Freire & Macedo, 1987; Pandian, 2007; Koo, 2003; 2008) and empirical literature in Malaysia (Pandian, 2007; Koo, 2003, 2008 ) which argue that critical literacy which engages with actions beyond the theoretical is a literacy challenge.

2. Theoretical Assumptions: Critical Language Awareness (CLA) and Pluriliteracy

The current paper asserts that there is a need to challenge meaning-makers to strive for critical literacy to improve social life for the majority in terms of greater access and equity. The study advocates for a recognition of diversity to enhance the democratization of education which would assure greater access and equity (Street, 1995), admittedly fraught with risks and sometimes, adverse consequences on the risk-takers who come from multicultural and multilingual environments (Koo, 2009) where they are different meanings and values attached to literacy. Critical Literacy practices have been attributed to Freire (1970) who conceived it as a means of empowering the oppressed and marginalised populations against coercion and intimidation. Pedagogically, Freirean critical literacy involves examining, analyzing, and deconstructing texts. To Freire (ibid) critical teaching is a process driven by mutuality through the process of "conscientisation', not something done by the clever teacher against defenceless students. Attention is given to empowering learners through critical reflection and the development of dialogue and voice.

The dialogue is active and represents a cycle of reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. Friere (1970) terms the process, praxis. However, it is important to note that a key factor in the unequal distribution of educational outcomes as well as occupational outcomes is the learning of literacy, and the ability to work within the required Discourses (Luke, 1993) of education and the workplace. Recognising this, Koo (2008) argues for a situated Critical Language Awareness in higher education, where students are inter-culturally prepared to cope with diversity and difference in rapidly changing social and communications contexts. Koo's CLA (ibid) involves a theoretical and pedagogic perspective concerned with exploring "the complex mediation of meanings, signs, and languages between paradoxically similar and differing life-worlds of the learners. It involves the linking of secondary life-worlds of school and work with those of the primary life-worlds of family and society. CLA is concerned with exploring the necessary transitions involved in the literate markings and border crossing between different cultures required as meaning-makers move between life-worlds" that of their own and across those of others (Koo, 2008: 8).

Further, CLA includes exploring the lived experiences, radical experimentations with the writing of theory and interpretation by the meaning-maker which include voices, performance texts, and multi-media 'mystories' (Ulmer, 1989: Part 3; also Richardson, 1990a as cited in Denzin, 1991: 27) through the use of various languages (for e.g., vernacular dialects) including those related to primary life-worlds which are often marginalized and not recognized as 'worthwhile' in mainstream literacy events as they are not officially locked into formal and organized structures which are powerful. The current paper seeks to investigate how the texts and voices of the bilingual or multilingual subject are worded or represented visually or graphically in connecting their lives, "during moments of upheaval and epiphany, to these ideological texts and make sense of their experiences in terms of their meanings" (Denzin, 1991: 13).

2.1 Pluriliteracy: Student negotiating diversity

I conceptualize pluriliteracy as the negotiation of the cultural and linguistic complexities, including transitions between texts and contexts that arise at the intersections of media, economy, information, and technology from the impact of globalization. Pluriliteracy views knowledge as discursive, situationally pluralistic, and embedded in the politics of social, economic, and political power. Power is embedded through such institutions and machinery as bureaucracy, education, political party, and market-place economics.

Within a pluriliteracy perspective (Koo, 2008), learners are not easily classified as being in one essentialized ethnic group which may be portrayed in certain dominant constructions of ethnicity. Instead, pluriliteracy sees the meaning-makers as inhabiting diversity in several intersecting geographic, social, and imaginary spaces. In pluriliteracy, I challenge the notions of fixed identities arguing that other collective imaginaries of identities are possible including affiliations to global citizenry and common humanity. The difficulty for multilinguals is compounded by the fact that knowledge production in the intersections of various languages and cultures involves the need to mark linguistic and cultural transitions between their cultural worlds and that of the Discourses uncritically and normatively established in communities of practices arising from assumptions of what are appropriate norms and values.

