Student-centeredness and fake news

“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity.  It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches.  It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.

As such, it invites co-opting.  Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word.  This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”.  As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.

It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”.  Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests.  Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.

Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.

(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”.  I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)

Ideologies-of-education student-centeredness

Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want.  In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail.  I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.

If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests.  It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected.  That sounds student-centered to me.

Outsourced student-centeredness

On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own.  This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much.  Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors.  Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information.  In that sense respects their independence as well.

I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s.  If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.

Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure.  This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well.  It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.

System-dependent student-centeredness

I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes.  She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class.  From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan.  The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.

This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project.  In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed.  Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate.  At least, that is the ideal.

For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor.  These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers.  The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.

Content student-centeredness

If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you.  The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself.  Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third.  Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook.  Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.

I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say).  I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it.  As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.

The luxury of the long game in EFL

The conflict between short-term and long-term goals is a big one for ELT.

In most subjects, teachers work with a batch of students in something called a “course” in 3- to 5- month intervals.  We tailor our expectations of the course to that time frame, generally not asking students to do something impossible like master the complete works of Puccini or lose 20% body fat in the 18 weeks between handing out the syllabus and proctoring final exams.  Instead, we find a way to subdivide the task that we know we want them to have mastered within the next 4 years into semester-long segments, and call that our course. Not all the works of Puccini, but 2 of them.  Not 20% body fat, just 5%.  Not all of a foreign language, just 500 words and the first 10 grammar points.

There is a problem that many language teachers see in taking that approach to planning a foreign language curriculum, which is that learning another language is less like learning musical scores and more like learning to walk (or in anti-evolutionists’ favorite gambit, evolving an eye) – there are no sensible partway points at which to divide the long and error-ridden process into 4-month units.  Like walking and eye-volution, all successes are prefaced by many more instances of clear failure, and progress may look exactly like failure until it suddenly doesn’t. Half an eye doesn’t do its owner 50% of the good of a complete eye, and there is no reason to think that 2 years of college Spanish is 50% as good as 4 (or 1 year 25% as good, or a semester 12.5%).  Assuming (yes, assuming) a full college Spanish curriculum does its job of producing competent Spanish speakers, chopping it into semesters may work against this goal rather than helping students towards it by inducing short-term-goal myopia in course planners and students alike.

human-eye-anatomy

(I recognize that evolutionarily intermediate eyes actually did have utility – but half of a modern human eye certainly doesn’t.)

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JALT vs. CATESOL

I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.

Lunch

Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #1

I haven’t felt much like blogging lately, having completed my journey from East to West (or from my perspective, really far West to less West) and enjoying my new life of Cheez-its, private health insurance, and superwide supermarket aisles.  One immediate reflection: 3 of the 4 car salesmen we saw before we settled on our blue Prius were second language speakers.  This is something I really enjoy about California.

Anyway, I thought I would share as a bit of a public service what my experience has been job-hunting here so far, compared to back where I used to live.

More uncanny valleys

Fairly recent MAs like me tend to fall into an experience trap, one which divides mostly private-market language teachers from university teachers in Japan (speaking here of the native-speaking positions) and private ESL teachers from university and junior/community college ESL teachers in the US.  Private ESLs here, much like eikaiwas in Japan, consider my decade-plus of teaching and my MA kind of like the highest trim option on a car: mostly unnecessary, likely expensive, and anxiety-producing (because you’re afraid of scratching it or it driving off in search of richer owners.  I’d say that analogy has reached its limits).  On the other hand, universities in Japan almost universally require “3 years’ experience” teaching at the undergraduate level in other Japanese universities, and college/JC ESLs in the US require something similar.  Any of the 4 teaching milieux I’m describing see experience in all the others as mostly irrelevant or even a burden.  Teachers in my position, moving from one milieu to another, seem to need connections to get that precious first foot in the door, as our experience and CVs place us at an oddly neither-here-nor-there place.

I’ll keep adding more on this topic as I actually start working.  In the meantime, more Cheez-its.

THE Rankings and Hensachi, pt. 2 – Expected and Observed Hensachi

A little Numbers know-how and a lot of free time are a dangerous combination.

