Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Peace Corps and me

This posting was triggered by the recent passing of Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps, and attempts to show in a little more detail the effect being a Peace Corps Volunteer had on me.

Carriacou is a part of the West Indian state of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique, located in the southeastern Caribbean just north of Trinidad and Tobago.  I first saw this little (12 square mile) island in July of 1971 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in training. Of course, I had never heard of Carriacou before the Peace Corps folks told me that's where I would be going when we linked up in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier.  There followed teacher training and orientation at Lincoln University, outside Philly, and then our trip to the Caribbean for further training and visits to our field sites.

My first impression of Carriacou was that it looked like a desert; it was incredibly brown and dry, the result of an extended drought. Water was scarce, and on top of that many people were mourning the loss of relatives and friends in the recent sinking of the schooner City of St. George on a trip between Grenada and Carriacou. But folks were friendly and welcoming, and I thought I could handle it.

(The photo at right shows me sitting on a colonial-era cannon at the Hospital, 2003.)

Six weeks later, I began teaching Spanish in the newly-opened Junior Secondary School.  The school was intended specifically for those children who reached the age of 12 years and were unable to attend high school, for either academic or financial reasons.  Previously, these children had to remain in their primary schools, often sitting in classes with much younger children.  The hope, at the time, was that they would be better served in a separate junior secondary with less emphasis on academics and more "practical" work, such as cooking, woodworking, and the like.

Although children at the Junior Secondary were considered for the most part less scholastically capable than those who entered secondary school, I was soon very impressed with their quickness in learning Spanish.  I had taught for a year at a prestigious private boys' school in the States, where the students were highly selected for and expected to be college material.  I saw no difference between their capacity to learn and that of my new charges.  Of course, there were big differences in the materials at our disposal.  In Carriacou there was no language lab, and there were no textbooks; everything had to be improvised.  I eventually produced little text booklets for the children on the school's mimeograph machine.  Despite these shortcomings, the children were enthusiastic about Spanish and over the years several became Spanish teachers themselves.

During time spent in the teachers' lounge, I was at first puzzled by the complaints of teachers in other subjects who talked of the children's "backwardness" in such things as history, language arts, mathematics, and science.  In some cases, the very same children who were doing fine in Spanish were failing these other subjects.  Perhaps because I was a language teacher, I soon began to feel the glimmerings of a possible solution to this paradox.  Although Peace Corps had offered no serious insight into the language(s) of Carriacou, I began to realize that the language the children and others in Carriacou spoke was very different from the English I had grown up with.  I began to see patterns in both phonology and grammar, and although I did not realize it at the time I began unconsciously internalizing a good deal of Carriacou Creole English.

At the same time, I was aware that my method of teaching Spanish, the "direct" method, made as little use as possible of any language other than the target.  Objects, drawings on the chalkboard, and in-class situations served to get the meaning across rather than lengthy explanations in English.  Of course, in the children's other classes, this was not the case:  there English was the medium through which the children were expected to learn.  I began to feel that this was one of the major stumbling blocks to the children's in-school learning, although at the time I did not have the knowledge of linguistics and anthropology to  understand the situation fully.

I stayed in Carriacou, teaching Spanish to children and adults, until December 1974. My wife and I had gotten married in August, but Peace Corps was not providing any extra living allowance so Willy and I decided to come to the states, where I worked for several years as a social services coordinator for the public housing agency in my home town of Hagerstown, Maryland.  But I began to feel the call of graduate school.

I applied to programs in Latin American Studies at Miami University of Ohio and the University of Florida.  Florida was the first to respond; the then director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Terry McCoy, called me up and said I could have a Title VI fellowship if I agreed to study either Portuguese or Aymara.  I asked, what's Aymara, and he explained that it's a Native American language spoken in the central Andes.  Being already pretty fluent in Spanish, and never one to take the easy way out, I chose Aymara.  This would end up being one of the handful of best choices I've ever made, because the director of the Aymara Language Program at Florida was M.J. Hardman, a linguistic anthropologist.  I immediately began taking, besides Aymara, other courses in linguistics and anthropology, but it was Professor Hardman's courses in particular that gave me the information I needed to explain that paradox I first encountered in the junior secondary school:  Why did Carriacou children learn Spanish just fine, but have so much trouble in their other subjects?  I like to say that a light bulb flashed on in my head during nearly every class...

During a course on peasant societies and cultures, the professor loaned me a copy of Don Hill's ethnography of Carriacou, which I read almost in one sitting.  This planted the seed of an idea: could I do research on Carriacou?  Then during a linguistics course, while looking for a book to review, I discovered in the library Bernadette Farquhar's grammar of Antiguan Creole.  Reading this, I recognized some patterns as similar to those I remembered for Carriacou Speech, while others seemed very different.  I thought, I should do this on Carriacou!  I received a grant from the Inter-American Foundation to return to Carriacou in the summer of 1979 to carry out linguistic fieldwork, mostly in the same school I had taught in a few years earlier.  I took our son, then four years old, along with me so that Willy could begin her own studies.  The result was my 1980 MA thesis in Latin American Studies, which consisted of a first (and in hindsight highly flawed) description of Carriacou English Creole.

