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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

This article reports a study that investigated how two Saudi Arabian men negotiated their positionality vis-à-vis a host community in the United States and how they engaged in different discursive practices in order to achieve fuller participation in the various worlds that became important to them. The study takes data from a larger research project that looked at the narrated experiences of nine adult learners enrolled in an intensive English program in the United States. Data were collected over a 6-month period using ethnographic data collection tools such as classroom observations, individual interviews, and student-designed second language (L2) photo narratives. The article focuses on the processes by which two language learners of a particularly politicized and racialized cultural group (Muslims of Arab descent) were able to renegotiate their peripherality through their ongoing interactions as “novices” in new L2 “expert” communities (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Although the two cases diverge in critical ways, the findings show not only how post-9/11 discourses served as powerfully marginalizing structures, but also how the learners actively managed those structures in their bids for fuller participation in L2 communities.

The relationship between the language learner and the target language context is one that has been given increased attention in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), particularly in light of the ever-growing interest in second language (L2) identity research (Block, 2007; Norton & Toohey, 2011). This body of work has offered new perspectives on language learning, illustrating how learners' multiple identifications (based on categories of gender, race, and sexual orientation, among others) can impact their L2 learning processes as well as their access to L2 community resources. Despite more focused attention to these relationships in L2 learning, however, one issue that has been underresearched in the field is that of identity, race, and TESOL in post-9/11 contexts, because little work has honed in on the experiences of learners who identify as Muslim or on how current exclusionary social and political discourses can create complex conditions for learning and participation. Addressing this gap in research becomes more pressing when one considers the significant increase in Saudi Arabians living and studying abroad since the 2005 initiation of the Saudi Scholarship Program (from approximately 2,500 in 2005 to 50,000 in 2011 in the United States alone). Furthermore, because structures of differentiation and exclusion around Islam can be located across TESOL communities (Dunn, Klocker, & Salabay, 2007; Rich & Troudi, 2006), well beyond the U.S. context, this remains an area of needed research with global relevance.

This article reports on a study that investigated how two Saudi Arabian men negotiated their positionality vis-à-vis the L2 community in which they lived and studied English as a second language (ESL), and how they each engaged in different discursive practices (Davies & Harré, 1999) in order to achieve fuller participation in the various L2 worlds that became important to them. The study takes data from a larger research project that looked at nine adult learners enrolled in an intensive English program (IEP) in the United States, the focus here being on the processes by which learners of a particularly politicized and racialized cultural group (Muslims of Arab descent) were able to renegotiate their peripherality through their ongoing, and often incongruent, interactions in the larger L2 community. I begin by discussing the conceptual orientations and literature that shaped this investigation, including a discussion that situates the research problem within broader discussions of race, Islam, and TESOL in post-9/11 contexts.

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

Aimed at exploring the complex, and often contentious, relationship between L2 learners and the social worlds in which they participate, this study drew on theoretical orientations that view language learning as participation in a linguistic community and that regard language learning itself as a situated social practice. The communities of practice framework (CoP; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) is often cited by those who are interested in how L2 learners form identities as they move from peripheral to full participation in social worlds, and how that participation is or is not sanctioned by those in power within those worlds. In their original framework, Lave and Wenger (1991) conceptualized peripherality based on their theoretical concept of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). LPP was seen as a positive and necessary point, a position of possibility, in which newcomers are situated within a community of practice. The concept suggested “an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 37), with the learner's “novice” status seen positively by the expert community (rather than as a reason for exclusion) in order for the learner to engage on a path toward full participation.

Interestingly, as the CoP framework has been applied to L2 contexts (Leki, 2001; Morita, 2004; Norton, 2000, 2001; Toohey, 2000), it has been found that LPP, as Kanno (1998) argued, “is not how it is” (p. 128) and that learners “are often blocked from the very resource that is vital to their acquisition of the L2: opportunities to interact with native speakers” (p. 129). In other words, L2 learners are not always offered LPP, their paths toward full participation are not always sanctioned, and L2 learners can be denied access to community resources as a result of local biases around categories of gender, race, and linguistic ability. How learners negotiate those structures of marginalization and bid for more powerful stances remains an important topic of investigation (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001; Norton & Toohey, 2011). This study aimed at addressing this issue by looking more closely at the activities and interactions that take place at the periphery of communities of practice, conceptualizing that space as a dynamic site of struggle in which learners construct their identities through their ongoing discursive practices within those communities.

IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

Poststructuralist approaches to second language acquisition recognize that L2 learners are engaged in a dialogic relationship with society, one in which context is negotiated rather than presupposed, and in which speakers must continuously negotiate their identity positions relative to other speakers (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001; Norton & Toohey, 2011). From these perspectives, learners' identities, both in how they are socially imposed and how they are self-articulated, can be regarded as discursive practices, that is, social enterprises that involve learners continuously engaging with a variety of discourses constructed around their multiple identity positions, including, among many others, their racial and cultural identities. Weedon (1997) emphasizes the constitutive role of discourse, discursive referring to “ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and the relations between them” (p. 108). Complementary to that view, Davies and Harré (1999) put forth the idea that “to know anything is to know in terms of one or more discourses” (pp. 34–35), with discourse understood not as a property of an individual, but as a “multi-faceted public process through which meanings are progressively and dynamically achieved” (p. 35). In the same theoretical vein, a learner's agency is understood as a socially situated, culturally bound process. As Butler (2004) characterizes it, agency is action that is, somewhat paradoxically, made available by the discursive parameters within which we all exist; she wrote, “If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose” (p. 3).

