Canagarajah – A Geopolitics of Academic Writing

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. A Geopolitics of Academic Writing. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. Print. Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture.

In this text, A. Suresh Canagarajah used ethnography of literacy along with empirical methodologies, such as discourse and textual analysis to explicate the geopolitics surrounding academic knowledge production both in the West, which positions itself in the center, and the Third World, which he argued is constrained to the periphery. Because of his position as a member of both communities he was able to describe his dilemma of trying to straddle the two discourse spaces. From this experience he contextualized the tensions between not only the “center” and “periphery,” but also between print media and talk, literacy and orality, dominant discourses and  vernacular – and how these factors along with power, material conditions, and genre conventions contribute to inequities regarding knowledge production and what he calls the geopolitics of academic writing. His main focus was on the conventions leading to the publication of the Research Article (RA) in the West because of the professional capital it carries in terms of producing “new” knowledge and helping scholars achieve tenure and promotion. For Third World academic communities, such as in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, he highlighted the importance of other forms of knowledge production, such as speaking engagements, verbal discussions, and publications in local publications.
Of his positionality as a researcher he stated:
“Though I claim to represent scholars from the type of background described above [periphery], my critical insights are enabled by my work experience in some American university settings as well. My membership in the academic communities of the center and the periphery has oriented me to the differences in literacy practices of both circles and provided a peculiar “double vision” that informs the discussion in this book.” (11)
Canagarajah was also candid regarding how his position also led to his standpoint be questioned by “periphery” scholars: “It is because I moved to the center that I am able to publish about the scholarly deprivation and exclusion I suffered while teaching at UJ, but in the process of moving my status has status has changed, calling into question my ability to represent my periphery colleagues” (11).
If we were to answer Spivak’s question “Can he subaltern speak?” based on this text, the answer would be no, because 1) although Canagarajah effectively portrayed the ways in which periphery scholars are silenced through Western academic writing textual and publishing conventions, periphery scholars are likely to enjoy more voice than their counterparts outside of the academy, but then also because 2) once periphery scholars begin to gain voice outside of their local circles of influence, which occurs only through varying degrees of using Western conventions they are no longer fully periphery, nevertheless subaltern. Then, 3) while speaking, or orality is valued in Third World and periphery communities within the “center” as a primary form of knowledge production, according to Canagarajah, he argued that periphery scholars are forced to utilize print media and its conventions in order to produce knowledge that is viewed as valuable and circulated.
Despite these conditions, Canagarajah argued that there are changes that both “center” and “periphery” academic communities must make in order to create more democratic knowledge production practices. One such adjustment that Canagarajah suggested “center” journals make was to establish a common bibliography format so that periphery scholars without word processing and print capabilities would not have to retype whole bibliographies or manuscripts to tailor it for submissions to different journals. On the other hand, Canagarajah encourage Third World scholars to continue to engage with center journals and ways of producing knowledge and avoid staying local, though, he emphasized they should not abandon local literacies. He argued that these moves toward changing the geopolitics in academic writing benefit both the “center” and the “periphery”:
“The more democratic the process of knowledge production, the more significant the progress. Paradoxically, therefore, the center academic institutions themselves impoverished by their hegemony. It is important to realize that the damages in knowledge production are not limited to periphery communities.” (254)
“It is worth repeating that the democratization of academic communication can make a critical contribution to center communities themselves… An engagement with local knowledge from periphery contexts can help enrich, expand, and reconstruct mainstream discourses and knowledge. In fact, the clash of diverse perspectives is valuable for its own sake: it affords an opportunity to reexamine the basic assumptions and beliefs of a community.” (303)
In his conclusion, Canagarajah reiterated that his intention was not to lower standards, but to expand and enrich them:
“This is rather an attempt to deconstruct the bases of “excellence” in published scholarship and knowledge construction. This is an argument for changing the relationships in the publication networks so that we can reconstruct knowledge – and presumably conduct international relations – in more egalitarian and enriching terms.” (305)
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