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The Uni-Files - ELT university society Archive

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

September 30, 2009

More on conferences and presentations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considerations regarding presenting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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December 28, 2009

So, just who are we anyway?

I'm past the age where chatting up the ladies in Japan is a viable option (not to mention that it wouldn't exactly be endearing to my wife) but I do remember a time when the inevitable "What do you do?" question would be popped by an enticing young lady I had just met. "Ummm I'm an English teacher," I'd stutter, almost wincing with anticipation at her look of disdain upon not having said 'investment banker'.

Let's face it- the general response (usually an implicit one in this land of tatemae) is not that of admiration. The general notion is that we Eigo no kyoushi are in fact talentless itinerants, drafted into the profession only because our mother tongue happens to be in demand. But we don't have any real skills- nothing of real professional virtue.

It's not just the lovely ladies with whom one has to use the 'E' word with trepidation. Any type of official, or even the guy who starts chatting with you on the train, will look almost disappointed when you mutter that you are an English teacher. It's a bit like saying you are a poet or philosopher or that you're looking for your big break to get into the movies- OK, you don't have a real job I see.

Of course it is true that some Non-J English teachers are here in a state of flux or limbo. It's just a temporary thing- a step on the way to that real job. Some are truly unqualified and in fact couldn't get much of anything 'back home' but have found that their mother tongue is at least marketable abroad. This meets the Japanese public expectation about the credibilty of English teachers- that of shiftless wanderers who couldn't make it back in Peoria. Others are what I'll call semi-qualified but will scrape their way up through the system and gain education and experience until they have, often to their own surprise, made an actual career of it. I'm not being derisive of such people in the least- after all that sounds a lot like me. Let''s face it, very, very few of us were actively recruited from the Education Faculties of Ivy League universities.

There are ways around the stigma of this shameful confession though. If you regularly write textbooks you can say that you are a materials writer or that you work for a publishing company. That will buy you some more J cred. In my case, I expediently avoid demeaning myself in the eyes of my interlocutor (and by 'expediently' here I mean 'soothe the ego') by saying that I am a professor. A university professor (yeah, yeah, OK- associate professor if you must). That certainly makes the hankos come down on that bank loan approval forms quite a bit faster and gets me trough customs just that bit faster.

When asked what exactly I am a professor of I have the option of keeping my J creds by stating that I work in the medical faculty. Hell, that might even be enough to elicit a 'Sugoi!' or two. But if the English element (or, slightly better, medical English) is revealed I automatically lose a few social testosterone points.

This is ironic because if or when my equally qualified Japanese colleague is asked what he does he gets big kudos locally for being a prof in the top faculty at the top university in the area (OK- It's Miyazaki- big fish, small pool and all that). But me? Nah- I'm presumed to be there largely because I speak the language as a native. I'm there by linguistic default.

I never wanted to be an English teacher. Now this is not a case of sour grapes or anything or armchair grumbling. In fact I just can't imagine anyone in their formative years declaring that their lifetime goal is to become an English teacher. When I was a kid I wanted to be a hockey player (Damn that gammy leg!) and an actor (Damn that gammy agent who didn't get me the good roles!). Then as I realized that I lacked only the size, strength and talent to play in the NHL I considered (more seriously) diplomatic work (damn that gammy French fluency requirement!) and becoming a Christain minister (damn that gammy proclivity for sin and subsequent guilt!).

I took philosophy and religious studies courses in university because I was interested in these subjects. I was not thinking about my job in the real world thereafter. I knew that you didn't see a lot of "Philosopher wanted" ads in the newspapers but so what? And I did learn a lot from these courses. I developed more refined ability with critical thinking as well as skills in managing discourse and rhetoric. I certainly felt that I became more articulate, able to express myself concisely, and suitably versed in Western culture (although this and 250 yen will get you an American Blend- a small one- at Doutor's).

After that, getting a teaching certificate and doing another graduate degree in Applied Linguistics were certainly intended to give me viable work options- although the latter was also of great benefit to my development. It helped me realize that my skills were in communication and that I did have some natural affinity for teaching. I also developed an academic interest in how languages 'work'. And as I was/am a travel buff foreign lands beckoned with opportunity... and so here I am.

