The shortest physically productive pre-activity

It’s common knowledge among ESL teachers that any activity should be prefaced with a pre-activity. Not only textbooks, but handouts, powerpoint presentations, and even off-the-cuff improvisations by the teacher are prefaced by some schemata-activating questions, discussion points or pictures, the theory being that students are better able to engage with the main activity after their brains have all the context-appropriate neurons firing.

I have never seen any evidence that the principle of preparing students for any activity should only apply to main activities, however, so it stands to reason if we are right about the importance of schema activation that these pre-activities could use pre-activities of their own. If you follow my logic, responsible pedagogy should involve a pren+1-activity before any pren-activity.

This presents a philosophical and practical pedagogical problem, as responsible language teaching now seems to entail an infinite series of increasingly small pren-activities, which in an echo of Zeno’s arrow, mean that we can never actually physically reach the start of our main activity.

With an eye toward helping my fellow language teachers out of this conundrum, I would like to propose a pragmatic (no pun intended) solution to the pren-activity dilemma, which is this:

Teachers should not have pre-activities whose length would be shorter than the time it takes for light to travel from the teacher to the nearest student. The last pre-activity whose length is longer than this time will be called the shortest physically productive pre-activity.

I will illustrate this principle by assuming a few values:

  • The speed of light is 3.08 * 108 m/s
  • Our main activity is planned for 20 minutes (1200 seconds).
  • Our pre1-activity is 5 minutes, or 1/4 the main activity, and schemata-activating pre-activities for other pre-activities will also last 1/4 as long as the activity that they prepare for.
  • For the sake of simplicity, the nearest student is seated 3.08 m from the teacher.


Given our values for the distance between the teacher and the nearest student, it takes 1/108 seconds for light to travel from the teacher to the nearest student. Any pren-activity that takes less time than that will be over before the last one can be physically sensed by the students.

It’s worth pointing out that light is the fastest known physical phenomenon in the universe; no cognitive activity (or any activity with a physical substrate) can outpace it, no matter how “quick” the student. The speed of light is, therefore, a crucial property to consider when planning pren-activities whose length is measured in millionths of seconds.

The question then is what value of n in a pren-activity yields an activity whose length is less than 1/108 seconds. I solved for n by plugging in the values above:

1200/4n = 1/108




Doing these calculations the old-fashioned way, I come up with a value of 18 for n as the last pren-activity whose length is longer than the time it takes for light to travel from the teacher to the student. Therefore, with the assumptions above, a main activity should be preceded by exactly 18 pre-activities, the 18th pre-activity being the shortest physically productive pre-activity.

It is to be hoped that teachers integrate this knowledge into their lesson planning thoughtfully and responsibly.


Clichés of polyrhythm/meter in metal

Here is my fourth-ever metal post. The others continue to get a few views every day from people who are probably disappointed by the rest of the content of this blog (and vice versa for English teachers who collide with metal posts). Obviously, my music theory metalanguage is quite shabby, but I’m going to try here to describe a few things I’ve heard over and over again in metal bands.

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Circular thinking in deterrence

Back in my undergrad criminology classes, the professors would often raise interesting case studies of crimes where the benefits to society of punishment were unclear. Often, these were cases where giving “just deserts” to one party harmed another innocent party, for example the accused’s dependents. Inevitably, one classmate would respond to such case with “they knew what they were getting into” or simply “fry ’em!”

The punitive impulse is strong. It effects an attitude toward crime that one sees everywhere, and especially these days toward illegal border crossing. The reactions to people being punished for crossing the border show this clearly in part because of the inhumanity of the punishment being delivered – in this case, as in many others, not just to the accused.

Here’s exhibit A:

As hilariously disingenuous as the first part of that is, it’s the last part that I want to focus on today – the part where she says that children were brought to the US under “irresponsible” conditions. In her mind, and in many others’, the irresponsibility of bringing kids across the border under threat of separation justifies the harsh punishment of separation, because only irresponsible parents who deserve to lose their kids would cross the border. (Left out of the discussion, as always, are whether children of such parents “deserve” institutionalization and lifelong trauma). That one word, “irresponsible” encapsulates a lot of the circular thinking of deterrence.