A view of identity and agency as situated enterprises gives particular meaning to the processes by which L2 learners negotiate participation in L2 communities. In many ways, achieving fuller participation is a process of recognition and belonging, embedded in the dynamic discursive frameworks of the social worlds in which they desire participation. With recognition as the goal, learners engage with multiple discourses to achieve what constitutes a “coherent” subject position (Davies & Harré, 1999). As Block (2007) puts it, “all actors will position themselves and others according to their sense of what constitutes a coherent narrative for the particular activity, time, and place” (p. 19). Related to this perspective are what Butler (2004) characterizes as norms of recognition, or ways of being and doing that make individuals intelligible to others, compelling them to engage in self-regulation and take up readable identities as a way of establishing recognition and carving out coherent modes of belonging. For example, Ellwood's (2009) research illustrates how L2 learners (and experts) are pressured to “operate within known discourses” (p. 113); otherwise they risk “uninhabitable identifications” in the community. The findings of Ellwood's study show that although Japanese ESL learners resisted racialized discourses in order to overcome obstacles to participation, they also recognized themselves within those discourses and took up positions that were aligned with negative stereotypes of Japanese students “in the name of intelligibility” (p. 113). Respectively, one might expect that certain identity options are made salient at the periphery of L2 communities in light of post-9/11 Islamophobic discourses that offer undesirable, yet widely recognizable, positions to learners who identify as Arab and Muslim. Furthermore, because inequality and discrimination on the basis of religious and cultural identification are being seen as increasingly racialized, the topic of racial identity and TESOL takes on new dimensions.

PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

To diverge from simplistic notions of race as a decontextualized, objective condition, the concept of racialization has been used in the literature to explain race as a “socially constructed response to sociocultural, political, and historical conditions at a given point in time” (Rich & Troudi, 2006, p. 617). As such, the growing anti-Islamicism of recent decades is indicative of what some scholars have referred to as the “new racism” (Cole, 1997), illustrative of how discourses of otherness and inferiority can be applied to ethnic groups on the grounds of cultural markers such as shared religion, language, and beliefs. In fact, new racism frameworks illuminate the increasingly contested terrain of distinctions between categories of race and ethnicity, the particular phenomenon of Islamophobia showing how those two constructs can become collapsed in real-world contexts. Dunn et al. (2007) have contended that Islamophobia is informed by both “old” and “new” logics, being based not “on some supposed biological grounds, but on religion and culture (including appearance) more generally” (p. 567). According to these authors, new racisms still draw heavily from discourses of otherness, yet “fundamentally assist with structures of inferiority (hierarchies) and differentiation (exclusion)” (p. 567).

Rich and Troudi's (2006) report on Saudi MA TESOL students in the United Kingdom examines some of the ways in which new racisms operate in L2 learning communities where Islamophobic discourses are becoming increasingly evident. In their report, the Saudi participants' accounts of othering did not always reference race directly; however, they foregrounded religion, culture, and ethnicity in ways that were understood as “evidence of racialized Othering taking place” (p. 623). Further, post-9/11 discourses shaped how these learners saw themselves in relation to the larger L2 community. They had expectations of being treated unequally on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity, and as one Saudi learner put it: “What is going on around the world politically and what is going on in the Middle East is always looming in the back of my mind” (p. 623).

With regard to the social context of this particular study (the United States), I use the term post-9/11 narrative to represent dominant storylines that have developed in the media and public discourses on the topics of Islam, “alien” immigration to the United States, U.S. citizenship, and terrorism since the violent events of September 11, 2001. Since 9/11, not only have there been remarkable changes in U.S. legislation and immigration policy that have resulted in exclusionary practices toward immigrants from the Middle East (Sekhon, 2003; Shaw, 2009), but reports of discrimination against Arab Americans (Kulwicki, Khalifa, & Moore, 2008) as well as Middle Eastern university students have increased (Norris, 2011). Although there has been a considerable (and many say equal) outpouring of support for Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, as well as public condemnation of hate crimes and discrimination, the increased attention placed on Muslims has resulted nonetheless in their transformation from “invisible” to “glaringly conspicuous” (Salaita, 2005, p. 149). Howell and Shyrock (2003) describe the repercussions of such visibility:

In the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologize for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned, and to openly profess loyalties that, for most U.S. citizens, are merely assumed. (p. 444)

In some ways, the inauguration of the Saudi Scholarship Program could be viewed as a powerful public counterstatement to pervasively negative post-9/11 sentiments, given that one mission of the program, as articulated by a joint statement from former President George W. Bush and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdullaziz Al Saud following their well-known 2005 meeting in Crawford, Texas, is to “expand dialogue, understanding, and interactions between our [American and Saudi] citizens” so as to “overcome obstacles facing Saudi businessmen and students who wish to enter the United States” (quoted in Shaw, 2009, p. 60). As a result of such initiatives, the Saudi student population has risen significantly not only in the United States, but also worldwide. Thus, it is quite surprising that only a few published studies (e.g., Rich & Troudi, 2006) have examined outcomes of this increased presence in TESOL communities—for both students and TESOL professionals—against the backdrop of an increasingly Islamophobic climate.

