August 19, 2009
August 19, 2009
I don’t get statistics.
OK, let me qualify that a little. I don’t get statistics the way they are used in a lot of EFL/ESL research. It’s true that I am not a stat boffin, although I was one of those kids who would memorize things like the projected 162-game pinch hitting averages for entire major league baseball teams. This, of course, might be considered to be more ‘numerical data memorization’ than statistics per se. Nonetheless, I have a basic non-academic understanding of stats and can appreciate when they are used to make interesting predictions about the natural sciences or explain social trends. Trust me, it's not jealousy at work here.
Now I know there are people out there who are very passionate indeed about statistics. In fact, many such people like to view anything and everything statistically, even the spouses' mood swings. And the fact that you would definitely not want to invite these people over for a pool party is totally beside the point.
What is thoroughly connected to the point though is the trend of many EFL/ESL journals to try and make themselves look more academically ‘rigorous’ by featuring several charts and tables featuring what I can only regard as stat porn. Now this isn’t my own blog site so I will not name the more egregious offenders and I will guess that you, dear reader, can easily find examples of what I’m talking about.
And what I’m talking about is:
1. Cases where the stat tables and related discussion actually serve to obscure a worthy point:
A statistical table should serve to illustrate the point you are making more viscerally, not obscure it. If you have reliably discerned that “discrete item grammar point test preparation has little or no influence on university entrance exam performance” then for crying out loud, say it! Don’t hide it in some statistical quagmire that would take Mossad codebreakers to unravel.
2. Cases where an elaborate statistical analysis ends up stating only a completely mundane point:
So, you’ve ‘proven’ that ‘students who have extended study abroad experience tend to be more familiar with English colloquialisms”. And you believe that this is something that can be seen as a result of your intricate statistical analysis. Hmmm.
3. Cases where that which is actually not mathematically complex is dolled up in sexy, saucy stats to make it seem intricate and deep:
OK. You asked 15 of your students if they felt that pre-activity vocabulary lists helped them more than deep-ending or post-activity highlighting. 10 said yes, 5 said no. There it is. t-values, standard deviations, chi-squares and the like mean virtually nothing here.
4. Cases where the numbers involved are so narrowly differentiated that they cease to mean anything:
So, the mean of sample A is .004572. The mean of sample B is .004578 and so on down through sample F, which has a mean of .004569. What the hell does all that mean? Is this a significant difference? I don’t know because when I look at numbers like these I might as well be looking at Thai or Arabic script.
And this is to say nothing (Ok- obviously I am saying something) of the fact that many stat-based research papers in EFL/ESL are based upon surveys and/or highly subjective calculations of nebulous phenomena.
With surveys, your output is only as good as your input (duh!). Are the questions valid and reliable or vague and loaded? Are sufficient options given? Are the questions comprehensive- in relation to the hypothesis being tested? Are the subjects taking the survey seriously? Is the sample sufficient and representative? Are they being guided into certain responses? Are there other affective factors which would invalidate their responses? I have seen many studies involving elaborate and detailed statistical analysis in which the surveys that provided the input were poorly designed and quite obviously contained faulty and biased assumptions. Some were clearly designed to prove the hypothesis the researchers already believed in NO MATTER WHAT!
However, the writers or editors seem have been dazzled by the glossy statistical display and have overlooked more tactile shortcomings. This can be doubly vexing when the writer (or subsequent citations) take the view that the sophisticated stats ‘proved’ their point- as though the stats actually created the phenomena. I should also add that some of the most dubious research papers that I’ve come across have displayed low Margins of Error. Well, yes, that's because statistical Margins of Error ironically often fail to notice blatant, ummm, errors.
By ‘highly subjective calculations of nebulous phenomena’ I am referring to those types of studies where emotional reactions to input are classified and then, artificially gauged or otherwise numerated. For example, you are comparing Japanese responses to FTA’s (face-threatening acts) to British. And you are doing this by observing the responses of each subject in a clinically designed FTA scenario. You have classified no reaction as a 0, a slight visible reaction as 1, and so on all the way up to major confrontation as 5. First, you should recognize are only measuring your own subjective skills of observation and interpretation and that representing this wholly subjective enterprise via a number does not lend it instant objectivity. And we might also ask if the 1-5 scale is an accurate measure of the alleged categorical differences? Or is this akin to some Pinball games giving you scores in increments of millions while another pinball game tends to calculate scores only in increments of thousands (thus leading the average 15 year old in 1975 to deem the former game to be the ‘better’ one).
The most obvious example that I can think of is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions (the link sends you to a site which offers a quick scan of the theory. The man’s own website is geert-hofstede.com). This research is supposedly to aid us in understanding cultural proclivities (although oddly Hofstede seems to associate one country with one culture). I urge readers to take a look at the categorizations and subsequent valuations made and ask if they cannot immediately intuit that there is something very wrong going on here- not the least of which was asking people in each of the target countries to characterize themselves (the old ‘emic perspective must be true’ motif).
Yet of course because these ‘conclusions’ are ultimately manifested in statistical form it has a greater ‘truth’ impact upon many readers. After all, the MAN HAS CRUNCHED NUMBERS! AND NUMBERS DON’T LIE!