That thinking always follows this path: the more severe a punishment, the more deserving of it a rational person will be for committing a crime that carries that punishment. If the punishment for jaywalking were squassation, only a truly irresponsible person would jaywalk, ergo that person would deserve squassation.

The weaknesses of this logic are first, that people aren’t rational in avoiding punishment or in any other domain. Criminology, like economics, has undergone a reevaluation since its purely rationalist days (I want to say it started with Beccaria…), but this post-rationalism hasn’t permeated the collective consciousness.  Just as people aren’t solely motivated by marginal dollars, they aren’t solely motivated by the sticks and carrots of criminal justice. Also, people tend to apply this philosophy of punishment unequally – for populations with which they have little empathy, they see only sticks and carrots, but for their own community, they want trust, norms, and the restitution of dignity to victim and transgressor.

Criminology (at least at the undergraduate level) divides rationales for punishment of criminal behavior into 4 categories: retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence (specific and general). My feeling is that people feel highly retributive towards people that they feel little connection too, and that this feeling is often recast for public discourse in deterrent terms – terms that are self-justifying.

As a bone to throw my remaining TEFL readership, let me say that I think this idea of self-justifying punishment has some importance in syllabus design as well – we could design a pop quiz on an assigned reading that is 30% of final grade, and it would be justifiable in the same sense that public flogging for vandalism is.

The Ramadan penalty?

Spring semester ended ten days into Ramadan, and a quarter of my evening advanced academic reading & writing class was fasting. This means that they took their finals after not eating or drinking anything for about 12 hours. Did this affect their scores? Should we care, since this is a nominally optional practice?

The short answer: it depends/possibly/needs further study, but we should definitely care.

This class makes a decent model to study this question for 3 reasons: a relatively high percentage of the class was observant Muslims (at least as far as fasting and refusing candy that contains gelatin goes), there are 6 big tests (3 reading and 3 writing) during the semester which are similiar in format to one another, and 2 of those tests (1 each of reading and writing) are in finals week – that is, during Ramadan. If fasting students were hurt academically, it should show up on those last 2 tests.

Without posting my students’ actual test scores here, I will just say that on the reading test, fasting students faced a 12% drop compared to the previous reading test, while the rest of the class had only a 2% drop. That is, the final reading test was harder for everyone, but much harder for fasting students. On the other hand, fasting students did 1% better on the final writing test than on the previous writing test while the rest of the class did 5% worse. All of this should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt, since the sample size for the while class was 22, producing a hilariously high t (significant at p<1).

So before any conclusions can be drawn, someone with access to administrative-level amounts of data should take a look at whether students who fast during Ramadan suffer disadvantages on tests or assignments offered during that time (the mid-May to mid-June, prime exam time at many schools).

And yes, we should care about this, first since a demographically specific disadvantage during a certain time of the year reduces the validity of the test. We don’t want to assess how well our students know a subject at 7:00 pm during Ramadan for the same reason we don’t want to assess the average temperature of an area at 3:00 am during January. Also, as I pointed out in my last end-of-the-semester statistics post, community colleges exist specifically to allow access to higher education to nontraditional student populations, including working people, older students, and immigrants (who are often older, working, and with family obligations as well). Obviously, this applies even moreso to ESL. If a quarter of the students our departments specifically exists to serve have a reliable disadvantage on certain tests because of factors that we can change, we should probably change those factors.

Image result for eid mubarak
From Etsy

N-identities in Manzanar and Love Wagon (あいのり)

The last day of class, instead of having the potluck that my students were probably hoping for, we did a very quick analysis of the book we had just finished reading (Farewell to Manzanar) using Gee’s NIDA identities.


To briefly summarize what those are:

N-identity (nature identity) is the part of identity which is supposed to come from nature. It often includes visible traits like gender and race and the palette of traits and abilities that are thought to stem from them. As the Rachel Dolezal controversy shows, what is N for some people is I or A (see below) for others, and people can be quite unforgiving when they think an N characteristic is being wrongly taken on or rejected. My students were astute in noticing that even N identities change when the people around to perceive and interpret them change – the main character in Farewell to Manzanar has different N-identities when surrounded by other Japanese-Americans than with other Americans..

