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The Uni-Files - University Archive

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

December 17, 2008

Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job?

I know the image. We have only a handful of contact hours (or ‘koma’) per week. We often get our own offices, decent budgets for research, and nobody is checking to see when we punched the clock in our out, in fact there is no clock at all. Sounds good, doesn’t it- and that’s even without mentioning the professors’ Jacuzzi, the helicopter transportation, the Terence Conran-designed office furniture, and the kinds of salaries that investment bankers would kill for.

I hope you know I’m kidding about the last bit but I’m serious that when I say that university teaching has its obvious perks, it might not be the Life of Riley that some seem to imagine. You may be aware of the difficulty of securing long-time status at a university in Japan, so job security is often an issue (more on that in this blog in the near future) but let’s assume for the moment that you have a reasonably secure job at a Japanese university. With only six 90-minute classes a week what could possibly make it difficult? OK- I’m not going to pretend that it is as physically taxing and teaching children or as intensive as 20 classes at a JHS per week, and I know that teachers at other levels face some of the items listed below, but regardless, what follows is a point-by-point summary of what you might NOT have known about a university teacher’s duties:

1. Your time off from class is not really a ‘time off’:
I hate it when people (including students and fellow teachers) assume that if you are not in class then you have no other duties and are probably just watching South Park re-runs on Youtube (or writing blogs- ahem). Wrong. There is class prep. There is marking. Materials making (both pedagogical and promotional). Student consultation, orientation and extracurricular events. Meetings. Often endless, pointless meetings (possibly designed so that people DON’T watch South Park re-runs when not in class). Of course this is true for most full-time teachers at any level. But at universities…

2. You are supposed to be PRODUCTIVE with that free time:
Every year you have to provide a list of publications for the past year that are then rated. Presentations must be listed and will then be rated. After all, you are expected to be a researcher. Active involvement, including leadership, in professional societies and organizations is crucial (you are expected to be a big face in the community), not to mention active collaboration and liaison with those in other universities. All these things go into a rating system. If you are producing nothing but your grades at the end of the semester it will not look good when contract renewal time comes up (this will also, by the way, be the topic of a future blog entry). And you don’t just teach programs, you are usually called on to develop and maintain them. But at least these are things that you can choose and have some control over but you can’t really control…

3. Participation in committees:
Some committees seem to have been made up purely for the purpose of having a committee but you still have to produce. An ‘International Affairs’ committee will have to produce reports and newsletters. Various overseeing and organizing committees have to produce reports. Entrance exam committees… well, you know. International exchange, liaison and other special programs will often take up the dinner hours or weekends. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because if you are a native English speaker you will also be…

4. A de facto English secretary:
I know that most NS teachers at every level get ‘help’ requests from students, teachers and administration all but I think I’m safe in saying that it reaches new heights at the university level. The administration needs its English translations (which can often be very technical, opaque, or arcane) to be picture perfect. There are hundreds of researchers at different departments who are expected to publish outside Japan and who see an NS teacher as a handy resource. And you are expected to have seminars, one-to-one consultations and other extra-classroom connections with your students (grad student thesis guidance being one).

5. Song and dance:
Many teachers at all levels have to participate in promotion and recruitment for their particular schools but there is one item that is more or less unique to universities. That is fundraising through grants. Over the past decade, even national universities have been weaned off the public teat and have to engage in raising funds by producing and promoting programs that can win grants and awards. This includes the infamous kaken-hi research grants which involve a monstrously bureaucratic application and follow-up reports.

So, it university teaching a piece of cake? No. Would I trade it for another position at another level of teaching? No. Would it be easy for a person like me to slide into a position teaching children and think “Wow! This is a breeze!”? No. But more on that in the next entry.

Mike G.

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December 30, 2008

Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)?

A lot of people seem to think you have to be smarter, more qualified, or have more savvy as a teacher to teach in universities than you do for teaching children. And while it’s true that university positions will invariably require more academic qualifications I certainly don’t see why there is an association between the age or level of the students you are teaching and the qualifications or experience you are expected to have. In fact, given the influence that teachers might have on kids in the early stages of their L2 acquisition, it is arguable that the better teachers should be teaching children, not 18-22 year olds. “Oh, you don’t have experience or qualifications, so you’d better teach beginners, children would be best for you!”. Bizarre. Do we treat pediatricians as if they need fewer qualifications or re less competent than other doctors?

Although I did teach children for a short time several years ago, I would have to admit that after almost 18 years of teaching almost exclusively young adults I might be out of place at first if I suddenly returned to a classroom full of kids. I’d probably find it pretty exhausting and my instincts about what activities are likely to work and how they will go over with the kids would be noticeably rusty at the start. In fact, watching a skilful teacher of children doing his or her thing can impress me in ways that I no longer feel when hearing about new methods or approaches or materials for university-aged learners. And I can imagine that someone going in the other direction, from children to university students, might have trouble at first adjusting to the mood, the ebb and flow, of the uni classroom.

But let’s not take this ‘out of one’s element’ motif too far. Back in the 50’s and 60’s it used to be considered funny to watch Lucy on TV trying to do something that was supposedly for men with the comedy centered around watching her make a complete hash of it. The tables turned in the 70’s and 80’s with movies like Mr. Mom and Three Men and A Baby, where the men were (at first) completely clueless when it came to doing the most rudimentary of ‘women’s’ work. Likewise, there are some in the EFL business who would like to believe that someone who specializes in children’s education would be completely out of their element in a uni class, while someone like myself would be too much of an egg-headed boob to connect with young uns. Like I’d be presented with a group of pre-schoolers and try to explain the subjunctive mood to them or argue that “have” is a matter of aspect rather than tense (as if that sort of stuff would/should even take place at a university EFL class!).

Nah- any teacher worth his or her salt (meaning someone who is already competent as an EFL teacher at any level) could make the shift after a small adjustment period. All you need are the 5 following basic EFL teacher skills:
1. The ability to read the level and responses of the learners quickly and make necessary adjustments (often on the spot)
2. The ability to use the appropriate level of teacher talk and style of interaction with the learners.
3. The ability to devise suitable materials and tasks and have reasonable expectations about the learners’ ability to complete them.
4. A reasonable knowledge as to how people acquire a second language.
5. A real knowledge of the language you’re teaching, knowing how it is organized, how it works as discourse, how it might appear from ‘outside’, a detached understanding. It doesn’t mean you mean have to be a grammar boffin or a linguistics major to succeed, in fact you don’t have to be an academic at all, but you MUST have an awareness of how the language works that goes beyond mere native speaker ‘instinct’.

True, there are university teachers who have academic qualifications but who may still lack some of the skills mentioned above. And there are teachers at other levels who assume that merely being a native speaker will make them a competent teacher. Both sides are fooling themselves. Could anyone who teaches English at a university succeed in teaching children? No. Could anyone who teaches kids function at a university? No. Not “anyone”. But anyone who is a real EFL TEACHER, and when I say that I mean that they have the five skills above, sure, give them a few days in the ‘room, and- yeah- they could make the jump.

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January 21, 2009

Regarding Gregory Clark's comment on foreigners teaching in Japanese universities

Gregory Clark, Vice-President of Akita International University, and well-known as a provocateur to the Arudou Debito breed of gadfly, recently penned an article for the Japan Times entitled, “Antiforeigner discrimination a right for Japanese” (it can be found here - note that if this link expires, it has been reproduced on many Japan-based gaijin blogs, just do the obvious Googling). The article has been dissected and (mostly) slammed by the usual sites and suspects. What starts out as a possibly deserved jab at the “Nihon-girai” foreigner cliques and habits soon descends into the very same type of vitriolic over-generalized, simplistic, vilification that Clark accuses those ‘Japan-haters’ of. ‘Nuff said- I don’t want to dwell on this. But since this blog is about university English teaching, there is one aspect of Clark’s spiel that I do want to address.

Clark makes mention of the widespread belief that foreign university instructors are discriminated against in Japan and counters with the rhetorical question: “How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?”.

Let’s address this for a second. Is it really true? Is Clark’s point telling? After all, Clark isn’t the only person to have ever made this argument. Some point-by-point responses follow.

1. Although Western countries that have a strong secondary educational base in English (think Norway, Holland, Denmark, Germany etc.) are unlikely to hire native English speakers to teach English at universities, there are certainly university positions open to qualified NS teachers in places like Spain, Portugal as well as other Mediterranean countries, and no shortage of such teachers/positions in Eastern Europe. And of course, most of the developing world in an EFL teacher’s oyster.

2. It’s not really fair to compare proficiency in English at a university in an English-speaking country with Japanese at a uni in Japan. Why? English is the lingua franca of academia. The two languages don’t have reciprocal utility (*note to the overly sensitive or PC reader- this has nothing to do with the relative intrinsic worth or beauty of either language, and it has nothing to do with a myopic, chauvanistic Anglo-Saxon worldview or anything like. It is just a geopolitical fact. Live with it.). Almost anyone, regardless of nation, who has academic expertise or competence will have some facility in English. To be more accurate in the comparison we should compare Japanese to a language like Finnish, Slovenian or Czech, which is functionally limited to the national borders. Now, do all foreign professors working in these countries have competency in those languages? Although I suspect that a Brit working in the Czech Republic or an Aussie researching in Finland would start to pick up and use the local lingo while living there, you can be pretty sure that they wouldn’t have mastered those languages, and wouldn’t have to, before being hired.

3. If one held a strict rule that teachers at a Japanese university must be proficient in Japanese (in all aspects of the language), it pretty much follows that 99.9% of all the university teachers would be Japanese and an even higher percentage (99.999) of non-Japanese, including ohhh Stephen Hawking, would be excluded from consideration. On the other hand, if a university in Canada requests English competency for a certain position, academics from a huge chunk of the rest of the world will still be able to apply confidently. Keep in mind that this is not due to Canadian or native English-speaker largesse, it is simply a linguistic reality.

4. Universities want to invite scholars and instructors who can best help students develop skills. Hence, in Western countries you will find numerous scholars from non-Western countries, several of whom may have limited degrees of English skill, hired because they are good at what they do and can do it better than a local.

5. It is probably true that the less facility an academic has with English, the more he/she must be a scholar of international repute. It is also true that most (but not all) NJ university teachers in Japan did not develop scholarly reputations abroad and were subsequently invited (as you may have suspected, that goes for me too). But as I said above, universities want to invite scholars and/or instructors who can best help students develop necessary skills. If they believe that a qualified NJ might be able to help upgrade university student English skills sufficiently then the most important criterion for hiring a university instructor will have been satisfied.

6. Very few NS English university instructors in Japan are hired to be scholars in the strict sense. They may be expected to conduct research and be involved in professional societies but, generally speaking, they are viewed largely as language instructors first and foremost. Almost everything in their job descriptions, duties and roles at the university will reflect this. Although this may feed the (unfortunate) distinction that we see these days between the view of such instructors as being “on-campus language center employees” (more on this in a soon-to-come blog entry) and being utilized as fully contributing members of the university’s academic society, if we are not invited scholars we should accept this as our de-facto role. However, as an English NS’s academic credibility develops, and his or her Japanese skills increase, the roles and expectations should change accordingly (the operative word being “should”).

The verdict? Clark’s statement was a (conveniently) inaccurate oversimplification. On the other hand, while it would be good for university English teachers in Japan to remind themselves that they don’t have the same status as invited, established academics, their overseers should also view them as having more to offer than temporary Eikaiwa instructors.

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January 30, 2009

Notes and anecdotes from the end of the second term…

A few things that I’ve noticed on campus and in the classroom in the past few weeks…

1. Choral repetition- "Now THAT’S English"…

OK, we all know that choral repetition is not the most efficient way to learn a language. This lingering legacy of the audio-lingual method is widely-regarded as a questionable methodology that looks particularly outdated in a university classroom. But I confess that I do use it every once in a while, usually to try to drill in just that bit more deeply some pattern or pronunciation issue. But it is not- and I repeat NOT- the focus, or main teaching method, used in my classes. Hey, I’m just as progressive and use as many of the new millenium methods as the next TESOLer.

What I do find interesting though is the reaction of the students to these peripheral and very occasional choral repetition bits. Suddenly there’s this rush of energy, a sense of involvement, an air of “Ok, now we’re doing some REAL English, dammit!”. With the more ‘methodologically-correct’ tasks I get varying student reactions, but with choral repetition? “Now that’s an English class!”.

2. The Center Shiken follies…

Yes, we are one of the universities that host this yearly flagellation session and, yes, it is always a spectacle to behold. A good chunk of the campus is sealed off with officials wearing black and yellow ‘STAFF’ jackets scooting around with frightening sense of purpose and efficiency, like a SWAT team before a visit by the President, making sure that all security is in place. All classes and events the day before the test are cancelled in order to prepare. Current students can’t get near the testing building, much like the common riff-raff not being able to enter the holy of holies in an ancient temple, less they defile it or, in some unfathomable way, compromise its purity.

The invigilating procedures and protocols (I escaped that duty this year) run to 60 plus pages in print, including advice on what to do if an examinee faints, claims sickness, gives birth, is kidnapped by aliens etc. It terms of tension, the whole process makes the guard stations at Panmunjom feel like a Caribbean limbo party. And did you know that there are back-up invigilators waiting in the wings just in case a 1st-stringer goes down? It’s true! Bench invigilator- now there’s a calling!

Ultimately, I feel really sorry for the examinees. The head invigilator increases the tension in the air even further by making regularly-timed declarations such as, “The biology examination of the 2009 Center University Placement Examination will begin in precisely three minutes and twenty seconds”, with all the official pomp and foreboding solemnity of a North Korean newscaster. In this edgy waiting period I recalled how students fumbled nervously with their pens and other on-desk apparatus. One poor sap spent the last five minutes of the build-up arranging and then re-arranging his seven regulation pencils in strict order according to size at his pre-determined Geometrical Spot of Most Convenience.

At least, unlike the second-stage entrance exams, there aren’t huddled groups of expectant-looking parents milling about outside and bowing more deeply to you than anyone ever has before while you pass by on your way to the john. The Center test kids usually come in chartered buses, waved through the blockades set up at the university entrance by attendants with fluorescent batons (Attica State comes to mind). I bet there are even back-up baton waving parking attendants somewhere in the wings too- just in case.

3. Anketos (class questionnaires)…

Pretty much every tertiary institution dishes out some kind of anketo as a matter of course at this time of year, usually in order to meet standards of quality control (which can affect funding). Personally, I’m not a fan of anketo. No, I’m not afraid of negative comments from the students. My ‘scores’ are just fine. In fact, just about every teacher I’ve ever met has thought that their anketo results justified whatever they were doing in the classroom (students will give most teachers a run of 4s or 5s). I hardly even look at the results anymore.

And that’s the problem. The results are entirely expected. After twenty years in the game I have an ingrained sense of what I’m doing well or not doing well in the classroom that is completely independent of what students may comment on. Call me arrogant (go ahead, I dare ya!), but I simply think students are not in a position to make certain judgements. OK, I admit though that it may give them at least a sense of 'having their say', but c'mon, do you think Sir Alex Ferguson would ask his players to rate his coaching performance with the hope that he might learn something constructive about his coaching methods from them?

Even when I’ve asked students to pointedly address a specific issue in the comments section of the anketo (“Am I using too much Japanese in this class?”), the result will be the predictable Goldilocks and the Three Bears mish-mash: one-third say too much, one-third too little, one third just right.

Of course, good anketo don’t focus so much on the teacher as they do the course, the students’ self-reflection, the learning environment, materials, whole curriculum etc. But nonetheless, the anketo ratings that students give will reflect whatever activity you did in this, or the previous, class. So, if the class prior to the anketo was a Christmas party where you gave a Christmas quiz while wearing a Santa costume, the anketo results will duly prove your 'worth' as a teacher. On the other hand, a pop quiz with some strict follow-up comments and practice would lower the anketo ratings, even if that lesson is methodologically stellar and even if all the previous lessons had been worthy.

Guess what I did in my anketo class this year?

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March 03, 2009

A Day in the Life: The (Not So) Off-Season at the Uni

A lot of people, both in the university and outside, think that once the regular classes have stopped that I am on holiday. Or if not actually lounging at a poolside in Phuket, then I must be at least out on the golf course working on my fairway woods.

Most of you who teach full-time at public schools (Miyazaki U. is a national university) at any level know the correct response to this, which is: HAHAHAHAHAHA! In fact, unlike the so-called off-season, the days in which I am simply teaching classes, marking papers, or preparing lessons are in many ways the easiest in the school year.

If you want to know why, cue the violins, because here is what happens in a typical day (and this was an actual day) in mid-February, yes after all classes and English exams have finished. It’s a pleasant morning so I walk (about 15 minutes door-to-door) and reach my room at 8:35.

1. When I get to work I see that my new printer has arrived. I manage to set it up without any glitches or special problems. Getting rid of the mounds of garbage this creates is another matter.

2. My first ‘zatsuyou’ (busy work, officialdom) of the day arrives. I have to complete a document to get my newborn daughter on my work insurance. I use my inkan four times for the document. One part is problematic, the section on choosing a ‘setai nushi’ (head of household) since this affects taxes and also because elsewhere my wife and I are considered to be dual heads of household. I call her at home to discuss what to do. My name eventually goes in the slot and I hand the papers in.

3. I put in an order for a set of books I want. All the information, ISBN numbers and so on, have to be entered correctly by yours truly.

4. There are two official university emails in my box. Not only are they in Japanese (duh!) but the Japanese is inevitably written in the densest possible style, the equivalent of something like, “It has come to our attention that your good selves, privy to the pre-arrangements that have heretofore been noted…”. I scan once for gist (one is about re-examinations and the other about room arrangements and procedures for entrance exams) but need to consult the online translator and/or on desk dictionary to understand it completely. The point of one of the emails still eludes me so I ask the secretary, but even she seems unsure as to what the uptake is supposed to be. Eventually, I can make out that I am expected to go to a place deep in the bowels of the university’s password-coded system and enter a “same as last year” response. Navigating this labyrinth takes time and it seems that each branch has a different password, so this simple act ends up taking far more time than going downstairs to the academic affairs office and saying “Same as last year”. But of course this new automated is more (cough) efficient (cough).

5. A student has come to my office. I failed him because he was absent from class over and above the limit of allowed absences. He asks me why he failed and I tell him. He lingers and starts asking which days he was absent. I show him the form. He claims that I made a mistake on one of the entries, that he had just been late. Yeah. Like 45 minutes late. After pleading, looking contrite and suddenly deciding that English was very important indeed, I tell him that if he has a problem with this or wants to appeal, as is his right, that there is an ombudsman. He doesn’t take up the offer and finally goes.

6. I have a speech to make in about 10 days at a university-sponsored international symposium in a hotel downtown. The slides are made but need some fixing. I also add and subtract bits of text. Tailor-work basically.

7. The proposed itinerary for a business trip to Malaysia in June has to be changed because the airline is changing the schedule. I put in a request for a change of the departure date and book an extra day at the hotel.

8. A doctor who is an ex-student (the hospital is attached to the university) appears and asks for help. He is doing some research involving…oh I don’t know, place some impenetrable scientific jargon here…. And needs to know if his proposed email response to an American researcher is appropriate. Fortunately, it is better than most such compositions I receive and requires only minor literary surgery.

9. I’m expecting the final check for my article (monthly) in The Daily Yomiuri (English language edition) to come soon but last night I was tossing and turning a bit in bed because I wanted to re-phrase a few sections and cut and paste a point or two. The basic article is on my work desk computer so I make the adjustments now.

10. The department secretary has just received email from two doctors in Thailand who will be coming for an intensive, advanced special program next week. These emails involve questions about budgets and money protocol. Before I can help her respond appropriately I have to clarify the terminology and protocols myself. This takes a little more time that you might imagine.

11. Back to my desk. I have to put in an abstract and registration form for the ETA-ROC language teaching conference in Taiwan this November. My colleague and I have lined up about 6 conferences for the upcoming year and we have sent four applications out so far. The form is online but since each conference has a different theme and has different abstract-writing requirements I have to adjust the tone and wording of the (pre-written template) abstract accordingly. I send it after duly filling all the categories but an email arrives back about 40 minutes later stating that I have not correctly filled in all the slots and to do so and re-send it. I scrutinize the form trying to see what I have missed, as there are none of the usual asterisks to indicate required fields and the like. I assume it must be the “Chinese name” section that I’m falling short on. I write my name in Katakana and send it again.

12. I get a call from the academic affairs section about which English teacher was responsible for putting in the grades of some 3rd year transfer students. There is a new system for these ‘henyuu-sei’ and someone (not me though) had failed to enter them.

13. Completed anketo ratings arrive by regular mail from a nearby university that I teach part-time at. Unfortunately, they ask you to write a comment back to them (required field!) regarding how you will respond to the anketo results so that you will be the best teacher you can be! I honestly can’t think of much to say, but I scrawl something about improving communication with students about expectations and re-send it by regular mail.

14. There is a telephoned question from the entrance exam center about a potential problem on one of the tests and I am required to visit in person (it is on the adjoining campus). I go and the problem, which was the most incredible precaution you can imagine, is immediately and simply resolved.

15. A 62 page ‘kairanban’ (circular) comes by. I give the topics a cursory glance but it is completely full with items like, “Pre-arrangments regarding the reconstruction of parking lot C” and the like. I sign it and pass it on. So does everyone. They could write, “You will all be fired tomorrow” in there and no one would ever notice.

16. Next there is a scheduled meeting regarding the schedule arrangements for the visiting contingents from Thailand the U.S. Everything from meal locations, sightseeing companions, airport pick up, to relaxation room requirements is discussed- more slowly and indecisively than I would like. I volunteer for some of the ‘kakari’ (chores). The meeting is, of course, held in Japanese and is, as usual, much longer than it needs to be, as if we are just waiting for someone to ask momentous questions like whether the teacher’s refreshment area should include low-calorie sweetener as well as regular sugar.

17. After the meeting, the English Dept. Professor (I’m a mere “Associate Prof.”) asks me to contact and push a colleague in the Agriculture faculty about getting some articles for our “International Newsletter” submitted in time, as he has been dragging his feet. I write the email in Japanese, which means that I check it carefully before sending so that I don’t look like a total Nihongo doofus.

18. The budgeting department for an upcoming business trip to Seoul needs information about the location of the university in Korea that I’ll be visiting (I find it via Google and hit the print button) as well as an official “mitsumori-sho” (price estimate) from the travel agent. I call him and get it faxed in later in the day.

19. There is a small problem with spam on the ETJ list (ETJ Life-in-Japan) that I moderate. I check into it a bit more through Yahoo groups and see a pattern of spamming from two dubious, and very similar, sources. I remove them from the list.

20. Last thing. We need to clarify the weighting of different questions on the entrance exams and make copies to give to all the markers. I take this on. Balancing the value of all the items to reach the set total of 300 is a delicate task but, hey, I’m a professional.

Oh, I could go on with some of the smaller, 10 to 30 second, tasks that took place that day, but you get the picture. No, there are no Pina Coladas to sip under the palm trees or nubile native girls offering me a massage. Finally, at 6:15 I pack it in, taking a few items that I can work on at home (including this blog). However, at home is my newly-born daughter and since my wife has been dealing with this sweet, joyous bundle of diapers, tears and wailing all day, it will be my turn as soon as I open the door.

Cue the violins again.

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March 06, 2009

The On-Campus Language Center ‘Solution’ (Or What Is University English Teaching Really About Anyway?)

In the last 15 or so years a number of universities have responded to MEXT-initiated reforms by moving their English education departments into separate on-campus language training centers (thankfully this has not happened here at the UOM although it has been suggested- and duly shot down- in the past). The logic behind the move works something like this: English-language training is considered not to be an academic course but a kind of preparatory, and peripheral, skill training. Therefore, in these language centers students will upgrade their general English skills before embarking upon more serious or in-depth research in their university departments, the latter which will be overseen by content, not language-education, specialists. (Of course, there are variations on this theme from university to university).

In practice, what this has also meant is a move towards hiring more part-time (hijoukin) English teachers with some of the old full-time guard now marginalized or having had their roles (and sometimes salaries) reduced. So yes, cost-cutting is also a factor in making these decisions since the ‘incorporization’ of public universities over past decade or so.

One large question underpins discussion of this shift to on-campus language centers. Is it pedagogically sound to segregate English education from the wider academic life of the university? On one hand it seems that language center proponents might have an argument. That is, if one thinks of university English as merely being an extension of, or companion to, Eikaiwa, a consolidation of high school English, or something akin to an Eigo Senmon Gakko (English vocational school), there may be some justification for this educational apartheid. And unfortunately, some teachers inadvertently buy into this educational philosophy as an acceptable model for universities.

Yes, a few administrators and fellow profs at my own university hold the belief (slowly melting away as we stake our pedagogical ground) that the general English courses are taught by largely academically unqualified native speakers who are doing ‘communicative’ lessons which are thereby believed to be little more than on-campus ‘How are you?’ sessions. So, if and when teachers actually teach like that in a university setting they are throwing gasoline on this fire of marginalization.

This approach seems to me to be based upon confusion about the function of a university and, in many cases, leads to a dumbing down of standards. Students will inevitably rise or sink to the level of the challenges we set before them. Universities should not be glorified Eikaiwa schools or high school review classes (and yes I know of university teachers going over the same things my 13 year old son is currently learning in the first year of junior high). And although Eikaiwa schools have a useful function in society it is clearly not the same as a university’s. A university is supposed to involve cognitive engagement with content, stimulating thought, furthering understanding of some chosen academic subject. At this level then, English should not be an end in itself but a means to an end.

Let me give you an example. I teach medical students. They are, not surprisingly, interested in medicine first and foremost. Therefore, my English classes focus entirely on medical content. In the first two years this involves them learning how to taking medical histories in English, completing medical charts in English, doctor to doctor (or nurse) correspondence regarding case studies, all in English. The content is engaging for them and they are forced to think about medicine (cause-effect, bedside manner, rhetorical organization). And, as they carry out these tasks, they are indirectly absorbing sound English forms and vocabulary in that (medical) context. Communicative need not imply ‘conversation’. Communicative teaching can also imply academic accountability.

In other words, their English study is tied directly to the fundamental mission of the medical faculty and thereby to their overall academic studies. It is an integral part of their MEDICAL education. And here’s the rub: It is NOT too hard for them (and yes, the bulk of the students are standard Japanese HS graduates, albeit generally from ‘good’ schools). True, they may make basic mistakes in English, but they also have a 6 year English foundation on which they can, and should, now build. By using this approach, their latent understanding of English is stimulated and challenged through cognitive engagement with academic, forward-thinking content. If they have the cognitive ability to engage the content they can, and in fact do, upgrade their English ability to deal with that content.

If we treat university Eigo as an extension of HS or Eikaiwa we can go on forever with their mistakes in using basic general English structures and their seeming inability to master certain simple functions. But you know what? At my uni we regularly host visiting doctors and grad students from other non-English based countries and they make general English mistakes just as basic as many Japanese HS grads and yet are able to function academically in English (presentations, lead lectures, academic correspondence etc). If our students are not challenged by deeper content most of them will be stuck on the Eikaiwa merry-go-round and (repeat) this is not the function of a university, although yes, it does serve as a good justification for an on-campus language center.

OK. Here’s another reason why separate language centers don’t work well. Hijoukin teachers aren’t really committed to ‘the program’. I don’t mean that they don’t care as teachers, that they are being derelict in their duties, or somehow otherwise lacking a moral compass. What I mean is that if you are coming in from outside for two only classes a week (as I do at a nearby university) there is no way you can have the same overview and sense of connection to the program and get involved in its planning and maintenance the same way as full-timers can. Part time teachers can’t be on planning committees, they can’t have special classes for remedial work or orientation, they don’t have open offices to discuss student progress and problems, and can’t get involved with extracurricular functions, even with the best will in the world. Neither can they easily bridge their English classes with other disciplines at the university.

So, yes, a separate language center staffed by part-time teachers might appear to save money and serve a specific function. But is this bang for the university student’s or the taxpayers’ bucks? Obviously, I don’t think so. Is it pedagogically and academically sound? Keeping English in the mainstream of campus academic life will make sense only if university English courses and programs are both viewed and carried out as academically challenging and content-engaging courses, by administrators and especially teachers, and not treated as lightweight conversation lessons with foreigners divorced from their REAL university classes..

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March 26, 2009

University jobs, permanency and so-called ‘musical chairs’

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding foreigners’ positions at Japanese universities. Ivan Hall lambasted the (allegedly) closed and exclusive mentality of both universities and the Ministry of Education in his 1998 book ‘Cartels of the Mind’. James McCrostie has echoed some of these sentiments more recently in a few articles found here and here.

I think both accounts are a little one-sided and imbalanced in many places, although they also certainly hit on a few painful truths. Having been around the scene for awhile I am acquainted with several cases of allegedly (there’s that word again) unjust treatment of foreign faculty at Japanese universities. From my front row seat, I’d have to say that I’ve seen all types: cases where the authorities were clearly discriminatory and unreasonable in their actions, cases where both parties have been sloppy or have failed to live up to expectations or agreements, and an equal number of cases where the non-Japanese complainant squarely falls into the “What on earth were you thinking!” category.

I myself have been involved in union action against what I viewed as unjust and unfair practices in the past. I say this so that no one rushes to the conclusion that my hesitancy to outright condemn the current foreign-teacher contracting practices at Japanese universities is a product of some deeper-rooted political polemic. So let me talk about and explain the situation as I see it.

Q- What was the great purge of the mid 90’s all about?

During this decade, the Ministry of Education wanted to loosen their ties with national universities and grant even more independence to private universities. This meant that less governmental funding was available. Universities had to gradually become semi-commercial/privatized entities (houjinka) which meant a lot of applying for grants and awards, fund raising etc. In other words, the money was no longer automatic.

Q- How did this affect individual universities?
Here’s an important thing to note. MEXT did NOT (and almost never DOES) tell individual universities how and where to save or appropriate funds, although they did offer various suggestions and general guidelines, but rather it was, and still is, up to each university to adapt and use funds according to their needs and local policies (this lead to an enormous number of faculty meetings in the late 90’s). (Sidebar- this notion that ‘someone in MEXT ‘calls’ ‘someone’ in each university and passes on ‘directives’, like a general at army headquarters passing on orders to his field commander, is just…well…wrong). Anyway, one of the ramifications of this was, of course, the possibility of cutbacks in faculty. Everyone, including MEXT, was aware that there was a lot of deadwood in Japanese universities. One response to this was that something called the ninkisei system was introduced. It meant that tenure, as we know it, was gone. Instead, a limited number of renewals on contracts (different lengths of time and number of renewals according to different status) became the norm. These renewals have to be voted upon by other staff and be able to meet the fiscal budget. And yeah- there is no doubt an element of quid pro quo involved in these semi-automatic renewals, thus not really achieving the aim of getting rid of the deadwood or even stirring them to life.

Q- So, what about your contract, Mike?

