An interview with Professor Jane Sunderland by Amir Biglarbeigi
3 March 2008
Professor Jane Sunderland is the Director of Studies of the PhD in Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University. Her main research interests are discourse, language and gender. She teaches in the areas of language and gender, and classroom research.
Jane co-ordinates the Gender and Language research group (GAL). Her most recent books are the research monograph 'Gendered Discourses' (2004, Palgrave Macmillan), and the advanced course book 'Gender and Language: an Advanced Resource book' (2006, Routledge).
She was co-editor (with Lia Litosseliti) of Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis (John Benjamins, 2002). Her PhD was titled 'Gendered discourse in the foreign language classroom: teacher-student and student teacher talk, and the social construction of children's femininities and masculinities'.
Jane has published articles in the Journal of Pragmatics, Gender and Education, ELT Journal, System, Language Teaching Research, Discourse and Society, Language Teaching, Language and Education and Linguistics and Education.
Some of her books are:
-Language and Gender research Methodologies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) (with Kate Harrington, Lia Litosseliti and Helen Sauntson)
-Gender and Language: an Advanced Resource book. London: Routledge. 2006.
-Gendered Discourses. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2004.
-Exploring Gender: Questions and Implications for Language Education, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, 1994
Following is the text of an interview Press TV's Amir Biglarbeigi has conducted with Professor Jane Sunderland.
Press TV: How could you differentiate between gender and sex in general?
Jane Sunderland: Sex we can see as something biological. Gender is what societies make of that. In some societies, at some points in time, gender is thus very important while in other societies at other points in time it is less important.
And, of course, societies are not monolithic entities. Within a given society, the importance of gender will vary within different contexts, or 'communities of practice'.
Gender does not only concern differences between women and men, but also similarities (of which there are many), as well as differences among women and differences among men (of which there are also many).
It is a mistake to see gender as residing solely in embodied, speaking individuals. Gender can be seen in what is said and written about women and men, boys and girls.
Press TV: How does our perception of gender affect the status of women in society?
Jane Sunderland: Our 'perception of gender' is equivalent in part to the importance attributed to gender, but also refers to how gender is seen, i.e. what women, men, boys and girls are like, and what they should be like (including what they should do and how they should talk). Very often, sadly, such perceptions are 'essentialist', i.e. they assume that women and men just 'are' this way and that.
Essentialist views ignore the possibility that gender can be socially constructed throughout a person's life, and indeed that a person has agency, and can, to an extent, decide what they will and will not do, how they will and will not behave, and if they will vary their behavior (including language) in different contexts.
Essentialist perceptions of women and men can restrict the range of opportunities open to both (and can damage gender relations). Both women and men can be penalized for transgression here - for example, if a man does a job traditionally thought of as 'feminine, or if a woman is more talkative or articulate than expected in a particular mixed-sex context.
Press TV: How can we lessen the effect of 'damaging discourses' in education?
Jane Sunderland: We first have to identify what these discourses are, and they are likely to be different in different cultural contexts and communities of practice.
They are also likely to have different values, relative to other discourses. For example, a discourse of 'girls as good language learners' (basically an essentialist discourse) may obtain in some contexts but not others.
In those in which it does, it may be a 'progressive' discourse if girls are on the whole seen as non-academic and destined for domestic work.
Alternatively, it may be a 'damaging discourse' if it implies that girls are much less good at other subjects, such as science, which are often associated with more prestigious and lucrative career paths.
Having identified possible damaging discourses and, importantly, their workings, it may then be possible to do various things to lessen their effects.
First, to draw attention to them - for example, in teacher education and indeed staff meetings. Second, to supplement them with alternative discourses.
As regards 'Girls as good language learners', the points can be made that (a) not all girls are good language learners, and many boys are, (b) that most girls are good at other subjects too, (c) that language articulating the 'Girls as good language learners' discourse may make this discourse a self-fulfilling prophecy, and an unhelpful one at that.
Press TV: In your book Gendered Discourses, you brought up the issue of intervention that should go beyond awareness-raising” to eliminate the impact of damaging discourses. Could you elaborate on the ways to go beyond awareness-raising?
Jane Sunderland: In the book I suggest six such ways. The first is 'deconstruction of discourses through meta-discoursal critique', i.e. academic critique. The remaining five go beyond this.
The second is 'principled non-use of discourses seen as damaging', which speaks for itself (to use the above example, not to say things like 'Oh well, girls are just better language learners”).
The third is 'principled but non-confrontational use of discourses perceived as non-damaging', in ways such as I suggested in the previous paragraph.
The fourth is 'principled, confrontational use of discourses perceived as non-damaging'. They key word here is confrontational.
The fifth form of intervention is 'facilitated group discoursal intervention by people other than discourse analysts/feminists': to continue with our example, teachers and teacher educators who may not perceive themselves as feminist can nevertheless articulate notions of successful language learning (like success in all academic subjects) being open to all.
The sixth form of intervention in discourse I termed 'rediscursivization'. This involves rethinking and rearticulating a phenomenon from a completely different perspective to that often followed.
For example, it is possible to see all-girls schools as depriving girls of 'normal' contact with the opposite sex (often a critique of such schools)- or as providing them with an opportunity for empowerment, which will set them up well to deal with possible gender discrimination on leaving school.
Source: Press TV