I think a lot of us are in the same boat. We kind of 'fell into' teaching English but, as we got older, and the big brass door of life options began to shut, we realized that we had to become professionals or remain in permanent limbo. That this was our lot and we'd better make the best of it. Do a job well done, as an oldtimer would doubtless tell you. And when you get married and make babies it's not as if you have a lot of opportunities to reinvent yourself anyway. You've becoma an English teacher for life. That's your calling, your station now despite your best laid plans of becoming...well... an artist/poet/philosopher.

A lot of the university English teachers I know in Japan have similar backgrounds in the humanities. Few studied the so called 'practical' subjects. The vast majority are articulate and skilled communicators. Most have a facility for self-expression, so English teaching is a natural fallback. Many have dabbled in the arts in some form or another and have kept that up as a hobby. There's a certain commonality here.

And you know what? It's not a bad job. We have responsibility. We get to interact with a variety of people. We get to be creative. We are, to a certain extent, our own bosses with our private, personal spaces at work (at least in comparison to the poor saps in the Somu office cubicles). The work is not back breaking. We get to attend conferences and keep up the look of being professionals. There is an occasionally stimulating academic basis to what we do. We have the chance to conduct research that we are interested in. Some of us (and by 'us' here I mean 'me') can keep a blog and write newspapere articles on work topics that interest us.

So, is this what I really want to do? No. I still want, in my heart of hearts, to be a hockey playing actor-cum-rock star or travel the world and be paid to write abut my travel exploits- but something tells me that ain't gonna happen. But given the fact that most people on this earth don't seem to like their jobs or simply don't have any options as to work, given that drudgery is the normal price for taking home a paypacket, I can't complain. In fact, even if the young lovely I once tried to seduce didn't make pachi-pachi eyes at me when I told her my vocation, I'm still thankful for what I've got. I've got a life here.

Have a great 2010 everybody!

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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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March 18, 2010

Teachers' Meeting! (A 'Morality' Play)

Watanabe: First, I’d like to welcome you all to this meeting. As senior teacher I’ve been asked to create this working group on student morality by the Prefectural Board of Education, who seem to be worried about the alleged decline in student morals and want us to do something about it within the context of English education. (Aside) Hmmm I seem to remember my teachers saying the same thing when I was a student but whatever…
Anyway, other teachers will be addressing the issue within their own subject’s working groups and a report of suggestions and plans from us in the English department will be sent to the Board so feel free to offer your ideas.

Saito: I think the answer here is obvious. Morality means following rules. Therefore the more rules we create, as long as we rigidly enforce them, the greater the amount of morality.

Watanabe: Uhh, what kind of rules do you have in mind, Saito?

Saito: Any arbitrary rule will do. How about this? Whenever a student speaks English in response to a teacher’s question they have to stand and move one away from their desks to the right, starting with a lateral step of 80 to 100 centimeter’s length. This will demonstrate respect for others, particularly those who create arbitrary rules and have the ability to punish those who violate them.

Watanabe: Saito, I think you are talking about some artificially imposed idea of 'manners'. Morality means something more than that.

Hayashi: That’s right Saito, where is love of country in your proposal?

Watanabe: Love of country? What’s the connection? Can you elaborate, Hayashi?

Hayashi: Come on, Watanabe sensei! Are you really Japanese? Morality is basically patriotism. Patriotism demonstrates care for others- as long as they are our fellow countrymen that is. Love of nation leads to moral acts.

Watanabe: Such as?

Hayashi: Well in terms of English teaching it means helping our students explain Japanese culture, the Japanese way of thinking, and Japan’s positions to foreigners so that they will agree and come to appreciate the beauty of our country. (Eyes well up with tears). I can think of nothing more moral than sacrificing the fun part on their homestays for the betterment of Japan.

Watanabe: Ummm, I’m not sure there is a single Japanese way of thinking or a set ‘Japanese position’ on most issues or that students should be fodder for national propaganda.

Kobayashi: I think you are all missing the point. Morality means respect for life. Students have to learn that life is precious.

Watanabe: And how do you intend to teach that, Kobayashi?

Kobayashi: Well, we tell them in our classes that life is precious and that we must respect it in all forms. (Silence)

Watanabe: And this will be achieved by just telling them that this is so?

