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The Uni-Files

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

April 20, 2010

Fear in the TEFL academic community and how it is connected to my utter lack of professionalism

I know, I know. As an Associate Prof at a national university I'm expected to read the research of my peers and be up-to-date in the world of TEFL academia, at the very least in order to provide a foundation for my own research. But I don't feel like doing it.

There. I said it.

I don't feel like doing it because reading most TEFL research- at least most of the 'trade' journals- is an unpleasant task. So unless you are looking for suitable citations for your own paper why embark on this unrewarding journey?

I know that I've touched on this subject before here but... most of the research journals make for poor reading. First, there are far too many references. To me, such researchers ought to add huge asterisks to their citations which would mean: *I'M FRIGHTENED THAT MY PAPER DOESN'T LOOK ACADEMIC ENOUGH AND I WANT IT TO LOOK LIKE I'VE READ ALL THE FOLLOWING ITEMS SO THAT YOU'LL ACCEPT ME AS BEING CREDIBLE.

Ok- obviously sometimes you need those sources. A claim like, "The prevalence of crime wherever English has become the established lingua franca is well known" is going to need a little backup to be sure. But why all those "my Dad can beat up your Dad" citations? I mean those where the researcher cites notions and ideas solely because they agree with their own: "Our conclusion that classroom shape affects degree of structural internalization is echoed by Humcrush 1980)". So Humcrush said the same thing you do! Are we supposed to respect you more now? Hey- if Albert Humcrush said it in the Paraguayan Journal of Bioethical Semantics thirty years ago it must be true! I give in! I capitulate!

TEFL's infatuation with making the research look more scientific than it really is is nothing but a big display of fear. Fear of not being taken seriously. A pre-teen girl in big sister's fashionable clothing- not fitting well, trying too hard, a wannabe.

You'll also be confronted by references for the most banal, innocuous claims: "English acts as the world's major lingua franca (Schlorp 1997, Klumpfartz & Hosemobile 2003, Dogflopper 1993)", "Motivation is a primary factor in developing second-language competency" (Greedler 2005, Pumpy & Chunky 1991, Toadmart Jr. 1987) and so on. And this kind of stuff generally fills up the first three or four paragraphs of a given article. One piece from the Nov. 2009 JALT Journal (that I am currently holding in my hands and which has inspired today's post) has no fewer than 28 citations within the first paragraph and a half. Oh, wait a minute, maybe I should add (Guest, 2010) to that last sentence.

Therefore, I do not want to read the article. It's boring, frustrating and ultimately invasive (Guest, 2010- there we go). It's as if the author and editor are trying too hard to impress me. Why? Because they fear judgment- the judgment that maybe this research emperor has no clothes so they've tarted it up and plastered it with cheap make up to try to entice the reader into a dubious tryst. Sorry. Ain't buyin'.

The other thing that makes reading this stuff annoying is stats. Stats and charts. They often get in the way of comprehension precisely when they should act as an aid to same. Look, here's a rule that shold be adhered to:
IF YOU MAKE CHARTS THAT ARE TOO COMPLICATED TO HAVE THEIR POINT MADE VISUALLY WITHIN A FEW SECONDS OR HAVE LISTS THAT GO BEYOND ABOUT TEN OR SO VARIABLES NOBODY WILL LOOK AT IT BECAUSE IT JUST DULLS THE BRAIN, OK?

In fact, research has shown that only a complete weirdass would actually look at these charts in any detail anyway (Gullible, 1996). So why are they so ubiquitous? Fear, my friend. Fear that we might NOT be viewed as smock-wearing bi-focaled research lab number crunchers and instead be thought of as- ugh- English teachers!

From the same issue of the JALT Journal I am now looking at one 20 page article that relies on lists, statistics, and charts for approximately half of its length. They could put in all kinds of meaningless digits here and no one would bat an eyelid not only because no one is reading it but simply because too many numbers stun the brain. Ergo, it is anti-academic.

Sorry. I did it again. I should have expressed that artiicle's ratio of charts/lists to actual prose above in a more visceral way, such as by- ahem- employing a statistical chart or list. Then, as we all know, it would be more valid, scientific, and objective. So here you go:
n=no. of pages (n=20)
Average size space of A5 paper = (20cmX35cm) ~factored as
> n (Cx20)= Y
Amount of text devoted to charts/stats by percentage (rendered as Y)
Per-page proportion of Y (using Latrix Scale):
1= 0
2=17
3=10
4=28
5=0
6=74
7= 55...

