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Interview with Jeremy Harmer

Jeremy Harmer Jeremy Harmer is one of the best known names in English language teaching and one of the people whose opinions help shape ELT. The author of award-winning books, his must-read titles include "How to Teach Writing" and "Essential Teacher Knowledge - Core Concepts in English Language Teaching."

He currently works as an online tutor for the MATESOL at The New School, New York. And this year you may have seen him at places as far from his native UK as Malta and Uruguay. He's also a musician and...well, the list goes on.

With all of those hats to wear, Jeremy spends a lot of time traveling around the world. So it was with some difficulty that I managed to pin him down long enough to do a brief interview. Here it is.

Mark McBennett, ELT News Editor, August 2013

(Photo: Efl Mb Malta)

“I absolutely love meeting teachers in different countries working in different contexts and with different challenges.”
Mark McBennett:
First of all Jeremy, congratulations on your recent Society of Authors award, the news of which was what prompted me to contact you.
Jeremy Harmer:
Many thanks for that. It was a real thrill to get the award, especially because the awards are judged by other writers so it felt really good. And on top of that I got to meet Carol Ann Duffy (she was giving out the prizes), a poet who I really admire and whose work I have used in a show that I do with my colleague Steve Bingham.
Mark McBennett:
"Essential Teacher Knowledge - Core Concepts in English Language Teaching" is the title that won you that latest award. And it joins a long list of highly influential titles that bear your name. Do you have one in particular that you are most proud of?
Jeremy Harmer:
That's a really difficult question because like all writers I guess I'd say that the books are all like children - and you can't choose between your children, can you?! I am proud of Essential Teacher Knowledge because I hope/think it's a slightly different kind of methodology book. And I especially love the rather more modest How to Teach Writing because it is small and more focused than some of my more general methodology books tend to be.
Mark McBennett:
Over the course of your career, you have worked at a variety of schools in the UK and overseas and you continue to travel extensively for your work. Do you enjoy the globe-trotting aspects of your job?
Jeremy Harmer:
Well, I don't enjoy airport queues, or the immigration queue at some airports! But I absolutely love meeting teachers in different countries working in different contexts and with different challenges. Interaction with them is the highpoint of my professional life, really. I am incredibly lucky to have that opportunity. But I still hate the queues!
Mark McBennett:
In keeping with the times, these days you teach as an online tutor. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report listed the MA TESOL at The New School in New York as among the top online graduate programs in education. In addition to having a chance to study under such luminaries as yourself and Scott Thornbury, can you tell us what you think makes this course exceptional?
Jeremy Harmer:
I think the really special aspect of our online courses is the discussion board. To my immense surprise (because I was ignorant about this when I started) online discussion can be incredibly deep and long-lasting. In some ways (because students are working, often, in different time zones and because, therefore, the conversations are non-synchronous) online discussion is more thoughtful and goes on for longer than some classroom interactions of the same kind do. Working with classmates (and with the tutor), online participants delve really deeply into the topics which we have asked them to discuss.
Mark McBennett:
You posted on Facebook about the commute on the New York subway and that you were enjoying teaching face to face "for once." How long had it been?
Jeremy Harmer:
Well, sustained teaching on a timetable (as opposed to the occasional one-off), about eight years, I think. Of course I've done lots of workshops and things like that, but this was the first timetabled few weeks for some time.
Mark McBennett:
So you teach online, you're on Facebook and Twitter, you host the ELT Forum website, you've clearly embraced technology and the web. And "edtech" is one of today's buzzwords. Do you see this as all positive, or do you have any misgivings about it?
Jeremy Harmer:
I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a world where so much is available and so much can be done and discovered by students, sometimes on their own and/but in collaboration with their teachers. I would have loved those opportunities when I started out as a teacher. But there IS a danger that edtech could obscure (sometimes) some of the methodological truths which we hold dear! So if technology is just a souped-up (and definitely more expensive) version of old-fashioned transmission teaching and workbooks, then we might need to question why it is being used. But when social networks and internet sites are used intelligently by students and teachers they can change things fantastically.
Mark McBennett:
ALLOWS:While you were in New York, you took part with Scott Thornbury in an event called "Communicative Language Teaching: What We Have Gained (And What We Might Have Lost)." For the benefit of those of us who were unable to attend, what were the highlights of that conversation?
Jeremy Harmer:
I'm not sure there were highlights! That's for others to say (if, by chance, they want to!), but I think the discussion of the difference between strong and weak forms of the communicative approach were interesting as well as questioning Scott on why he distrusts so much of the commodified course book content that has been subsumed into the communicative approach. We also discussed the confusion which some people have (to this day) about what the communicative approach is and means!
Mark McBennett:
Not content with being leading light in ELT, you also have an alter-ego as a performing artist. How important to you is it to have both the academic and the artistic?
Jeremy Harmer:
I perform shows as a narrator (with orchestras, quartets etc) and with a colleague Steve Bingham. We have done shows of music and poetry, a show about Charles Dickens and various other things. I am also a singer/songwriter and do some of that. All these things really matter to me because, well, because I love doing them. I love putting things into words (spoken or sung) and trying to say and speak them as well as it can be done. The challenge is to take an audience with you so that we all share the same experiences and emotions. Easier said than done, of course, but it's definitely worth the effort!
Mark McBennett:
You spoke at the IATEFL conference earlier this year about parallels between the practice of music and the practice of language.
Jeremy Harmer:
Well yes, there definitely ARE parallels in that musicians who practise well really focus, deliberately, on what they are doing. They practise small excerpts sometimes only for a short time. And that is different from performance. Might it be the same for language practice (which is not exactly the same thing of course). The connections and contests fascinate me.
Mark McBennett:
And on that "note" I'd like to thank Jeremy for taking time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me.
Jeremy Harmer:
It has been my pleasure.
Jeremy Harmer
Jeremy Harmer being interviewed in Indonesia. (photo: jeremyharmer.wordpress.com/)

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