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The Uni-Files

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

July 07, 2010

Riffing on 1) Extreme J student nerves 2) So-called "thinking outside the box", and 3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Three mini topics today...

1. Extreme J student nervousness

Today I held some role-play tests for my 1st year general English class (medical) students. These involve 2 students acting as doctors, taking a basic medical history, and putting the information on a chart while I act as the patient. Yes, it is a demanding test as it measures not only lexical and grammatical competence but also: topical knowledge, the ability to think on your feet and improvise, to predict and summarize. It also demands social and interactive skills and organizational skills for completing the medical chart.

I never expect perfection and that's what makes this test a learning experience. Tests should hold pedagogical value, value which is realized through having students face new challenges.

I naturally expect that students will be a bit nervous because this test does place them on-the-spot and, after all, a test is a test is a test. But I am often surprised at just how mindlessly nervous some students can become under pressure- which is not what you want to see in medical students.

Expanding a bit now, I suppose if I were to choose one widespread characteristic of Japan that I find negative it is this overbearing sense of nervousness. I'm sure you know what I mean. That scurrying and near-hyperventilation that accompanies most services and almost any sudden interaction between insiders and outsiders (not just Gaijin but anyone who might be considered non-household or friend). It seems that even the most innocuous situations, such as two housewives with kids at the same day care center meeting suddenly, are punctuated by this display of stress and tension.

Now, I understand that there is a 'cultural' factor involved to some extent here.This formalistic ritual expresses concern in Japan, that one is being attentive and actively involved in the other's sphere. Obsequiousness (is that even a word?) is a type of positive politeness, and a cool, relaxed exterior may be interpreted as a lack of concern for the other, that one is being lackadaisical or slovenly in one's relations. And as a cultural trait that's fine. Service is generally excellent in Japan, albeit over-laboured, and I have rarely met an arrogant or standoffish Japanese person in the service industry as a result.

But when students are taking a test they are not thinking about politeness or carrying out a social ritual. They are not partaking in the rites of 'Japanese culture'. They are all a-flutter merely because they are having a test. As a result one sees:
- students who almost completely lose their voice, on the verge of choking
- students who make a hash of the most basic patterns, the ones they've been absorbing for years
- students constantly breaking the lead on their 'shar-pens' due to excessive nervous force
- students becoming confused to the point of panic when hearing instructions such as, "Write your name on the top line of the chart"
- students writing the first stroke of an alphabet letter four times and erasing it each time for no apparent reason
- students dropping their bags and other goods off the desk after hurriedly placing them half on, half off
- students actively mopping their brows- the only times I ever see them sweating profusely

...this sort of thing. It's just too much. I mean, a certain amount of nervousness can spur one to a better result in many endeavours but too many students I've met here have it to the point of complete debilitation. In fact, you think that many would be so used to facing big exams that mine would be a yawner.

Anyway, this has negative applications outside the English classroom. Excessive J nerves when dealing with NJs can be annoying and sour relations. Communication becomes belaboured, artificial and awkward. The upshot of this is that many would rather duck away from an NJ rather than even risk the possibility of interaction (like the person who won't sit next to an NJ on the train out of fear that the NJ might possibly ask them a question in English).

It can come across as standoffish, self-absorbed, and exclusive when there is no such intention. For example, if you look at those (very, very rare) cases in which J business establishments have erected exclusionary signs the explanation/justification is almost always not that the person responsible had a pathological hatred of Gaijin, but rather 'couldn't speak English' or didn't know how to 'deal with foreigners' (Note- I'm not saying that these are legitimate excuses, but they are real). NJs make them nervous---- but as a result of trying to save face they end up coming across to the wider world even worse.

I've also noticed that Japanese people who make a lot of NJ friends tend to be those who are calm, cool, collected, and radiate what I might call that 'surfer bravura'. I find students who are not so tightly wound and wired to be much more pleasant to deal with. And the students who take my role play tests and try to engage me, the patient, with natural warmth and carry out normal interactive skills inevitably end up with higher grades for the test- not directly as a reward for having a desirable personality trait but because such students are more able to think on their feet, to adjust to the flow of the role-play content, and to find a way to circumnavigate tricky grammatical or lexical items.

But the question for you- dear readers- is... how can we reduce this high-tension sweat fest without removing any sense of challenge and authenticity (read: open-ended dynamic language use) from the classroom?

2) Creativity- Thinking inside the box

The theme for this year's national JALT Conference is, "Creativity- Think Outside the Box".
Hmmm. This bothers me for a number of reasons:

1. The term "thinking outside the box" is an old, drab, hackneyed cliche. Surely, if one wishes to address the issue of creativity one could conjure up a more original description?

2. People who like to use the phrase "think outside the box" generally attribute this skill to themselves and deny it to 'society', 'people' and anyone with any power or authority. And personally I've found that the self-platitude is inevitably a mismatch. In short, every mother's son believes that they "think outside the box".

3. This phrase reflects the dubious notion that creativity is indelibly tied with non-conformity or separation from confines, as if only outsider status confers the gift of creativity. To be frank here I find that a rather sophomoric, even naive, understanding of how a creative mind works.

4. People tend to make this claim about their ideological opponents- no matter what the ideology.

5. Real creativity, it seems to me, involves thinking from inside the box. We all live or have to work within box-like confines in one way or another and an undue emphasis on doing something 'different' is not always the most beneficial solution to a problem or the most endearing artistic expression of our lot. Creativity can easily be manifested by dealing with questions such as, "How can I re-arrange the contents of this box in a manner that most benefits myself and the others?" or "What contents of this box have the inherent ability to be manipulated into various shapes and relations- and which combinations of that will best allow problems to be resolved or truths to be expressed"?.