Kobayashi: Well, I’ll tell them to say it in English. I also think it’s important to remember that each person has his or her own morals. Who’s to say who’s right and wrong?
(Long, awkward silence)

Saito: We are. We’re the teachers.

Watanabe: Kobayashi, I know you mean well but I don’t think that really helps us in our current situation. After all, some students recognize no moral authority at all and many simply do not understand the nature of the social contract, how to interact in society.

Yamamoto: Ladies and gentlemen, you are all avoiding the inevitable. Morality is connected to grammar. Proper grammar leads to greater morality. Look at our own language. Back when everyone said “taberareru”, the correct form, we lived a peaceful co-existence in Japan based on respect for our fellow man… and syntax.

Saito: Hear, hear!

Yamamoto: But now kids, and even (shudders) some adults say (gulps) “tabereru”. And with this increase in sloppy grammar it is no coincidence that we see a rise in drug usage and threatening hairstyles. In fact I was talking about this just the other day with the girls at the Pink Thrill club. They all agreed that morals loosen when prepositions do. Or at least I think that’s what I said. I’d had a few too many that night. (Takes a long drag on his cigarette and blows the smoke across the meeting table).

Nishimura: Well I came of age in late sixties and we had some pretty radical ideas about morality and I think a lot of them are still valid. Morality is something that is imposed by the man, man. So, I call for counter-morality, morality that seeks to destroy the corporate industrial morality that oppresses the human spirit.

Watanabe: More concretely?

Nishimura: Like, I envision Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd jamming in the background while the students stage a sit-in, where they take back the streets from Big Oil, turning it into a people’s street.

Yamamoto: Nishimura, you know what that leads to don’t you? It might start with street protests but it ends with uncouth grammatical contractions.

Hayashi: Not to mention interracial marriage.

Watanabe: Nishimura, I’m not sure that’s a viable option in our current situation.

Nishimura: Fascist! Just wait until Narita airport expands into your backyard!

Hayashi: Communist! Nishimura, are you really Japanese?

Saito: Well Watanabe sensei, what do you say? As the senior teacher here and as head of this working group I will gladly submit to your authority on the topic.

Watanabe: Well, I agree that morality is not something that can be imposed from above or taught as a series of discrete facts. When we do that the students are not learning morality they are simply obeying orders to avoid punishment and not really dealing with any moral notions at all. In fact, I believe it retards their moral development. Confusing morals with arbitrarily chosen manners or rules, or conflating it with patriotism, is just a form of bullying, or in the latter case, is just chauvinism masquerading as ethics. Morality implies that the individual acts from a consistent, principle-based ethical foundation and is not purely driven by self-interest, momentary caprice, or simply by acceding to authority.
For moral development, young people have to engage human nature, understand complex relationships, decision-making and its consequences and have to actively engage these. English case or situational examples exposing them to moral dilemmas in complex characters and situations and asking for descriptions, explanations, opinions and so on might help them to reflect on the notion of right and wrong at a deeper level and thereby provide a strong foundation for moral principles. By presenting such issues in English and having our students deal with them productively, perhaps our students can not only further their English skills but become engaged at a deeper cognitive level too.

Saito: Whatever you say, Watanabe sensei.

Nishimura: Lackey!

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March 25, 2010

ESS- How Tomoyuki lost his groove

(The following is a bit o’ fiction based on a series of real incidents, sewn together with a bit of -ahem- artistic license. The way in which peoples’ good intentions get misinterpreted and misdirected in a foreign language, and ultimately leads to tension and frustration, is an interesting topic for me)

There it was near the bottom of the list of clubs. ESS- English Speaking Society. Tomoyuki liked the sound of that. It had an air of sophistication and worldliness about it. Coming from a small provincial town Tomoyuki couldn’t really think of himself as a man of ‘society’, especially since until this April he had focused almost solely on the university entrance exam. But now, having entered a prestigious university in a bigger city he felt eager to shake off his provincialism and perhaps joining ESS was the way to start.

Ryota, the only other student from his high school to have entered the same university, tried to convince Tomoyuki to join him in the tennis club. “The seniors seem cool, there are lots of social events, and there are some freshman hotties who are managers”. But while Ryota was more of a sports and party guy, Tomoyuki yearned to be erudite and sophisticated. And joining ESS at the university was his first-stage ticket.

