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The Uni-Files

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

December 03, 2009

My attraction to alt.alt and students who don't say the 'right' thing

First- a few people have commented on my Dec. 01st Yomiuri article (12 Tips for Culture Teaching) in the previous entry (which was actually about something entirely different- scroll down to see). If there are any more comments on the Yomiuri article you can add them to the comment section in this entry.

By the way, the email address provided with the article makes it looks like ends with a dot- it doesn't. My email address is

I got a number of responses from Japanese teachers on the article, many of whom recounted similar situations with foreign friends who could speak/function well in Japanese but ran into the 'cultural differences' brick wall of non-comprendez. Actually, I thought that this type of situation (the nonplussed parking garage attendant in my case) was a little too well-established and standardized, even hackneyed, for the article- but it certainly seems to have hit home for many.

BTW- I'm presenting on the same topic this Sunday at the ETJ Expo in Fukuoka.

Anyway, speaking of standard and hackneyed, here is today's main theme:
My attraction to alt.alt and students who don't say the 'right' thing.

In my teenage years (the mid 70's) I was quite a fan of the Progressive Rock of that era. At that time it was a musical leap: fresh, new, challenging, complex, rich with new possibilities. Of course, after a time it became formulaic and mannered, gradually becoming less relevant, stale, the opposite of 'progressive'. For many years prog was probably the most uncool music in the universe and my interest faded too, although I still consistentlymaintained an interest in any new and challenging forms of music (ECM records stands out). Progressive rock sounded dated and static and could no longer be thought of 'progressive' per se.

Interestingly though prog is now making a comeback. Hipsters are name-dropping old prog influences and admirations.But what this also means is not just that people are sticking to the tired old formulas first hashed out in the 70's but making new, challenging music with an eclectic spirit of complexity, a rich musical tonal palette, and timbres and textures that both stimulate the cerebral corex and stir the heart (see Cuneiform Records, Tzadik, and Rune Grammofon as examples). It is certainly progressive, but it is not the old 'prog' (although yes, there are retro bands still churning out the old ELP/Yes sound, not to mention recent reformations of classic era prog groups- Vandergraf Generator anyone?).

So what does this have to do with teaching EFL you might well ask? Well, I think we can find the same phenomenon occuring with poltically progressive teachers (and a LOT of NJ teachers in Japan seem to paint themselves as politically 'progressive'). Many of these teachers are my age (one half-century) or older and spent their formative (impressionable?) years in a climate when it was still considered a bit left-field, a bit alt., to challenge the man. A time when, say, claiming equal rights for gay people, criticizing the excesses of corporate greed, or standing up for against environmental degradation were still marks of 'thinking outside the box', of challenging societal norms.

Except now this is pretty much de rigueur among the populace, which is not surprising since people of that generation are now in positions of power. These days the number one bad guys in Hollywood movies are big business financiers, the heroes in kids' cartoons are environmental protectors, and the subversive Simpsons is an American institution. Yes- the old alt. themes are regularly trumpeted in political offices, in the mainstream media, in the schools. 'Fighting the system' is now quite Quixotic pecisely because it's so mainstream. Hey, even Shell cares about maintaining the environment.

So, like the old prog, a lot of this weltenshauung has become passe and boring. Personally, I find very little that is morally, intellectually, or spiritually stimulating in the tired old flagbearing posture. Not that I am a conservative (I consider myself an issue-driven centrist politically). But I find its orthodoxy too confining, the old premises often unchallenged or unexamined, having become de facto dogma in many cases. Like rock bands churning out the old retro prog-by-numbers it is no longer truly 'progressive' but merely progressive-lite soundbiting and posturing.

It's not hard to find this in a number of ESL/EFL textbooks too. I've talked about how tiresome Global Warming is as an EFL subject here before (so much so that it is pretty much verboten as an entrance exam topic at universities since it has been done to death and is pretty much the default practice essay at jukus and the like). Bringing up social topics in a textbook is fine of course but let's try to put a few new spins on the old 'progressive' political rockinghorse. What I find most objectionable is the manner of talking down to students in many of these texts, assuming (often with great prejudice and hubris IMO) that students have never encountered these topics or views before and need to be told 'the truth' (I call this the Missionary Approach). It has all the hallmarks of indoctrination, except for the fact that the arguments presented are often so simplistic and viscerally self-righteous that they are actually more likely to backfire. I could link to the worst offenders but I'll let readers find their own.

Some good examples: John Spiri (Can't find a good link, sorry) has written a textbook on such issues, called 'Inspiring Stories' (Vols. 1 and 2) and even though John is an avowed progressive I like the approach he has taken- that is, not editorializing, but letting the stories and characters speak for themselves. I am in the process of writing a review of John's book so more on that at another time. Greg Goodmacher disagrees with me on the 'Global Warming' issue (see the link above for his comments) but his textbook is well-balanced and contains a few surprising twists and turns, displays a broader eye than many such textbooks, and (most importantly for me) offers a FRESH and more balanced perspective and critique of some of the old progressive-as-new-establishment positions.