The choice to theorize at the intersection of peripherality, Islam, and ESL learning was an attempt to address this gap in L2 research on this particular group of learners by examining (1) how structures of marginalization shape Saudi learners' L2 experiences and (2) how learners manage these structures through their ongoing interactions in the L2 community. Because the second goal involved examining how learners construct agentive stances in the face of marginalizing circumstances, the theoretical orientations toward agency discussed, along with Lave and Wenger's (1999) description of LPP, helped to foreground an understanding of peripherality that was meant to leave “conceptual room for the actions and investments of human agents” (Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 427). Therefore, peripherality is regarded here as a space of possibility—rather than entirely a space of exclusion—one in which multiple and divergent discursive options are available by means of both structures of cultural reproduction as well as by the interpretive processes of the subjects who engage with them.

METHOD

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

Participants and Setting

This study takes data from a larger study that looked at a group of nine adult ESL learners studying in an IEP who were diverse in cultural and linguistic background, age, and academic and professional trajectories. The larger study was not specifically guided by research questions focused on race in L2 learning, but instead by a broader research question: How do L2 learners negotiate the periphery in order to achieve fuller participation in L2 communities? From this study, I elaborate here on two of the nine participants' experiences, the two Saudi men of the participant group, Musa and Alim. The salient themes that emerged across these cases provided a strong rationale to further examine how structures of racialization influenced their experiences as L2 learners, and are thus analyzed here from that framework.

Musa

Musa (age 18) began learning English as a foreign language (EFL) at a young age in Saudi Arabia, as part of the general school curriculum, and he reported to have had much exposure to English through American movies, the Internet, and video games available to him in his home country. After completing high school in Saudi Arabia, Musa began his study in the United States as part of a Saudi Scholarship Program affiliated with a Saudi corporate manufacturer with U.S. subsidiaries. The recipients of this scholarship were funded for 1 year of study in ESL and prerequisite courses in math and science, after which they were eligible to apply to a 4-year U.S. degree program in engineering.

Alim

As a graduate student, Alim (age 26) was planning to enter an MBA program following his ESL coursework, and his ESL studies were also funded by scholarships from the Saudi government. Like Musa, Alim began studying EFL at a young age as part of his school curriculum; however, being 8 years older than Musa and established in his professional career, Alim had spent considerable time in other English-speaking countries before coming to the United States. He travelled internationally with his father as a business apprentice, his family often vacationed in England, and he had been employed in New Zealand the year before choosing to study in the United States.

Research setting

The study took place in the IEP of a large university in the southern United States in which the participants were enrolled in ESL classes. Townesville (a pseudonym for the city in which the study took place) has been characterized as a haven of countercultural attitudes and boasted a liberal identity, in contrast to the general political leanings of the state (conservative). The university's large international student population, along with the region's historically strong Mexican American presence, contributed greatly to the city's racial and linguistic diversity. Yet, despite these characteristics, the city continued to struggle with race relations and showed signs of geographical segregation.

Data Collection

The project's focal goal was to contribute to research that examines emic perspectives on second language learning, particularly by investigating “the conditions for learning, and the issues of access of learners for appropriation of practices” of the social worlds that become important to learners (Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 419). In order to meet these goals, my orientation required an interpretive epistemological stance as well as ethnographic methods of data collection.

I became acquainted with the study participants in 2009, when I took on an active membership role (Adler & Adler, 1994) in an advanced-level listening and speaking course in the IEP. As a participant-observer, I participated in many class activities, assisted the teacher at times, and interacted with students as part of class discussions. My participation in the classroom community became a primary means by which to get to know the participants and, informed by multiple data collection tools, co-construct their narratives of experience. Data were collected during a semester-long period, and data sources were (1) classroom observations, (2) interviews, and (3) student-designed oral photo narratives. My participation and regular observation in the classroom community was an important source of data due to the course content and design, which encouraged students to interact and draw on personal experiences that related to course topics. Because I was not allowed to record class sessions (except for students' oral presentations of their photo narratives), I took detailed notes during observations. In addition to the observations, I conducted between 1 and 2 hours of formal interviews with the participants, which were digitally recorded and transcribed. Finally, participants completed a photo narrative assignment in which they were instructed to use photography to document their experiences. This project culminated in a formal class presentation in which they visually arranged and discussed photographs that represented their goals, inner thoughts, and views of themselves over time. Students' presentations of their photo narratives were digitally recorded and transcribed, as were postpresentation interviews I conducted with participants.

Approach to Analysis

The data were primarily narrative, and I applied a framework for analysis informed by narrative inquiry (Barkhuizen, 2011; Ochs & Capps, 1996). Drawing from these perspectives, I viewed the research activities as performative, sense-making practices through which the participants' identities were continuously iterated and transformed through their telling and retelling of experience; all the while the participants were building “novel understandings of themselves-in-the-world” (Ochs & Capps, 1996, p. 23).