Although he knew that his high school English classes had not really been practical, despite Fukushima sensei’s attempts to give them life and relevance and the occasional visit from an ALT from Kenya (to whom Tomoyuki was one of the few to listen with rapt attention and respond to), he had scored well on the exams and felt that he had a better overall grasp of English than most of his classmates, who seemed to only be able to produce individual words or set phrases.

He arrived several minutes early for the first ESS meeting, eager to show his interest. A few students were already there, one or two faces he recognized as other freshmen from orientation, plus a sprinkling of those who were clearly seniors. He nodded at the few familiar faces but kept his head down. One older guy had a notably casual, almost arrogant, air about him. Legs stretched out forward, crossed at the ankles, a little too relaxed.

They’ll probably ask me to introduce myself in English, Tomoyuki thought, and started practicing the mantra in his head. Just as his brain was weighing up "come from" vs. "came from" he heard English chatter coming down the hall towards the ESS room.

The foreign teacher who led ESS, was Goertzen. Tomoyuki remembered the name from the class schedule distributed just the day before. He assumed Goertzen would start by introducing himself and welcoming everyone in English but instead Goertzen strode in chatting amiably in English with a female student as if they were on a private date. Somehow, that cavalier approach made Tomoyuki feel uneasy, as did the fact that the girl crossed her legs when she sat down.

But wait a second, he thought, the girl is good. I bet she’s a returnee- that’s why she’s so fluent. He heard her call the teacher "Dave". OK, Tomoyuki thought, foreigners are usually rather informal with each other, but this seemed to be overly familiar to him. It was almost as if the girl was saying, “I’m not one of you, I’m an English speaker”. OK, maybe you’re just feeling jealous because she’s fluent, he thought. After all, wouldn’t you like to be able to communicate in English with that degree of confidence and control?

Goertzen began. “Today Kanako, a fourth year student, will lead us. But feel free to speak at anytime. And relax!”

Relax, on my first day, yeah right! How long has this guy been in Japan? Then Kanako began to speak, just a little faster than Tomoyuki could follow comfortably, her chirpy banter filled with "yeahs" and "wannas". OK- tone it down already Ms. Returnee he thought, and then realized he hadn’t been paying much attention to what she was saying.

As fate would have it, she called on him first. A self-introduction is natural at this point, he thought. “My name is Sakai Tomoyuki, Tomoyuki Sakai” he blurted out, correcting the name order to suit the English style. “Sorry, what was that”? Goertzen butted in. What was what? Tomoyuki’s mind raced. “It’s my name”, he said. What did you think it was? “Tomoyuki Sakai” Kanako concluded with an air of finality, and fixed him with a look that was either of encouragement and compassion or condescension and pity. Tomoyuki assumed it was the latter.

Just as he was about to continue, Kanako asked him something else, ending in the word ‘from’. What? He wanted to check what her question had been. “My hometown?” he asked, but realized that his intonation was flat and that it had come out like a statement instead: “Where are you from?” “My hometown!” Duh!

He wanted to smack himself in the head. Kanako flashed him that look of pity again. A few other students shifted uncomfortably. Goertzen spoke up. “Well of course you come from your hometown. We all do. But where is your hometown?” There were a few chuckles, especially from Mr. Casual. Goertzen did nothing to discourage them. Tomoyuki felt his cheeks burning and answered, but in his lingering embarrassment the discussion that followed completely eluded him.

When he re-focused, the topic had changed and Goertzen was now saying something about “…six years of high school English …you can’t speak English yet.” Tomoyuki was angered by this. Why don’t we speak English?! Because this is Japan! Are we expected to suddenly change our national language after high school? Was Goertzen one of those arrogant foreigners who thought that Japanese people were somehow obligated to speak English, and who thought that people who didn’t speak English well were less than himself? Tomoyuki didn’t think of himself as being particularly nationalistic but now he felt that part of himself burning and thought he might redeem his earlier awkwardness by volunteering an answer to this question. Foreigners speak directly, he thought, so I will too.

“Because here is Japan!” he blurted out, inadvertently pointing to his nose. “I know this is Japan.” Goertzen looked a bit exasperated. “I just wanted to know how and why the English system here has failed the students!” Who said I failed English? Tomoyuki thought. I actually had one of the highest English scores in my high school! Was this arrogant gaijin already judging him?