I-identity (institutional identity) comes from institutions of which one is part. For example, my ability to pass as a teacher comes mostly from my employment by schools, and not many people would accept the legitimacy of a “teacher” identity without it. It can be fun to imagine which kinds of jobs require institutional recognition to be considered a legitimate claim to identity – to me, “artist” is not an I-identity, but “animator” is. “Philosopher” is not an I-identity, but “researcher” is. My students said many characters in FtM lost their I-identities (in most cases, fishermen who worked together) when they were forced to move into the camps.

D-identity (discursive identity) comes from interactions with other people wherein one comes to be known as a certain “type” of person. This tracks what most people call a “personality”, but unlike “personality” has no implication of permanence. That is, one can have different D-identities among different groups of people. The Papa character in FtM is a bit of a stereotypical alpha in the way he interacts with others, which shifts from comforting to ironic as his life circumstances change from independent businessman to unemployed drunk.

A-identity (affinity identity) is similar to I-identity in that it relates to larger social groups of which we consider ourselves part. Unlike I-identity, A-identity doesn’t require any kind of actual membership in a group, only affinity for it. One can have an A-identity as a Premier League fan without any formal affiliation in the form of membership in a team or fan club. Notably, and as some of my very clever writing students mentioned, A-identity can be almost entirely imaginary – Papa from FtM imagines himself to be the inheritor of a samurai legacy, although the samurai ceased to exist before he was born and are well on their way to being more a cultural trope than a social class at the time the story takes place. One student mentioned this aspect of A-identity in a presentation, which was a great example of critical thinking.

What I like about these categories of identity is that they make clear both that identity is a multifaceted and context-dependent phenomenon and that it depends on other people and society. That is, you can have multiple identities, and none of them are purely a result of you choosing the type of person you want to be after doing some deep thinking alone or “finding yourself”.

My students did a very good job applying these on short notice to a book they’d probably grown quite sick of on a day when many people were already mentally on vacation. What they said reminded me of some things I’d been seeing on Netflix recently.

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Correlations with final grades, spring 2018 edition

Every semester I throw a bunch of survey data, biographical data, and assignment scores from my classes into an Excel sheet and see what pops up.  This semester, like the last one, yielded some interesting information.

The tl;dr version is:

  1. Work is a huge predictor of low grades
  2. I should continue to push the importance of drafts in writing
  3. I need to be careful not to evaluate students too much on their familiarity with my style of class
  4. Perhaps I need to design better questionnaires

Read on for the details.

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Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #3 – Foreign degrees

Here’s something I bet you hadn’t thought of: a foreign degree, even from a country whose degrees the US recognizes, may disadvantage you in the hiring process simply because of the extra step it takes for employers to process your application. You will probably not know this is happening, because it results, like every other failed application, in simply not hearing back from the hiring board.

(A bit of background: I got my MA while living and working in Japan from the University of Leicester, and now live and work in California. Most of my colleagues have MAs from public universities in California, something I didn’t realize the significance of until after the episode described here.)

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Ancestry dot dot dot

Around junior high school, when I realized that “races” were a thing and I had one too, I started making my schoolwork Japan-themed wherever possible and ex nihilo informing my classmates that “taco”, in addition to being a receptacle for beef or chicken, meant “octopus” in Japanese.

(I wonder if the age at which you first realize your own race is a reliable shorthand for the stigmatization of the race of which you are a member…)

My classmates and teachers were nice enough not to call me out on this strange behavior. In fact, it probably would have been seen as improper if they had – after all, I was celebrating my heritage. I had Japanese ancestry, and that earned me the right to “rediscover my roots”, even in an awkward, teenage way.

(It’s funny how learning something new is frame as recovering it if you’re in a demographic thought to be born with that knowledge.)

Later, in high school, there was a club called Asian Cultural Enlightenment (ACE), which I somehow felt that I should join, although I never did. Several of my classmates in Japanese (the only Asian language elective) were members. I think I was putting a little bit of distance between me and Asian-ness, or simply taking advantage of the fact that as a stealth minority (i.e. capable of passing as white – many people assume my last name is Irish), I didn’t need to affirm any particular ethnic identity. I was fine with un-discovering my roots at this point.