Personally, I tend to very old school, meat and potatoes, in my approach to surveys and the like. I certainly try to avoid the hubris that my numbers ‘prove’ anything and at best might say that they ‘suggest’ or ‘bring into question’ X, which is often about as far as you can go in a lot of EFL/ESL research. Anyway (shameless self-plug warning), I recently published the results of a survey suggesting some reasons why those Japanese who are excellent at English managed to outdistanced their peers, on the online ETJ Journal. I think it’s easy to read and understand, if not definitive. Take a look.
Most of all it does NOT contain any stat porn.
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September 30, 2009
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 13, 2009
1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?
Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.
I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.
The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.
But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.
Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...
Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.
So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.
To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.
But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.
This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.
Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.
2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:
So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.
I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:
Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.
Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?
Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.
But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...
Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.
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April 09, 2010
Congratulations to me. I think.
To tell the truth I'm a little shell-shocked. You see, I was just informed that I received the equivalent of $20,000 (very sloppy numerical miscalculation now fixed) in the form of a 2-year research grant. Most readers have probably heard of kakenhi, a grant-in-aid for scientific research, doled out by the Japanese MoE through the university system. But if you haven't, here's the lowdown:
Kakenhi are what keeps departmental budgets (and to a certain extent, jobs) afloat and are a fundamental feature of working in a Japanese university. Fundamental because you are expected to at least apply for a grant if you are a full-time teacher. Fundamental because any specialized programs you participate in will likely have resulted from somebody's kakenhi cache. Fundamental because the number of kakenhis your department receives is often (and unfortunately) considered to be the primary indicator of your departmental worth. Fundamental because any score founded upon your database 'gyoseki' (academic achievements) will rise exponentially if you have one.
As a result, I have carried out the copious kakenhi application procedures (10 pages plus) 4 times now. To be frank, I have never put too much thought into the actual content of the research proposal because I have never needed the money (or more accurarely, the various fiscal and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it). In other words, I was just going through the application procedures because it was expected of me (making no attempt at all looks bad on your database), without any actual hope or expectation that I would get huge sums of cash thrown my way.
But the other day- congratulations, Guest sensei. You got a kakenhi.
The plan is to research, develop, and produce a viable English corpus for our nursing faculty. To be perfectly honest, the idea was actually suggested to me by a colleague who is doing Doctoral research in the field and who thought that a combined proposal, written in English, would aid her chances. But now, as the 'principal researcher' the fiscal research ball is in my workplace court. (Was that a sloppy attempt at a metaphor or what?)
Anyway, here are my suggestions for those who hope to reap one of these babies (and it would be nice to hear further suggestions from those of you who've been successful in securing kakenhi dough):
1. Write it in English. Because you can and... because you can. The competition will be lesser and although the decision-making committee will have someone or two proficient in English on board, there will never be the same degree of scrutiny that meets a Japanese proposal. And it just seems more 'international' somehow.
2. Focus upon the notion of collaborative research. Especially if it is cross-cultural or trans-national. Be sure to mention how you plan to carry out investigations with the highly-respected Dr. Schlong at MIT as well as the eminent Prof. Gakuryoku from Kyoto Univ. (I'm not at all suggesting that you be facetious or try duping the committee with false names- your research WILL be investigated and followed-up on and fraudulence can ruin careers and land you in jail).
3. Since they are officially SCIENTIFIC grants you should employ a scientific research outline in your proposal. This doesn't necessarily mean statistical sophistry but it does mean having clear, palpable targets and research goals. A lot of EFL-based research is, IMO, pseudo-scientific at best (and that is NOT a criticism) but you will have to use the format and terminology to make the right heads nod.
4. Have a clearly stated fiscal budget laid out. State directly that you wil need 500,000 Yen to go to Dublin to research the effect that Guinness has upon the discourse involving the local variety of English. State outright that you require 300,000 to visit Bali in order to take first-hand field notes on the types of English strategies required in the upmarket resort industry.
5. Involve research partners who can share the burden. Some 'buntan-sha' are listed only in name in order to make an impression but having a buntan-sha or two who will actually be heavily involved (and is good with computer graphics, making resports, and reading/writing kanji, dealing with bureaucratic paperwork) will be best.
6. You must produce something tangible and this must be stated from the beginning. Big, fat reports that no one reads are commonly doled out to fulfil this condition but if you don't want to bore yourself to death, or dupe the tax-paying public, you should produce a viable book or piece of software that other people will WANT to use, something that gets you cited, noted and most importantly, gets your name on that extended work contract.
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April 20, 2010
I know, I know. As an Associate Prof at a national university I'm expected to read the research of my peers and be up-to-date in the world of TEFL academia, at the very least in order to provide a foundation for my own research. But I don't feel like doing it.
There. I said it.
I don't feel like doing it because reading most TEFL research- at least most of the 'trade' journals- is an unpleasant task. So unless you are looking for suitable citations for your own paper why embark on this unrewarding journey?
I know that I've touched on this subject before here but... most of the research journals make for poor reading. First, there are far too many references. To me, such researchers ought to add huge asterisks to their citations which would mean: *I'M FRIGHTENED THAT MY PAPER DOESN'T LOOK ACADEMIC ENOUGH AND I WANT IT TO LOOK LIKE I'VE READ ALL THE FOLLOWING ITEMS SO THAT YOU'LL ACCEPT ME AS BEING CREDIBLE.
