The urinal cake principle

Imagine yourself pushing through a crowded train station during rush hour.  As you pass a certain doorway, you detect hints of lavender and hibiscus coming from within.  Do these smells evoke:

  1. just flowers, or
  2. first flowers then toilets based on your prior knowledge and experience regarding the likelihood that lavender is blooming within 100 feet of a subway platform, or
  3. just toilets?

This is the best way for me to understand the principle of dead metaphors.  A dead metaphor is a process of cutting out a semiotic middleman. The process of a metaphor dying is a powerful and inevitable one that affects culture and particularly language in some subtle ways, as I hope to illustrate in as colorful a way as I can.

The process, in dense and unfriendly language, is this: The definition of a symbol over time changes from the first thing (flowers) to the second thing indirectly through the first thing (toilets via floral-scented deodorizing discs), and finally just comes to stand for the second thing (toilets).  This can be true even if the form of the symbol does not change – e.g. if the deodorizer continues to have a floral scent.  The reference stops being indirect and just goes straight for the thing that it was always eventually getting at.

I’ve been trying to think of more real-world examples of this principle in action.  Here are a few more:

A clothing brand (say, Members Only) is associated with rich people.  Poor people start to buy that clothing brand on sale or used because it evokes rich people.  The brand comes to be associated with poor people’s desperation to look rich.  (Louis Vuitton in Japan is rumored to head off this effect by buying back their used bags and burning them to prevent them going to the secondhand market)

“Political correctness” is a recognized phenomenon in polite discourse.  Reactionaries vocally dislike it and use it as a stick with which to beat their cultural enemies.  It comes to be much more widely known for its rhetorical value in reactionary discourse (specifically, their hatred of it) than as a phenomenon within polite discourse.

A famous person with an idiosyncratic name (say, “Zoey”) appears.  People who have kids during the zenith of that person’s career name their kids after him/her.  That name comes to be associated with that generation of kids rather than the famous person.

Taboo concepts have euphemisms invented to avoid direct reference to them while still maintaining the ability to refer to them indirectly if necessary.  Subsequent generations come to think of the euphemisms as simply the names for those taboo concepts, since those are usually the only words for those concepts that they ever hear.  Those generations invent new euphemisms to replace the no-longer-thought-to-be-indirect old ones.

When I was studying Japanese before moving there, we learned 便所 benjo (“convenient place”) as “bathroom”, when practically nobody alive now still uses that word.  Sometime between the 50s and now they were お手洗い otearai (“hand-wash”) or 化粧室 keshoushitsu (“powder room”). Now they are called トイレ toire, presumably until the next generation starts calling them something like ルーム ruumu.

Hipster beards are destined to go from “modern guy” to “guy who still thinks beards are modern” to “guy who doesn’t know that nobody thinks beards are modern” and in 20 or so years “guy who affects not caring that hipster beards are not considered modern” and back to just “modern guy” again.  Believe me; it happened to skinny ties.

Most words unless they were invented very recently are dead metaphors or have changed meanings through some other process.  A word’s history is like the miles of junk DNA we carry around with us in our cells, only using a small portion to form proteins, transmit messages or enjoy an inside joke.  Words like “give up” (my favorite example, a clear dead metaphor), “Wednesday”, or “cranberry” have stories behind their present forms and usages that are very interesting, but also very optional.  Each living word has untold numbers of lost meanings (in addition to its likely numerous current meanings) which we don’t have and don’t need access to in order to use it.  The process by which a word’s meaning changes isn’t always the middleman-eliding of the dead metaphor, but the idea that one doesn’t need all the information about the past referents of a given token to understand it in its current context is the same.