As a co-constructor with the participants of their stories, my approach to analysis necessarily involved “narrative knowledging” (Barkhuizen, 2011), because both the participants and I were mutually involved in “meaning making, learning, and knowledge construction” (Barkhuizen, p. 395) at different stages of the research process. On the participants' side, this meant that they used a variety of narrative forms (e.g., creating a photo story), some more interactive than others (e.g., responses to guided interview questions), in order to engage in a sense-making activity of their experiences as L2 learners abroad. I, as the researcher, recognizing the interactional nature of their stories as well as the context in which these were told, approached the data as discursive artifacts by which to do continuous comparison of multiple data sources both within and across individual cases. Data analysis involved initially identifying broad categories of experience across data sources and coding for themes. As initial conclusions were drawn, I then triangulated across data sources (e.g., photo narrative, interviews) to clarify and corroborate findings. Writing the findings represented another layer of analysis; the two cohesive stories presented are the product of connecting and emplotting salient themes. Member checks (in which participants read and commented on the written findings) were conducted with selected available participants, and Musa was one of those participants.

RESEARCHER POSITIONALITY AND STUDY LIMITATIONS

Given the foci of this article, it is important to acknowledge that, as researcher, I occupied several meaning-laden social identities as a female native speaker of English and member of the mainstream target language community. Although I am of Lebanese descent and share physical features of that ethnic group, my positionality as an American, a woman, and an “outsider” to the classroom community undoubtedly shaped my interactions with the learners and my interpretation of their experiences. There were perhaps multiple advantages and disadvantages to this positionality, but I hoped that adherence to specific research strategies (e.g., data triangulation, prolonged field engagement, member checks, peer debriefing) would enhance the credibility and trustworthiness of the data presented.

Other limitations were present and should be noted. First, all of the research activities were conducted in the participants' L2 of English. Working with advanced speakers and incorporating nonlinguistic data sources (i.e., the photo narrative project) were means to reduce that limitation. Second, Alim was one of the few participants who was not able to participate in the postpresentation interview, and although participation in this activity would have enhanced the data, I was able to confirm what I conjectured in my analysis through triangulation of the remaining data sources.

FINDINGS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

In the following sections, I present the stories of Musa and Alim, with the goal of illustrating the ways in which these two learners negotiated participation outside of the ESL classroom. As will become apparent, these stories diverge in critical ways, and I aim to highlight how their different discursive practices were contingent on the multiple identity positions that were prioritized in the participants' ongoing, situated negotiations for participation. Musa, at age 18, was embarking on his first experience outside of his home country, and his narrative of participation centered on his “opening” to social worlds outside of his familiar first language (L1) parameters. At age 26, Alim brought a transnational expertise with him, having previously lived and worked abroad, and his narrative of participation centered on how his ethnic and religious identities were contested in the wake of 9/11. In both cases, the learners constructed a sense of autonomy in managing the disruptions they encountered, achieving identity positions that were both iterative and transformative of their previous positions.

Musa

Musa was the youngest member of the ESL class in which I became a participant observer, but he was one of the most confident in himself and his linguistic abilities. Before arriving in Townesville the fall semester prior to my data collection, he had just completed high school in his hometown, and he had plans to study engineering in the United States for 5 years as part of the Saudi scholarship program. One major aspect to participating in the program was that Musa felt a strong attachment to a peer group of fellow Saudi scholarship recipients, because he had become acquainted with them in pre-travel and arrival orientations, shared the same course schedule with them, and lived with them in the same residence.

Upon his arrival in the United States, Musa reported to be enthusiastic and optimistic, familiar with the common myths of “America” as representing opportunity and promise. “I mean, come on,” he told me, “it's the land of opportunity. … Like, everyone around the world, believe me, wants to come to America.” He recognized the symbolic value of participating in the U.S. higher education system, and although he had plans to return to Saudi Arabia after 5 years, he expressed an openness to assimilating to some degree. He arrived in Townesville with short hair, a mustache, and a beard, all of which were specific markers of his cultural and ethnic background. After he arrived, he had shaved his facial hair and let the hair on his head grow long, citing, “I am not in my country. I can do whatever I want.” Musa was interested in participating in the social world of college undergraduates, he was enthusiastic and talkative in the ESL class, and his story of his first year abroad centered on his emerging independence and openness to new social and cultural groups.

By the time Musa began his second semester in the ESL program, he had made several international student friends, yet he considered the process of making American friends very different:

The international students are more open, well, not more open, but more willing to meet. But the American, like, you are coming to them, they have their own lives, own friends, own system, and you just bust in, and, you know, some of them doesn't like it.

Here, Musa recognized himself as an outsider to “expert” community practices, aligning himself within the imagined community of international students, which, although hardly homogenous in regard to its members' national identities, languages, and positionality vis-à-vis the host community, he understood as bounded by a common newcomer status. As we will see, Musa took up this position as a newcomer and outsider to the larger host community, and these identities informed his trajectory of participation.

Musa had a strong attachment to the places he considered home in Townesville, and they represented important sites of belonging for him that offered different opportunities for participation outside of his Saudi group. As the study began, Musa was in his second semester in Townesville and had just moved out of the dormitory into a private apartment. He had much regret over this decision:

In [the apartment], nobody cares about you. You just pay and that's it. So you don't have some connection to the community. I don't know my front door neighbors; I never see them.

