Consider the parsnip, root vegetable beloved of the ELT world! Oh, to be a parsnip: thought upon regularly, invoked frequently, and held up as the pale gold standard of appropriate content production. Naturally, this being ELT, it is also an acronym:
The seven scariest terms in the ELT universe, and forbidden at all costs! How dare content producers or course writers even consider them, the fabled seven scourges of language learning! And yet...
We’re no strangers to content production in the ELT space. DLA work with some of the world’s most renowned course providers to create engaging learning experiences that draw from authentic content: news, entertainment, film, factual, reality. However, given that clients come to us because of this attractive authentic content, it does seem increasingly uncomfortable to claim it as such given the number of caveats used when exercising the term.
Yes, we would love a story on this successful author, but no, we can’t acknowledge their battle with drug addiction at the start. Yes, this story about a shopaholic is perfect, but can we not include his boyfriend. Yes, this young woman’s college experience is inspiring, but we really should avoid mentioning that she’s a teenage single mother.*
(*Real conversations we’ve had with publishers when pitching ideas for authentic content. The a-word is thought to sell textbooks.)
Naturally, ELT consumer markets vary wildly in terms of worldview. We get it, and work hard to offer content that is considered culturally appropriate for a global audience. However, we argue that this approach is fundamentally flawed. It’s based on a one-size-fits-all method of content creation. Sure, it’s economic, but is it ethical?
Parsnip defenders cry yes! Creating content that is culturally accessible for everyone is a fair and even-handed way to do it. It speaks of shared experience, and surely there are enough stories captured in authentic content that can fulfil such a requirement. It’s also helpful that selling multi-territory multi-year licenses is a savvy way to get bang for your buck.
DLA say no! A one-size-fits-all approach will bring some in, but it will exclude others. By not representing them on screen, it denies individuals’ experiences, life choices and entire belief systems. It perpetuates glossy, censored soundbites that ultimately all boil down to the same small set of approved personalities and safe stories. By catering so carefully for some, we ‘other’ many more, claiming their lives as somehow extreme. PARSNIPs means perpetuating an abstract hierarchy of experience - and this will ultimately have a negative real-world impact.
In adhering to PARSNIP guidelines are we as content producers complicit in enforcing this narrow set of worldviews?
Is it our responsibility to challenge this and push for inclusivity in the materials we provide?
Or is it the responsibility of our clients to enable us to break free from this strict set of vanilla experiences?
We think the answer to all three of those questions is yes. Only by changing the stories we tell - at every level of their telling - will we successfully enable more voices and more experiences to come to the fore. We must constantly push at each stage of the process, from writing the courses, to researching the materials, to selecting the characters, to be truly inclusive in the work that we do.
This isn’t going to be instant, but we vow to keep this debate alive. We’ll bring it into our meetings, our conference calls, our all-day roundtable sessions. We’ll bring it into our public speaking events, our pitching decks, our articles, and we will bring it into the work we create. And we bring it to you, reader, as we ask you once again to please, consider the PARSNIP.
We’d love to know what you think. Are you a publisher, a learning designer, a teacher? Maybe you’re a student and have wondered why you always see your classmates on screen, but never yourself. Let us know. We’ll be at BETT next week, and we’re always contactable on email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and on Twitter (@digiassociates). Get in touch, and let us know your thoughts.