We language teachers often pride ourselves on the elaborate stories and setups that we use to explain usage of one language item or another.  One time I attended a presentation that asked us straightforwardly, “Why do you use on for buses but in for cars?”, to which several teachers laid out the possibly-made-up-but-convincing stories that they give their students.  These stories can definitely be useful for appearing to give students stage-by-stage mastery and “permission” to use a particular language item, things I definitely wanted in my early stages of Japanese learning.  Nowadays, I tend to think of these as a bootstrap or a foot in the door (are those dead metaphors?) than understanding itself, more affective factors than what we would usually call L2 competence.  Naturally, the end goal of most language learning is to have a grasp of the language similar to the fluent speakers in your target community, not to have complete explicit knowledge of the target language (although many learners confuse these two – some teachers as well).  One does not need to know the origin of a word or the logic behind its present form to use it correctly any more than one needs to have smelled fresh lavender as a reference point to know what that same smell means at the train station.

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My black robes

According to The Impact, a judge has an unusually strong effect on mental health patients in causing them to follow treatment plans.  This phenomenon is called the black robe effect, based on perhaps a metaphor for and perhaps the real, physical source of the judge’s authority.  After only on listening to the episode and googling the term “black robe effect” once, this is my understanding of the effect:

  • The effect on the patient is due to the outward signs of authority that the judge carries;
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative patients under the judge’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those patients (i.e. the judge is not the orignator of the advice/orders);
  • Most of the effect is realized in the judge’s absence as an indirect effect of his/her authority (e.g. when the patient takes a daily medication at home);

The basic outline of this effect is something I’ve found to be a major part of my job as an ESL or EFL teacher.  I’m often in the position of telling my students do things that they could feasibly do without anyone’s saying anything, but they’re much more likely to do when I tell them.  This is probably the one way in which I most reliably assume the “teacher role” and exercise my authority.

In fact, this is probably one of the best justifications nowadays for teachers existing at all.  We are great at causing (or forcing or allowing or facilitating; I’m not picky on the causal metaphor) people to do things that they could always do for free, and ideally creating norm-governed communities where success at those things is celebrated.  We definitely aren’t the only ones in the room anymore with access to the right information – students have all the human knowledge in the world in their pockets.  We have authority and an agreed-upon role as an arbiter of the values of our in-class community, and not much else.

Reading circles are a good example of the black robe effect in my classes.  This semester, one of my classes has read a non-fiction book over the course of a couple of months, and every 2 weeks during that time we’ve done reading circles that cover the chapters we read in the previous week (for the curious, here are the roles that I use).  Now what is my role in “teaching” the weeks that we share our reading circles sheets?  It’s pretty much the black robe effect without the gavel:

  • The effect on the students is due to the outward signs of authority that the teacher carries; (i.e. they do it because the person in the front of the room told them to)
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative students under the teacher’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those students; (i.e. the book we’re reading has always been available to buy, as are millions of other fine books – “uncooperative” here means “wouldn’t do it by default”)
  • Most of the effect is realized in the teacher’s absence (e.g. when the student reads at home – and although I’m physically present in the classroom when they’re sharing their reading circles, I’m not participating, so then too).

One of my staple activities is even more of a textbook example of a black robe effect – I give students something called a Language Log, which is basically a blank sheet with spaces for English input (things they watched or read or people they talked to) outside the classroom and what they noticed.  Nothing about the sheet requires some deep knowledge on the part of the teacher to design or implement – it is a kind of educational MacGuffin that furthers the goals of language development without containing anything meaningful itself (the educational MacGuffin was a staple of my classes back in Japan too).  Still, if some non-authority or even one of the student’s family members gave them the same sheet and instructed him/her to keep track of input, it would not work – family members, in ESL and in mental health treatment, don’t get to wear black robes.

I’ll post again at a later date about what exactly my black robes comprise.

5 correlations with final grades and what they tell me about my syllabi

The following numbers all come from one ESL class in California of fewer than 30 students.  The students range in age from teens to 50s.  Some are full-time students, some are part-time and some work.