3. Research Method

This paper examines a Malaysian postgraduate student's intercultural negotiation of plurality and ambiguity at a culturally contested space through an action research that describes thickly and interprets qualitatively what is happening in a formal education setting which is simultaneously informal in its encouragement of Voice in the form of academic writing positioned with 'informal and casual writing' (Barton & Hamilton 1998). This study draws from a critical post-modern framework to interpret the complexity of a journey through critical literacy as experienced by a multilingual and pluricultural subject. The qualitative data discussed in this paper focuses primarily on a student's reflections of her journeys around teacher talk on a diverse range of texts. The reflections are captured in logs capturing the student's struggles on the values of contested languages and cultural knowledge and the ways of representing such knowledge/s and the consequences of such representations.

In analyzing student's call for critical literacy, I developed a Critical Literacy Awareness (CLA) Instruction (Kress 2003 ; Wallace 1988, 2007; Koo 2008) method mediated for multilingual Malaysian and international students taking a postgraduate course. The course aims to explore issues on critical literacy awareness pedagogy through multiple lens including student's reflections of ther journey in becoming a critical meaning-maker through CLA instructional method, building self awareness of their various cultural backgrounds, contexts and beliefs. The CLA Instruction in this research involves two main stages, with two steps in each stage:

3.Data Collection

There are five partcipants in the study which consist of three domestic students and two international students from Iran and Iraq. Four of the participants are fairly experienced school teachers with a minimum of five years of experience teaching mainly in Malaysia and one has taught in Singapore. The key subject, Suzaini (not her real name) in this paper is a twenty-five year old female student who is presently working in a bank in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This paper analyzes her reflections of journeys through critical literacy pedagogy in a Malaysian postgraduate classroom focusing on teacher talk around a diverse range of texts as well as student reflection of recommended texts in their written logs.

This action research consists of audio recordings of approximately 120, 000 words which include teacher and student talk around key text references assigned for specific lectures. The research examines the main informant of the study—Suzaini's background, and her reflective logs based on her response to teacher talk (lectures) and to the



Step 1:Overt Instruction Step 2: Critical Framing Literacy profiles Relating profiles to key concepts Reference texts

Literacy case-study_

Step 1: Group Dialogues

Step 2: Transformed Critical Literacy Practices

Literacy profiles

Situating key concepts in relation to profiles

Literacy reflections on concepts, references and case-


reference texts that she has been assigned to read for the course. Furthermore, the analysis of data also involves qualitative examination of teacher talk which is thematically related to the learners' development of critical voice.

3.2 Characteristics of Teacher Talk in CLA Instruction

Teacher talk around critical literacy awareness pedagogy has to engage with student's situated experiences and the use of multiple content texts through plural pathways (linguistic and semiotic). In terms of teaching in multilingual environments, the resources of the multilingual speaker can be utilized as learning resources to allow students engage with various cultures and codes in meaning-making, working through the challenges, tensions, and ambivalence around such cultures and codes.

Teacher talk is captured in terms of transcriptions of lectures and tutorials over a semester. Critical incidents are selected from students reflective logs and teacher talk around three key concepts: developing self awareness as a (multicultural, multilingual) person, mindful talk and meaning-making as a contested and complex sociocultural activity (talking through competing Cultural Discourses using literacy events and literacy acts as multiple points of entry) and the role of the teacher as a transformer, mindful of reproducing social injustice and inequalities through unmindful language reproduction and other practices. Teacher talk is framed around the teacher's perspectives on CLA with pluriliteracy as main theoretical perspective and a number of textual references (these include texts written by domestic writers and international writers).

3.3 Characteristics of Student Reflections in CLA in Multilingual Contexts

Student reflections (written-designed and spoken) in a variety of codes (e.g. formal-informal and engaging in a number of languages as in code-switching) are used as wide angled (complex) lenses to look at the meaning-making of students. This includes student logs to explore students' reflections of their journey in becoming critical readers, which are connecting with their life-histories, values and perspectives as meaning-makers.The use of learners' diverse languages is encouraged so that they learn to negotiate their various funds of knowledge and that their voices through such language is heard. Through this representation of their meanings in relation to particular Discourses are explored.