Ok- obviously sometimes you need those sources. A claim like, "The prevalence of crime wherever English has become the established lingua franca is well known" is going to need a little backup to be sure. But why all those "my Dad can beat up your Dad" citations? I mean those where the researcher cites notions and ideas solely because they agree with their own: "Our conclusion that classroom shape affects degree of structural internalization is echoed by Humcrush 1980)". So Humcrush said the same thing you do! Are we supposed to respect you more now? Hey- if Albert Humcrush said it in the Paraguayan Journal of Bioethical Semantics thirty years ago it must be true! I give in! I capitulate!
TEFL's infatuation with making the research look more scientific than it really is is nothing but a big display of fear. Fear of not being taken seriously. A pre-teen girl in big sister's fashionable clothing- not fitting well, trying too hard, a wannabe.
You'll also be confronted by references for the most banal, innocuous claims: "English acts as the world's major lingua franca (Schlorp 1997, Klumpfartz & Hosemobile 2003, Dogflopper 1993)", "Motivation is a primary factor in developing second-language competency" (Greedler 2005, Pumpy & Chunky 1991, Toadmart Jr. 1987) and so on. And this kind of stuff generally fills up the first three or four paragraphs of a given article. One piece from the Nov. 2009 JALT Journal (that I am currently holding in my hands and which has inspired today's post) has no fewer than 28 citations within the first paragraph and a half. Oh, wait a minute, maybe I should add (Guest, 2010) to that last sentence.
Therefore, I do not want to read the article. It's boring, frustrating and ultimately invasive (Guest, 2010- there we go). It's as if the author and editor are trying too hard to impress me. Why? Because they fear judgment- the judgment that maybe this research emperor has no clothes so they've tarted it up and plastered it with cheap make up to try to entice the reader into a dubious tryst. Sorry. Ain't buyin'.
The other thing that makes reading this stuff annoying is stats. Stats and charts. They often get in the way of comprehension precisely when they should act as an aid to same. Look, here's a rule that shold be adhered to:
IF YOU MAKE CHARTS THAT ARE TOO COMPLICATED TO HAVE THEIR POINT MADE VISUALLY WITHIN A FEW SECONDS OR HAVE LISTS THAT GO BEYOND ABOUT TEN OR SO VARIABLES NOBODY WILL LOOK AT IT BECAUSE IT JUST DULLS THE BRAIN, OK?
In fact, research has shown that only a complete weirdass would actually look at these charts in any detail anyway (Gullible, 1996). So why are they so ubiquitous? Fear, my friend. Fear that we might NOT be viewed as smock-wearing bi-focaled research lab number crunchers and instead be thought of as- ugh- English teachers!
From the same issue of the JALT Journal I am now looking at one 20 page article that relies on lists, statistics, and charts for approximately half of its length. They could put in all kinds of meaningless digits here and no one would bat an eyelid not only because no one is reading it but simply because too many numbers stun the brain. Ergo, it is anti-academic.
Sorry. I did it again. I should have expressed that artiicle's ratio of charts/lists to actual prose above in a more visceral way, such as by- ahem- employing a statistical chart or list. Then, as we all know, it would be more valid, scientific, and objective. So here you go:
n=no. of pages (n=20)
Average size space of A5 paper = (20cmX35cm) ~factored as
> n (Cx20)= Y
Amount of text devoted to charts/stats by percentage (rendered as Y)
Per-page proportion of Y (using Latrix Scale):
Step 2: Render the above as a graph and ascribe graph type to (Someguy & Hisfriend, 1994)
OK, STOP PLEASE! First, I know I could place some total bull number in there and you'd never know any better. Second, once you figure out the formula and understand what a 'Latrix scale' is, well.. it's just not worth it to absorb the point, which is (if you recall) that the article had too many charts and statistics to make it easily navigable for readers. Here again, the affective factor is fear. Bludgeon us with enough tables to obscure the fact that you are not saying much of significance.
Now, I'm willing to bet that someone is reading this right now and bristling, thinking "Guest doesn't really understand stats or the rigors of academic writing" (Somereader, 2010).
But here's where this reader pulls the rug from under his (women don't read this stuff, do they?) own feet: HEY, YOU READ IT THIS FAR, RIGHT? And even if you think I'm full of it, my diatribe has caused you at least to re-think your arguments in support of your position. And you must admit that reading this has been at least slightly more amusing than reading your average TEFL journal article- or else I must ask that you leave town immediately.
And someone else might be thinking: "But Mike, you've had your own research published in these types of journals. Was it trash? Were you trying to deceive the reader? Do you think that your own poop doesn't smell? Hypocrite!"