0.63 – Correlation between homework scores and final grades

Homework is a tiny percentage of the final grade, but predicts it to a fair degree.  I usually gave homework a simple at-a-glance score between 1 and 5 points per assignment.  The highest score for homework for this semester was 108, and the lowest score was 12.  Homework is also correlated with attendance at 0.87.  Attendance, on the other hand, is correlated with final grades at 0.72.  This tells me I can cut the amount of homework (saving myself some grading time in the process), take attendance rigorously, and expect roughly the same distribution of grades.  Next semester’s students will be happy to hear being physically present is such a strong predictor of English skill.

0.82  – Take-home essays/final grades

Take-home essays are also, surprisingly, a tiny part of the final grade.  That is what makes this correlation so surprising.  Take-home essays predict final grades even more than they do in-class essays (0.76), although of course take-home essays are themselves not a part of in-class essay grades, while they are of final grades.  Blame my mild innumeracy for not knowing how much that should affect these numbers.  In any case, it seems prudent to replace some of the other homework (see above) with essay-related work like planning, more rough drafts, and reflections.

-0.03 and -0.85 – Numbers of tardies and absences/final grades

This particular class met in the early morning, which accounts for the high number of tardies (8.0 on average for the class out of about 30 class meetings, with a standard deviation of 5.8), but they didn’t seem to do much.  Students walking in late didn’t hurt their grades so much as annoy me personally.  This probably has something to do with my practice of starting each class with some kind of task rather than a quiz, which is arguably a bit of a conceit of mine.  Absences, on the other hand, were even more predictive of final grades than essays, and much more predictive than homework scores.  Again, being a warm body in the classroom seems to be a reasonable heuristic for a lot of heady work.

-0.55 – Years in the US/final grades

This number comes from a survey we did at the beginning of our classes.  I suppose this will surprise a lot of people who work in EFL – I certainly expected a more or less linear relationship between years in the country and degree of acculturation (similar to integrativeness, the motherlode of language learning motivation) before I got here (although I had reason to know better).  In fact, particularly with people who were partly educated here, the sense that one doesn’t belong in ESL is a significant barrier to buy-in for class activities and willingness to communicative with classmates.  ESL teachers often have a mix of eager international students with standard-issue grammar, communication and acculturation problems and jaded veterans of US society who have established an identity around their patterns of language use and definitely don’t see themselves as ESL students.  My main takeaway from this is to acknowledge the different needs and motivations of my main two student constituencies near the start of the semester to defuse any feeling among the veterans that they don’t belong there or don’t need to work hard.

0.45 – Hours of sleep before test 1/final grade

I usually put one “gag” item at the top of my tests – “Name: _____ Student ID: _____ Breakfast this morning: _____ ” to give another example.  Sometimes, these yield insights into my students’ lives (a lot have nothing but coffee for breakfast), and occasionally lead to educationally useful data.  The only time I had a quantifiable “gag” item this year was on the first in-class writing test, on which students were asked to write how many hours they slept the night before the test.  This number turned out not only to predict the scores on that test (albeit weakly, with 0.22) but their grades for the semester.  Now, this isn’t a slam dunk, but it is more predictive than most individual homework assignments (whose correlations with the final grades ranged from -0.14 for the first homework of the semester to around 0.60 for essay-related stuff).  Apparently the recipe for a high-scoring student is 8 hours of sleep a night before coming to class, not necessarily on time and not necessarily with any homework.  As I said, at least this simplifies my grading.

End-of-semester Quantitative Feedback

(Written to give my mind a rest from grading)

Introduction and Pedantry

At the end of the semester I like to use a survey to gauge what students found valuable in my class.  The survey is just a list of class activities from the semester and then two columns with spaces for scores – an “I like it” column and an “It helps me learn” column.  There is a Likert-style scale of 1-5 to be used with both columns across the top of the sheet.  So for example, a student who really enjoyed our reading textbook but doesn’t feel like it was useful for learning would give it scores of 5 (in answer to “I like it”) and 2 or 1 (in answer to “It helps me learn”).

