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July 1, 2011

How to talk to Japanese women- EFL Version

I can imagine that some readers might have arrived here after Googling "How to meet Japanese girls" or some such thing. If you have, you've probably come to the wrong place. This is about how to manage English classes that are all, or predominantly, female in Japan. (In my university medical courses the M-FD ratio is about 55% M, 45% F. In Nursing classes it is 85% F. In the few classes I teach outside the university the Fs make up about 90%).

Let me start with what should be obvious-- the dynamics of female-dominated and male-dominated classes in Japan are palpably different (ask F teachers who teach all-male classes). Anyone standing in denial of this has probably not been in a Japanese university-level classroom (and is probably the type of person who thinks that Finnish and Brazilian cultures are pretty much the same because, hey, they're all just people).

Yes, it's true that neither classrooms nor genders are monolithic entities...
And yes, there are males who display some traits that we might normally apply to females- and vice versa. Yes, individual, idiosyncratic, psychological make up is always a significant factor-- but none of these change the fact that the general flow, rhythm, and atmosphere of all-female classes are not the same as with the men. So yes, some generalizations will ensue. And keep in mind that these comments are about Japanese students in an EFL classroom- they are not meant to represent all women. The interpretation as to which elements are gender-based and which are cultural or even domain-centered (the EFL classroom) is variable. So, YMMV.

All of this becomes especially pronounced when the teacher of the F-dominated class is a male, which is obviously the perspective I am taking today. After all, since I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been a female I cannot say anything meaningful about F teacher-F student dynamics.

So, how does the presence of overwhelming femaleness (dare I say feminimity?) affect classroom management? What adjustments or considerations should the M-teacher take into account? Here are 8 hints I can offer based on twenty years of dealing with numerous F-dominant classes in Japan, man of the teaching world that I am:

1. remembering JF names
All students want you to remember their names. It's validating-- they've made an impression upon your consciousness. But you know the situation-- you're walking down the hall and you see three of your students. You greet two by name but the third one eludes you. Most M students don't have a lot of trouble with this but the Fs take it very seriously. There is an almost automaic "He doesn't remember my name because he hates me and thinks I'm ugly and stupid and he remembers hers because he thinks she is pretty" quality in response to sensei not remembering JF names.

The (partial) solution? Make an extended effort to remember the names of quiet, simple, plain, unobtrusive Fs. They will very much appreciate this. The ones with big personalities or hairdos know you will remember their names soon anyway. And no one can claim that you are remembering names based on some vavoom or pizzaz factor.

2. notes/comprehensive detail
JFs are much neater and more organized than JMs in terms of sharp, crisp, clean note-taking and highlighting. This probably extends worldwide. JFs are usually much more comprehensive and careful about detail as well but this fastidiousness can actually hurt them. How?

Take the erasing fetish for example. JFs will often wipe out an entire sentence in order to 'fix' what, to them, is a poorly drawn dot on an i. Brainstorming sessions where "write six words you associate with summer" is written on the board will begin with her writing her name, student number, and "write six words you associate with summer" on a sheet of very new paper that she has carefully removed from her binder from deep within her bag, long after the scheduled brainstorming task time has passed.

Making a 'no erasers' rule and keeping strict time on such tasks may eliminate this unproductive behaviour.

3. cliques and partnering; chattering
I'll agree with a popular stereotype here. F students form cliques- and stand by them- more quickly and deeply than males and, related to this, will use more class time to chatter. Speech-based tasks make this clear. Many students, M and F, will quickly finish the task (often in a slipshod way). Ms will usually kick back or veg out at this point whereas Fs will almost inevitably extend the speaking task-- into personal chatter in Japanese. Sometimes when this happens the teacher assumes that the students are still dilligently on task.

Solutions? Partner or group students outside cliques or circles of friends (in mixed classes M-F pairs are great for getting both members to concentrate on the task). When extended chatter occurs sit down next to the pair as if to be 'listening in' on the task. They'll soon stop. Also- let students know that a task should be continued until a certain time and a have a follow up task or extension at hand to keep the chat devil away from those idle lips.