Step 2: Render the above as a graph and ascribe graph type to (Someguy & Hisfriend, 1994)

OK, STOP PLEASE! First, I know I could place some total bull number in there and you'd never know any better. Second, once you figure out the formula and understand what a 'Latrix scale' is, well.. it's just not worth it to absorb the point, which is (if you recall) that the article had too many charts and statistics to make it easily navigable for readers. Here again, the affective factor is fear. Bludgeon us with enough tables to obscure the fact that you are not saying much of significance.

Now, I'm willing to bet that someone is reading this right now and bristling, thinking "Guest doesn't really understand stats or the rigors of academic writing" (Somereader, 2010).
But here's where this reader pulls the rug from under his (women don't read this stuff, do they?) own feet: HEY, YOU READ IT THIS FAR, RIGHT? And even if you think I'm full of it, my diatribe has caused you at least to re-think your arguments in support of your position. And you must admit that reading this has been at least slightly more amusing than reading your average TEFL journal article- or else I must ask that you leave town immediately.

And someone else might be thinking: "But Mike, you've had your own research published in these types of journals. Was it trash? Were you trying to deceive the reader? Do you think that your own poop doesn't smell? Hypocrite!"

(A third may be thinking, "Why so many uncouth, unsavoury references in this post? How unprofessional!" Yeah, the real pros don't sound like real people. They always sound like academic writing, even in the bedroom)

Anyway, here's my apologia: I have never written any academic article where I felt that I wasn't saying something that was at least one of- noteworthy, different, unexpected, surprising or otherwise against-the-grain. And I always tried to make the articles in some way capture the reader's interest, even if doing so involved a tug-of-war with the editor. After all, it seems to me that if the article does not hold Joe Q. Averageteacher's attention for more than a moment then it's just an exercise in academic onanism (or, I suppose, fodder for future researchers). And I've always tried to make the conclusions meaningful and accessible to that same Joe Q. Averageteacher. Most (but not all) editors have been sympathetic to this and, fortunately, have cut me some slack on the conform-to-the-scientific-method criterion.

So then, here is my humble, unsolicited and probably already-well-known advice to those hard-working, selfless editors who toil at these journals with little credit or recognition (and I'm not being facetious at all here- most editors do a great job of communicating professionally, pointing out sloppy structures and vague assertations, round research into the established format and try to allow for the author's self-expression):

1. Don't sweat so much about trying to make your periodical look like a hard-core scientific journal.

2. Don't beat up yourself or the writer (or your readers for that matter) by forcing things into pre-designed research categories and boxes, unless of course they really are doing hard-core scientific research (which is rare in the world of TEFL). The so-called standard scientific paper method is a fossil (Nobackup, 1998). You might also want to take a peak at how engaging the style and format of journals such as Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine actually are without being so rigid.

3. If the crux of the article isn't really hard science or scientific at all, then don't force it into those formatting confines but let it stand as it is. Remember what I said earlier about big sister's clothes, tarting up, trysts and all that (of course you do!).

4. Don't drive for dryness as if that somehow indicates academic sobriety, objectivity or, gasp, professionalism. Instead think- What will readers want to read? What will leave a greater impression on readers? What will make people pick up your journal when they have some spare time at work?

5. Please focus upon what the main point is and make sure that the writer is saying something that makes the reader's journey worthwhile.
(Diatribe warning) What's the point of wading through 10 to 20 pages of obtuse academia only for the reader to come to the conclusion that "Students lose motivation when not given challenging tasks". Hey! We knew that before we read the article- most of us knew it before we entered primary school! So please focus on whether the writer is saying anything of note and less on whether the writer has sufficient citations for her claim that "English is a standard university entrance exam subject in Japan", or if he has enough zingy-looking charts and graphs, or whether the ampersand in the reference list for multiple editors of a conference proceedings booklet should be in italics or not, because nobody cares except you.

And if the article affects people, makes a splash in the TEFL community, great! But trust me, it won't be because of the hot citations and the wild 'n crazy charts.



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Comments

OMG! Spot on Mike!

Thanks Dave.

I can inderstand that some editors who see this might feel a bit peeved, especially those who have helped me in the past. Most are actually very good at spotting ungainly prose, making organizational suggestions to improve rhetorical flow, or calling for expansion/clarification etc. but I think that many are also locked into a system that is either outdated, unsuited to the content or otherwise confining. So I say what I say for the benefit of those editors, their liberation from unnecessary and mind-dulling tasks.

I get the sense the 5 points in your modest proposal are aimed partly at JALT publications. Surely there is a place for traditional academic publications such as System. I'd argue JALT Journal can fulfill the role of a more traditionally, academic oriented publication.