4. Data Analysis and Discussion

During the intervention, concepts on critical awareness on language choice around meaning making are introduced to the students. The teacher raises the point that critical language literacy is more than the understanding on the linguistics knowledge and it encompasses the use of other modalities, such as visual science and cultural knowledge. Moreover, by drawing close to the teacher's own experiences, the teacher provides critical moments for the students to reflect how critical language consciousness in multicultural environments can be strengthened through an awareness of language choice and meaning-making.

The meanings that are dominantly accepted by the speech community and gatekeepers of texts, virtual designs and events are at the same time reproducing hegemonic values. CLA helps to build awareness on the reproductive role of language in meaning-making. By arguing that "all texts are partial' (unedited data from teacher talk) and they capture only partial realities of social life, the teachers is emphasising the subjectivity of interpretation and production in discursive interaction. To help students understand that they are also reproducers of texts and to be sensitive to the values embedded in texts, the teacher introduces to the students the concept of "mindfulness" in text and speech in social-cultural-political contexts. It is hoped that by bringing them into the process of rethinking-reading-writing-speaking of texts and speech, students would be able to present and construct social realities more deliberately, holistically and equally, and not to be unthinkingly blinded by the overuse of routines and protocols in language education (Camnitzer 2009). This is the heart of critical literacy, mindfulness of language use in speech and text.

4.1 Suzaini's Literacy Profile and Reflective Logs

In requiring Suzaini to write I as the teacher was trying to help her become self aware of the ways in which her literacy as a meaning-maker is shaped by her personal background and by her secondary life-worlds. Suzaini becomes conscious that languages and dialects are valued variously according to contexts. It is from this awareness ('conscientisation') that she becomes more sensitive to how meaning makers are positioned and where they position themselves. Throughout the course, she becomes more conscious in assuming the roles of a cultural mediator to bridge the language and discursive gaps among different communities of practice. . Perhaps this increased

consciousness of the literacies legitimised in varying context will help Suzaini become more sensitive to the ambiguity and challenges of balancing the need to conform to dominant Discoures and at the same time retain a sense of her voice.

Born in Johor Bahru, Suzaini works as a customer service officer in an international bank in Kuala Lumpur. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in a local public university. Malay language is her mother tongue, althou gh she is also fluent in English language, mostly due to the influence of her father who was educated at an English medium school. Suzaini attended convent schools in Johor Bahru for her primary and secondary education in which English was the main medium of instruction. She speaks English mostly with her friends and teachers in schools. Malay language is her first language as well as the dominant national and community language. She uses Bahasa Melayu with family members and to her peers in religious school where she was exposed to basic Arabic. During her pre-university years in a matriculation college, Suzaini encountered her first intercultural experience in terms of understanding the different dialects of her mother tongue—the Malay language.

Extract 1

This was my first time, studied at different state. Here since all my friends are Malays, and from different states, we speak standard Bahasa Melayu. However, it was hard for me to understand the dialects especially, the Negeri Sembilan's dialect, Kelantan and Terengganu dialect and as well Northern Malaysia's dialects (Pulau Pinang and Kedah). Sometimes, due to the culture different it creates conflicts. For example, the word that we use, the clothes that we wear, what and how we eat it.

While pursuing her first degree in English in a public university, Suzaini had chosen Japanese language as her minor due to her interest and influence of the Japanese popular culture on her. She was exposed to the culture, history and the lifestyle of the Japanese in class. Her active participation in AIESEC, a student exchange organization in the university provided her with the opportunities to interact with exchange students from different countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea. This experience strengthens her belief that the learning of different languages, cultures or values allows her "think differently and appreciate other people around you" (unedited extract from her reflective logs).

