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Guest editorial

Ron Scollon: A master of the axe handle

Claire Kramsch
In a 1987 interview with Gary Snyder, Suzie Scollon and Richard Dauenhauer, Ron Scollon reflected on his life as a linguist and an educator. He compared the reciprocal effect of theory and action to an axe handle, that both makes and is made of a piece of wood. He explains:
[In a] collection of poems by Gary Snyder titled Axe Handles, the title poem refers back to an old Chinese poem, old even at the time of Confucius, fifth century BC. The gist of the poem is that when you are cutting an axe handle out of a piece of wood you are using an axe in your hand to do it. The model for your work isnt far off; its right there in your hand. In Snyders poem he is cutting wood with his son Kai. They decide to fix up a small hatchet for him and then Gary remembers the poem as he learned it from his teacher, then reflects on how this is the essence of culture, axe handle making axe handle, the model and the copy going on and on. (Scollon 1987: 1)

Ron Scollon was one of those axe handles that have enabled many applied linguists to cut their own wood in their attempt to understand the relationship of language, thought and action. Whether in first language acquisition, in sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, ethnography, intercultural communication, or mediated discourse analysis, he offered us a model for thinking, doing and educating that is applied linguistics at its best. Like many of the towering figures in the field Dell Hymes, Courtney Cazden, John Gumperz, Susan Ervin-Tripp he was at heart an educator and a politically engaged public intellectual. His range of interests was astounding and so were his erudition and his generosity. From Hawaii to Hong Kong to
Claire Kramsch: Department of German, 5323 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. email:

jal vol 6.3 2009 261265 2011, equinox publishing

doi : 10.1558/japl.v6i3.261


ron scollon: a master of the axe handle

Alaska to Georgetown, his research explores in ever greater depth the connections between language, discourse and the material, or ecological, conditions of human action. From the study of young childrens language development in the mid-1970s, to his work with Suzie Scollon on narrative and literacy in the early 1980s, he went on to develop a theory of mediated discourse and intercultural communication in the late 1990s. Together they developed the concept of nexus analysis as the methodological arm of mediated discourse analysis (S. Scollon pers. comm.) and applied it to what they called discourses in place at various sites around the world and on the internet. Beside writing some sixteen books and about a hundred articles, Scollon was the North American Editor of the journal Visual Communication and an active consultant to public schools and local and federal agencies. Scollons scholarship is inseparable from his social activism in both education and local politics. In his plenary address at the 2004 AAAL meeting in Portland, Oregon, he underscored what he saw as the main mission of applied linguists:
The proper focus of our attention has usually been and should remain on human action rather than language The study of action is harder than wed really like it to be because action is complex, both in the moment of occurrence and in the historical trajectories which give rise to action [As analysts] we are already engaged in the action under study. We dont have the option of asking whether were involved in action; the only question is whether were activist about it. Since we really have no choice but to be involved, its rather important for us to make some choices in a principled way. (Scollon 2004: 55)

He described his scholarship as sketching the outlines of a broad theory which integrates the frameworks of neo-Vygotskian sociocultural psychology, Hymesian anthropological linguistics, Gumperzian interactional sociolinguistics and critical discourse analysis as a means of engaging applied linguistics with some of the crucial social problems of our world (Scollon 2004: 56). This engagement of theory and practice, text and action, was evident in the innovative curriculum he developed together with Suzie Scollon, and Nora and Richard Dauenhauer for the development of teachers in public schools and that he called The Axe Handle Academy now on the University of Alaska website. This curriculum was to help public school teachers and other professionals reevaluate their goals and values and acquire a sense of ecological responsibility. Within an ecological perspective on schooling and education, the axe handle model of education diverged from the expert model (Scollon 1987) or banking model of educational delivery (Freire 2007) traditionally found at schooling institutions and focused instead on the relationship between knowledge, culture and the life of the land. It was based on an imaginative and creative reshuffling of disciplinary boundaries, a bold

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juxtaposition of readings from comparative literature to Western and Chinese philosophy to the open discussion of readings in biology and ecology. For him, the conceptual core of all education lay in comparative language and culture study. He liked to cite a little poem by Nanao Sakaki that captured the essence of this educational vision:
If you want to know the land Learn the weeds. If you want to know the culture Check the craft. If you want to know the future of the land Listen to the folk music. If you want to know the people Know yourself . (Sakaki 1983, cited in Scollon 1987)

