Pacific Rim Conference on language brings national scholars

Leave it to English majors to meet at the top of the library to discuss “World Englishes”.

The 16th annual Pacific Rim Conference on Literature & Rhetoric met (where else) at the top of the library. This years topic was “World Englishes: Identity, Language, and Pedagogy in the Global Community”.  The thoughts of author and linguistic David Crystal inspired the theme.

“What happens to a language when it is spoken by many times more people as a second or foreign language than as a mother tongue?”, Crystal asked.

The conference took place on Feb. 25th and 26th. This year received 48 submissions. Many were from UAA, 14 were from University of Fairbanks, a few from Oklahoma, and one from Iran.

The conference was organized into panels, lectures, and roundtables.

The keynote speaker was Dr. David Sigler, an Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho. Sigler’s lecture focused on one paragraph of a famous essay called “Sensus Communis, an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor” written by the English politician, philosopher, and writer, Ashley Anthony Cooper in 1709.

In this paragraph Cooper wonders how an Ethiopian would react if he were suddenly transported into the midst of a carnival in Venice. He imagines that the Ethiopian would initially believe that the people he sees really look like that way.  Dr. Sigler expanded on this situation to demonstrate how it connected with identity across various cultures. He drew on the writing of Sigmund Freud, Ashley Anthony Cooper, and Jacques Lacan.

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Since its inception in 1995, the conference is entirely student run. The conference co-directors this year were current graduate students Peter Kudenov and Jamet Woods. They’ve been planning the event since last September. Kudenov and Woods chose this year’s theme because of it’s current popularity in academia. The theme is also of increasing significance in politics. What role will English play in developing one’s identity, and how will millions of people speaking it as a second language influence what we think of as “standard written English”?

Panels ranged from “Animals Expressions, Human Identity” to “Writing Matters: a Campus-Wide conversation on Writing Across the Curriculum”.  The latter is a documentary produced by Dr. Jackie Cason and Dr. Trish Jenkins. They surveyed more than a dozen faculty members; professors that taught computer science, public administration, nursing, and psychology.

The movie asked professors to relate their own writing experience. Many agreed that writing is painful, but well worth the rewards. Associate Professor of Computer Science Jack Pauli noted that it is the only academic subject that is a lifelong process and that is invaluable to every field. Several said that they prefer to see original thought in student papers rather than a trite, safe paper that only has merit because it followed guidelines.

Two themes Cason and Jenkins found that concerned faculty was how to tell a student their writing needs vast improvement without hurting them to the point that they give up. The second was the acknowledgement that there is a gap between cognition and writing ability. They do interact with each other, but sometimes students must realize that a student can be intelligent but a mediocre writer.

The final roundtable discussion was titled “Approaching Alaskan Classrooms,” where three UAF professors presented their thoughts. Each noted that the UA system is structured so that students learn global and national skills at the expense of local/state history. This is important because it can cause a skewed sense of reality in a UA graduate.

Dr. Duff Johnston presented on how the UA system educates international students. He said that because the system views them as transient students, they are rarely required to learn about Alaskan history.

Sally Rafson talked about academia’s frequent negligence of attending to Alaskans agenda. She cited moose hunting season as one major incongruence that exists between the schooling calendar and some Alaskan calendars. Rafson called for administrators to tailor the curriculum to the unique needs of Alaskans.

Profesoor X’unci (Lance) Twitchell presented statistics and personal stories to highlight the importance of language and land to one’s identity. Native language speakers continue to die with no one to continue their language. Eyak, an indigenous language in southcentral Alaska, became extinct, when the last speaker Udach’ Kuqax a’a’ch (Marie Jones) died Jan. 28th, 2008.

He said that the downplay of Native languages within the UA curriculum is the result of an on-going imperialism. Speaking of UAF, Twitchell said that the university provides no incentive for students to learn a Native language.  In the UA system, the average enrollment for a Native language course is three, while those that are a part of foreign language departments have an average enrollment of 15.

The Pacific Rim Conference concluded with an awards ceremony and English Department Awards.