“Ba chew wanna get better at English, yeah?” Kanako chimed in. “Yes. I want to be”, he responded. Then he realized that English verbs usually require objects. “It”, he added awkwardly several seconds later. “I want to be… it”. He saw Mr. Casual sigh and ostentatiously check his cell phone.

Tomoyuki wanted to smack himself again. Every twelve-year old in Japan can say, “I want to become good at English” and here he had messed up even this, the simplest of English sentences. He felt his cheeks burning again, kept his head down, and checked his watch.

Tomoyuki ran into Ryota in the passageway later that day. “How was that English thing you went to” “OK, I guess” “Any hotties? “I didn’t notice” “There’s still room for freshmen in the tennis club!” Tennis sounded good to Tomoyuki.

After the ESS meeting, Goertzen was chatting with Kanako in his office. “I’m not sure why that Tomoyuki guy came to ESS today. He didn’t seem interested in English and was even a little hostile. And he can’t speak it at all although I suppose that ESS can help him get a bit better”

“Well he’s a small town boy,” Kanako responded, “I tried to be nice and help him but he just seemed, well, awkward. He doesn’t know how to interact with people like us. Sometimes I pity people like that”.

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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 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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August 07, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go figure.

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

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

So far, so good, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Mike:
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".

Mike:
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.

Mike:
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.

Jason:
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.

Mike:
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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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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July 01, 2011

How to talk to Japanese women- EFL Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Suggestion:
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!

Suggestion:
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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February 23, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers Do in Japan (part 2)

A continuation of the previous #1-5 dumb things...

6. Teach culture as a series of discrete-point contrasts (othering):

The belief that Japanese ways and habits are quite distinct from those of 'foreigners' is quite widespread in Japan. It often creates psychological barriers for communication, not to mention intercultural paralysis, and often results in awkward stiltedness or standoffishness in J-NJ relations.

In extreme cases, it can adversely affect interactions. Spurious claims to the effect that "Foreigners won't like futon", or "They won't understand how to use an onsen" because customs elsewhere "are different" can be interpreted as exclusionary and easily end up drawing (often fatuous) claims of racism. The vast majority of such instances are not malevolent-- they are attempts at 'taisaku', taking preventative measures to avoid causing offense or problems-- but often, paradoxically, lead to more of the same.

I've had highly positioned people assume that foreigners can't understand the concepts of goodwill and modesty or don't value their families because, for example, "care for the family is a Japanese value"... and foreign cultures are different (I'm not claiming that such bold instances are normative but they are nonetheless an outgrowth of the general 'foreigners are different' perception).

In the overwhelming number of such cases the problem is not so much a Japanese belief in superiority over, or fear/hatred of, foreigners but an unwarranted hypersensitivity to potential differences, an over-stimulated "we are not you" syndrome, founded upon a heightened 'different cultures' motif.

So why feed into this? Why teach culture primarily as a series of discrete points highlighting differences, as though this is the fundamental definition of culture? I'm shocked by how many so-called Culture courses are prefixed with "taisho" (contrastive) or "hikaku" (comparative), and are marked by a series of how 'we are not you' samples. This leads to essentialism, the belief that everything a person of culture X does is indelibly marked by that culture, which becomes the interpretative mechanism for all that person's actions and beliefs. It also leads to 'othering', the distancing of outsiders by exoticizing, or at least exaggerating, the differences.

How many times have I heard Japanese students say they are interested in other cultures because they want to learn "the differences". It is true that one way of defining something is by outlining its distinctive features in comparison to similar items. Beer is not wine. A table is not a desk. But this divisive approach is hardly the only, or even primary, way of defining or understanding an item (or a culture) or isolating its essence.

Endeavors and common values that we share as humans which come under the rubric of culture can be outlined and discussed without drawing a big red circle around the differences. Distinguishing the personal from the social is another valid analytical tool that helps avoid culturizing.

Buying into this "culture = differences, so let's confirm how I'm not like you" mentality is to perpetuate a sense of distance between Japanese and non-Japanese. If there's one thing I want to leave behind for my students it's a sense that our instincts and feelings as humans are largely the same, and when they differ, (national/racial) 'culture' may well not be the decisive factor.