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More or less like this.  Screenshot of MS Word with fun, colorful red and blue underlines kept intact.  In the future I will probably make this more intuitive-looking – some students opted to fill in the blanks with full written critiques.

I plan on standardizing this survey across my classes in the future, but this semester everyone had a different list of activities.  I know from their survey, for example, that my intermediate integrated skills class enjoyed their grammar book more than their reading book, but because I referred to these by name in the survey, I can’t really compare their answers to those for the reading and grammar books in my academic writing classes (naturally, the books themselves are different in structure and approach as well, which limits how comparable they are).  All of my classes did have a few items which were worded the same and were similar enough in practice to warrant comparison.

Those items were reading circles, Kahoot!, at-home writing, language logs, and teacher-fronted grammar lessons.  Before we get to the meat of this post, let me just make sure everyone knows what those are and explain how I do them.

Reading circles, in a nutshell, consist of reading reflection groups where each member of the group has a different “job”.  A group of 5 people in most of my classes might have had a Summarizer, a Vocabulary Enricher, a Grammarian, a Connector (who had to, for example, find articles on similar topics to the reading on the Internet), and an Artist.  On a reading circles day, everyone would have read a section of a book or an article over the weekend, and completed half of the sheet at home.  They would then gather in “expert groups”, consisting of people with the same job, and compare answers.  Some versions of my reading circles worksheets had a part of the worksheet that had to be completed during this time.  After a decent amount of time, they would meet with their reading circles group members, all of whom had different “jobs”.  All of my reading circles sheets had short sections that had to be completed during this time by listening to the other group members.  Much of this is standard for this kind of activity.  In practice, not everyone would do their homework, and 3 or 4 people out of a class of 25 would be hurriedly filling in the parts that they were supposed to have done over the weekend in their “expert groups”.  I noted who didn’t do the assignment for grades but let them do this so that they would have at least something to show their reading circles afterward.  Students always seemed much more engaged during reading circles than any teacher-fronted activities, but as we shall see, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the answers they gave to the survey.

Kahoot! is an online game-show-like platform that seems pretty well-known, although I’d never heard of it before my first CATESOL meeting last December.  I mostly used it to review readings (the same ones as the reading circles), about 3 times a semester, with Jolly Ranchers candy as prizes for the winning teams.

At-home writing comprises paragraphs and essays, any of which had at least 3 drafts.  Students turned these in on paper, Canvas, Turnitin.com or all of these at once.  As I found out a bit late, the steps for submitting work electronically or viewing feedback are not obvious for many students, and as in my time in Japan, there is a strong pro-handwriting bias among ESL students – some students view typing it out as the very last step in completing a paper.  Anyway, this was one of the few times in the semester that students would get individual feedback on their writing from me.

Language logs are simple scaffolds for out-of-class input.  They look more or less like schedules organized by weeks with spaces for students to write what they read and what they noticed (for writing classes – “noticed” here could mean content or form) or what they read, what they watched, and who they talked to (for integrated skills classes).  The spaces are intentionally kept small to keep the focus on input rather than rigorous and thorough reporting.  For me, these have a lot of room for improvement – I personally kept forgetting that students had them (I had planned to check them every 2 weeks, but it ended up being more like every 4 weeks), and the students reciprocated.  I also had to remind students quite a few times that the purpose of the logs was to record their extra input, not to record the homework that I had assigned them, and that conversations with their spouses in their first language didn’t count as language log material.  Also, the “I noticed…” sections were often filled with verbatim quotes rather than reflections.  Still, a number of students rose to the occasion and read, watched or talked voluminously.  I remember seeing written on language logs entries like “I talked to a woman at the supermarket about expensive eggplants” “CNN – California wildfire – scary!!” “Breitbart – Anti-Trump conspiracy” and plenty of other windows into my students’ intellectual lives.  Yes, I’m proud of the student who reads Breitbart – I suppose in terms of acculturation it’s somewhat analogous to Americans in Japan who become ardent supporters of the Imperial system and all of its apologia.  A sure sign of language learning progress, albeit also a phase I hope they grow out of.