(A third may be thinking, "Why so many uncouth, unsavoury references in this post? How unprofessional!" Yeah, the real pros don't sound like real people. They always sound like academic writing, even in the bedroom)
Anyway, here's my apologia: I have never written any academic article where I felt that I wasn't saying something that was at least one of- noteworthy, different, unexpected, surprising or otherwise against-the-grain. And I always tried to make the articles in some way capture the reader's interest, even if doing so involved a tug-of-war with the editor. After all, it seems to me that if the article does not hold Joe Q. Averageteacher's attention for more than a moment then it's just an exercise in academic onanism (or, I suppose, fodder for future researchers). And I've always tried to make the conclusions meaningful and accessible to that same Joe Q. Averageteacher. Most (but not all) editors have been sympathetic to this and, fortunately, have cut me some slack on the conform-to-the-scientific-method criterion.
So then, here is my humble, unsolicited and probably already-well-known advice to those hard-working, selfless editors who toil at these journals with little credit or recognition (and I'm not being facetious at all here- most editors do a great job of communicating professionally, pointing out sloppy structures and vague assertations, round research into the established format and try to allow for the author's self-expression):
1. Don't sweat so much about trying to make your periodical look like a hard-core scientific journal.
2. Don't beat up yourself or the writer (or your readers for that matter) by forcing things into pre-designed research categories and boxes, unless of course they really are doing hard-core scientific research (which is rare in the world of TEFL). The so-called standard scientific paper method is a fossil (Nobackup, 1998). You might also want to take a peak at how engaging the style and format of journals such as Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine actually are without being so rigid.
3. If the crux of the article isn't really hard science or scientific at all, then don't force it into those formatting confines but let it stand as it is. Remember what I said earlier about big sister's clothes, tarting up, trysts and all that (of course you do!).
4. Don't drive for dryness as if that somehow indicates academic sobriety, objectivity or, gasp, professionalism. Instead think- What will readers want to read? What will leave a greater impression on readers? What will make people pick up your journal when they have some spare time at work?
5. Please focus upon what the main point is and make sure that the writer is saying something that makes the reader's journey worthwhile.
(Diatribe warning) What's the point of wading through 10 to 20 pages of obtuse academia only for the reader to come to the conclusion that "Students lose motivation when not given challenging tasks". Hey! We knew that before we read the article- most of us knew it before we entered primary school! So please focus on whether the writer is saying anything of note and less on whether the writer has sufficient citations for her claim that "English is a standard university entrance exam subject in Japan", or if he has enough zingy-looking charts and graphs, or whether the ampersand in the reference list for multiple editors of a conference proceedings booklet should be in italics or not, because nobody cares except you.
And if the article affects people, makes a splash in the TEFL community, great! But trust me, it won't be because of the hot citations and the wild 'n crazy charts.
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October 19, 2010
Everyday bags of letters from blog readers arrive on my desk telling me that they have been good teachers, utilizing progressive methodologies, and so, come April 1st, couldn't I bring the glad tidings of a contract extension as I ride through the nation handing out seasonal goodies.
Today, I'd like to respond to one such letter from Jason Sturgeon, a letter that I think represents both the situation and querstions that many readers may have about the nuts, bolts, and financial rewards, of a university English teaching job in Japan...
Jason writes: I came to Japan in 2005 on the JET program and have enjoyed life here so far. I intend to stay in Japan my whole life, BUT not making a mediocre salary the whole time. I want to step up my career and my salary. To that end, I'm searching for information on what I can do and how to do it.
I was interested in teaching English at a university level not only for the rise in pay, but also for the more interesting things I could do. Teaching at middle school is ok, but I don't feel like its MY work. There's always someone else designing and deciding the lessons. Plus working at a university allows you the opportunity to do research, which I'm very much interested in. (I've been reading a lot about bilingualism in children and the Language Acquisition Device and would love to poke further into that study) So, here are some of the things that you might be able to help me out with. First, what kind of salary range do you think the average foreign professor would fit into?
I'm not expecting to get rich quick, but I also can't keep making the amount I'm making now, or I'll be in some trouble come retirement time. If you can tell me what your salary is, that would be helpful for me, Also, assuming that you make more the longer you work, getting promotions and such, what is the salary range of a professor starting out versus the salary of a professor near his or her retirement? I've found some information on this topic on Japanese websites, but the data is old and seems inaccurate. More than one site said that a full-professor (one who has been working for 20 years or so) makes anywhere from 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 yen a year. That sounds really high. I was wondering if you could confirm or refute that claim.
Yeah, let's talk money. It does matter. But keep in mind I can speak largely only of my own case. OK- Each month my pay slip says I get about 325,000 net and about 420,000 gross. But wait. This includes paying into my pension, all national health (and other) insurance plans, all taxes, the lot. All benefits are provided. Now, add the following to this: we get bonuses twice a year that come to just over 4 months worth of salary total. Next, 'teatte' or stipends for extra work on various committees- maybe another 100,000 over the year. I also am granted an outside class or two which adds about another 50,000 per month. My research funds are separate but generous.
The raise per year is negligible, about 2%. I've been teaching here for 13 years, and have 24 years' teaching experience in total (I'm 50), all post HS. Interestingly, my monthly net pay at a senmon gakko in Tokyo 20 years back is higher than my current salary, at least on the payslip, but not so when all the benefits are added together. Also, my previous position at this university was the now outmoded 'Gaikokujin kyoushi', for which the monthly salary was about 20% higher than now but with fewer benefits and much less job security. (Job security will always be the issue for teachers trying to enter the university scene- regardless of nationality).