Reflecting on this move, Musa regretted not taking more advantage of his time in the dormitory, having “a lot of chances” to meet new people.

Musa's photo narrative included several images of the different spaces of the dormitory. When I asked him if he associated any of these images with a particular language (English or Arabic), he associated pictures of the dormitory building and his room with Arabic because he had not yet met anyone outside of his Saudi group. However, when we came to the photograph of the dorm volleyball courts, he reported to associate it with English, saying that it represented the time when he “started opening up to people.” He started to play volleyball, adding some Americans as friends.

There was another critical site of participation that Musa frequented, and that was the lobby of his dormitory. He explained its importance:

And I started to go to the lobby. I didn't take a picture of the lobby, [but] I like to spend more than 2 or 3 hours in the lobby with my laptop and stuff, so anyone who sits next to me, we talk … I had a lot of questions so that keeps the conversation going.

For Musa, frequenting the lobby represented an intelligible (Butler, 2004) move toward the center of new social communities; he engaged within recognizable storylines by interacting in public spaces that offered opportunities for newcomers to participate. This is not to say that the newcomer identity was entirely sanctioned by Musa. It was largely imposed on him through community ideologies that placed the onus on L2 learners (and newcomers) to initiate relationships with experts. Yet, by recognizing his position within these discourses, he took up a readable framework by which to negotiate a new and more desirable positionality.

Musa's reflections on his experiences suggest that his opening as a person coincided with his opening to the multiple communities around him. Musa described ways in which his time in Townesville had been transformative. He had become “more sociable” and explained: “No matter where you put me right now, I know I can make a lot of friends. Even starting from zero.” For him, this was a new way of being, as he considered social relationships, especially between men, in his home country as very closed:

You cannot meet someone in a coffee shop [in Saudi Arabia]. You say “Hi” and he says, “What do you want?” They always respond in a negative way. But now, here, I am really opening up to people.

Ultimately, this was a positive stance to achieve for Musa, it was both iterative and transformative of his previous subject positions, and it was realized through his situated navigation of multiple social worlds.

As will become clear when I discuss Alim, Musa did not engage with post-9/11 discourses in the same way as Alim did, and his novice identity was mostly associated with two factors: his age and his inexperience with others outside of the Saudi Arabian culture. Musa, being 8 years younger than Alim, was embarking on his first meaningful experience outside of Saudi Arabia, and his trajectory of belonging reflected his budding independence from the religious, familial, and cultural parameters of his L1 world. Part of that trajectory involved a resistance to Islamophobic discourses, taking up the position that racism was only a problem “if one was looking for it.” He did report being initially afraid of how he would be treated in the United States as a Saudi student, but in a joking manner. “I thought they would put me in a cage and walk me around the city,” he kidded. He even reported being subject to racial profiling in the customs line upon entering the country, getting “picked out” of the line for a special search. Yet, aside from these initial experiences, he did not consider himself to be subject to racism in his everyday life, finding most people in Townesville to be open-minded and interested in his country. This is not to say that Musa was excluded from racial discourses, but his uncritical acceptance of his outsider status points to the persuasive power of discourse around citizenship, belonging, and national identity. As a factor that distinguished his story from Alim's, I will revisit Musa's discursive stance toward discriminating social forces later on.

Alim

Alim (age 26) was from a metropolitan city in western Saudi Arabia, and he had been in Townesville for 18 months when I met him. His prior year working in New Zealand was a significant L2 learning experience for him, which he described as the first time he had to use English for real communication both at work and in his social life. In addition to his English-speaking colleagues, he had a native-English-speaking girlfriend from New Zealand who became an important “teacher” to him. During the time I interacted with Alim, I observed him to be confident in his oral language abilities, and he was highly participatory in class; however, I observed him to have some difficulty with literacy skills, and he was focused on improving his reading and writing abilities in preparation for standardized graduate school entrance exams.

Alim's age, background, and experience afforded him a kind of transnational expertise, one that was suggestive of cosmopolitanism and that heavily factored into his openness toward social participation as well as his success in achieving it. Here, I use the term cosmopolitan as it has been applied to personal identity models (Gunesch, 2004), broadly, as someone who feels “at home in the world” (p. 256) and who occupies a “certain multicultural position … a willingness to engage with the Other” (Hannerz, 1992, p. 252). Although this framework for cosmopolitanism is arguably biased toward privileged, Western metropolitan conventions and does not fully capture Muslim cosmopolitanism (Leichtman & Schulz, 2012), I drew from these concepts to understand Alim's comfort level with integrating himself in local social worlds while remaining invested in global trajectories, a stance that is not necessarily common among all adult ESL learners.

