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The Uni-Files - Conferences Archive

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

September 30, 2009

More on conferences and presentations

Last post I offered some candid comments regarding a few of the ELT conferences I attend or present at regularly. I'll continue today by talking a bit about the 'Asia circuit'. and getting a presentation accepted at these conferences. By the way, please don't think of this as a comprehensive step-by-step guide but rather as a collection of off-the-wall observations.

The Asia Circuit-
A buddy of mine noted how you get a conference bag each time you attend or present and remarked that you could talk about conferences the way international soccer players talk about caps. "I've been 'bagged' 16 times. Yup, 16 international bags, I have".

In the past few years I've been 'internationally bagged' at ThaiTESOL, ETA-ROC (Taiwan), TESOL Arabia, AsiaTEFL (in Beijing), KOTESOL (S. Korea), MELTA (Malaysia), FEELTA (Russia-Far East) and PALT (The Philippines). Except for ArabiaTESOL this may look like the Asian Golf Tour schedule- and it has something of that feel about it. Several familiar Japan-based names seem to pop up at a number of these.

Let's start with PALT (I'm not going to link these, assuming that you can Google the relevant terms for yourself if you want to know more). This year PALT is the host organization for the PAC, meaning Pan-Asian Conference. The PAC has a rotating host organization which usually combines this big event with their own domestic national conference (that would be JALT in Japan, who have hosted PAC before). The PAC is the biggest conference of its type in Asia and, as you'd expect, attracts participants from across the continent (actually from all over the world).

I attended PALT in 2007, but didn't apply for this year's PAC-PALT- Dec. 3-5 (somewhat to my regret as the time approaches). I do remember the highly formal setting of The Manila Hotel. My presentation was made in an enormous ballroom where the waiting staff was still clearing lunch when I started speaking, which is obviously a bit disconcerting. I also remember a gruff character coming forward durting the follow up Q and A and saying that he "objected" to what I had presented- the first time someone has had an 'objection' to my 'plea' in an ELT presentation. I also remember the discomfort I felt at how obsequious the hotel staff was, including flushing my urinal for me and proffering hand towels to me immediately after performing my bodily functions. But I don't need to tell you that my Filipino counterparts were incredibly friendly, welcoming, and helpful because if you know anything about The Philippines you probably know that.

ETA-ROC doesn't seem to operating this year. This Taipei combination of language teaching conference and book fair was always haphazard, and organizationally a bit sloppy, but had the most enthusiastic participants in Asia. A lot of younger Taiwanese teachers attended these presentations and their enthusiasm more than made up for the lack of physical space and confusion. In short, ETA-ROC is a microcosm of Taipei's traffic system and busy but energetic populace. The food here was always first-rate too. I hope this one retuns to the circuit.

One thing that I've always found odd about ETA-ROC- most of the attendees are young, new teachers who seem to be looking for basic guidance and/or recipes but an inordinate number of speakers are academics who present on very narrow academic topics. I'm not sure how or why that incongruity exists.

Like PAC, the Asia-TEFL conference rotates through a different country each year. Next year it's in Hanoi- and yes, I'll be there. Not surprisingly, the Bali-located conference last year drew a huge number of applicants although yours truly was rejected. Asia-TEFL is more or less the highbrow academic conference on the circuit and I can't help but think that I should have upped the academic lingo in my proposal last time (I went too much for a rather forced and obvious Inter-Asia commonality theme).

ThaiTESOL would probably win most popularity polls among Japan-based uni-types. Let's face it- doing ANYTHING in Thailand feels like a holiday and this is THE best conference for going out on the town period. Full stop. I don't consider myself to be among the great expat boozehounds but this is a great locale for the post-presentation drink or five.
The ThaiTESOL conference is usually held in January but because Bangkok hosted the Asia-TEFL this year there is no conference in Jan. 2010. sniff.

Anyway, here's a personal sidebar- I can't help but wonder if I'm on a ThaiTESOL conference blacklist because I was accepted for five years straight and then rejected for two consecutive years thereafter (despite having upped my public and academic standing- not to mention my proposal writing skills). The last one I attended had a quasi-political theme which I thought was nonsense and proceeded to criticize the 'accepted' view in my presentation (I had prepared a thorough critique of some politico-linguistic academia and pedagogy for this presentation). Anyway, one of the conferences organizers happened to attend my spiel and seemed to mistake some of my examples and references to the dangers of ethnic reductionism and racism in reading politics into language as being my own view, and told me afterwards that she thought my (throughly anti-racist) presentation was "full of racial prejudice".

KOTESOL is very much Korea's JALT counterpart. If you think a lot of modern Korea emulates Japan, at least on the surface, this is a logical extension of that in almost every aspect. A lot of university teachers, mostly Westerners, present here and have many of the same themes and concerns as JALT. It's quite sober, like JALT on a smaller scale, but it does seem easier to make Korean teaching contacts from KOTESOL than it does to make Japanese contacts from JALT.

FEELTA, I've presented at once- in Vladivostok. The jarring effect of flying less than 2 hours from Japan (Niigata) and landing in a land of European faces and architecture, and especially the 6 foot tall ladies, overrides my memories of the conference itself. But once again a rule sems to persist: the more haphazard the organization (the legacy of the old Soviet bureaucracy and lack of public information remains) the more engaging and welcoming the people involved are.

TESOL Arabia (Dubai) is quite large and elaborate. They do take themselves very seriously, being the main conference in that part of the world. There is an extremely wide range of presenters here- every continent is represented...and then some. I found it disconcerting to present in a small room where, among my audience of 14 people, 4 were Muslim ladies wearing the full regalia (all but eyes revealed). Since I like to read audience expressions and make eye contact this was a new situation for me. By the way, TESOL Arabia and KOTESOL both require that you be members of their respective organizations before you are allowed to present, upping the costs and the paperwork.

Considerations regarding presenting:

Fees- Here's one of my beefs. OK, with a strong Yen and generally wealthy populace, Japan is a good base from which to attend other Asian conferences (Arabia excepted). Unfortunately though, some of these conferences require bank transfers for fee payments (no credit card payment online etc.) and, given the costs added to do so with Japanese banks, and the ridiculous amount of paperwork involved in what should be a minor transaction, this can often end up as an extra unforeseen hassle. Those conferences to which I can Paypal or pay by credit card are so much more relaxing.

Some conferences are very organized and prompt in their email exchanges. These conferences also tend to supply timely and comprehensive information. JALT is probably the best in Asia in this regard. With others it can seem like no one has acknowledged your submission, little (or broken) information is forthcoming, it can be hard to find the appropriate contact person, or the links you need to follow on the website are not working. With some, you arrive at the venue and there are greeters and enormous signs everywhere- it is a big hoodad. At others, you show up and all there is is a low key, relatively unmarked reception table in a dank university building basement and you wonder if, by mistake, you've actually gone to last year's venue.

Finally, some quick advice about submissions. One- follow the rules and guidelines, even if they are labyrinthine. Sometimes elaborate registration and application forms are made, just to see who is serious and who isn't. Check things like grammar and spelling very carefully- the whole proposal, no matter how great the research, can just reek if you have mindlessly misplaced a 'your' with a 'you're'.

Conference themes used to be relatively unimportant but they seem to be more relevant these days in terms of the selection process. In the recent past, you'd have themes like "ESL- Making the most of our opportunities" which pretty much allows for ANYTHING. But now I see more and more themes like, "Incorporating the Humanities into Second Language Learning" in which the selection committee is ruling out immediately those submissions which do not address the theme adequately.

In some larger conferences, variety is important so there can be some prejudice in wanting to accept left-fieldish presentations or those that address very narrow or hitherto neglected areas. "Twittering as classroom discourse" has an up-to-date air about it, with the tempting waft of new technology. "Post-feminist language domains in spoken text" will get support for its apparent 'progressive' content. Something that sounds statistically objective, "A reappraisal of the X medical corpus- based on a five year study", should tickle enough members on the selection committee. So might the exotica and charity of "An educational outreach program to the children of Dagestan- a field report".

Good luck if you apply. And your comments regarding your own experiences and further advice for readers is very welcome here.

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August 07, 2010

EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi!

This dispatch comes from Hanoi (somehow the word 'dispatch' seems to collocate naturally with Hanoi- especially with words like 'shelled' and 'bunker'), where I am attending the AsiaTEFL conference and, having just concluded my presentation, am now free to run wild- at the computer.

The conference is taking place at a hotel complex that's a bit of a throwback to 80's Viet Nam or China- that Official Communist Party Guesthouse locale, a dated rabbit-warren of low-slung buildings of "Serve-The-People Residence Block 3" style architecture, surrounded by high cement and barbed-wire walls, dimly lit, and staffed by some grim-looking folks (unlike the very friendly conference minders and organizers). It's also a bit of a distance from the center of the old town so attendees stuck there seem to be getting a bit stir crazy, since there are virtually no attractions within walking distance (although you really wouldn't want to walk in the Hanoi summer humidity with what is probably the world's most intense, in-your-face, traffic).