Private universities (mine is National) may pay more for veteran teachers with PhDs from prestigious universities but tend to have less job security and benefits. And certainly being a Full Professor anywhere will bump you salary-wise above the Associate Profs (like me) and Lecturers, but the chances of that happening are generally close to 0.
Jason: Next, what kind of qualifications do universities require of their English professors? I've heard that either a masters degree in linguistics or a TESOL degree is necessary, but which one? Or do you need both? Along the same lines, could I expect to make more if I had a doctorate degree, or would that be making myself overqualified. I have also heard that you need to have "publications" in order to be considered for a position at a university. If that is the case, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. What exactly counts as a "publication".
A Master's in the field is an absolute minimum for getting your foot in the door. And 'in the field' will generally mean Applied Linguistics or something close- and only one such Master's is enough, although an additional teaching certificate (I have one) never hurts. A PhD almost always helps but not necessarily. I was starting my PhD when I began here and yet was actively discouraged from pursuing it because 1) it would put me in a less affordable salary bracket, 2) the then reigning professor wanted to be the head hog without any fear of 'competition', and 3) it was thought that it might interfere with the daily work I was supposed to be doing.
As for publications, I know that this a dilemma for those not in universities but who want to enter. After all, most non-university teaching jobs have no need for publications, as a academic research is not considered part of the job since contact hours are the real work. A publication will generally mean an academic journal that is refereed. Any teaching materials' publication would also hold water. If a post-grad thesis is published, that is also acceptable. So, for those with no background in this sort of thing, I suggest getting involved with some group research wherein you'll get your name published but may not have to take a lead role (new academics do this all the time). Action Research, where a teacher delves into solving actual classroom dilemmas but usually without the full academic paraphaernalia can also get published and is more accessible to younger teachers and researchers.
Jason: Also, what kind of work hours do you have? I'd like to know the minimum per week, the maximum per week and the general average per week. I know that some parts of the year are busier than others. For the purposes of this question, work hours means time spent either at the office, or at home doing university related tasks, including administrative tasks.
You could conceivably come into the university only to do your classes and the surrounding prep (copying) etc. and then go home BUT you would never get a contract renewed if you took this tack. You would not be considered a teacher with long-term or promotional potential. Most universities operate a data base of your 'worth' to the institution in which all your publications, presentations, extracurricular duties, related social (such as this blog and my Yomiuri columns) and professional associations and commitments, admin work and committees, both leading and simple membership. You will also these days be expected to regularly produce research results AND try to raise money for such (as with kaken-hi scientific research grant applications). Without getting involved in all of these things, your database score will be unlikely to justify keeping your contract the next time renewals or cuts come around.
And holidays of any length are very rare, at least at national universities. If I can scrape a week together in the off-season when there are no committee meetings, special courses, intensive private work with students (grad theses, seminars), and administrative or extracurricular duties, I consider myself lucky. At some private universities I hear of teachers regularly taking a month or so off and chilling out- absolutely unthinkable for me, and NOT because I'm a workaholic or anything.
Personally, I am in the office- and usually active- from 8:30 to 5 PM every weekday but will also do some work at home. I have 7 90-minute koma contact hours per week. Weekends too may be taken up with obligations, especially involving research trips, conferences, organizing/participating in special events and lectures, and even follow-up 'semi-obligatory uchiage' parties But nobody is really checking you on a regular basis. There is no time punch card. I can visit my home at times as I live within walking distance and no one would notice or care- but then again (blows own trumpet) I've built up 13 years' worth of trust here.
In general, any information you can give me about your own personal experience would be the most desired and useful to me. Stories and information from a source "straight from the horse's mouth" seem more real than averages and stipulation. I feel like if it happened to you, it's very possible I could have the same thing happen to me.
One thing comes to mind immediately Jason, It REALLY helps to be active and known in the local teaching community, both J and E. Join teaching organizations and participate. Attend training sessions. Go to meetings and conferences. Most university jobs are offered to known quantities, through connections- although usually at first as limited part-time gigs. New foreigners often become recommended by veteran foreigners whose judgment is trusted by the staff of the university (usually the Kyoujukai- Professor's Working Group).
Does any vet have anything to add to Jason's inquiry? Or do readers have any similar questions? Comments are open...
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March 30, 2011
With all the events of the past few weeks, it seems almost trite to be talking about the state of English education in Japan. And when people have lost relatives, homes, and are huddling under blankets in underpowered evacuation centers, complaining about inequities in the education system seems like self-indulgent whining.
I suppose if there are two things which come to mind for me in light of the situation up north one would have to be the sense of impotency of being a mere English teacher, as opposed to being someone who could really help in a more visceral, constructive way (of course I encourage all of us not directly affected to give financial aid!). The other is how proud I am to be a resident of this country- where the people have responded to adversity with such resilience and dignity.
But university English education is what this blog is all about so let's talk about the 'off-season' (yeah, right!) and the 'B' word. Yes, I know that the off-season should be a time for battery recharging but for me this is the season not to be jolly. But first, a few disclaimers...
