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In Explanation of SELT (1997) English and Ethnography in Pisté

By Dr. Joy Logan
Spanish Division of Languages and Literatures
of Europe and the Americas
University of Hawai'i Manoa
SELT Director, 1997

The School of Experimental Language Training was experimental in both its theorization and application in the sense that it evolved out of the grafting of current trends in Second Language (L2) Acquisition to the theory and practice of experimental ethnography as it is being developed by Abdel Hernández and Quetzil Castañeda.

Preliminary Considerations
This is the standard definition or description that I have come to give those who ask about what was involved in setting up the English program in Pisté in conjunction with the training of student teachers and student ethnographers. Yet in describing SELT in this manner I am simplifying and negating the complex, dynamic, and sometimes conflictive coupling of L2 pedagogy with cultural anthropology that engendered this experimental language program. Furthermore, I fear that in some ways this definition draws our focus to the progenitors and the progeny when the functioning of SELT urged us also always to consider the copulative, procreative capacities and possibilities of interdisciplinary joinings. As tempting as it may be to depict and understand SELT as the product of disciplinary miscegenation, this kind of explanation is reductive. Representing SELT cannot just be about the outlining of the traits and characteristics of the engenderers and the engendered, more importantly it should and must highlight the feel and movement of the engendering itself. So, even as I offer the definition given above as a point of departure to discuss the ramifications, consequences, theory, and practice of SELT, I would warn of its shortcomings and also challenge its reliability to adequately portray the process of what we in The 1997 Field School in Experimental Ethnography and the students from Pisté came to know as School of Experimental Language Training.

Part of the difficulty in defining SELT is that its experimentality cannot and should not be explained as the material result/conclusion of an operation which correlates in some manner to criteria projected by a pre-set hypothesis. Instead, SELT grew out of a spontaneous, intuitive, hybrid methodology that was constantly modified, on a daily basis, by a re-working, a re-defining, a re-assessing of its very being and practice. In proposing spontaneity and intuition as important methodological resources in formulating SELT I would like to point out that I am not using these terms as euphemisms for chaos, disorganization, or confusion, but rather as descriptors that highlight the imaginative and creative forces needed to support a methodology that was eclectic, multiple, contradictory and constantly in flux. Nor do these “fuzzy” descriptors in any way suggest a lack of guidelines, conceptualizations, or presuppositions in the planning and execution of SELT, rather for us they served as reminders of our dual intent to plan and implement a language program based on the needs and desires of the families of Pisté and to use that space for the practice of experimental ethnography. In essence, our fundamental task was to look for complementary L2 methods that would precipitate and support the kind of “transculturative” space that experimental ethnography also pretends to provoke. Not only did this require us to use our prior understanding of critical pedagogical theory, the principles of experimental ethnography, and actual experience in the classroom, it forced us to invoke those less-than-scientific and usually immeasurable factors called imagination, intuition, creativity, and spontaneity in mixing and matching L2 and ethnographical discourses to turn them into viable SELT strategies.

Within current thinking about second-language acquisition this hybrid process through which SELT evolved might best be understood through contemporary ideas on humanistic and holistic pedagogical approaches, on the one hand, and on the other, through recent theorization in cross-cultural pragmatics about power and authority in the classroom. I suggest this theoretical framing only as a point of reference for considering the structuring of SELT and how our intentions often paralleled key premises of these two fields of study. It was our intent in SELT to support and provide a more dialogic learning atmosphere in order to focus on interpersonal, cultural, and linguistic connections. It was our intent to provoke and document the reciprocity and multiplicity of transculturation, to reveal the movement of intercultural contact whose flow is ALWAYS multi-directional but whose impetus can be obscured or seemingly reduced to uni-directional by the dominant voice and presence of the anthropologist, specialist, teacher, or so-called expert. The intent of SELT was also always to focus on the nature of intent itself, to juxtapose intent with goal, to self-consciously allow freedom for development and mutation instead of purposefully channeling the current of classroom interaction into pre-established ends. If I have reiterated intent it is because the subtle difference that lies between intent and goal was an essential concept for the envisioning and execution of SELT. It is the point of departure from which the critical and practical variations of our EFL classroom were derived, that is, the point of contrast between a flexible, generative process and a predetermined course of study. In SELT it was key for us to remember every day that our only real goal was our intent to maintain a participatory and open-ended curriculum in both content and activities.