Originally I was hired as a Gaikokujin Kyouin (foreign teacher) on a one year contract renewable six times with no further extension. Now I am on a five year contract, renewable three times, with no possibility of extension. I have to be voted in by the board of trustees after completion of each contract. Part of what gets reviewed at this time is my university “rating”, that is we accumulate points for publications, presentations, community involvement, participation in professional organizations, committee work and so on. This is another ramification of the move to semi-privatization, as new standards of quality control and re-checking have been introduced.

Q- Whoa whoa back up there. How did you get from the original six years with no extension into this current, more permanent contract? Isn’t that an extension?

Actually I applied for newly created position (junkyouju- Associate Professor). The old position of gaikokujin kyouin was nullified, a new one opened, and I guess I had achieved enough during my time as gaikokujin kyouin to warrant a longer stay under a different contract (yes, I had to officially retire for one day and even got my retirement benefits before re-starting under the new contract).

Now here’s where I’d like you, dear reader, to consider something. If you read certain sites or books you will get the strong impression that foreigners gaining anything close to a permanent position is very rare. Yet, if you’ve been around the Japan EFL scene for awhile you’ll undoubtedly note that many of the same Gaijin teacher/professors’ names pop up here and there and that their affiliations are the same year after year. Yes, many foreigners are getting or holding more secure longer-term positions.

Just using my smallish home city of Miyazaki as an example…besides myself at the UoM, we have an international university with a largely NJ staff, most of whom are long-termers, a municipal university which has granted long-term employment to NJ faculty, and a joshi tandai (women’s junior college) where the NJs have been around longer than I have at the University of Miyazaki. We all know each other. No, it’s not rare to meet tertiary education permanents or near-permanents. True- some NJs have gotten a raw deal and others have shot themselves in the foot but I simply can’t say that it is the standard or default practice to dump the foreign teachers quickly.

Q- But Japanese university teachers automatically get lifelong employment, don’t they?

In short, no. Most entry level Japanese teachers start on similarly impermanent, limited term contracts or various part-time contracts and slowly work themselves into better positions. Yes, some do lose their jobs when their contracts expire. We have some Japanese teachers in the English department at the UoM who are currently on limited contracts. And we have a few NJ teachers in the same tenuous entry-level position. Yeah- it’s a precarious spot to be in, not knowing what’s going to happen in a few years but it’s not as one-sided as it’s often made out to be.

Q- What about this ‘gaikokujin kyouin’ thing? Tell me more…

Eliminating these odd positions was one of the suggestions made by MEXT during the reform years. These ‘foreign teacher’ position were relics of the Meiji or Taisho periods and carried the implicit assumption that the foreigner was only going to be in Japan for a short time and would therefore have fewer responsibilities, be quite generously rewarded financially, but be very limited in terms of job permanency and influence. Unfortunately, some universities used the elimination of this position to dump some foreign teachers outright (no, no one at MEXT ‘told them to’ although they do have the habit of passing the buck back to MEXT). Were they deadwood? Were they not planning to be long-termers anyway? Did they get the shaft? I can think of examples of all three.

My own university parlayed this into a new, more permanent position (with far more responsibilities and a salary cut). Thank you. I think. Am I just lucky or is it because I am such a raging stud of a teacher? The accidental recipient of undeserved largesse or the due consequence of being such an academic and intellectual colossus? Am I good at playing my cards right or did they just fall into a fortunate place for me?

Q- But isn’t discrimination still rampant at Japanese universities?

Here’s a waffly answer- it depends. What does it ‘depend’ on? Well, for one, if your Japanese is excellent you’re obviously going to be more fully clued in to what’s going on and your viewpoints will hold far more sway on policy-making committees. If your Nihongo is poor, it is natural that in some sense you will be marginalized. (Mine is about middling- decent in terms of committee work- which can involve some obtuse, convoluted and formalized expressions- although daily work lingo is no problem at all).

Your fellow profs will, as can be expected, express a variety of attitudes. Worst are the few (yes, a minority) who may feel the necessity to remind me that I have a “Japanese job”. Funny that. I thought it was just a job- a job that I was qualified better to do than the other candidates. I don’t remember seeing a “Japanese nationals only” clause in the announcement. (Sidebar- these tend to be the same people who interpret everything as a cultural difference- “So sensei, you argued against the new e-learning course. I think your American individualistic culture can’t quite understand our Japanese plan”. Yes, there are always a few throwbacks of that particular vintage).

There are also those who have the quaint notion that should your contract be abrogated you could always “go home”. Yeah. And any of them could equally “go home”, back to Nagoya, or Osaka or wherever they originally came from. It’s as if they think I have a “real” job waiting open for me back in Canada, perhaps where my “real house” and “real wife and family” are waiting too. What I suppose I should call my “fake” house, wife and family are 5 minutes down the road from the university. That is what I “go home” to everyday.
(Sidebar- This inevitably reminds me of my trips to the immigration office before I got my Japanese permanent residency status six years back. I often had to fill out forms asking me for my “home address” which was presumably somewhere in Canada. Because I hadn’t lived in a permanent house in Canada since I had entered university as a student, and because my parents had moved three times since I had left Canada many moons ago, I had no idea what my “real” address was supposed to be. I didn’t want to provide false information, like my old childhood home [which I think now may be a crack house] so I usually opted for my parents’ then-current address, which was often a place I had never even visited, let alone lived in)

But such people are, as I said earlier, a small minority (an irritating minority, but a minority nonetheless). Most of my Japanese colleagues are quite accepting and cosmopolitan and think it quite natural that I be in a “permanent” position and play an active role in the faculty. So that’s what I do. If there is a type of sequestering, it is due far more to the nature of departmental politics (turf wars rage at universities) than my being a Gaijin.

BTW-some hints on what you can do to get or hold university positions are coming in a future blog entry.


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April 20, 2009

Contract renewal at the uni; The Ninkisei song and dance

If I had known how it would affect my life 25 years later, maybe I wouldn’t have taken those backpacking trips back in the 80’s. Yeah- after graduation I went through that time-honored rite of passage, the lengthy overseas backpacking trip, first to Europe for about 6 months between my undergrad and grad studies, and then the better part of a year in North Africa and the Middle East while between graduate studies. So, I was learning about the wider world, gaining life skills, growing as a social being, right? You’d think. But when these gaps of non-study and non-employment appear on my CV in Japan they look to my employers like (to quote the waiter in the Monty Python 'dirty fork' sketch) ‘a huge bowl of pus’.

Not only those travel gaps, but also the year I spent volunteering and working sporadically as a counselor in church-cum-community centers, are black holes on my resume. So, why would this period of self-sacrifice for next to nothing in community service not be a bulwark of my personal working history, you ask? It seems that because I wasn’t contracted to any one organization and don’t have some official papers to ‘prove’ this experience I was not really ‘employed’. And travel is, apparently, ‘play’. As far as my employers in Japan are concerned, I might as well have been spending all that time playing Space Invaders in my buddy’s basement. You see, for each year, or even part of a year, that you are unaccounted for work-wise, your salary is reduced, or at least it is so when you work for a National University in Japan or any similar job in which you are designated as a civil servant.

I have a colleague who, after high school, worked as a drummer for several years, doing the get-in-the-van-and-let’s-haul-it-to-the-gig-in-Moncton thing. Again, you’d think this would be a worthy life experience, building up character, learning the ways of the world, but on his CV it amounts to a huge vat of nada.

These things become viscerally apparent every time I fill out a resume here. So why am I filling out a resume now, I who am gainfully employed for the long-term, you might well ask? Well, in fact this month I received the bulky preparation forms for my ninkisei contract renewal.

I’ve explained about the ninkisei system a bit in earlier posts on this blog. It’s the new system under which all National University workers are on contracts, and these contracts can be renewed only after a very detailed listing of what you’ve achieved during the first section of your contract. This is my fifth year on my current contract, and my renewal period is five years so I have to my song and dance now. I has to show dem what I gots.

As I’ve written here before, the purpose of the ninkisei is to make people accountable, to be able to show measurable achievement to warrant your contract extension. The ostensible goal is to rid the system of deadwood, or at least to put deadwood to some use. And in a sense it works- if you know your contract renewal is coming up and if you’ve got little to show for it, you worry- as you should. The process is said to be a slam dunk unless you’ve committed some egregious sin, but unfortunately for me, just filling in the forms takes time and effort away from the very things I’m trying to sell myself on- my in-class pedagogy, my research, my involvements in various organizations and societies- in the first place. (Ironically, being active and responsible is penalized by having to fill in much, much more and to offer proof as well). I also worry that despite all my efforts to impress and be comprehensive, the overseeing committee that performs the review will take only a perfunctory glance at all I’ve done.

This huge stack o’ shiryou (reports) was given to me on the very first day of classes for the new academic year, so just when things are getting busy class-wise, around come these official and very important documents, 17 pages long when it arrives on your desk, but after completion to be about 30+ pages. In order to originally apply for this job I filled in a lengthy stack o’ documents but this one is even larger because now I have to include my working achievements, roles in the workplace, and the like.

(Warning- whining and moaning follows) What I really dislike about doing this is the fact that we have a database at the university (as all universities do) that we’ve spent considerable time filling in comprehensively. Yet, for this renewal, I have to put my personal data, education, working history et al in from scratch. What’s the point of having an accessible online database if the people from personnel make you fill all this out from alpha to omega each time??? Can’t they just put that in themselves from the database and then have you add any changes, additions and amendments??? Isn’t that the whole purpose of a database??? Welcome to a paper-based society, folks.

Another thing- this database also leads to your gaining a ‘score’ or rating, a combined total of your ‘value’. The problem is that some people are very good at manipulating the database to get a high score- knowing where a minor item scores big; knowing that being a largely ‘in-name’ advisor on some dubious and obscure MEXT committee (say, the Standing Sub-committee for Textbook Font Reform) will score five times as much as a solo research paper of note that took you three years to complete (note- end of whining and moaning).

Yes- and of course it is all in Japanese and I have to fill it all in Japanese by the end of April. This of course makes it three times harder for me than for any Japanese employee but hey, that’s a part of the game. I live in Japan, and I work for a Japanese institution, under the same rules as any Japanese. I would not expect a Chinese researcher in Canada to complain about having to list their achievements in English so that their overseers could make judgments about their work for contract extension. But the fact remains that instead of working more on my actual classes, student report, or upcoming research and presentations, I will be focusing inordinately upon this baby.

And it’s not normal Japanese either. The lingo is akin to the kind of pseudo-language you can see on American tax forms. Things like, “List any and all quasi-committee functions, but not roles, unless contained under the rubric of Faculty Development’. Okay, I exaggerate but you get the point. I ask Japanese colleagues to help me decipher this stuff but they can’t understand it either.

Speaking of committee work, you now begin to realize why there are so many meaningless committees in universities- it is largely to pad these types of resumes. Some, like the entrance exam committees, do real productive work. But some meet once year for a literal sleep-in but, hey, if you are on it you can claim this brownie point on forms like the ninkisei renewal. Just getting the names of the committees absolutely correct is no easy feat either. For example, while I may usually refer to it as the ‘Evaluation standards committee’, I have to list it by its proper name which is in fact, the “Committee for the proposal of reform, development and procedure in observation and evaluation standards”. And I have to add to that my role in the committee- well, what was it exactly? “Working group B sub-chief of questionnaire standardization”. I think.

And then there are things that just don’t translate well to a very Japanese format, for example, my ‘honseki’. We don’t have that concept in Canada. I was born in the U.K., moved to Canada at age 1, and grew up in an around Vancouver but I have nothing which proves this, no ‘juminhyou’ or anything like that. Still, I suppose that Vancouver is my ‘honseki’, for what that’s worth.

Listing licenses and qualifications, as we must, can be problematic too. The standard degree titles translate well and fit into the format easily but I also received a certificate in counseling waaay back when living in Vancouver, and you really should list anything. I took several courses and got a piece of paper and I don’t know who it was authorized by because in those days it just didn’t seem to matter. In Japan, licenses have very clear authorities and titles, “National Pachinko Appreciation Licensing Examination- Advanced Level” that sort of thing- but what can I say for my counseling license? “Like, I took some courses and stuff, ‘n got some kind of certificate, from the city of Vancouver- I think”. It just doesn’t fit well.

The same goes for things like publications and presentations. For example, we are expected to write the official themes of the conferences we attend or present at. You guessed it, most of mine were written in English and have to be translated into Japanese but these themes tend to be nebulous titles like, “The notion of practice- feasibility and procedure in the age of post-modern pedagogy”. How the hell do you translate that?

As far as publications go, they seem to be most interested in numbers so, interestingly, your half-page My Share entry in the local English associations’ bi-annual newsletter seems to account for just as much as a cover article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The centrality of the ‘Number of publications’ section is also the reason why medical departments in particular include the name of everyone in the department in their research papers- that way everyone gets listed 10 times a year when in fact only one paper may actually be their baby.

Then there are the intimidating sections where it asks you how many scholarships, awards, grants, and so on you have received. Well, English is not exactly an area in which awards of this type are abundant. What can I say here? “Yes, I got an award for ‘Lifetime Achievements in Information Gap Task Design’ from the Shikoku JALT sub-committee on Task-based learning”. Actually, I could probably list stuff like that and nobody would question it. It’s like those faux internet site awards: “Voted fifth best site on vestry design in Belgium, 2002!”

There’s also a section in which we are to list ‘rewards and punishments’. I think this is amusing. Who would list their punishments when going for a contract renewal? It reminds me of those customs declaration forms at immigration that ask, “Are you bringing any illegal drugs or firearms into the country?” “Oh yeah. I’m in tight with both the Colombian cartel and Al-Qaeda. For got to jot it down. Sorry!”

‘Roles’ in society and the community also makes up a large chunk of this form. Okay, my Daily Yomiuri articles come under this heading and there are plenty of other outside-university activities that I’ve been involved in so I can make this section nice and fat, but a lot of English roles are rather nebulous (there’s that word again) when applied to strict Japanese categories. For example, this very blog is sponsored by an English education organization and it relates to my job as a type of ‘community involvement’ since it is about university life in Japan but how do I categorize my role here? ‘Blogger’ sounds like I’m just playing around with my own personal site for ego enhancement and amusement (come to think of it, that may be more accurate than I’d like to admit) but ‘regular commentator’ doesn’t quite cut it either.

As a result of trying to master this form, I spend an inordinate amount of time not only not doing the things I’m really paid for (the things I’m trying to write about on this God-forsaken form), or even filling in the damn thing, but instead getting prior clarification on the actual meanings of various sections, as well as acceptable formats and protocols from the person responsible over in personnel. Now, you might expect this character to be some greasy old bureaucrat in a cheap polyester blue suit and a bad comb-over, the type who doesn’t make eye contact, smells of cigarette residue and dried squid, and dislikes pesky Gaijin, but in fact the person responsible is a very pleasant and eminently helpful middle-aged woman who takes a lot of time to explain clearly and thoroughly what Mr. Not-so-fluent-in-reading-Kanji is supposed to do. She’s apologetic about the bits that are hard to translate or don’t fit into a Japanese context well, and it feels just wrong to whine and complain when she’s being so very pleasant and helpful.

So I’ll do that on this blog instead. Back to filling in the forms now…

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May 01, 2009

Notes from the new academic year

1. The true meaning of FRESHman
I teach a lot of 1st year students, which is fortunate, become they come into the university virginally innocent, idealistic, ready to fulfill their dreams. They are compliant and curious, eager and effervescent. This honeymoon period lasts for about two months after which, like most people, students lower their expectations and fall back into their old habits. This is not a condemnation of “the system” or “kids these days!”, it’s human nature. You know, the way in which you’ve attacked something new with promises and passion many times in your life only to see that flame of idealism either smothered or tempered into something more balanced and realistic. Like when you started learning the guitar and swore that you’d practice three hours a day and become an accomplished musician even if it took you twenty years.

In the first few months at universities, students have yet to develop cliques, learn what they can get away with, see through any holes in the system or develop attitudes. This is the time when I tell them that if they are planning to be doctors it is expected by the surrounding society, and medical professionals worldwide, to have competency in English. They trust me on this, believe me, and you can almost hear the rustling of sleeves being rolled up. Until day-to-day drudgery takes eventually hold, it’s a nice classroom atmosphere, one that I don’t encounter with most classes 2nd year and up (although some about-to-graduate students suddenly develop a lot of earnestness just before they are about to enter the fray of the real-world).

2. Good classroom cop, bad classroom cop

This is also a time in which I have to set about applying classroom rules and root out those questionable and annoying behaviors (I start out more bad cop than good cop- something you can’t do when students are more perceptibly ‘customers’ first and foremost). These include:

a. Not allowing students who I call upon to immediately turn to the person next to them for consultation.

b. Not letting students do the absolute minimum to complete a task and then begin chatting in Japanese as if it’s now Izakaya chinwag time.

c. Not allowing students to hold up papers to their faces or even scan them for non-existent answers when a paper has preceded a communication task (You gotta love it when both partners eyes’ remain steadfastly fixed on an instruction sheet throughout the actual activity as though their open-ended communicative responses are somehow going to magically emerge from the fibers of the paper).

d. Not writing down everything that I write on the board or stopping an activity because I am jotting down something like a monitoring note.

e. No sleeping. Duh. My classes are definitely not boring and I do not play that equivalent of teacher 10 minute drum solos: lecturing about the language. Not banning the head down position can let loose a virus of permissiveness. It’s rude to me and others. If you are very sleepy, even for the best of reasons, stay home please! (Sidebar- I am shocked how many students can nod off almost immediately after the lights are dimmed and the PowerPoint comes on).

f. Not being late (double duh!). Some students think that because any university class is described as a ‘lecture’ that they can walk in the back unobtrusively ten minutes after the lesson has started and just catch up on their note taking. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in a normal English class. In those first ten minutes I will have outlined today’s plan and goals, given a brief demonstration or instruction, have handed out some accompanying print, and made groups. When a student walks in after all that has been done and start with the “What am I supposed to do?” routine I become a bad cop.

g. Not allowing something I call ‘The English Sandwich’ which is the case where, in a communicative activity, students surround a tiny morsel of English meat with an enormous slab of preceding and post-scripting Japanese bread. Something like this (the bits in parentheses are said in Japanese).
A. (Hi. OK are you ready? I’ll go first. OK. Number one. This one I guess)
B. (OK. Go ahead)
A. Have you ever been hospitalized?
B. Yes. (I was once)
A. (Really!)

3. The good, the bad, the otakus and the jocks
During the first activity in my first class a few weeks back I heard one girl speaking English much like I’d expect to hear a British-educated Indian to speak. Curiosity piqued, I asked here whether she had lived abroad. Raised in Pakistan it seems. We get a handful of students like this who have extensive English-speaking experience each year. These students are either a delight (they catch on to things quickly, help lesser lights, and can converse with confidence and insight on a wide range of topics) or a curse (they become know-it-alls, lack respect for the teacher, and affect a ‘been here done that’ posture).

On the other hand, some of our kids from very rural high schools where their only real English experience might have been a few fleeting communication classes with an ALT or JET before the juken prep kicked in. I’ll take these tabula rasa types with good attitudes, basic intelligence and curiosity, and general good naturedness, over the fluent-but-I’m-not-impressed-by-anything returnees anytime.

Med classes are generally 55-60% male, although some years have seen a slight majority of females. Now, I’m willing to bet that most of you teaching in Japan generally find females to be more Eigo friendly, with less of that sullen classroom posturing and an uplifting sense that English is accessible and engaging. But among Med students I’ve noticed a very positive upswing recently in the skills/abilities and general attitude of the males. They seem to be more assertive and less stand-offish than before. They tend to create the energy and can-do atmosphere in the classroom, which in the past, was the product of the ladies.

The usual sub-types persist though. While medical studies might attract a few more otaku types than some other faculties, we get our share of school spirit/student council member types, wanna-be-your-buddy puppy dogs, jocks, achingly cool surfer dudes, ‘hot babe’ gals, fashion plates in designer clothes, finishing school debutantes, a few biker-like toughs of either sex, and some international backpacker-cum-borderline hippies. It’s a pleasant mix, as they come from all over Japan and tend to be a little older and more mature than the other faculties’ students because many spent years at yobikos, are transfer students, took time off to ‘find themselves’, or have already graduated or worked but now want to change the course of their lives.

4. The nursing students
The nursing students are very different, as you might expect, from the medical students. Most are local (South Kyushu accounts for the vast majority), right out of high school, have very limited experience with anything (including English) and are 90% female. Before entering the classroom the contrast with the med students is startling. The Meddies tend to be rather subdued before class but the nursing class sounds like a hen party. A very drunken hen party- which can either be quite a laugh or an annoyance depending upon how you approach it.. Don’t get me wrong- these classes have a lot of energy and the nurses seem to be less shy about trying out English and making mistakes (and just seem to be enjoying the whole process more). If the nursing students are ‘with’ you, the teacher, they are with you all the way. There’s more of a party atmosphere in these classes and I think that teachers who are too uptight or regimented would bristle in these sessions. Fortunately, my vast wealth of experience (wink wink) has taught me how to engage these potentially unruly classes and get the most out of them. There’s a lot of ‘go with the flow’ involved, but also the harvesting of anything of sustenance that flows down that stream with you.

(*More on varying teaching styles according to classes and teaching highly mixed-level classes in the future).


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May 07, 2009

Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students


My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

2. For any EFL teacher who claims that, “Japanese students don’t learn about things like global warming in their other classes so we need to tell them about it”:
Punishment- Deportation; with no possibility of re-entry to the country

Why you ask? Is there any topic that has been so done to death as this hackneyed old standard? I mean there are comic book characters now fight global warming! There are daily messages, guidelines, and notices given to the public through every arm of the media on the effects of global warming and steps to take for reducing it. Every second product on TV shills their product's environmental virtues. It seems like half the extracurricular classes at elementary schools focus on the problem of global warming and what we can do about it. Textbooks used in elementary schools have sections on global warming (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it). The issue is even addressed on Japanese cereal boxes, the ultimate arbiter of how cheesy a social issue has become. The global warming problem has become fully ‘establishment’, something passed down from authorities to which young people naturally start to develop a (healthy, in many cases) skepticism towards. My 13 year old son lampoons the whole business with a made-up character called ‘Eco-Santa’. Entrance exam designers at universities have long abandoned the ‘environment’ article as a standard exam text. It became too predictable and is now a boring cliché.
(Those who are not well acquainted with the Japanese language and/or wider Japanese society will often remain cocooned inside stereotypes which maintain that only progressive people, such as enlightened Westerners like themselves, are aware of and concerned about these ‘big issues’ and that Japanese media/society shield Japanese from awareness of these important issues. Uh, yeah- and they all wear topknots too).

So, when Mr. Brown, the teacher from Canada, comes into English class with his lesson on Global Warming to ‘inform’ his Japanese junior high schoolers of this important issue (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it)- it’s time to unleash the EFL police on ‘Mr. Brown from Canada’ and carry out the punishments proposed above.

[An aside- I once used an article in an EFL class which criticized some of the standard proposals on how to reduce our environmental footprint concluding that many of the standard proposed solutions often in fact led to greater energy consumption or other non eco-friendly results. In the workshee that I made to accompany this article I asked students to, among other things, 1) summarize the article in a sentence or two and 2) think of a suitable title. Although none of the environmental topics in the article addressed global warming, and although the tone of the whole piece was a questioning of popular environmental solutions, a large number of students 1) concluded that the article was about (wait for it)... “Global Warming” and 2) in summary, it was telling us that “we should do X to save the planet” (even where the article had explicitly criticized doing X).
Thank you very much for your contributions to mindnumbing social issues “discussion”, Mr. Brown from Canada].

Final note- global warming is a reality, a serious issue and is a multi-faceted, complex problem. But thanks to educational overkill, cloying oversimplification, and a resultant reduction to the lowest common denominator of ‘discussion’ it now has as much social impact as talking about Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s nekkidness.

Some positive encouragement for students:

In my earlier blog post about the new academic year I listed a number of frustrating classroom habits that I hoped to divest students of as soon as they entered university. Since this focused almost entirely on negative behavior I thought it would be a little more life-affirming if I also listed some positive classroom attitudes and practices that I try to inculcate early on. These include:

1. Making the most of a limited vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. That through negotiation, questioning and rephrasing you can communicate a lot using very little.

(Sidebar 1- Students are hobbled by the expectation or belief that unless they produce perfect English that they simply cannot express themselves and what they’ve tried to express is a completely uncommunicative mess. In fact, that is rarely the case as there are more non-native than native English speakers in the world and these people consistently engage in this type of imperfect language negotiation. And people who argue that specific ways of thinking are indelibly and irrevocably tied to specific languages (they are not! It’s the 21st century folks!) contribute to this sense of impossibility, of exaggerated distance)

2. That you can learn from your partner in any communicative activity. Don’t always depend on the teacher to learn! When your partner uses the ‘perfect’ English word, phrase, response pattern or grammatical form that you would probably not have been able to produce yourself- MAKE A NOTE OF IT SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW for future reference.

(Sidebar 2- many students assume that education is an amalgam of discrete items transmitted from teacher to student. It is disheartening when, after a lesson in which I’ve had students interact on a certain medical issue that involved active thinking and cognitive engagement, helped them to use certain rhetorical patterns to express this content, and helped them arrange all this in an acceptable written format- all in English, that what they remember I ‘taught’ from the lesson was one or two peripheral words that came up in the lesson, almost as an afterthought)

3. Learn from yourself. When you are trying to complete an in-class task or express yourself in English in any circumstance there will probably be times that you can’t recall or reproduce the word, phrase or best means of expressing whatever it is that you want to express. If so, keep your weakness in mind and STUDY OR CHECK IT LATER so that you don’t scrounge for the right expression the next time you need this item. Check the dictionary or a grammar reference. Or ask me, the teacher. Or ask another student.

(Sidebar 3- Students are often passive about their own shortcomings. They’ve made a mistake but tend to think ‘that’s it. It’s over. I can’t correct it now’ as if this communication is a one-time test that has been handed in and will be duly graded and there is nothing they can do about it now. Only the sharper ones realize that these tasks provide practice platforms for skill development and future language usage).


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May 15, 2009

Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors

First up today:
Language yaritori (give and take)

I suppose this qualifies as a rant- one directed at those who think that because I am officially in the same position as Japanese instructors at my university, I should do exactly the same work as a Japanese person.

At first it sounds reasonable, right? After all, since my position is not one founded on some kind of citizenship-based discrimination, such as being a designated ‘foreign’ teacher, I should perform the same duties as a Japanese. Equality is equality, right? But there’s a catch. Effort-wise it will take me at least three times as long as any Japanese person to read and/or fill in the various documents and other administrative paraphernelia that comes my way. So doing the same work as a Japanese person will require an unequal amount of effort from me. In effect, by trying to be equal it becomes effectively unequal.

Likewise, those many Japanese, both university faculty and staff, who have to deal with communication in English for whatever reasons (international exchange, business, research, lesson materials etc.) will take far, far longer to carry out those duties in English, than it does for me. It’s not equal. The effort will not be equal- so the actual contents of the job, and resultant expectations regarding language usage and skills, should not be the same.

Now, you might expect that since I’m living in Japan- and have been for almost twenty years- that working in Japanese should be second nature for me. And, as far as verbal communication goes, I’m pretty capable and comfortable. Cultural protocols are also fine with me. But reading, writing, and the capacity for all levels of interaction in the language? Whoa! Wait a second! I was not a Japanese major in university. I did not study Japanese in any way before coming to Japan. My job is not about teaching in Japanese- I am expected to teach in English. I have no natural or professional training preparing me for a fully 'Japanese role' and nor was I expected to have any when I was hired. I wasn’t hired as an administrator. It is natural that I can’t read, write or process Japanese (especially given the highly bureaucratic, academic, and dense Japanese used in administrative and managerial contexts) in the same way a Japanese person can. There was no Japanese anywhere in my life or surrounding environment until age 30- which can't be said for any Japanese person regarding English. So cut me some slack.

I cut Japanese colleagues slack as far as English goes. I COULD say that since Mr. X is an English professor he should be competent enough in English to require no help with developing educational materials, and that his English research should need no checking or revision, and that I would not be needed when there is some communication breakdown between him/her and folks abroad. After all, Mr. X was an English major, and that means- unlike myself- he has had concentrated study- direct, intensive training- in that ‘other’ language, and was actually hired to teach that subject as a qualified expert, a professional. None of this can be claimed regarding me and Japanese. But, hey, the reality is that they are not native English speakers and as such, and being separated from the English-speaking world on a day-to-day basis, I don’t expect native-level performance from them. So, I cut them some slack and help them with English where and when that help is needed. Even though THEIR job descriptions (and this goes for people in international affairs sections and related roles too) might assume that they should be completely functional in English, the reality is otherwise. And that’s fair enough- it’s just good common sense

So, that same principal that should be applied to me and the Japanese language. If people really expect me to operate at the same level of a Japanese person, logically, I would need at least a couple of years’ sabbatical from my regular work to fully concentrate on Kanji study. But it’s not going to happen. Just like in order to be absolutely and fully functional in English, all English-faculty and international affairs-related Japanese staff should regularly spend extensive and intensive time in English-speaking areas. But it's very hard to do so. Instead, we should give and take on the language issue and help each other out, regardless of our job descriptions.

So, on a committee where an English native-speaker’s touch is essential I would be happy to take a leading role. And on a committee which deals largely in Japanese esoterica, I will sit in the background more passively. When I am asked by some administrator to produce a lengthy Japanese report regarding my research trip, I will do the bare bones but I expect a Japanese person to help polish it, even though technically I am in an –ahem- ‘Japanese position’ and required to carry out this duty. But, when a Japanese professor of English has to write a research paper, or the Kokusai Koryuu (international exchange) chief has to make up an English document, they will come to me for more precise wording and an overall check, even though it technically falls under their own job descriptions.

It’s just common sense. It’s give and take and it’s best for all involved. Tell me that I should do exactly what a Japanese does, sink or swim, because of my ‘Japanese’ position and then I should duly refuse all those requests for helping Japanese faculty and staff with English because, hey, "that’s not what ‘Japanese’ do". Cut me some slack with the expectations about using Japanese and I’ll be happy to be a resource for aid in English. This sword cuts both ways.

Second up today-
Frustrating student behaviors part...?

1. The “Eh?” hiccup virus-
The students are in groups doing a communicative English task that involves some kind of question and response. Student A says something that student B doesn’t quite catch. Student B looks a bit panicky and says “Eh?”. To which student A replies, “Eh?”. After which student B turns to student C, next to him/herself, and says “Eh?”.
As if it is forbidden to say, “Sorry. I didn’t understand”.

2. The whiteboard trumps all part 1
You’ve got students focused on a task, in pairs, deeply involved. So you make a few notes on the board, maybe instructions for the next activity, maybe a language note to be explained later, hey- it could be your planned lunch menu, whatever. Suddenly, when you stop writing, you notice that all the students are looking at what you’ve written on the board and are either copying it down or are scratching their heads trying to fit it into the task they’re supposed to be doing.

3. The whiteboard trumps all part 2
You start off with a topic-based free talk in English. On the board you’ve written- “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened? Tell your partner about it”. You tell your own story for a few minutes as a sample, make partners and then tell students to go ahead and free talk. And then you hear one student turn to his/her partner saying: “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened?

4. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 1
You tell students that a certain English word does not always mean X, that in this case it actually means something rather different. For example, that Japanese “byoki” is not always “disease”, that “your condition” is often a better way to talk to a patient. So some student looks in his/her dictionary and tells you, “No. The dictionary says that ‘byoki’ equals ‘disease’”.

5. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 2
A new word or phrase comes up in class, let’s say it’s “preventative measures”. You explain the phrase, saying “things you do to prevent, or stop something from happening”. You give an example like, “It’s what Japanese officials are doing at airports to contain the H1N1 virus- checking all passengers from North America before they are allowed to leave”. You note for them the very revealing context in which the phrase arose in the class in the first place.
And after all this explaining, students just open their dictionaries and jot down the matching Japanese headword anyway.

6. The devil-word-you-know trumps the newbie
A student uses an inappropriate word while doing a speaking task, for example, “The virus is not so strong”. As a teacher you suggest “mild”. The student writes it down, thanks you and, as you walk away, you hear them say, “Because it’s a not so strong virus”.

Any others?

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May 21, 2009

Japanese university students and groupwork/homework

Screw the cross-cultural stereotypes and simplistic, monolithic generalizations. Japanese university students are generally not good groupworkers. In fact, I find them highly individualistic. Several common scenarios indicate this:

1.“Interactive pairwork” in which both members studiously avoid facing each other by burying their faces in books or 'prints' that are unrelated to the current task, as though they will somehow find an “answer” (even though there is no “question”) hidden there.

2.Forming pairs or groups in the first week in which students refuse to acknowledge each others’ existence. Postures are in the 'reject' position, the way Melinda the cheerleading captain and homecoming queen reacted back in junior high when Kevin, the pimply nerd from the chess club, was assigned as her in-class partner.

3.So-called 'study groups' wherein each member has their own dictionary out, covering the same words (or whatever), filling in the ‘team paper’ individually, and not telling their partners what they've come up with to complete the 'group' assignment.

4.Teamwork essays where sections have obviously been parceled out to each member, so obvious is the disjunct in tone and style in the final product. Sometimes the contributions of each partner haven’t even been checked by other members such that content duplicity is the norm. OK then- a screw up? Everybody shares responsibility!
(Sidebar- I have a 1st year assignment in which teams of 3 members write up and perform role-play style: a combination of 1) patient-doctor consultation, 2) doctor-to-specialist doctor data transfer, 3) specialist doctor-patient check. I tell them that the grade will be a team grade. But that still doesn’t stop some from parceling out each section to each member to write and leaving it at that- even though one section, written by the weakest member of the group, is painfully bad. I’d hope that all members check all sections- the very definition of teamwork- such that weaker members can learn from stronger members- but alas, often students are far too individualistic to do so).

5.Incredible hesitancy at the start of any team assignment. I’m talking about even how or where to sit. They just seem uncomfortable when not stationed behind their own individual desk and book. Making a group seems to be a rigorous, awkward process. (Another sidebar- and a totally subjective observation. Westerners are supposed to be highly individualistic, right? OK- Observe situations in which Westerners, especially those who don’t know each other well, are asked to form groups and carry out some impromptu task. You can see good examples at JALT or ETJ meetings and conferences. It takes about one second and- boom- the group gets going. But ‘collectivist’ Japanese seem uncomfortable with this, even when making groups with other Japanese [especially if they don’t already know each other] and take an inordinate amount of time to feel out the task, roles etc. I know there are further cultural explanations for this behaviour- involving sensitivity and delicacy to relationships- but it’s still a facet of classroom Japanese ‘individualism’).

Now, I don’t want this to sound like a whine about Japanese habits- there are already too many blogs like that out there. And I could balance the negatives perhaps by making generalizations about Western habits of everyone in an impromptu group having to make a big impression, a personality splash, or expressing a big fat opinion, but I won’t (heh heh). The main reason I’m mentioning this groupwork problem is because it belies what you always hear about alleged Eastern ‘collectivism’ and being aware of the reality might help teachers address it in the classroom. This, in turn, might allow students to get more out of groupwork, to be more efficient and productive (having encountered it so often I’m ready to address it and alter the behavior from the first class). This is not to make them ‘be like us Westerners’ (please, no!) but simply to be productive students who get the most out of interactive English classes by learning from others in the class, by being actively in tune with the team effort, period.

Almost all homework I give is in preparation for a next class, so that students can actually carry out a task in the regular class time rather than spending class time getting ready. In-class time is spent more productively with homework preparation. It also (usually) means that students have engaged the topic, prepped appropriate language forms, and are therefore ready to take a deeper plunge in the next class. It is very rare that homework is something that I have students hand in. It is all prep.

But almost none of my students see homework this way. They see it basically as something to be handed in to me for grading. Often, a student will have been absent from the class in question- the one which homework was the prep for- and will come to my office with a sheet of that homework paper, proffering it to me. “Actually, the class is finished, so you don’t you need it any more”, I might say. “But aren’t you going to check it?!” comes the reply (Lisa Simpson’s shrieks of ‘EVALUATE ME!’ come to mind). “No. It was to get you to think about the topic, to have you research some content, make some predictions, check the language forms you will use, and share all this with partners in the class”, I respond.

There is almost always a stunned silence at this point, one that seems to be saying, “THAT’s not homework! Why did you make me do it!!”. Sometimes I feel I should look over their work anyway, write ‘B+’ and some perfunctory comment, just to help them justify their efforts.

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May 27, 2009

Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed!

A. Grammar puzzles
Below are two structure questions/problems that came up in recent classes that I couldn’t explain succinctly to students. What would you say?

1. “I live in Saitama, which is next to Tokyo”.
Fine, right? OK- Here’s the student’s question- Why can’t you say, “I live in Saitama where is next to Tokyo?”. After all, we can use “where” in a similar structure: “I went back to Saitama where my parents live”- but not “which”. What are the underlying rules governing the relative cluses here and how would you give a quick outline to students who ask this?
(*note- I had originally written 'relative pronouns' above, which was clearly not an accurate description)

2. “I like action movies so I watch them as much as possible”.
This too is OK, right? But movies are countable, so why can’t we say “I like action movies so I watch them as many as possible”? And why is it that if we remove “them” from the sentence we can allow the countable “many”, as in: “I like action movies so I watch as many as possible”? What is the rule governing this and how would you explain it succinctly?

B. What’s so good about working at a university?
I’ve been very cynical in this blog recently and cynicism is just too easy, the official sport of people with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. So, in a positive vein, here are several things that make working full-time at a Japanese university (as an English professor) worthwhile.

1. You have your own office. What a blessing this is! You can hold private conversations. Take an inconspicuous break. Catch up on Stanley Cup playoff scores. Loosen your belt and let your stomach hang out. You can put on a Jaga Jazzist CD and nobody will be thinking that you must be screwing around (and I’m not- the music spurs me to do more). You can spread papers around wherever you please. After having my own office, I could never go back to a teacher’s common-area (the kind with partitions or cubicles) layout. I’d feel watched all day, under constant pressure, and probably achieve less in the process.

2. Nobody tells you what to do in your classes. It’s true that part-time university teachers often get told: ‘this is the system, we want you to use this textbook, teach according to this formula’ and the like. That’s understandable when Mr/Ms. Hijoukin is in and out of campus in half a day. But if you are a full-timer, the understanding is that you are almighty in your classroom decisions (including less and less pressure to pass very marginal students these days- often a problem at many universities in the past), that you were hired to make the educational and methodological decisions, and that it is really up to you to make something of your classes and not spend time trying to figure out what administrators want you to do. They have no idea what they want you to do because they are administrators, not teachers. It’s not their job. You make your job.

3. Many of the students are at an age where you can hold adult-level conversations with them. There is the somewhat justified image of the Japanese university student who is basically interested in some combination of drinking, sex, shopping, trying out new away-from-home hairdos, reading manga, and hanging out, but that is true of universities anywhere (except for you and I, dear reader, who were always impeccably studious of course). But many university students are curious, have developed sharp intellects that need stimulation, or crave in-depth discussion (we English teachers have a tendency to underrate student intelligence if their English skills are not consistent with their intellectual prowess). Many students offer interesting outside-the-box insights or ask probing questions, or simply know how to engage society in a refreshingly adult manner.

4. When you re-enter Japan and the ‘occupation’ section on your customs declaration card reads “University Professor” the customs guys become much more pleasant and malleable. “Did you bring any fruit or vegetables from abroad, sir? No? Then let me give you some! Bon appetit!”

5. At a lot of institutions the administrators-as-aristocracy, teachers-as-peasants meme is paramount. In fact, I worked in one place where it was so comically pronounced that it was almost a deliberate provocation. Not so at a university. Professors are, effectively, the management. Those who are in purely administrative roles tend to be far from imperious, almost obsequious. Now I don’t need anybody kowtowing to me but it feels good to have some status or at least respect for your position. Administrators administrate and professors proffer. They don’t give orders (they ask politely) or behave like they are holding my paypacket strings as a carrot. In return, I am polite and very hesitant before I question their office policies. It’s all about respecting territory.

C. The reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-type lessons finally revealed!

This notion of course tends to be a Western teacher’s self-serving conceit. I’m referring the stereotype that “they” Japanese teach teacher-fronted grammar-translation lessons to huge numbers of sleeping students, lecture-style while “we” non-Japanese teach highly interactive, dynamic, living English classes that our students love and adore us for. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met any Japanese teacher who admits to using the GT/TC method- every Japanese teacher I’ve met decries it as outdated. J students will often tell me that their J high school teachers taught GT but I think that this is something that needs to be researched a bit more. I’m a bit skeptical about accepting it at face-value. I suspect that even J students maintain the association of ‘Japanese teacher’ with ‘grammar-translation’ uncritically, just as many students will swear that my class was about ‘teaching technical terms’ when in fact only two such items came up tangentially in the lesson, a lesson that was actually about…oh… academic writing.

Regardless, I’m starting to understand the attraction of allegedly Neanderthal teaching methodologies as my age advances and my body starts creaking and groaning. Why? Keeping a class of 30 or so not-always-so-highly-motivated students is tiring! Keeping up the pace of work, making sure everyone is following along and doing the correct activities, checking, monitoring, handling the classroom equipment, summarizing, dealing with problems (both linguistic and behavioral) is tough! After 90 minutes of politically-correct methodology I am exhausted! It’s funny how learner-centered methodology can be so tiring to the teacher, whereas teacher-centeredness is much more relaxing.

So, I can see why a teacher might go into the main lecture hall with his power point slides (updated a bit every year), turn off the lights, face the screen and speak on his topic for 90 minutes. Maybe students are bored shiftless. Maybe half are asleep. Who cares? He’s teaching to whoever may be listening. Those who make the effort will learn something, he knows. If students don’t want to attend or listen he doesn’t care. It’s university after all. It’s their choice- he’s not a babysitter and he’s not there to entertain. nd at the end of the semester he gives the big lecture hall a class a single paper test and fails the ones who didn’t meet the standards. He knows his content well enough- he knows that it’s sound- and he’s passing it on to whoever may be interested, even if that's only a few souls (like this blog, perhaps!). At the end of the 90 minutes he’s not tired at all. He heads back to the lab where he can do his REAL work with the select graduate students who he’s entrusted with on a day-to-day basis, students who are really into the topic. Where he really feels like an EDUCATOR!


Yeah, yeah, I know that this violates the “Good English” teacher code and that I should hand in my teaching license to the relevant authorities for even thinking of this etc. etc. and, true, I wouldn’t allow myself to actually ever do it. But I CAN see the attraction. Just sayin’.

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June 03, 2009

English course exemptions and money matters

1. Class exemptions:

Most universities worldwide will offer course exemptions on basic courses to students who have transferable credits. We do too. Medical school attracts a number of transfer students, graduates, and even a few folks from the working public who’ve decided that they ‘have a dream’. If these students have a credit equivalent for English Communication or other basic English courses they are exempt from attending those courses at our university. I suspect that is true for most universities anywhere.

We have another exemption that is, in my opinion, less justifiable. A student with an 800+ TOEIC score is also exempt from the basic English communication courses. (In fact, at one time it was set at a paltry 550[!!!)). When students got word of that, a large number currently enrolled in the classes took a TOEIC exam and passed the 550 level easily, dropping out of my class halfway through the semester. It became an easy out, a credit given for success on a commercial venture- paper credit.

The biggest problem is that there is a huge difference between training for, and taking, a TOEIC test, and the interactive, process-learning, discourse-based English and resultant tasks that students practice (and hopefully master) in my classroom. A high score on an extracurricular, commercial examination has little connection to the contents learned and skills developed in my class. While that course is officially called 1st year Eigo Communication, it actually serves as an introduction to basic medical English discourse- and you can be sure students didn’t cover THAT on the TOEIC exam. The TOEICers haven’t gone through the process, and the process is what an interactive, COMMUNICATIVE course is all about.

Actually, neither have the transfer students. As a result, they enter general medical courses later on unfamiliar with the jargon, patterns, rhetorical style, modes of English medical discourse, what-have-you because they had an English 101 transfer credit from another university. A credit transfer from a course that had little or nothing to do with mine.

Ok. While I understand the need to grant some exemptions I wistfully recall the days when all 1st year students at my university were required to take the class- even if they were Tokyo U. graduates who had lived in the U.K. for 12 years and had TOEIC scores off the charts (and yes, we have a few students like that). Those students acted as mentors to others. They raised the bar. They raised the maturity level, the aura of seriousness in the class. They were role models. And I could still make tasks that challenged them because they were new to the whole medical discourse thing.

Some students with extensive English skills/experience do still take the Eigo Communication classes. But these tend to be younger students who lived abroad and are entering university for the first time and did not take a TOEIC exam. Naturally, there is a mixed bag. Some give off a “Been there done that” air (although the know-it-all-ism catches up with them pretty quickly). Some can be a bit too diffident in their approach to English or interactions with the teacher (the exaggerated ‘I know what students in America are like and so I’m going to affect those postures too!’ vibe). Interestingly, those who have daily-life English experience but who are still young and immature are often those most likely to start using Japanese in the classroom, poisoning the atmosphere, or be prone to putting their heads down to sleep or otherwise making ostentatious gestures of apparent indifference or boredom.( Again though, this is true of some, not the majority, of younger ‘returnees’).

I miss what the more mature, experienced students brought to the classroom. They knew how to be a student, they knew effective classroom habits, study habits, social interactions, and their influence could be felt throughout the classroom. I wish the exemptions didn’t exist. I feel like there is still a lot that my class could offer those students- but even more so there is so much that they could offer the younger students.

2. Money matters and education:

It is usually the ‘right’ thing to say something like, “We should take the money out of military spending and put it into something productive, like education” but sometimes I wonder. Have you ever visited those schools that have computer systems that could dwarf NASA’s but are used by a total of about 6 students for about 30 minutes a day each? How about those tiny, unused rooms that have state-of-the-art BlueRay setups so complex that no one at the school actually knows how to run anything more than the basic DVD program on it- and the rooms are usually locked anyway?

Getting money – or more accurately, procuring a big budget- generally just means more work for those of us at universities, since we have to preen and pose prettily for our yen in this era of semi-privatization (houjinka). These days, if you are getting grants you have to fill out several hundred elaborate forms, write dozens of interim reports, produce lushly illustrated pamphlets, lengthy account lists, follow newly-established FD protocols, and basically spend your time and energy doing things to justify having your big budget. And why carry out all this busy work? So that you can apply for the big budget again next year!!! And, frankly speaking, I’m not so sure that all of these materials we have to produce are looked at deeply by the officials who approve the funding. Sometimes I get the feeling that we could write, “We contributed the money to North Korea’s self-defence” or “We blew it all on booze and floozies” and no one would bat an eyelid (come to think of it, the latter might be considered a normal expenditure in some circles- nyark, nyark).

The treadmill goes round and round. The unfortunate thing, it seems to me, is that the expenditure-to-actual-educational-attainment ratio is negligible. Standard text books, magic markers, whiteboards and a visual display unit in classrooms should cover 95% of what teachers do (at least what English teachers do). Up to date computers and software? Yeah- for the teachers. Printers, copiers etc. too. But students seem to do 95% of what they do on their own keitais. Except for the very occasional extracurricular use of expensive E-learning software programs, on-campus computers don’t seem to get a lot of use (and I'm not just talking about my own little neck of the woods here). Now I’m not going to say that this is a waste of money. Installing a complex e-learning system probably keeps a few salesmen, business-types and factory workers employed. Keeping the money flow liquid is important in these times of economic downturn. I know that these things also lend prestige to an institution (they look good in pamphlets photos and explanations, and will inevitably be the type of room that visitors of note will be lecturing in). And I must admit that having my airfare, hotels and per diem for attending foreign conferences fully covered makes business trips doubly pleasant.

But the big question is, are we working merely to maintain budgets or to educate? OK- if that sounds a bit too St. Francis Of Assisi, meaning that it sounds like I’m heading in the direction of arguing that teachers should all impoverish themselves as servants to public service, here’s a suggestion of what to do with that extra money: Raise teachers’ base salaries! Seriously! National university professors do not make much money (and I’m sure this statement doesn’t hold true only for national university profs)! I have advanced academic degrees, 20 years’ experience teaching, and enough publications/presentations to stun an ox, but my monthly salary is equal to that of most Eikaiwa teachers I know with less than 5 years’ experience.

Don't get me wrong, I’m not pulling rank here- it’s just a fact. I myself earned more as a vocational school teacher 15 years back than I do now (cue violins). I have a friend who has been working at his school for 10 years. When his students graduate and find work their names, employers, and salaries are often made known. To his chagrin, my friend noticed that many students who joined the workforce straight out of high school were already earning more than he was- despite being a 10 year vet with a degree!

OK- Many university full-timers do get good fringe benefits. I’ll admit that. We get bonuses. Pension, insurance, health plans and housing allowances are the norm, at least at National universities. We get a retirement payment. Our study and research trips get fully paid for. The perks are quite generous. But the total is still not what you might think. The idea is, of course, that national university teachers are performing a type of public service. That’s fine- most teachers are happy to make sacrifices for the education of the students- but it still pains me to see money thrown around merely to maintain the budgetary cycle. Just like the road construction crews, the department has to spend its allotted budget in time in order to get the same funding again next year and repeat the Sisyphian task.

The end result? The feeling that my value as a worker is not so much to educate, or even to feed my family, but merely to keep the budget treadmill going.

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June 15, 2009

The Daily Yomiuri column (and two more grammar puzzles)

1. Two more student-generated grammar puzzles

A few more classroom questions about English that have popped-up recently. (Note to readers- it’s not that I don’t have answers to these questions or am befuddled as to how to deal with them. The idea here is to throw out some oddities and ask how you would address or explain them):

A. I’m 18 years old.
vs. I’m an 18 year old boy.

The plural for years disappears in the 2nd case. Why? After all, the ‘18’ is still explicit.

B. I come from Oita. Oita is one of the prefectures in Kyushu
vs I come from Oita. Oita is a prefecture in Kyushu.

Why does the former seem awkward? (In Japan the former seems to be taught as a legitimate way of expressing the latter)

2. That Daily Yomiuri newspaper column I write

As some readers know, I write a monthly column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper called ‘Indirectly Speaking’. The focus is on EFL learning and teaching in Japan. Since I get asked the same questions about that gig a lot I thought I’d answer some here in indulgent self-interview form.

Q- How did you get that gig with the Yomiuri?
A. Six years ago they were actively seeking articles on EFL/ESL for their Language Connection section. I wrote one about the importance of the awareness of pragmatic force in EFL classrooms. They seemed to like it and asked me if I wanted to continue to so on a monthly basis. They may still be looking for contributors- I haven’t checked recently.

Q- Why the title ‘Indirectly Speaking’?
A- Only because that first article was about pragmatic force and thereby, implicatures, which of course is an indirect way of communicating. I’ve wanted to change the title but the editor seems to like it as it is.

Q- Do you get a huge stack o’ money for these articles?
A- No. I get a very basic gratuity.

Q- So why do it? Do you get a publication credit?
A- It’s neither refereed nor academic so I don’t get a publication credit. It goes onto my resume and database as a kind of professional social service, flying the flag of the university I suppose. Basically, it’s a nice public format for self-expression.

Q- Do the editors impose a lot of rules and restrictions?
A- Not really. They want me to do op-ed/commentary articles so that’s what I do. As long as its connected to English teaching in Japan I have free reign. I’m pretty sure they don’t want the articles to be too vanilla so I try to say something a little offbeat each time but without being deliberately provocative or knee-jerk contrarian. I have to keep in mind that not all readers are teaching professionals and that over half are not English native speakers too. There is also a word limit of 1000-1200 words which is the hardest part for a bombastic, grandiloquent, blowhard like myself. The copy editors usually write the titles, although I might suggest something else if I’m not happy with what they’ve come up with.

Q- Do you get a lot of comments from readers about the articles? And what are these comments like?
A- I always get at least a few follow-up comments for the less controversial columns and quite a number for the more controversial items- about two-thirds of these are from native English speakers. If they write to my personal mail address (attached to the columns) they are usually positive. Japanese teachers are apt to ask more for clarification but can also be very critical. I give them credit for writing directly to me and questioning my positions though.

Online, if you do the right word searches you’ll find some unflattering comments about the columns. Some are just downright weird- people with bizarre chips on their shoulders, those with a knee-jerk reflex to ‘take my uni big shot punk ass downtown’. Others clearly haven’t understood the article (and have obviously not even made the effort to try) but that doesn’t stop them from spouting off all sorts of nonsense. A few offer thoughtful and constructive criticism but the typical internet forums are obviously not great founts of such insight (‘You are a looser and a moran’). This is the price you pay when you have even the slightest public profile so I shrug it off and have stopped looking. The only comments I find frustrating are those that engage in unfounded speculation about my work or background (‘I heard that Guest didn’t graduate from high school and actually works part-time at a Mr. Donut and got this column through his family’s LDP connections’ ). That type of thing. Go figure.

Q- Is it hard?
A. Coming up with topics and ideas is not. The biggest problem is the last-minute editing. If you write much you probably know the feeling when you’ve stared at something so long you no longer see it objectively- when your eyes pass over an obvious problem. Or, you make one small change that demands a restructuring or rephrasing elsewhere. Then you have to change something else to avoid repetition but that throws the main idea out of order. So you start tinkering with it too much and, like messing with the intestines of the computer, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be making the whole thing worse.

With a blog like this I can re-edit without any concern but with a newspaper column, once it’s published any blotches remain blots forever. When I read the article on the day of publication I occasionally notice some sloppy stylistic problem or an out-an-out error which is now staring at me boldly in the face. It can feel a bit like looking in the mirror after you’ve been chatting up an attractive lady and seeing a big green chunk of spinach jutting out from between your teeth.

Q- Has anything strange happened regarding these columns?
A. One got reprinted in the China Daily so it was all over English-speaking China. Wouldn’t you know it- that column was about the difficulties that Japanese have with acquiring English. I had no idea that the Yomiuri let the China Daily copy it (I certainly wasn’t informed).
The Star (a Malaysian newspaper) ran the same piece which lead to a Japanese person living in Malaysia to write a baffling response (I'll post the link to this when I find it) accusing me of linguistic imperialism and generally a being bigoted know-nothing.

Some universities have also used my columns as texts on their entrance exams but they don’t tell me until the exams have finished (due to exam security). They have a deal with the Yomiuri such that columns like mine can be used without explicit written consent.

Anything else you might want to know?

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June 25, 2009

The 'Gaijin Party'- some classroom recipes

I think one expectation that the operators of this website had when asking me to blog here is that I might throw out the odd helpful classroom recipe for teachers looking for ideas. Actually, most of my lessons are very localized- rather idiosyncratic, eclectic, and geared specifically towards university-aged nursing or medical students (more on how I, a non-medic, do content-based lessons for such students will be dealt with here in the near future). But I do have a few lessons that are general, transferable, and always seem to come off well in the classroom (both in terms of student response and utility). I’ll write about those today.

A few of these (ahem) ‘greatest hits’ lesson recipes have appeared in the My Share column of The Language Teacher magazine over the years.
You can see an old one about using crosswords to teach explanation strategies here .

You can see another one about students making their own tests, here.

And a third, called Grammar Gambling, can be found here .

I’ll describe another successful lesson below. It’s called ‘Gaijin Party’. And here’s how it works:

1. You’ll have to make a bunch of cards that contain a foreigner’s name, job, and country. To indicate the truly international scope of English I tend to choose non or semi-native English speaking countries. It also legitimizes imperfect or broken English in the eyes of the students. Have enough female and male names to match the gender of your students.

2. Pre-activity. In groups have students brainstorm on questions they think would be good to ask foreigners who they’ve just met at some party in Japan. About 6-8 per group should be good. Collect the lists and make a grand list of the best, most appropriate, useful, conversation-engaging questions on the board. Some grammar/vocab/interaction/politeness/culture points may be dealt with here too (NB- forbid the dreaded nattou question)

3. Now, half of the students will become foreigners. This means you will give them one card (see step 1 above) each. These students are sent into the hall. They will be the foreigners listed on the cards and they will be attending an international party in the classroom. While they wait outside they have to think about their ‘story’ and character.

4. The half that stay inside the classroom are themselves, Japanese ‘hosts’ of the party. Briefly go over some ‘first meeting’ protocol such as greetings, offering a drink, seat etc. The hosts can practice this for a few minutes and also try to memorize those best questions that have been collected earlier by the teacher so that they don’t talk to the foreigner from a script.

5. While these hosts practice and prepare this, you can brief the ‘foreigners’ outside. Do they have any questions about their identities? (Some will not understand some jobs or countries, and maybe name pronunciation- the latter being less important because it’s not like the hosts will know any better). Explain that they will go to the party one by one (often through 2 doors simultaneously if you have a large classroom and number of students) by knocking and then waiting for a host to come to the door and greeting them. They must put their cards away before entry. Also, arrange an entry order, which you will moderate.

6. Check that the hosts are ready to meet, greet and talk with the foreigners. Arrange a greeting order for the hosts and prepare them to listen for knocks. Hosts should not follow the board list order of questions or read from a script (learning to negotiate meaning and using strategies for that purpose is a key skill in this activity).

7. Start the activity. Send in the foreigners one by one, making sure that a host is coming to greet each and every one.

8. Let them chat for quite awhile as you monitor the ‘party’ classroom. They WILL do it in English and they will have fun. Most will use the strategies and questions that have been deemed fertile.

9. After sufficient chat time do a round up as follows:
Point out that they could have a good conversation despite limited English. Point out that most English speakers in the world are not native speakers and in fact communicate in similar ways. Point out that using the guest’s names and asking about native countries and jobs in more detail can be engaging.

10. Reverse the guest/host roles, dish out new ‘Gaijin’ cards, and do it again.

11. If there is sufficient time at the end, you can teach and practice a 3-way introduction. “Taro, have you met ---? This is Ahmed from Iran. Ahmed, Taro a student here at ---".

I’ve been doing this lesson early on in the spring semester for several years now. It’s a motivator and it involves transferable language and interactive skills. It can also serve as a consciousness raiser.

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July 03, 2009

Lessons are not lectures!

Note to university personnel:
I wish you wouldn’t call my lessons ‘lectures’ in English. I know you are just trying to translate the Japanese but I find the word problematic. Sorry, but it's a personal thing. “Lectures” brings forth the image of a teacher expounding in front of the class for the whole 90 minute period, transmitting ‘information’ or, perhaps, spouting of personal opinion or research results. I don’t do that. And I don't want you to think that I do that.

OK, maybe that’s just semantics but the mentality behind the nomenclature seems to be pervasive、not to mention the effect it ultimately has an effect upon how students approach the classes. For example, note the requests that I put my ‘lecture notes’ online or have ‘lecture note’ provisions readily available for absent students. Although I sometimes have handouts outlining the tasks and procedures, and maybe a few examples of whatever language target I want the students to focus upon, but they are hardly lecture notes. My whiteboard will be full of scribbles by the end of the lesson, determined by the ebb and flow of the lesson, what needs to be clarified, highlighted, or reinforced depending on how the class is handling the task. That’s about as close to ‘lecture notes’ as I get. If students don’t come to class and try out the tasks and get on the spot guidance they will not learn- and no amount of ‘lecture notes’ will help.

Then there’s that place in the online syllabus where I’m supposed to write my week-by-week lesson plan. Trouble is it’s not as if I do one unit a week, something like “this week we’ll do the perfect tense, next week phrasal verbs”. Tasks and activities extend over a few classes, timing and positioning are flexible depending upon how I see the students’ progressing with a task. I might decide that an extra class or half is needed here or a review is needed there. The ‘one distinct unit per lesson’ approach tends to make students think that they can miss a class, get the ‘notes’, and then jump right back in without missing a beat, whereas in reality, with all the extended tasks and flexible time frames, they can easily become lost. I would hope that my overall classroom goals as stated elsewhere on the syllabus would suffice, rather than giving what would be a stifling and ultimately inaccurate week-by-week rundown.

And about that end of semester test season. The papers you send each semester ask me to fill in a date for my ‘test’. The implication here is that my class culminates in one final test that determines the students’ grades. And moreover, that this test is the final meeting with the students so that the students get no feedback on strengths, weaknesses- probably not even a score unless they are required to take a re-test. These forms further ask whether I will 1) do a test or 2) have the students write a report. Yet, in my online syllabus I have written that evaluation will be based upon a combination of in-class role-plays, in-class tests, other assignments, and effort/participation. Why this 'test OR report' binary straitjacketing?

Yes, this has an effect on students. They are fed this system so much that even though I outline the grading process in my first class, somehow in the back of their minds they are still convinced that the term-ending test determines everything and that if they miss a lot of classes or generally screw up, it will all be made better by writing a ‘report’ or just cramming up for the final. Go figure.

The ‘lecture’ mentality can even affect the actual classroom atmosphere. In purely lecture-styled classes students can come in late, surreptitiously slink into an empty chair at the back of the room and soon get up to speed on note-taking or whatever it is they do at lectures. But not in my English classroom. In the first few minutes I have usually introduced a focus or target for the lesson, maybe held some small interactions on this, have explained and handed out a print which outlines or guides the task, and have made partners or groups. Then Mr. or Ms. Sleepy wanders in late and I’m expected to go over it all again for their benefit so that they can participate. This is the legacy of thinking of every class as a lecture, something that you can just drop in or plug into or out of at any point.

Oh, and I don't really need that little lectern at the front of my classroom.

I simply wish that a questionable pedagogical approach (for EFL at least) would not be manifest in the university's official framework. Can we get past this?

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July 16, 2009

My students' English skills- it's not up to me

*I have edited the title since the original seemed just a little too...acerbic, especially when my blog is being hosted on a website where it might give off an unwelcome image

OK. Before you declare me negligent in my duties, unfit to be entrusted with the nation's youth, or lacking the basic sensibilities expected of a teacher, after reading this blog entry title, hear me out.

Maybe it's the hammer-like humidity of the summer, when the promise that sparkled at the beginning of the academic year has dissipated into the routine, even the banal, by the close of the semester. Maybe it's the fact that I've been suffering from a badly herniated disc and resultant sciatica which has, as of this blog entry, reduced me to a hospital bed with minimal
movement. Maybe it's the jaded culmination of twenty plus years of teaching swelling into cynicism- but many would also call it honesty.

