Paris, Django. (2011). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Reviewed by David Wandera Bwire, The Ohio State University, September 2012, Columbus, Ohio, USA
In this book, Paris describes and analyzes language use in the South Vista (a small city on the west coast of the United States) community focusing particularly on adolescents in and out of school. Using ethnography, ethnolinguistics, and other sociocultural lenses, Paris describes the tensions in teenagers’ communicative practices and their beliefs about language. Paris argues in the introduction that these uses of language both “…challenge and reinforce ethnic and linguistic difference” while enacting “both new and old visions of pluralist cultural spaces…”. The research methodology pursues a social justice paradigm, and is framed by a Freirean conceptualization of literacy which disrupts hegemony and extant discriminatory structures through sensitization and agency. This study demonstrates what Paris calls “humanizing research,” (p. 9) where the writer collaborates with participants leading to the reorientation, reformulation, re constitution and negotiation of power structures between them. The writer proposes a plurifocal perception that recognizes “the sociocultural words of young people” (p. 10) as a site for the practice and contestation of language and literacy, within and without the classroom.
This text argues for a re-visioning of schools to allow and foster pluralism through a careful consideration of the struggles for voice and power which exist in spaces inscribed by ethnicity and gender as an organizing principle. Paris poses some pertinent questions to interrupt the status quo, and to facilitate thinking about pluralist spaces; such as; “how can we successfully honour both the need for difference and division and the need to unify across borders to share and understand? How can we learn to hear and heed the shouts for affirmation rising up in our schools and youth communities?” (p. 17) and “How [do teenage] texts resist and offer alternatives to school sanctioned writing?” (p.128). He explores how Samoan, African-American English (AAE), and Spanish are deployed through language crossing, sharing, solidarity, maintenance, and exclusion, and analyzes how teenagers achieve contested or affirmed “communicative bridges” (p. 45) in their multi-cultural “multi-ethnic, youth spaces” (p. 120). Given that this diverse population employed AAE as their lingua franca, schools should function as effective sites for critical language learning; however, Paris argues that it is the norm that many schools are ill equipped to use the Englishes brought in by students as learning resources.
Even though Paris repeatedly praises the intentions and the facility with which teachers at South Vista High School approach instruction, (thereby making it clear that this is not a teacher-bashing text), some observations problematize the efficacy with which teachers responded to the needs of their richly varied student community. Paris reports how in the course of hundreds of hours spent in observing, he did not see “worn, delivered, or flowed texts brought critically into classroom work” (p. 159). Some critics could claim that this book does not consider closely or treat exhaustively the demands imposed upon teachers; for instance the drive to attain certain teaching standards, and administrative and budgetary constraints. Yet, such criticisms do little to efface the crucial question posed at the end of the book, namely, “what is the purpose of schooling in a pluralist society?”(p. 163). In spite of encumbrances and impositions which teachers may have, this text urges us, to re-envision the school, not merely as an assimilatory space, but as a place ripe for the practice of the “pedagogy of pluralism” (p. 164). The book calls for more equitable schools and a more equitable society while making the case that, educators need to recognize “shouts of affirmation, shouts of identity and cultural worth” (p. 1) which emanate from peripheralized teenagers. From this text, we may not fathom the full extent of being culturally competent in a fast globalizing world, but we can appreciate the foundation which has been laid here for future studies to explore cosmopolitan and varied learning spaces and places.