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
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 subjectspecifically, how in talking about it, s/he
transforms it. This, after all, is what the performative utterance does: it transforms
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 attitudenot
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
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 welland 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
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 studentsexperiencing pragmatics by studying it, studying it by
experiencing itthan 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.
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 classcan 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.
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 approachesand 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.
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 groupsobviously, 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
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 truthperhaps 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 studentseven, 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.)
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