4. scolding/giving back bad results or re-tests
"Hell hath no fury...". Shakespeare was an EFL teacher in Japan it seems. Obviously humiliating students is never kosher but sometimes a firm hand is required-- hopefully to benefit the students as opposed to merely providing an outlet for the teacher's frustration. IMO, generally, males take scoldings much better than females. Perhaps they view it as a positive challenge. Many Ms seem to have been exposed to verbal tongue-lashings in clubs previously and thus take it in stride.

This is rarely so with Fs who will remember your vitriol for a long time, take it very personally-- possibly as an attack on her whole person-- and even drag her friends into an anti-teacher hatefest. Taking extreme care in scolding or critcism extends to giving back poor results or calling for re-tests. Some Ms seem to take doing poorly in English almost as a badge of male honour. The Fs do not. Feedback regarding poor work should be discrete and encouraging. That is a good rule for all negative feedback but doubly so for Fs.

5. dealing with Leggy Keiko/commenting on appearances
I'm sure that some male reader have scanned precisely to this spot. Fair enough. M teachers will know the experience of going into the JF classroom and being confronted by a pair of ostentatiously displayed legs or three, within obvious eyeshot (of course being the consummate professional I've only heard about this...). You will tell yourself, "Don't look at the legs! don't look at the legs" which is like telling yourself not to think of little pink elephants- now you are more conscious of little pink elephants than ever. Whatever your sex or sexual orientation, when there's an attractive person in the room you can't easily ignore her/him any more than you can put that sinister-looking, strung-out guy who's sitting behind you on the bus out of mind. You may even start to move like you've got a herniated disc in your neck in order to avoid gaping.

No less an authority than the wife has told me that the Fs always know it when a male takes a sidelong glance. Now, the lady showing lotsa leg may not care too much, she may be used to-- and may to some extent relish-- men checking her out. But every other student in the class will notice your roving eye and the resulting interpretation will less likely be "Sensei is a guy being a guy" than "Sensei is a randy pervert". Harsh, but true. Keep in mind that Leggy Keiko is not dressing up for your entertainment. Leggy Keiko thinks of you as a teacher first and has certain expectations about how a teacher should act. Ogling her probably diminishes your status in her legs... umm... mind.

It should go without saying that commenting on JF appearances can be a minefield. Make that a minefiled covered in eggshells. Everyone likes to hear compliments about how they look or have their new hairstyle/costly accessory/rad fahion statement noticed but let's face it-- there's a fine line between being pleasantly complimentary and coming across as a drooling lech who's paying just a little too much attention-- and we all know Ms who are completely oblivious to this line.

I've experienced awkward follow ups in the past by telling a F she had got a nice tan over the summer (she was on the rowing team but in fact wanted to be pasty white like many JFs so she didn't take it well), another that she looked like a young Kate Bush (She was an uncannily dead ringer!), and telling yet another that she could pass for a Thai or Filipina. The latter is a compliment from me but for what seem like socio-ethnic reasons I don't want to get into here, it didn't go down well. I now err on the side of saying too little unless I'm quite familiar with the student. I understand that it may come off that sensei's just paying a little too much attention to you- and is thus a bit creepy.

6. light talk and bad jokes from M teachers/teacher centredness
I've noticed that some M teachers seem to treat F students as if they are deserving of lighter, more frivolous talk or class content (whether in the hallway, ESS club, or classroom) than M students- a near dumbing down of interactions or topics, as if real women want to discuss nothing more than buying shoes and movie stars. Yes, I have noticed this in my own (past) behaviour too. Big mistake--Fs will really chew on a challenging, invigorating topic-- and of course being treated as intellectually and academically capable.

The same goes for treating Fs as a ready-made audience for bad jokes. I know that I'm riffing upon a stereotype here, but many Ms like to assume positions of authority with Fs. One way of buttressing the already-authoritative teacher's role is to reinforce yourself as the center of attention and assuage the ego by conflating this with admiration. The M teacher thinks the ladies will automatically laugh at his witty bon mots and in fact JF will often do so-- dutifully taking on the good audience role. It doesn't mean that your jokes really are funny, or even welcome, though. And we all know how teacher-centredness ranks on the scale of methodological no-nos.