As an editor for The Language Teacher and occasional author for it and other JALT publications I try to publish essays that are written in a style people actually want to read. But ultimately with limited success. I find the SIG publications tend to be the hard core defenders of academic convention.

The blind reviewers are one problem. They will always highlight any creativity or non-academic language as being unsuitable.

The editors can be another problem. They work very hard and I suspect they want their efforts to support a "serious" publication. I'd like them to read The Economist so they can see how informative and interesting can go together.

The authors themselves are another problem. As the iron rule of Publish or Perish extends down even to the part-timers, teachers want to publish essays that look impressive when inserted into job application packages.

Anytime I have a title, lede, or any content that deviates from academic norms blind reviewers and editors will nearly always comment "Don't you think you should change this to make it look better for job applications".

I hear you, but most academic writing is written for rather selfish reasons. What is best for the reader is a second thought, if considered at all.

Thanks for your comments, James.

Most academic articles are written for resume padding, true enough. I, for one, would not write them for fun. What I would like to see though are writers gaining academic credit for thoughtful research and inquiry but without having to do the psuedo-scientific song and dance. It would still appear on resumes and thus have academic value, it could still be cited by others, and yet it would more likely be read and thereby have some actual impact.

I think the ELT Journal (Oxford)comes close to this idea- limited refernces and very limited stats/charts and a focus upon meaningful/engaging content.

Loved the post Mike, you make alot of interesting points in an amusing way. Got a question for you:

I recently got a "full-time" at a university in Japan. I put "full time" in quotes becuase its a year to year contract deal, not a tenured position. I'm happy to have gotten it because it could be my first step toward building a career in the university system in Japan, which in my opinion is one of the better options for people who plan to stay here for the long term. Given the condition of eikaiwas, notably GEOS recently, I do not think that is a viable option for a long term career. Perhaps starting your own school is one possible way to go, but I've met many people who have failed to succeed in that kind of venture. So lets just assume for a second that university jobs are the best option for long term residents in Japan.

In order to keep my job and perhaps get a more secure poisition at my university it behooves me to write papers, get them published in academic journals, and even start studying for a PhD. To get published I need to start making my charts and calculating standard deviations and all that good stuff. Finally, my question: Would your advice to someone like me be to try to buck the system and submit less "academically oriented" papers to journals, or should I do the dog and pony dance and start working on the Rasch analyses?

I realize your message is more for the editors to change the current guidelines for journal submissions, but if the guidelines aren't changed shouldn't we continue to appease the editors and let the academic jargon fly?

Hi Mark.

First, congratulations. I hope it turns into a longer-term position for you. A waaay back in this blog I have a post on getting and keeping a uni job. Take a gander if you wish.

As for research and publications my suggestion would be first to think concretely about what research you really would like to do and set up a research design with a meaningful goal that you could carry out viably without doing any quantum physics (or whatever)- and then do it- before you even think of educating yourself about stats. But that's me.

If it seems that the editor demands statistical goodies then it never hurts to at least be familiar with chi-squares and Rasch et al but I (personally) would not pursue these in any depth until I felt it was 1) absolutely essential to my research and 2) absolutely essential for publication. Looking over journals you hope to get published in in advance and see what they seem to demand.

So, if your approach is similar to mine you'll have to have some combination of 1) a strong enough rhetorical research goal/focus to lessen the need for the stat song 'n dance and/or 2) target those journals which seem less excited by charts and numbers.

Then again, if you think you might like in-depth statistical analysis then by all means- dive into the deep end!

@Mike Ironically ELT Journal made me include a couple bar and pie charts in an article I wrote. Typically I'm not a visual person.

I also think plenty of the psuedo-scientific mumbo jumbo seems necessary because so much of language learning research is so difficult. Or to put it another way, such wank. There are just so many things to consider. And until, as a discipline, we start building on previous research with larger n-size studies and long term longitudinal research we will be stuck where we are.

@Mark. How much stats required to back up your writing really depends on what kind of research you are doing. But I would advise you to play the game and follow tradition until after you get tenure. Then break them at every opportunity.

Thanks for the great advice Mike, much appreciated. Seeing as I know jack squat about stats at the moment I'll try the approach you suggested.

