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The Uni-Files

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

January 18, 2011

Curmudgeon time: annoying student challenges and questions

You might want to file this one under "You know you've been in Japan too long when...". It works like this:

Japanese university students are not particularly known for being pro-active, at least in terms of asking questions when the opportunity arises or challenging the teacher. Now, I realize that while this is a bit of a stereotype, I think it generally holds true. And it’s also true that there are cultural factors that come into play- perceived power relations, the role and function of classroom lectures and so on. Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese students willingly swallow all that teachers have to say. They're far from gullible. The truth is they may think that you are the most ignorant git on the face of the earth, that you know diddly squat about whatever it is you're teaching- but they are unlikely to express their feelings out loud. Or even hint at them.

Western students, on the other hand, are supposed to be much more pro-active in their questioning, openly skeptical, even combative. Moreover, Western teachers are generally expected to even encourage this type of inquisitiveness in their students. It's considered a virtue- the hallmark of active, critical thinking. Except when you're a Western teacher in Japan, that is. Ok, maybe not you dear reader, but certainly me- and many other Western teachers I know here. The fact is that a small minority of students can be annoying, pushy, picky, aggressive, almost spoiling for a fight. Sure, I welcome those students who have legitimate questions about English or the topic at hand. It's a delight. It's the rare ones (one or two in every large class?) who are habitual doubters and nitpickers who grate.

I would also argue that when it happens, it seems worse in Japan precisely because Japanese students don't normally behave this way. And that which is not culturally normative comes across more astringently, more poignantly. It's like seeing a flash of a woman's ankle if you've been in Saudi Arabia for any length of time. In other words, the behaviour stands out more as a challenge here precisely because of its relative infrequency. Explicitly expressed student doubts about a teacher are viewed in Japan, and thus may be intended, not as an exchange of possible pedagogical virtue but as a challenge to one's credibility. Even though it rarely happens, you may not applaud their critical thinking skills but rather start feeling indignant about those students who doubt or question what you say.
Konogoro wakamono- namaiki! (Smartass kids these days!)

My top (?) half dozen annoying comment/question types are:

1. The ‘exact detail’ guy:
This is the guy (and it is inevitably a male) who comes to your office with questions like, “Sensei, you said the response essay had to be about 250 words long. Is it OK if I write 247?” Or, “You said that our survey questions should include at least 3 ranking and 3 scale type questions. Can I make 4 of one and 3 of the other?”

2. The ‘I don’t get it’ guy (usually, but not always a male):
This is the student who can’t seem to understand any instruction or activity even though he is good at English and obviously quite bright (a fact that he tries to prove to you as often as he can). In fact, this is the type who thinks just a little too much… “How should I finish this open conversation you want us to have about why we want to become doctors?” or “I don’t understand this vocabulary matching exercise in the textbook” “Why not?” “One of the matching words on the right is spelled differently in my dictionary.” “It’s a UK spelling”. “Yes, I know. It’s very confusing for us” (looks doubtfully at the textbook).

3. ‘I hate sensei because he criticized me’ students:
A minority of students simply cannot accept the fact that they have to do a re-test because on their initial test, well let’s face it, they sucked. Even though I go over my rationale for their results in some detail (‘You were merely memorizing a script written by your partner, you used no medical vocabulary, your speed was poor, you made no attempt to interact with your partner…’) some students seem shocked (shocked!) that they (they!) could possibly have fallen short. They decide this must be the teacher’s fault.

[Sidebar- Jocks, to their credit, rarely do this. I can be blunt and harsh to sportsmen (and sportswomen) and they take it with an almost masochistic acceptance and vow to improve. I suppose they are used to having coaches telling them to get their asses in gear and so on, so they take it in stride. So do attractive girls (at least those who think they are attractive). Perhaps they have never heard a male use harsh words with them before and the realization that batting eyelashes doesn’t qualify them for a get-out-of-a-re-test-free card sometimes spurs them on to better things.)

