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March 10, 2011

Eikaiwa at 40? In a university?! Something's wrong

I had just returned from a conference in Thailand and it must have showed (A faint whiff of Tom Yam on the breath? The debauched morning-after hairstyle? Overnight flight red-eye syndrome?) because when I met the gregarious and unusually extroverted Dr. K in the atrium on the way to my office he sensed something.

"Guest sensei, where are you coming back from?"
"Oh, I just got back from a conference in Thailand"
"A conference? What for?"
"For English teachers"

This revelation seemed to jar K a little. "So you have conferences where you learn about how to teach English conversation?".

Now it was my turn to feel jarred. Or rather, a little miffed. "Well, not really about learning how to teach, not training, and certainly not 'English conversation'. It's like a medical conference- people present their research, hold symposiums on pedagogical theory and practice, that type of thing. From the very theoretical to the concrete, across the field of applied linguistics in general".

He seemed a little perplexed by this. "I didn't know they had conferences for English conversation".

Now, I was thinking...is this guy messing with me?

"Not English conversation," I repeated, "Applied linguistics. Actually, I gave a presentation myself".

"Oh! You presented what you do in your English conversation classes?"

Take this moment, dear reader, to bang your head on your keyboard in sympathy.

'Yeah,' I wanted to say. 'I told the audience how I sing Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes in my university medical English classes. And that I had the entire audience at this conference sing it along with me. That's what I mean by applied linguistics'. Instead, I started to make shuffling movements towards my office. "Linguistics and education," I said again and went on my way, no doubt leaving Dr. K to wonder how linguistics and educational theory were connected to teaching students to say, "How are you?".

I envision a future in which people disabuse themselves of the notion that English teaching in Japan, particularly English teaching by native speakers, equals Eikaiwa. But we're not nearly there yet. Maybe we only have ourselves to blame. The functional apartheid, in which it is believed that natives 'do the conversational stuff' while Japanese English teachers 'do the grammatical stuff,' is unfair and stigmatizing to both parties. And yet many Japanese and non-Japanese teachers alike seem to maintain this debilitating division, usually at the expense of sound pedagogy.

The reality is that English conversation has no place in a university, and, as I have argued frequently in the past, can't really be 'taught' anymore than you can teach someone how to 'have conversations' in their mother tongue (ok, charm schools and My Fair Lady scenarios excepted). I know that some EFL learners do want to chat, use their English to avoid it getting rusty or test themselves to see how they measure up 'in action'. That's natural, but that's not teaching. You can't do it in large groups, it hardly represents the notion of a 'course', and it goes against pretty much every idea of what universities exist for.

Let me dwell on that last point for a moment longer. A university, can we all agree, should be a place for engaging cognition and deepening understanding- thus there must be an academic dimension. It is not a place for 'fun' classes or settings where students chat with the foreign teacher. Rather, it is a place for stimulating classes where students increase both their understanding and abilities through meeting challenges worthy of the highest level of public education.

Now, some of my classes (but only some) are called 'Communication English', it's true. And in these classes I allow for more open-ended dialogues and interactions in English. One common feature in these classes is a lesson-opening free conversation on a topic that will dovetail with the main thrust of the day's lesson or activity. So, yes, there are some moments that might resemble an 'English conversation' class.

But, as I tell my students, you will not learn anything from having English conversations unless you use it as a diagnostic tool. What did you manage to communicate effectively? What could you handle well in your conversation? That should be reinforced. What could you not express? What items or patterns eluded you? That's precisely what you should study. Learn from the conversation. Learn from having tested yourself. Any conversation should serve a diagnostic function. It is a mantra I repeat all year long.

But after that opener, I'm sorry, I never, never, never 'do English conversation'. We communicate specialized content in English. We utilize English skills that allow us to express complex thoughts or complete certain processes (almost always connected to medicine). But we don't have conversations and I most certainly don't teach my students to (even though some will nonetheless later recount that 'Mike taught me English conversation').