Desiring to pursue a transmigrant lifestyle, Alim expressed ambivalence over returning to Saudi Arabia despite being a recipient of “the King's scholarship,” and he sought out new and meaningful experiences outside of his home country. “I believe that the best thing is just to have many experiences,” he explained, “to go around, travel around, know more people. The life is fun.” I believed Alim's prior interactions and current investments in both local and global spaces factored into his openness and desire to access and participate in social communities in Townesville. Over the three semesters that he had already been in the IEP, Alim had lived in multiple campus apartments with multiple roommates (both international and American). He took advantage of social spaces that allowed him to interact with new people (e.g., apartment pool and recreation areas), and he reported to be confident in meeting others. Unlike some of the other participants in the study, he did not feel it was necessary to have an American roommate in order to gain entrance into L2 communities. By the time I had become acquainted with him, he had considerable social connections and attended regular social gatherings with both international and American students.

Still, Alim's participation in his social worlds did not come without conflict. Unlike Musa, Alim reported to have had experiences with racism in the United States and was called to answer directly to post-9/11 discourses that positioned him negatively. An initial example occurred during our first talk when I asked Alim to describe his hometown. He began by describing his home city as more open, culturally and religiously, than other regions in Saudi Arabia. Following that initial description, I asked him how he felt about his home country:

SG: Do you like where you are from?

Alim: Yes. I mean before … we were like separate from the world. … Now, it's become more closer. People start to know about my country and about our culture … it's kind of fair now. Before that, most people know what happened on September 11 and they thought we were bad people, but when they start to read about us, they know we can never do these bad things to people … we do care about the other countries, other cultures, religions. Because most people think that Muslims don't care about other religions.

In this interaction, Alim recognized himself in post-9/11 discourse and negotiated a stance within it. Although the topic of his religion had not come up (it was the beginning of the interview), he chose to take up a particular discursive position, as someone speaking to a member of the community that has authored the marginalizing discourses he desired to resist. For Alim, the 9/11 narrative, although it perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes of his religious identity, became a cultural resource that he chose to draw on in constructing his stance toward the larger L2 community (Davies & Harré, 1999). As will become clear, he continuously drew on this discursive resource as he made sense of his ongoing experiences as a Saudi student abroad.

Before arriving in the United States, Alim reported criticism among some family members and friends over his decision. He explained, “So most people are like, ‘If they [Americans] don't like us, why would we go there?’” His father shared this position, to which Alim replied, “Why? If I follow the rules, follow the law of the country, so what's wrong?” He refused to align with either anti-American or anti-Islamic discourses, explaining that the media “can write whatever they want, but there are some people behind that, [and] they want to make something between us.” His agency was voiced in his belief in his “true” identity as a good person: “I believe that I am doing good, so every American can appreciate that because I am not doing something bad. I just come to study. … I am coming to study in their college.”

Despite Alim's strong self-confidence in the face of these narrative asymmetries (Ochs & Capps, 1996), that is, the discrepancy between society's narrative of him and the one he chose to construct of himself, he was not excused from discriminatory storylines, and it is within that framework that he had to negotiate his agency. I will next describe two instances that illustrated the discursive parameters within which he was working.

One example was observed during a relatively brief moment in the classroom, before class began, as students were arriving and getting settled. In these few minutes, the teacher was walking around collecting some completed activities, during which an informal class discussion was initiated on the topic of students' weekend activities. Alim mentioned that a Saudi friend of his was arrested after being pulled over for speeding, and Alim spent the weekend trying to help his friend navigate the legal system and assist in the bail process. Some students were listening, others just arriving to class and getting settled. After Alim spoke for a bit, the teacher commented, “Well, you don't speed, especially if you're a guy, especially if you're from somewhere in the Middle East.” Alim did not appear to react to the comment. Shortly after, the informal talk concluded and formal instruction began.

I believe this interaction illustrated several of the discursive parameters within which not only Alim, but community experts such as his teacher, were continuously working. As a longtime teacher who, on several occasions, seemed clearly to value students' diverse backgrounds and expertise, as well as the critique of mainstream values that they often brought to classroom discussions, her comments cannot be easily or straightforwardly analyzed. Recognizing that the practice of teaching is complex work with multifaceted goals, I interpreted her brevity as motivated by a need to transition to formal class time. Further, based on my previous observations, I took her comments to be a critique of the repercussions of 9/11, as a well-intentioned piece of advice for her students who, albeit unfairly, had to deal with the realities of racial profiling in the aftermath of those grave events. The interaction illustrated how differently positioned actors engage differently with powerful structures of discourse. Although neither speaker overtly imposed nor resisted these structures, they were nevertheless acknowledged through this interaction and thus seemed to be reified.

A second example of how Alim's experiences were continuously shaped by racializing discourses was described to me by Alim, as he opened up about some of the discrimination he encountered in his efforts to become friends with Americans. “We [Saudi Arabians] really like American people,” Alim told me, “but all my friends, before they meet me, they told me, ‘We were afraid about you. We don't want to be close to you.’” One critical incident he described involved a new friend, Stanley, a 23-year-old undergraduate student from the Midwest who became a connection for Alim to participate in many social events with Americans. Shortly after the two had become acquainted, Alim was paid a surprise visit by Stanley's father who, upon hearing that his son had become friendly with an international student from Saudi Arabia, became concerned enough to drive a considerable distance from Stanley's home state in order to confront Alim, without warning. Alim described the interaction with the man that followed:

I said, “I have no idea … what Osama or other person say. But I have ideas. I mean, Islamic religion is a really good religion. It doesn't tell us to hurt people. They told us if you kill someone without any right it is equal to you kill[ing] everybody in this life. That is a really big sin if you did. So if Osama Bin Laden, or other [person], kill someone because of Islam, I don't care about what he says. I care about the real things.” And [Stanley's father] is kind of like, “OK,” I mean, he told me, “It was nice to meet you.” And after … Stanley said, “[My father] wants me to be with you. He wants me to be with you. He told me, ‘I want you to be with this guy.’”