This I-will-get-revenge crew usually consists of rather shy but haughty types who’ve always taken pride in their academic abilities, perhaps to counter their lack of social skills. Those who didn’t attend competitive high schools or jukus can especially be prone to the ‘How dare teacher say my work is not good enough’ syndrome.

4. ‘Nanka ne, ano, nani datta, eto…’ students:
Sometimes students will come to my office, call me in the classroom or approach me after class with a question. Fine. For some reason, even though they have taken this positive initiative they often cannot spill out a single meaningful word in English OR even in Japanese when they open their mouths. The most amusing/annoying of these is when they start the exchange with, “What?” and look at their friend who has accompanied them to Sensei’s lair but have no idea what their buddy wants to ask. Thinking that this may just be an English skills/confidence problem I have often told them to go ahead and ask in Japanese- but they can’t even frame the subject in their mother tongue (for non-Japan based readers the Romanized Japanese after #4 above translates to something like, “Umm so, well, what was it, uhh”). If I was a rock star perhaps I could take this as a sign of mindless worship and idolatry from a fan, but as an English teacher… well. Often this Shakespeare-worthy bit of articulation is followed by a ‘meaningful’ silence as if I now obviously must be in sufficient position to respond to their comment. I suppose if I was more culturally astute I would be able to intuit their inquiry from this (I’m joking of course!).

5. ‘I deserve a half point more’ types:
These are the students who would do very well haggling in the underground bazaar in Istanbul. They aggressively campaign for the slightest possible upgrades on even the most minor classroom quizzes. “Sensei, you gave me only a half point for writing ‘I will remove it after five minutes is gone’ on the test but you gave Takahashi a whole point when he wrote ‘I’ll remove it in 5 minutes’”. “Yes, Takahashi’s answer is more natural and compact” “But mine isn’t 'wrong', is it! So why do I lose a half point?”
...And why would a student lose any sleep over this? That whole half a point will make up about .01% of their overall grade anyway. I don’t mind explaining why I docked them the point, but they seem to be less interested in the pedagogical reasons than they do in squeezing every possible point they can out of me. For sport, apparently.

6. The ‘I don’t believe you because my dictionary/junior high textbook says otherwise’ types:
You will soon learn that in Japan the dictionary is the inerrant, inspired, and immediate word of God. So, as a teacher, you can mention all you want that ‘condition’ often does not mean ‘level of wellness’ but in fact can refer to a sickness or disorder (as in ‘a blood condition’), and even offer concrete examples of usage from an authentic source. But there will still be a few doubting Thomases who shake their heads upon looking it up in their ‘Genius’ dictionaries and discover that it doesn’t confirm what you said. Out-of-date forms, awkward/unwieldy phrases and special field usages can get the same response: It doesn’t say so in the dictionary so someone must be wrong- and it can’t be the dictionary!

Any more I should add?

« Student opinions on entrance exams- a good idea but... | Main | Commentary: Keio's dropping of the Center Shiken and the (non-existent) Monkasho English 'word list' »


Hey Mike, happy new year to you and all who read the Uni-Files! Sorry for the lack of posting recently, been trying to keep up with end of semester administrative stuff.

Anyway, I'd like to add a student to your list of student types. Let's call him "I expect to get a free ride" guy (often times can be girls as well). These are the students who rarely attend class, never do homework, make little effort to utter even the simplest of English expressions, and then are shocked/pissed off that you failed them. From what I gather, many students look at university as a four-year break before having to eneter the real world and get a job, and this idea is often times confirmed by Japanese professors who don't put a premium on attendance and class participation. But the nature of the subject area that we teach (English communication) requires students to actually come to class and practice using English. At the beginning of every semester I make it clear to my students that attendance and class participation are important for learning the content of the course. But sure enough there are always a handful of students who have attended less than half the classes and expect to pass.

Hi Mark (and a belated Happy New Year to you).

Adding to your 'Don't I get an automatic pass?' types are those who milk the attendance rules for all they are worth: "Hey, I'm allowed three absences and I took them! Sure, I was late three more times, plus I had a sickness allowance twice, but why are you making me do all this extra work to pass? It's not fair!"


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