Fortunately, I'm not staying at the conference venue but at a hotel closer to the city center- hence I can write this in comfort and ironic detachment. How sophomoric.

I always enjoy Asia TEFL because about 95% of the conference attendees are Asian, no surprise there, covering pretty much every country on the continent. On the first day however I attended only presentations made by Japanese EFL researchers, eager to see what they were up to. Two caught my eye in particular, both in a critical way, enough so to warrant blog commentary.

Now, I'm not going to use this blog to point fingers at specific people (unless they're REALLY asking for it) or denigrate other people's research, since the same charges could be levelled at me. So let me start with this caveat- the following presentations were well-delivered by pleasant and knowledgeable people with strong academic credentials. But each contained something unsettling that compels me to write...

The first was a presentation on using a manga about non-Japanese residents of Japan to sensitize Japanese students to ethnic diversity and NJ identity in Japan (the manga sample involved an ethnic Korean resident), the scenarios they face, their status, histories etc.

Since many Japanese may be unaware of NJs in their midst, or what limits in terms of rights, different standards etc. they may be facing, this issue is relevant and was handled sensitively- no bashing alleged of the 'the Japanese are xenophobes' variety, no overdramatizing the plight of the NJ, and, especially, less of an emphasis upon finding the 'cultural differences' than one usually encounters.

(Tangent- I was, however, taken aback by the presenters' final call to 'celebrate differences'- I say this because it is precisely this overemphasizing of differences that leads to otherizing and any resultant notion that NJs can't really be culturally Japanese or just can't/don't fit in. Since the whole point of using this manga as educational tool was to emphasize the common humanity of the characters, who the Japanese had assumed to be fully Japanese, the sudden intrusion of the 'let's understand the differences' mantra seemed to take the wind out of the rhetorical sails).

More dubious though was a preamble about racial majority 'privileged groups' who set the societal 'norms' and thereby see themselves as 'superior' but thus 'don't recognize the plights of minorities' and 'are in denial' even if they claim not to hold such attitudes (claiming that others are in denial when they do not confirm your beliefs is of course a sloppy and fallacious argument). And, yes, this initial example served up that predictable old target: White Americans.

Now here's the rub- you are giving a presentation on trying to remove ethnic/racial discrimination and prejudices from young students and what do you do? You proceed to make blanket statements about how a whole race apparently thinks! Talk about pulling the carpet of credibility from under your own feet. And yes, as a North American white guy I did feel uncomfortable listening to people tell me about what I apparently must believe because of my skin colour.
(Tangent- I've been told how white people like me think we are superior and look down on others numerous times in Japan. I always complement such people for knowing- and subsequently telling me- what I apparently think about other ethnicities based only upon seeing my degree of skin pigmentation. I might also add a little bit about how their view was actually the norm a few generations back but that anybody who has an education, or lives within any interactive social milieu of sorts in N. America is likely to have had such views confronted from day one. And oh yes, I do realize that I have been privileged. I got through Sociology 101, thank you very much).

Now, to be fair, the presenter (again, who was Japanese) DID apply these same claims to the Japanese ethnic majority with regard to minorities in Japan- that most Japanese were in denial about it, but felt superior and so were unmoved by the sufferings of others, ignorant of diversity, etc..

So, at the end of the presentation I asked her outright (privately- and in a fairly congenial way I might add) if she would feel superior to me if we were both in Japan. She knew where I was going with this (I think) and duly dodged the question- not waning to apply her generalization to herself. But I pressed on with the argument that labeling entire races/ethnicities of people as having superiority complexes or of being ignorant of others was not a viable way to confront discrimination and racial-ethnic ignorance.

She also dodged my next (and yes, loaded) question about whether she thought that I, personally, being of pale skin and all, probably believed that I am superior to non-white people. After all, according to content of her presentation, I probably should. Of course, SHE didn't feel that way about NJs in Japan herself and implied that she believed that I would not feel that way about non-whites by saying that 'although not everyone feels that way many are still in denial', but then why use the 'present company excepted' escape clause after you've just indicted an entire race?

Go figure.

The next presentation was very different in tone and scope, focusing upon Japanese student turn-taking difficulties in English. The research locus (and the research data was very professionally compiled) was that of a Native English speaker (NES) chatting with three different small groups of Japanese students in Japan, and subsequently having the researcher analyzing the turn-taking mechanics of the conversations.

The native English speaker was asked his impression of the quality of each discussion (good, bad, or so so) and his evaluations were correlated with the number and type of turn-taking mechanisms used by both Js and NES parties in the discussions. As you can probably guess, most of the turn-taking signals and acts were initiated by the NES and, what's more, the fewer the Japanese initiated or signaled a response to a turn, the worse he rated that conversation. (You know the scenario- you have to do all the topic selection, ask all the questions, do all the repair and backchannelling while students simply nod or make mundane textbook-like sentences in response).

So far, so good, right?

It was the conclusion that was worrying. The researcher concluded that because English and Japanese turn-taking styles and conversation management are so different it leads to communication problems. Therefore, Japanese students should be taught English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies.

Still seems reasonable? OK- I should add that the researcher's view of J conversation management is that it is not a Japanese cultural convention to topic-select, interject, and backchannel but apparently to patiently wait until a turn has finished before venturing a support statement. Yeah. Right. This will come as news to anyone who has seen a Japanese variety TV show, drank with Japanese in an izakaya, or- hey- has seen any group of Japanese friends simply hang out together.

The reasons that the conversations between the NES and the Js was stilted seem obvious to me. For one thing they were staged, and thus seeing them as formalized, the Js did not follow normal discourse patterns- that is normal JAPANESE discourse patterns such as: topic self-selection, backchanneling... and so on down the list. It seems pretty obvious to me that there was a power dimension at play, that the NES was seen as a type of authority figure. So the responses (or lack thereof) from the Js was not a cultural factor but one of perceived power relations. They would react similarly to a Japanese person perceived to have power or authority. They were clearly not acting as Japanese people managing a conversation, but as Japanese talking in a formalized situation with a supposed authority figure.

So, what they needed to do in order to make the conversation flow better was NOT learn so-called English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies but to use JAPANESE norms and strategies, such as support statements, repair, backchanneling, topic-selection- you know, stuff that humans, not specific cultural groups usually do, in informal situations.

Why bring in the canard of 'different cultural norms' as the explanatory factor for everything? We're not all that different!

And, yes, I did raise this point (again in a congenial manner) in the follow-up Q&A sessions. The presenter seemed rather surprised and I didn't want to put her on the spot but my comment did draw a strong and supportive response from other audience members (some of whom disliked the presenter's implicit notion that it was incumbent upon the J students to learn alleged English cultural standards when conversing with NES's in Japan).

At least these presentations stirred me up. Made me think. I suppose this is why I'm here. And I can't help but wonder if anyone was thinking similarly critical thoughts about my presentation...

(Tangential ego-inflating section:
I was in the line for visas at Hanoi Airport when the guy behind me (to be fair I initiated by asking him something about visa formalities) said, "You're Mike Guest, aren't you?". "Umm, yes, how did you know?". "Oh- you're world famous (?!)". Although he was obviously exaggerating, this caused the other people in line to turn around, eager to see the world-renowned celebrity in their midst. They saw me instead.

At another recent conference, where I was asked to do a keynote speech, I overheard one attendee say to a staff helper in reference to my good self, "That's the famous guy". I hope he was being ironic because I'm not exactly fighting the fame groupies off.

At this conference too, I've had a few people say, "Oh so YOU'RE Mike Guest!" (which I can never, nor am I intended to I suppose, accurately interpret as either, "You're my EFL hero! Let's make children together!" or as, "Why does the Daily Yomiuri let unqualified, self-absorbed and height-challenged people like yourself write such crap?"). The world of EFL is so insignificant that it's a bit unsettling and awkward to have people treat you- even for a fleeting moment- as though you are anything more than what you really are, that is, a mere English teacher. Thinking that you're a big shot in the world of EFL is like boasting that you have the best outhouse in the Ozarks...

But, hey, since I'm now in the downside of my life span, if people want to say "Hey I really liked your presentation" or "I'm glad you wrote what you wrote" then I guess I'm happy, I'll take it. Being a mere English teacher you'll take whatever recognition you can get.

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August 16, 2010

I never meta-cognitive skill I didn't like- and explaining Monkasho primary school policy: More reactions and responses from Hanoi

...or more specifically, the recent AsiaTEFL conference held in VietNam. Two more presentations from Japanese researchers caught my eye and caused the following synapses to occur in my brain-

First was a joint presentation in which the opening (and very nervous) presenter showed findings which indicate that students who focused upon using meta-cognitive strategies when dealing with EFL tasks performed better than those who leaned towards affective strategies.

