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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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.

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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.

The Holliday Trap in ESL

Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context has stuck with me mostly in the form of a single anecdote: A PhD teacher in an Egyptian university tries to implement current communicative methods, which to him are the fruits of his advanced degree, but is stymied when students, feeling honored to have a teacher with such a glittering CV, do their utmost to sit and listen to the transmitted wisdom that they feel should be forthcoming.

I have elected to call this the Holliday Trap, not because Holliday himself experienced it (although he probably has, because I think most language teachers have), but just because it appears in his book.

The trap is that teacher education tends to focus more and more on inter-student communication as it gets more advanced, and teachers with more credentials tend to be more immersed in the communicative norms that currently animate ELT.  At the same time, students tend to value the class and value the teacher more when the teacher is highly credentialed, and show it by adopting a respectful, deferential student role.

The details of the student role vary from culture from culture, but it rarely aligns with the degree of student-centered, student-led communication that a modern language teacher is likely to believe in.  In the country where I taught for 12 years, Japan, the default student posture is silent downward gazing, and the deferential version of that is silent manic scribbling.  In the US some degree of speaking is polite and shows interest, but students in foreign language classes still much prefer the abstraction of talking about the TL rather than in it.  In neither case does the “student role” coincide with ELT best practices.

To illustrate, let me walk you through some familiar cases.  A neophyte, diploma-still-warm teacher in a private language school (eikaiwa, hagwon, etc.) will find plenty of opportunity to apply a communicative curriculum, such as he understands it to be a curriculum at all.  He will likely find students who see the teacher as their equal (or inferior) and are willing to converse and engage in meaning-focused communication.  Conversely, attempts to break out the grammar terms that he remembers from grade school may be met with some disappointment or bemusement.  Meanwhile, a colleague in the middle of her MA may find theoretical justification for much of the classroom give-and-take.  She may develop a repertoire of conversation-based activities to scaffold the particular skills that she is becoming more aware of, and find students refreshed by the additional rigor in her classes.  She may miss the easy exchange of views and camaraderie when she moves on to college-level EFL, where students are inexperienced with communication, in numbers and in seating that make egalitarian rapport harder, and in thrall to the abstract and academic rather than the applied.  She finds that lectures on grammar are the smoothest parts of lessons, as everyone knows what to do or at least pretend to do.  Her department head, who occasionally receives complaints that the young lecturers ask students to use grammar without teaching it first, has a PhD and a research focus on “teachability of pragmatics and strategic competence”.  She rarely takes non-major courses anymore, preferring to skim the cream by taking upper division electives.  She is comfortable lecturing in CLIL-style classes to students capable of benefiting from that class style.  She has been frustrated when trying to apply a similar class style in non-major classes.

In ESL, we have many similar rungs of the ladder of prestige I have out outlined above, from private ESL (often perfunctory exchangers of tuition for visas) to Harvard University’s ELP and other programs designed to prepare students for undergraduate and graduate programs.  At community colleges, a single classroom may be used for both purposes on the same day: tuition-free, 0-unit adult ESL in the morning followed by academic writing for international or transfer students in the afternoon.  At the beginning and intermediate levels, adult ESL and credit ESL may even share most of their student base.  Where they differ most significantly within those levels is often in prestige.

(To set the stage more completely, let me say that the teachers in both the non-credit and credit programs have the same minimum qualifications and the two programs often share materials as well.  Credit classes, however, cost money, have closed enrollment (students can only add for the first few weeks), and have explicit matriculation goals in their course descriptions.  Adult ESL, being free, fills up faster, leading many students to take credit ESL although they do not intend to matriculate.)

Broadly, adult ESL is meant to serve integrative goals and credit ESL to serve instrumental goals, although both purport to be working toward long-term life goals such as employment and acculturation in a broad sense.  That said, it’s not unusual for students to take credit ESL to its highest level (or even highest non-writing level) and then stop before transferring, indicating to me at least that not a few see credit ESL at beginning and intermediate levels as a more expensive, more rigorous, “premium” version of adult ESL.  This has interesting implications in light of the Holliday Trap.

First, students are more likely to adopt a “traditional” listening-and-notetaking student role in credit ESL.  If I am right that they see it as basically a more “serious” version of adult ESL, they will prefer lectures to tasks and tasks to conversation.  It has certainly been my experience that it is much easier to get everyone in class to look at a projector screen than to talk amongst themselves, although talking with peers is the more intuitive human activity.  Students might expect to “receive” more knowledge rather than explore or co-construct it in a program that they perceive as more prestigious.