While I agree with much of what you said in terms of getting too geeky with stats when it comes to language teaching I'd like to throw out a contrarian point of view if I may. It seems to me that various walks of life are turning to stats to get an advantage on the competition. We see it alot in sports particularly. I am not sure how closely you follow sports (I remember you saying at some point you are a big fan of hockey) but the latest craze in professional sports, especially baseball and basketball, is to disect each and every player so as to determine their true value. When I was a kid foloowing baseball all we needed to know was a player's batting average, homerun total, and RBI total to know how good a player is. Nowadays those stats have been overtaken by things you need a PhD to understand, such as things like OBS, Slugging pct., WISP, and a slew of other anagrams. Most professional sports teams have hired stataticians to figure all this stuff out to give their team a competitive edge.

While I can't cite anything for sure (which of course makes my argument invalid, ha ha) I would guess that the same sort of things go on in other fields, such as business, stock trading, medicine, films, and such. In this stat crazy world we seem to be living in it doesn't surprise me that a field such as language learning, which appears to be something which is tough to evaluate numerically, has come to rely on stats so much.

Is there any part of you which might admit that its possible stats could be beneficial to the language teaching field as they have been to other industries?

Thanks again for the well wishes and advice, I will keep you posted on how things are going.

Hear, hear! Well said, Mike. Timely for me as well, as I recently submitted a short position paper with absolutely no references as a little experiment... Let's see what happens!

PS: I also agree completely about editors usually being extremely supportive and understanding.

Thanks Marcos. Interesting to see how it goes over. Who did you submit the paper to?

It seems to me that if a position stands on its own rhetorically then no whistle and bells should be required. Unfortunately, sometimes the statistical smoke and mirrors and utilized precisely to mask a lack of rhetorical persuasiveness and invoke an artificial sense of 'authority'.

Hi Mark.

I loved sports stats too as a kid and I'm still cognizant of them. There is no doubt that skill with stats is essential in many fields. My feeling is that it is less so in TEFL though. First the variables that form the digits tend to be less sacrosanct, less reliable than their transposition into numbers would indicate. Flawed research designs or faulty initial rhetorical/philosophical premises often render the fancy stats as worthless although many are still dazzled, and convinced, by them. If the rhetotic is sound, if the research design is accurate, and if the inquiry is ultimately best rendered numerically then I take my hat off- but I obviously have my doubts as to how often that happens in TEFL research.

Getting back to sports stats- I worked for several years as a part-time scout for an NHL team. It was interesting to see how often impressive stats of various types did not actually indicate who was a better player. There are too many variables in hockey to be able to predict which amateurs will become the best pros based even on the most detailed, sophisticated stats packages. The rule was, and is, if you don't actually see the player, making dercisions in real time within the flow of the game, and interview him and his coaches etc. you wouldn't have a clue how he'll turn out. The stats tell only a minor part of the story.

I think the same unquantifiable variables appear in much language acquisition.

Hi Mike

I just got a submission to the JALT Proceedings back -rejected due to 'lack of academic references, original data, failure to conform to APA, not being written in an academic style".

It was an article on how to teach reading to Japanese children.

What annoys me is that none of that was in the call for papers or the submission guidelines. Ugh.

It's put me off writing for a while :)

Ben- Sorry to hear of the reply, but perhaps it's not unexpected.

I suppose if there is a rule about such submissions it would be to choose a journal that seems to publish in the manner that you are researching or writing. This means that your piece still has hope.

I should point out though that the submission guidelines regarding APA et al are written in the actual JALT Journal.

Nonetheless, as stated previously, I find this whole APA thing to be straitjacketing- rhetorically confining. It's like rejecting a CD because the production did not conform to the approach that George Martin's took with the Beatles. (Or even more poignantly, that it doesn't meet the standardized Johnny's Jimusho success formula. Hey, maybe I'm not trying to sound like The Beatles!

APA is a useful GUIDELINE for a certain TYPE of paper, it is not the final legal arbiter of any and all academic worthiness. I do not believe (and this is open for discussion) that actual world-ranked academic journals that try to engage a general audience (as JALT Journal claims to) are as rigid in this regard, which is what can make a journal come across as trying too hard, or being pretentious.

One other thing- it is often the initial readers who I've had the most trouble with in submitting a manuscript. Many seem to be hung up as to whether it is formally orthodox as opposed to meaningful content, like an Egyptian bureaucrat scanning a visa extension for possible improprieties. The actual editors, once a piece is accepted, have been much more accomodating and helpful- in my case at least.

I agree whole heartedly Mike. I once wrote an article where I used the term "affective filter" and was told that I needed to cite Krashen as some readers might think I coined the term.

