What Do Emotions Have to Do With It?: The Opportunities Offered by Affect in Reforming English Language Education

What Do Emotions Have to Do With It?: The Opportunities Offered by Affect in Reforming English Language Education

Alina Rebecca Chirciu (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5846-0.ch012


The chapter was an action research intervention carried out at a private Omani higher education institution where 17 female students were exposed to various texts revolving around issues that affected women in the region or in the world. The chosen texts were prone to provoke a varied range of emotional responses and to result in empathy with the actors involved as well as a broader, critical understanding of the issues presented. Participants reported having become aware of multiple perspectives and being able to see things from various points of view in addition to an increased development of all the four language skills as an implicit result of this intervention. The study thus illuminates the importance of emotions in language learning pedagogy and their catalytic value in the process of developing awareness of multiple perspectives.
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The role of emotions in education has long been a subject of debate and confusion as educational researchers and theorists have been grappling with the idea of theorizing emotions and debating whether and how they fit the educational context (Ahmed, 2004). Emotions did not seem to fit in with the academic rigor stemming from a legacy of rationality as prevailing over lived experience and whereby causal links could be easily established. For long, this tradition of research and practice was associated with scientific rigor (Carr & Kemmis, 2004) and hence seeped into educational practice. Thus, the theorizing of emotions followed a similar route from a biological perspective, which considered emotions as innate, to cognitive and, finally, constructivist approaches (Benesch, 2017).

The biological perspective portrays emotions as reactions that are physically conditioned as they originate in the brain and their purpose is to help humans cope with their environment. Thus, emotions are not particular to various cultures but universally valid. This perspective follows structuralist approaches to language education in the Saussurian tradition whereby variety and particularity in language are considered a sign of inconsistency and are hence less worthy of study. I choose this example to claim my critical, problematizing stance in this study, and to further myself away from a functionalist, show and tell approach to the roles of emotions and affect in language education.

The cognitive perspective, although giving more credit to human volition and involvement in the emotion generating process, still follows a mechanistic cause and effect approach, whereby humans make judgements on events that have an impact on them, i.e. they are triggered by the environment or the circumstances in which the subjects find themselves. The particularity in this case is found in the circumstances that can trigger emotions and not in the type of emotions themselves. This particular perspective has led to some very interesting research studies focused on the correlation between emotions and academic achievement. One of them by Frenze, Groetz, Lucke, Pegrum and Sutton (2008, cited in Benesch, 2013), concluded that positive emotions enhance learning whereas negative emotions diminish it; hence, the necessity of promoting positive emotions that associate self-regulatory behaviors, academic motivation and high performance.

The significant number of studies in the ELT field related to the correlation between the enjoyability of the educational experience and student motivation serve as further proof of the prevalence of this particular perspective in the field. The very fact that emotions can cause debate and prompt a need for theorizing stands as a proof of their important influence on educational processes.

My interest in the role of emotions particularly in English language education was sparked by my previous research into critical pedagogical approaches into English in English at the tertiary level, where my students and I became acquainted with emotional labor intensive topics and materials. This interest was also stimulated by my critical stance which sought to problematize a generally positivistic, instrumentalist, functionalist approach to teaching and learning driven by an increasing trend in standardization of teaching methods, strategies and assessments in the ELT field in my wider context. Thus, my perspective of emotions and their place in language education is culturally constructed and:

unlike biological and psychological conceptions that locate emotions within individuals, a cultural-politics approach theorizes emotions not as internal things or states possessed by humans, but, rather, the effect of an encounter with objects, including ideas, memories, people, events, activities, places, and so on. These encounters are associated with bodily sensations which, Ahmed (2004)believes, cannot be distinguished from emotions because physical feelings and emotions are not experienced as distinct (Benesch, 2017, p. 54).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Empathy: Feelings of solidarity with the situation of various actors; understanding of the Other’s perspective.

Compassion: A set of emotions that sums up to a shift in the perception of the plight of others as being close to one’s own experience and understanding.

Empathic Provocation: A mix of positive and negative feelings that arise in response to a controversial social issue.

Student Voice: The students’ expression of reflection, dialog, and action during classroom events.

Student Silence: Student resistance manifested during classroom events through non-participation.

Sticky Objects: Themes or topics to which emotions adhere; themes that generate emotional response.

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