A great deal of twentieth-century art of all types has benefited from looking at the standard box, the detritus of normal life, and finding inspiration in the re-arrangement of the mundane, giving it voice through the commonplace, and ultimately finding creative expression in its repackaging of the banal. Show me that Brillo box again, Andy. I think I see something in it.

Kind of like this mini-treatise on creativity, if you will (wink wink).

3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Why on earth do English teachers in Japan pound the students with practice in giving self-introductions? Useless and boring? Indeed! Let me count the ways...

1. It is not a part of any naturally-occuring discourse. I have never in my life as a genuine, red-blooded native speaker of English given a self-introduction. The only time people carry this farce out is in EFL classes.

2. Self-introductions are inevitably boring because no one cares about the details and/or will not be able to remember 90% of what was said two minutes later anyway.

3. They take way too much time and, as such, are just a self-indulgent conceit. I've seen numerous 'International Symposiums' or round circles of some sort held in Japan where you have 15 people performing this pitiful soliloquy for several minutes each before you get to the actual topic of discussion, which by now has been now drained of any vitality.

4. Most people say the same thing or the bleeding obvious. For example, a foreign professor is meeting 4th year students at X university and each student duly says: "I am a 4th year student at X university". You don't say now!

5. I know that self-introductions may allow students to learn and practice basic identity statements. But if we want them to do so let's at least place them in the most appropriate discourse package. That is this: people reveal relevant self-information when they are asked for it or when the time seems right between interlocutors.

So, if I meet Dr. Y at a post-presentation wine & cheese doodad and start chatting, we may talk about any topic at hand. And at some point I may extend myself by saying, "By the way, I'm Mike". Now if Dr. Y wants to know where I come from, what I do for a living, or what my favourite type of Weisse beer is (Weihenstephan), I will wait until he asks, or there is sufficient reason to mention this. Otherwise I'm just a walking textbook pretending to engage in 'internationalization' by telling others data about myself.

« One man, his son, and the J school system | Main | Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence »


Hey Mike, osashiburi. Just checked your latest and have a few comments.

Mini-topic one: It may be old hat but Krashen's affective barrier theory can be applied. There's a bit of an art to it but establishing rapport with students, a psychological state in which there is the teacher and there are the students but we're in this game together, can reduce if not entirely eliminate the excessive nervousness of having to produce language. There are of course limitations like the size and level of a class, and it takes a bit of time to gauge and assess the personalities in a class, but once those contacts and assessments are made it is possible to weave a general "we'll do our best" without sweating it within the individual variations.

Mini-point two: yeah, well, what you've said is all that needs to be said. Global warming, anyone?

Mini-point three: a little trickier. Naturally-occuring discourse kind of begs the question, and a huge one at that. There is nothing "natural" about university-level discourse, it's all a cultural construction and simulation of some sort. However, leave that aside and let's keep it simple. For example, during grad school I was asked more than once to give a brief self-introduction during the first class. Is that unnatural? Yes, I found it a bit uncomfortable, but I could see the point of it. It serves as a bridging function, an anonymous selection of people become, however minimally at first, a purposeful group. But ok, you do make valid points about the drawbacks of self-intro's. How about paired introductions with a set of questions used to interview the classmate followed by the use of introduction phrases? I've done this for years and it's always worked. The class listens attentively and with obvious interest in where Takuya was born, where he's living now, what his interests are, if he has had and if so what his experiences abroad were, why he is in my class, and so on. As you wrote a long time ago about thesis topics, if you set the right questions you get good answers, and to relate this back to overcoming nervousness, the beginnings of rapport.

Mike, thanks for yet another well-written, insightful, thought-provoking post. I love reading your blog and I hope you keep churning them out.

I couldn't agree more on point #1, the nervousness of our students. I try to do the same sort of role play exam with my students at the end of the semester and inevitably run into the same frustrations. I don't teach medical students, just daily conversation type stuff. So what I ask the students to do for a final exam is simply ask two students to hold a simple conversation with each other for roughly 2-3 minutes. I encourage them to try and just do it on the fly and let the conversation go where it may, but I do allow them to plan something out and memorize it to some extent if they are more comfortable doing that. Inevitably most of the students have clearly memorized a dialogue and awkwardly carry it out. Often times they completely freeze for extended periods of time because they can't remember their line perfectly.
But some students, the ones with the "surfer bruvara" as you put it, will attempt an improvised conversation. It is these students who receive the higher grades because while they may not be as grammatically on point as their "prepared" counterparts, they come off as far more natural and engaging.
One advantage to using this type of exam is that it allows me some leeway when deciding final grades for the semester. The overly nervous students are, more often than not, quite studious. They do well on tests, always complete their homework, and show up for class with the textbook and writing utensils (a treat at my particular uni). But when you try to ask them some simple questions they become completely flustered and struggle to offer a simple response. Even though they have completed most of the required work for the course part of me has a hard time giving these students an A for the class because it is, after all, an English oral communication class! On the flip side, some of the surfer dudes are sometimes in jeopardy of failing my class because they haven't done so well on tests or have missed a few classes. So this final exam can sometimes help them over the hump.
I've blabbered on too long here, but it is just good to see that someone else is experiencing the same sort of thing. Oh, and I completely concur on the self-introduction rant. Complete waste of time.

Japan--the land of complexes. I've lived here for years and I still shake my head when I see such displays of nervousness. (And sometimes I laugh because it's just so silly). It's caused by fear and so much fear pulsates through the average Japanese person's blood. When it comes to learning English, there is of course the fear of making mistakes. But there is also the fear of NOT making mistakes, of being TOO good at English (How dare you!). There's also the fear of being too western , of losing one's Japanese-ness. It's all rooted in the fear of what others are thinking. What a way to go through life.

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