Neither should you. And yes, here's where I'm going to get all dogmatic and preachy. There should be a stigma attached to teaching English conversation, especially if (like this guy from Little in Japan ) you find yourself doing anything remotely like it after age 40.

It's not because university teachers are or should be more dignified, highly regarded, or qualified than say, those who teach children. Not only do some people want to, and love, teaching children but there are people in that field who have more savvy, knowledge, ability, or experience in their chosen realm of education than many who teach in universities. The notion that university teachers are the truly qualified teachers and those who teach kids are merely unqualified vagrants is nonsense. I know of some children's English teachers who are a lot more successful, knowledgeable, and highly-regarded as teachers despite having no university education whatsoever than many with tenured university positions. These are people who use common sense, their instinctive teaching abilities, and apply their own vast experience to succeed. But the most interesting common denominator among them is that they don't teach English conversation.

I can understand the appeal of playing the chatting foreigner for those who are not planning to spend much time in Japan and have no intention of building a career in the field. In other words, Eikaiwa can serve a limited function for those in their twenties and, maybe, into their thirties getting some J experience. But after that? There's something wrong. And the stigma attached to it becomes justified. You know, the same stigma that is attached to calling yourself a poet-philosopher or model-actress. At age 40.

How so? Let's think of two scenarios.

First, if you have a reasonable formal education related to applied linguistics and thus have managed to place your foot in the door of tertiary education (and let's face it, most of us university folk have 'reasonable'- not outstanding- levels of formal education; there's something innately suspicious about someone coming from Oxbridge or the Ivy League to teach in Japan uninvited, seeking work of their own accord) English conversation doesn't belong on your pedagogical menu for the reasons I mentioned earlier about the role and function of a university. Please don't tar those of us who use communicative methods to teach meaningful content in an academically-challenging manner with the eikaiwa brush. Even if your university overseers call your classes something like 'English conversation' or 'Oral English' do not, for the sake of yourself, your fellow teachers, and your students, utilize an Eikaiwa pedagogy (which I would say is an oxymoron anyway).

The other scenario is where you may not have a graduate degree or specialized training in the field. So your employment prospects may be more limited. Fine. But that doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to Eikaiwa- and you shouldn't.

Biology seems to predispose anyone who is over 40 and not feeling in control of their lives and their work to a particularly pronounced midlife crisis. The prevailing culture can make this even more grueling for males. A sense of self-control, of empowerment, of maintaining dignity can be gained by taking the bull by the horns.

By age 40 you should be designing your own syllabi and curricula, not kowtowing to someone else's demand that you sing "Head and Shoulders". If no one asks you to design these because your not 'the boss', do it anyway. Take charge of the content and methods as much as you can while you are in the classroom. It's your time. You should also be making lasting sets of materials that work, based on your years of classroom experience. While these may employ snippets of conversational activities, they will not- should not- be Eikaiwa. If you can't gain even this much freedom from your employer, well this is when you should start thinking about creating your own school- and yes, school owner or businessperson certainly comes across much better at social functions than Eikaiwa teacher does.

OK. I don't presume or even want to speak as your 'life guide' but I do think I'm telling you what we all instinctively know about the Eikaiwa stigma. You can escape it by refusing to indulge it. In fact, if you hold any pretense of being a real educator, it is demanded that you do! I don't want to get pretentious about our roles in the lives of our youthful charges, conjuring up grandiloquent aphorisms about the paramount importance of our elevated status as sensei. But, on the other hand, who wants to indulge Dr. K's world view?

March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

With all the events of the past few weeks, it seems almost trite to be talking about the state of English education in Japan. And when people have lost relatives, homes, and are huddling under blankets in underpowered evacuation centers, complaining about inequities in the education system seems like self-indulgent whining.

I suppose if there are two things which come to mind for me in light of the situation up north one would have to be the sense of impotency of being a mere English teacher, as opposed to being someone who could really help in a more visceral, constructive way (of course I encourage all of us not directly affected to give financial aid!). The other is how proud I am to be a resident of this country- where the people have responded to adversity with such resilience and dignity.