OK. I know some teachers, especially private teachers of children who have developed and mastered their craft who feel honest-to-goodness joy at the growth and success of their young learners. More power to them. I can understand their enthusiasm. The glow on a child's face when you and they both know that a new skill has been mastered, can be heart tugging. It's a little like that moment when your child first gets control of their bike and you feel the tears well up. I'm not immune to, or unaware of, these Kodak moments.

But it's hard to feel that way at a university. First, you have a few hundred students, changing each year- maybe even each semester. It's hard to establish a personal rapport to the extent that you develop some emotional attachment. The students also tend to be more jaded and cynical too. This might be based on age, previous educational experiences, or the large classrooms (those who teach advanced tutorials and/or seminars or act as thesis advisers may
well feel differently). English too may be a required class when their academic interests are really focused elsewhere such that English becomes a class to merely get through. Regardless, personal attachment is more fleeting at the university level.

There's another factor too- one that reflects a personal pedagogical maxim. It's not up to me if the students don't become skilled at English or not. It's up to them. At this age more autonomy and self-motivation should be expected and if the student doesn't hear the clarion call of commitment towards English, then so be it. That's their choice. It's a little like being a counselor. If the counselee shows no interest in improving their own condition there is little or nothing you can do to help. And you can't let other people's priorities consume you as a professional.

Now don't even think for a second that this means I don't care about the quality of my classes, of giving my students the best lessons possible within the structure provided. Every class is well-thought out, meticulously prepared, with all pedagogy carefully groomed for maximum educational impact. I make a big effort in my classes both on the motivational/keep interest axis and the transferable skills/educational content axis. I find it anathema as a teacher to throw out some textbook assignment and have students work away while I skulk at the front of the class, looking at my watch and trying to will the minute hand to lunch time, when I will take a three hour off-campus lunch because I don't have any class after lunch. Not even
close. I am, as the sports cliche goes, giving it 110%. After a class or activity that didn't go well, I am like the hockey player who, after having given up the puck and heading to the bench will bang my stick against the boards and sit with my head down, determined not to make the same mistake again.

Nor, despite the title of this blog entry, does it mean that if and when students come to me for help or advice because they really want to take a step forward in their English abilities that I will be indifferent or standoffish. Far from it. I will feel pleased that they are making a choice or commitment and will do my best to offer advice and help but no, I don't feel excitement at being a part of their 'English adventure'. If they want to take a step forward I will be there for support but, again, I really don't care whether they make that choice in the first place or carry it out because that is ultimately up to them.

Yes, when a student comes to me after taking an advanced test, license or other qualification in English, or uses English to have a positive, mind-expanding experience out there in the world, again I can feel happiness for the success- but it is muted. It is not joy. It is not like the piano teacher who tutors a special talent and becomes so engrossed in the prodigy's successes or failures that they effectively become emotional extensions of their pupils- the kind where Sensei's tears of joy or sorrow are regularly shed.

At a university it is almost impossible to get that emotionally committed or involved with individuals (in fact, in some cases this could actually be dangerous). Here, professionalism usually manifested in creating pedagogically-sound classes, giving learners the best possible basis for, to use a sports cliche yet again, students to take the ball and run with it themselves. I can help set a foundation, but whether they use that foundation to drive down the field for a touchdown, is something I remain, for the most part, detached from.

I bet I'm far from being the only one.

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July 30, 2009

The So-Called Off-Season or No, I am not eating a banana pancake in Kuta as I write this

The other day one of my genkier students popped by my office to chat and check up on my condition (see the previous blog entry). Her opening line was, "Oh! You're here! I thought you would be probably be away on your summer holidays". This was 4 days after the last regular class had finished.

Why do so many people- even colleagues- assume I'm on my 'summer holiday' as soon as the last class is completed?

OK- I can forgive the parents in the neighborhood who, having their kids at home, assume that Sensei is equally free to frolic as he/she pleases. But students and colleagues? C'mon!

Here's the deal, folks. I work at a national university so I am considered a civil servant and civil servants don't get 'summer holidays'. Yes, we are officially allowed to take 20 workdays off over the course of a year. We are rarely able to take them.

True, we are also given three extra summer work days off. (We can choose which days but interestingly, the majority of my Japanese colleagues take the three days that correspond to O-bon, which is one of the worst times to travel of course, but with extended family obligations and celebrations...
As for me, I tend to use the days in mid-September when prices and crowds drop)

The reality is that actual classes take up very little of my total time and effort, and again, I know this is true for many teachers out there. But for those who think I'm getting a full body massage in Goa as I write this here's what we do during the so-called university off-season:

1. Tests and re-tests (automatic passes at university? Hah!)

2. Grading (including lengthy essays) and entering the marks followed by a disgruntled student who comes by and wants to know exactly how you calibrated his final score of 64.

3. Meeting one-on-one with students whose assignments need further work- and rarely those students you really want to meet

4. Committees- things like the bi-annual meeting of the Committee to Statistically Re-Confirm the Auxiliary Status of General Committee Contingency Planning. I have several of these babies. And we are required to produce sub-committee reports

5. The bulk of entrance exam content enters the mold at this time. Native English speakers are inevitably involved in this

6. Summer course and special classes have to be taught- I have to teach a concentrated course (15 sessions in 4 days) in Comparative Culture and English Education at Kumamoto U. next week. I have a similarly concentrated English for Medical Purposes 5th year course to teach at the end of August. Both demand a fair bit of preparation

7. Fall is conference season. The proposals have already been put in but summer is the time to work on the presentations, power point slides, and accompanying papers

8. This is one of the few times during the year in which you can concentrate on doing, writing, or editing research. Considering a university teacher may be expected to produce three or four items per year, this can take up an undue amount of time and effort

9. Lengthy write-ups for kaken-hi research grants

10. This is the time of year that doctors and medical researchers come to my office and ask me to check their English. This holds true for many office workers producing English documents too

11. A large national conference on Medical Education is to be held in Miyazaki in early September and I have to give a report and presentation on our English education system. This involves a fair bit of advance co-ordination since we are serving as quasi-hosts

12. Yeah- that thing I forgot

So, no, I'm not back in Canada for a full two months. At best if I decide to visit the family in Canada I could grab about a week or so before work obligations would come a knockin'. And no, I'm not backpacking around the beaches Thailand while I blog.

So, now you- dear reader- know the score, and no doubt many of you are in a similar boat. But why oh why would many of my colleagues also assume that I'm off sipping Pina Coladas in the South Seas? 'Because that's what we've heard foreigners do on their summer vacations'? Why would they assume that I don't have committee work (like them), don't apply for grants (like them), don't research and publish it (ditto), don't have to teach or serve at special courses and events...keep on going...

The popular notion that the native English teacher must be hitting the bars of Siem Reap as soon as the final class bell rings troubles me. Can you see the light on in my office every morning from 8:30? Well, that's me!

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August 07, 2009

So, why teach English to medical students?

Yes, I know that most readers here do not teach English to medical students but I’m willing to bet that many readers teach some type of ESP, EAP, or teach to specific faculties so you can apply this to your own teaching circumstances. And while the titular question may seem obvious upon first glance I think it deserves a little deeper consideration.

I’ve listed responses in the order that most people (laymen?) assume to be accurate although it will soon become clear that I have different priorities.

1. If medical students have a non-Japanese speaking patient they will be more able to communicate with them- possibly even using the language to save a life

In my view, this is not a priority- in fact it is quite far down my list. Certainly students who plan to practice in St. Luke’s, Okinawa Naval, or other hospitals that have a high number of non-Japanese speaking patients can legitimately use this as a reason study English, but not most of mine. Most non-Japanese patients in Miyazaki hospitals (and in most of Japan outside Kansai and Kanto) will have some skill in Japanese, and in fact the majority of non-Japanese are likely to be Chinese or Korean anyway. But, more to the point, expecting students to put in a large amount of study on the one-off chance that 6 years later they may have an outpatient or two who can’t speak Japanese but understand English- an encounter that may last all of 5 minutes- is not sufficient motivation or purpose to study several English courses and credits at the university level.

This type of justification reminds of teaching English courses so that students can ‘enjoy’ a one week trip to Thailand or so that they may help a stray foreigner on the streets of Tokyo, cases in which the rather pithy and nebulous ends do not justify the means, especially so when one considers that the pedagogical forum is university education. Not only that, but the notion that a doctor will reach into his or her English lexical pocket 8 years after my class and remember the exact item or phrase BECAUSE THEY LEARNED IT IN MY CLASS is not going to occur enough to make it a primary motivation for teaching or learning the language.

2. To teach them medical terminology

Not at all. Why would I teach them medical terminology? They have dictionaries, don’t they? They can look terminology up when needed and, if it relates to their specific field of interest, they will be able to encode it without my explanation. Furthermore, there is a lot of medical terminology that I don’t know myself and, since I’m not a medical student or practitioner, I don’t have a particular interest in knowing.

Terminology in every field tends to be very narrow in terms of meaning range so such items are usually concrete and have strict 1-to-1 cognates between English and Japanese (in fact the Japanese is often just a katakana-ized version of the English). Although it is widely believed that such words are ‘difficult’ in fact they are generally very easy, in that definitions are precise and visceral.

3. Because medical professionals will have to read medical information in English, attend international conferences and possibly give presentations, write and read research papers in English, and engage with other professionals in the field

Now this is more like it. It is hard for a doctor to avoid all of the above. The chances of him/her doing some or most of the above regularly and consistently is far, far higher and of more lasting value (due to the focus upon skills over specific language items) that the belief that they will use English primarily to treat NJ patients or to learn terminology.

4. To provide a basis for those who really want to get more involved in the international medical arena, to offer them a taste and develop enthusiasm for the subject.

Although this may apply to only 10% of my students, the justification that my classes can provide a platform and serve as a stimulus to take the next step is a legitimate one. In fact, at my university we provide an advanced and intensive series of seminar and international exchange courses precisely to those who wish to answer that call, with my general courses serving as a foundation for those who want to take the deeper plunge.

5. Because having some awareness of English at the tertiary level should be a basic function of higher education.

I like this reason too. I often tell my students that when they become doctors many in society will think of them as elite, and as allegedly educated elites, it is expected that they will have some facility with English (and/or another language). This may not mean conversational skills, and it does not necessarily mean extensive grammar/vocabulary proficiency, but it does mean a greater sense and awareness of the forms of medical discourse, an overriding familiarity with the topic in English. (I plan to go into more detail on this in my next Yomiuri article later this month).

6. Because focusing upon content in another language is healthy for a learner’s cognitive development in general (especially at the tertiary level)

This is probably the best response, IMO- but the one least cited. When students are engaging meaningful content in a second language it helps them to more clearly organize the patterns of thought extant in their mother tongues. Also, when they are focusing upon meaningful content and tasks they are absorbing the forms of a second language naturally and often unconsciously, but are forced to think clearly and categorically in order to complete tasks. In short, it is good brain food and a hallmark of what university education should be all about..

I wonder if I have forgotten any valid justifications? And I wonder if readers find that the same is true in their own ESP, EAP, or other focused English teaching scenarios?

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September 23, 2009

Drop the puck! It's ELT Conference Season!

For a university English teacher fall means conference season. If you’ve got a budget, this is where a good chunk of it will likely end up. If you are trying to get established in the biz, make connections, or building up your resume with presentations, conferences are pretty much essential. They are also a good place to have a few drinks (after the presentations, that is) with your peers and shoot the breeze. You can take in as much academic stimulation as you like or treat it like a bit of a holiday. Or both.

I recently presented at the national JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) Conference in Sapporo, and the MELTA Conference in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, in June (quick descriptions of each event later in this post). My remaining schedule for the next few months includes:

1. CUE National Conference- Tezukayama University, Nara. Oct. 16-18
CUE is a JALT SIG. OK- let’s explain the acronyms. JALT is the Japan Association of Language Teachers and a SIG is a special interest group, with CUE being to the college and university educators group. This conference weighs most heavily on my mind right now because I’ve been invited as one of the two plenary speakers (apparently they couldn’t get Noam Chomsky), which usually means that I will present in one of those intimidating, cavernous amphitheatres more suited to full symphony orchestras or religious revival meetings fronted by charismatic 'prophets’ than for humble EFL commentary.

OK- I haven’t actually seen the CUE conference facility yet (actually this will be my first CUE national conference) but the fact that a hefty number of my peers will be there to stroke their beards while judging my academic worthiness adds more than a bit of pressure.

Anyway, I’ll be speaking on “An Immodest Proposal; that all university English teaching be ESP/EAP”. I’m also part of a follow-up panel discussion on the topic (ESP- English for specific purposes; EAP- English for Academic Purposes). Heckle politely please, I’m sensitive.

2. JALT National Conference- Shizuoka, Nov. 19-23
Although the JALT conference (and JALT membership) is open to any language teacher it has become a de facto university teachers’ association headed and maintained largely by dead, white, university-teaching males like myself (note to women and non-Caucasian males- yes, I know that a lot of you are active contributing members to JALT but I’m talking about the outward image here. You know what I mean. I hope).
This is the place to spot Mr. James look-alikes. It’s also the place where you can check out name badges as surreptitiously as possible and note things like, ‘So that’s the guy who attacked my article in that online newsgroup!’ or “So that’s the brainy woman who writes all those clever articles in the TLT” (The Language Teacher- JALT’s monthly).

What ultimately makes this a de facto university teachers’ conference is the whopping 17,000 Yen fee for the conference (and that’s for basic pre-registration). If you’re not on a university budget, and when you add transport and hotels to the cost, it can burn a hole in your pocket. However, you DO get your money’s worth. This is (IMO) the best run conference in Asia- the organizers seem to have thought of everything. There’s a cheery air (not to mention a lot of old boy back patting) and better displays, food, and related events than you find at other conferences. And the variety of topics and presentations is so widespread and comprehensive that you can always find something stimulating and worthwhile.

Let me add here that JALT is a good place to earn a spot by presenting something that appears very up-to-date, radical/progressive, and statistic/research-based. “Does Twitter negatively gender balance in language education? An empirical analysis” is the type of title that gets the JALT steering committee all hot ‘n steamy.

I’ll be presenting “EFL Training Programs for International Exchange” at this year’s conference with my UOM colleague, Rick White.

3.ETJ Kyushu Expo
ETJ means English Teachers Japan and, in addition to the Kyushu Expo in Fukuoka on Dec. 06, there are several similar ETJ Expos being held all over the country. ETJ is affiliated with, but is not an official subsidiary of (I hope I’m getting the terminology correct) David English House Empire Incorporated (the multi-national cabal). OK- I’m joking here. The DEH tentacles are wide-reaching but benevolent.

The ETJ organization does place emphasis upon the teaching of children although not exclusively so. The audience/participants at the ETJ expos nonetheless tend to include a higher percentage of Japanese HS, JHS and elementary school/JET and AET/Conversation school teachers than the other conferences listed here. The upshot is that there are fewer pretensions at the ETJ Expos- it’s a simpler, more familiar feeling. And the entry fee is more than affordable: 500 yen for members, and ETJ membership is free..

The presentations here often lean towards the practical than the theoretical. Recipe-types seem to be very popular indeed. The conference is not supposed to be ‘academic’ although many presenters certainly display a strong academic foundation. I’ll be presenting “12 Goals for Culture Teaching to Young Japanese Students” at the Fukuoka Expo Dec. 06th.

The two I've already presented at this year are:

1. The JACET Conference (held Sept. 06-08 in Sapporo). JACET stands for Japan Association of College English Teachers. Unlike JALT, this organization really is only limited to college and university types. Most members (by far) are Japanese. The national conference always seems to me to be a very sober affair- much less festive than JALT and with a more pronounced ‘read your paper’ motif. Most presentations are thirty minutes- the standard Japanese twenty for the presentation and ten for Q and A division, although in fact the Q&A rarely lasts that long and the moderator feels forced to ask questions. Until recently the conference was (in)famous for older gentlemen in suits and ties sitting at the back with their hands poised over bells to announce the twenty minute time limit (and the now ubiquitous “five more minutes” cards). This always gave me a sense that simply getting through my presentation- carrying out the bureaucratic necessities- was more important than what we actually presented but that may be changing. JACET also brings out a lot of narrow-field specialists with presentations titled “The redaction criticism of aspect in post-De Sauserre genre informatics reevaluated”.

2. MELTA- This Malaysian conference is a relative newcomer to the field but like most South East Asian conference is very welcoming (there are a lot of associated parties and events). This year’s conference was held in Johor Bahru, just outside Singapore. Interestingly, even though it is relatively new and not well advertised there were still several Japan-based presenters (perhaps being held in the rather conference-barren month of June had something to do with it). Like most South East Asian conferences, it was held in a hotel which meant that several of the presentation rooms were designed for wedding receptions, not language seminars. It can feel a bit odd standing there talking about learner autonomy research in a setting that screams “And now a toast for the bride”.

I also had a presentation scheduled for the International Conference on Applied Linguistics in Iran for late this September but due to the political turmoil there it has been cancelled. This is all very unfortunate, but obviously more so for the Iranian people involved.

The biggies on a worldwide scale are of course the TESOL Conference and the IATEFL Conference although these tend to fall at bad times and in difficult locations for yours truly to attend. Comprehensive lists of language-teaching (and related specialty) conferences can be found online. Here is a good one.

On the ‘possible’ list over the next six months (depending upon money, classes, time, and the opportunity to present) are:
PAC 5 at PALT (The Philippines)
ETA-ROC (Taiwan)
TESOL Arabia
Asia TEFL Conference
KOTESOL Conference (Korea)
CamTESOL (Cambodia)

I’ll write more on these conferences (and the process of applying and presenting at conferences) in the next blog entry.

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October 08, 2009

Unintentionally positive discrimination, fraternizing, and all that

A potpourri of smaller items today.

1. Unintentionally positive discrimination
Here's a case in which native-English speakers actually receive a positive break in the university heirarchy.

Like all national universities in Japan, ours has a database in which our various achievements, duties, involvements and so forth are compiled. These are assigned points, depending upon the size of the achievement, importance of duty (usually meaning committee work) and so on. The total 'value' of your database score can be a factor when renewing contracts.

Interestingly, in our database, a presentation given abroad is given a higher ranking than a domestic presentation. So are papers published in English, especialy in foreign journals. This is obviously meant to emphasize the importance of international recognition and of furthering academic horizons for Japanese academics. But of course, this also means that without too much effort, almost by default, I can pick up a lot of easy database points.

So, here's the 'moral' question. If we operate upon the principle of complete equality then I should be subject to the same system and rankings as my Japanese colleagues, right? But clearly this 'equality' favours me in some respects as a native speaker of English. So it is quite arguable that this full equality is actually unfair. An interesting dilemma.

Here's the counterbalance though- not being fully competent in Japanese (and I mean hardcore academic or administrative Japanese here) means that I inevitably take a lower ranking in other categories- I will not be taking high-ranking roles on committees or positions of high influence within the community or wider society in general (which is a key section on the database). And this will always be my achilles heel as an NJ.

2. The unending mystery of contract renewals...
I've written on this topic earlier but I keep learning more, as the current Houjinka system has made contracts something of an open-ended free-for-all. Anyway, it seems that many university departments apply for grant money to establish new positions under the rubric of 'new researcher'. One of the conditions usually included is that the researcher not have worked in a university before. It is a way of finding new blood and giving these people a chance to get into the university system. As you know though, these are almost always limited contracts, dependant upon the nature of the grant or funding. Obviously, by definition, one can't be a 'new researcher' forever.

Many NJs are hired under such contracts (although the number of Japanese hired in this manner is inevitably higher). The notion is akin to that of a trial or probation period- after which there are several options. Once the contract expires, the idea is not necessarily that the 'new researcher' be kicked out on their asses but rather, if valued by the institution, they can be re-hired or re-contracted under a different, hopefully more permanent, designation which is funded from a different budget. This, in part, explains the musical chairs nature of some contract renewals.

Unfortunately this still also allows some university authorities the moral luxury of believing that NJs hired in this manner, and I mean those fully contributing, won't suffer much if the contract ends outright because they can always 'go home'. Luckily for me, my faculty does not think in this way and fully recognizes that we have lives and families in Japan. The upshot of course is that the NJ hired under such a contract is expected to fully operate as a part of the team, which includes...

3. Fraternizing (or not)
Recently I was asked to act as a Zacho (an academic Master of Ceremonies) for the foreign language section of a Pan-Kyushu university conference held in Miyazaki. This was a very Japanese conference with all the strict formatting and formalities you might expect. No, it was not just about foreign language study, but for all humanities subjects. It was a big suit and tie deal. As Zacho, I had to use very formalized Keigo (respectful) Japanese and follow the rather rigid 'way' of introductions, announcements and shitsugi oto (Q and A).

Now that was OK. I was glad to be asked to take part, which represented a further validation of my status at the university, plus a chance to learn the Zacho role and duly brush up on my Keigo. (even though it was held on a Saturday and with no extra pay- but hey, that's what you do to belong)

The problem was the party afterwards. I'm a family man and I had an important event with my son lined up so I told the organizer (from my uni faculty) that I wouldn't be able to attend the follow-up party. The effect was palpable. He did not criticize or attempt to dissuade me but there was clearly an air of having neglected my duty in his face, despite his "Oh, I see. Fine" response.

We all know that extra duty as a part of being on the team, including the post-kakari drinking and eating uchiage, is a sign of your commitment in Japan. But, and I'll be frank about this, the discussion and atmosphere at such events is not always so enjoyable for me. Sure, I like to have a few drinks and chat with colleagues but this was to be one of those more formalized- seiza ands speech- affairs with people who I really didn't have much connection with on a personal basis. And to be perfectly frank I feel more obligation towards my son.

Still though, even three weeks later, I have a sense of regret, that I have done the wrong thing as far as being in the university fraternity goes....

But on a positive note...

4. Good stuff from a student
Here's something that makes you feel good to be a teacher:

Last year I had a first year student who was a slacker. He missed too many classes and even in those he did attend he was inattentive and lazy. His evaluations reflected this and I failed him. Now at my university, General English is a required course and if you fail a required course you have to repeat the whole year (meaning you can take some second year classes but you will be classified as a first year student until you pass all the required courses).

Of course failing a student also means you get to see the laggards again next year and so this student entered my class once again recently for the second term. I expected much of the same from him but soon noticed that he was participating more actively, responding more dynamically with other students during the tasks, and generally seemed to be more into it.

At the end of class he approached me and told me in good, clear English that after failing last year he had asked himself why he had failed. Why did he suck at English and why was he so lazy and indifferent? To answer this he set a challenge for himself. He took six months off and went to Vancouver and focused on lifting his English skills up several notches.

And he did. His whole student deportment seemed to have been revitalized, his posture, the glint in his eyes. Here's a guy that realized he was lagging behind, challenged himself to pull up his bootstraps- and succeeded in doing so. Cool.

I wish I could say that his transformation came primarily from my teaching and my class but I'd be lying. Still, it's uplifting to see such students take the English bull by the horns...

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October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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October 22, 2009

Universities as glorified high schools

University is when students should be expected to take charge of their own education, to become autonomous learners, to be weaned from the dependency and passivity of high school pedagogy. Why then do so many universities in Japan do everything they can to foster the image of a glorified high school?

Take the chimes, for example. Yes, in a university!!! Although I've become somewhat inured to them over the years, I was shocked whern I first heard that kin-kon-kan-kon echoing through the uni corridors. Having students depend upon an automated command to get them into their classrooms on time does not bode well for the development of self-reliance or independence.

Next- look at those timetables. Most students seem to have each koma filled with a scheduled class. Five days a week, 4 koma a day. Little or no time for reflection, absorption or, most importantly, extended reading and research. Universities should be allowing students time to integrate what they've been learning, allowing time for further independent exploration, but no. It's the familiar high school regimen of one lesson after another, encouraging a passivity to content, a tacit reaffirmation of the lecturer-recipient notion of education.

This is also reflected in much university classroom architecture. Sure, unis the world over have some amphitheatre-styled classrooms but, despite their popularity on TV dramas as being somehow representative of standardized university 'atmosphere', in reality one can usually find far more facilities suited for interactive seminars or tutorials. But while Japanese educators seem to be very aware of the utility of seminars and tutorials, the architecture in Japanese unis rarely reflects this. Rooms used for seminars in Japanese unis often not seem designed for such a purpose, in fact they are often makeshift storage-type rooms. Seminar-type classes are often scheduled in rooms with a fixed frontal lecturn and fixed seats, moulded to the floor like prison toilets. Trust me, this is not conducive to seminar or tutorial-style engagement. Once again, it's all so redolent of high school. (Of course, many universities were designed in the late 60's or early 70's when Japanese educational architecture was apparently going through its Stalinist-Brutalist phase).

After their classes, which also foster that junior high schoolish separation of males and females, (sidebar- what is it with this? When I was a uni student I made damned sure that I was always in close proximity to attractive females as a matter of course!), students are behoven to THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THEIR UNIVERSITY EDUCATION- BUKATSU! (clubs). I don't blame them because the timetabling system pushes them into a recess-playtime mentality whenever free time, and the concomitant dangers of possible 'asobi' (shudder), raises its ugly head. But again, where is the disjunction from high school?

Another thing that is likely to make students reminisce about the warm, familiar bosom of high school ed is the odd habit seen in many uni faculties of having the exact same students going from class to class together as a single unit. So much for meeting a wide-variety of peers and exposure to different atmospheres. They can instead function as a unified troop, an alignment
that can be particularly hard on teachers, who might appear as unwelcome outsiders in such closed and secure personal settings.

Now it's not as if Japanese educators and/or administrators are unaware of the greater objectives of university education, the goals of developing the whole person. Many are explicitly opposed to a corporate training-ground mentality and decry the same dubious 'academic' meme that I've described above. So what gives?

One positive move that I have noted is the introduction of many EAP (English for Academic Purposes) type courses for first year students. Instead of a standard rules-based orientation, students are shown how to carry out research, take notes, deal with textbooks and homework assignments in a manner that befits a tertiary instution (or at least prepares them adequately for the rigors ahead).

This is a worthy first step away from the shackles of a high school mentality but there is still a long way to go.

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October 28, 2009

Needs analysis nonsense

Say your kitchen sink isn't functioning well. Water's not going down and the smell is starting to infest the whole kitchen despite your best efforts with the plunger. Call a plumber, right? So, he arrives, takes a perfunctory glance at the reeking drain and says, "I need to perform a needs analysis". Then he leaves. And he researches the causes of sink stoppage- what the symptoms may tell us as to best course of plumbing action. Two months of research later he returns and announces that research shows that "a coagulating agent may be blocking the drain".
Really now! And you know what else, balls are used in soccer!

Doesn't sound like much of a plumber, right? After all, a trained and licensed plumber should be able to make a quick diagnosis, based on his training and experience, and then immediately start getting inside the damned pipes and unclog them. And, if in that process something unexpected pops up, such as a family of decomposing badgers, we expect that he'll be able to adjust accordingly and improvise a solution. That's the idea of professionalism, n'est ce pas?

Right- except apparently for English teachers who seem to think that professionalism requires them to carry out a 'needs analysis' regarding their students. (I'll take a stab at the answer here- they need, um, English, right?).

I've expressed my criticism of 'needs analyses' as being uneccesarily obtuse and eggheaded elsewhere and I stand by it. So, do I think about my students' needs? Yeah. When I started working at a medical school I thought about it for, oh, five minutes or so. Here's what I came up with (and they still hold true 13 years later):
1. Medical students need to know medical discourse.
2. They will probably have to perform or attend English presentations at some point in their careers.
3. They will have to do academic reading, and likely writing, in English.
4. They will probably have to be able to communicate with non-Japanese fellow professionals at some point.
5. Some will never use much English again.
6. Some will work abroad in English intensive situations for long, sustained periods of time.
7. These students are generally right out of high school or yobiko and therefore will have a standard HS english education up to this point.
8. Some students will have been exposed to English abroad- perhaps extensively.

End of needs analysis. With this 5 minutes' worth of thinking in mind I started designing my courses. It hasn't failed me yet. Exactly which aspects of medical discourse they will be weak in and those which may be a priority is something I have gradually learned over teaching my classes, a constant refining to be sure. But I presume that every teacher learns about 'needs' this way and not by some detached in-advance 'study', as if the 'needs' are somehow out there just waiting to be discovered by a research project, like genomes in a petri dish (or wherever one finds genomes these days). Any teacher with the slighterst amount of classroom sense should also be able to make any adjustments based on perceptions after a few classes, and incorporate those insights into the program design for next year.

Very occasionally I have made use of corpus data but my educated-teacher common sense usually takes priority. Awareness of, but not blind dependence upon, copus data can be useful in designing lessons but a general awareness of authenticity is hardly the same as a 'needs analysis'.

Of course, the one thing you want to avoid with anyone under 23 years of age in a school or university is asking the students themselves what they want. You'll get the expected rigamarole of "to make friends", "for travel", "to learn about the world",, and in the case of medical students "to learn medical terminology". The bmost appropriate paraphrasing of the first three listed above might be "Whatever. I dunno", and as for learning terminology, well they don't always know what's good for them do they? That's why they're the students and we are the teachers.

And it seems to me that any teacher with training and qualifications should, by virtue of those credentials, have an almost immediate understanding of student needs. And if it's not clear then, take two more minutes to ask an administrator where most grads end up doing what and go from there. It's not that hard.

Now imagine that you do ask an administrator at your school where your students will likely take their English educations and he/she replies, "Well most of our males end up in construction crews and the majority of the girls gravitate towards the 'entrtainment' industry". What will you do then? Teach the females 'mizu shobai' lingo on the one-off that someday a client might be a non-Japanese speaker sampling the bright lights? Teach the guys some 'work talk' on the small chance that they will work with someone from a developing country (who will certainly be looking for the chance to brush up on their Japanese anyway)?

This exposes a problem with needs analyses- it treats language as largely instrumental. In a case like the above (admittedly extreme, but in order to make a point) sometimes the purpose of English might be instrinsic, mere exposure to the language in order to gain an appreciation of something that might be mind-expanding and could be applied at some later point if any individual chooses to do so. That doesn't come out on a needs analysis.

And it's fine when you have very narrow, specific goals that apply to ALL students, such as 15 grad students ALL needing to get a TOEIC certification and then going to research nuclear physics in the UK. But more often than not the expressed 'needs' will be both general and varied. And the inevitable conclusion that 'there are many needs' is not some kind of revealed truth that is hovering out there waiting to be discovered by 'analysis', it's something you should be able to gather from minimal exposure to any teaching situation.

Imagine what our students and colleagues must think when the allegedly trained professional shows up at his/her workplace without any apparent innate sense of what his charges 'need'. What impression will be created when he or she has to do a survey, a statistical compilation, and collate all the data before offering a sense of what might be best for their students?

It doesn't sound like professionalism to me.