7. being cavalier; pachi pachi eyes
In F only or F dominated classes the ladies will often be more cavalier in terms of behaviour, speech, and posture. This is not because of the presence of the M teacher but in spite of him-- they've forgotten that there are males present and therefore drop many so-called ladylike mannerisms. Consider it a privilege to see the inner workings of the JF natives on display. Don't spoil it by getting too close.

Having said that, there are still those who will treat the M teacher with exceptional male-only attention. This includes making coquettish poses and pachi-pachi eyes, especially if you look like you might be about to scold them. Call it culture if you want, but some JF students deal with most males this way- it's what they consider appropriate role-playing. No, it's not a singles-bar type of advance, Romeo.

This latter type of behaviour can negatively impact the teacher's small group or pair monitoring. On numerous occasions, I've sat near a pair or group of JF students to check how they're handling the task when they suddenly all turn to me as if, being both a teacher and a M, I must be there to lead, to assume authority, to tell them something. At this point I've become a 'jama' a bother or annoyance and they become passive. Eavesdropping nearby while pretending to do something else may be more effective.

8. room temperatures; 'stomach aches'
When a F student complains of a stomach ache in class let her leave to deal with it without prying. I shouldn't have to explain why but some Ms are (perhaps understandably) oblivious to feminine...discomfort.

JFs also seem to be more sensitive to classroom temperatures with what seems like a 0.1 degree range of comfort. Many are either fanning themselves like British explorers in the Sudan or shivering under Grandma's handmade quilts when even a moderate amount of air-con is applied. Encourage the Scott-of-the-Antarctic mimics to move to a desk that isn't directly beneath the air-con flow.

Is this the final word on JF students? Obviously not. If I've missed something important or you disagree with some item feel free to have your say.

July 17, 2011

O-makase teaching: The 'Leave it to sensei' approach

I have a CD by jazz/avant composer/musician John Zorn called Filmworks, a highlights collection from his various film scores. The liner notes are particularly interesting. Zorn relates the highly independent approach he employs in the studio after he has been commissioned to score a film. If the film director wants to enter the studio they have to pay an extra fee. If they want to be present at the recording session they pay more. If they want to make suggestions and have Zorn listen to their suggestions they pay even more. If the director wants to tell him what to do-- go find another composer, Zorn says, you can't afford me.

Although it makes Zorn come across as a little prickly I like this anecdote. Zorn thinks that the director should trust his sensibilities as a musician/composer- that's how he works best.

A good analogy can be made with fine cuisine. You don't go into El Bulli as a customer and tell Ferran Adria how to prepare your meal. You have to trust his sensibilities. This is why finer restaurants tend to have very small, or even no, selections except for 'tonight's dinner'. You're paying to let them do their work.

Honing sensibilities
This would be an attractive approach for the English teaching profession except that it's difficult to think in terms of celebrity EFL teachers (Jack Richards or David Nunan anyone?). Inexperienced teachers would do well to listen to outside voices but as they accumulate experience I think a similar 'makasete' (leave it to me) method is the best way to go. If you have a long track record of experience and success in the field in particular one should expect to be cut some slack-- but sensibilities have to be honed before others' trust in them can be earned.

Having your teaching sensibilities respected can work in two directions. The first is based upon non-interference from administrators and bureaucrats- leaving the teaching to teachers. The other is not negotiating syllabi with students. Both place a heavy responsibility on the part of the teacher.

I have a simple rule. The larger the class and the younger the students, the less I negotiate the content. In other words, a single PhD candidate who wants me to act as an English advisor, yes we have much to discuss. But a class of 40 university freshmen in a Communication English course? No dice.

Do students know what's best for them?
It's not that I haven't tried it. But experience has taught me that students in such courses rarely know what they want- short of very general targets such as, "to learn how to have conversations in English" or "to make my English more natural". And there's rarely anything approaching a consensus, so carrying out their wishes would fragment the syllabus to the point where it would be hard to really call it a 'syllabus' at all.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that many students actually find it a little odd that the teacher would be asking them what they want to learn- and I suggest that they might actually lose confidence in a teacher who appeared to not have prepared some set goals and directions based on the teacher's supposed expertise and authority.