Second, students will approach even similar topics a more orthodox way.  My experience is that it takes much more prefacing and justification before introducing input-heavy methods in intermediate credit ESL than in either ESL writing (also credit) or especially in eikaiwa.  Students quite often see conversation tasks as a break rather than a task, and that is after a first-day PowerPoint and frequent reminders throughout the semester that, as Thornbury put it, “conversation is language at work”.  Not 100% of the class rejects communicative or input-focused methods, of course, but some pushback from most students and a lot from a few students is normal.

Third, students will regard the teacher as more of a source of knowledge and less of a peer. I’ve heard students’ opinions on other teachers in the credit program, and they tend to focus on the clarity of their grammar explanations rather than their rapport with the class or the chances for communication that they offer.  I’m not sure what students say about adult ESL teachers, but the few times I’ve seen them interact they’ve seemed much more egalitarian than what I’ve seen of credit ESL teachers (I’ve seen many, many more credit ESL teachers, as an assistant, as a sub, and at meetings).

The irony of this increased seriousness is that it doesn’t help credit ESL teachers to achieve their arguably more difficult goals.  As the Holliday Trap would imply, teachers tend to adopt more communicative and less pedantic methods as they accrue more education because these methods are supported by research.  An adult ESL teacher freed from the expectation to “teach” in the traditional sense is probably a more effective teacher overall as his or her modern methods have to wade through less of the tall grass of student expectations.

I suppose the ideal position is for the students to be in a rigorous, demanding course but not to realize it.

Losing my mind

What follows is a long, student-unfriendly version of a 3-paragraph paper (not an essay) on a 30-day challenge that I did with an intermediate integrated skills class.  The paper has to have an academic paragraph on the time before, the time during, and the time after the challenge.  Originally, the paragraphs had to use the past tense, present tense, and future tense (with any aspect), but I haven’t followed that rule faithfully here.

Getting lost in hectic thought was the default mode of my mind before I started my 30-day challenge.  The challenge, which was to meditate 10 minutes a day for 30 days, came at a time when I my mind was almost constantly in a state of emergency.  Every thought of grading, making new assignments, or updating a class vocabulary list was a red alert in a long line of red alerts.  I would be exhausted at the end of a day of classes, but unable to take a nap without thoughts of all the papers I had to grade rushing in and beating back my attempts at rest.  As a result, I was often in a sour mood and was inclined to greet any attempts at contact from colleagues or students as yet another demand on the limited resources of my attention.  When I had a minute, or just a desperate need to pretend that I did, I spent it with value-free distractions (the App Store specializes in them), afraid to glance back at the wave of paperwork threatening to crash over me from behind.

Since I started meditating, I haven’t ceased being distracted, but I have been better able to incorporate distraction into my workflow, i.e. to be mindful of distraction.  In the interior of my mind, thoughts of work have begun to appear less like photobombing tourists in the lens of my attention, and more like part of the shot.  I have become better able to take a long view of my own time and attention and to refuse to devote my full mental resources to every problem, incomplete task, or request that jumped into frame.  What is called “mindfulness” is key to this.  While I meditate, thoughts still appear, and I still think them, but I am aware of the process, and that awareness prevents me from identifying with them completely.  I become something of an observer of my own mental life.  I see how this could be described as being “mindful”, as it does in a sense feel like an additional layer of abstraction has been placed between my stream of consciousness and the thoughts that usually occupy it, but in a sense more important to me, something is also taken away.  That thing is the formerly irresistable urge to load that thought into the chamber of my executive-function pistol and start manically squeezing the trigger.  It is also the need to build a spider’s web around each thought, connected to all my other thoughts, and claim it irrevocably as mine.  In these senses I believe “mindlessness” is just as good a term as “mindfulness” for what occurs in and as a result of meditation.  In any case, disassociation from my thoughts, most of which are proverbial red circles with white numbers in them, has helped me to control the way that I react (or not) to them.

This brief experiment with meditation has given me a good deal of perspective to take with me into future semesters.  I can now see the regular rhythm of the waves of classwork as something other than a renewed threat.  Now, they seem more like tides, dangerous if unplanned for but predictable in their rises and falls.  Importantly, I also see the high water mark and know that as long as I keep my mind somewhere dry, it will recede without doing much damage.  In the future, as long as I refrain from doing something crazy like teaching 20 units, I think I will be able to maintain calm with the help of this perspective.  Also, in a more specific sense, I will be better able to resist the call to distract myself from my work.  I can recognize the formerly irresistable need to latch onto an interesting task, and this recognition enables me to prevent YouTube or WordPress (except for right now) from hijacking monotonous tasks like grading or… well, mostly grading.  Next semester and into the future, I will feel less threatened and better able to deal with inbound masses of schoolwork.

My black robes, pt. 2

Whatever a teacher’s job is now, it’s not knowing a bunch of things.  Everyone carries a device that immediately connects them to almost all human knowledge in his or her pocket.  Given that everyone also knows that this is true, why do people still show up in classes?  It may be that hearing a teacher talk vs. reading a Wikipedia page or watching an instructional video may be analogous to seeing a concert vs. watching on on YouTube.  I think it is also because listening to a teacher motivates you to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, even if they were still available.