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November 06, 2009

1. The image of MEXT and 2. Learning from open-ended conversation tasks

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd The Daily Yomiuri newspaper printed my most recent article in which I outlined some positives (and negatives) found in Monkasho (MEXT) guidelines. One of my reasons for writing that article was to show that a lot of typical criticism directed at MEXT policy is unfounded- although there are clearly still aspects of policy very much open to criticism.

However, it seems that some people don't like any mitigation in the negativity expressed towards MEXT as I found out thereafter (looking at some responses). Hmmm. I get the impression that some people's image of the Ministry of Education's home base is something like this:

MEXT is made up of a pair of greasy bureaucrats in blue polyester suits, with bad combovers, chain smoking in a poorly-ventilated Nagatacho back office, plastic bags of dried squid covering their cluttered desks. One, Ukon, can be assumed to be a rabid nationalist, whose main aim is to keep the pernicious influence of foreign languages out of the grasp of the natives, while the other, Makoto, is an uptight nerd from Tokyo University whose hobby consists of compiling obscure English minutiae to be placed into the national curricula or entrance exams. Oh yeah- and they harass the poor OL's in the office.

In fact, many of those involved in educational decision making are well-established professors and other highly-regarded cosmopolitan professionals in the field (including, at certain levels, native English speakers). Policy and rationale behind guidelines are freely available online, and many have English translations.

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

I've written and stated elsewhere on several occasions that the idea of 'teaching conversation' seems daft to me. Conversation is a social skill- if you are a skilled interlocutor in your 1st language you can usually carry over those traits to the 2nd. It's not like you have to learn again to be good at conversation when take up a new language (although it's true that you will need to gain awareness of peragmatic norms, discourse markers and the like- but that's not what people normally mean when they talk about 'teaching conversation').

Teaching conversation spawns images of Cyrano De Bergerac coaching the inarticulate Christian in his attempts to seduce Roxanne. This is surely not what ELT educators have in mind.

The other aspect of 'teaching conversation' that comes to mind is that of inculcating formulas and mantras to be learned. Highly instrumental ready-made samples of how to order a hamburger or what to say at immigration. This is not language teaching. In such cases you might as well just use a Lonely Planet guide as a textbook.

Yet I do carry out conversational tasks or activities in my classes. Why, you might well ask? One reason is quite obvious. Students can feel constrained if too many activities are limited in scope and teacher or text controlled. They do not feel that the language being used belongs to them, they are not really actively producing communicative content, they are detached from the communicative process.

It's like being a sport coach. Yes, you have to work on muscle training and technique but sometimes you just have to let the athletes play too.

But the big question has always been: How can students learn from an open-ended conversation activity? Won't they just be using the same language forms that they already know, making the same mistakes and basically driving in the same linguistic ruts that they always do?

Maybe. But they can get better from conversation practice if you do the following (which obviously I try to):
After the open conversation section students should be aware of which words or ideas they could not express well in English, which grammatical or lexical patterns did not communicate well, where they got bogged down.

These must be fixed. Students should study precisely these areas after the activity (or ask a teacher). In other words, the goal is to learn from your weaknesses. Once you know your weak points you can focus on them and polish them for the next round. I tell my students to make notes on these points immediately after any and every open-ended conversation-based task.

Another thing students can do to learn from conversation tasks is to note vocabulary or structural patterns that were used well and succesfully by their partners. We've all felt the 'Yes! That's the phrase I often forget' moment of recognition and inspiration when talking to others in our L2. But if they are not explicitly noted these useful tidbits are likely to fade from memory quickly.

So, students can learn from conversation practice (which is, of course, very different from the notion of 'teaching conversation') but it must be done using explicit conscousness-raising and note taking in order to be effective.

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November 26, 2009

Two mini entries: 1. Grammar, plurality, agreement and 2. Formalized brainstorming

Sorry the lack of an update recently- it's presentation season.

First today, some thoughts about grammar, plurality, and agreement:

OK. You'd say "The Beatles were great" right? After all, the word "Beatles" is explictly plural. Now what about King Crimson or Genesis? King Crimson were great or was great? (By the way, Fripp and co. are still active). Certainly both answers are possible and acceptable although I'd lean towards "was" myself. It seems that our ultimate choices will be informed by how we percieve a rock band in our minds- as a set of individual members or as a collectiive singular unit.

But let's take the same equation and apply it to sports teams. The Detroit Red Wings are really strong. OK- like The Beatles, there is an explicit plural so there's no controversy here. But how about the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Minnesota Wild? NO ONE would say "The Wild is struggling" or "The Lightning has improved this year". Now, like King Crimson, sports teams are collections of individuals and could thus be viewed collectively or as a plurality right? Yet there is little doubt that we would use plural verb agreement ("are" "were") for the sports teams.

So, what's the basis for the difference? It is true that grammatical norms are often determined by perception (i.e. when to deploy the perfect tense) but how/why are the rperceptions of rock groups functionally any different from those of the hockey teams?

Any ideas out there?

Second on today's menu- a beef. The hassles of classroom 'brainstorming'.

You know the scene. You want to start your class with a 10-minute warm up designed to get students focused, talking, on topic before launching into the main teaching task. You want it to be quick, sharp and clear. Except that your students make it laborious and time-consuming. Here's how- or at least here's how it happens in my case (using my most recent example):

I have pre-written on the board in black the following-
Today- first (10 minute opener):
my last visit to a doctor/hospital/clinic
duration and/or frequency
treatments and/or medications

Next to each category is blank space in red.

I tell the students they have six minutes to think of their own 'last visit' and to write down their answers in the blank spaces. "Write only your answers for each of these on a piece of paper" I say. "Fill in the red blanks according to your own case". I also add that if they don't know the word or phrase they want to write in English, they should look it up in a dictionary (although they are quite familiar with all the categories listed above).

The goal is to then have them tell partners the above information in full sentence form. While I presume they are writing their lists and/or looking up the any new words I write my own answers on the board in the red spaces. I then say them in full sentences as a model. My plan is for this to segue into a section in the textbook about giving data in medical referrals.

Then I check on their progress (the full six minutes have almost passed). About one quarter of the students have jotted down their words appropriately. A few more are looking up words to add to their lists. OK. More than half have spent the time copying down only the categories I have written on the board including "Today- first (10 minute opener)". Several have just finished writing their names and student numbers on the paper. A few are still getting a piece of paper out of the depths of their sports bags.

Damn! The students are all over the place! Now, this used to make me angry and I would let students know so but I have since come to see that what was making me angry was the fact that my tight 'n sweet lesson plan wasn't going to form, that the students were ruining my pretty picture. Figuring that my anger was self-indulgent I have since decided to focus my complaint elsewhere.

I focus it here: When I give the students their partners (3 per team) only one is ready to do it properly, one is half-ready and will therefore stumble and stick Japanese in, and one is still wholly unprepared and will be thumbing his/her dictionary while the other students tell their 'stories'. This is rude! Listen to what your partners are saying, I tell them. And you can help do this by BEING PREPARED!

But what I really want to get off my chest, but don't, is the following. I know that no students read or know of this blog so I'll just vent here...

Apologies to those students who got it and complied right away.

There, I said it. Take a deep breath and relax, Mike.

I wonder if readers have similar experiences and how you may handle it. And trust me when I say that I outline everything clearly and comprehensively in advance.

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December 10, 2009

Feedback on feedback

I've attended a few conference sessions on feedback (for EFL students' written assignments) recently and have found many comments, research and positions both interesting and useful.

In a nutshell, most EFL research seems to show that a lot of typical feedback given by teachers on student writing is ineffective and therefore largely a waste of the teacher's time (and if you have typically large HS or Uni. classes you know it takes a LOT of time).

Here's a summary of what I've come across recently, with some of my own observations included:

The type of feedback in which the teacher more or less corrects everything for the student doesn't work because the student hasn't engaged any challenging area of the language for themselves. Nothing much will be internalized. This type of correction should only be carried out when a pristine sample is needed soon for real-life purposes.

The type of feedback in which the teacher points out all grammar mistakes (even with the plan of having the students revise the draft, as in process writing) is ineffective. Not only can students feel overwhelmed, but internalizing a grammatical form is a delicate, lengthy, and often hierarchical, process. This is because learners absorb grammatical minutiae best when they are on the cusp of acquiring that form. It has to be reinforced around the time of internalization, often explicitly. In short, they'll learn it when they're ready to learn it, not when the teacher's red pen points it out. (This is why students can, and do, make the same mistakes over and over again, even within the same sentence).

If a student's essay is covered in grammatical correction notes they will unlikely to be able to focus on any one key form well enough to acquire or internalize it for future usage. In other words, any learning that occurs will be instrumental (meaning that fixing it will help them get through the present assignment) rather than instrinsic (meaning that it fits into their holistic understanding of English as a system). In short, correction categories should be limited and supported in the classroom outside of teacher notes on their papers.

Using a code to give corrections and feedback can run the same risk but at least forces the student to think about the type of mistake by themselves and thereby offers a slight improvement.

General 'suggestion-type' feedback, as opposed to discrete-point feedback, seems to be slightly more effective. Suggestions as to a preferred rhetorical approach, topic, organizational strategies, introductions/endings, and suitable content (relevance and even register) seem to have greater appeal to the student reviser.

Personally, I have always thought that holistic, organizational feedback should precede grammatical minutaie. Choices of content, style and purpose trump syntax. As many of you will know, you often can't really 'fix mistakes' until you've helped them organize a meaningful communicative goal or strategy. If the language and/or the communication point is convoluted and the communicative purpose unclear from the outset fixing syntactical details is not going to help. It may not even be possible to start. To me it's a bit like putting blemish ointment on someone suffering from 3rd degree burns.

Positive feedback seems to be more effective than a focus on the negatives (key point- one shouldn't identify feedback with 'correcting mistakes'). No surprise here. If you tell people what they are doing right the positive reinforcement creates a deeper memory synapse. When you tell small children that they are good boys/girls for getting the spoon into their mouths they are going to do it again willingly and thereby master it sooner.

Face to face feedback seems to be more effective than teacher notes (which students often can't read well anyway) precisely because it is more visceral and directly impacting. It also allows the student to respond in turn. Of course it is not always physically practical or possible.

Peer feedback seems to be more effective than teacher feedback. Further, providing models of successful peer work can be both motivating and allows students a clearer look at (high) standards. On the other hand, some peer feedback can be as goof as useless, being mere uncritical (and unhelpful) mutual congratulations. Peer feedback needs to be guided, monitored and formalized.

Asking students themselves what they feel they did well and what they think they could improve on before offering your ideas is more effective. Self-monitoring is a big part of developing learner autonomy so why not help get them on that road? Getting learners to reflect on their own work engages them more deeply and allows them to feel like they are in control of corrective changes- that they are not just crossing T's and dotting I's because of the pressure of an authority.

If you are looking for the research on this it's pretty easy to Google 'ELT feedback effective' or some such thing (there's too much stuff on the topic out there to post meaningful links here but I can point you to Ross, Robb, and Shortreed [1986] for starters) and you'll get dozens of interesting responses- many were in fact Japan-based studies. And it's very interesting how many deny or strongly question the efficacy of the more popular and common methods of writing feedback.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on all this in the comments section.

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December 17, 2009

Failing- and failing to fail

One of the more persistent and widespread beliefs about Japanese universities is that all students pass their classes as a matter of course. Students who sleep or don't hand in any work are still given the green light to pass through the system. Apparently, administrative pressure and/or teacher apathy are the root causes. Hmmm.

I say this with some hesitancy because I haven't meant any teachers who actually admit to being in this situation so, while I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen, the extent of the behavior might well be overstated- something of an educational urban legend. In this way, it's similar to the widespread NJ notion that Japanese English teachers primarily teach grammar-translation lessons (which I've blogged about previously and with the same caveat that I've not actually met any Japanese teachers who admit to doing so). In short, it seems to be only second-hand 'common knowledge'. Most university teachers I've met have shown an almost defiant willingness to fail the laggards.

Now please realize I'm not talking about high schools here. I have heard regularly from very trustworthy sources that auto-passing is indeed a common practice in high schools. To some extent, this is understandable. If high schools fail students it looks as if they have failed to motivate or educate them properly (putting emphasis here on the phrase 'looks as if'). After all, student stewardship is a big part of a high-school teacher's role. This will therefore look bad on their records and any stats or data used to woo the public for recruiting purposes- which is, of course, a special concern for private high schools in particular. So, in order not to give off the appearance of creating 'failures' high school grades or standards might well be gerrymandered.

But universities? First, universities have almost nothing to gain from automatically passing students. After all, public perceptions of quality is based primarily upon entry standards. The fact that a student may take six years to do four years' work is unlikely to enter any meaningful record that would influence public perception of the institution (and it might even enhance the university's reputation for being tough).

Not only that, but by having students do an extra year or two means more revenue- not a small concern these days. And then there are the professors themselves- they will not in any way cause damage to their standing or reputations by failing students. There is also no 'teacher's room' or all-uni meetings where pressure to pass students (for what purpose I do not know) would be applied. And office administrators do not and cannot lord it over professors on such matters.

Most university professors I've met in Japan (both J and NJ) are in fact quite at home with the idea of failing students who do not meet expectations. It's no skin off their noses (although the big disadvantage may be that the laggards might be back in your class next year). At the university level, it is understood that professors are no longer responsible for motivating these young adults (it's university after all) and therefore generally do not feel that they have been derelict in their duties should a student get a failing grade.

Personally, I have never felt any pressure whatsoever here at Miyazaki University to automatically pass students. In fact, when some dicey pass/fail situations have come into play in the past administrators have been more than supportive of the failing option. I teach part-time at a nearby liberal arts university as well and they too have a similar policy (with the exception of soon-to-graduate students who have already secured jobs).

In the MU faculty of medicine (my home base) we have a year-fail ratio of about 15-20%. By 'year-fail' I mean that students fail three courses within a certain year and thereby have to repeat that year (although they will be obliged only to take the classes they fail and electives). Moreover, in their first two years, if a students fails ANY required course (and Communication English is numbered among these) they will be duly dropped a year (this can be traumatic for many students as they tend to build quite strong bonds with year-mates). Over six years in this medical school about 90% of students will fail some individual class at some time. I fail a few each year myself. I allow that this should be the norm when you are educating future doctors. medicine, of all faculties, should not be a walk-through.

So how do students fail? Well, attendance policies for one thing. More than three non-medical absences means an automatic zero. A total score of under 60% is the other criterion. No one in the administration will question how or why a student got under 60% (the professor's word is all that matters- it is unthinkable that any administrators, aside from the head professor's committee- the Kyouju kai, would interfere in this process).

There is a small catch though- and a good one I think. When preliminary grades are entered into the system, those with a grade of 30-59% must be offered a chance at some type of re-test (in the case of incorrigibly bad students a 29% score will conveniently offer no further re-testing opportunities). On the whole though, re-tests are a good thing. After all, the idea of education is to help the student learn the skill, complete the tasks, master the knowledge and if that means they get their asses in gear a little late- well, at least they will have fulfilled the basic requirements. (Of course if the re-test consists of little more than the pithy 'writing a report' the re-testing system is meanngless)

And here's where testing, content, and methodology come into play. If a student sleeps through all the classes, contributes nothing, and studies nothing, there should be no way that they can achieve the necessary 60%, even with a re-test. This is not so much a moral policy as a logical one. What I mean is that the course should NOT measured only by a singular final test based on discrete knowledge (akin to, in many ways, some entrance exams). Since education (especially that at the tertiary level) should be a process- a process that involves carrying out tasks and the development of specialized skills, students should be graded on the completion of these tasks and skill areas; things that are learned and practiced only in that class and cannot possibly be attained by a last-minute cramming of the textbook.

In other words, a returnee student who does nothing but easily fill in a discrete point English test form at the end of the semtster would end up get a passing 60% for doing nothing. This would indicate that there is something wrong with the class content, methodology and grading policy (pretty much the three strikes as to what constitutes a good class). In my 1st year English Communication classes I can categorically state that it would be impossible for such a student to get 60% because the medical discourse and related skills I teach- and they subsequently practice in process-based tasks- are NOT something they will have encountered in high school or by living/studying abroad.

As for sleeping students, that is a matter of the individual professor's responsibility and/or policy. I keep mine awake because the classes are task-based, not receptive 'lectures'. Pair and groupwork forces them into action. If they did sleep for any length of time, they simply would not know what to do and this would lead to- at the very least- two or three nasty re-tests. The students learn this very quickly (sometimes the hard way) and therefore avoid both lazy absences and sleeping.

Teachers who measure the course with a single year (or semester) ending test will likely not have this luxury. Students will know (from their seniors) that all they have to do is get the basic attendance, study the textbook just before the big exam, and focus on a few points that will be tested (all university students can get hold of old exams). Basically this serves a recipe not only for sloppy students attitudes but is pretty much a blueprint for meaningless education. If teachers prepare tests/grades this way they are basically shooting themselves in the foot. (Again, I don't know of anyone who actually admits to doing this)

But, if passing is incumbent upon actively participating in class-related tasks, learning something new and unique to the particular class, or manifesting a new skill (or best, all three of the above) then students will involve themselves accordingly. Not only that, but professors will feel that this makes their classes meaningful, that they are involved in the process of education, and not merely 'completing a course'.

In which case passing actually means something; and failing is a real option.

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January 21, 2010

'Misses' and 'objectivity'

The Center Shiken (National University Entrance Exam) took place a week back and I'm sure many readers were involved at some level, most likely by proctoring. And if you were proctoring, (even if you were a back-up proctor, yes, there are benchwarmers in Japan's Center Shiken proctoring world) you will know the intricate protocols, steps, conditions, and general hoop jumping that is involved in what many might mistakenly think of as an easy process.

The key notion is of course that the Center Shiken must be fair and fully objective. That's why it is held nationwide with the same subjects being tested at the same time in over a thousand locales Japan-wide with over 500,000 students taking part. In order to maintain this integrity the surrounding system has to be airtight. Details are meticulous and must be adhered to under threat of your photo appearing in newspapers regarding a breach of Center Shiken protocol. No compromises. Nothing slipshod is allowed.

Lengthy protocol explanation sessions, complete with instructional CD ROMS, are prepared for proctors. The instruction booklet is the size of a small telephone book and, as far as I can read, contains provisions regarding appropriate actions to take if an examinee freaks out, becomes physically ill, if an alien lands in the testing room, and if an examinee suddenly morphs into The Dave Clark Five.

You know, the Japanese are generally very good with this type of thing. One old school generalization about Japan that I hold on to is the fact that the couuntry is pretty risk adverse and great lengths will be taken to ensure that there are no 'misses' ('miss' being the standard abbreviation for 'mistake', and it is the default term used in Japanese). If you've ever been involved, or merely watched, a kindergarten or elementary school undo-kai (sports day) you can see the meticulous, orderly planning manifested in a seamless- but somewhat tense and regimented- performance. (Whether people actually ENJOY it is another matter).

The thing is though, the more you try to avoid 'misses' by fine-tuning, tightening the screws, or devising manuals that try to cover every contingency, the tighter the system the more likely that a 'miss' is likely to occur- precisely because you've created a huge checklist of protocols that now could go wrong. As analogies, think of pure-bred dogs and how finnicky they are. Think of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who tweaks his computer to a T but it's always malfunctioning when any new software is introduced. Think of body builders where each muscle teeters on the brink of both 'perfection' and complete physical breakdown. The fact is, the tighter you build the foundation, and the more pieces that you use, the greater the likelihood that one piece will falter and lead the whole thing to collapse.

Hence, the near fetishistic emphasis upon 'miss' avoidance can actually induce scenarios where more misses are likely to occur. At the Center Shiken we proctors were quite tense, with almost every second accounted for and formally backed up in some way, making sure that the myriad steps were taken in precise order, with military obedince to the manual. This meant that we had to act with speed and efficiency but also meant that any screw ups would lead delays or claims from examinees of some breach of norm. And the more nervous, cluttered, and time constrained you are, the more likely that a 'miss' will occur. (There was also a ubiquitous stretcher placed outside the examination area, as if to underscore the severity of it all).

Now, here's the twist.
A miss in the test administering protocol is considerede a huge black mark. Therefore, about 95% of the pre-test information sessions and meetings focus upon the avoidance of a 'miss'. But, as an English teacher, I am more concerned about 'misses' at the larger level. Let me explain.

At the orientation sessions for teachers making the second-stage university entrance exams (NOT the Center Shiken orientation sessions) the overwhelming emphasis is also placed upon not having any 'misses' in the test. There is, in my opinion, too little emphasis placed upon producing a test that is valid and reliable. In other words, the overriding rubric is negative: "Don't have any mistakes on the test. That's all we ask". The endless fix-up and follow-up sessions are designed to make sure that no misses get through.

A big, get-called-before-a-committee mistake would be something like the following:
Match the four paraphrased sentences below with the undelined sentences (1,2,3,4) in the passage.

Although the lack of a 'c' answer should not really confuse students or cause them to answer incorrectly, this would be a huge black mark for the test makers.

Anyway, administrators usually want 'objective' style tests because objectivity, it is believed, reduces the likelihood of mistakes. So, in order to meet the heavy 'no-miss' criterion you could make discrete English language test questions like the following:
1. The Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in [ ].
a. 1998
b. 1984
c. 1993
d. 2004

2. Hitler's [ ] regime lead to the restructuring of Europe's political boundaries
a. nebulous
b. soporific
c. pernicious
d. sendentious

As you will see, there are officially NO misses in the above questions. But they are clearly absolutely crap questions for an English test. (I've exaggerated the samples- I can't imagine any exam actually making such questions although they did come close in the not-too-distant past- to make a point).

The first question does not measure English skill in any way but rather teasts localized knowledge which happens to be presented in English. And even if this was accompanied by a passage containing the answer (c) it still would not be indicative of English skill, especially in terms of measuring suitability for university entrance. Also, if the answer was contained in the passage 99.9% of the examinees would get it correct which renders the stratifying force of the question meaningless. So, while there are technically no 'misses' in the question it is nonetheless both invalid (it doesn't measure what an English entrance exam is supposed to be measuring) and unreliable (it's either too hard, based on chance specialist knowledge, or -if the answer is in the passage- it is too easy) and thus cannot have any stratifying function for placing examinees.

But it IS 'objective'. It contains no 'misses'. Also, the answers can be immediately measured numerically: 2 out of 2. Administrators love this type of thing and consider it somehow more 'objective' because the results can easily be rendered as numbers- even though these numbers basically indicate NOTHING about actual English ability. "Hey, if it's mathematical it must be objective!"

In the second example, the vocabulary choices are obviously way over the students' heads which means that if the correct answer is chosen it will almost certainly be chosen randomly (and of course a trained chimpanzee has a 25% chance of getting the correct answer on a 4-item multiple choice question).

Hey, but it is still 'objective' and contains no 'misses'--- despite the fact that it is thoroughly invalid and unreliable.

OK- I can't imagine any university entrance exam test maker making such egregious errors (in fact, in my research I have found that many second stage entrance exams and recent Center Shiken are quite valid and reliable). But the point is that an inordinate focus upon avoiding misses and maintaining this surface, shallow notion of objectivity can obscure the bigger picture- that of makng valid and reliable tests that acuurately or reasonably measure a wide range of student English skills.

Questions that demand deep thinking or skills such as making inferences, reading between the lines, predicting, summarizing and so on tend to be both more complex and nebulous than simple kigou (so-called because they can be answered by a letter mark- a,, b, c, d) questions. This complexity or lack of clarity can often led to what overseeing commitees think of as 'misses'. Overseeing commitees don't like the alleged 'subjectivity' or interpretive element that such questions demand. Hence the safety factor in making more discrete TOEIC-type questions

I find this fear of alleged subjectivity odd. After all, as trained professionals it is precisely we who should be expected to be able discern which students display the greatest ability in a subjective or essay-type question. By taking away the subjective evaluation element from a trained, experienced pro (who is supposed to be an expert in the field- that's why you've hired them to teach at a university) you've basically narrowed the scope of the test. You're no longer measuring extensive English skills but discrete item knowledge. You're no longer testing English ability but knowledge about English.

Your emphasis on 'no misses' at the expense of greater test validity and an artificial sense of objectivity that in fact often reduces test reliability means that you've messed up the bigger picture of measuring holistic student English ability.

And that's the biggest 'miss' of all.

A QUICK FUNNY- My all-time greatest classroom mistake

A long time back, when I was new to Japan, I had a small class in which I asked the students to tell me about the Japanese person who they admired most. One of the students answered 'I admire Chiyonofuji'. At that time I had no idea who Chiyonofuji was, so I asked. "He is a small restaurant," came the reply. "Non, no," I responded. "He OWNS a small restaurant or he runs a small restaurant. Not 'He IS a small restaurant'". The student looked both frustrated and amused. "But he IS a small restaurant" he insisted. A few seconds later another student spoke up. "Chiyonofuji is a sumo wrestler," he explained.

Oh (blush).
But come to think of it, some sumo wrestlers are actually like small restaurants.

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January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?

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February 03, 2010

A bunch of words about lyrics

I have a lot of problems doing English lessons or activities based on song lyrics. This is not to slam people who do manage to make a worthwhile lyric-focused English lesson. Paul Hullah (ex- Miyazaki U. colleague and currently teaching British Literature ad Culture at Meiji Gakuen) once gave a very good JALT presentation on using lyrics in the classroom, but this has never gelled for me personally. Even though I know that lyric lessons are, generally speaking, not considered to be hardcore English study and are thereby used largely as supplementary or novelty material, my own experiences using lyrics in the classroom have always left me cold and, yes, cynical.

Here's why:
Lyrics aren't discourse-based. That's just a fact. In teaching university students, my focus has always been upon helping learners understand how English is used as discourse and to start using it themselves in extended meaning-focused texts. These classes are usually content-based and very much purpose-oriented.

More to the point, people don't talk, write (except for ..... well.... songwriters), or use English in general, in the manner found in song lyrics! Choices of lyric are often made primarily to suit the beat or meter, for alliteration or rhyme, or even just because it rolls of the singer's tongue more easily. Many songwriters don't pretend to have their lyrics make complete sense or even make much sense at all. Many rock lyrics are built around initially improvised vocals in practice or jamsessions- it's not as if each phrase is chosen with a point to communicate.

As an example, two of my favourite lyricists are the early Brian Eno, and David Byrne (both with Talking Heads and post-TH as a solo artiste). But here's the catch- neither ever gave much credence to the 'message' of their lyrics but rather how the words sounded acoustically or rhythmically, as an enhancement to the music and not vice-versa- much like a modern painter might not paint an object but focus upon the textures and colours for their own sake. In this regard, Eno and Byrne are certainly amusing and clever lyricists but they don't have cohesive 'messages'. It's certainly not discourse in the normal sense. It may be artistic and amusing but as fodder for an EFL lesson??? No.

But even when lyricists are trying to make sense they often come up short- and the result is that much more bizarre. We are so inured to many such well-known lyrics that we overlook the absurdities they hold, oddities that would not bypass the filters of an EFL student. Try the middle section of The Eagles 'Take It Easy' on for size:
Well I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (why Winslow, Arizona is central or in any way important or even meaningful here remains a mystery)
It's such a fine sight to see
There's a girl my lord
(My lord! An actual girl! Sounds like something the Comic Book Guy would say)
In a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me (fair enough)
Come on baby. Don't say maybe. I've gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me (So let me get this straight, a girl in a truck, whom he has presumably never seen before is giving him the eye and his response is that HE MUST KNOW IF HER SWEET LOVE WILL SAVE HIM. Hmmm- I'm not surprised that he's hanging out on corners because this seems to be pretty psychotic behavior).

Or how about Elton John's 'Your Song', often presented as the quintessential romantic from-the-heart love ballad? (Although given Elton's state at the time he was probably dedicating it to cocaine).Let's take a look at some of the lyrics as Elton describes the intimacies of songwriting process, trying to come up with descriptions worthy of his love object:
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
'Cause a few of the verses well they got me quite cross

(As we all know when we are a struggling with writer's block the natural thing is to do is to climb onto one's roof and kick some moss down, which is marginally better than standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona I suppose).
Then, Elton appears to be getting whimsical:
If I was sculptor (OK. With this set-up we now expect something along the lines of 'I still could not capture your essence'- or something like that. But instead we get--- wait for it)
But then again no.
(What the hell is this??? It's not coherent, it's not grammatical, and it sure doesn't take the sculptor motif anywhere: "You know, if I was a sculptor. But I'm not." That's sure is a romantic sentiment, Elton!) And he continues:
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show,
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do
(Hmmm. I understand that the bottom line is his modest dismissal of his lyric (does it come as any surprise?) but what on earth does the carney reference have to do with anything before or after? No wonder he's already apologizing for his song before he's even finished the thing!)

Now one teaching point that some teachers claim to get out of such songs is finding some colloquialisms or cultural nuances and 'teaching' them, using the song as a contextual backdrop. Well, maybe, but by the same token I could do the same thing by showing my students an NHL hockey game and use that to point out a few announcer colloquialisms and justify the whole match as being emblematic of Canadian culture... but, hey come on, this is waaaay down the priority list in terms of holistic, academic, well-rounded, English education.

While I'm on a roll, let me bring up two very popular pop songs that act as virtual poster boys for EFL lyrics but have started to grate on me:
1. Imagine-John Lennon
OK- this songs hangs together well- it is coherent and cohesive, it makes sense lyrically. There is a lot to sink one's philosophical teeth into here- the guy is saying that if there was no private property and no religion, there would be no murder and people would live as one. OK- I don't buy the simple panacea John describes and I don't think "all the people living for today" will be helpful in bringing about the brotherhood of mankind but at least there's material here for debate where one can legitmately say, "I think Lennon is full of it. This is pie-in-the-sky idealized crap. Human emotions aren't that simple...".

But what bothers me is that many teachers don't really put Imagine's lyrics up for this type of debate. Rather, it is treated as a default 'good thing' because, hey, John is talking about love, peace, and brotherhood! In other words, teachers are ignoring the actual lyrical content and focusing instead on the 'correctness' of the sentiment, with all the edu-political baggage that entails.

2. Tom's Diner- Suzanne Vega-
This must be the all-time standard EFL classroom lyric, in no small part due to Vega's incredibly clear diction. But what irks me about this fleeting, stream of consciousness, slice of life lyric is that I regularly hear EFL teachers say they are using it to TEACH the present continuous (or present progressive, if you prefer) -"I am sitting in the morning... I am waiting at the counter...".
Well sorry sensei, but first if EFL students can actually hear and decode the lyrics THEY ALREADY KNOW THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS! Trust me on this. Kids absorb this pattern from as far back as Eigo De Asobo on TV or neighbourhood Eikaiwa introductory classes.

Secondly, this pattern is not actually used much in real speech or writing. Think about it. How often do you say, "I am ---ing"? Perhaps in response to the question, "What are you doing?", and, discursively speaking, that's about it! There's no productive, discourse-based, natural reason to use a string of "I am ---ing" patterns. Also, generally speaking, a narrative is in the past tense unless you are specially marking it for literary effect- as is Suzanne Vega.
(Sidenote- Luka is a far superior Suzanne Vega song for students).