Looking back, I wonder if the other members would have thought it was strange that someone with basically one toe in the pool of Asian identity would try to join an almost explicitly ethnically-based club. I also wonder how far back in my family tree I could have an Asian ancestor to legitimize an Asian identity if I had wanted to embrace one. If I merely shared with the other Asians the 99% of DNA that all humans share, would that not count as enough?

This journey down memory lane was spurred by yet another news story about cultural appropriation.

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Random reflections on economics

For some time now I’ve been lucky enough to have a professor of economics as one of my private students, and helping this person put together presentations, papers, and whatnot has exposed me to a field of inquiry that is quite different than SLA.  It’s been refreshing and somewhat zen-like to see the extreme quantification of social forces and psychological phenomena and to hear the thoughts of people dedicated to to that enterprise.  The following are some thoughts on what I’ve seen over the last year or so.

Quantification is not reductive

The stereotype is that economists view people’s loves and lives as “mere” numbers, which has earned economics as a field the nickname “the dismal science”.  I never got the feeling, though, that economists view quantification as taking away some quintessential human elán from the thousands or millions of people whose behavior they are analyzing.  To the contrary, it seems to be a common understanding of the field that numbers are just the only way to deal with data points that number in the millions; it would be impossible to describe something like a national gender wage gap qualitatively and still be fair to each individual.  It’s certainly not true that economists view that number as the inarguable conclusion of a research question; validity and how to test for it are problems that animate much of the literature (it seems). In short, quantification of human behavior is a necessary part of looking at data sets this large and doesn’t “reduce” people if you have an appropriately skeptical attitude toward what the numbers really mean.

Conservatives tend to place free will at the base of questions of economic justice

A basic assumption of the field which has come under question since the 1980s is that people, when presented with a field of choices, will choose correctly and consistently according to their mostly stable preferences.  It would be hard to find a bedrock principle more at odds with either modern psychology or any adult’s lived experience of other adults.

It follows from this ideology that humans make rational choices based on stable preferences that human choice is above reproach, that whatever people decide given a set of options is a priori proof of justice. Any attempt to “nudge” people into a better choice or to force certain choices will produce warped and economically unhealthy outcomes. If people seem to naturally separate themselves into different groups, it must reflect a natural, stable preference within those groups.  Such is the explanation often deployed to dismiss the gender pay gap as the result of women’s free will rather than any kind of injustice.

You see the basic logic at play here in many areas of public life – certain politicians seem to see no motivation for human behavior that is not economic, and the main or only purpose of government is to encourage (or at least not punish) good economic decisionmaking. When people, either individually or as a group, seem to display an affinity for factors other than income (e.g. family, conformity, culture, or community) when choosing a career, that choice is accounted for in their reduced income. The last thing the government should do when people make uneconomic choices is to reward them economically with nutritional assistance, hiring quotas, or tax credits.

Luckily, I am at a healthy remove from both the ideologies of free will and the prosperity gospel, and I therefore don’t think people’s choices (particularly economic choices) are self-justifying.

Glass ceilings vs. sticky floors

The glass ceiling is probably the most emblematic phenomenon from economics to make it into popular culture. Loosely defined, it is an income gap at the top of the income distribution. In practice, it is often interpreted as a man getting promoted to an upper management position over an equally hard-working woman, who unlike the man is expected to perform childcare and other domestic duties in addition to working full-time.

Of course, I don’t know many men or women in upper management of anything. I do know many men and women in jobs that pay by the hour, and many more who used to have those jobs.  Every week when I went shopping at my local MaxValu (Japanese chain supermarket), I would notice the people stocking the shelves, men and women, the cashiers, almost all women, and the mounted pictures of the store managers, all men. There are, obviously, many more people in jobs like this than in jobs like the last paragraph in any developed country.  But for some reason, there isn’t a metaphor in common currency to describe the observed income gap at the bottom of the income distribution.

Where it is discussed, it is called a sticky floor.  As I understand it, in economics, it is simply a parallel phenomenon to the glass ceiling, but one that concerns vastly larger numbers of people. In my mind, discussions of glass ceilings sometimes have the false-consciousness character of waitstaff on their break debating whether a 39.6% tax on the top bracket is unfairly high. Yes, it matters that Sheryl Sandberg has few peers in the Forbes 500, but it matters more and to more people that men in the bottom 10% of incomes out-earn women in the same bracket (I would include a source here, but it would reveal the identity of my student).