I remember reading an article by Rebecca Oxford (I think) who also complained about the same thing you mention. She used an example of a short article of several pages that had some god awful number of references. More than 50 I think. Oxford wondered what could have been written that was original and informative in such a short article with so many references. She believed it was not only the fault of the author but editors and the education TEFL teachers get now. She went on saying, as you alluded to, that she suspects editors do this to produce papers that appear more scientific as TEFL has a huge inferiority complex. Probably has to do with it being the red headed cousin of cognitive psychology and linguistics and as such is considered a psuedo-field of study by those disciplines.

This is the first year I'm learning what a real editor has to do. I'm coediting a special issue of a CUE SIG conference "proceedings", and believe me, I'm learning a lot!

Taking Mike's 5 points into consideration is easy for me, and I think I get what most of you're driving at. Having a science career as background, I'm very used to the scientific approach to writing and referencing, but at the same time, having proofreading experience, I'm constantly amazed at how poorly people in Science write. All disciplines, all sections of a paper. So, it's no further surprise to see poor writing by social academics such as us EFL teachers. Well, perhaps a bit more because we're actually supposed to know how to write, right?

While I can side with a lot of what Mike wrote, in regards to referencing other work, I think there needs to be a balance. Some journals have different standards, and the length of an article may also demand more citations.

Aside from not following APA standards, I think there are 2 major weaknesses in EFL papers that I've read. One, and this may seem strange coming from someone in this field, but poor organization. Yes, just like our students. Two, poorly referenced work. There! As Mike wrote, I've said it. I'll explain why.

Perhaps it's my own scientific background, but if someone makes a statement of fact (yes, not a universally known one, but something that actually has previous research to back it up), that should be referenced. Why? Simple. So that readers can actually look it up and confirm what it says! There are other reasons, but to me that's the main point.

Too many tables and graphs are pointless. I agree there. But if done right, a table or graph is a very useful tool for a writer, to explain or describe a concept better than in a paragraph.

Mike and I probably teach with different styles, and I wish I could be as intuitive as he and others seem to be, but I also like to base my own teaching development (and research) on facts that can be proven. Back in my science days, I was a voracious reader of the journals, and I wish I could get more of that done now in TEFL. But I was single then, and being a father in a foreign land bogs down one's chances to read EFL research.

For what it's worth, I think the recent trend in the CUE SIG to have its OnCUE Journal more professional is a positive thing. "More professional" means more adherence to APA style (horrendously butchered by most papers that have passed by the editors' desks, I'm told), better organization of the paper's structure (e.g., keep results out of the intro, please, and don't make conclusions in the results section), but also a wee bit more references to justify what one is saying. Yes, Mike makes good points about some over-the-top silliness and strictness in making citations, but I think people ought to actually sit back and read what they write before sending it off at the 11th hour to the editors/reviewers.

You would probably tear apart such articles if you read such loosely supported and poorly organized stuff in a newspaper article, so why not hold a scholarly journal to at least the same standards?

Thanks for writing Glen.

It's interesting hearing the perspective of an editor. Quite honestly, I've always considered OnCue one of the most readable and writer-friendly academic journals in the field. And certainly no one can question a commitment towards making a quality product held to high standards.

Where I differ from you (and I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth) is that for me, 'quality product' does not necessarily dovetail with the 'scientific approach' nor with APA guidelines.

Most EFL is decidedly not hard science and hence trying to format, or shoehorn, it into that format means that justice may not be done to the content. In other words, as a result of being held to a certain rigid format (and I understand that you do not adhere to any type of absolutism in this regard) the product actually becomes worse because the field and register are misaligned- humanities are forced into a hard science research schema.

I have questions regarding APA too. To put it in the vernacular...Who died and appointed APA as the Almighty? Why are one associations's recommendations considered so sacrosanct, as opposed to being just wise counsel? Why are they treated as if they were parliamentarian Robert's Rules of Order or some highly itemized trade union manual ("It says in section 6, sub-section B point D that any employee below the status of a sub-foreman cannot carry a box of nails weighing more than 10.5 kg without a 15 minute rest break"). After all, these were intended as..... (wait for it) guidelines! Instead ,they have become gospel, and the gospel of an fundamentalist type at that.

I'd also have to think over your comments about not putting results in the intro etc. Again, using the vernacular, why not? If it works (and often, yes, I know it can create confusion in the hands of an unskilled writer) it works. It seems to be a bit like telling English students they shouldn't start a sentence with 'because' or end one in a preposition. The final arbiter should be not accordance to a prescribed rule but whether it works in terms of discourse flow- and a good writer can make it work.

We agree on how over-referncing can affect flow and that certain claims need to be cited. However, I would not say that 'factual' claims need to be cited per se but rather the odd, dubious or questionable claims, and doubly so if they are operating as hignes in the researcher's argument.

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