On the other hand, one of the bigger benefits of lyrics in an EFL classroom is probably the internalization of stress and meter that students can attain if they become comfortable with a certain lyric. For example, although I'm sure we can all agree that the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' is one of the two or three most execrable pop songs ever written, you cannot fit "So, tell me what you want, what you really really want" into the number of beats allowed if you are using katakana pronunciation. You just cannot. You'll go about 15 over the limit. It really forces you to acknowledge English sentence stress and de-stress patterns.

[Tangent 1- I don't think the above is the case with Japanese lyrics. Since Japanese- being mora-based- is already quite regularly timed in normal speech, sudden and unusual stresses tend to occur quite often in J songs if the note demands it. Note how often the usually de-stressed 'shi' in 'ashita' (or any similar mid-word 'shi') can be drawn out unnaturally. Same with the usually imperceptible (to many English-speaker ears at least) 'o-u' combinations. In fact it sounds similar to the way in which many Japanese-language beginners might (mis)pronounce the language at first (wakarima-soooo-ka?).
End tangent 1]

[Tangent 2- I realize that the negative pay off with students internalizing the stress patterns of many pop lyics is that they often start to use 'wanna' and 'gonna' in situations where it is better not to sound inelegant- and it often sounds forced and artificial as well, especially if the rest of their English phonetic system hasn't caught up with those popular contractions. End tangent 2]

Ok, a change of pace-
A good classroom lyric (obviously I think there are a some more worthy candidates if one is going to embark on a lyric lesson) is usually a narrative, one that is cohesive and well structured, as a narrative should be (meaning it NARRATES) and is not just laid out as a chant over top a beat. Two of the best artists in this mode are:

1. The Handsome Family-
No, not the brothers Hanson (don't even THINK about associating the two!) but the ultimate Americana Noir husband and wife duo. The lyrics are the focal point of the music and they are incredibly rich, bleak, distressing, and highly literate. They are also very very American. Brett Sparke's voice is sonorous and rich, and so is easy on learner ears. They also tend to focus upon narrative and character sketches, providing a framework that allows EFL students to grasp and appreciate what's going on in the songs.

2. Richard Thompson-
In many ways, Thompson can be thought of as a British equivalent to the Handsome Family. Highly literate, very English, also dark and brooding, his songs are full of richly drawn characters represented in captivating narrative, all expressed with a booming baritone.

All this translates well into the EFL classroom if one MUST do a lyric lesson.

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February 19, 2010

Q&A time: Everything you want to know about Japanese medical students and becoming a doctor


How many years do students study medicine before graduating in Japan?
Six. But the number of ryunen-sei ('year' repeaters) is higher than for most other subjects. Some students take up to 9 or 10 years to complete the program.

So they can come in straight from high school and typically graduate at age 23/24?
Well, theoretically, yes. But medical students tend to be slightly older on average than those in other faculties. More have transferred from other universities, have been working in society, or have spent a year or three as a ronin. Only about 40% of the freshmen in Miyazaki University's medical faculty are en'eki ' (straight out of high school) students and many of those will end up repeating a year or two (see above) so typical grads will be between 25 and 30.

Is there anything like Pre Med in Japan?
Yes and no. There is no specific 4 year Pre Med program as typically found in North America, but in their first two years Japanese medical students focus on General Education (Kiso Kyouiku- including English classes, humanities etc.) but begin to gradually focus more on applied sciences (anatomy, biology, physiology, histology) before eventually moving into more and more specific medicine-based classes by the time they reach 4th year.

What happens in years five and six?
They go through most or all individual departments in the attached university hospital under the tutelage of practicing professors/physicians. They have to attend departmental conferences, relevant lectures, participate in research studies, and carry out report writing during this time as well. In many Japanese medical schools this is called Porikuri (Poly Curriculum) and/or kurikura (Clinical Clerkship). This practicum typically extends to other locally-affiliated hospitals too.

When are the big exams?
The end of year four is chock full of subject exams and of course graduation exams occur in Nov/Dec in the 6th grade. These are the biggies.

So after graduation they are officially doctors?
Not yet. After completing and passing the graduation exams they have to sit for and pass the National Medical Licensing Board Examination (known as the 'Kokushi'), held in February. After they pass that they become Dr. Watanabe or whatever.

So, after only six years of study they can just open their own clinic?
No again. All freshly graduated doctors are required to partake in a two year trainee (kenshu-i) program. They will choose a small number of departments that they want to get a feel for (as a doctor now, not as a student) and spend two years doing the rounds and learning the ropes (typically 4-6 months) of each department.

How does one end up as, say, an ophthalmologist or orthopedic surgeon then?
Towards the end of their trainee programs, they will choose their specialty. Most will enter a university hospital at first under the auspicies of the departmental 'ikkyoku' (loosely translatable as a 'central office'). After five years in any one department (six for some) the doctors can then sit for the National Specialist Medical Licensing Exam. It is after this that many branch out into private clinics and practices, although most do not have the financial means to do so while so young.

OK- getting back to university study- are medical students generally brighter and keener than other students?
The medical faculty is very often the most difficult school to enter at a university, so yes, they tend to be quite good academically (although Miyazaki is obviously not Tokyo University). I think this is true worldwide but, yes, there are some who make you think 'How did that guiy ever get into medical school'?

So, do they get in to medical school based on their Center Shiken scores?
Entry standards vary from university to university. Center Shiken scores will almost always be a factor, as will second-stage individual university entrance exam scores (nijishiken). But local quotas, recommendations, and personal essays/interviews are also typically part of the process. Many universities (particularly private ones) have feeder high schools which gear prospective medical students for entry.

Are medical students, ummm, more nerdy than most students?
Not really. Med students actually tend to be a bit wild (the faint of heart would not want to see our pre-student festival party!) . There are all types: the jocks, the gals, the hippies, the arty types- you might be surprised. But most have had good study habits- although this can unravel temporarily in their first few months or years away from home and Mom.

Are most rich?
Maybe above average. But since national universities like Miyazaki U. are heavily subsidized fees are relatively low and therefore less of a factor for the not-so-well-to-do. What is a factor is that a fair number of med students have parents in the medical profession.

More males than females?
Slightly. About 55-45 on average. But we've had two freshman classes with more females than males.

I've heard that Japanese students can often pass by doing almost nothing. Is that true of medical students too?
No. The study demands are definitely harder than in most faculties and there is more academic accountability. As I said earlier, there are quite a few repeaters. Students who don't hit the books will eventually feel the pinch somewhere along the line. I've heard that 95% of all medical students here have failed at least one course during their six years.

Can they take part in operations and so on while they are students?
No. Japanese law is extremely strict in this regard. They cannot administer an injection to a patient as a student, for example. They can't make any official clinical decisions or take any clinical actions. It's a liability issue, but of course our students want to do these things (under supervision). When medical students from other countries visit our university (or vice-versa) our students are envious that most other countries allow their medical students to carry out simple medical procedures. But in Japan this would typically start during the trainee period (2 years post-graduation)

Do many choose to do post-graduate study?
A number do, often while working full-time as doctors.

How do they choose where they want to work?
They are heavily recruited as there is a doctor shortage in almost every department, and especially so in the Japanese countryside. They will be courted, wined and dined from 5th year on. During pre-graduate years many will carry out short internship programs at various hospitals during their summer 'holidays' just to get a feel for a potential workplace. Most will choose a hospital based on 1) a doctor they like or greatly respect being in charge 2) a hospital being famous for the special field(s) they are interested in 3) hometown access.

Any more questions? Fire away....

UPDATE Feb. 2012:
A number of students outside Japan have written asking about studying medicine and/or obtaining a medical license in Japan in response to this article. Let me state clearly here that if you are not absolutely fluent in Japanese you will not be able to pass the university entrance exams, participate in the classes and practica, or pass the national licensing exam. The door for foreign medical students is open however at the post-graduate level. After you have obtained a degree in a medically-related research field or an actual MD degree elsewhere most universities in Japan can offer some post-grad research degrees and positions which are conducted in English- usually overseeen by a single professor in a very specific field. For more detailed information you should consult individual university websites as details vary.

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February 24, 2010

University English in Japan: What should we be doing? A delectable template of methodological morsels from MU

In my previous blog entry (just scroll down!) I talked about the education and training system for medical students in Japan. I deliberately held off talking about English education within the curriculum because I'm saving it for a special day. Like Wednesday.

Let me be presumptupous, self-indulgent, even conceited, pompous, puffed up and full of self-important hubris here (not to mention redundancy). I have very clear ideas about what should be done under the banner of English education in Japanese universities and, dammit, I think we're doing it well here in the medical faculty at Miyazaki U. So what I'm outlining today represents a template of what I think should be going on at most Japanese universities.

So, let's allow the voices in my head to start the Q&A to propel us forward (a tacky tactic to be sure, but easier to write and, hopefully, to read):

What formal English classes do your Medical students have to take, Mike?
All are required to take 1st year Medical English and 1st year Communication English (some with transfer credits or fat TOEIC scores are exempt from the latter- to my displeasure). In the 2nd year they are also required to take a Medical English class but can choose any one from among four being offered. There is also an elective course where most choices are English-based (a sociology course is also offered).

What about after rheir second years?
We have a specialized, intensive, practical program called EMP (English for Medical Purposes) that includes a foreign practicum component. 4th and 5th year Med students can choose this as an elective. ENP (for nurses of course) also exists. Students also tend to learn some medical English in their regular Japanese clinical classes because a lot of medical vocabulary comes directly from English. Some required clinical textbooks are in the language too. But these latter classes are not English courses per se.

Communication English. Hmmm. What's that all about?
OK, Here's where we get meaty. Let me explain by telling you what it is NOT. It's not Eikaiwa (do NOT conflate communication with conversation or we will have to step outside) and definitely not remedial English! Nor is it a continuation of high school English. And it's certainly not TOEIC-type test preparation. And although it is a required first year course with fairly large classes containing various levels of students, it is not a 'General' English course, one of those subjects that stretches it's pedagogical net so wide that everything falls through the mesh.

Rather, it is made up of:
1) Content-based learning:
The focus is on thinking. We excpect the students to be actively engaging the material, the concepts, and using the language towards that end. When language is used for meaningful and engaging purposes users become more conscious of form and tend to internalize it better. The other key point is that a university should be about cognitive engagement and not just 'language practice', particularly for those in medical school.

2) Task-based learning
We expect students to be able to carry out and complete tasks, again so that they are using language to communicate something, that there is some end purpose in mind. Communication English tasks here include getting personal information, taking a basic patient history, asking questions about symptoms/onset/medical history, connecting symptoms to systems, and being able to inform both patients and other medical professionals of one's findings (in writing and in speech). We also expect that students can fill in basic English medical charts professionally and accurately.

3) Discourse-based methodology
The textual focus is upon longer, extended texts such as doctor-patient consultations, information transfer, or referrals. The social and interpersonal manner in which the language is chosen and used carries as much weight as grammatical and lexical minutaie here.

4) Production-based focus
Not only are students expected to understand the content mentioned above (receptive), they are expected to be able to produce it accurately and appropriately (productive). The course evaluation system emphasizes this.

In short, the course is very much ESP (English for Specific Purposes) focused. But while the content focus is clearly medical, the same pedagogical principles can be applied to any academic discipline. To my way of thinking this is where the focus of all university English education in Japan should lie (this was the gist of the argument I put forth in the plenary session at the JALT CUE conference in Nara last October)..

So what's the difference between the Medical English courses and Communication English then? Do the Medical English courses emphasize terminology?

No. Students can get terminology from a dictionary (most specialized terms tend to have 1-to-1 J-E cognates and are often just katakana-ized versions of English anyway). They tend to learn terminology in their regular J clinical classes. Also, students have to learn to put terminology together within meaningful, purpose-oriented discourse (yeah, I'm repeating myself here, I know) and that's what these classes are for.

The different teachers have different skill and content focuses as well. One focuses upon writing and compositional skills. One deals with current medical affairs in the media. One focuses upon socio-political concerns regarding medicine and practice. Myself, I use these classes to teach counseling and interactive skills (bedside manner).

Don't you think it's too hard for a lot of students? I mean, most are just out of high school. How can we expect them to handle this type of content-based, cognition-engaging, higher-order specialized learning? Do they really have enough basic English skill to do this stuff?

Almost all of them can, and do, handle it. Yes. After all, they graduated from high school with six years of English under their belts. And if they can't, they'll have plenty of re-tests, extra work--- or they'll fail.

(condescendingly) Mike, most Japanese high school students have had those same six years of English study and can still barely put a sentence together. Don't you know anything? (smirks)

Well, if we keep doing remedial English, having them 'put sentences together' ,at the university level- going over what they've learned in junior high and high school- they never will be able to use the language. They'll just keep tripping up in the same places. If we do that, there's no reason to expect that they'll suddenly get it now at university. Unless, you assume that on some level, subliminal, subconscious, passive, hidden, whatever, they have an awareness of how the language is structured. What they need is somewhere to apply it, some type of stimulus to cognition to manifest that receptive understanding, to bring it into fruition. They need reasons for usage- tasks- and then guidance towards achieving those goals. That's precisely the function that content and tasks serve.

This, it seems to me, is what university education should be all about, to take that which is passively known from high school and to force it into meaningful expression where cognition is engaged- where language is mediated by thought. Most students at university are smart enough to do this and most have enough interest, if the tasks are meaningful and engaging, and if they are scaffolded, production-oriented and if students can gain a sense of both responsibility and achievement for their learning progress.

And then what goes on in those 'advanced' EMP classes you mentioned?

These are intensive all-English sessions for small, select groups who really want to become international medical professionals. We invite NJ medical professionals to speak on their research, case studies, or special field experiences in intractive tutorial sessions. English-speaking Japanese doctors also serve as teachers. The role of the NJ 'house' teachers in EMP are to have students complete the following guided tasks (year-by-year):

1. An ability to talk about each section of the hospital or clinic and to be able to answer questions (or ask them) about the Japanese medical system. Relevant vocabulary used accurately in context is the key here.
2. The ability to write, critique and summarize in speech an academic research paper.
3. To prepare and peform a Powerpoint presentation on a medical theme.
4. To conduct a full poster session using their medical research interests as a topic.

EMP students also participate in international exchanges and seminars that we host and do a medical practicum at a non-Japanese university. They also act as hosts to visiting medical students.

This is, to my mind, the fullest realization of an ESP program, and is the culmination of what we consider to be the main goal and purpose of university English education in Japan. Now stop me before I get bloated and dogmatic.

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March 03, 2010

Putting together a half-decent achievement test

If you work at a JHS, HS, college, senmon gakkko, or university in Japan you have probably just completed several year or semester end achievement tests. After all, you need grades for your students so some kind of evaluation is required. But this is an area in which a lot of mistakes are made, a lot of educational principles violated...

I'd like to think that testing is something I know a little about, an area that I've become at least a little sophisticated with. It was one of my specializations during my MA days as well as one of those areas in which I've kept up the research level, so I'm hoping that a few of the things I mention below might carry some weight above and beyond the 'some guy on the internet' level of credibility.

First point-
Achievement tests are not placement tests nor, usually, are they proficiency tests.
In an achievement test you are evaluating the students' course work. That means the focus of test content must be upon what students have, or were supposed to have, covered in the course. This means that any content that was not dealt with in the course should not be part of the test. It means that the skill emphasis should match the skills that you were trying to teach in your class. Test tasks should resemble those tasks which were practiced during the course. You are not gauging the students' overall English ability or general skill- which would be more representative of a placement or proficiency test- so don't try to. The test should measure a student's ability to meet the specific course goals as set out in the syllabus.

Second point-
If you are an educator the test should have an educational function.
It should have a pedagogical purpose as well as an evaluative function. Students should be learning from their tests. This means that students must know what they did right, what they did wrong and be given a chance to fix it. In other words a good achievement test has a diagnostic function. This has several administrative implications:
1. You must give the test back to the students. It belongs to them.
2. There must be some type of review or feedback for the students.
3. You shouldn't give the test in the final class or else you can't review it.
4. Students should be able to find out what the correct or model answers are.
5. Students who did poorly should be made to do a re-test, or two, until they show that they have learned the material (or skill).
6. Why not have students obtain good or correct answers on those sections where they did poorly by checking with peers? I do a 'test interview' where students ask one another those questions they didn't answer correctly and if the partner knows the proper answer, they can teach (not just 'tell') it to the other student.

Third point-
You can and should diagnose your own teaching effectiveness from the test results.
If students do poorly on the test, or on specific items on the test, it is very likely because either 1) the question, task, or entire test was invalid ( the test didn't actually test what is was supposed to) or unreliable (if a similar test was given to the similar students at a different time and place scores would be very different- meaning that happenstance affected the test results, usually as a result of poor test design).
2) you didn't teach whatever it is that you were testing well enough.
This should be telling you sometyhing. After all, tests test the teacher's effectiveness as well as the students'.

Fourth point-
You need to test more than just recognition (memory) and discrete-item knowledge.
Memory is a limited skill. Not only that but memory is not just recognition (the most passive, receptive aspect of memory) but also recall (contextual understanding), and reproduction (application). If you were teaching a class that was expected to focus on developing productive skills but give a test that measures only memory-recognition you have an invalid test.

Likewise, language is not just a collection of discrete-item knowledge. It is a dynamic system that involves numerous social and pragmatic considerations. So again, if your class was expected to develop student skills in using English within meaningful and/or practical contexts, if you focus mainly (or solely) on discrete-items you will have made an invalid test, since the skills you are supposedly trying to inculcate will have escaped the net of evaluation.

Fifth point-
The test can easily be used as a study and/or review experience
Open-book tests are great. Students can once again review material and find those things that the teacher wants them to understand. Open-book test success also relies more on a general comprehensive understanding of a subject as opposed to memorizing discrete items. Of course, given that the test is open-book we should also expect standards to be high. I have come to notice that students who are well-organized and think actively succeed at these tests while the laggards who weren't paying much attention or making much of an effort all year rarely rise above their 'stations'- at least on the first test. This doesn't always happen on discrete-point knowledge-based TOEIC-type tests.

Providing students with the test tasks or questions or old exams in advance (they'll usually get them from their seniors anyway) can help too. By letting students know what to study for, you focus their energies on those things you really want to inculcate and leave less to random chance, circumstance or wasted/misguided student effort.

Sixth point-
Ongoing evaluation, especially if you are using a variety of evaluative means and measures, is more effective than the traditional 'one final paper exam' format.
Language learning is a process and so the evaluation should be process-based and focus less on the one, final 'this-is-your-official-result' mode of testing. Using a variety of testing methods and means allows students who respond differently to different challenges to strut their stuff. Not all 'good' students are sharp at paper tests and may do much better on a role-play, report, or some type of visual/tactile task. Ideally, using all test types you can get a panoramic view of their all-round skills, and therefore a more accurate reading of their English abilities (assuming that you are trying to educate them in holistic way, that is).

Weighting tests is also important. Putting something like 80% on a final test might not be a good indicator of actual student ability over the entire course of the class. Breaking evaluation up into 20% increments allows for more types of evaluation and widens range of the criteria. It also tends to keep students alert and focused.

Seventh point-
Let students have some say in the test content
Productive, open-ended tasks are to be encouraged as these allow for some self-expression and variety, letting students use the language while actively thinking and engaging it. Most teachers will tell you that in terms of marking, these tasks and problems are easier to grade- and tend to provide a more comprehensive view of actual student abilities. Even better, allow students to make some tests themselves. This will allow for a good review of content and also show the teacher what students have learned (or not), or feel is important (or not). And what a teacher learns from this can be applied to next year's lesson plans.

I allow my students to appeal their test grades too- as long as they do so in English. If they feel that the grade on a 'subjective' test or item was unfair they have the opportunity to explain to me why their score should be higher, a process which demands that they consider both the test result and content but also how they will plead their cases in front of me.

Reader suggestions on testing are more than welcome in the comments section.

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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April 09, 2010

Kaken-hi: The perils of getting what you wish for

Congratulations to me. I think.

To tell the truth I'm a little shell-shocked. You see, I was just informed that I received the equivalent of $20,000 (very sloppy numerical miscalculation now fixed) in the form of a 2-year research grant. Most readers have probably heard of kakenhi, a grant-in-aid for scientific research, doled out by the Japanese MoE through the university system. But if you haven't, here's the lowdown:

Kakenhi are what keeps departmental budgets (and to a certain extent, jobs) afloat and are a fundamental feature of working in a Japanese university. Fundamental because you are expected to at least apply for a grant if you are a full-time teacher. Fundamental because any specialized programs you participate in will likely have resulted from somebody's kakenhi cache. Fundamental because the number of kakenhis your department receives is often (and unfortunately) considered to be the primary indicator of your departmental worth. Fundamental because any score founded upon your database 'gyoseki' (academic achievements) will rise exponentially if you have one.

As a result, I have carried out the copious kakenhi application procedures (10 pages plus) 4 times now. To be frank, I have never put too much thought into the actual content of the research proposal because I have never needed the money (or more accurarely, the various fiscal and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it). In other words, I was just going through the application procedures because it was expected of me (making no attempt at all looks bad on your database), without any actual hope or expectation that I would get huge sums of cash thrown my way.

But the other day- congratulations, Guest sensei. You got a kakenhi.
The plan is to research, develop, and produce a viable English corpus for our nursing faculty. To be perfectly honest, the idea was actually suggested to me by a colleague who is doing Doctoral research in the field and who thought that a combined proposal, written in English, would aid her chances. But now, as the 'principal researcher' the fiscal research ball is in my workplace court. (Was that a sloppy attempt at a metaphor or what?)

Anyway, here are my suggestions for those who hope to reap one of these babies (and it would be nice to hear further suggestions from those of you who've been successful in securing kakenhi dough):

1. Write it in English. Because you can and... because you can. The competition will be lesser and although the decision-making committee will have someone or two proficient in English on board, there will never be the same degree of scrutiny that meets a Japanese proposal. And it just seems more 'international' somehow.

2. Focus upon the notion of collaborative research. Especially if it is cross-cultural or trans-national. Be sure to mention how you plan to carry out investigations with the highly-respected Dr. Schlong at MIT as well as the eminent Prof. Gakuryoku from Kyoto Univ. (I'm not at all suggesting that you be facetious or try duping the committee with false names- your research WILL be investigated and followed-up on and fraudulence can ruin careers and land you in jail).

3. Since they are officially SCIENTIFIC grants you should employ a scientific research outline in your proposal. This doesn't necessarily mean statistical sophistry but it does mean having clear, palpable targets and research goals. A lot of EFL-based research is, IMO, pseudo-scientific at best (and that is NOT a criticism) but you will have to use the format and terminology to make the right heads nod.

4. Have a clearly stated fiscal budget laid out. State directly that you wil need 500,000 Yen to go to Dublin to research the effect that Guinness has upon the discourse involving the local variety of English. State outright that you require 300,000 to visit Bali in order to take first-hand field notes on the types of English strategies required in the upmarket resort industry.

5. Involve research partners who can share the burden. Some 'buntan-sha' are listed only in name in order to make an impression but having a buntan-sha or two who will actually be heavily involved (and is good with computer graphics, making resports, and reading/writing kanji, dealing with bureaucratic paperwork) will be best.

6. You must produce something tangible and this must be stated from the beginning. Big, fat reports that no one reads are commonly doled out to fulfil this condition but if you don't want to bore yourself to death, or dupe the tax-paying public, you should produce a viable book or piece of software that other people will WANT to use, something that gets you cited, noted and most importantly, gets your name on that extended work contract.

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April 30, 2010

Fixing poor student study habits: Notes to self

Note to self-

Do something about the following student habits. You see these year after year and at some point you are going to have to address them directly:

1. Those cases when you give the students a homework assignment that includes a few concepts or vocabulary items they are not familiar with. Then, most students come to the next class with it incomplete (or worse, not completed at all) because they 'didn't know' certain items.

Figure out why this is happening. Is it because they see homework not as a preperatory research or study but as some kind of achievement 'test' to be immediately handed in and graded and therefore if they don't know it- they don't know it?

Teach/tell them that it is common sense for a university student to research that which they don't know. Look it up in a dictionary (duh!). Scan the internet to understand that concept or designation which you find troubling. Or utilize that age-old J university standby- your senpai (senior student)! But do something! Do NOT come to class after a week with that assignment sheet and tell me you 'don't know'!

2. Deal with those situations where students have a guided speaking assignment in English but as soon as they face the slightest bit of communicative adversity in English they switch over to Japanese, negating the primary value of the whole task.

Figure out why it is happening- Is it because the students think the only thing that counts is completing the spoken task and getting the necessary information or whatever from their partners? They seem to be inordinately focused upon the product whereas in second language acquisition going through the process is equally, if not more, important.

Teach/tell them that fighting through areas of communicative adversity (by language negotiation, circumlocutions, alternate strategies or whatever) is an essential part of developing their language skills. After all, if they want to be good tennis players how can they progress if they avoid working on their backhands and instead try to run backwards on every return so that they can utilize the more familar and comfortable forehand shot? Sure, you might spray a few balls into the bottom of the net as you work on that backhand at first but you'll never be much of a tennis player if you don't confront that weak spot directly. And after awhile it should become muscle memory; you'll be on autopilot. So with English. Add that when they are dealing with NJs outside Japan they will not have the luxury of resorting to clarfications with their interlocutors in their mother tongue.

3. Address those tasks where you are prompting students to be productive and creative, allowing for dynamic expansion for the purpose of extended communication, and they come up with little but dull, jejeune content which seems to exist more for the purpose of completing the assignment than communicating any content of note (e.g. Getting-to-know-you self-generated questions such as: "Do you like music?" or "How old is your father?"), or imprecise and vague content that does not technically violate grammatical rules but lacks a clear criterion, scope, or category (e.g., from the same activity- "What country do you like?" or "What are you interested in?").

Figure out why it is happening- Are the students more concerned with forming a 'grammatically correct' sentence than those which are semantically sound, pragmatically normative, or communicatively compelling? This may be a by-product of high school methodology- the notion that grammatical correctness equals correctness in all respects. You're going to have to hammer away at this deeply entrenched falsehood.

Teach/tell them that grammatical correctness is often meaningless or, to be frank, a lack of concern for the content of discourse can be stifingly boring for all participants. Give them Japanese examples which show this. Strongly express that as university students, especially given your own classes' discourse-based focus, that you (and your grades) are much more concerned with students creating and producing meaningful content.

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May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).

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May 20, 2010

Why I never teach grammar tenses

I've talked before about how I find it strange when teachers talk of 'teaching' a vocabulary item. The notion that naming a discrete item in English equals 'teaching' seems odd to me. 'Telling' is more like it. If I show young Japanese kids a picture of a dog and say 'dog', or even 'Inu ha Eigo de dog to iimasu', I'm not really 'teaching' anything. I'm simply telling them what the English label or cognate is. 'Teaching' it seems to me, means having the learners come to understand at a deeper semantic level (that is, identifying the meaning range- think of an item like "worth", which crosses several Japanese lexical cognate boundaries) and the ability to use it appropriately and flexibly within meaningful contexts (e.g., swell- "My ankle is swollen. My calf is swelling up too. If it swells any further we will have to operate").

In doing so, I may highlight the new word and try to get students to raise consciousness about it but I can't say that I teach it. I may consciously use it in various forms in the materials I produce so that students may absorb or inculcate that item but any such acquisition is a by-product of the task it appears in, and not of explicit item-teaching.

The same goes for grammar.

The idea that you can 'teach' a grammatical tense seems absurd for me and doubly absurd at the university level. Why? OK- let's start with that old standard, the past tense: One might try to 'teach' it as follows: "We use the past tense when something happened in the past". Oh really? So, how about, "Yesterday, I was standing in the shower when...". Or, "I have been to Kabul three times". In other words, the 'past' is not always represented by the past tense.

Now what about the past tense inflection? We could 'teach' learners that most verbs take -ed as an ending but also that there are many irregular past-tense verb endings that you'll have to learn too (and of course most of the irregular verbs are the most common items). Since there's no way of learning them systematically, students will just have to memorize a list. And that's not the same as teaching or learning a tense.

The problem is that the notion of 'past' causes semantic difficulties across languages. Knowing how to make the inflection and knowing when to make the inflection are two very different animals. Using only the former criterion, coming from Japanese, the following would be ok:
A: Put the books down over there.
B: I understood.

This is because Japanese renders the moment of understanding as having been already attained ("Wakatta") whereas English treats it as a current state ("I understand"). Likewise, "I knew that he was married" is fine in English but a direct translation from Japanese would produce: "I was knowing...". So, knowing how to make the inflection, the mechanical transformation of the verb, is easy but this hardly constitutes understanding the past tense.

Rather, knowing how and when the past is rendered in English (or any language) discourse, psychologically or semantically, is a delicate and complex matter that is best developed by exposure to a variety of meaningful contexts in which time relations are juxtaposed.

The same principle can be applied to the passive voice. We can say that "The pedestrian was scared by the foreigner" is the passive form of "The foreigner scared the pedestrian" but the ability to make the transformation is just a matter of mechanics. It doesn't tell us anything about WHEN we would choose to employ the passive voice or what semantic or psychological considerations and choices would make us choose it. The factors behind a choice of voice can be quite complicated if taught as a discrete item. And again, Japanese and English don't match up here (e.g. "I surprised").

Most grammatical 'rules' taught in junior and senior high schools in Japan have been absorbed at some level in Japan by students, even if latent, implicit, and subconscious. But productive mastery of these forms (as opposed to passive, multiple choice, recognition) eludes almost all. University is precisely the time and place in which this latent understanding can be made more fruitful- by exposure to the contextual aspects in which grammatical and lexical choices are made. Simply going over 'the rules' again is to reinvent the wheel, and a flat one at that. Students are not suddenly going to 'get it' in university if they are 'taught' grammar tenses and the like all over again. Instead, they have to be presented within academic contexts that are meaningful to learners, contexts which reveal norms, choices, relations and meaning/application ranges.

University is the perfect place to do this. At university, Japanese students are declaring majors and (should be) considering content in greater depth and with greater interest. If English is a medium used to explore these areas of interest and research, the structures which express the underlying relationships, states, and actions will be more fully absorbed, married as they are to students' cognitive engagement (of course, there is no accounting for the militarily bored and uncommitted). That understanding of structure which they have retained in some vague, ephemeral state from high school, will be made manifest. The 'rules' will become applicable to semantic content.

One visceral example of this occurs with my first year medical students. In learning to take a medical history students are forced to think of relevant opening questions for patients in order to gather sufficient information. A number of these take on the perfective aspect (I say that because it's not really a 'tense' per se). To wit:
How long have you had it?
Have you noticed anything else?
Have you taken any medicine?
Have you had anything similar in the past?

Contrast these (and I do highlight the contrasts) with:
When did you first notice it?
What did you do when you first noticed it?
How long do they last?
Is there anything that makes it feel better?

As students understand the semantic range of each form (because the questions are relevant to their own interests, carried out in etended tasks, and presented within a meaningful context) they can begin to 'feel' the range of stituations that demand the perfective, as opposed to the other forms and tenses. In other words, the semantic range is known to them and they now see that certain meaning ranges demand the perfective. To 'teach' the perfective first, as a rule-bound structural discrete item, would be ass-backwards, since there is no underlying semantic range in which students can place the form.

