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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 27, 2009

Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed!

A. Grammar puzzles
Below are two structure questions/problems that came up in recent classes that I couldn’t explain succinctly to students. What would you say?

1. “I live in Saitama, which is next to Tokyo”.
Fine, right? OK- Here’s the student’s question- Why can’t you say, “I live in Saitama where is next to Tokyo?”. After all, we can use “where” in a similar structure: “I went back to Saitama where my parents live”- but not “which”. What are the underlying rules governing the relative cluses here and how would you give a quick outline to students who ask this?
(*note- I had originally written 'relative pronouns' above, which was clearly not an accurate description)

2. “I like action movies so I watch them as much as possible”.
This too is OK, right? But movies are countable, so why can’t we say “I like action movies so I watch them as many as possible”? And why is it that if we remove “them” from the sentence we can allow the countable “many”, as in: “I like action movies so I watch as many as possible”? What is the rule governing this and how would you explain it succinctly?

B. What’s so good about working at a university?
I’ve been very cynical in this blog recently and cynicism is just too easy, the official sport of people with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. So, in a positive vein, here are several things that make working full-time at a Japanese university (as an English professor) worthwhile.

1. You have your own office. What a blessing this is! You can hold private conversations. Take an inconspicuous break. Catch up on Stanley Cup playoff scores. Loosen your belt and let your stomach hang out. You can put on a Jaga Jazzist CD and nobody will be thinking that you must be screwing around (and I’m not- the music spurs me to do more). You can spread papers around wherever you please. After having my own office, I could never go back to a teacher’s common-area (the kind with partitions or cubicles) layout. I’d feel watched all day, under constant pressure, and probably achieve less in the process.

2. Nobody tells you what to do in your classes. It’s true that part-time university teachers often get told: ‘this is the system, we want you to use this textbook, teach according to this formula’ and the like. That’s understandable when Mr/Ms. Hijoukin is in and out of campus in half a day. But if you are a full-timer, the understanding is that you are almighty in your classroom decisions (including less and less pressure to pass very marginal students these days- often a problem at many universities in the past), that you were hired to make the educational and methodological decisions, and that it is really up to you to make something of your classes and not spend time trying to figure out what administrators want you to do. They have no idea what they want you to do because they are administrators, not teachers. It’s not their job. You make your job.

3. Many of the students are at an age where you can hold adult-level conversations with them. There is the somewhat justified image of the Japanese university student who is basically interested in some combination of drinking, sex, shopping, trying out new away-from-home hairdos, reading manga, and hanging out, but that is true of universities anywhere (except for you and I, dear reader, who were always impeccably studious of course). But many university students are curious, have developed sharp intellects that need stimulation, or crave in-depth discussion (we English teachers have a tendency to underrate student intelligence if their English skills are not consistent with their intellectual prowess). Many students offer interesting outside-the-box insights or ask probing questions, or simply know how to engage society in a refreshingly adult manner.

4. When you re-enter Japan and the ‘occupation’ section on your customs declaration card reads “University Professor” the customs guys become much more pleasant and malleable. “Did you bring any fruit or vegetables from abroad, sir? No? Then let me give you some! Bon appetit!”

5. At a lot of institutions the administrators-as-aristocracy, teachers-as-peasants meme is paramount. In fact, I worked in one place where it was so comically pronounced that it was almost a deliberate provocation. Not so at a university. Professors are, effectively, the management. Those who are in purely administrative roles tend to be far from imperious, almost obsequious. Now I don’t need anybody kowtowing to me but it feels good to have some status or at least respect for your position. Administrators administrate and professors proffer. They don’t give orders (they ask politely) or behave like they are holding my paypacket strings as a carrot. In return, I am polite and very hesitant before I question their office policies. It’s all about respecting territory.

C. The reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-type lessons finally revealed!

This notion of course tends to be a Western teacher’s self-serving conceit. I’m referring the stereotype that “they” Japanese teach teacher-fronted grammar-translation lessons to huge numbers of sleeping students, lecture-style while “we” non-Japanese teach highly interactive, dynamic, living English classes that our students love and adore us for. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met any Japanese teacher who admits to using the GT/TC method- every Japanese teacher I’ve met decries it as outdated. J students will often tell me that their J high school teachers taught GT but I think that this is something that needs to be researched a bit more. I’m a bit skeptical about accepting it at face-value. I suspect that even J students maintain the association of ‘Japanese teacher’ with ‘grammar-translation’ uncritically, just as many students will swear that my class was about ‘teaching technical terms’ when in fact only two such items came up tangentially in the lesson, a lesson that was actually about…oh… academic writing.

Regardless, I’m starting to understand the attraction of allegedly Neanderthal teaching methodologies as my age advances and my body starts creaking and groaning. Why? Keeping a class of 30 or so not-always-so-highly-motivated students is tiring! Keeping up the pace of work, making sure everyone is following along and doing the correct activities, checking, monitoring, handling the classroom equipment, summarizing, dealing with problems (both linguistic and behavioral) is tough! After 90 minutes of politically-correct methodology I am exhausted! It’s funny how learner-centered methodology can be so tiring to the teacher, whereas teacher-centeredness is much more relaxing.