OK, Lingo section: I do understand that 'meta-cognitive' is probably Exhibit A when it comes to pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nomenclature (the word 'nomenclature' being Exhibit B) but it seems apropos (Exhibit C) here. Meta-cognition basically means being conscious of thinking strategies, in this case how you plan to attack a communicative task in a reflective manner, 'thinking about how to think' in short.

"Affective strategies" are more emotional, usually determined by the speaker/writer's own belief, or lack thereof, in their ability to carry out the task. In many cases in Japan, affective behaviour revolves around the notion that student A doesn't expect to be able to do task X well with this becoming the defining factor in creating the (ultimately mediocre) product.

Therefore, the researcher argued, we should be focusing upon developing or supporting student meta-cognitive skills in EFL.

Now there is both a great strength and fault to this logic. I do believe that a transfer of cognitive strategies from L1 (Japanese) to L2 would benefit Japanese students, who in so many ways seem to abandon all cognition when dealing with English tasks and rely instead upon memorized L1-L2 cognates alone. Helping students to frame tasks, try to determine the best approaches, and understand what rhetorical forms might lead to the best communicative outcomes, is overlooked. In other words- big picture support and guidance will allow the smaller pictures to develop.

BUT, and this is a big trailer-park corn-chips munching but, isn't the research here ass-backwards? Wouldn't good performers use meta-cognitive strategies precisely because they are... wait for it... already good at English??? And the poor ones, knowing that they don't have the goods, will worry and struggle to get through (the affective approach)? In other words, meta-cognitive skills don't cause students to become better at English, but rather are just reflections of existing competency in the language. Students use meta-cognitive skills when, and because, they are already good at English- not in order to become good. Correlation and causation don't necessarily share the same front lawn, friends.

Nonetheless, the manner in which a teacher guides students towards using meta-cognition is still worthy of deeper EFL thought- in other words, we should be meta-cognitive about the role of meta-cognition.

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

... was led by Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia (Jochi) University. Yoshida is probably the most internationally recognized Japanese scholar in the EFL/Applied Linguistics field and is a man with his fingers in many policy-making pies- including the establishment of Monkasho policy- and this is what he addressed in Hanoi.

More specifically, he outlined the rationale behind the new elementary school English requirement (to start in the next academic year). It goes something like this...

... a fairly comprehensive survey of junior high school students showed that their interest in English, and enjoyment of the subject, peaks at the beginning of JHS and drops like a rock soon steadily thereafter. No surprise here to anyone who has been in Japan for more than 20 minutes, but at least this very thorough and balanced survey substantiates the fact.

Most JHS students found English harder than expected and were soon disenchanted at not sensing any progress in their English skills. This is very much like that time you bought a guitar believing that you would soon learn what it takes to become a guitar god- but you gave it up in two weeks when you found out that musical skills actually require discipline and hard work, so now your guitar collects dust in that dark room under the stairs next to your table-hockey set.

Anyway, what Yoshida believes (and as is implemented in Monkasho policy) is that this drop occurs because JHSers are usually coming in with a background of pretty much nada in English and jumping immediately into the fire pits of vocabulary lists and abstract systems such as grammar. Yoshida likened it to a standing long jump- gravity pulls you back to earth more quickly than if you've built up some speed beforehand. The new elementary school requirement is supposed to turn that standing long jump into a more sustainable running long jump.

This means that before students deal with the more theoretical and abstract elements of English they should learn English from the perspective of the 'joy of communication' and feeling out the "differences between Japanese and other languages", simply getting a taste for other modes of communication, without much pressure. (Note that the new English course is a required class but will not be a fully graded/tested course). This means that the emphasis will be upon the spoken language with absolutely no writing/reading or even alphabet introduction until JHS.

*note: At the same conference, in a completely unrelated presentation, a Japanese teacher criticized the above rationale as being too vague- 'the joys of communication?' Huh? Another asked "Why treat it as 'other languages' when we all know that it means English?" Fair enough.

Here's my two cents:
Cent one: Why do so many teachers, including policy-influencing professionals, treat grammar as if it must be taught in a theoretical, rule-based, analytical manner? Grammar can (and should) be inculcated using less abstract and more meaning-based, content-focused methods and materials. In fact, generally speaking, much of grammar (especially the more intricate stuff) is something that it understood not prior to deployment but after a certain amount of communicative competency is established. In other words, we become conscious of the rule and its function only after we have used and seen it used. for meaningful purposes. Grammar thus describes structurally what has happened to make communication succeed. After that, as learners gradually acquire the 'rule', the prescriptive element comes into play - it can hererafter be consciously applied when faced with various grammatical choices.

In short, grammar need not be this detached, theoretical topic that must be taught explicitly as discrete rules prior to meaning making. In fact the two go hand-in-hand, often unconsciously on the part of the learner.

Cent two: Yoshida showed us an official written rationale (in English) for the new policy as one of his slides- about the 'joy of communication' and 'noting differences'. Two things struck me here (and I addressed these in the brief Q&A session that followed). One was that the word 'communication' was used frequently- that in foreign language classes students should learn communication skills, and focus upon communicating with others etc. But wait. This isn't an English skill- it's a human skill, and something that they should be doing in Japanese (kokugo) classes first. Why assume that communication is a skill derived from learning foreign languages? After all, if students master communication (written and spoken) skills in their native tongue then many of these communication skills will transfer more naturally from their first language to their second (and here we start to dovetail with meta-cognitive strategies above).

Yoshida said that yes, more should be done (and is being done now) with developing communication skills in L1.

I also noted out the numerous emphases upon learning the 'differences' between English and Japanese as a primary learning target. I found this 'divide and separate' policy disheartening. After all, if you start a child's English education by focusing upon how unlike Japanese it is, aren't you just increasing the psychological distance between the two languages, aren't you effectively placing the first barrier to acquisition? The subtext seems to be, "Kids, this English stuff is hard and really different from what you already know how to do". How is that supposed to inculcate the 'joys of communication'?

In response, Yoshida noted something vague (and a bit desperate IMO) about students needing to know their Japanese identity better because 'they don't know who they are'. Go figure.

Finally- I had a chance to talk at length with an ESL teacher from Toronto who plays host to ESL students from all over the world.

When I told her that I lived and worked in Japan she said (hesitantly) that in fact Japanese formed by the far the greatest number of problem students at her institution. How so? By not fitting in or getting along with others, affecting weird and inappropriate behaviour, and complaining about everything. She much preferred Koreans, who, in her words, were earnest, respectful, focused, more communicative, and seemed to fit in and get along.

Interesting. I can't help but wonder if many Japanese students who take a long time off from their normal J university studies are the type wh treat it more as a lark. An extended vacation and an increased chance for shopping. On the other hand, students from many other countries might be trying to enhance their English skills to get a certification or test score that will be instrumental in getting a good job or increased social standing back home, allow them to study as grad students abroad, or even eventually emigrate to English-speaking countries. Thus, it actually has more than hobby-level interest for them and really means something back home. Right now, many in J universities treat English study abroad as a type of playtime away from their real study at home and thus meaning little more than a delay in their graduation date. You know, the mark of shiftless workshy types.

But I'm only speculating. What do you think?

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December 07, 2010

Double Dipping- Divergence Duty or Dubious Duplication?

OK, you are probably now asking yourself two questions:, 1. What is 'double dipping'? and 2. How many 'D' words can one alliterate in a title without it crossing over from clever to cornball ?(answer: 6). Anyway, double dipping refers to the practice of academics doing the same (or a very similar) presentation twice (or more).

You can find an interesting summary and discussion on the practice here. I encourage readers to read the follow-up comments at the bottom of that article as well.

Is double dipping dubious? The arguments against it are based primarily on the notion that it is a type of CV padding, a sleight-of-hand used to pile up the 'presentations' category. Other arguments I've heard are based upon the rather old-fashioned notion that at a conference you literally 'read your paper'- that is, you do some research, you write a paper based on that research, you read it at a conference, and finally you publish the paper in the conference proceedings. In fact, the linked article above even uses the telltale term 'conference papers' in its title.

Some also argue that if it is OK for a teacher or academic to double dip a presentation, then it must be OK for a student to hand in the same paper twice. Now, I don't think anyone would doubt that double dipping a paper, either as a student or as a researcher, is unethical. Self-plagiarism is just that. But papers and presentations are as similar as apples and peanut butter. For one thing, if you write a paper once but hand it in twice you have made no effort beyond that of writing the initial paper, whereas a presentation requires a full effort each time. After all, there is a big dynamic, energy-based difference between 'doing a presentation' and merely photocopying a paper, Moreover, a paper archived is (normally) accessible to any reader who seeks it. A presentation isn't.

Doing a similar presentation twice (or more) is actually more akin to teaching the same classroom lesson twice- to different classes. Would anyone have a problem with that?

Regardless, the fact is that back in the days when there were fewer conferences and travel was more difficult and the idea of 'presentation' was not quite what it is now, and the avoidance of double dipping made better sense.