But university English education is what this blog is all about so let's talk about the 'off-season' (yeah, right!) and the 'B' word. Yes, I know that the off-season should be a time for battery recharging but for me this is the season not to be jolly. But first, a few disclaimers...

I like my job. I can think of few I'd rather do (or in fact be capable of). I cannot remember a single day in the past dozen years where I have dreaded coming in to work (OK, proctoring the Center Shiken comes close, but that doesn't really count). I have never yet felt the need to ignore the alarm clock beckoning me to toil for my daily bread.

I like teaching my classes and 95% of the students. I am inspired when I walk into the classroom. I get a buzz. The great majority of my students are appreciative and attentive. I can't recall ever feeling a sense of burden before a lesson.

I have my own office. This means I can check hockey scores at will. I can go in or out of my workplace as I see fit and nobody really cares why or when. It's nice.

But perhaps all this is why the 'off-season' (in reality, the 'meeting, entrance exam, research, scheduling/planning, and special courses season') actually causes me to feel ('B' word warning!) burned out- precisely because the dopamine effect of the classroom, the adrenalin rush of dynamic interaction, has been withdrawn. Now, I can't complain about having too much work per se- again, look at what people are either volunteering for or being forced to do right now in Sanriku up to 18 hours a day. And for me it's NOT the feeling (although this is not uncommon among teachers in Japan) that I am wasting my life performing songs and dances for students who would rather be tuned into their ipads. So, if it's not overwork or a sense of being disrespected or under-utilized, why the feeling of burnout?

I suppose age is a factor. I've turned fifty. At fourty, it seems you can still maintain a hopeful narrative that your job and research will bloom and prosper, that you can and will raise your station to become a player of international stature. You can even tell yourself that you might just still write that great 21st century novel, record that CD that's been playing in your head for years, score the cup winning goal in your national football league, and end up dating a Eurobabe supermodel who actually digs you. You can afford to look forward.

At fifty though, you stop. You're scrambling to hold on to what you've got, clawing at your remaining time like you're Bear Grylls hanging by his fingers on a crumbling cliff top. And, oddly enough, that's OK. But change is difficult. You start to become traumatized at the possibility that you might have to change brands of shaving cream. And everything hurts physically- sitting at your desk writing research papers, driving your car, reading self-indulgent whiny internet blogs, and especially knowing that you are now unlikely to change in any significant way except to get older. You now know that your research will not suddenly be recognized as seminal, epoch-making work by Henry Widdowson and Michael Halliday.You will not be asked to become Professor Emeritus at The Sorbonne. But that's all fine. You're happy to have a decent beer in the evening, a loving family (OK, not necessarily in that order), and take the occasional trip to Southeast Asia. It'a tradeoff, I suppose.

But factors other than age can and do lead to widespread teacher burnout- and yes, I am feeling this pinch as I write this. Here are four further causes that come to mind:

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

When about, oh, 80% of your time and effort at work goes into filling mindless functions that basically exist to perpetuate the current system, to feed the machine as it were, you can be forgiven for feeling like the proverbial hamster on the treadmill. The fact that excessive bureaucracy can be a demotivating factor probably falls into the "No shit, Sherlock!" school of discourse, but the point is that the off-season is surely Carnival parade 'n party time for bureaucrats.

Now, as a teacher, I can and do feel inspired by educating and challenging both myself and my students. But, and call me a Philistine if you must, somehow I don't feel motivated and inspired when I'm filling in the university database's 300+ item/category 'achievement' file with a smack-in-your-face deadline. Now, I'm not gonna go all 70's-sci-fi-novel-cum-progrock-concept-LP on you and assume that this is a 'me vs. the system' scenario, the protagonist as an independently sensitive soul in an uncaring world, but hey, when work becomes a matter of little more carrying out duties simply because someone else has decided that some 'busy work' duty has to be carried out- well you are allowed at least 5 burnout points.