7. Constantly reformulate classroom instructions and questions:

The quality of teacher talk is probably more important than the amount of teacher talk. One class energy-sapping habit I've noticed among novice English teachers and visiting lecturers (who are invariably content specialists, not English educators) is a tendency to obscure questions and tasks by over-talking. You often hear something like this:

"So, I want to ask you... Is there any way we can diagnose this patient with certainty. Can we be sure of our conclusion?" (The students are with the teacher at this point but the teacher doesn't hesitate long enough and...) What I'm trying to say is perhaps we haven't gathered enough information. I'm just putting this possibility on the table. So let's just explore this possibility. (Now the students are getting lost-- which becomes apparent to the teacher). So, do you understand me? Our diagnoses are not always foolproof. (Silence and staring at the floor, awkward twiddling with pencils) . Do you understand what I mean by foolproof? (More silence) Do you understand diagnosis? (A few very, very hesitant, slightly embarrassed, cautious nods) I see. (Aside to me): They don't even understand what a diagnosis is! And they don't seem to be aware of the fact that their conclusions might be wrong!"

Suggestion- Make all task assignments extraordinarily clear and succinct. Use numerical stages of instruction and write them on the board if they are at all complex. Practice the wording before the class. Focus all questions clearly, to specific students, and ask once. Allow time to gauge visual responses and to allow the student some 'prestige form creation time'. Don't elaborate unless students ask you too. Repetition, if necessary, is better than circumlocutions.

8. Assume English for specific purposes (ESP) is mostly a matter of teaching terminology:

I have a particular bug in my asphalt about this one. Teaching medical students, I am all too aware of everyone and his cardiologist assuming that medical English equals general English + terminology. It doesn't. Specialized English domains have standardized and institutionalized norms of discourse which includes everything from ways of processing information to the intricacies of social relations. Knowledge of numerous disease and treatment jargon will hardly ensure that a doctor can take a decent patient history.

And no, terminology is not 'hard'. Many people assume so because the terms are rare and localized, have a narrow meaning range, are often hard to spell or pronounce, or are lengthy. But terminology, having a very narrow meaning range, usually have very clear one-to-one cognates in other languages. If you know the item in L1 it is very easy to find the dictionary equivalent (which is why they don't usually need to be explicitly 'taught') in L2. Try doing that with any language's equivalent of the 'be' verb. Now that's hard!

9. Confuse denotation and connotation:

Not long ago, an English professor I know balked at the use of the word "tribalism" in a jointly-made text. He argued that the notion of "tribes" was an oppressive category employed by whites to demean African ethnicities. I argued that the term "tribalism" simply described a way of thinking, a type of local identity that was exclusionary, and thus suited our descriptive purpose in the test. He responded that since tribalism was negative we shouldn't use the word (of course the word 'murder' is negative too I argued but that shouldn't stop us from using it as a descriptive term). He was confusing the connotation of the word with its denotation. Sure, Referring to Africans or North American Indians by 'tribe' may be dicey by connotation-- redolent of a colonialist mentality-- but merely mentioning the concept of tribalism (denotation) is hardly so.

It's the same problem (just reversed) when someone argues that "Japs" is just short for 'Japanese' (denotative). It's not. It's full of all sorts of derogatory connotations-- you can almost feel the spittle flying out from the mouth of the redneck hurling the epithet. You'd have to be particularly out of touch to be unaware of such connotations-- yes, even the most outback-ish of Aussie farmers will be aware that Australian TV announcers do not refer to Japanese athletes, for example, as "The Japs". Connotations.

In a less politically charged vein-- teachers often mess the two up in the language teaching classroom when students ask about word or phrase meanings. What, for example, does 'sit through X' mean? Giving a mere denotative response (i.e., "attend") doesn't do it justice. The term, like many, is marked wholly by its negative connotations (e.g., "I had to sit through Mike's entire lecture just to hear his predictable rant!"). Imagine saying, "I sat through my sister's wedding on Saturday".

So is 'set in'. Fog and darkness 'set in'. The sun doesn't. Depression sets in. Happiness doesn't. If a teacher offers up 'changed to' or 'became' as an equivalent they are missing the connotative essence of the word.

Or how about explaining the word “dining” as eating? “I dined on a bowl of Cap’n Crunch this morning!” . Somehow, the connotation of the word has eluded the speaker—which is the source of a lot of comedy.. (Of course, being middle-aged I don’t actually eat Cap’n Crunch anymore- I prefer Froot Loops).