But times have changed. It's actually very hard to find people who don't double dip to some extent in the academic world and there are actually numerous sound, educational reasons for doing so. In fact, can anyone imagine such ESL/EFL luminaries as David Nunan, Chris Candlin, Michael McCarthy, Paul Nation or Henry Widdowson actually NOT doing essentially the same presentation twice or more? In almost any academic endeavor you will see that academics and researchers go over the same presentation themes several times before embarking on new horizons. Many make only the slightest adjustments even after several years of variation on the same research.

Moreover, you may well be invited to do a certain presentation elsewhere because someone saw your presentation and felt that it would be beneficial for a new, different audience. And this is key- the audience is always changing for a presentation. They are seeing it for the first time. If, at your initial presentation, you've only presented to 15 or 20 people- that is the entirety of your audience- not exactly bang for your research buck. Reaching a wider audience for your research therefore seems to me to be a pretty good justification for double dipping, especially when distances are wide but research-funded travel is more realizable. Some smaller conferences actually appeal for presenters, and if these minor conferences also happen to be held in remote locales- away from the larger conference venues- it holds great benefit for the local organizers, the local academic organizations, and the local audience (both educationally and financially).

In fields of greater import than EFL the dissemination of good research to a wider audience is almost a duty. If someone has successfully found a complete cure for cancer you don't want the audience to be limited to 10 people at a community center in Missoula.

Of course if you just go through the motions and do the exact same presentation each time you are simply being sloppy and lazy, no question. You owe it to your new audience to tailor your presentation according to audience type, size and setting. You also tweak it simply to make it a better presentation- learning from the bits that didn't go so well before.

Imagine being a musician travelling from town to town. Of course you will perform many of your hit songs because that is what the audience wants to see. But you will also (or at least should) vary the performance according to audience size and setting, and even according to the live dynamics of the actual performance. You'll add and subtract songs and your stage presence and performance will change. This makes perfect sense. No one expects a completely new show each and every time. Of course, riffing off the same old hits for several years without any change in content or direction might eventually place your wares in the has-been 99-cent used CD bin. Academics who mine the same barren shaft for more than a few years likely fall into the same category.

Another argument in favour of double dipping is that since there are several conferences these days, which serve not only as stages for presentations but also as opportunities to network, fraternize, engage in symposia, and attend other presentations for your own edification, If you had to undertake entirely new research for each such conference the quality of the research would almost certainly be superficial. You simply can't undertake totally fresh, new research three times a year (or more) yet the experience of partaking in three conferences a year would be considered a near-necessity for anyone involved in academia.

Then there is the CV padding canard. The fact is that presentations count for very, very little in terms of CV weight. Presentations are viewed more as experiences with personal networking value- good for the researcher's self-development- but not as academic achievements of great weight. Publications hold several times the weight- as do, albeit to a lesser degree- roles in academic societies, adjunct teaching invitations, citations, editing/review positions, social roles/functions connected to one's university position and so on. Presentation numbers don't figure much into contract renewals at all.

Of course there are some steps one can take to minimize any negative impact of double dipping. Aside from the above-mentioned common sense tweaking and adjusting, you can always make mention to the audience that you are making a presentation similar to that which you have done elsewhere (lest you inadvertently cause someone sit through it all again), as well as letting conference organizers know (and approve) of the situation in advance.

Lastly, having been an audience member for numerous double dipped presentations in the past, excellent presentations that I have often benefited greatly from, I can vouch from personal experience that the practice offers far more benefits than demerits. If anything, dounble dipping- within reason of course- should probably even be encouraged.

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September 26, 2011

It's self-improvement time (with unexpected input from Malcolm Gladwell)

The conversation went something like this:
"I'm bored with teaching English. I can't understand why anyone would want to take it up as a career"
"Why?"
"Well how many times and ways can you teach the letter 'A'?".

This exchange was recalled to me recently by a teacher who has made a career of teaching English and enjoys his work. His response to the "How many times..." question?
"A thousand. And it's never the same".

I think he's right. Every time I lead a lesson the dynamics are different. The lesson always shifts and fluctuates, depending on the atmosphere. Rather than playing in a wedding band doing the same cover tunes for the 1000th time I feel more like a jazz musician, playing a recognizable piece but adding spots of improvisation each time, embellishing with dabs of colour applied according to my intuitions, how the audience is reacting, and what the other players are doing. Shifting dynamics- always in a state of flux. It keep me sane. It keeps me energized.


Is teacher boredom a methodological matter?
I also think there's a problem with the implied methodology of the "How many times can you teach 'A' speaker. He/she seems to think that you 'teach' a letter-- individually. Something like, "This is an 'A'. Can you say 'A'? You write it like this. 'A'." A more knowledgeable teacher would of course fit 'A' into a phonic or phonetic system that has wider, more transferable application. Or they wouldn't explicitly 'teach' it at all but rather allow young learners to absorb it naturally by placing the (supposedly) new item in a meaningful, wider context. And, frankly speaking, most teachers would probably realize that all but the very youngest Japanese children know the alphabet anyway and wouldn't be introducing individual letters as if they were mysteries that have to be transacted to learners like the abbreviations of compounds on a chemical chart.

Maybe the teacher who thinks that teaching 'A' is a legitimate, but boring, routine should get out and see what other teachers and practitioners are doing-- how they handle the same type of material-- and still manage to feel inspired. More on that in a moment.

While I understand the likelihood of getting bored with the hamster-wheel routine of teaching English at some point I still think that the perpetually bored are more often than not boring themselves. Now, even people with supposedly glamorous, thrilling jobs can get an emotional wheel caught in the mud but classroom inspiration won't come from waiting for your students to change or expecting 'the system' to suddenly do an about-face. Rather, it comes from how you approach your office in life. Attempts to widen your perspective, gain new skills, and apply them, can make a enormous difference. And this is the perfect season to do so.


Getting re-energized (and free advertising for the upcoming ETJ Expos)
One way to give a positive zap to your teaching doldrums is to attend, or even better actively participate in, a teaching conference. I recommend that readers check out the numerous ETJ Expos held all over Japan, starting very soon in Tokyo. The sheer variety of practical and theoretical insights, teaching tips, and in-depth discussions these provide should have the effect of refilling your pedagogical gas tank. I've been teaching in Japan for twenty years and can be pretty jaded but I invariably come back from these expos (which require only a nominal fee to attend) with something of interest that I can add to my repertoire.

For example--
Among the more interesting, and forward-looking, EFL researchers in Japan are Curtis Kelly and Robert Murphy, both of whom have been involved in cutting edge research regarding how the brain processes and maximizes language learning. If you think that language-teacher conferences are either one-off lesson recipes or dense dissertations on linguistic esoterica- think again. Their stuff is both intellectually stimulating and has clear practical applications-- the kind that just might help you maintain your sanity in the classroom. Lord knows how many times something I've gleaned from attending an expo, meeting or conference has made a real difference in mine.


"That one person in the audience who has never seen me play"
There are two other inspirations that allow me to keep my energy in the classroom. One I'll relate to you from the world of hockey. Some readers may know that I used to be an amateur scout for a pro hockey team. This often involved me interviewing players that we were interested in selecting in the amateur entry draft. I remember asking one particular player, who was well known for giving a huge effort every game, every shift, how he kept up his energy and enthusiasm over the long 72-game season. His answer:

"I'm always conscious that each night that there's somebody in the crowd who has never seen me play before and that they'll be making a judgment about how good of a player I am based upon what they see that night. They paid money to see me play and I want to make an impression upon so that they come away thinking 'That number 19 was pretty good. He was worth coming out to see'". I thought this was a great answer.

I try to apply the same motivation to my own classes. I get new students every semester and I know they are judging me as a teacher. If I don't feel they are going away from each lesson thinking, "Hey! That was worth my while!" then I'm just not satisfied-- and I have to make adjustments. I don't feel comfortable otherwise.


Wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell
The other form of self-improvement or inspiration comes from reading on a wider range of topics and then applying what I've read to my classroom situation or teaching technique. Malcolm Gladwell is a perfect, middle-brow, example. Gladwell's books are best-sellers for a good reason. He always manages to extract some surprising or contrarian point from an offbeat theme and applies it to something deeper about the real world, yet always making it both relevant and accesible to the reader. He frequently makes reference to research, skilfully rendering this research understandable to the layman which-- although research in the Humanities can be fraught with infelicities-- serves to stimulate the active reader.

In his compendium "What the Dog Saw" (read in those rare moments while my 2-year old daughter was taking naps during a recent trip to Bali) one section in particular struck me as being relevant to English teaching in Japan.