Teaching grammar and university EFL- like opera and peanut butter.

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May 27, 2010

J universities as bastions of progressive policy?

There are those who think that Japanese universities are a reflection of the top-down authoritarian structure that they see in Japanese government or large companies- in fact some think of them precisely as extensions of government and companies, as conservative bastions of the 'dominant culture'. Perhaps such people think of all Japanese as falling into line under a regimented authority structure regardless of the actual system employed, in order to suit their own preconceptions about this country. No doubt there are certain inaccessible corridors of power in Japan, like anywhere else, but how widespread is it really? And are universities a reflection of this?

Well, I can speak only for my own university, which I have every reason to believe is typical of national universities, and although located in conservative Miyazaki, the popular view of Japan as a top-down authoritarian society does not hold in this case.

Say what?

Well first let's take a look at the power structure. The president and all faculty deans rotate from department to department and professor to professor and are elected democratically by all full-time faculty. This means that there are no Self-Appointed President-for-LIfe types who founded the university based on their industrialist daddy's cash. Neither is the Riji-kai (Kyouju-kai at unis- like a board of directors) an unchanging cabal of stodgy old boys but rather a fluctuating broad-based set of educators. Here's where Japan's (in?)famous worker rotation system displays some tangible benefits. These are not bureaucratic 'suits' but regular class-teachin', lab-researchin' guys 'n gals MANY OF WHOM DO NOT EVEN WEAR TIES! Every department is represented and every educational (and more) policy of note goes through them. In fact, they tell the bureaucrats what to do.

When Monkasho wishes to implement a guideline or policy this group ratifies it and decides how, or to what degree or in what manner, it may be carried out. Suffice to say that Monkasho guidelines are not carried out like imperial decrees.

Most of the Uni presidents and deans I have known reasonably well and, generally speaking, they are well-travelled, amiable, broad-minded types. It is very easy to arrange a meeting with them. In fact, I recently spent 1 hour discussing the wider establishment of a discourse-based English education focus with the university vice-president, who also happens to be head of the English policy committee (of which yours truly is a member). This wide number of committees with rotating chairs helps to distribute power even more widely so that the power structure remains fluid.

Let's look a little further.

There is an ombusdperson section, openly advertised, with the provisions of due process for grievance are clearly laid out, and complaints can be carried out in confidence. There is also a widely-advertised support center, fully-funded, for sexual harassment, power harassment, alcohol harassment and other unfair or psychologically debilitating practices.

There is a support center for women, staffed entirely by women (and feminist supporters may be happy to note that they are a thorn in the side of some rather rigid older profs), which also lends tangible support regarding child care leave and aid. And yes, males can take advantage of this too (see Matthew Apple's story of taking child care leave from a university in Nara here).

NO ONE tells you what to teach and content is not checked by any 'authority'. This principle is almost religiously enforced, somewhat to the chagrin of visiting part-time English teachers who often want to, or expect to, be told what they should be teaching- and few such directives are forthcoming.

The university grounds are completely and fully smoke-free (although just ten years ago there were numerous smoking areas outside classrooms which became encrusted with a near-permanent yellow sheen and a 24 hour Eau De Marlboro aroma plus every other piece of consumer junk that students tend to leave around for the garbage fairy to pick up).

There are rotating ecology and watchdog committees to monitor mismanagement and abuses and to make/apply further suggestions. I realize that the latter might sound more ominous than progressive but it is management practices that are being checked and balanced so...

I talked about the movement to full access and disclosure (and associated problems) in a recent blog entry.

Another thing I've alluded to here before is the attitude of the office staff and/or bureaucracy. Since professors and doctors call most of the shots there is virtually no sense of being under the thumb of inaccessible boardroom suits. They don't decide policy, they carry it out- and this is reflected in the kindness (almost deference really) with which they treat the teaching faculty.

And how might the university look not-so-progressive? Well, by far the majority of senior profs are male, but that number will almost certainly decrease as the number of women in associate prof positions has risen propotionately in recent years (demographics, demographics). The support center also promotes female researchers/academics in this regard, plus the fact that among the medical staff (I work in the faculty of medicine with an attached hospital), the number of female doctors about to move into positions of greater authority is quite high.

One could say that the number of lecture-oriented classes is still too high, although that too is changing.

Despite these few hiccups, there is little doubt that the authoritarian image of Japan and Japanese institutions held by many does not apply here.

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June 04, 2010

Japanese universities slip in Asia rankings- a few comments

Some readers may have noticed this headline and short article appearing recently on the eltnews website.

The rankings are based upon several criteria, including: academic peer review (40%), employer review (10%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%), proportion of international students (5%). (*The actual website includes more criteria so I'm not sure where ELTnews got the percentage breakdowns from).You can see both world and Asia rankings (plus the breakdown of each listed university via the links) here.

So are we to take it that Japanese university educational standards and performance are heading downward? In short, no. So, why did the Japanese universities slip and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis these rankings? Apparently, Tokyo U. would have been Asia's numero uno had only academic factors been cited, so the slip cannot be said to come from a decline in academic achievement. The drop then seems to be based upon the two 'international' categories and 'student exchange' criteria.

Japanese universities have always tended to keep fewer non-citizens on faculty compared to other developed countries. No surprise here. As the vast majority of classes, administration and research will be carried out in Japanese, opportunities for those who don't speak the language are extremely limited, especially when compared to the Hong Kong and Singaporean universities. But this still doesn't explain the slip. Perhaps then economics come into play. The appreciation of the yen and hard times in general means that fewer foreign students and possibly, researchers (even though the Japanese hosts foot a large number of those bills) can afford to visit or stay.

On the other hand some J university rankings actually rose, not the least of which was my own humble place of employment, the University of Miyazaki, which made a significant jump- from 201st to 131st (although this would still be the 7th division if this were British football or the J9 league domestically). In our case, this is due to the fact that the number of international exchanges and cooperative ventures at all (student, faculty and research) levels have exploded recently as has- and this is important- the way in which we are now carefully compiling and providing this information to the public- which influences sites like the one linked above. (I don't imagine that our huge leap forward is founded solely upon the enormous amount of international respect this blog garners).

But while the language factor will always cause Japanese universities to lag somewhat in such rankings there is still no excuse for avoiding the development of international relations, of actively cultivating exchange. Our international profile expansion was founded largely upon GP (good practice) grants and has now become an established, permanent (?) part of the university program. And the English section plays, as you can imagine, a big role in both establishing and maintaining this. So the bleak economic situation need not adversely affect every aspect of international exchange- after all the YEN is still strong and the internet continues as a means for international exchange.

Since the J universities ranked highly in terms of research and academic citations, we can't say that academic level is a weakness. but there is a dimension in which I feel that Japanese universities might actually be lacking: Teaching skills. Education.

You see, most universities in Japan heavily favour hiring personnel with strong research backgrounds. People with a lot of papers, people with established names in the research field. And that's fine. Having students (usually grad students) apprentice under the mentorship of a world-class researcher can hardly be anything but beneficial. But most of these people also have to TEACH!

And they are often- ahem- not too great at 'teacher-y' things such as class management, communicating to large groups, creating tasks, the very items that undergraduates deal with almost exclusively. They usually don't have backgrounds in curriculum development and syllabus structuring. They are far from up-to-date on assessment and evaluation.

So here's the point- to improve Japanese universities on a more visceral level (I make it a habit to use the term 'visceral' at least once each blog entry) more attention needs to be paid to hiring people with these types of backgrounds to fill TEACHING roles.

The University of Miyazaki's Faculty of Medicine's international academic status seems to be built on the back of its world-class ranking in peptide research (note, that's peptide, not Pepchew) but unless the people involved in this highly-rated program also hire people who can teach and inspire the undergraduates, who may someday evolve into peptide researchers themselves, we will lose our ranking and, more importantly (viscerally?), advances in medical research may also come to an end.

Added editorial note- Apologies for initial typos in many blog posts. We are asked to compose on the blog page (and not just copy from Word), which when done with an IE browser, produces no spellcheck (Firefox though, does). On top of that, I tend to be oblivious to some of my own typos even upon proofreading. I know how ironic this appears when talking of university education and academia...

Will strive to take more care in this department instead of rushing to get the blog online.

I've also heard that my entries come off without paragraph breaks in some blogreaders. Suffice to say that my paragraph delineation seems perfect upon composing here and when it appears in the actual blog but I will take advice on how to fix this so that it doesn't happen on some blogreaders.


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July 22, 2010

Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence

I'm feeling rather buoyant at work recently despite the usual cluttered end-of-term schedule and the searing and humid weather. I'm feeling a bit lighter on my feet because I've received a little validation and recognition, and more importantly, good EFL methodological practices have been acknowledged.

Let me explain why in a roundabout way. I'll start off by making a few general political comments and then tie these to the university EFL workplace and my current situation...

Most of you will have heard of proposals to offer suffrage to permanent NJ residents of Japan and there has been some intense debate on the topic in various quarters. The best argument in favour of suffrage is probably that as permanent members of our community, with financial, family and workplace investments implanted, we deserve a say in our governance. Fair enough. But is voting the only way to be represented, to have a say? Is it the most effective way?

Some might argue that simply because we pay taxes we should be given the vote- no taxation without representation- but I'd hesitate here. Your taxes give you the right and means to use numerous government services provided at various levels. Don't want to pay your taxes because you can't vote? OK. But then don't expect to use any welfare, health, garbage collection, or childcare facilities and services- which are what your tax money is paying for. No taxes- no benefits. Surely we don't want to become entwined in this circle (assuming that no one who reads this blog is a private militia survivalist living in a plywood shack in Idaho).

In fact, despite the current lack of a local vote you are, and can be further, represented. Your local town hall will include numerous resident's committees, advisory boards filled with residents, and resident representatives in all sections. By joining or volunteering for any of these, any of those bwhich match your concerns or interests, you are doing far more visceral work for the development of your community than a single vote would (especially if your candidate loses).

My thinking is that if one really is so concerned about influencing local polity as a concerned resident then it would be incumbent upon one to learn about the issues (if you had the vote would you exercise this right responsibly by studying the issues?), the players (ditto), and most of all, to get yourself involved in some committee work (being an NJ will in no way disqualify you). This will mean sharpening your Japanese skills and making an effort but hey, that's participatory democracy, and presumably that's what people really believe in.

At the most local of levels there are the jichikai, or neighbourhood associations. I just finished serving as the Vice-chairman of ours for a year and it was an eye opener (and good not only for my Japanese skills but neighbourhood public face too). Our current Chairman is an American PR. We are treated like any other resident and use our involvement to make local decisions. This too is grass-roots participation and involvement. If people want to be counted and represented, to influence local policy, this is where to start.

I hope those who clamor for 'representation' plan to make themselves active and knowledgeable with the same fervency as they spout their suffrage advocacy if and when PRs ever get the local vote.

OK, now let me tie this to the university milieu.

Many NJ teachers feel left out of university decision-making, that they aren't represented or listened to, that they cannot affect educational policy. Voting is generally limited to the Kyouju-kai (Professor's committees). But, as with local politics, there are ways of getting yourself involved and noticed and ultimately making a difference. Like getting your PR status, it takes time, knowledge and some passable J skills but if you really want to be a player there are ways.

One is to inform yourself about current university system and policies WELL before criticizing or offering alternatives. Half-baked critiques based on unwarranted beliefs about 'the man' and 'his system' will not bode well for your seat on any committee.

Two- work on your J skills. Otherwise your credibility as a player takes a big dip and you will end up merely fulfilling the token Gaijin caricature.

Three- Have an active interest in some issue and something coherent to say about it. Whining about your boss doesn't qualify, except over a Guinness.

Four- volunteer for a committee. And yes, this means commitment and more work. In other words, don't just talk the talk but walk the walk. Get yourself involved by attending any open meetings of interest to you and thereby putting yourself in a position to get onto a committee. Again, and, I can't stress this enough: get informed about it if you want to be taken seriously.

You can avoid all the hassles and responsibilities by just doing your regular teacher's work of course (and that can be an attractive option) but don't complain then about your inability to affect policy or how the man is keeping you down (with apologies to those NJ at universities who are shut out of every meaningful decision-making process- yes, I've heard of a few such places).

So, how does my sprightly step tie into all this? Well, I'm a member of our Zengaku English Study Program Committee (I'm the only NJ on it as the rep from the Faculty of Medicine's English section). This committee is comprised of representatives of all faculties of our university, but many are not ELT educators at all. Still, this committee is responsible for developing or propagating new English programs, making recommendations to each faculty on English teaching policy (note- but NOT compiling edicts or dictates).

In the recent past, this committee adopted a program that I felt on my levels was unworkable, awkward, as well as methodologically and educationally dubious- and costly (although I admit that it has some limited benefits). And because I showed concern (and knowledge) on the topic I was placed on the committee. However, after some committee members, having been led to believe in certain unattainable benefits of this program, have gradually come to question it- including the committee Chairperson himself. This gave me the opportunity to present an alternative to the Chairperson and thereby establish my credentials as somebody who is trained and has experience in developing EFL programs and curriculum.

The chairperson has since asked me to make a formal Powerpoint proposal for our next meeting, where I am to explain the theoretical and practical logistics of my own proposal. Here's a big chance to establish a viable university English program beyond my own faculty (Medicine). Although it soothes the ego to be sure, the feeling that I'm being treated as a player, being counted, and seen as having some skills or knowledge worthy of developing a wide-ranging policy gives me a sense of purpose, of being useful. It is a positive move also in the name of sound educational policy. And, it goes without saying, it is good for the students who may have somebody trained and experienced in the field providing a framework for their university English education.

Disclaimer- I am not a natural go-getter who has the energy or inclination to get involved in every issue and expect others to do likewise. I pick my spots and try to influence where I have some knowledge or skill, something positive to offer. Although I can still whine with the best of them, getting yourself on board beats griping or constantly feeling like you're the victim of poor managerial decisions.

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July 30, 2010

A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs

In the comments section of the previous entry, reader Mark Howarth asked me to outline what I think an English program at a Japanese university should look like. I have covered a similar topic on this blog in the past which you can access here (scroll down to the second entry) but I thought it would also be worthwhile to restate, or elaborate on, a few points.

First, here's what I think a Japanese university English course shouldn't be modeled upon:
1. It is not eikaiwa. There are legitimate places to learn daily conversation. University is not one of them. A university should have a more rigorous academic focus for any subject- including English.

2. It is not a continuation of high school English. Most students learned English structure in the form of discrete items in high school (particularly in preparation for entrance exams). The students, at some level, know this stuff. True, very few can use it productively or even in a consolidated manner but at some level they 'know' it. The trick is getting it from the realm of the latent and passive and into more active contexts. Now is the time to put what was learned (at a certain level) in high school to use.

3. It is not a matter of just memorizing more specific terminology- which can be achieved using a good dictionary.

4. It should be more generalized in scope- as befits the concept of a university- than the narrower, very specialized focus of a senmon gakko. That is, it should balance intrinsic and instrumental purposes.

5. It shouldn't be reduced to a TOEIC-like course, a detached, discrete-point, impersonalized, externally-administered program. Such things are useful foor supplementary study but hardly as a curriculum framework.

On the positive side- a university program should...
1. cause students to engage cognitively

2. be academically viable

3. develop critical thinking skills and production of English within meaningful contexts (meaning within their major subjects)

ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) models therefore seem most appropriate.

Teaching methodology should not focus upon structure (which will just repeat the shortcomings of high school English) or terminology but upon the frames of discourse within a particular academic subject (i.e., agriculture majors should study and utilize English skills that reflect and enhance what people in the field of agriculture talk about, what they read, write, communicate.

Universities should be a place where students learn to communicate with peers worldwide in the field and gain the ability to write papers and give outlines/preparations in English on specific topics.

Discrete aspects of English (specialist vocab., structural elements) can be mastered through ongoing moderated evaluated tasks, process learning, (if and when such points are needed and can be grasped contextually for the sake of enhancing communication) rather than a focus upon numerically-based discrete item testing. In other words, vocabulary and grammar are mastered not before dealing with meaningful, academic content but through dealing with such content. The meanings and functions only have reality for students when they manifest themselves in meaningful expression, and is retained only when recycled through meaningful contexts which the student is creating or maintaining (not teacher or text fed).

The most common negative response I get in regard to these proposals is that many, if not most, university students don't have the English skills to embark upon such a program- that many can barely squeak out the most basic of utterances.

I would answer that it is precisely the focus upon non-cognitive mechanics that has brought about this disjunct (between the passive knowledge of English as gained in HS and actual, practical, meaningful usage) and therefore to continue pursuing it, arguing that students have not yet mastered it sufficiently, is flogging a dead horse.

Challenging, rather than cognitively coddling, students should inspire them. By relating it to their field of study/interest we provide a framework that has significance for them. Talking about shopping or movies in English does not. They might start of awkwardly upon this track but the rate of improvement and mastery of skill should excite both students and skeptical teachers. After all, it treats them as if they were adults and real students.

I should know because I've seen this happen with my medical students. And while medical students tend to be pretty sound academically, this does not always transfer into utility when they enter university. In fact what they generally do well at is test-taking. But after two years of a discourse-based ESP/EAP approach most have taken at least a few steps forward- steps that are more becoming of a university student.

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September 06, 2010

A gap in the university curriculum that you, O gaikokujin teacher, could fill

About 10 years ago the Faculty of Medicine here at the UoM hired a philosophy professor to fill a perceived gap in the General Education curriculum. The new course was to focus upon medical ethics and, since this hiring, this class has become a standard part of the medical students' training. But this professor noticed another, more fundamental, gap in the system and moved quickly to fill it.

This gap was teaching academic skills to 1st year university students. Yes, before this professor's arrival, the students here received no special training in skills such as carrying out research, writing a research paper, organizing case studies, debating, note taking, classroom conduct, critical thinking and the like. The course he established was originally called 'Japanese Communication' (some wisely asked why it should be called 'Japanese' since it was obvious that this was the lingua franca of the classroom for all students and teachers in the course- save yours truly- so it was recently changed to 'Freshman Seminar'). The focus in this course was/is upon how to operate and communicate appropriately within an academic milieu.

It seems to me that such courses should be obvious, mandatory, slam dunks. Now, please understand that this is not a Japan vs. everywhere else dilemma. I understand that some universities in Japan have treated this as standard fare for a long time, recognizing that high schools would not be focusing upon these skills. And in fact, in my own university days in Canada, I did not receive explicit instruction in such things, and had to live by trial and error. Looking back, I certainly would have appreciated- and most definitely needed- such a course.

These thoughts are inspired by comments based on my last blog entry, comments from Steve M. and Mark H. about the importance, roles, and functions of meta-cognitive skills and their development. Consciously learning how to learn, if you will. Certainly if students do not learn these skills even in their mother tongue, we can hardly expect them to do so in English without explicit teaching and practice.

The fact is, that if this Philosophy professor hadn't introduced this preparatory course we might still be floundering. Too often 'orientation' consists merely of data transfer: learning schedules, contacts and positions, calendar information, facilities, and, most importantly it seems, knowing where you CANNOT park your car. Learning how to function like a real university student somehow got lost in the song and dance.

So, I would modestly propose that EVERY university make the following learning areas mandatory for incoming students:
- How to carry out research
- How to write a research paper
- How to take notes
- How to carry out collaborative projects
- How to use several key computer programs effectively (MS word, Internet searches, Power point, Excel)

In short, how to start taking the reins of your education- to get out of permanent high school mode and become a real university student.

And this is where English teachers can contribute- by applying these skills in English classes. Offering a course in Academic Skills in English to, say, 2nd year students, as a required course would probably be attractive to the powers-that-be. These skills might include:

- How to write a research paper in English (formatting, organization of content)
- Basic rules of structuring written English (e.g., CAPS, using parentheses, spacing, commas and periods)
- How to use a dictionary PROPERLY
- How to make the best use of existing English resources and/or technologies
- International correspondence (Set/formal modes such as application forms, and/or informal modes such as email norms and netiquette).

My colleague (a fellow Canadian) and I have been chipping away at this in our regular English courses over the past few years, after previously having received all manner of reports, essays, and email that corresponded to no known norms of standard English (grammar and vocabulary skills aside).

You may be familiar with how they are typically written.
Each sentence is written on a new line.
It looks like a tanka.
There are no indentations
But suddenly one line might be pushed back for some unknown reason.
Punctuation is random.
so are capitals
It reminds me of the way non-Japanese use Japanese prepositions.
A shot-in-the-dark, hit or miss approach.

Random spaces occasionally appear too.
This may be because they tend to use Japanese fonts.
So the flow is choppy as well as visually unappealing.
This happens no matter what, the genre or register may be.
because there is little crossover concept of what sentences and paragraphs are
Between Japanese and English,
Unlike other European lan-

One result of which there can be no doubt is that the students are much happier to learn some rules and adopt some recommendations which allow their work, at least visually, to meet English norms. Among them is a palpable sense of having achieved something. After all, it should come as no surprise that Japanese students understand that there are places where propriety and correct form are to be observed and therefore absorb these guidelines pretty quickly. Almost immediately, those half-baked 'research essays', previously written in the last fifteen minutes before the deadline, in three different fonts plus a few unreadable scratches in pencil, with headings and paragraphs more or less randomly generated by the disorganization fairy- the type of submissions that will usually haunt you during the time you spend alone in your office- magically disappear.

For that reason alone, it is something that NJ university teachers should be looking into.

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September 29, 2010

What if university students don't appear to know even basic English?

Although this is the topic of a debate that I'm currently locked into at my own place of work, after a fair degree of peer hobnobbing I've come to realize that this is a pretty widespread concern.

Here's the deal. It is widely believed that academic performance standards in all subjects for 1st year Japanese university students are dropping, which should not be surprising given demographics in which, due to a low number of 18 year olds, competition for university entrance is decreasing. Therefore, universities have to accept students of lesser skill than before in order to fill their quotas.

The most often cited basis for these claims are the results of the English portion of the National Center Examination. Now, you should know that it's not that the Center Examination English scores have dropped on average but rather, since the total number of candidates has decreased, universities not ranked at the very top now have to accept students who have lower scores than they would have even ten years ago.

Of course, one may want to argue whether the Center Test should be the main barometer of English proficiency since, although the test is quite well made, given its function it cannot really address wide-ranging aspects of English proficiency. With more students exposed to foreign homestays, ALT, Super-English High Schools etc. in recent years, it is arguable that a certain sector of the youth population has actually increased in English proficiency

This is something I have noticed in my own classes in recent years. I certainly cannot say that the students of 12 years ago were any better than my current 1st year bunch. In fact, the newbies might even be better. But one reason for my intuitions may be the emphasis and weighting put on English on our Faculty of Medicine's Second Stage Entrance Exam, which naturally attracts students who are good at, or interested in, the subject.

However, many universities and especially individual faculties do not have English as a Second Stage Entrance Exam subject and thereby will attract students with only rudimentary English skills. This is the case with some faculties at my own university and, having taught in those faculties for several years in the past, I can vouch for the fact that many students are pretty much non-functional in English.

Two questions naturally follow. The first is, since the students have had six years of cumulative English study at the JHS and HS levels why can't they even master the very basics? After all, these discrete points of grammar and vocabulary would have appeared on tests in class, high school entrance exams, would have been a basic element of the more detailed HS curricula, and would have been a necessary element for any kind of success on the Center Examination.

The second is, given this state, how can university English teachers best address and correct it?

Let me answer the first question as a means of addressing the second.

Most of the 'academic' university-oriented JHS and HS classes focus upon English as a series of discrete points to be learned independently of each other, somewhat abstracted from larger contexts. The mode is almost always receptive, not productive. Student cognition is engaged only at the lowest levels.

The cognitive level is known as recognition. At this level, students know the item only in a passive, receptive way- for example, being able to identify it as the correct choice on a multiple choice question where text and potential answers are provided by the materials writer.

Higher levels of cognition, such as 'recall', 'retrieval' and especially, 'reproduction' are rarely engaged in JHS/HS. So, while the students 'know' the items in a certain sense, enough to complete receptive-focused tests, they don't know them in terms of any higher cognitive plane. This explains how they could make it through HS and all the entrance exams but still have only a tenuous, nearly unconscious grasp of all these discrete English items in vivo.

Let me give two examples here. If you have students of the caliber I'm referring to you probably often see student-generated texts such as, "University can join club" or "I borned in Fukuoka". (By the way, although Medical students are generally more proficient than others, a few come in to this faculty at that level too. And most of the Nursing students I teach- which has no English on the entrance exam- fall into this category)

Now, if you placed these two sentences on a multiple-choice type test, I believe 99% of these students would identify the forms written above as incorrect, and that most would choose the correct answers. To wit:
Q1. How should you express your birthplace in English?
A. I borned Fukuoka
B. I was born Fukuoka
C. I was born in Fukuoka.
D. I had born in Fukuoka.

The students thus, in some sense, know the best answer or at least, recognize some of the faulty ones. But they can't reproduce it in writing or speaking within meaningful contexts. Will having them do tests like this really help them to internalize the correct form? It's highly doubtful.

After all, they all know how to form a passive from an active sentence but are not cognizant of the fact that their own birth demands the passive. However, if you allow for meaningful and productive contexts in which they can see the correct form and be allowed to generate it themselves, with it recycled or revised in extended classroom tasks as necessary, they can- and do- get it. Higher cognition is engaged.

Let's look at...
Q2. How can you best express (Japanese phrase here) in English?
A. University is a join club
B. At university, we can join a club
C. University can join club
D. At university, can join club

Again, I'm confident that 99% of those who might write (C) above when trying to write a 'report' in English would NOT choose it as the answer in this question. So, again, in a sense, at some level they know it's wrong but only on a passive, recognition-based level. Therefore, 'teaching' how a prepositional phrase is needed since 'university' is not the direct subject of the verb, and that a personal pronoun is also subsequently needed to be the head of the clause, will not aid in them being able to reproduce the correct form but will simply reinforce a latent understanding at the level of recognition only.

Rather, to fix this, imagine nursing students generating lists of functions of different hospital departments and then, with revision, making posters to present them to other students. In it would be the formula:
"In the ___________ department, we ____________________".

Having used this repeatedly in a meaningful context that relates to their own interests and demands their own cognitive input and is largely self-generated, does anybody NOT think that they would internalize the form at a deeper cognitive level- and certainly one that is more in keeping with the notion of getting a university education?

So here our second question is being answered. Since we see that the cause of the problem is that their comprehension exists only at the lowest levels of cognition, a product of teaching English as an accumulation of discrete items through a receptive mode, the very LAST thing one should do at university would be to teach them this content again- as discrete items, in a receptive, de-contextualized mode.

After all, if the students didn't 'get' them in any holistic sense before this why expect that, using the same faulty methodology, that they will suddenly understand them now? Until higher levels of cognition are engaged, their knowledge of English will remain latent, fragmented and non-extendable beyond passive test-taking skills of the Center Examination variety.

It also means covering JHS content at a university, which simply obviates the whole point of being a university. Lowering the bar like this is unlikely to spur the students on to a deeper, more widely-focused grasp of English. For these reasons, remedial, review programs, especially those found in much E-learning, with it's generally de-contextualized, receptive, discrete point focus, will simply perpetuate the problem.

Instead, what is needed is the engagement of higher levels of cognition in students, such that latent knowledge becomes more conscious (and ultimately, productive) and fragmented understandings begin to take on a more holistic shape. We have to coax out that latent ability by giving it voice. This means allowing productive, meaning-based English learning to occur. And since students enter specific universities faculties from day one in Japan, contexts are ready-made. Not only that, but it more accurately meets the idea of what a university should be- a place of higher learning.

My expectation, in fact I should say my experience, is that by raising the bar, and in expecting that the students have the latent knowledge/ability/interest to engage the topic, they can and will do it. The passive turns to the active, the receptive to the productive, the discrete item finds a meaningful context for expression, content becomes more interesting, self-generated as it meets students interests, and cognition of the topic is increased.

Remedial approaches that try to 'fix' the problem simply by repeating the same faulty and limiting views of language, flawed methodologies, and thereby lower the bar with decidedly non-academic approaches are just shooting themselves in the foot.

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October 19, 2010

Getting a university teaching job- Q&A from a reader

Everyday bags of letters from blog readers arrive on my desk telling me that they have been good teachers, utilizing progressive methodologies, and so, come April 1st, couldn't I bring the glad tidings of a contract extension as I ride through the nation handing out seasonal goodies.

Today, I'd like to respond to one such letter from Jason Sturgeon, a letter that I think represents both the situation and querstions that many readers may have about the nuts, bolts, and financial rewards, of a university English teaching job in Japan...

Jason writes: I came to Japan in 2005 on the JET program and have enjoyed life here so far. I intend to stay in Japan my whole life, BUT not making a mediocre salary the whole time. I want to step up my career and my salary. To that end, I'm searching for information on what I can do and how to do it.

I was interested in teaching English at a university level not only for the rise in pay, but also for the more interesting things I could do. Teaching at middle school is ok, but I don't feel like its MY work. There's always someone else designing and deciding the lessons. Plus working at a university allows you the opportunity to do research, which I'm very much interested in. (I've been reading a lot about bilingualism in children and the Language Acquisition Device and would love to poke further into that study) So, here are some of the things that you might be able to help me out with. First, what kind of salary range do you think the average foreign professor would fit into?

I'm not expecting to get rich quick, but I also can't keep making the amount I'm making now, or I'll be in some trouble come retirement time. If you can tell me what your salary is, that would be helpful for me, Also, assuming that you make more the longer you work, getting promotions and such, what is the salary range of a professor starting out versus the salary of a professor near his or her retirement? I've found some information on this topic on Japanese websites, but the data is old and seems inaccurate. More than one site said that a full-professor (one who has been working for 20 years or so) makes anywhere from 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 yen a year. That sounds really high. I was wondering if you could confirm or refute that claim.

Yeah, let's talk money. It does matter. But keep in mind I can speak largely only of my own case. OK- Each month my pay slip says I get about 325,000 net and about 420,000 gross. But wait. This includes paying into my pension, all national health (and other) insurance plans, all taxes, the lot. All benefits are provided. Now, add the following to this: we get bonuses twice a year that come to just over 4 months worth of salary total. Next, 'teatte' or stipends for extra work on various committees- maybe another 100,000 over the year. I also am granted an outside class or two which adds about another 50,000 per month. My research funds are separate but generous.

The raise per year is negligible, about 2%. I've been teaching here for 13 years, and have 24 years' teaching experience in total (I'm 50), all post HS. Interestingly, my monthly net pay at a senmon gakko in Tokyo 20 years back is higher than my current salary, at least on the payslip, but not so when all the benefits are added together. Also, my previous position at this university was the now outmoded 'Gaikokujin kyoushi', for which the monthly salary was about 20% higher than now but with fewer benefits and much less job security. (Job security will always be the issue for teachers trying to enter the university scene- regardless of nationality).

Private universities (mine is National) may pay more for veteran teachers with PhDs from prestigious universities but tend to have less job security and benefits. And certainly being a Full Professor anywhere will bump you salary-wise above the Associate Profs (like me) and Lecturers, but the chances of that happening are generally close to 0.