2. Not being absolutely fluent in reading Kanji leads to burnout.

No doubt you could contribute much more of significance to your workplace if you could digest those 20-page 'shiryo' the way natives (and those cursed Gaijin Kanji nerds) do. You could feel on top of things- more relevant and involved. But I'm not a good visual learner and I struggle with Kanji. This is not some type of xenophobic anti-Gaijin barrier erected by my superiors- it's my shortcoming (and maybe yours). Not feeling up to speed on issues that MAY matter and thereby not contributing what I could or should, not to mention that trying to read some obtuse shiryo will take me at least ten times longer than Dr. Sato next door, aids burn out- about 3 points' worth.

3. Feeling that your real work is not being recognized or appreciated leads to burnout.

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

Case In Point A- You sit on a committee which seems to exist solely for the purpose of producing a bi-annual report. A report that no one reads because it's about having meetings about producing a report. But, dammit, preparing and formatting that report is treated as serious, important stuff!

Point B- The entrance exam overlords keep banging into your head that you must avoid any 'misses' on your exam. They wouldn't know if the exam you made was in fact 100% structually invalid or that all the tasks and questions measurably unreliable, as long as you don't, for example, put the wrong, unofficial kind of bracket on the question sheet. But you do put in the wrong kind of bracket, and your 'miss' gets pointed out to you on exam day.

Point C- You care about your course content. Good. And it's not just you- many other teachers do too. So, you duly fill in your syllabus- but the online syllabus entry form carries 20 different category headings and all must be filled in according to a format explained in a, wait for it, 20-page shiryo. You want to explain your well-thought-out educational rationale here but you know that no one will ever read it anyway and that the guys in suits downstairs are more concerned that you have officially filled all six slots for 'available office hours' (using the obscure single font type that the system recognizes) for each of your twelve classes.

You could probably write in that Educational Goals section: "...to make myself more attractive to the ladies in the class" and no one would bat an eyelash. You wonder why you are writing down '...developing strategic competencies' instead. Score 6 burnout points here- two for each of these three cases mentioned above.

4. No one cares about your research focus except for...

... the editor of the journal you've submitted it to. Who cares a little TOO much. And you can add a burnout point or two if he/she is the type who is more concerned about the fact that you did not italicize the title of the chapter noted in the proceedings papers listed in your references- so you are therefore IN VIOLATION OF APA STANDARDS (this warrants CAPS because it is taken as seriously in the world of EFL publishing as, oh, arson is in the real world), and therefore you are clearly not a serious professional!

Then, the head of your department has no idea what you are researching but is happy when he/she looks at your database and notes that you have two items listed under 'research publications' for the year. It could be that you merely wrote a short review of a muffin shop to a suburban shopping bulletin board but hey, if you have that publication listed the department bigwig is happy because funding your research (which remember, he/she actually doesn't much care about because his/her role in the houjinka system is now primarily to secure funding) will be easier next year. But despite this realization, you try to be professional and still shoot for the lead article in TESOL Quarterly or Applied Linguistics. Score 5 burnout points here.

[I want to add here that people in the hard sciences have a huge and distinct advantage over soft, pseudo-sciences like Applied Linguistics when it comes to research papers. That is- it's tailor-made for publication, cookie-cutter prefabricated for the background-methods-results-discussion format. There is no vagueness or nebulous quality to it. Rigorously empirical, it is precisely this formulaic quality that makes it easy to slot into that great template of research paperdom, unlike opaque EFL/ESL topics such as, "Learner Perceptions of Secondary Intercultural Aspect in Cleft-structure Usage". And if you're a scientist- a real one- you can also put the names of all your lab mates under the paper title and they'll do the same for you. Presto- suddenly your the author of 11 hardcore published research papers within a year!]

So here then is the question to you, dear reader- where do you rank on the off-season burnout scale? Have I missed any major causes of off-season burnout? And what do you do you to avoid it? Me- I'm waiting for my classes to start again. I want to feel that energy flow. And in particular I want to see the faces of our students from Northern Japan...

About March 2011

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in March 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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