Choking vs. Panicking
This was a chapter (The Art of Failure, p. 324-344) outlining the difference between choking and panicking using examples from professional tennis, golf, and an airplane crash. Choking, Gladwell argues (with his usual research-based support) is a case in which the agent, under pressure, reverts to a mechanical mode of action or behaviour where he/she becomes overly conscious of every move and thus can't function with the fluidity of someone who normally has intuitions, skills or an ingrained sense about what to do. Panicking, on the other hand, refers to cases where people stop thinking due to what is called perception narrowing under pressure. Experienced people may choke under pressure, the inexperienced are more likely to panic.

Most readers will be aware of the tendency for many Japanese learners of English to either choke or panic when having to produce or perform under pressure in English. "I went to Canada but I couldn't say more than a few words. I just forgot what to say," might be a typical refrain-- from somebody who has studied English for eight years and is even proficient on standardized tests. But understanding the difference between the two is crucial.

Some of my students are chokers. They have a reasonably good command of the flow of English, the holistic side. It has worn itself into their cerebral fabric. They 'know' the language but, when under pressure, tend to revert to an earlier mechanical stage which causes them to re-think every lexical, grammatical and social nuance of the language, effectively paralyzing them in speech. Choking, Gladwell say, is about thinking too much.

Others, with far fewer ingrained English skills simply lose all perception and panic, grasping wildly at any English expression which might race through their minds. Panicking is about thinking too little. Panicking is often a product of too little experience, such that when any plus-alpha factors appear, the fragile control system easily breaks down.

Addressing panic involves little more than gaining experience, buckling down, applying diligence. It is what Gladwell calls 'a conventional failure'. But choking is 'a paradoxical failure'. Gladwell uses a research-based example (one from Claude Steele at Stanford Univ. and one from Julian Garcia at Tufts Univ.) utilizing stereotypes and expected performance to illustrate the difference.


Negative stereotypes and choking
This research indicates that when people believe a negative stereotype about them is about to be confirmed they perform poorly-- unwittingly confirming the expected stereotype. The samples are of black and white students in academics (in Steele's research) and sports (Garcia). Black students, unconsciously clinging to the stereotype that they can't perform as well as whites on academic tests, don't panic-- they tend to choke, that is, they tend to second-guess, to over analyze mechanics, not using the intuitions that they have in the first place. The reverse was noted in the sports study where white athletes performed vertical leaps more poorly under the instruction of black instructors-- apparently because they were somehow conscious of the 'white men can't jump' stereotype, and hence over-analyzed the mechanics when test measured by a black instructor. They choked. (note that the negative stereotype was not something imposed by the instructor but was activated by the students themselves-- interesting).

How does this connect to my students? Many Japanese students likely choke when speaking English because of an underlying awareness of the stereotype that 'Japanese people can't speak English'. They have the intuitions and the skills to engage others in the language but under pressure they become too conscious of the stereotype, which speaks to them as they try to perform. They revert to mechanics and lose a sense of flow. They think too much. They choke.

The question derived from all this provides the type of stimulation that makes my teaching job interesting: How can we remove or limit the effect of the negative stereotype such that it doesn't adversely affect performance. Any ideas?

Oh... and look for more from Malcolm Gladwell on this blog in the near future.

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October 19, 2011

Has Charisma Man jumped the shark?

We'll call her Terrie. Terrie from New Zealand. She was quite glamorous-- and very aware of it. We worked together as teachers. The previous evening she had met my wife, who is Japanese, at a school-related function. She remarked how attractive my wife was. Thank you-- that's nice to hear. Then Terrie went on...

"White guys can upgrade their girlfriend levels when in Asia, can't they?"
"Meaning?"
"I mean, you know. Your wife is very attractive. If you were still in Canada or New Zealand you probably wouldn't ... well...". Terrie never had a problem with bluntness.
"You mean, if we were back in the old country guys like me probably wouldn't have a shot at babes like you?"
"Exactly. Now you're getting it!". She was being only half tongue-in-cheek. I appreciated the frankness.

Terrie later married an Irish guy living and teaching in Japan. Ironic, that.

I wasn't bothered about the insinuation that I was living above my allotted 'significant other' station in Japan (as if all the men back in Canada are Porsche-driving Brad Pitt-lookalike investment bankers with Stanford post-doc degrees). Terrie's teasing and my response were both light-hearted. I never get offended by such remarks and I still don't (in fact the only thing I get offended by are people who claim to be offended all the time). But over time I've just grown tired of it. You know, the whole White-English-Teacher-in-Japan-as-Charisma-Man motif. Johnny Bravo Goes to Nova.

Charisma fans...

Like most people, I enjoy the Charisma Man comics. The pretext of the dopey white loser from 'Planet Canada' who is transformed (at least in his own mind) into a desirable English-teaching he-stud superman when in Japan is clever. And everyone gets tagged. White guys are pathetic, untalented, wimps whose egos and self-images soar to preposterous proportions in Japan. Western women, Charisma Man's mortal enemies, are cantankerous, aggressive shrews. Japanese women are treated as goggle-eyed, bimboesque playthings. Japanese men are portrayed as goofy, socially awkward, xenophobes. Non-white, non-Japanese people don't seem to exist. Of course the stereotypes are overblown- and we thus occasionally we spot a bit of ourselves or people we know in the caricatures. Harmless self-deprecating ironic fun.

No, the problem isn't with the comic itself but rather how the personae has been appropriated by the NJ community as a catch-all, go-to prototype for just about any Western male in the EFL profession in Japan. It was once amusing but now it has become too predictable.

The thing is, among NJ circles in Japan the only caricatures among the above that people feel confident about actually applying (without fear of reproach) are the two about the males. (not being Japanese I can't speak for the men here but I think they get the worst stereotype rap, and particularly from the type of people who rail against any type of stereotyping).

Back-home loser

But ok. I'm supposed to be 'privileged' as a WM in Asia so I have to take the lumps that come with it. The group who allegedly controls the power and the narrative has to accept being a legitimate target-- or so the whole social karma meme seems to go. We have to accept the barbs with good grace. So I will suffer the slings of being thought of as a spotty-faced, romantically-challenged, back-home loser, whose only previously qualifications were manning the grill at a fast food joint-- even though this portrayal is highly inaccurate (I got promoted to the drive-thru window!)

But Western WMs whining about oppression is unseemly. So instead, let me put it in terms of the Charisma Man label not only being inaccurate but also as having become tired, passe, hackneyed, overdone, past its sell-by date. It has become the default 'touche' reproach of choice for the most minor of alleged WM transgressions. In short, it has jumped the shark.

'Cholesterol Man?'

Perhaps we need a new character to represent the WM English-teaching-in-Japan demographic (how about a cynical 40-something, left-leaning, highly computer-literate, twice divorced borderline alcoholic, with a bit of a paunch, poor grooming and fashion sense, who thinks 50-year old political slogans are still radically subversive-- Cholesterol Man, anyone?) Why? For one thing, I would say that economics has caused the number of fly-by-night English teachers to have dropped and long-termers are now ubiquitous. Jobs are precious- more teachers are more serious about being serious. And it's also because the reality is that we live with some of the burdens of the Charisma Man image but without reaping any of the benefits. I wish it were true that comely women threw themselves at me with abandon but that hasn't happened -- oh, for days!

And of course attempts to validate the Charisma Man caricature are particularly insulting to Japanese women, since it assumes they are so isolated, naive, or insulated that they have low, or no, standards when it comes to rating the attractiveness of foreign men-- as if they have never as much as seen a photo of men like Jude Law or David Beckham. 30 plus years ago, sure we may have been a touch exotic in the smaller J-burgs perhaps, but in the new millennium, when every Japanese woman under 40 has either travelled abroad or has at least seen a few thousand or so foreign men in their cities? Sorry- dream on, Romeo! Any such illusions of self-grandeur Western men have in Japan these days evaporates about 15 minutes after Mr. Newbie has passed through immigration control.

'You actually have qualifications?'

I also wish that my Charisma-isms were so highly regarded in the workplace that doors opened up for me without effort but really, how many foreigners here can say that their foreignness has been a catalyst, rather than a detriment, in terms of gaining long-term employment or meaningful promotion? I know that in my own position I have to keep proving to some of my peers that I have an academic pedigree, that I can and do produce research and am not simply here as the token ( and by extension, expendable) foreign guy (beautiful as I may be) who chats in English to goggle-eyed students. You know, things like being labeled 'Mike sensei' at faculty meetings (which is particularly galling if your name isn't 'Mike'), being introduced as 'our foreign teacher', or having peers be surprised that you actually have a graduate degree in the field and a list of publications.
(Disclaimer- while only the latter has happened at my current place of employment, I have encountered all of them in various locales previously-- from both Japanese and NJ, male and female alike-- as have many other teachers in positions similar to mine). We don't need these scenarios exacerbated by the Charisma Man shtick.