Jason: Next, what kind of qualifications do universities require of their English professors? I've heard that either a masters degree in linguistics or a TESOL degree is necessary, but which one? Or do you need both? Along the same lines, could I expect to make more if I had a doctorate degree, or would that be making myself overqualified. I have also heard that you need to have "publications" in order to be considered for a position at a university. If that is the case, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. What exactly counts as a "publication".

A Master's in the field is an absolute minimum for getting your foot in the door. And 'in the field' will generally mean Applied Linguistics or something close- and only one such Master's is enough, although an additional teaching certificate (I have one) never hurts. A PhD almost always helps but not necessarily. I was starting my PhD when I began here and yet was actively discouraged from pursuing it because 1) it would put me in a less affordable salary bracket, 2) the then reigning professor wanted to be the head hog without any fear of 'competition', and 3) it was thought that it might interfere with the daily work I was supposed to be doing.

As for publications, I know that this a dilemma for those not in universities but who want to enter. After all, most non-university teaching jobs have no need for publications, as a academic research is not considered part of the job since contact hours are the real work. A publication will generally mean an academic journal that is refereed. Any teaching materials' publication would also hold water. If a post-grad thesis is published, that is also acceptable. So, for those with no background in this sort of thing, I suggest getting involved with some group research wherein you'll get your name published but may not have to take a lead role (new academics do this all the time). Action Research, where a teacher delves into solving actual classroom dilemmas but usually without the full academic paraphaernalia can also get published and is more accessible to younger teachers and researchers.

Jason: Also, what kind of work hours do you have? I'd like to know the minimum per week, the maximum per week and the general average per week. I know that some parts of the year are busier than others. For the purposes of this question, work hours means time spent either at the office, or at home doing university related tasks, including administrative tasks.

You could conceivably come into the university only to do your classes and the surrounding prep (copying) etc. and then go home BUT you would never get a contract renewed if you took this tack. You would not be considered a teacher with long-term or promotional potential. Most universities operate a data base of your 'worth' to the institution in which all your publications, presentations, extracurricular duties, related social (such as this blog and my Yomiuri columns) and professional associations and commitments, admin work and committees, both leading and simple membership. You will also these days be expected to regularly produce research results AND try to raise money for such (as with kaken-hi scientific research grant applications). Without getting involved in all of these things, your database score will be unlikely to justify keeping your contract the next time renewals or cuts come around.

And holidays of any length are very rare, at least at national universities. If I can scrape a week together in the off-season when there are no committee meetings, special courses, intensive private work with students (grad theses, seminars), and administrative or extracurricular duties, I consider myself lucky. At some private universities I hear of teachers regularly taking a month or so off and chilling out- absolutely unthinkable for me, and NOT because I'm a workaholic or anything.

Personally, I am in the office- and usually active- from 8:30 to 5 PM every weekday but will also do some work at home. I have 7 90-minute koma contact hours per week. Weekends too may be taken up with obligations, especially involving research trips, conferences, organizing/participating in special events and lectures, and even follow-up 'semi-obligatory uchiage' parties But nobody is really checking you on a regular basis. There is no time punch card. I can visit my home at times as I live within walking distance and no one would notice or care- but then again (blows own trumpet) I've built up 13 years' worth of trust here.

In general, any information you can give me about your own personal experience would be the most desired and useful to me. Stories and information from a source "straight from the horse's mouth" seem more real than averages and stipulation. I feel like if it happened to you, it's very possible I could have the same thing happen to me.

One thing comes to mind immediately Jason, It REALLY helps to be active and known in the local teaching community, both J and E. Join teaching organizations and participate. Attend training sessions. Go to meetings and conferences. Most university jobs are offered to known quantities, through connections- although usually at first as limited part-time gigs. New foreigners often become recommended by veteran foreigners whose judgment is trusted by the staff of the university (usually the Kyoujukai- Professor's Working Group).

Does any vet have anything to add to Jason's inquiry? Or do readers have any similar questions? Comments are open...

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November 16, 2010

5 Reasons to take English off the Center Shiken

Let's get right into it.

I think that it would be better for English education in this country if it were not included as a core subject on the Center Shiken (hereafter 'CS'). I could possibly accept it being an elective Center Shiken subject. And I have no qualms with certain universities making it a core subject on their individual second-stage entrance exams- but it's not suited to the CS.


1. It perverts any holistic understanding, acquisition and appreciation of English, and possibly foreign languages as a whole. How?

The Center Shiken is administered to a huge number of students nationwide and demands strict standards for fairness and objectivity as well as allowing for the rapid machine calculation of results. It has to be measurable as a number, with no room for subjective or interpretive judgments. This means that the tasks and questions on the CS will ultimately be multiple choice items. This necessitates a reduction in task/question type and range, meaning that the focus will always be reduced to discrete points. The result is the atomization of the language, in which languages are treated basically as cumulative collections of discrete item knowledge. The backwash on high school pedagogy, although often overstated, is palpable (though I would say that the popular notion that this forces HS teachers to 'teach grammar' is false).

The CS has evolved over the yers to try and minimize the former narrow, discrete-point focus but it can never entirely eradicate that focus without compromising the necessary objectivity and calculation speed. This is not a criticism of the CS English makers- who do quite well within the restraints to capture a more wide-ranging number of skills and abilities- but the nature of the beast ensures that it will always fall short.

2. It is unfair, especially when it carries so much weight.

English could be considered primarily an academic subject, which then demands a calculated academic approach, but I think most would say that English is more fundmentally a skill, and a practical skill at that.

The CS shouldn't be testing skill subjects like this- even if they don't end up testing English 'skills' per se- especially those subjects which are largely non-academic (think of music as an example). Some examinees will, by sole virtue of having lived abroad, be quite competent in English but perhaps not academically suited to university. The current situation favours these students over someone who has simply had fewer social opportunities to engage the language. The student who grew up in L.A. might be less academically skilled than the student who grew up in Tottori. but the Angelino will almost certainly score higher on the CS. Although we can imagine all subjects containing some built in advantage for some students (we expect a student whose parents are biology researchers to do better on the science exam) none are determined by experiential happenstance to the degree that English is.

3. By having English employed more as a second-stage (individual university) exam subject will allow for more balanced teaching/learning and skill development.

The number of candidates at the second stage exams is fewer and more manageable from a grading/marking viewpoint. This affects test design and content. Attention can be paid to details of individual examinees by actual humans, humans who are hopefully certified and trained in the subject (absolute objectivity is less rigorously applied at this level, but a wider range of skills can be addressed, making it perhaps a more accurate measure of student English ability, 'objectively' speaking).

This approach, in turn, allows for more tasks that call for insight, analysis, use of cognition- the ability to discuss and elaborate upon content in English- a more holistic approach than multiple-choice or discrete-item approaches could ever allow for. It means that expression in writing, the ability to think in English become apparent, allowing the examiner to get a better read not only upon the student's English skills, but wider academic viability. Even spoken English interviews could be incorporated into the scheme.

I would expect the backwash to infiltrate throughout the education system to be duly positive. This would also have the effect of killing two birds with one stone- meeting the MoE's extant call for an increase in communicative skills while also addressing the need for HS students to prepare for university entrance exams.

4. It makes English more of an optional subject at the JHS/HS, allowing those who don't feel that it would benefit them (some kids who will take over Dad's farm in Iwate) much to put their emphasis elsewhere but allow those who are interested in the subject to develop more holistic, practical, and analytical skills. In short, preparing professionals who can actually use the language in discourse as opposed to the perpetual uniform national "false beginnerhood".

This would further rid the negative atmosphere associated with many English classes (by both teachers and students alike), emptying classes of students who see no value or have no interest in learning English, especially in the atomistic, mechanical way currently employed in many (most?) settings.

5. In education, streamlining is the catalyst for efficiency and higher-quality production. Freed from the drudgery and mundane, both teachers and students could focus upon more personal and/or extended\extensive avenues of English acquisition, with a focus on the productive as opposed to just the receptive, and upon the cognitive skill of reproduction rather than the lowest cognitive denominator of recognition. Local initiative would increase while the central bureaucracy's role would diminish.

Possible objections-:

1. The status of English in the Japanese education system would diminish.

That is, if status implies only core inclusion on the Center Shiken. It is problematic that many people view only the subjects that form the CS core to be academically legitimiate. In terms of what most people recognize as real academia, the ability to apply abstract knowledge into research or advanced self-expression or international communication would actually be bolstered.

2. The English study industry would suffer.

Probably. Billions of yen are made assuming to help students prepare for the CS. Obviously, guides and training materials would be helpful for English's inclusion on other exams but they would suffer. Even as I write this, some burly men in sunglasses and suits from "Eigo Corp" have entered my room brandishing very heavy dictionaries.

The CS is also a money maker for the MoE and some host institutions but, hey, are we arguing for educational or financial benefits?

3. The number of high school English teachers would decrease. People would lose jobs- including (possibly) some NJ.

The weaker end of the HS English teaching world might suffer- but is it not alreay argued that too many English teachers are ineffectual anyway? I also understand that NJs are often shunted out of the CS prep process anyway so...

Regardless, this more streamlined approach could even allow for more production-based, learning-centered classes due to decreased student numbers while retaining the same teachers.

What do you think?

*Apologies for typos in the original version- thanks to an impending migraine with zigzagging vision

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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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March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

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

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

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

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

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

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 23, 2011

Putting conversation in its proper place- a few ideas and practices

Imagine paying good money to go to Tennis School and having the coach tell you, “Don’t worry about your technique or skills. Just go out there, hit some balls, and have fun”. Wouldn’t be much of a “school”, would it? Smacking a ball against a wall or just going down to the local courts with your buddies and whacking the ball around would be equally productive- not to mention a lot cheaper. Nor would it be apt to describe such a person as a “coach”, especially if this coach believed that just batting balls around would significantly improve the students’ tennis skills.

This scenario doesn’t seem to me to be too far removed from the teacher who simply uses the classroom as a chat session- as if holistic English skills will magically evolve out of holding a conversation.

On the other hand, having a coach demonstrate swinging technique over and over while the students imitate him/her isn’t of much use if this technique isn’t soon put to use in some type of game situation. The most technically beautiful tennis swing in the world won’t mean much if the player has no game skills, if he or she can’t adapt to the dynamics of the game, to think—and react—on their feet. Likewise with the English teacher who merely has student repeat sentences orally, read set scripts out loud, or has students do single-word information gap exercises and considers it to be ‘conversational practice’. Reading other peoples' dialogues is about as far from conversation as AKB48 is from Chopin.

There is a place for conversation in the classroom (and I'll give you some examples of what I do later) but we first have to divorce it from the notion of idle chat. Perhaps if we label it all as Oral Discourse we can start to get a better perspective. Why? It seems to me that the entire notion of education, of a classroom, should imply that learning is taking place, that skills are being developed. This further implies some type of direction or target is guiding the conversation-- that discourse, and not just sonic clutter, is taking place. What exactly does this mean? It means:

Is casual chat in the classroom really meaningful?

1. The conversation or rather discourse, must have a purpose that is meaningful to students- it should encompass something that they really need or want to convey. A lot of casual chat fails in this regard- good friends can riff with each other on nothing in particular over coffee but those dynamics don’t translate well to classroom settings with people who you wouldn’t normally be shooting the breeze with.

This is why students who seem to improve little in classes in Japan take a huge leap in competence after they go abroad for awhile. Abroad, simply having oral discourse helps them improve because they need it for everyday life, for survival, to make the event meaningful. These parameters don’t exist in the standard Japanese classroom and cannot be easily replicated. What to do then? Well, let’s look at point #2

Adding a diagnostic function

2. The ‘conversation’ should have some diagnostic function attached. If the speakers aren’t conscious of what is working and what’s not working and make no room to note, improve upon, or study those shortcomings then they’ll just repeat the same mistakes over and over and, more likely a) use Japanese or b) not say anything. Since the latter options are not legitimate choices while abroad, such a student has a higher degree of consciousness regarding what’s working (which leads to the reinforcement of successful ventures) and what needs to be fixed. This element needs to be added to the classroom situation.

To inculcate this is my own classroom I give students a few minutes post-conversation to make a note on anything that they couldn’t express well- vocabulary, grammar patterns, strategies, useful hints they picked up from their speaking partners, and tell students to check these as self-study. These are to be kept as a list and submitted later in the year and often form a discussion element in final oral interviews. One positive is that when students choose to make their own notes on their own items of significance they are ‘owning’ the language and thus taking responsibility for it. This is crucial as point #3 is…

Language ownership and subsequent responsibility

3. Giving students ownership over the language they use. I don't think I have to tell anyone reading this website that repeating written sentences out loud or even 'saying' the individual words that make up an information gap exercise constitutes anything that could remotely be considered conversation or oral discourse. When the student doesn't have to engage any cognitive skills to produce English we can't expect much to occur in terms of deep internalization. They also need an emotional or propositional investment in the language they are producing. Engaged cognition makes for deeper embedding. And cognition is enaged more when #4 occurs-- which is...

Choosing stimulating topics

4. Topics need to be stimulating and meaningful. I admit, this a pretty banal bit of advice, right? You don't need a PhD from the Sorbonne to come to this intellectual epiphany. Yet all too many conversation activities involve students asking questions or otherwise discussing something they really have no interest in.

This extends to those, "What kind of movies/music do you like?" motifs. Frankly speaking, very few people care what kind of movies/music others in their class like. Movies and music are fun. So is food. Shopping is for many. But talking about these things isn't necessarily so. The conversation here is artificial-- the topic is given not so that students will be emotionally or intellectually engaged but more to fulfill a 'talking quota' or perhaps to draw out (awkwardly, in most cases) some discrete teaching point. The only person I might normally ask these questions too would be someone I'm planning to go to the movies with, when setting the proper musical mood for a party or, hey, if prepping for a hot date. Without the environment that gives meaning to these topics they usually seem static and forced.

What I'm driving towards here is point #5 which deals with the question...

5. Which forms of oral discourse have the greatest value in most classrooms?
And the answer is: Guided and/or prepared discussions. Here's where it all comes together.

First of all, although anything prepared in advance cannot by definition be spontaneous, prepared discussion treats the classroom and its members as, well, as classrooms with students, and not as makeshift bars or coffeeshops. Allowing for preparation also lets students gather the vocabulary, strategic and grammatical items they need in order to participate. This raises consciousness of form and usually makes for a better product. When students know they have to produce purposeful language in advance they will aim for a prestige form- much in the same way that any sensible NJ would carefully compose an double check say, a wedding speech before stepping up to the podium at a Japanese wedding.

This doesn't mean that everything need be written down- scripted like a professional wrestling match. In fact, I would discourage this in favour of general notes. Max.

Students feel ownership and thus, responsibility for this language. Advance preparation allows (demands?) that content be researched, which should raise the interest/involvement level for all. Giving students guidelines (e.g., to provide background info, explain keywords, include three new or interesting comments of substance, prepare commentary or questions) means students will not be intimidiated as they are at free-for-all open-ended chinwags and yet not feel so dominated restricted by teacher-centered activities as to lead to the passivity endemic to most teacher-dominated assignments.

One of the most succesful examples I've used with my own students (university medical students, small groups) is this:
Explaining the Japanese Medical System

The steps (and how they reflect what I think is sound methodology):

- With a colleague, I collect and write down 36 questions that are typically asked about the Japanese medical system by NJs. Obviously, these should be motivating topics to medical students who may not only may know the answers themselves but shouldalso kindle interest given the fact that this discussion allows them to prepare explanations to non-Japanese.

- The questions are sent to the students in advance by email. They can choose which questions (generally, 4 each) they'd like to tackle, as long as they make sure there isn't any overlap. This element of choice heightens the sense of ownnership and thus, responsibility. Again, with the students having the questions in advance they can (must!) not only research the topic so as to say something interesting-- and with confidence-- about it but can prepare a prestige form of the language, raising consciousness about grammar, strategies/rhetotical forms, vocabulary. Consciousness is raised-- deeper learning occurs.

- At the actual sessions I ask students one-by-one to give the answers to the questions they chose (they can make general notes but must not be read from a set essay form). Having prepped, this usually goes smoothly with very little hemming and hawing. However, all other students must listen closely because with each answer I will choose one to student to subsequently summarize it and another to add a comment or further question. This keeps them all actively involved- not only with the topic but also maintaining an awareness of the language being used to express the topics. This answer-summary-comment/question pattern eventually revolves among all the students. Open commentary on any other student's answer is also encouraged.

I think you'd agree that this amounts more to guided discussion than what we normally consider to be 'conversation'. It works. But it might beg the following question:

"Mike, do you ever employ more standard, spontaneous conversation activities in your classes?"

I do-- but I'm very careful with how I structure those activities. I usually do it with the following parameters in mind:

- I use it as a starter to wake students up, to get them actively involved, act as an appetizer for the rest of the lesson.

- The topics are always connected to the theme of the lesson.

- I have the topic written on the board in advance. Some examples are: "Have you ever been injured/very sick/hospitalized? When? Why? What happened? Talk about it" (this precedes a lesson on taking a patient history) or, "Your body: strong points/weak points-- What are they?" (before an anatomy-centered lesson). These topics are usually of interest to medical students and help to generate language (and cognition) that will be useful in the lesson.

- I usually give my own story/response in advance- about 3 minutes long. I don't want to overload them with teacher talk but nonetheless want them to understand the topic clearly. This short teacher-story time also allows them to think about their own responses before they get a partner and start speaking themselves.

- I give them one minute to look up and vocabulary they might want to use in the upcoming conversation, since they've had time to think about the content.

- I have them partner with students they don't normally talk to. This helps them focus on the topic at hand and not the upcoming nomikai.

- I give them about 10 minutes to discuss and I monitor the pairs.

The diagnostic function in 'free conversation'

- *This is crucial. After closing down the free conversation but before segueing into the main lesson theme I tell the students that they must write down any of the following that occured during the conversation:

1. Any Japanese that they coudn't express well in English (words or patterns)

2. Any words or patterns their partner used which they thought skilled or possibly useful for the future. Here we see the diagnostic function of the free conversation at work.

In noting what they couldn't do well, and any resultant personal frustration, the students are challenged and motivated to study, or ask me, about these weak points themselves. A year-long list of these items is kept and is shown to me (for discussion) later in the year.

And you???

All of which makes me want to ask--
How do you manage conversations productively in your teaching situations? The floor is open...

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February 18, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers in Japan Do (Part 1)

Yes, I know the title isn't diplomatic but, hey, the bluntness is likely part of the reason why you're reading this-- there's no subtlety about the topic. Sure, it dwells on the negative side but that helps draw attention to the issues too. I also think English teachers may be a little too conciliatory when it comes to discussing dubious practices in public forums (especially in those where pseudonyms aren't used). Having done some of these when I was young, beautiful, innocent, and naive, I wish I'd had heard about them earlier.

Some well-known don'ts (i.e., "Too much teacher talk") are not listed here, having been well-drilled into most teachers' heads even before they get that certification paper. The items I've come up with have been less widely discussed. And I'm perfectly happy to hear why readers may think that any of the following points might not be particularly 'dumb'. Obviously this is a subjective list and I'm open to revision.. feel free to add your own ideas too.

1. Blame the University Entrance Exams for unproductive teaching methods:

You know what I mean. The old adage that high school teachers have to teach grammar explicitly by having students diagram and memorize sentence patterns at the expense of dealing with content and meaning-- the result being that students have only receptive, analytical skills and can't use English productively and meaningfully. And all because success on the entrance exams depends upon this (known as the washback effect)

Bullshift. The notion that university entrance exams reward this type of mechanical skill is well past its sell-by date. The Center Shiken has changed drastically over the years and demands a far more comprehensive skill set-- critical thinking, understanding rhetorical development and thematic cohesion, summarizing, predicting-- all big-picture skills.

Many second-stage (individual university) exams go even further. with most these days requiring productive writing, commentary, the ability to extrapolate meanings and themes, and manage wider semantic and pragmatic issues. Yes, there are a few throwback-to-the-Showa-era tests out there and many tests will have at least one discrete-point section, but if you're preparing your students only for these (increasingly rare) bits you are not really helping them achieve overall success on the entrance exams.

(And just as an aside-- more and more of my stronger students (in terms of entry scores) these days claim that they didn't really focus upon entrance exam prep in high school)

2. Teach basic English-- again-- to university students:

Yes, I know very well that some, even many, Japanese university students make pretty basic English mistakes ("I borned in Kagoshima. I have five families. I am influenza now") and can't expand or extend beyond the most basic English formulas. So, here's a question: Why, if they learned all this stuff in detail in junior high school, practiced them ad nauseum, met them again on the high school entrance exam, went over them again in high school, and yet once more at juku while preparing for the Center Shiken, do they still not get them?

University teachers often seem to think that since the student obviously hasn't mastered or internalized the item they should go over those items explicitly yet again (often with textbooks more suited in style and content to JHS students). But if the students didn't quite get it back then, why expect that they'll get it now?

The reality is that the students have absorbed the structures at some level (latently, passively, formally, semi-consciously) -- after all they can do endless formal diagrams and transformations-- but have trouble applying them productively or actively. What is needed to draw these latent skills into the productive realm is have them appear, and be used, in wider-ranging meaningful, content-based, productive tasks-- which is of course more in keeping with the notion of what a university is all about. Students need a wider frame in which to meaningfully manipulate (albeit with errors en route) these basic forms. Meaning and usage are a process of discovery.

What they don't need is another junior high school-type lesson introducing the 'rules in decontextualized, discrete sentences'. Nor do they now need 'eikaiwa'... which is another problematic animal altogether.

3. Teach Japanese students about Japan:

I heartily recommend doing this if you want to be thought of by your students as an arrogant twit (and obviously this doesn't just apply to cases in Japan). Personally, I have little patience for teachers who exude the missionary white man's burden, the need to 'inform' the students of the truths that "their media, government, and education system don't tell them".

Here's a helpful axiom-- the more you think that you, sensei, are privy to the real truths while your charges "are not taught critical thinking" or "are manipulated by media and authorities" the more likely you will be presumed to be a know-nothing pedant. Don't forget, Teach! You are the establishment, the authority, now! You are the one likely to be on the receiving end of an 'attempt to brainwash' charge.

The more esteemed NJ teacher learns something about Japan from the students-- although of course they need not believe everything they are told. They should be aware of Japan-related issues and conversant on matters pertaining this society (and I mean the real Japan now, not those popular and widespread Western caricatures that have been passed around since the end of WW2 or those scare-mongering, pseudo-sociology books that were de rigeur Japan-briefers in the 80's, when Japan was the U.S.'s trading enemy number one).

Preachiness will backfire. At least it does whenever someone from outside my own society tells me what beliefs I must have and what my values as a Westerner must be, me being nothing more than a mindless social product of some reductionist notion of 'The West', who needs correction from self-proclaimed know-it-alls.

Sure, challenging popular and uncritical beliefs can be attractive and useful to teachers, but in my 20 plus years of teaching in Japan one thing I've noticed is that many of the widespread NJ beliefs about what Japanese people supposedly believe is far too monolithic and outdated. I've actually found a fairly wide variety of views held by my students on any number of topics. And I shouldn't need to mention that taking the attitude that the locals will hold an "official media/gov't-influenced view" because they are "subservient to authority and unquestioning" drones, whereas Mr./Ms. NJ sensei is a free-thinking, independent, exponent of diverse and complex insights, just smells bad. And it will to your students.

4. Ask general questions in large classrooms:

Go ahead. Ask a class of 30 students, "Does everybody understand?" and revel in the resulting silence. Or at the beginning of the class ask, "Has everyone brought their book?". If these are merely rhetorical questions, I might forgive them. But if you actually expect, and wait for, an answer then I'm going to have to ask you to hand in your teaching credentials to the nearest authority.

There's a good reason you don't get any response. It's because no one knows the whole classes' answer, they can only answer these questions individually. And you didn't ask them that.

Unspecified questions to large classes also result in complete silence. For example: "Have you studied X before?". Just who is supposed to answer that question? Very occasionally, a brave soul will offer up a response but in Japan you can expect this about once every leap year.

Ask the question more specifically: "Has anyone forgotten their paper? If so, raise your hand." Or ask specific students-- if you actually want a response. But keep in mind that private-ish in-classroom conversations of almost any length seem odd and out-of-place to Japanese students and others will often lose interest or stop paying attention out of... wait for it... politeness. Yes, they often feel uncomfortable when teacher is having what looks like a private conversation with Yusuke-kun in the classroom.

5. Give tests in the final class or the official testing period:

... which means that students will get no feedback on their performance, except a number or letter grade. They will have no idea of what they got right or wrong, no understanding of strengths or weaknesses. Such tests have no educational value, they serve only to fulfill the administrative requirement to produce a number for the students' records.They own you!

Give the test in the penultimate class and use the final class to give back tests, go over common strengths and weaknesses, let students see each others' test content so they can see succesful responses, and allow the teacher to answer specific questions from individual students. And if your school has an official post-semester test period either a) opt-out if you can or b) use that as a follow-up feedback lesson (or even as a re-test session).

Part 2 to come soon...

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September 30, 2013

Teacher Identity and Re-thinking the Idea of 'Teaching the Language'

I've noticed an enormous increase in the number of presentations and research papers in ELT focusing upon 'teacher identity' recently. To be frank, I find a lot of this enterprise dubious, the epitome of navel-gazing narcissism. It's particularly ironic that this research cottage industry flourishes in a world where 'teacher-centered' is the equivalent of a curse word. I mean, you won't see Nuclear Engineers writing papers and giving academic talks on how they, members of the nuclear physics community, have furthered their self-concepts and images as scientists. They research and write about science, dammit!

If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners...then I'll entertain it.

Sure, there are Studs Terkel-like tomes observing the habits of working people in their particular communities, but these are invariably written from a detached sociological perspective, not as the spawn of community onanism. 'Student identity' research- yes, I can certainly digest that type of academic endeavor-- but you won't see me writing a manuscript on "The Self-Imaging Concept of 50-Year Old Male English Teachers Who Think They Still Look 'Sprightly' in Cargo Shorts" anytime soon.

But, ok, there is one aspect of the teacher identity mirror-gazing brigade that I can accept as legitimate. If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners-- such that a Copernican shift in our 'teacher' mindsets causes us to revise a curriculum or fix a methodology-- then I'll entertain it. And so, in this light, I have a confession to make...

I've been teaching English for twenty-five years. And in all that time I can't say that I've ever really successfully taught one person English. Not. A. One.

Sure, the neighbours admire my kids' English skills and complement me on how well I have 'taught' them but both you and I, dear reader, know that I didn't really teach them. No more than their mother 'taught' them Japanese.

And sometimes, a particularly skilled student of mine engages with foreigners in English well and the foreign visitor compliments me on how well I've trained my charges. But I know that they are almost never 'good' due to my pedagogical input (nor are the 'bad' students poor for the same reason).

The fact is that most of my 'good' students inevitably come in to the university as 'good' English speakers. Many developed their English skills before by living abroad or spending substantial time outside Japan. Some come in with an intrinsic love for, and/or knack in, the subject. Some got it from simply hanging out with foreign friends or acquaintances in Japan.

And many choose self-study because they find languages intriguing or because they have always been aware that English skills will open a few more doors. In fact, while I don't know one Japanese student who mastered English solely through school lessons at any level, I know of many whose advancements came from self-study. Good, meaningful, proper self-study (more on that later).

Part of this is due to the fact that I work at a university, the tertiary level, so the foundations have already been set (and this is why making English look attractive from an early stage is essential). I am not set to be a lifelong teacher of the sort who might tutor musical prodigies. And the classes are generally large, required, officially administered, and contained within a once-a-week, fifteen-weeks-per-semester framework. It is not conducive to language teaching.

So-- and here's where the teacher identity theory kicks in-- maybe we should drop the notion that we are teaching English to university students. Give it up. It's a dead end street. It's an exercise in Sisyphean existential anguish. We are 'waiting for good-o' but he ain't visiting our classrooms.

A lot of non-teachers hold the false belief that university teachers must be of the best quality, feeding higher in the teacher pool, because we are teaching 'harder', 'more advanced' stuff (as if neurosurgeons must be better doctors than pediatricians because of what/who they treat) but the reality is that we are probably the least effective, the least influential teachers in the education system. At least, if we persist in trying to 'teach the language,' that is.

So, am I saying that my students have gained absolutely no benefits from my teaching, that it has all been a charade, a wasteful endeavor? No. Although I cringe at using New Agey words like 'enabling' and 'empowering', this is really the area into which my teaching identity has shifted. Let's look at what this implies, piece by piece:

1. That teachers should enable learner autonomy.

If most learners acquire languages largely through their own efforts, giving them the skills to do so-- showing them the most helpful corridors and passages-- should be a priority. Creating a classroom and related activities that foster autonomy is paramount.

2. That teachers should enable effective and productive self-study skills.

Many students view study as memorizing lists, slogging through textbooks, or dense professional-level texts where every unknown word is marked and looked up. Giving students helpful, productive, realistic, and meaningful study targets and hints on how to maximize efficiency will allow for real advancement. Just telling students to read English books or listen to DVD movies is not really helpful unless you offer up some strategies on how to manage this study method.

3. That teachers develop curricula, assignments, or individual lessons that cause students to reconsider what language involves.

As every schoolchild knows, most Japanese high school students believe that English is a combination of the mechanics of grammar and the slotting in of memorized vocabulary items into that formulaic framework. Most view the other side of the foreign language coin as 'conversation' and believe that what they are lacking is this 'conversation' ingredient.

It's actually far more complex and interesting than that. University is the time and place where students should come to understand that language involves management strategies (openings, closing, managing turns, register, dealing with breakdown, negotiating meanings), and the university teacher would do well to sensitize students to these elements-- that this may in fact be the missing fluency link.

Another feature university teachers can inculcate is an awareness of pragmatics. No, they don't need a formal linguistics primer, but they should develop some sense as to how expectations, uptake, and indirect forms make up a large percentage of discourse. (It's not so hard-- a three year old knows that if a caller says, "Is your Mommy home?" he/she calls for Mom rather than simply saying 'Yes' and standing there.)

Once students are liberated from the stifling grammar/vocabulary slot 'n filler schema and the false binary of grammar vs. conversation, some real skill development can start to take place.

4. That teachers be able to identify those areas and occasions in which chipping in, polishing, and refining are most beneficial and what the fix priorities are.

Rather than trying to teach or fix everything, guidance and repair should focus upon what is most necessary to complete the classroom task or carry out the activity. Preferably, this guidance should be transferable-- meaning that learners can apply the principle to other situations, to enhance the learner's existing language system. Allowing students to struggle and make errors by themselves and then offer a few select fixes to aid revision will allow for better internalization.

5. That teachers stimulate students at a cognitive, content level.

If the students aren't connecting the language to their major or something of intellectual value or interest, advancement will not be sustained. If, for example, prospective travel agents at a junior college see how the English language is actually working to achieve relevant, meaningful real-world travel ends there will be a corresponding positive cognitive jarring.

And the most interesting thing is that while none of these mean that you are teaching the students English, you'll certainly be helping them learn better. Maybe that's the teaching identity we should strive for.

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