I like my job. I can think of few I'd rather do (or in fact be capable of). I cannot remember a single day in the past dozen years where I have dreaded coming in to work (OK, proctoring the Center Shiken comes close, but that doesn't really count). I have never yet felt the need to ignore the alarm clock beckoning me to toil for my daily bread.
I like teaching my classes and 95% of the students. I am inspired when I walk into the classroom. I get a buzz. The great majority of my students are appreciative and attentive. I can't recall ever feeling a sense of burden before a lesson.
I have my own office. This means I can check hockey scores at will. I can go in or out of my workplace as I see fit and nobody really cares why or when. It's nice.
But perhaps all this is why the 'off-season' (in reality, the 'meeting, entrance exam, research, scheduling/planning, and special courses season') actually causes me to feel ('B' word warning!) burned out- precisely because the dopamine effect of the classroom, the adrenalin rush of dynamic interaction, has been withdrawn. Now, I can't complain about having too much work per se- again, look at what people are either volunteering for or being forced to do right now in Sanriku up to 18 hours a day. And for me it's NOT the feeling (although this is not uncommon among teachers in Japan) that I am wasting my life performing songs and dances for students who would rather be tuned into their ipads. So, if it's not overwork or a sense of being disrespected or under-utilized, why the feeling of burnout?
I suppose age is a factor. I've turned fifty. At fourty, it seems you can still maintain a hopeful narrative that your job and research will bloom and prosper, that you can and will raise your station to become a player of international stature. You can even tell yourself that you might just still write that great 21st century novel, record that CD that's been playing in your head for years, score the cup winning goal in your national football league, and end up dating a Eurobabe supermodel who actually digs you. You can afford to look forward.
At fifty though, you stop. You're scrambling to hold on to what you've got, clawing at your remaining time like you're Bear Grylls hanging by his fingers on a crumbling cliff top. And, oddly enough, that's OK. But change is difficult. You start to become traumatized at the possibility that you might have to change brands of shaving cream. And everything hurts physically- sitting at your desk writing research papers, driving your car, reading self-indulgent whiny internet blogs, and especially knowing that you are now unlikely to change in any significant way except to get older. You now know that your research will not suddenly be recognized as seminal, epoch-making work by Henry Widdowson and Michael Halliday.You will not be asked to become Professor Emeritus at The Sorbonne. But that's all fine. You're happy to have a decent beer in the evening, a loving family (OK, not necessarily in that order), and take the occasional trip to Southeast Asia. It'a tradeoff, I suppose.
But factors other than age can and do lead to widespread teacher burnout- and yes, I am feeling this pinch as I write this. Here are four further causes that come to mind:
1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.
When about, oh, 80% of your time and effort at work goes into filling mindless functions that basically exist to perpetuate the current system, to feed the machine as it were, you can be forgiven for feeling like the proverbial hamster on the treadmill. The fact that excessive bureaucracy can be a demotivating factor probably falls into the "No shit, Sherlock!" school of discourse, but the point is that the off-season is surely Carnival parade 'n party time for bureaucrats.
Now, as a teacher, I can and do feel inspired by educating and challenging both myself and my students. But, and call me a Philistine if you must, somehow I don't feel motivated and inspired when I'm filling in the university database's 300+ item/category 'achievement' file with a smack-in-your-face deadline. Now, I'm not gonna go all 70's-sci-fi-novel-cum-progrock-concept-LP on you and assume that this is a 'me vs. the system' scenario, the protagonist as an independently sensitive soul in an uncaring world, but hey, when work becomes a matter of little more carrying out duties simply because someone else has decided that some 'busy work' duty has to be carried out- well you are allowed at least 5 burnout points.
2. Not being absolutely fluent in reading Kanji leads to burnout.
No doubt you could contribute much more of significance to your workplace if you could digest those 20-page 'shiryo' the way natives (and those cursed Gaijin Kanji nerds) do. You could feel on top of things- more relevant and involved. But I'm not a good visual learner and I struggle with Kanji. This is not some type of xenophobic anti-Gaijin barrier erected by my superiors- it's my shortcoming (and maybe yours). Not feeling up to speed on issues that MAY matter and thereby not contributing what I could or should, not to mention that trying to read some obtuse shiryo will take me at least ten times longer than Dr. Sato next door, aids burn out- about 3 points' worth.
3. Feeling that your real work is not being recognized or appreciated leads to burnout.
This obviously connects to number 1 above.
Case In Point A- You sit on a committee which seems to exist solely for the purpose of producing a bi-annual report. A report that no one reads because it's about having meetings about producing a report. But, dammit, preparing and formatting that report is treated as serious, important stuff!
Point B- The entrance exam overlords keep banging into your head that you must avoid any 'misses' on your exam. They wouldn't know if the exam you made was in fact 100% structually invalid or that all the tasks and questions measurably unreliable, as long as you don't, for example, put the wrong, unofficial kind of bracket on the question sheet. But you do put in the wrong kind of bracket, and your 'miss' gets pointed out to you on exam day.
Point C- You care about your course content. Good. And it's not just you- many other teachers do too. So, you duly fill in your syllabus- but the online syllabus entry form carries 20 different category headings and all must be filled in according to a format explained in a, wait for it, 20-page shiryo. You want to explain your well-thought-out educational rationale here but you know that no one will ever read it anyway and that the guys in suits downstairs are more concerned that you have officially filled all six slots for 'available office hours' (using the obscure single font type that the system recognizes) for each of your twelve classes.