"Licentious Linguistics"

I attended a presentation called "Licentious Linguistics: White Western Men as English Teachers in Japan" by Dr. Roslyn Appleby from the University of Technology, Sydney at the Beijing AILA Conference earlier this year. Appleby's observations (she hasn't worked or lived in Japan herself) were based upon several interviews with young Australian men, most with minimum teaching qualifications, who had in their formative (between graduation and finding a career) years worked as English teachers in Japan. And... here comes the part that you will not believe so please grip your armrests tightly ...they spent a lot of time carousing with local girls. Moreso, it seems, than in becoming serious, skilled ESL teachers. Whodathunkit?!

Moreover, the presenter noted, the image of meeting an attractive WM chat partner (or more) through the Eikaiwa school was a part of many advertisement campaigns (forget for a moment that just about every such school expressly forbids dalliances with customers since any would-be-lothario is siphoning off potential income from the business as well as the fact that attractive WF are equally present in the ads). Businesses using attractive or eligible-looking role models to lure customers?! Surely not!

And guess what? Germans occasionally drink beer!

Not surprisingly Charisma Man outtakes occupied a good number of Appleby's presentation slides. The problem is that these days just about every white guy teaching English in Japan gets tagged with the Charisma Man brand at some point, especially if his wife/gf is Japanese. I think the current criteria for being labeled a Charisma Man, other than being a white male in Japan, consists of roughly, 1) having drunk a beer in close proximity to another white guy and 2) having ever talked about local women. A typical claim may go like this:
WM: (to the izakaya waitress) I'll have a Suntory Premium. (The waitress goes away. Then, to a fellow imbibing teacher) Hmmm. Friendly waitress.
Fellow Imbiber: Jeez, get a load of Charisma Man here!
WM: That's it. I'm outta here. I've got a softball game at my frat house tonight. (Chugs his beer)

Such Charisma Man accusations occur even if the person in question has been here in Japan over ten years, speaks the language, is happily married, does his academic research, doesn't feel obligated to chat up young ladies in bars, and has no illusions about his worsening metabolism or memories of a hairline. I mean, I can enjoy self-delusion to a point, but as a middle-aged university teacher I cannot allow me to envision myself as Charisma Man to my students anymore than I can daydream that I am Sidney Crosby when I go ice-skating.

Casey's 'unfair' response

Anyway, after Appleby's presentation, I was approached by a fellow Japan-based dead white male university teacher who had attended the same presentation and looked a bit put out. We'll call him Casey. Casey is a man of such gentle countenance, so widely known for his philanthropy and egalitarianism, that he makes Peter Gabriel look like a football hooligan. There is more chance of Ichiro Ozawa starring in a Takazakura Revue show than there is of Casey chatting up ladies in the local izakaya.

"Mike, what did you think of that presentation?" Casey asked. Now, any fist-waving histrionics about it being a man-hate fest wouldn't be warranted-- it wasn't like that at all. It was well-presented, nothing incendiary. I remarked that I didn't understand the point of making this into a presentation theme. I mean, some young Aussie males go abroad to teach English, are less than serious about ESL, and chase girls. I'm not sure how or why that is something that needs to be conveyed at a linguistics conference.

"I thought it was a little.... unfair", Casey replied. "Not really representative of English teachers in Japan". He added (correctly IMO) that the sample of men interviewed represented a pretty narrow sub-culture of white, Western men in Japan, namely 'bogans' (actually, Casey didn't use that bit of Aussie slang but if you're not familiar with it the mere sound of the word should tell you all you need to know). This is far from representative of the WM diaspora in Japan, and although Appleby acknowledged this fact in the presentation itself, the promotional blurb for the presentation certainly doesn't do anything to minimize the "Tsk tsk, Charisma Man= WM English teachers in Japan" association.

Now I'm just waiting for someone to comment about how 'Charisma Man' my attitude is in this article. After all, I've made a few lame jokes, have referred to women, beer, and sports and the article is accompanied by a photo of my badass WM visage. Rest assured that such comments will cause me to pull at my jagged spike of blonde hair and bang my ruggedly chiseled jaw on the keyboard.

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February 07, 2012

Cognitive overload: Is the 'myth of multitasking' itself a myth?

Every child knows that when The Cat in the Hat bounces up and down on a ball while balancing a cake on a cup on his arm, with a fish in a bowl on his head, all while fanning himself with his tail and he says, "But I can do more!" he is going to fail spectacularly. Yes, even very young children can sense that as we increase the complexity of a task the more likely we are to drop the ball.

You know, like those one-man-bands that scour city squares in Europe busking for change, playing five instruments at once. Sure, he might be able to manage musically banal tunes like "When The Saints Go Marching In". But we know he's not going to be up to the task of playing Zappa's 'Inca Roads', finessing his way through microtones in 7/4 time.

Or when my wife calls me at work while I'm analyzing some particularly dense bit of statistical research and wants to talk about details of re-financing the mortgage I'm going to have to put one of those topics aside (and rest assured my wife will not lose this contest).

So yes, we all know that multi-tasking can be limiting. There's nothing particularly surprising about this. In fact I would say that we all understand this instinctively.

"Multi-tasking degrades each task"

This topic arises as a result of my attending Dr. Jeremy Harmer's plenary speech, 'The Myth of Multi-tasking and the Force of Focus" at the Thai TESOL Conference in Bangkok at the end of January 2012. Dr. Harmer appears to endorse, or at least considers very worthy of the attention of EFL/ESL teachers, the notion put forth by author Sherry Turkle (see the video link on Dr. Harmer's website) that when we multi-task we 'degrade' (her word, not mine) each task.

Dr. Harmer (who, by the way, is the author of the highly recommendable Teacher Training textbook, "English Language Teaching") thinks that this notion may be applicable to ESL/EFL teaching as well. He argues that having students multi-task may reduce the quality of their work and that a more pronounced focus on discrete content or specific skill might be better.

I beg to differ for three reasons that will eventually become apparent.

When does task-shifting become multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking, it is argued, is distinct from 'task-shifting' in which we move laterally from task to task as opposed to layering them. I have a semantic problem with this distinction though. Think of the chef who is managing several pots, pans, plates, ingredients, and heating devices at the same time so that the individual parts of the meal will be ready at the same time, or if it is a several-course meal, appear at proper intervals and in the correct order.

Using standard nomenclature most would say that the chef is multi-tasking, because within a short time frame she has to manage several distinct tasks yet all are geared to one final goal or product. But whether we choose to categorize this action as multi-tasking or task-shifting does not negate the fact that any experienced cook can carry this complexity out as a matter of course, indeed it is a necessity on the job.

When we ride a bicycle we are pedaling, a motion distinct from steering which of course we do simultaneously, and yet we are also watching out for traffic and road conditions and adjusting our movements accordingly. Surely this is also multi-tasking yet something that almost anyone can do (and probably while listening to Zappa's Inca Roads on an iPod too). This too is intuitive and, in a sense, unremarkable.

Clearly, multi-tasking is not a can/can't proposition. We can on some occasions multi-task with no ill effect. So what is going on in such cases? Why can we multi-task some things and not others? Perhaps the question should not be whether we can or can't multi-task successfully but rather why in some cases multi-tasking reduces the effectiveness of each task while in other cases this is not an issue.

Developing 'muscle memory'

Obviously the development of 'muscle memory' through practicing a complex action has to be factored in. Riding a bike is a matter of developing muscle memory, as are in fact all motor skills of complexity. Mastering more complex multi-tasks demands practicing them. Richard Thompson is one of the most sublimely skilled guitarists on the planet and yet while he plays complex and dynamic cadences he sings with tremendous power and emotion. This is not only a result of world-class talent but also of having practiced and experienced multi-tasking to the point where it becomes second nature.

And thus comes my first objection-- separating form and meaning in the EFL classroom to lessen the chances of overload will hinder a learner's ability to develop this linguistic muscle memory. Any separation of skills unnaturally divorces discrete language skills from meaning-making. This is precisely why many of our students can do well on a (receptive) multiple-choice, discrete-item English test but can't actively communicate. By dividing up the skills no path for muscle memory to occur can emerge.

When multi-tasking actually enhances skills

In some cases multi-tasking can actually enhance performance. Let me give you an example. Hockey (you knew that was coming didn't you!). Hockey involves ice skating, while manipulating a puck, while also avoiding being plastered by burly toothless men (an out-of-date caricature but what the hell), while attempting to make a strategic play resulting in a goal. Surely this is multi-tasking. But did you know that the discrete skill of skating is actually enhanced when you have to control a puck and avoid being checked? It's true. When you are less conscious of your feet but are focusing on the bigger, wider goal (the competition) you start to perform skating subtleties precisely because you are not so conscious of it.

So, here's a hypothesis: We can't multi-task effectively when the tasks are not complementary and have differing goals or purposes (i.e., the 'interpreting linguistic research stats vs. discussing the re-financing the mortgage' scenario). But we can multi-task, with practice, when we know that each discrete task is part of a larger unit, that they are complementary. And these discrete skills can in fact be enhanced when they are working towards a common goal.

