Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide



Just as Austin's constative-performative distinction has important ramifications for the study of language, so too does it for the teaching of the study of language.

Well, actually, it's not just the constative-performative distinction; it is the larger rift between traditional scholarly objectivism and the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition, outlined in the "history of performative linguistics" section of Chapter 2 (pp. 00-00). That rift is the source of the clash between "conservative" pedagogies focused on the teacher teaching the objective facts and the students sitting quietly in neat rows and columns passively recording those facts and later memorizing them for an exam, on the one hand, and a "liberal" or "progressive" student-centered classroom where teachers facilitate students' development of active and creative learning strategies, on the other. The American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and the Russian social-constructivist psychologist Lev Vygotsky (both Kantians through and through) helped establish the student-centered classroom, and conservative objectivists have been trying to tear it back down ever since.

But Austin's conception of the performative utterance, taken in a broad sense to encompass linguistic methodologies and pedagogies as well, can help us think more clearly about some aspects of the student-centered classroom. In a performative perspective, the key to learning is not so much how each student orients himself or herself to the subject at hand (learning styles, learning strategies, and so on), but how s/he performs that subject—specifically, how in talking about it, s/he transforms it. This, after all, is what the performative utterance does: it transforms social reality.

In the classroom, this means that teachers should work hard to help students perform linguistics in constructive and productive ways. A student who says "Who cares about this stuff, language isn't that complicated, it isn't even that interesting" not only has an unproductive attitude, but is performatively creating a bad attitude—not only for others, for himself or herself as well. Attitudes are often inchoate things until they are voiced; articulating a vague attitude can not only "create" it performatively, but can give it enormous weight and importance in the speaker's self-concept.

A teacher working with a performative pedagogy, faced with this sort of performative creation of bad attitude toward the study of language, would push the student to reperform the attitude in new terms: "Let's think about your experiences of language that make you assume it's not complicated ..." In performing language as not particularly complex or interesting, the student is (re)creating not only his or her future attitude toward language, but her or his past experiences of language as well—and by walking the student through those past experiences and helping him or her to see the complexity in what s/he takes to be simplicity, you can redirect the performative utterance in new and more fruitful directions. The thing about performatives is that the reality they create is never permanent; it can be reshaped, collectively, through an emergent collaboration, potentially endlessly.

The other student-centered-classroom stuff is important too, of course: students learn best when they learn on their own terms, through their own interests and emotional needs and learning styles; they will learn about pragmatics more effectively if they are encouraged to apply the concepts to their own linguistic experience, especially if they do so in conversation with other students—experiencing pragmatics by studying it, studying it by experiencing it—than they will if they simply sit and listen to lectures and take notes. When I teach this class, half of every class session is student-directed discussion (each person comes to class with one point from the chapter to talk about), the other half exercises.

What a performative pedagogy will add to all this is a renewed sense of the teacher's and student's responsibility for learning-with-words. What the teacher or any student says matters not because it should be true and might be false (a constative assumption), but because everything that gets said in a classroom performs learning-related actions, and those actions have the performative power to transform social realities. All teachers know this, of course: students who vocalize bad attitudes can poison a whole class—can transform even good and enthusiastic students into indifferent or even hostile ones. What is harder for teachers to notice is the extent to which they too perform their attitudes, and create a social reality in the classroom around their words.

A case in point: my own attitudes toward constative linguistics. In the text, I work very hard to be fair, indeed pluralistic: constative linguists study structures, performative linguists study speech acts, etc. Each approach has its own important field of study; both are necessary. But in the flesh I have a hard time maintaining that pluralistic fairness. I basically think constative linguistics is stupid, and have a very hard time keeping that attitude out of my words in class. The results are never quite predictable, but never very productive, either. Typically my students have had one or two other linguistics courses before they come to mine, and the other courses are almost invariably constative, but they have no great loyalty to any one method of studying language; these are just courses for them, stuff professors care about. So if I go off on constative linguistics, they don't usually perceive that as an attack on them, but rather on their previous linguistics professors (my colleagues), or, less specifically, on vague faceless strawmen that they don't care about named "Saussure" and "Chomsky" and "Searle." Occasionally I get a student who is as fiercely committed to constative linguistics as I am to performative linguistics, and we get into repeated arguments. But even if that doesn't happen, I am performing the classroom as an agon, an antagonism between two rival approaches—and that doesn't seem particularly productive for students. They don't benefit from an antagonistic performance; they are mostly nonplused at it, occasionally riled by it.

Another example: back when I was directing the GI mentoring program in our department (for graduate instructors teaching sophomore literature courses), I taught the GIs student-centered teaching strategies in our beginning-of-semester workshops, and then (along with all the other mentors) observed them in the classroom. One GI that I observed lectured to his students for a half hour, then broke them up into groups—obviously, one of the student-centered teaching strategies I'd been harping on. But this instructor really didn't want the students learning any old thing in those groups: he had a detailed list of the things he wanted them to find in the text. Their group work was constative through and through: simply a matter of working together to spot the things he was looking for, to recognize the objective reality he had already discovered for them. Even though he was using a teaching strategy for a student-centered classroom, he was performing that strategy constatively, and thus performatively creating a learning environment where the teacher knows the objective truth and the students are passively guided to it.

I am assuming, in fact, because the constative approach to the study of language is the "default" one in Western thought and a performative approach is new and radical and therefore "weird," most teachers using this book will perform it at least partly constatively in the classroom: instead of leaving an interpretation open to debate, for example, will insist so strongly on his or her own interpretation that the students will get the impression that this isn't just an interpretation but the objective truth—perhaps even an underlying structure for conversation. This is the easiest thing in the world to do. I do it all the time myself. We are, after all, trained by our culture to think of our own personal take on things as the only true and natural and therefore universal way of seeing things. Performing opinion as objective truth is "common sense"—especially for professors! So my advice isn't to avoid doing this at all costs, but simply to be aware of doing it, catch yourself at it, and point out what you're doing (what you've just been doing when you notice it) to your students—even, if you feel comfortable with this, encouraging them to catch you at it, and then laugh easily and genially when they do. (If you get defensive, you'll be performing yourself as the constative authority whose word is not to be challenged or undermined in any way, even if you expressly encourage them to do so.)

Course Structure

I have taught this course at three different levels: as a freshman composition course; as an upper-division Discourse Pragmatics class; and as a graduate seminar:

I get the freshmen to write four short essays (the composition course requirement) about their experiences with language, drawing on the readings for both paper topics and guidance in writing. Sample syllabus.

I give seniors two exams and assign a large research project, where they go out and collect a language sample on tape, analyze it, research the methods they use, do a classroom presentation on their analysis, and then write a research paper. Sample syllabus.

With graduate students I assign primary readings (including theoretical texts not mentioned in this book, including the Searle-Derrida debate and some of the background reading for somatics, including Nietzsche, Freud, Burke, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu) and then encourage them to use this book as supplementary materials to support the primary readings. They too are required to write a major research paper, but they can either collect taped samples of conversation to analyse or apply the concepts to literary or theoretical texts. Sample syllabus.

More: Teacher's Guide index

General: Structure | Pedagogy | Dialogues

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