Because all my posts now include mandatory COCA data, The phrase “glass ceiling” occurs 465 times in the corpus, vs. 20 for “sticky floor” (only 3 of which seemed to be about economics rather than literal sticky floors).

A salary scale in a company that isn’t growing

This will strike any of you who have formally learned economics before as shockingly ignorant, even if the rest of this post hasn’t. Basically, when things stop growing, it’s not as if they settle into a flat but stable equilibrium. Sometimes, growth makes the system stable.

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 13.38.10.png

This graph, drawn for me at least 2 weeks in a row by my student, shows the salary of a worker in the sort of company that hires people for life compared to that worker’s level of contribution to that company (y axes), over the career of that worker (x axis).  The salary is in blue and the level of contribution (I believe it was called “human capital”) is in green.  There are two periods where these lines are very far apart: at the beginning of the worker’s career, where he/she contributes far more than he/she takes in, and past mid-career, where he/she takes far more than he/she contributes. This graph was drawn for me mostly to explain the phenomenon of mandatory early (sometimes as low as 55) retirement ages, the rationale being that companies want to shorten the length of time that workers can draw more salary than they’re worth. It also helps explain why companies may want more and more recruits every year; it is these recruits who contribute the most to the company. As each cohort ages, larger and larger new cohorts are required to pay for the older cohorts’ increasingly opulent salaries.  This is a stable system as long as each cohort is larger than the last.

When the cohorts stop growing, it starts a chain of events that potentially results in the death of the company. First, without the contributions of new workers, the company can no longer afford the salaries of its older workers.  Older workers may take early retirement or salary reductions (and grouse mightily about today’s youth). New workers and potential recruits notice that the formerly guaranteed high late-career salary is no longer guaranteed and start to question the benefits of accepting such a low early-career salary. The company therefore has an even more difficult time finding large enough cohorts of new workers.

Call me naïve, but I hadn’t seen this clearly before, nor had I seen the implications for national pension systems. Now that I do, I am even more glad to be in ESL rather than working for Toshiba, and I definitely hope all my students have lots of kids who all pay their Social Security taxes.

Varieties of middle C culture

Where is the dividing line between “Culture”, the kind we are obliged to respect, and “culture”, the pattern of living that distinguishes communities? Is a kettle Big C Culture if you use it to brew Earl Grey tea served with scones? Is the sound of a Harley Davidson’s engine revving just a shared reference point in a few countries? What if the main character of a TV show syndicated worldwide rides one?

In an effort to tie together somewhat thematically different chapters on “Culture” in a reading book one of my classes is using, I’ve introduced the concepts of “little c” and “Big C” culture and had the students examine the situations outlined in the chapters through that lens. If the terms are new to you, this or this are decent explanations. It’s been interesting, particularly when we’ve had a venn diagram on the whiteboard and the opportunity for students to put their own candidates for little c or Big C culture up for discussion – for example, students consider LGBT (for some reason, they didn’t want the Q) to be Big C because the term has become well-known and, to some, emblematic of first-world liberalism. Contrarily, they consider karaoke to be little c culture because, in their minds, everyone has it and no one considers it to be the legacy of any particular country.

Needless to say (for anyone who’s lived in Japan), students’ opinions about karaoke surprised me quite a bit, as karaoke is regarded in Japan to be a clear example of Japanese culture succeeding and spreading around the world, alongside sushi and anime. This has raised the question in my mind as to whether the little c/Big C dichotomy needs to be amended with consideration for the fact that different cultures have not only different artifacts and practices, but different perceptions of the importance of those artifacts and practices. What is Big C in the country that produced it may not be understood as a national symbol elsewhere, and what is unremarked upon in a country may be considered a national emblem of it elsewhere.

Adapted from here.

(For the purposes of this discussion, I am flattening and homogenizing countries and cultures.  I recognize that no symbol is truly equally and universally shared in any political, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural group.)

Below the jump are my additions to the little c/Big C scheme.

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