In the last post under this title I posited that a major role of language teachers may be facilitating learning by simply stepping into the teacher role and using its authority to make students seek and attend to language input that is already all around them.  In this sense it was similar to the ability of judges to coerce (convince? cause? I’m not sure how relevant volition is to this effect) their charges to follow treatment programs, take medications, or enact behaviors that are available without the judge’s involvement but are more likely to be used with it.  In this post I mean to look into what exactly might be comprised in a teacher’s black robes, accepting for the sake of argument that we do indeed wear them.  What gives us our unique ability to influence students’ actions?

Insider status.  A teacher is more intimately acquainted with the culture that speaks the target language, with the school system, and with the educational culture than the students are.  If not, he/she knows how to fake it.  Seen through a Communities of Practice lens, a teacher is a knowledgeable insider that it behooves outsiders to listen to and adopt the practices of.  This overlaps somewhat with a judge’s insider status in the criminal justice system, although it should be said that a teacher’s black robes could depend more on students wanting to join a group that the teacher represents than drug users want to join a clique of criminal justice elites alongside their judge.

Positioning.  A judge sits apart and higher from everyone else.  A teacher is not usually different in this respect – even if the teacher isn’t always physically in his/her seat, that seat is usually at the front of the room, ready to be occupied.  The teacher also has the only desk with a computer provided by the school (sometimes) and the projector controls at his/her fingertips.  All of this says to students “we have to listen to this person”.  Something about the teacher facing the opposite way as everyone else cements this impression.


Timing.  The teacher is often the first and last person that students see on their way in and out of the classroom.  More than anyone else, a teacher seems to be a permanent fixture in the classroom.  I’m sure many of my students think I pull a futon out of the supply cabinet after they leave.  This may enhance the teacher’s ability to represent the institution whose classroom it is and may dovetail with the teacher’s status as a target culture insider.

Age.  Some of us are lucky enough to “look the part” naturally.  While this certainly isn’t fair and to an extent is a phenomenon that we should actively try to fight, looking like stereotypical conceptions of a “teacher” or just an “authority figure” can help make students listen to you.  Much like black robes incline people to listen to a judge, a paternal or matronly appearance might help give a teacher’s words some extra weight.  Extra weight itself might also help in this regard.

In the same vein…

Clothes.  Teachers may facilitate students’ dedication to studying simply by dressing like someone who is in charge.  Like the black robes that a judge’s authority metaphorically and perhaps literally derives from, a teacher’s clothes might give his/her words greater power.  Unfortunately, this is not simply a matter of moving a slider of formality more towards the funerary end, but means wearing a costume which may only be available in a Men’s L or XL.  Consider how much easier it must have been for Donald Trump to choose clothes that looked authoritative than it was for Hillary Clinton (and how her team but not his might have dwelled on whether “authoritative” was even a good look for her).

I have made recent modifications in my wardrobe partly for pedagogical reasons.  Because I used to work in a context where a paramount concern was getting students to relax enough to speak, I deliberately chose shirts and ties that defused any spark of threatening masculinity. Towards the end of my time in Japan you might have termed my style of dress “technicolor dandy” or “waiter at an upscale clown-themed restaurant”.  I have muted the colors because, as it turns out, students here could sometimes stand to be a little more respectful of the teacher’s authority.

Being male.  Here’s where it gets officially unfair.  In ESL or EFL, part of the rich melange of cultures present in the classroom may be some unreformed chauvinism.  Students are, broadly speaking, doing a very brave thing by living in a new country with a foreign culture and language, and even those who sometimes express opinions you would politely call “parochial” are clearly open to some new experiences and ideas – they’re here, after all.  Still, some resist suggestions, commands, and even assignments from teachers that they somehow don’t feel look the part, and a sizable chunk of looking the part is looking more like their dad than their mom.  There are disadvantages to being stereotyped “a male teacher”, sure, but getting students to give weight to your words is not usually one of them.

(Side note: There is an argument sometimes made against the effects of systemic oppression and in favor of individualism that really strong people can always succeed and do as well as anyone else.  It goes like this: Sure, life is hard and unfair, but that’s why you gotta tough it out, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault.  It’s usually true that especially strong people can find success when average people don’t, but the point is that non-oppressed people don’t have to pass that inner strength test or even think about it.  As it turns out, having to spend time and energy thinking about whether everyone thinks you’re legitimate creates significant drag.  Not having to even entertain the thought that anyone might consider you illegitimate in your position is a privilege.)