You could probably write in that Educational Goals section: "...to make myself more attractive to the ladies in the class" and no one would bat an eyelash. You wonder why you are writing down '...developing strategic competencies' instead. Score 6 burnout points here- two for each of these three cases mentioned above.
4. No one cares about your research focus except for...
... the editor of the journal you've submitted it to. Who cares a little TOO much. And you can add a burnout point or two if he/she is the type who is more concerned about the fact that you did not italicize the title of the chapter noted in the proceedings papers listed in your references- so you are therefore IN VIOLATION OF APA STANDARDS (this warrants CAPS because it is taken as seriously in the world of EFL publishing as, oh, arson is in the real world), and therefore you are clearly not a serious professional!
Then, the head of your department has no idea what you are researching but is happy when he/she looks at your database and notes that you have two items listed under 'research publications' for the year. It could be that you merely wrote a short review of a muffin shop to a suburban shopping bulletin board but hey, if you have that publication listed the department bigwig is happy because funding your research (which remember, he/she actually doesn't much care about because his/her role in the houjinka system is now primarily to secure funding) will be easier next year. But despite this realization, you try to be professional and still shoot for the lead article in TESOL Quarterly or Applied Linguistics. Score 5 burnout points here.
[I want to add here that people in the hard sciences have a huge and distinct advantage over soft, pseudo-sciences like Applied Linguistics when it comes to research papers. That is- it's tailor-made for publication, cookie-cutter prefabricated for the background-methods-results-discussion format. There is no vagueness or nebulous quality to it. Rigorously empirical, it is precisely this formulaic quality that makes it easy to slot into that great template of research paperdom, unlike opaque EFL/ESL topics such as, "Learner Perceptions of Secondary Intercultural Aspect in Cleft-structure Usage". And if you're a scientist- a real one- you can also put the names of all your lab mates under the paper title and they'll do the same for you. Presto- suddenly your the author of 11 hardcore published research papers within a year!]
So here then is the question to you, dear reader- where do you rank on the off-season burnout scale? Have I missed any major causes of off-season burnout? And what do you do you to avoid it? Me- I'm waiting for my classes to start again. I want to feel that energy flow. And in particular I want to see the faces of our students from Northern Japan...
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October 08, 2011
Think of all the bad cliches you can think regarding alleged Anglo-Saxon values (putting aside for a moment the fact that many people wrongly conflate 'Anglo-Saxon' with being white, or even with being Western). You know, the ones about winner-take-all cut-throat capitalism, the need to rationalize everything numerically, the low regard for the emotional welfare of the small fry, and an emphasis upon bottom-line results, all directed with ruthless efficiency.
It's a pretty damning caricature but one, as you will have surely noted if you are well-read or travelled, that is widely believed. I've often been in position where people have assumed these characteristics must inevitably be ascribed to my good self, being a wasp and all, despite my protestations that these attributes did not in fact reflect my personal values nor the education, formal or otherwise, that I received.
But after reading Paul Stapleton's article in the September/October issue of JALT's 'The Language Teacher' magazine I felt like this caricature had been not only underscored, but justified by being presented as virtuous.
Let me explain by outlining some of the key points made in Stapleton's article (although it is obviously better if you read the link provided above). Stapleton worked for twenty years in a Japanese university but recently left to take a new role in another country (Hong Kong to be exact). Stapleton's article compares the two systems and finds the Japanese lagging on many counts. Although Stapleton is careful to note that his experience cannot be assumed to be representative of Japanese universities as a whole, the conclusions he draws from this personal experience nonetheless are used to critique Japanese universities en masse.
'An atmosphere of mistrust'
For example, Stapleton relates how test grades given by individual teachers at his current (favourable, non-Japanese) institution will be subject to "internal monitoring and external review", and then possibly modified by others to ensure "fair and balanced grading". For me, having my own students'-- my own courses'-- graded assignments reviewed, and possibly changed, by other teachers violates the tenet of academic non-interference and smacks of institutional nannyism. Micro-management of this sort generates an atmosphere of mistrust. What is wrong with the idea that if you hire someone to do a job (such as grading) you assume competency, until some egregious problem raises its head?
Stapleton also explains how teachers at his current institution are ranked (!) based on a cumulative "magic score" garnered from student questionnaires about the teacher. Teachers who receive lower 'rankings' are called to task. He goes on to explain how this "can, and does" lead to non-renewal of contracts. First, the reason as to why teachers should be ranked against each is other beyond me. Universities are not Billboard charts. Student ratings and comments should primarily exist as a means of feedback for the teacher, and with an emphasis upon qualitative commentary as opposed to raw numericality.
Secondly, although Stapleton is aware of the dubious veracity of using student questionnaires as a measure of pedagogical competency, he does not address the likelihood that pandering to students in order to accumulate popularity points will be at odds with his supposed emphasis upon increasing academic rigor and accountability.