[ Sidebar- students often fail to recognize what they've been taught too, even if they seem to have acquired and are applying the skill or target that the teacher intended. Every year I have my first year medical students focus upon taking a patient history but in later years, when asked by visiting foreign lecturers whether or not they've ever been taught to take patient history, even my most astute students for some reason tend to say 'No'.]

Students don't always know what's good for them. If I was going to take up, say, Yoga, I sure wouldn't know what's best for me. And this is precisely what teachers are expected to know- that's why we are... prepare for a shock here...the teachers! For example, my medical students often express a wish "to learn medical English terminology" in my seminar classes. But of course seminar sessions are not the place for specialized lexis and/or translation exercises- they are supposed be for interaction, discussion, and cognitive expansion. Terminology they can get from a dictionary or textbook. Thus, I don't indulge them and I dare say they are better off for it. In this case, not acceding to their wishes actually better serves to meet their needs.

Tweaking our teaching sensibilities
None of this means that teachers should become arrogant, self-satisfied, and oblivious to student responses. Even with all his talent, Lionel Messi doesn't simply grab the ball and shoot it. He is constantly scanning his teammates and opponents to consider his options, using his knowledge of what has or hasn't worked before, and applying these to make the best possible play. Likewise, a good teacher is always scanning the class for hints and feedback and then tweaking the lessons accordingly.

How do we get reliable feedback from the students? Most class surveys are too standardized and banal to be of much use in this regard. I suggest instead that you take note of what I call 'barometer students'. What is a barometer student? Well, as you know there are some students who have such intrinsically low motivation levels that you could have Johhny Depp host the lesson with the Dallas Mavericks and AKB48 invited to do backflips off of beluga whales and these students would still be yawning and gazing into their keitai screens. On the other hand, you have some students who are so genki that you could do a semester on 'The Grain Elevators of Saskatchewan; A Retrospective' and they'd still be appreciative. Your barometer students are those who fall slightly towards the genki side of things. If you have a section or lesson where the facial expressions of your barometer students approximate the existential vacuum of Gauguin's "Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?" canvas, then it's likely time to nuke the activity or lesson rather than being bull-headed and bringing the zombie task back next year simply because 'it is part of the curriculum'.

In my experience there are three common causes for losing your barometer students:
1) They sense that they are just doing this as busy work
2) They have no idea what the teaching points or targeted skill is
3) The lesson seems in no way to fit into a bigger curriculum picture- "Where are we going..."

Teachers can avoid this barometer student ennui by explicitly connecting lessons, continually reinforcing and recycling both skills and languge targets, repeatedly making reference to the course's past while letting students know clearly how todays fits into next week's lesson and the lesson after that.

One way or another, you have to constantly be making adjustments. If Lionel Messi ever becomes too self-satisfied, always making the same move- he is finished. We can apply this to musicians too. A band who follow exactly what their fans want them to do can end up making the same album over and over and actually lose their following because they haven't progressed.

Testing as self-diagnosis
Another way of checking as to whether your students are responding accurately or not is through your evaluations and tests. Tests shouldn't just have a diagnostic function for the students but for the teachers as well! After all, if most of your students are failing your tests it is likely that one of two things is happening:
1) Your evaluation is invalid- you're not actually testing what you think you are testing
2) Your students haven't learned what you want them to because there is some flaw in your teaching method
In analyzing your test results you are gaining valuable feedback about your teaching performance.

Please understand that none of this is about denying your students choices in the classroom, about claiming uniformity to be virtuous, or being teacher-centered in your methodology. Giving students task options helps them to develop autonomy and to expand themselves as learners. But this should be done within a larger framework that has been prepared by the teacher, who should know the road behind and sees the signposts which lead ahead.

In other words, if you are going to bypass the negotiated syllabus or needs analysis routes you're going to have to be highly attuned to these less visceral types of feedback. In my experience; ineffective veteran teachers often think that their sensibilities should be respected based on seniority alone but may in fact be doing little to further hone those sensibilities. If you want both students and administrators to respect your teaching sensibilities, it's your responsibility.

About July 2011

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

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