Alim made sense of this critical event by interpreting it as one of the interactional feats he had to accomplish as part of his bids for fuller participation. Like many Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, he was compelled to answer for actions for which he was not responsible (Howell & Shyrock, 2003), having to discursively refigure himself within post-9/11 narratives.

The result of this interaction was a new and transformative identity position for Alim, one in which his legitimacy was recognized; as Alim put it, the man now “wanted” him as a rightful participant in his son's social worlds. However, in reading this interaction beyond its face value, it becomes quite apparent that a number of discursive maneuvers were possibly achieved in this exchange.

In reflecting on this event, Alim narrativized his agency in his refusal to align with such discourses. He said, “I saw them [other Americans] changing, but I didn't think I did much to change them. … I'm just normal. I am just as I am here like I am at home or in any country.” In one way, Alim's reading is a valid reading, and it is, in fact, how he saw himself as an agent: Attaching himself strongly and proudly to his religious identity was the action by which he was able to influence his present circumstances. However, a more critical reading of this interaction reveals unequal power structures at play, and the extent to which those power structures shifted through this interaction is questionable. As characteristic of broader discourses that place the onus on L2 learners to negotiate for participation rights in expert communities, Alim was able to achieve a legitimate status largely because he was granted the right to speak by a more powerfully positioned “expert.” Thus, the circumstances around this incident provided an intelligible framework from which Alim could act. Furthermore, it is quite possible that Stanley's father was able to accept Alim without entirely changing racial frames (Bonilla-Silva, 2006), making an exception for him as an outlier to the status quo. Thus, this interaction showed not how Alim simply unmade his position (and all by which it was constituted), but also how he was able to “do something with what was done to [him]” (Butler, 2004, p. 3); his agency was situated, and his viability was constituted by the discursive parameters under which he spoke.

DISCUSSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

This article reports on a study of two ESL learners of a particularly racialized and politicized cultural group, and how they negotiated their positionality vis-à-vis the L2 community in which they lived and studied. The findings show how these two learners engaged in different discursive practices (Davies & Harré, 1999) in order to achieve fuller participation in the various L2 worlds that became important to them. The findings corroborate previous research that has documented the effects of post-9/11 Islamophobic discourses on university students from the Middle East (e.g., Norris, 2011), and specifically Saudi L2 learners (Rich & Troudi, 2006), presenting strong evidence that these discourses served as powerful structures that created complex conditions for L2 participation. Still, these two cases diverged in critical ways, indicating that the Saudi student post-9/11 experience is far from a universal, homogeneous experience. Overall, the particulars of these two cases point to some important implications for the study of identity and agency in post-9/11 contexts, calling us to continue to examine “the diverse positions from which language learners are able to participate in social life” (Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 414) and how these multiple identity positions intersect in ways that inform their ability to change their identity options and, ultimately, move from peripheral to fuller participation.

In their accounts of negotiating fuller participation, Musa and Alim foregrounded their identities as international student others, and those identities positioned them in particular ways with respect to the larger L2 community. As Norton (2000) found in her research on immigrant L2 learners, unequal power relationships in L2 communities force the onus on novices to initiate relationships with experts and to establish the right to speak, and, as I found in my analysis, it was from that normative discursive frame that Musa and Alim recognized themselves and carved out intelligible (Butler, 2004) moves toward the center. In both cases, there was evidence to show how learners not only resisted normative discourses, but also recognized themselves within them, took up positions within them, and aligned with them in their negotiations for participation (Ellwood, 2009). In Musa's case, intelligibility was most associated with his outsider, international student identity, and his agency to change his present circumstances was negotiated by both resisting obstacles to participation (opening up and agentively seeking out new relationships) and aligning himself with these normative discourses (recognizing himself as an outsider to expert practices who had to take up readable ways of initiating relationships).

Like Musa, Alim was figured by the same “international student” storylines, but his experiences of othering prioritized his religious and cultural identities, calling him to answer directly (and unfairly) to post-9/11 narratives that positioned him in negative ways and created obstacles for participation. As Rich and Troudi (2006) report, Alim interpreted the discrimination he experienced as not explicitly grounded in race, but as based on his religious and ethnic identities. In relation to those identities, discourses of differentiation and exclusion functioned both directly (as in the example with Stanley's father) and indirectly (as in the classroom example of the teacher's warning), and constrained his opportunities to speak. Alim recognized himself with these limited identity options, using post-9/11 discourses as a cultural resource in constructing his stance toward the L2 community, but he also resisted those discourses, consistently presenting an alternative reading of his identity. Although successful in gaining the right to speak through his local interactions, it remains questionable whether Alim established new terms for speaking in the broader L2 community.