Suzaini's experience in the global bank industry not only gives her exposure to bank products and services but to customers from diverse backgrounds including those from different ethnic groups within Malaysia. In one of the CLA classroom experiences focused on the politics of power and language use, she writes about one of the challenges that she faced at work in her reflective logs:

Extract 2

The most challenge that I faced, when I was caught in between the bank procedures and the same time I want to fulfil my customer needs, especially in the language that I used. As the bank officer, I should speak Standard English while on the other hands most of my customers hardly speak and understand fluent English. Due to this situation, some of the customer enquiries are not fully settled and the end customer will felt distance. In addition, some of the scripts for bank products and promotion that have provided for the bank offices are mostly in English. Due to this, I propose to my manager to assist to translate the script to Bahasa Melayu. This is because, this will help not only my customer to understand but as well my colleague to use standard Bahasa Melayu. Now I realized, that there are many things that I should help or language create awareness among the people around me that. (unedited transcript)

After reading a reference text on language and cultural process (Lankshear et al, 1997), Suzaini has included her reflection on the text by drawing her experience as a multicultural Malaysian. By allowing Suzaini the spaces and freedom to write her reflective logs where 'informal and casual writing' (Barton & Hamilton 1998) and 'unstandard' English constitute most of her logs, the researcher helps the learner enter the fray of contested positions on English language use vis a vis national and community languages. Here, Suzaini has began to reflect on the cultural ambiguity as being a modern Malay and attempted to dig in deeper and explore the ambiguity from where she is situated—a culturally diverse space with multi languages and dialects as her repertoire of languages and the funds of knoweldge that she has. Although she is a member of the majority ethnic group, the Malays, she deconstructs the seemingly 'easy description' imposed on her identity in relation to the other cultural groups in

these ways, "Who determine which culture is good compare to other cultures?", "Who determines all this", "However who version?"(unedited data from her reflective logs) where she is referring to imposed constructions of fixed identities. Her ambivalence and tensions on cultural ambiguity indicate how the relationship and the subjectivity of language and culture is interpreted and produced in discursive interaction. The following in an extract from her logs:

Extract 3

When I read this article, I question myself which culture do I belong? I am Malay but what are the identities of Malay culture that I represent? The way I eat, speaks, wear or do I belong to Malay culture. Culture is not only was derived from our ancestor but as well the influence by surround us, media and many other factors. Nowadays, media play a big role to create value of culture. For example how media gives value to the entire Hollywood actor and actress, singer, and others. How we as viewer, accept the advertisement on the what beauty is? Which culture that has high prestige?

• Who determine which culture is good compare to other cultures?

• What are the different between each of the cultures?

• Do all cultures have values? Who determines all this?

• Does value of culture create by media?

• However who version?

• How is the version?

• Whether the majority numerical compared the minority?

No matter which culture that we belong, we should be able to know why we choose this culture, and makes you belong to this culture or maybe you wants to create your culture.

4.2 Negotiating Critical Language Awareness, risking being labelled as recalcitrant?

In incidents when there are new plans and procedures implemented in the organization where Suzaini serves, she often finds that most of her colleagues do not express their opinion or disagreement about the execution to the management team. She feels that they are not asserting critical literacy when there are circumstances that require a position. In asserting human agency in her work, for example, Suzaini has become conscious of the fact that she has to frequently check and balance her action before making any decision. Aware that there are benefits, risks and consequences to any 'praxis' embedded in her decisions she feels the need to negotiate critical literacy to exercise agency in relation to organizational behavior and values. However, it does not stop her self-imposed 'guilt' as a 'black sheep' when she tries to express her thoughts on the management team's decision. The following conversation draws from Suzaini's real experience in asserting her critical literacy when the bank management team attempted to enforce a policy to reduce the staff's lunch hour. She articulates that although she risks being labeled as a black sheep there were also possibilities.

Extract 4

Teacher: Because there's a costs... benefit, and consequence to any praxis, any praxis. They are aware of it.

Student: And then uh.I voice out.

Teacher: And then? Are you, are you just uh uh.. .discriminated?

Student: I said, I said that uh uh I highlight this to my manager that, why don't you actually ask our feedback first, before you implement it straight away? And maybe... Teacher: And what did she say?

Student: Uh we uh. we just said test it for three months, see how it goes for forty five minutes. Is it we managed to do that? Or is it we should. carry, yeah. So uh, due to my voice out, they actually decide to have fifteen minute and forty five minute instead of give one hour. Teacher: . Compromise la.

Student: Which my friends think that it's good for me to voice out, but on behalf of my friends.

Teacher: But were you... but, but, but was that seen positively? By management or, or were you seen as recalcitrant?