The purpose of communication governs our grammatical choices

Communicative language tasks are such. They demand a combination of discrete skills such as knowledge of grammar/syntax structure/form, semantics, pragmatics, social skills and the ability to cognitively grasp meaningful content. But because these skills are complementary and work towards a united purpose they should not be taught in an itemized way, practiced step by step, as discrete tasks.

In fact, many of these discrete features might be enhanced by focusing on communicative goals first (those of you who speak Japanese well will probably have noticed how the 'difficult' parts of that language- such as the subtle distinction between 'wa' and 'ga'- fit in more easily when the wider communicative purpose is clear). I have noted how my medical students seem to grasp the perfective 'have' better after they have actively engaged it within extended medical contexts. After all, it is the purpose/goal of communication that governs our grammatical and lexical choices.

I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers...

This is not, of course, to say that no explicit focus upon discrete items should occur in the classroom. There is always a place for highlighting, consciousness-raising, and 'noticing' of form within a lesson but until it is subsumed by meaning it will always fall under the category of 'itemized knowledge about a language' as opposed to 'communicating in' a language.

Nor does it imply that sudden, jarring shifts in classroom tasks or trying to combine multiple learning targets in one fell swoop, both of which are hallmarks of inexperienced teachers, does not bear forewarning and caution. But I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers from at least trying to develop cognitively demanding lessons that enhance dealing with language complexity.

'Analyzes paralyzes'

In fact, not being entirely conscious of a discrete skill can help you succeed in more complex endeavors. Look at a golf swing, often referred to as 'the most analyzed move in sports'. Even non-golfers are probably aware that the swing is full of arcane instructions of the "the fingernail on the left ring finger must be pointed down at a 45 degree angle on the follow through" sort. But undue focus on such points when trying to make actual ball contact is likely to result in you spraying the ball about 10 metres at near right angles to your body-- not because the instruction is flawed, but because of the truth of the old adage that "analyzes paralyzes".

And here's where we (in Japan in particular) can easily draw parallels with our students. Having had a lengthy focus upon discrete items and forms in their learning experiences thus far, our students often stumble when having to put form and meaning together into productive goal of communication. They over-analyze, too focused upon form over meaning.

Content-based learning: "What about cognitive overload?"

This also provides, a believe, a suitable response to a question put forward to me at a recent presentation I did in Yokohama in which I was advocating content-based learning. The question was "What about cognitive overload?". After all, the student has to focus upon content as well as form under such instruction. Well, my answer is the same-- that when the goal is meaningful communication, form and content can work in harmony, that they can, and do, complement one another. Learners absorb form by focusing upon interpreting and producing meaningful content precisely because the form can be 'located' in meaningful discourse.

"But learning English will interfere with the mother tongue!"

I certainly wouldn't want advocates of the old school interpreting Dr. Harmer's suggestion as meaning that we should be focusing upon one form at a time until each is mastered and not be concerned with the bigger picture of meaning until then (which will take a lifetime for most second-language learners). But I fear that it could easily be taken that way.

And what about those who argue (wrongly, according to just about every piece of research done on the topic) that if Japanese youngsters start to learn English it will affect their ability to master their mother tongue? That Japanese must be fully mastered first or else it will lead to linguistic confusion? Criticism of multi-tasking seems to (inadvertently) play into the hands of such people. But we can do many things at once without degrading each. It's just a matter of knowing which tasks are complementary and compatible, and which aren't.

September 14, 2012

English as Imperialism- beating a dead horse with ELF

I don’t expect English speakers to look or sound like me. After all, that guy in front of me in the security line at Seoul's Incheon Airport last week- where was he from? I’d guess Romania or Bulgaria. Hungary perhaps. And he was speaking English to the Korean official. And at the plane entrance there was a woman I’d identify as Thai or Indochinese discussing some matter with the Turkish purser. In English of course.

All the English I heard was ‘accented’ (a loaded term, I know) and offered up the occasional missed article or misplaced pronoun-- but all the speakers were competent in communicating their needs. It was both efficient and successful.

It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers and that business, politics, art, academia, sport, and even words of love are carried out the world over by Lithuanians talking to Brazilians, Zaireans to Vietnamese… in English. This implies that new standards and norms arise. International intelligibility replaces native-like competency as a learning goal. Tony Blair and Barack Obama need not be your language role models.

A new, paradoxical reality

I’ve blogged about the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) here before, as well as in the Daily Yomiuri. This is not new stuff. But as English becomes woven indelibly into the fabric of international communication a new, rather paradoxical, reality emerges:
The old discourse about English as an agent of imperialism is a dead horse.

How's that, you ask? Isn’t the fact that all these non-native English speakers are compelled to communicate in a foreign tongue a perfect example of linguistic hegemony?

Not really. First keep in mind that these common, widespread examples are NNS-NNS interactions. There is no power differential here, as there may be in an NS-NNS exchange. They are on equal, neutral ground. Second, this emerging new ELF belongs to them. They create and negotiate this language. They are now its owners. I have my little piece of English property (North American variety) and they have their own English territory too. I won’t pee on their linguistic lawns.

The old paradigm- Anglos and ownership of English

The old paradigm of English as an agent of imperialism assumed the NS-NNS dimension as normative. It is ironic that Phillipson or Pennycook (the auto-quote sources when it comes to the ‘imperialism’ school) seem to implicitly assume that Anglo-Americans own the language and by way of financial, military, or political power and influence, foist it upon others.

OK, the fact that English has emerged as the international go-to language as a by-product of imperialism, hard version or soft, is beyond historical doubt-- but now that linguistic play dough is putty in the hands of others. It’s not our toy anymore and we can’t take it home with us. It’s like the train system that the British established in India-- that’s Indian state-owned railway now. End of story.

The flight I referred to earlier took me to an international English studies conference in Istanbul. There, several hundred specialists, academicians, and linguists engaged in seminars, lectures, hands-on sessions and the like. I’d estimate that Anglo-Americans made up about, oh, 2% of all attendees. Macedonians argued with Italians, Egyptians held discussions with Danes, Croats lectured to a potpourri of other continental nationals. In English. In their own way, not like a newsreader from Minneapolis or Bristol. As hard as I looked I didn’t see a lot of ‘imperalizin’ goin’ down. What I saw was a variety of ideas and ideologies being shared and expressed. Assuming that Japanese people in Japan are somehow obliged to speak to me in English would be imperialistic. A Japanese footballer giving tactical advice to a Slovenian teammate in the same tongue is hardly so. You can see the difference.

World Englishes- the polar opposite of ELF

Let me shift gears here a little now to clarify something about the World Englishes debate. You’ve all likely heard of the movement to accept and preserve local varieties of English, that Philippine English, Pastikani English, Singaporean English, and Caribbean English are all perfectly legitimate and intelligible language systems, often infused with local colour. Well, ELF is not about that. The World Englishes meme is all about accepting and recognizing differences. ELF, on the other hand, is about developing a unified form, a standard that makes disparate L1 speakers mutually intelligible, just not one based upon the Anglo-American model.

In other words, World Englishes is about legitimizing local disparity, whereas ELF is all about cross-national communication, defined by its speakers. Singlish (Singaporean English) speakers using their local patois when addressing, say, Belizeans are not likely to succeed—which is precisely what is implied by the term ‘local variety’-- its utility is limited, insular. But if there is some common ground, preferably one that doesn’t force them to sound like Jeremy Irons, communication will be more successful.

Fanciful notions of language as a moral agent

I have another bone to pick here too. I have always been bothered by how the ‘English as a tool of Imperialism’ forces have often mischaracterized language, perhaps willfully so. What I am referring to here is the fanciful, and scientifically absurd, notion that by learning English you also automatically absorb some of its foundational cultural values—that language means (or is somehow 'identifiable' with) ideology, culture, and belief systems. Besides the monolithic view that cultures have set 'values', there are so many problems with this simplistic association that it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose the biggest fallacy is anthropomorphism, assuming that an entity such as a language has motives and intentions, that it is a de facto moral agent. Only animate objects, and perhaps viruses, can be said to have these qualities. All languages can express a wide variety of beliefs and ideas. It’s self-evidently far from true that every English speaker has the socio-political slant of a Mitt Romney. Virulent anti-Western, anti-Imperialist, anti-Capitalist scribes have been penned in English around the globe. It’s not like there is something indigenous to the language that somehow forces you to shop at Walmarts or invest in hedge funds. Saying so would be akin to believing that eating Chinese food in Dublin will somehow make the eater more sympathetic to the Chinese Communist party. In fact, this entire ‘viral’ view of language reminds me of Monty Python’s Deadly Joke sketch (the one that causes readers to die laughing), in which it is stated that a police officer happened to see a few words of the joke, leading him to spend several days in hospital.

Magical incantations and Potter-esque spells

It also imbues language with magical, incantational qualities. There’s something Harry Potter-esque about the notion that mastering verb declensions or relative clauses in English leads to imparting certain modes of thought. Chant the magic spell and presto, you too will become a middle class Caucasian complete with his or her big sack o’ values.