Many teachers have a fetish for the purely semantic explanation but language doesn't work only on the semantic level. Prosody, the attitude or stance that a term implies, is often of primary importance when explaining items to students. Connotation is all about prosody.

Although this distinction might look rather academic it is actually very practical and common-sense. And just as a caution, please note that this is all very different from 'evaluative vs. descriptive' language scenarios.

10a. Support the idea of autonomous university 'language centers':

Wonderful! That is, if you think the language teachers and teaching should be seen and treated as an adjunct to the 'real' university-- divorced from the academic core, serving as a de facto on-campus Eikaiwa or TOEIC training center. Expect more part-time, in-and-out-the-door, teaching contracts and few chances at promotion or taking on important pan-university roles under this system.

10b. (tie) Assume that a bunch of lessons equal a course

A course has goals, some sense of direction, movement, some connected purpose. Fifteen disparate, disconnected lessons does not equal a course. Without a sense of flow and direction, less is retained by students and the language practiced is more likely to be processed as ‘a bunch of stuff’ as opposed to skill development or internalization of content or form. Lessons in a course should be interconnected and gradated, recycling and incorporating previously learned skills and content. The discrete lesson approach reflects more of a ‘if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick” mentality. Avoid!

Is there anything that you'd like to add to this list?

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April 15, 2012

More Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 2- #6 to 11)

Today, I offer six more lessons learned in my teaching experience that have enabled me to gain 24 hour immediate access to Monkasho (also known as "email"), a seven-figure salary (ummm, in yen), and a supermodel wife (Yeah. That's it. That's the ticket!).

1. Stephen Ryan: Even the lowest level students can carry out research in English

Stephen Ryan (President of, St. Thomas University in Hyogo Pref.) is one of the finest ELT presenters we have in Japan. He exudes knowledge, competence, and provides a sense of professional reassurance on any given topic (as seems to be the hallmark of educated Brits). His presentations are concise and practical, yet theoretically sound. One of his best involved him demonstrating how even with poorly motivated and low-skilled college students could get produce some cohesive classroom research in English.

This presentation outlined a very highly-detailed, common sense, step-by-step process in which students come to understand, then develop, a research question or topic, develop a hypothesis based on that research topic/question, test that hypothesis (such as using surveys, looking for existing data on the internet), interpret the results of the test, and report the results back to others in English.

Thus, students learn not only a little about the scientific method but also something more of the topic they wish to explore. They develop a sense of ownership over the research topic and thus concern for the proper language used to express it. I have long felt that students at the tertiary level need more cognitive challenges in order to expand their English comfort zone but had often heard opposition to the effect that "That may be OK for your students, but MY students aren't good enough to do that yet". As Stephen Ryan makes it clear, that's not true. Students can do this stuff... although he'd put it more eloquently than that.

2. Former colleague Rapti: Opening each class with free talk

Got a good lesson that requires a certain degree of quiet focus but you're worried about students losing energy or simply not getting stimulated? Many years back, when some of us drudge teachers were moping about students energy levels being dragged down by quiet-but-necessary lessons, one of my colleagues, Rapti, mentioned that at the start of such classes she always held some free conversation activity, partner-to-partner.

I've been doing that regularly ever since. Of course I provide topics, invariably connected to the lesson's focus (for example, before a lesson on taking a patient history the topic might be "A time I was very sick/ was injured". I might offer my own brief story on the topic first as a little bit of listening content and to establish the theme (students like to listen to teacher stories if they keep them brief and at a suitable language level). I also allow students to look up vocabulary they may need in advance (only for a minute though) and encourage students afterwards to look up or study those phrases or forms that gave them trouble during the conversation.

In this way, the conversation practice can have some lasting value. Oh, and I invariably provide students with partners who they rarely talk to otherwise-- that helps to keep the topic focused, and in English.

3. Merrill Swain: Languaging

A number of readers will know Merrill Swain (and if you are doing a Master's in the field of EFL you are almost required the Canale/Swain 1981 article, which is on a par with Sgt. Pepper in terms of being labeled seminal it seems). Dr. Swain gave a very fine plenary presentation at JALT in Shizuoka a few years back about the notion of 'languaging' (yes, the emphasis should be on the 'verbing' aspect of the word).

