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The rise and fall of student guilds in the medieval university of Bologna.

The medieval student guilds at Bologna are described by Cobban (1971)1 this post is a summary of Cobban, A. B. (1971). Medieval Student Power. Past & Present, (53), 28–66. Retrieved from JSTOR. as “a by-product of the struggle for survival in a hostile environment”. Students in the 13th and 14th centuries did not come from aristocratic families and were usually dependent on a parent or other benefactor to support them, although they were not as young as most modern-day undergraduates. They were mostly training to enter a highly-paid profession, rather than seeking knowledge for its own sake – to become lawyers, doctors, teachers or clergymen 2 There was a much smaller group who pursued “knowledge” for its own sake – which was to be found in the field of theology. Science, as we understand it, was yet to develop. (The start of that could be taken as Copernicus in the mid 16th century)..

The students arrived in Bologna from all parts of Europe and formed into guilds mainly as a way of getting some legal protection, since they didn’t have local citizenship. Their teachers, by contrast, were made to promise the city of Bologna that they would not leave to go and teach somewhere else. The dynamic of how the “university” developed suggests that there was a clear conflict of interest and general lack of trust between the teachers and the students who directly paid them for their classes. In fact during this period the “universitas magistrorum” was a separate thing from the “universitas scholarium”.

The law students created their guild in order to increase their influence over the work of the law “doctors” or teachers. During the 13th century, the guilds of students became increasingly organised – with subsections for different languages 3 all teaching was done in Latin , their own elected officers and by-laws etc. This allowed them to replace the Bologna city authorities as the main management organ in charge of the teachers’ work. The university (or “studium” as it was called) was generally democratic, with each language/national subsection electing a rector. Students and teachers would meet at the start of the year to agree on the contents of courses, and the dates for completing each part of the set texts.

In the 14th century the situation gradually reversed. This happened because the teachers began to receive salaries from the city authorities in addition to what the students paid them. This in turn was due to competition between university cities trying to attract the most celebrated teachers.

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Learning space

An information space is not necessarily a good learning space. In fact, it’s easy to imagine an “information space” (in the English-language sense) which is nearly impossible to learn from. It would be a text presented in an unknown foreign language which is unrelated to any language the learner knows. It would likely consist of printed letters. (Spoken language, or even handwriting, reveals something about the author’s identity and emotional state, and gives other contextual clues.) It will be harder to learn from if it represents a discourse (in the Foucaldian sense) which strongly differs from discourses the learner knows; and if there are no other clues like pictures, links or information about the speakers.

At the other end of the scale, teachers may find it useful to imagine what an ideal language learning space would be like:

  1. it shows connections to what the participants already know, and is particularly aware of those areas where the new discourse constructs the world differently from what they expext.
  2. it allows communication and collaboration among participants.
  3. it suggests a path: how to become a member of the community where the discourse under study is created.
  4. learners can practice skills which are valued in that community
  5. it encourages the public asking of questions, and guessing about solutions or answers
  6. users can experiment by interacting with the study material .
  7. it provides a maximum of contextual clues about the identity of the speakers, what the speakers are trying to achieve, when and why they are speaking, and the topic of discussion (videos, diagrams, simulations)
  8. it doesn’t contain meaningless or irrelevant side-tracks, the material itself is internally consistent and logically structured
  9. it suggests ways to better study the content and plan how to study it.
  10. it focuses attention on what the student should be doing at any given moment. These activities can be arranged into a pedagogical sequence of steps.
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Information space

This post is a background to the session I’m going to do in the ESP conference this week.

When I arrived in Spb in 2000 I was surprised that, in this city of 5 million, you could hardly buy The Economist magazine anywhere. (The Economist tends to write rubbish about economics, but is a reasonable source for a broad view of what’s happening in the world. It also makes suitable reading for high-level EFL students.)

This Economist-shaped lacuna gives a sense of what we usually mean in Russian by the “informatsionnoe prostranstvo”. A term which might be lazily, or literally, translated as “information space”. It carries the idea of the things that are generally known, or which you can find out from the media, in a particular society. But what are the implications of this idea for applied linguistics and for teaching?

Information space – the English term, does not have the same meaning. It refers to the contents of a single information system which can be searched and where the relations between items mapped. That is to say, it refers to a single corpus from which a technical system can retrieve information. (It’s worth noting that with big data and AI techniques information can now be retrieved from collections that look totally chaotic to the human eye).

Now we can take a step nearer to the field of Applied Linguistics: I maintain that what we call in Russia the “informatsionnoe prostranstvo” is closer to being what French philosophy, from Foucault, calls “discourse”. Except that there isn’t just one “discourse” in society, there are many… and they sometimes compete or contradict each other. Different fields of expertise can be said to have their own discourses

Discourse is also a key term for Applied Linguistics. According to Pennycook (1994), “Discourse in this sense (John -Foucault’s sense),…does not refer to language or uses of language, but to ways of organizing meaning that are often, though not exclusively, realized through language.

Pennycook contrasts this with the two commonly-used concepts of discourse in the field of applied linguistics, and notes how they have fed into language teaching:

In standard discourse analysis – linguists look at larger scale patterns in texts such as the genre, the grammar of spoken English and different aspects of communicative competence. This approach has provided the theoretical basis for a lot of “communicative” language teaching.

In critical discourse analysis – sociolinguists consider how different social factors influence use of language. For example, they identify how large historical phenomena like colonialism or capitalism are present as assumptions in texts. This approach has led to attempts by teachers to incorporate more serious topics for reading and class discussion.

The Foucaldian idea of discourse can also contribute to the way we teach languages. Pennycook writes “Language teaching becomes a process of making the familiar unfamiliar, of linking the process of learning a second language to a pedagogy that seeks to question how we come to understand ourselves as we do”.

In some of the hard sciences the “discourse” is barely changed by a switch from Russian to English because a single world-wide discourse already exists. Language teaching for these kinds of ESP means accurately reproducing the context where the language would be used. In others, perhaps especially the social sciences, law and pedagogy, we are asking our students to move into a new and different discourse, as well as adopting a foreign language. In the example used at the start of this post “information space” is a word not only in a different language from the Russian term “информационное пространство” – it belongs to a completely different discourse.

In my next post I’ll say something about “spaces” for learning, and virtual learning environments.

PENNYCOOK, A. (1994). Incommensurable Discourses? Applied Linguistics, 15(2), 115–138. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/15.2.115