So, I can see why a teacher might go into the main lecture hall with his power point slides (updated a bit every year), turn off the lights, face the screen and speak on his topic for 90 minutes. Maybe students are bored shiftless. Maybe half are asleep. Who cares? He’s teaching to whoever may be listening. Those who make the effort will learn something, he knows. If students don’t want to attend or listen he doesn’t care. It’s university after all. It’s their choice- he’s not a babysitter and he’s not there to entertain. nd at the end of the semester he gives the big lecture hall a class a single paper test and fails the ones who didn’t meet the standards. He knows his content well enough- he knows that it’s sound- and he’s passing it on to whoever may be interested, even if that's only a few souls (like this blog, perhaps!). At the end of the 90 minutes he’s not tired at all. He heads back to the lab where he can do his REAL work with the select graduate students who he’s entrusted with on a day-to-day basis, students who are really into the topic. Where he really feels like an EDUCATOR!


Yeah, yeah, I know that this violates the “Good English” teacher code and that I should hand in my teaching license to the relevant authorities for even thinking of this etc. etc. and, true, I wouldn’t allow myself to actually ever do it. But I CAN see the attraction. Just sayin’.

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Mike: In your first grammar question, "where" does not act as a relative pronoun. Accompanied by "is" it becomes a question marker, thus not correct in that sentence.

In the second question, if you add a comma after "them" the sentence becomes acceptable, the phrase "as many as" acting as an adjective. "As much as possible" acts as an adverb, so your question doesn't really have any thing to do with countable and uncountable.

I'm not a grammarian so I can't give you the underlying rules but the above is how I would explain them if those questions came up in my writing class.

Yeah, the pros and cons of being a uni prof: I would say there are more of the former than latter, at least if you teach at a school where the admin is an adjunct to the faculty and not the other way around. God save us though, from megalomaniacal deans.

I think your explanations hit the nail on the head, Walter. I think it also indicates the need to think of grammar in terms of functions first and foremost.

With the first example, I did as you said, telling the students that "where is next to Tokyo" indicates a question whereas with "where my parents live" the verb is separated from the RP so it doesn't orient the listener towards a question (and thereby allows "where" to act purely as an RP).

The second one really threw me when I was put on the spot. On my way home I began thinking, "as much/many as possible" is working like an adjunct if placed after "them" and thus is not privy to the governance of countability. But it didn't come to me when under pressure (in the classroom) and until I read your post was not totally convinced by my 'adjunct' explanation.

I used to be a fairly sharp grammarian but these days the ability to articulate a lot of the categories and relationships seems to have drifted from my active lexicon.

Mike, if you haven't taken the Word Police exam, you can do so here:

It's in one of your favoured formats, tongue-in-cheek, but is edifying nevertheless ;)

Ouch!! "Where" in the second sentence is a relative adverb, not a relative pronoun.

Split the sentences:
I live in Saitama. It is next to Tokyo.
I went back to Saitama. My parents live there.

In the first example, "which" replaces the pronominal "it", whereas in the second, "where" replaces the "adverb" there.

Most kiddies should have studied (though obviously not learned!) this distinction in jhs (RPs) and & hs (RAs).

So, "where" in the sample sentence not a relative pronoun - as Walter also pointed out- but a relative adverb (as seen by its replacing the pronominal 'it' that we would use if we had formed two separate sentences). That makes sense and also makes certain memory cells regarding grammar in my head fire. Thanks Naomi.

But... how would you explain this to students who seem confused by the apparent inconsistency, quickly and succinctly? As you say, they obviously haven't really learned it in HS (my offhand guess is that those who actually do master it do so by regular exposure to contextual patterns)

My ability to analyze grammatical patterns seems to be going the way of my Japanese vocabulary, slipping away daily. As a side note, I wrote recently in a Yomiuri article about the 'preposition' 'for' in the sentence, 'It must be Sunday for the birds are singing' .

Obviously,it's not a preposition but a conjunction. Double ouch.

This type of thing usually draws the "So, who thinks he's Mr. Hot Shot Professor?" comments.Frankly speaking, I have drifted away from traditional grammatical analysis and need to brush up again. Functional grammar and spoken grammar(two areas of particular interest for me) took over those brain cells, and there apparently enough left.

I walked past a Japanese professor's class at my university the other day. Half of the 25 or so students had their heads down. The prof also had his head down, in his notes while speaking into a mic. (by the way using a mic is also key to expending less energy) As I was walking I was reflecting on the lesson I had just taught and I was being a bit hard on myself for not doing more to get my students more involved. Then I saw the JP prof's class and suddenly I didn't feel so bad. I thought about this article and for an instant I thought "wouldn't it be nice".

As an educator I know that I have a lot of room for improvement but at least I feel confident that I'm on the right track.

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