The fact that English entrenches itself deeper as a true ELF with each passing day attests to the absurdity of the view that the global use of English serves as a subtle conduit for Home County or Midwestern values. So does the fact that local Englishes worldwide absorb and reflect the local culture, not that of, say, Portland.

Reflection or creator of cultures and ideas?

Ah ha! the critic might say at this point. If I admit that language reflects the local culture, doesn’t English then reflect the values of its dominant culture (Anglo-American)? The answer is a qualified yes. Anglo-American English reflects Anglo-American culture. The specific, local language is certainly derived from the surrounding local culture. But it doesn't create that culture.

For example, Japanese keigo (honorific/respect forms) reflects a social hierarchy that is less evident in Anglo-American culture. Hence, Japanese employs terms like kacho, bucho, shacho (all types of ‘bosses’) who, in turn, require certain verbal inflections and address forms when spoken to. But while may one use these within the Japanese language/cultural milieu it doesn’t automatically make the speaker more respectful or humble or somehow create a sense of honouring thy superior. Hey, I use the forms too in Japanese-- in many cases towards people that I feel are cretins (and I can assure that almost all Japanese do the same).

We can discuss certain Anglo-American cultural benchmarks in Anglo-American English clearly because our variety has evolved to reflect that which is socially or culturally pertinent (as does any language). And you know what? We can trash and critique and scoff at those cultural benchmarks in our English too because the language, any language, allows you to do so! Being able to reference it (shared culture) doesn't mean you buy into it (shared ideas, values, beliefs). The ability to identify or define doesn't imply a value statement. And when English is used in Jamaica or Hong Kong or Malta it will reflect the foundations of those cultures too.

Why? Because the language I use belongs to me, I don’t belong to it. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate across borders in English, it belongs to them too. ELF- it’s very democratic. Everyone can be an owner.

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January 28, 2013

What the fashionable English teacher is doing this year: The 2013 ELT collection

I managed to attend and present at a number of English teaching conferences in the past six months, allowing me to feel like I'm not so isolated from the real world, despite living down in savage Miyazaki.

Trendspotter that I am, I couldn't help but notice how many of the 'cool ELT kids' have moved in new directions over the past few moons. So, if you don't want to commit some horrible faux pas at your next ELT-related ball or state dinner, some inexcusable gaffe that will reveal your total lack of Eikaiwa-world sophistication, the pedagogical equivalent of wearing a leisure suit to your kid's high school graduation ceremony, you'd better read on.

1. Beyond the post-method era

Sorry, but if you think that saying you are post-method in your teaching style marks you as contemporary you are also likely to think that 'cho-beri-ba' is current hip J-street slang and that the 'Boku ikemen!' guy is all the rage on the Talento circuit now. It seems that we have now gone one step beyond post-method. Just ask Scott Thornbury.

In a plenary speech late last year in Seoul, Thornbury elucidated upon something that I had been slowly growing aware of-- namely that previously derided and denigrated methods like audio-lingual, grammar-translation, and their offshoots, are finding a place again modern, progressive methodologies (for the record, Paul Nation has said something very similar). Of course, these are just considered parts of the new eclecticism, the notion that these much-maligned methods do have a role and a function that can be used to produce something of use or value in the language classroom. But they are, in a limited sense, back.

So you can no longer snicker condescendingly when fellow teacher X walks by with their 1950's methodology showing. It's retro-hip, it's back-to-three-chords and a breath of fresh air, it's the-past-is-the-future.


2. Plain presentations; Whistles and bells are just so... 2008!

You know how the more prestigious the academic institution is in Japan, the more rundown its premises are? (Many of highly-ranked Kyushu University's facilities look like abandoned onsen town ruins). So it seems to be these days with academic presentations. With a few rare exceptions, the more prominent and qualified the speaker, the more their presentations are just plain, stark text.

Perhaps the subtext is, 'This content is so powerful and intellectually rewarding that I need no cosmetics to enhance it'. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who still uses 1990's style clip art in my presentations although, in my defense, I never ever used twirling and flashing animations to liven up slides saying, 'Introduction and Outline!'. Nonetheless, the current meme seems to be that flashy presentations, style over substance, are for salesmen, not serious academics.

3. Low-tech classrooms- Sensei, what's that big white board for?

There's money in edu-tech and private institutions in particular like to display their super hi-tech state-of-the-art language labs as a selling point to prospective students. There used to be a lot of presentation and seminars with titles like, "Using iPad Retina Mozilla as an E-Preposition Correction Tool" complete with a demonstration as to how this gadget could not fail but increase your students' TOEIC test scores by at least twenty percent (it's always about raising TOEIC scores somehow). But I've been told by more than a few conference planners and organizers that the number of attendees for such presentations is dwindling significantly.

So, as Che sang in Evita, "That's all gone now." I get a very palpable sense that teachers are suffering from gadget fatigue that the tipping point of electronic teaching aids has been reached and breached. I've talked to some teachers who feel alienated from their students by the intervening technology, becoming the pedagogical equivalent of sound engineers-- as opposed to musicians-- in a recording studio.

4. Beat-you-over-the-head, thick-as-natto-on-mochi, referencing (Sayonara, 2013)

I was taking a gander at The Lancet recently and noted how, for such a reputable journal, how thoroughly readable it is. It's not hard to grasp why. To put it bluntly, The Lancet, and an increasing number of academic journals, are not citation sluts.

You know what I mean, those journals that seem to think the more references you provide, the more 'well-grounded' or 'objective' the article is. Which leads to 'easy' citations, where the author has clearly trawled the Net looking for someone, anyone, to backup their claim that, "English is an important means of communication".

Not only that, but the citation method is moving to the so-called Vancouver-style (superscript in the text, simple reference at the end of the paper), as opposed to the clunky, bureaucratic, brain-numbing APA dinosaur. I'd like to think that as a native son of Vancouver that I have had some positive influence on this advance although it's more likely that editors have simply realized that by using the newer style people might actually want to read the journals!

5. Young guns and their hot, stiletto stats vs. dowdy teachers in sensible statistical shoes

When I was doing my Applied Linguistics MA, statistics was not a required part of the program. Consequently, while I'm good with mental arithmetic and can still probably give you the goal-scoring stats of every player in the 1974 NHL regular season, I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to statistical analysis in ELT research. And I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps I'm envious of youth. Some of these younger teachers are impressively well-versed in statistical nuance. It sure looks scientific anyway; all the variables have been quantified and all conclusions 'measurably objective'. But something leaves me cold with this approach, and, after speaking recently with some journal editors on the matter (three to be exact, with a standard deviation of 0.5), I realize I'm far from being alone on this.

The problem is when these young bucks display their research results in a presentation the slide often looks like it could have a screen shot of today's Stock Market Report from The Times, for all I can absorb in the ten seconds that I'm looking at it. You see, I'll believe them just as much, if not more so, if they tell me, for example, that, "Student breakdancing in English skills improved 5.9% when using the 'Timberlake Remix' as a soundtrack", if they show me a giant-sized '5.9%' on a slide, as opposed to what may be, for all I know, the Higgs-boson equation.

And the journal editors I talked to feel the same way, stating that they are exhausted (and sometimes bored) by bulky appendices of raw data gracing their journal's pages. So, perhaps this statistical minutiae has reached attrition, or has even jumped the shark-- although I bet that a few maniacs are even now trying to establish whether what I say here can be validated statistically.

6. I'll show you my culture if you show me yours!

Do oldtimers remember when textbooks, presentations, and articles about "Cultural differences" (Contrastive Analysis) and their apparent impact upon language learning and teaching were all the rage; when they were about as sexy as Kumi Koda? Now it seems they're as dated too.

I'd like to think that some of the things I've said and written on this topic (in short, that it fosters othering, increases a needles psychological gap between L1 and L2, and endorses monolithic stereotypes-- and that's without even mentioning that most fans unwittingly invoked the execrable hard version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) have rendered this once-fashionable corner of ELT into semi-consciousness.

The fact is that I see fewer and fewer academic journal articles these days extolling the dubious virtues of, for example, Hofstede's cultural categories (Hofstede is, for my money, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of cultural theorists), and a quick perusal of six recent conference guidebooks revealed only two presentations of this type (I would have put that number at about twenty a decade ago). This, I say, is a good thing. Not only was most of this horrible social science but was also actively feeding students an already exaggerated diet of us vs. themness.

7. Are activist teaching SIGs slinking offstage left?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the fortunes of Critical Pedagogy-types ("The language classroom should be used as a place to subvert the system!") and Special Interest Groups that are basically activist communities are on the wane?

There's a lot to discuss regarding such interest groups but I'll leave that up to a (near) future post.

Any other ELT fashionistas out there keeping up on what the well-versed ELT teacher is saying or doing this year?

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