Without going into the Vygotskian background (but namedropping him anyway) and neuro-linguistic details, suffice to say that languaging refers to the process of clarifying thoughts or cognition as a result of using language. That is, language functions not only as a conveyor of thought but the very process of using language helps us to crystallize our thoughts. Using language aids thinking.

This gives intellectual credence to the view (which I widely endorse) that a focus upon language production and cognition is not just a result of language skill but further engages, and thus enables, those skills. But Merrill Swain, ironically by using language to express herself, crystallized this notion for me.

4. David Willis: Raising awareness in preparation for prestige forms

Many readers will also know of Willis (who, with his wife Jane, comprise the Sonny & Cher of Applied Linguistics). During one presentation, 'Sonny' Willis was demonstrating how he might inculcate the perfect tense 'have' using the lexical approach,

One of the points that really stood out to me in this demonstration was Willis' argument that when students are required to produce a 'prestige' form, that is, some production in front of the class, under pressure or producing a grade, the student needs time to 'notice' or have their consciousness raised regarding the language form needed to carry out the prestige form. Since they are going onstage so to speak, students will be much more conscious of language forms they need and thus much more likely to internalize them.

As a result of this, before I ask students to provide even basic task answers during a lesson I give them time to check answers with their peers, since answering aloud serves as a type of prestige form. I don't want to put them on the spot (which often leads to embarrassed silence and even resentment) but want them to collect what they need to provide an adequate answer or response. It's good for classroom atmosphere, confidence and motivation, and helps students focus on the forms we really want them to learn.

5. 5th Year Student Takei on Re-tests- "He just really wants us to understand"

Miss Takei was still hanging around campus in mid-February. "I have a re-re-re test in Microbiology. In fact, there are about 12 of us who'll be taking it," she answered when I enquired as to why she was still about. I wanted to show her some sympathy. "A 4th test! Geez, that must be annoying. You'd think the professor would just let it go. It's the off-season now". (I said this knowing that failing students is a legitimate option in med school). "It's good for us," came the reply. "He really wants us to learn the content, so it's fine with me".

Well, whodathunkit? A student actually saying that a re-test was good for her?! But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Too often we think of re-tests as punishment for a lack of focus or success in the course tests but really the goal should be educational. That is, if you think the content or skills you are teaching are meaningful, and you want some sense of quality control, then teaching it over and over until students get it is a sensible choice. Testing should have a pedagogical function, and so should re-testing. It isn't about making students jump through hoops it's about helping them master what they need to master.

6. Colin Granger: The classic opening lesson: 3 Lies

Colin Granger was (is?) one of those teachers/teacher educators who clearly had a background in stage acting-- a big, booming, sonorous West-End theater voice. He is also both a live wire and an energy magnet. But what I remember him best for was a presentation given when I was a neophyte teacher almost twenty years back. His sample 'opening lesson' has become my default first lesson ever since-- one that I have used successfully hundreds upon hundreds of times since.

It basically involves telling lies, and thus engages our most natural instincts :-). I tell students some data about myself and tell them that I will include three lies and they have to later guess what those three lies were. This gives the students reason to listen closely (I let them take notes) and reformulate the content later as a question (after letting them confer regarding what my lies were in groups).

It also sets the stage for student-to-student lie-telling introductions to follow, such that the new students can learn about each other too-- something all new students are eager to do.

And a plug for your EFL edification...

If you are looking for something intellectually stimulating that is also likely to have an impact upon your teaching, try to attend the FAB 3 Conference on the relationship between neuro-science and ELT . All the main figures involved (who look like re-formed fusion band from the late 70's in the publicity photo) are not only engaging and knowledgeable presenters but are also at the forefront of research in the area of ELT and, well, brains. Unfortunately, this conference conflicts with my personal schedule so I won't be able to attend-- but if you are looking for the kind of thing that might allow you to add a Weapon of Mass Instruction to your arsenal I urge you to give it a go.

(*Oh- and kudos to MH who gets an HM for the 'supermodel wife' and Pathological Liar references)

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January 28, 2013

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

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

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

1. Beyond the post-method era

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Are activist teaching SIGs slinking offstage left?

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

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

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

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