A few years back The Language Teacher (or TLT) JALT's monthly English teacher's journal published an issue dedicated to 'Global Issues' that was, IMO, just a pathetic rehash of the tired old unexamined 'correct' viewpoints trying desperately to pose them and challenging and edgy. Several teachers including myself and Trevor Sargent of Tottori Univ. were disturbed by the idenfication of "teaching Global Issues" with tired, unexamined, status quo 'progressive' viewpoints masquerading as critical thinking. The world had moved on but these people hadn't- still thinking that they were radical underdogs ahead of the popular political curve.

Both Trevor and I threw out some strongly worded ripostes to this issue which in turn drew some caustic attempts at rebuttal (click on the links above to see all). The upshot of this little flurry was that TLT did seem to move away from that type of socio-political identification in subsequent issues, and a number of people have since told me privately that they were glad that the bubble had been pricked, if not burst (including some who were firmly in the progressive political camp).

Conversely, I really like what I call alt.alt, that is an alternative, questioning view of the old 'alternative' viewpoint (this, by the way, does not logically constitute a new conservativism). I am stimulated and intrigued when indigenous farmers in Uganda talk about the environmental and physical destruction caused by the policy of preserving elephants. I like it when scientists argue that forgoing the automobile might actually cause us to use more raw materials for energy consumption. This taking the old alt.and turning it on its head with another dose of alt.

What really hits home for me in all of this are students, especially university students, who parrot the 'progressive' things they are 'expected' to say, towing the teacher's line- except in such an unexamined way that it is more cognitively consistent not with university students but adolescents. Students who tell me in essays that "We have to protect the environment and save the earth", that "War is bad and people are being used by governments to kill each other. We should live as brothers, as a family" or that "We use too many things in our daily lives. Companies make us buy it just to make more money for themselves" simply bore me with these unexamined hippy cliches. I can't help but think that if they are not just writing to suit what they believe the teacher's political precepts to be, and really believe this to be insightful inquiry, then these people are more likely to be a part of the problem than the part of any future solution.

I really enjoy it when students challenge these conservativisms. "Having a fast car is a sign of freedom and tells me I'm not a farmer tied to the soil anymore". Good. "Wars will always happen because there is competition for food and because societies will always be divided into us vs. them ways of thinking". Nice. "We can't live in a natural state. Nature is full of brutality and disease". All right. I may not want to endorse these comments to their extreme socio-political conclusions myself but I appreciate the willingness and the ability to buck the mantras of old, noting the appeal of a truly alt. perspective. It seems to me that such people will be more likely to find alternatives to the problems that face us in the future than those who dutifully repeat (what they think are) the teacher's tired old formulas.

This is the new prog.

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I was just looking for a Guest quote for a proposal I'm working on, "Thinking Critically about Global Issues" and was delighted to find this article. I appreciate the support Mike gives for Inspiring Stories (the link is and Goodmacher's text. I did find discussions with Guest and Sargent fruitful following TLT's Global Issues issue, in which I was a contributer, but am surprised to see Guest making such a judgmental, righteous interpretation of it. Just as atheists have been criticized for anti-religion dogma, Guest could well be viewed as dogmatic in his harsh criticism. Instead of charging the issue with "pathetic rehash" he might give one concrete quote and let readers decide whether it's either "pathetic" or a "rehash". His attempt to get into our heads, imagining we consider ourselves "radical underdogs" but are actually stuck in old thinking, is offensive hyperbole, reminiscent of Rumsfeld's attacks on Germany and France for not attacking Iraq. If anybody is painting a black and white world, it's Guest. But disappointment with these attacks aside, I feel comfortable stating that the arguments of Guest and Sargent have moved me and led me to a great deal of reflection about my approach and what I want to accomplish, so in the end I feel appreciation for times they have *critiqued*. I hope Guest can likewise see that global issues educators might not be as deluded as he presumes and make a more balanced analysis in the future.

Hi John.

First, some unsolicited advice. It's fine to address me in the first person in the comments section, as most respondents do. And anyway, I know you and you know me. It gives the blog that, umm, personal touch.

Second, in the interest of trading barbs, you wrote: " offensive hyperbole, reminiscent of Rumsfeld's attacks on Germany and France for not attacking Iraq".

This comment strikes me as... umm... highly ironic.

Anyway, regarding my comments on that TLT Global Issues issue. Yes, I am being frank and provocative in my comments. I think that this is an expected part of the blogosphere approach. I could take the more detached, reasoned criticism suited to a more fully academic forum but, hey, it's a blog! This doesn't mean however that I'm throwing barbs simply to create controversy- I meant what I said and I'm not mincing my words. Sorry, but that's how I found the issue and it was in fact the spark that kindled my opposition to that, shall we say 'direction' in JALT.

I'm sure that readers of this blog will make up their own minds as to whether my descriptions are too harsh (some articles in that TLT issue were certainly more reasonable than others) but readers do know how I felt about the issue. Also, if I were to bring up more concrete quotes of "pathetic rehashing" (which I think would not be very difficult) I think it might actually invite more critique of the very hyperbole that you criticized above.