While Suzie Scollon worked tirelessly to help local communities in Alaska attain greater equity in the distribution of heating fuel (see S. Scollon, this issue), Ron was working as a consultant at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. As a staunch pacifist, he was fiercely opposed to the war in Iraq. I wonder what he would have said about Barrack Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize a few days after sending 30,000 more troops to fight in Afghanistan. Ron Scollon was an engaging and convincing speaker. When he came and gave a talk at the Berkeley Language Center in March 1999 and then again in March 2000, I had the opportunity over dinner to ask him what it was that kept him going, and that gave such urgency to his writings. He told me how he grew up in a conservative Baptist family in Detroit, with early exposure to the real life of factory workers and race riots. How he joined the Army at age 19 and was stationed for one year in South Korea. How he discovered at a military library the work of Bertrand Russell and Soren Kierkegaard and how they changed his life. How, after a few years working at a Ford auto plant in Detroit, traveling to Japan and studying the guitar in Mexico, he became a professional guitar player. How he met Suzie Scollon and, giving up the guitar for academics, he enrolled at the University of Hawaii in 1970 on the GI Bill and finished his doctoral degree in linguistics in 1974. After his Korean war experience he had been attracted to the same existentialist thinkers as I had been after WWII. We spent the evening talking about Kierkegaard and Beckett, Heidegger and Sartre, and how they too struggled with the relation of language and political action in difficult war and post-war times. I suddenly understood that Rons interest in mediational means was intended to counteract too blind a faith in academic knowledge to solve the problems of the world; but it was also meant to caution against too much reliance on action alone. This is why he insisted on the nexus of thought and prac-


ron scollon: a master of the axe handle

tice and was leery of grand theories removed from the concrete nitty-gritty of daily life. In this, he was echoing Bertrand Russell who talked about the three passions that had governed his life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. Love and knowledge, Russell wrote in July 1956, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth (Russell 1967). Ron himself took global poverty, war and environmental issues to heart. He was fascinated by the metaphor of the extended hand and the gesture of handing a child handing a toy to her mother, a teacher handing a paper to a student as mediated discourses that are at once language, thought and action. Like the axe handle metaphor, the handing metaphor is favored by existentialist philosophers. Martin Heidegger, the woodcutter-philosopher from the Black Forest knew a thing or two about the work of the hand that is, at the same time, thinking. In What is Called Thinking? (Was heit Denken?) he writes:
The work of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine. The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hand of the other. (Heidegger 1968: 16)

To think is in any case a handiwork ([das Denken] ist jedenfalls ein HandWerk), says Heidegger explicitly, a work of the hand. The misuse of this philosophy by the nationalist and racist ideologies of the Third Reich should make us leery of the re-appropriation of ecological discourses by multinational corporations today. The earth-centered humanism Scollon advocated has a spiritual correlate that does not accommodate itself well with the tenets of neo-liberal capitalism. Ultimately, Ron was neither an optimist nor a pessimist about the chances of success of a global ecological project. He just had a deep sense of history. Like Russell and Kierkegaard he believed in the power of words to mediate and give meaning to the smallest units of human action, but he had no global illusions. He did what he felt personally responsible for doing. This special issue of the Journal of Applied Linguistics is a tribute to his integrity. The papers are a testimony to the beauty of the everyday as Ron helped us see it and give a name to it. They range from the minute details of street crossings (Jan Blommaert and April Huang), the rhythm and timing of words and gestures (Sigrid Norris), the way semiotic softwares regulate our lives (Theo van Leeuwen) and lived events are entextualized and recontextualized through digital technologies (Rodney Jones), to larger nexus analyses of the changes brought about by ecological activism in rural Alaska (Suzie Scollon) and by a global media event like the ecological Earth Hour event in 20072009 (Paul

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McIlvenny). They all build on the methods and concepts developed by Ron Scollon over the years. While this special issue was being prepared, on 13 November 2009, Dell Hymes, one of the founders of the discipline of discourse studies, passed away two weeks after the death of the anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss, one of the major influences on discourse studies and semiotics. As I re-read the tribute that Jan Blommaert assembled in Dell Hymes honor in the special issue of Text and Talk (Blommaert 2009), and that I am myself assembling in the honor of Ron Scollon, I cannot but think that we are all now the axe handles carrying out the work of Dells and Rons hands, axe handles making axe handles, on and on.

I am grateful to Suzie Scollon for checking the facts in this introduction and my interpretation of them.

About the Author

Claire Kramsch is Professor of German and Affiliate Professor of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Her research interests include the teaching and learning of foreign languages, discourse and culture, and subjectivity in language learning. Her most recent book-length publication is The Multilingual Subject (2009, Oxford University Press). Address for correspondence: Department of German, 5323 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. Email:

Blommaert, Jan (2009) On Hymes: introduction. Special Issue of Text & Talk 29 (3): 241 243. Freire, Paulo (1970/2007) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Continuum. Heidegger, Martin (1954/1968) What is Called Thinking? Trans. Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row. Russell, Bertrand (1967/1968) Prologue. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. London: George Allen & Unwin. Sakaki, Nanao (1983) Real Play. Santa Fe, NM: Tooth of Time Press. Scollon, Ron (1987) The Axe Handle Academy. A Conversation with Ron Scollon. http://

Scollon, Ron (2004) Action, activity, activism and linguistics. AAAL Annual Conference 14 May 2004 in Portland Oregon.

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