Being NS.  The conventional argument against native-speakerist hiring practices is that asking NSs to teach their language is like asking a fish to teach you how to swim.  That argument is persuasive to many people (mostly other English teachers), but neglects a major reason that students become interested to learn languages in the first place – they have some idea of what the target language community looks like, and they want to be part of it.  Failing to match the NS stereotype, even if the stereotype is incorrect or unjust, may make getting them to listen to you harder.  Yes, students can be brought around to accepting a NNS teacher, and some of them know the advantages and actively seek them out.  The point is, more of them will listen to a NS teacher and not need any convincing to do so.

At least the above is probably true in many contexts.  I found that in Japan my authority on what people actually said in English was usually considered more valid than any NNS, no matter how qualified (another example of NS privilege – our mistakes are considered features, examples of real-world usage), although students would be more likely to accept directions to study outside from my NNS peers (of course, both the students and NNS teachers were Japanese, which undoubtedly played a part).  I also heard from female teachers that students would accept their directives if they came as “support” rather than instructions.  I’ve seen many more female teachers openly disrespected by students than male, and in one case seen one openly accused of incompetence by a male student, who later seemed unable to understand why other people held her in higher authority than him.  Most teachers in the US seem not to dress up much, and this doesn’t seem to hurt their authority, while teachers in Japan generally wore formal officewear as part of looking the part (in both university and eikaiwa, although I suspect it served different semiotic functions).  I think in my case my demeanor might require some compensatory formality.  It is probably safe to say that what makes students take the teacher’s enjoinders to attend to ambient input and take their medicine varies from teacher to teacher and context to context, but the effect is one that it would behoove most teachers to recognize and use.

Fire alarm effects in ELT

I didn’t expect such a great metaphor for the ESL/EFL classroom to come from a writer on artificial intelligence.

In his article “There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial Intelligence”, Eliezer Yudkowski uses the metaphor of a fire alarm to explain situations in which people act strangely without it being a faux pas.  His version of a fire alarm is a public messaging system that would give people permission to act with what in his opinion is the correct amount of urgency in the face of dangerously advanced and amoral (at least by our standards) AI.  A fire alarm, he postulates, is not simply an indication that danger exists (the other main indication being smoke), but a signal that it is acceptable to act as if it does in front of other people.  The acceptability comes from the fact that (actual and metaphorical) fire alarms are heard by everyone, and one’s knowledge that others also hear it enables one to take part in behavior like descending the stairs and paying a visit to the parking lot in the middle of a workday knowing that coworkers will not hold it against you.  Like many widely-shared messages, a fire alarm turns insane solo behavior into acceptable, even encouraged, group behavior.

(I heard this for the first time on Sam Harris’s podcast.  Yudkowski sounds exactly as you might expect someone with his job description to.  Incidentally, I have some basic disagreements with a lot of what Harris says, but still enjoy listening to his interviews.  I will be more specific in a future post.)

It’s pretty close to universal knowledge that speaking one’s L2 in front of other people is face-threatening behavior.  Consider the range of situations where reproach or shame are possible results – besides the obvious ones (sitting alone on the bus), you may be considered rude, stupid, foreign, pretentious, or just strange for suddenly bursting into French at your pâtisserie or watching Chinese soap operas on your phone.  Naturally, the number of “safe” contexts to speak your L2 increases if you move to a society where most people speak that language, but it is still not close to 100% of them – at the very least, you will mark yourself as a foreigner by “practicing” in public, and in the worst case, people can just be unbelievable assholes around 2nd language speakers.  Of course, there are learners who don’t feel threatened at all by speaking their L2, and maybe those are the same people who would immediately perform a fire drill alone at the first hint of smoke in the air.  Most people need acknowledgement that they won’t be judged negatively for trying and often failing to make themselves understood in a new code – they need a public signal that legitimizes it for everyone.  Something in the ESL/EFL classroom is necessary to transform society’s gaze from judgmental to facilitative.

This may turn out to be another black robe effect.  That is, the teacher might be the variable that turns language practice from face-threatening to the group norm.  The inverse is clearly true – teachers can definitely act in ways the discourage open practice or make students ashamed of failed attempts at communication (or worse, ashamed of imperfect grammar).  Teachers can also strengthen the norm of practicing English within the class by spelling it out explicitly and practicing it themselves.  I suspect though that a lot of the legitimization of language practice is due to the physical edifice of the classroom and the rituals one must go through to join a class – signing up, visiting the bursar’s office, carrying a bookbag, etc.  You can test this by walking out of your classroom during a task and secretly observing how much of the communication in your absence is still in English, and compare it to what happens when a waiter who shares an L1 with the cook is done taking your order.  As in the experiments that Yudkowski cites to make his case, students’ shared understanding of what behavior is validated is essential for any of that behavior to actually take place. Whatever it is that is acting as a fire alarm in language classes, its effects depend as much on the people as on the signal.

Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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