Low bar for research
Stapleton also criticizes at length the alleged "low bar" that Japanese universities maintain when evaluating personnel (referring to database scores which are carried out at all national Japanese universities, especially since the advent of 'houjinka' system, or semi-privatization). He mentions that dubious essays published in non-refereed department journal will suffice as research publications. But he also seems unaware of, or chooses to ignore, two factors that might considerably alter his perspective on this issue.
The first is that national universities rate publications by an established impact factor, so it is not possible for a throwaway piece in the department journal to have the same database value as a full publication in a top-notch publication. The second is that all teachers and researchers on the database can choose a weighting system for their contributions-- that is, researchers can choose to put greater weight on research scores, teachers on teaching roles, or on administrative involvement (which is a large part of a professorial role at national universities). In other words, people with different roles are not constrained by the same rubric, let alone some numerical "bottom line" acting as a cut-off barrier. It may seem fuzzy, but it is more flexible, and thus, I would argue, fairer.
Is the hamster-wheel scenario more humane?
Frankly speaking, it also seems much more humane to me. While Stapleton's faculty would appear to be running on a hamster wheel trying to maintain the bottom line under threat of losing their livelihoods, the "Japanese" system he criticizes recognizes the value of different roles and how individual contributions may not manifest themselves in fat database scores. While deadwood still occupies some Japanese academic offices to be sure, those (full-time faculty) with dubious scores or contributions will have their situations discussed so that all the affective factors can be made known.
While "clear benchmarks" may aid in illuminating expectations, set established minimal "bottom line" scores don't allow for such human variables. To me, Stapleton's approach seems more suited to the sharkpool world of retailing than academia: "Go out and sell a minimum of $50,000 or you'll be out on your ass!"-- Show me the money! I really wonder if this score chasing is really as conducive to raising research standards as Stapleton assumes, since I can easily imagine lower-tier academics focusing more on the tail-chasing act of maintaining numbers than on doing research because they love it or because it is truly beneficial to their teaching area. They produce because they fear the crack of the whip. Is that really a virtuous motivator?
Promotion- age, merit, or other?
And while Stapleton lauds promotion based upon merit (although he appears to conflate this with high database scores) I think he overstates the centrality of age as the determining factor in promotion in Japan. It is most certainly not the determining factor at my own university (although professors anywhere will generally be older because they have stayed in their positions longer, it's not that they originally attained that position solely or even largely because of age).
In fact, the whole notion of 'promotion', in the sense of the business-world model that Stapleton seems to be describing, doesn't really apply to national Japanese universities. Professorial seats, when open, are publicly announced-- and outsiders with excellent academic credentials or current Associate Professors very familiar with the existing system, who have been acting as de facto professors for awhile, tend to gain these seats. Moreover, department heads, deans, and committee leaders rotate regularly, often through internal elections. The need to jockey for position, to scramble, to outpace an opponent, is less pronounced.
A bigger question might be this: Who benefits from Stapleton's system? It is telling that not one of the improvements that Stapleton mentions is connected to pedagogy, education, or improving learning skills. Rather, every one of Stapleton's comparisons is about bureaucratic efficiency, garnering academic brownie points, justifying budgets, and about maintaining control and "accountability" or, as I read it, about keeping people on their toes by making them anxious about the possibility of losing their jobs. There is no reason to believe that students receive better teaching methods or superior curricula due to all the factors cited by Stapleton despite his claim that good students are naturally drawn to such universities, so we can't say that it really seems to benefit the students.
Surely lower-rung academics wouldn't be benefitting from this dance-or-I'll-shoot-at-your-feet scenario either. It seems that those who might benefit most, as is often the case when "accountability", "bottom lines", "meeting numerical standards", and contract renewal are buzzwords are the people in power which, perhaps unsurprisingly in Stapleton's current institution appears to include Paul Stapleton himself!
'To hell in a happi coat'
Unfortunately, the article ends with an old bugaboo or, I might even say, cliche. Stapleton argues that without changes, meaning the adoption of the systematic "rigor" and "efficiency" carried out at the university he now works at, Japanese universities will be marginalized, since they are already "outliers" in terms of accountability; that the negative effects of these qualities rooted in Japanese culture will lead to decline.
The old 'unless Japan changes this society is doomed' (Doomed I tells ya!) slogan is something I have heard on every Japan-related topic over the past twenty years. Yes, there are aspects of Japanese society that, if not addressed quickly and appropriately, could lead to future hardship (i.e., the aging problem), aspects of Japanese culture/tradition whose time has come and gone and now are burdensome anachronisms (the koseki and juuminhyou system), and features Japan would do well to borrow from other countries (traffic roundabouts). But the notion that Japan is headed to hell in a happi coat, a downward spiral into oblivion, unless Japan adopts Stapleton's preferred model (the superior one apparently held by "developed" countries) this just sounds like the same old alarmism.
If this is the future I don't want to be a part of it
If I recall correctly, I met Paul Stapleton once and have also attended one of his presentations. In no way did he come across personally in the same manner as the procedures he advocates do. And although it's true that different systems bring out the best in different people, I wonder if he is aware of how his article might come across, if he is aware of some of the demerits of what he calls 'rigor', 'efficiency', and 'accountability'. For this reader at least-- if this is supposed to represent an improvement in academics, education, and of societal advancement in general then, sorry, but I don't want to be a part of it.
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