A confounding factor for measuring how much students liked/valued the logs themselves is that I also had them share them with classmates before turning them in.  The discussions that arose from this were almost always lively and engaging, and it is certainly possible that some students answered positively for Language Logs while mostly thinking of the enjoyable conversations around them rather than the input that is their main purpose (at least from my perspective).

Teacher-fronted grammar lessons are probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  Mine are not particularly unusual, I think, except that I tend to give absurd examples and lots of analogies to food (an independent clause is a burger, a dependent clause is fries, and adverbials are drinks and toppings).

Numbers and stuff

On to the data.

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For all 3 classes, the most popular class activity was Kahoot! followed closely by grammar lessons.  The one most viewed as helpful was at-home writing, followed again by grammar lessons.  That’s a bit interesting.  The other values on the table are a bit more interesting.

The second column, consisting of t-values, shows basically how meaningful the differences between the “I like it” and “It helps me learn” are.  t-values, if I recall correctly from the last time I googled them, are roughly the odds that a difference between 2 populations (or a change in 1 population) could have been coincidence even if the populations themselves are actually not different with regards to the value you are testing.  Generally, the null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between the populations tested) is rejected if t is below 0.05 or 0.01.  The computed value of t depends on the differences between the populations’ answers and on the size of the population.  I only computed t for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” scores for the same activity, and the numbers in the center column are those t-values.  As you can see, the only one that would pass a conventional test for significance is at-home writing, although grammar on the whiteboard is close.  This tells us that the different values for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” for at-home writing are probably large enough for us to assume that a difference would be found even if I taught thousands of students instead of about a hundred.  I find this interesting mostly because it shows how large the gap is between enjoyment and valuation of paragraphs and essays – a gap which might generally be found among students who feel that some things that aren’t enjoyable are nonetheless good for your brain, which might call the eating your vegetables effect.  (I would be tempted to conclude that the relative lack of enjoyment causes the feeling that it must be useful except that Language Logs have an even lower enjoyment score and a correspondingly low usefulness score.)

The last column is standard deviation, or how widely answers are dispersed.  As you can see, “at-home writing helps me learn”‘s answers are the least dispersed of any item, meaning that there was higher consensus around the usefulness of at-home writing than, say, Kahoot!.  This means that not only was the mean higher, showing that on average more people found it useful, but people agreed more on how useful it was.  Language logs, on the other hand, had wide disagreement on their usefulness (and enjoyability).  It seems that students are much more unanimous on some questions than others.

Last, I have the correlations.  Not too much to say about this, except that liking/valuing Kahoot! is negatively correlated with almost everything else.  The positive correlations between reading circles and Language Logs could be explained by the social nature of both (see the confounding factor of the Language Logs above).  I have no idea what could be behind valuing reading circles and valuing grammar on the whiteboard/projector.

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Discussion and hedging

One must keep in mind that students are likely judging the usefulness of activities based on changes in their abilities that they can detect; a very long-term effect or a subconscious one will be mostly invisible and may feel useless, while one that gives the rush of endorphine that comes from solving a puzzle may not be as effective in long-term acquisition but will seem to have led to some understanding.  This is a circuitous way of saying that we can’t trust students at the end of a 4-month course to know what actually helped them learn.  I tend to regard the Language Logs as the most beneficial, because they 1) facilitate large amounts of input, 2) are student-directed and therefore more likely to keep their interest, and 3) are the most likely to be continued outside of class.  Of course, stuff that seems pedagogically useless to students is not likely to lead to re-registration in the spring, and if students don’t sign up for classes, it’s hard to say I served them well by insisting on nutritious but unrewarding educational broccoli.  Activities like Kahoot! may be worth the time and effort if only to provide the hit of pure enjoyment that keeps people looking forward to the next serving of ice cream when they’ve finished their vegetables.