In the course of this work, I found that the differences between Carriacou Creole and English were even greater than I had originally thought.  I developed an applied research plan to test my original notion that the differences between these languages placed a barrier between many Carriacou children and their acquisition of fluent literacy. A second grant from the Inter-American Foundation allowed us, as a family, to spend 1982-83 on Carriacou testing this idea, once again in the very school where I had taught as a PCV.  While I carried out my research Willy taught Spanish for a while at the high school, and our son went through second grade.

The basic idea was to give a group of Carriacou children access to literacy through their native language, using an orthography developed as part of my grammar.  At the same time, the children were periodically tested in English to test the hypothesis that learning to read their own speech would help them in their reading of English.  

This research, first reported in my dissertation (1985) and later in a book (2000), as well as in numerous conference presentations and several published articles (see here), was a direct outgrowth of my experience in the Peace Corps.  So also is my ongoing research documenting French Creole as spoken by some elderly folks on Carriacou.  I can say the same for my career as a professor at the University of North Florida.

And, of course, Peace Corps made it possible for me to meet my wife Willy.  We had our 36th anniversary back in August 2010, and we have two marvelous children and one stupendous grandson. 

So once again, thanks to Sargent Shriver and Peace Corps, for being such an enormous part of my life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sargent Shriver, 1915-2011

Sargent Shriver passed away today after a long bout with Alzheimers.  He was the first Director of the Peace Corps and as such, I never had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me:
  • In 1971, unable to find a job with a BA in Spanish, the Peace Corps took me in and sent me to Carriacou, Grenada, West Indies.
  • I liked teaching Spanish on Carriacou so much that I "re-upped" after my two-year term.
  • While there, I met Willy, and married her in 1974.
  • Soon after, we returned to the US, where we had two children.
  • In graduate school in 1978, I met the person who would be my main mentor in anthropology and linguistics, and I started thinking that I could do linguistic research on Carriacou. I went back in 1979, then again in 1982-1984, 1999, 2003, and 2006.  I published on my research, including a modest book describing the English Creole spoken there.
  • Meanwhile, Willy and I had two children and (so far) one grandchild.
  • I am now in in the midst of my 22nd year as an associate professor of anthropology and linguistics.
And none of this would likely have happened, if not for the Peace Corps. So thank you, Sargent Shriver.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

William Rivers Pitt: "The Wrath of Fools"

Will Pitt is one of my favorite essayists; his writing appears on and his essays are often re-posted elsewhere.  His essay for Jan 10, 2011, titled The Wrath of Fools: An Open Letter to the Far Right, is particularly satisfying to me, as a linguist.  Pitt insists that we avoid the temptation to attribute the hideous shootings at the Safeway in Tucson on Friday to a lone, deranged person operating in a vacuum:
"Mainstream" news personalities like David Gergen and John King bent over backwards warning people not to blame Sarah Palin and her ilk for this calamity.  It was a sick man who did this, they said. Bollocks to that.  I hate to break this to the "mainstream" media know-betters, but words matter.  When people like Palin spray the airwaves with calls to violence and incantations of imminent doom, people like Loughner are listening, and prepared to act. The "mainstream" media lets it fly without any questions or rebuttal, because it's good for ratings, and here we are. Words matter. Play Russian Roulette long enough, and someone inevitably winds up dead.
And let's be clear: there is no moral equivalency between "right" and "left" here. There are no "liberals" calling for "Second Amendment remedies";  there are no "liberals" putting up maps with rifle cross-hairs marking key conservatives for elimination.  This is a Right Thing.  It's also a Race Thing, as Pitt points out:
I'm talking to you, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly, and Michael Savage, and Ann Coulter, and Laura Ingraham, and to every other right-wing tripe-spewing blowhard blogger and Fox News broadcaster. I hope you are proud of yourselves, because this is the day you get to reap what you have been relentlessly sowing since you were forced to encompass the unmitigated outrage of a Black man winning the office of President of the United States.
That's right, I said it. Anyone who thinks good old-fashioned American bigotry and racism are not the core motivation for a vast majority of these so-called "revolutionaries" should get their heads examined. You've heard of the "elephant in the middle of the room?" Well, this is the burning cross in the middle of the room, and no amount of spin will douse those flames.

The idea that this crime, and others like it, are the products of lone, deranged individuals, with little or no influence from the social and cultural context that they live in, is promoted by our culture's values of independence training and individualism.  Everything is done by, and to, individuals; society does not exist.  Remember the derision that followed Hillary Clinton's book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child?

We are doomed, unless we can change our culture.  If we can't change it, our culture will destroy us.

Amendment:  Perhaps I should end with "we are doomed, unless we can find our village."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ring in the new!

This just in: A very baby Garter Snake (genus Thamnophis) cornered by our fierce terrier, Tinker Belle, this morning in the backyard.  After the photo, it was relocated to a dog-free part of the yard.

Garter snakes are born live, so this little one probably has some siblings (and maybe even a mom) hanging around.

Garters are also mildly venomous, but they don't have fangs so they like to keep chewing when they bite something.  People's response to the venom varies, in my experience, from a mild itch (me) to something resembling an allergic reaction (our daughter).