By the way, and I think you know this but I want readers to, I am not a political or social conservative, I suppose I am a Centrist, but I do react against that which I view as socio-politically simplistic, passe, preaching to the choir, or predictable rehashing. Obviously there is a subjective element in making such descriptions but that is the cognitive schema that most blog readers enter with.

Dear Mike,

Fair enough. In a blog you don't have to manufacture bogus quotes out of fear (lol). It was definitely fun to read and fine prose. What's more, I commend you for not appearing the least bit academic (again lolling). The irony of the Rumsfeld quote was intended and meant to work on a number of levels. Hey, it's just a response to a blog! I'm happy to be thought of on the side of France and Germany on that one. "We", like all other "we's" are composed of a highly varied assortment of characters, from the enlightened to the misguided. For the record, a number of individuals supported me privately too in regard to that TLT issue, so don't get too bloated with gloating about a momentous victory. Instead, think of it as a dialog rather than a battle. With the former I can state that you've done me and other global educators a service in your critiques; with the latter I'm tempted to replay the ways you've misunderstood and misjudged global educators (for the record, TLT later printed an apology for misprinting parts of my article which was at least one aspect of Sargent's criticism). Or the ways you betray your own bias by calling "people are all one" parroting while praising "wars are inevitable"--but here I am battling when I promoted dialog!

I would just request, as humanely and peaceably as possible, in the name of all that is just and pristine in this world, to keep an open mind about global issues and avoid pejorative assumptions and generalizations. Finally, I didn't mean to be impersonal with my initial comments but saw that my name would appear anyway and had figured you and the readers know who you are. I'll be more careful to follow convention this time!


Hi again John.

Coupla things...

While it may be true that both Rumsfeld and I were saying that some people think they are being 'progressive'when they are in fact being old-fashioned, any similarity similarity between Rumsfeld's politics and my own ends there. In fact, even people on the progressive side of the spectrum complain about how static and predictable (and thus conservative) a lot of the progressive discourse has become.

Regarding my support for a student essay which claims that 'wars are inevitable' doesn't reflect or reveal my bias, as you think. What it does show is that I'm stimulated to read something from a student that does not perpetuate the standard, accepted modes of thought. If a student wrote "Traveling is useless as a way of self-discovery" (despite my own great fondnes for travel) my immediate response would be similar- "Well this could be interesting"- precisely because it does not adhere to standard lines about travel broadening.

Finally, as for the variety of thought and characters among global issues supporters and activists...
it is always too easy to write off an entire school of thought by potraying it as singular and monolithic- and that's a type of fallacy. Fair enough. But did that Global Issues issue NOT present EVERY item therein from the position of the "progressive liberal" viewpoint? I says 'yes' and 'yes' is what I says.

This conflation of 'Global Issues' with a certain political standpoint (despite some variation within that viewpoint) was precisely the aspect that both Sargent and myself found dubious and in some ways, distasteful.

Finally, I certainly never thought of any response I made regarding the Global Issues affair as a victory. I'm interested in getting my opinion out clearly, not much in doing victory dances.

Hi hi Mike,

About Rumsfeld--understood and agreed.

As for student essays, of course it depends on the entire essay. I disagree that "Traveling is useless way..." is inherently more stimulating than the opposite, standard view. Entirely depends on what follows. But my point was mainly that the pro-war example was no more parroting than the war-is-inevitable example. I hear them both a lot. The only bias I meant was your anti-Global Issues bias (not sure exactly of your political views). Both of your examples can be considered parroting. Depends entirely on what follows. I think readers and listeners tend to put people and views in categories, reacting too quickly, 'Oh, I've heard this before.' That being said, I have been tempted to disallow one topic from student reports--global warming!

Global Stories does consistently portray people who are struggling due to injustice, poverty, or their own mistakes. I truly never intended to make a political statements; I'm really not sure of what "political standpoint" you see it coming from, or what's distasteful about it. In making it I wanted students to be introduced to darker realities in the world. Most textbooks tell stories about the rich and famous; I like to think of GS as being about the "invisible people." As time and student ability allows, I'd like to integrate more critical thinking activities, and invite other perspectives even if it's how the homeless deserve what they get or wars are inevitable. Mostly it aims to educate with facts without advocating anything (even to the point of being perceived a weakness, with some students commenting 'I want to know what we can do about these problems').


Greetings again John.

Better clear this up- my comments in the previous post referred NOT to your "Global Stories", where I think your perspectives and commentary are quite valid- as they continue to be in 'Inspiring Stories 1 and 2", but with that now infamous TLT Global Issues issue. That was the trigger to my reaction.


You're right--quite different what I created for students and what I wrote for teachers. As for the latter, that TLT article, I'll allow that it might not have been appropriate for an academic publication, but my view was, and is, that the ultimate responsibility to decide that lies with the editors. I stand by what I wrote, but perhaps the editors should have had me tone it down.

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