Student: Mmm (agree). But sometimes. because of you voice out on behalf of others, I might be seen by the managers and, you know, I'm the person who actually. kind of like black sheep in the.I don't feel tired. For me, it's just a challenge and experience for me to learns a new things. Because my manager will give me a new task for me to do.

4.3 CLA: Unlocking the Possibilities of Vernacular Languages and Dialects in Organizational and Institutional Structures

As a senior officer that handling the retail & commercial banking inquiries at her workplace, Suzaini deals with clients from all walks of life. The most challenging experience she had was when she was caught between her requirement to comply to the bank procedures and her responsibility to fulfil her customer's needs, especially in terms of language use. As a bank officer, Suzaini is required to "speak Standard English' (unedited extract from her reflective logs) while most of her customers hardly speak and understand English. Many of the scripts for bank products and promotion given to the customer service officers are written in Standard English. Suzaini notes that the bank officers are not allowed to code-switch as is typical of Malaysian speech when they are communicating with clients over the phone. These practices have caused inquiries to pile up and expressions of frustration from the multilingual customers. Seeing this Suzaini proposes to her bank manager to translate the English language scripts into Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) to facilitate communication with Malaysian clients. Here she was exercising praxis in terms of utilizing multilingual resources to enhance the bank services. That was eventually taken up.

Extract 5

Lecturer: You see, this is to me uh a case. uh, a case, uh a very important case where you are actually... uh... exercising praxis in terms of multilingual resources. Why is ABC (bank) only bind i nto English language codes? We are in a multilingual society. It should be. Bahasa should come in. as well as the other languages actually.

Student: Uh, I suggested. Because uh it seems that everything on the new products, they will come out with. English.In advertisement, yes, there is a Chinese characters, Bahasa and also English. No, no Tamil.

The lecturer (the researcher in this case) explores further into the possibilities of an organization, such as the bank which Suzaini serves, to transform local knowledge and languages of the region in their operationalization structures. Suzaini then shares with the class her initiative in designing different Malay language scripts for the products and services to serve the local customers who are less proficient in the 'Standard English' that the bank advocates. It is to be noted that this bank is based in Singapore and prides itself as a global institution. It is therefore locked into the global system of reproducing Standard English viewed in terms of Native Speaker Models.

Extract 6

Lecturer: The civilizational knowledge is a client based, is a client based, is a market place talking.But when you talk about ABC is a bank that serves the region, then it has to engage to civilizational knowledge. So how do you know that you will not engage at a uh uh person who is um.. maybe poor now. or may economically poor. But who maybe a Tamil millionaire and likes the fact that ABC (Bank), has started to think about the Tamil language.

Student: Uh. during as spoken, yes. Only now, because I, I feel like. okay uh for me to speak with those uh. Mister or Misses. from Bank ABC you know, from Pahang, Bentong. I don't. I believe that..


Student: Yes. And they have like, you know, "fantastic, Sir, this is promotion ", even a customer asked me about the internet. I mean the, the setting of the PC. I can't use like, you know, firewall everything. They might not familiar but they have to, I mean have that. So, I try to get it uh. I try to come up with a standard scripts.. .At the same time I try to have another script which is.. .okay, if you come across with this

kind of customer, which language that you should use? Because you are not allowed to do a. uh code switch.

By engaging the students' life experiences, the teachers is exploring issues of diversity and in this particular case, the issue of the bank's institutional power and its sole preoccupation with a single standard English is reflected on by Suzaini in relation to the Malaysian client's othered languages such as Tamil. Issues around the student's own intercultural negotiation of such hegemonic assumptions imposed on the customers and the staff of the bank are raised.

5. Concluding Remarks

The pedagogical framework that I am exploring in this paper seeks to help multilingual and culturally diverse students to think critically through their plural identities and the possibilities in the representations of such complex identities. Through CLA pedagogy, meaning makers like Suzaini creates a discursive space through which she becomes conscious of herself as occupying complex composite and competing subject positions on sites (e.g. the workplace and academic sites) and subject to the politics of recognition and power. Through CLA, she begins to reflect, question and challenge as to the boundaries of what is unproblematically defined as 'academic' in relation to the vernacular, what is academic knowledge in relation to the workplace and the issue of power in the recognition of text and speech.


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