Imagine a world where you can make a cartoon avatar of yourself and do whatever you like in an international community of English speakers.
Well, it already exists, in Taiwan where I have spent most of my career teaching, it's called ‘World of Warcraft‘ and the mission of almost every parent of teenagers there to wrest their kids off of it! But imagine if something similar existed, primarily for education, business and sex. That exists too and I’m fairly certain that it’s nothing we’d really want to get students involved in.
I’m sure many of you disagree and are using Second Life in your practice to good effect, so my intent is not to disrespect your work, but to explain the problems I have with Second Life and other such virtual worlds.
I first experimented with Second Life in 2003 when friends of mine had set up an experimental teacher training space. I didn’t really get interested. More recently I came across Second Life in a wee teacher training course I’m doing. I fought against my inherent tendency to not engage with things that don’t resonate with me and decided to ‘join in’ and not be such a negative Nancy. Although I have an aversion to ‘virtual worlds’ and to speaking through machines in any way (I don’t use telephones) I put this aside in order to try and retrieve any babies in this bathwater.
I Googled up Second Life and was met with this screen:
[screenshot from https://join.secondlife.com/ ]
The user sees this screen with avatars that can be chosen. Your avatar can be customised later on but I immediately took real exception to the prototype avatars that were presented for customisation. These include a slightly scary rabbit, a robot and lots of white kids who clearly resembled extras from a 90s vampire film. The only black woman present is wearing a short dress with a flower in her hair and high heeled shoes - a very different aesthetic to the white women presented. One of the men has a shirt open to show rippling pecs but generally, the male figures are covered up. For me, it doesn’t represent an acceptable aesthetic to present to students in my care, particularly young women.
There are two strands to my misgivings: firstly the absence of ethnic diversity and secondly, the overt sexualisation of young women, in the Second Life avatar choices. As a teacher joining in, I tried to choose an avatar that could represent my self without making myself ridiculous. I’m 37, pretty fat, greying, and generally get dressed in the dark. My choices ranged from avatars that mostly looked like a 14 year old version on myself: pale skinned, bone thin, and dressed in black with lots of eyeliner and it seemed undignified and self-abasing.
I’m not scarred by the experience. But then I’m a confident, English-speaking adult. I can articulate why I don’t want to be this 1990 version of myself and tried to change it. Can we expect young, perhaps not so good at English students to raise their own misgivings to their educators or will they simply go along with what the teacher, or the authority wants them to do? Thinking back to my time teaching junior high school girls in Taiwan, none of those prototype avatars is of Han Chinese or any other Taiwanese ethnicities.
What’s the message here?
White people (and the token African American) own English. You are different. Go get yourself a white identity to join our English-speaking world!
OK, yes, you can choose to brown/yellow/black up later if you want to, but that’s not the standard issue human in this community.
Don’t we want our students to come and sit at the table as equals? To join the English-speaking communities that they are passionate about?
In my Real Life classes, every kid is a beautiful prototype of the individual they want to become as they are: be they fat or thin, with braces, wearing unsexy clothes - with a wonderful inheritance of Chinese ethnicity, not something to be tagged on later, once they have chosen their ‘core’ avatar.
Am I over-thinking this?
Perhaps, but if we use these tools in the classroom, we are also raising the question of who ‘owns’ English. We have to ask who funds a lot of these communities and to what business or political ends? To promote ELT as a British, Australian, White American/European activity? Why?
Is that congruent with our principles, desirable for our personal teaching contexts?
Cartoon images hurt as much as photographic images.
As a teacher I’m rarely didactic and I know I can’t change the world, but I am absolutely committed to making every child in my care feel like they can be whoever they want to be and that includes valuing and celebrating every child’s individuality and identity and not promoting certain images as a norm within an educational context.
but mostly in Taiwan.