Although we should not downplay the powerful social forces that unfairly marginalized these learners, those that were critical to their identity practices, the findings show evidence of learner agency. I hoped to avoid the theoretical caveats of taking their agency at face value by offering critical readings of their accounts throughout the findings; however, I argue that it is important to recognize how these learners acted agentively and to provoke discussion on what such agency meant for their trajectories of participation. Keeping in mind that this investigation was aimed at emic perspectives on L2 participation, there was evidence throughout their narratives that Musa and Alim, by their own interpretations, perceived themselves as able to shape their own trajectories and “appropriate more desirable identities” (Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 414), and that they interpreted those changes in positionality as representing fuller participation in the L2 community. It is highly unlikely that these changes in positionality would have been achieved if not for their agentive choices. Neither learner remained ensconced in familiar L1 circles, but instead continued to seek out meaningful relationships outside of their L1 worlds despite the ongoing obstacles they faced. Even further, the means by which they confronted dismaying obstacles (e.g., Alim's argument with Stanley's father) were laudable and should be understood as representing critical competencies (discursive and linguistic) of L2 learning and participation.

This discussion would be remiss without acknowledging how additional discursive frames (i.e., stories not told here) could have been available to these learners to inform their agency. A discussion of their stance vis-à-vis the expert community should not neglect the multiple and intersecting privileged social and gendered positions from which Musa and Alim were able to act, and it is quite possible that second language learners of different backgrounds may not have perceived such stances as feasible. As men of middle- to upper-class backgrounds who had previously occupied empowered positions in their home cultures, agency and a sense of self-determination were viable stances to assume, even when faced with marginalizing social forces. Even further, as visa holders with considerable cultural capital (e.g., literacy, previous schooling, transnational ties), Alim and Musa were afforded legitimacy on other levels. As students in an IEP, their academic and professional paths were sanctioned and supported, as was their accruement of powerful forms of symbolic capital (e.g., entrance into a university) that led to other forms of capital (e.g., degrees, employment). This framework, along with their participation in the Saudi Scholarship Program, offered alternative narratives that legitimized their trajectory, such as important political messages that validated their experience as necessary and valuable to both U.S. and Saudi stakeholders. These are inarguably strong institutional sources of legitimacy, ones we know are not offered to all immigrants and L2 learners in the United States. Acknowledgment of such forms of privilege opens up discursive options for refusing racialized discourses, as was quite possible in Musa's case.

Overall, the study shows evidence to support an understanding of the periphery of communities as more than a space of exclusion or restriction for L2 learners, but a space of dynamic possibility, a site in which powerful structures of cultural reproduction interact with the interpretive processes and discursive histories of individual learners. Musa and Alim saw themselves as changing their stances and claiming new positions by which they could act; however, the findings also point to how these actions were shaped, and even made possible, by the inequitable power fields in which they played out, structures that will likely continue to inform their participation in some way.

CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

Although this study focused on L2 participation outside of the ESL classroom, these findings bring up some important issues for TESOL professionals. Given the prevalence of competing sociopolitical discourses evident in the wake of 9/11, along with an increasing Saudi student population, it seems legitimate to ask: Do we see ourselves as stakeholders of the positive mission of programs such as the Saudi Scholarship Program? And if so, how do our classroom practices reflect that investment? How are the outcomes of such programs understood and translated by administrators and teachers within institutions? Clearly, more research is needed beyond these two case studies to argue strongly for changes in policy or practice, and voices of students, teachers, and administrators need to be heard.

In addition to these specific issues, I argue that the findings of this study support implications for practice that have surfaced from L2 identity research as a whole, specifically those focused on adopting critical perspectives on pedagogy (Canagarajah, 1999; Kubota & Lin, 2006; Norton, 1995). Given this study's findings, these critical perspectives should include ways that teachers facilitate learners in claiming “the right to speak” outside the classroom (Norton, 1995), making space in classroom discourses for deconstructing authentic expert–novice interactions. One way to do this is to make room for L2 narrative activities. As shown in the cases of Musa and Alim, L2 narratives can mediate social practices that allow learners space to interpret conflicts and define their identities through “voicing agentive selves” (Hull & Katz, 2006, p. 71). For many learners, structures of racialization can be silencing, thus presenting obstacles to fuller participation and community resources; for such students, it can be advantageous to create classroom space for students to narrate, discuss, and analyze authentic L2 experiences, with teachers facilitating critical examination of the multiple competencies that learners enact as they move from peripheral to fuller participation.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

This research would not have been possible without the participants who devoted time and effort to the project. I would like to extend my gratitude to Professor Diane Schallert for her thoughtful feedback on previous drafts of this manuscript. I sincerely thank the TESOL Quarterly anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions were invaluable in shaping the final version. I would also like to acknowledge the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk for supporting the writing of this manuscript.

THE AUTHOR

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES

Shannon Giroir is a postdoctoral fellow at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include sociocultural influences on second language learning, culturally responsive teaching, and academic literacies.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW
  4. IDENTITY AND AGENCY AS DISCURSIVE PRACTICE
  5. PERIPHERALITY AND RACE IN POST-9/11 CONTEXTS
  6. METHOD
  7. FINDINGS
  8. DISCUSSION
  9. CONCLUSION: SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  11. THE AUTHOR
  12. REFERENCES
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