I took the sample I used last time to compute something I call the expected hensachi, a score along the same range of hensachis from the last sample – 46 to 75 – but calibrated to schools’ component scores in the THE Rankings.  I did this to provide something to contrast with schools’ observed hensachis, which again came from this site.  Expected hensachis were calculated by this simple method:

(school’s component score – minimum observed component score) / range of component scores * range of observed hensachis + minimum observed hensachi

(I was asked last time to provide an analysis of the components of universities’ hensachi scores.  They are based on two tests – the センター試験sentaa shiken (National Center Test for University Admissions) and universities’ own tests for each academic department, both of which must be taken in most cases.  Cram schools figure out the hensachis based on internal calculations and make them available to students and sometimes to the public.  This site presents scores required for entrance in two formats: raw scores and percentages for the Center, and hensachis for universities’ own exams.  I can’t say, or don’t have the time to look for, how cram schools get their data.)

Tokyo University has the highest THE component scores and the highest hensachi, so its expected hensachi is still 75.  The school with the lowest component scores, Jikei University School of Medicine (ouch!), gets the lowest expected hensachi with 46 (Toyota Tech’s score in the observed actual hensachis).  A school halfway between the ceiling provided by Tokyo U and the floor provided by Jikei gets an expected hensachi halfway as well; Kyushu University’s half-full, half-empty component scores leave it with an expected hensachi of 60.7, which is less than its observed hensachi of 66.

As you might suspect, this leaves some schools with expected hensachis quite different from their actual hensachis.  Read on to check out a chart ordered from the largest positive difference between actual and expected hensachi to largest negative.

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Times Higher Education Rankings and Hensachi in Japanese universities

This post in a nutshell: Are rankings of universities within Japanese society similar to rankings of universities used internationally?  What components of international ranking scores track the most commonly used rankings in Japan?

Introduction

The best-known means by which universities in Japan are ranked is called a hensachi score, which tells how far from the statistical mean a typical student admitted to a given institution scores on a test.  A score of 50 is at the mean, 60 is one standard deviation above the mean, 70 is two SDs above the mean, etc.  A high hensachi, say 65, for a given department at a given institution means students admitted do better than at least 95% of the test-taking population on that test (one SD turns out to be quite a leg up on one’s peers).  Hensachi scores vary by department; a medical university like Juntendo will have a high hensachi for its medical department (72) and a much lower one for its nursing department (55).  The private university I used to teach at has hensachi ranging from 35 to 65 for its various departments.

6_8_1
Source.  Looks more complicated than it is.

On the other hand, colleges in the US are usually evaluated according to a range of measures.  It’s not difficult to find out the acceptance rate at a given school, but more commonly seen are suggested minimum SAT and ACT scores as well as high school GPAs.  Placing these on a normal curve is possible but not widely done.

More commonly, people rely on national and international rankings like that of US News and World Report or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the latter of which are the subject of this post.  The THE Rankings caused a bit of a stir here recently as Japan’s universities underperformed in the list of the world’s top 980 universities, with only 2 institutions in the first 100 and many schools highly regarded in Japan falling rather high (as we shall see, the prestigious private MARCH schools – Meiji, Aoyama, Rikkyō, Chūō, and Hōsei all come in above #800, or off the list altogether).

A common interpretation of the discrepancy between the ranking and prestige that Japanese universities enjoy locally and those they receive internationally is that Japanese universities serve some local societal need that is not addressed, or at least is underrepresented, in the THE Rankings.  The most obvious of these is simply sorting: Japanese universities are a final stamp on a long process of streaming by test scores in order to serve the efficient hiring by companies after college, which justifies the use of a single number (hensachi) to rank universities and explains some other mysterious practices like much of 4th year attendance being superceded by job hunting.  Of course, this thinking would justify any allotment of hensachi rankings; a more prestigious school is more selective and therefore more prestigious, and a selective school is more prestigious and therefore more selective; the hensachi of a school telling employers all they need to know about its graduates.  Other local needs that have been proposed as explanations of this gap include the necessarily limited local market for research in the vernacular (including in-house university publications; I haven’t been able to find any of these in the database that the THE Rankings use to compile their Citations and Research scores), the lack of direct industry ties among Japanese universities, lack of weighting for patents (my ex-employer was particularly well-known for this in Japan), and a lack of outreach apparati for recruiting foreign students and staff.  This last one seems to be a result of misplaced priorities than institutional disadvantage.

The components do not all contribute equally to the THE Ranking.  Notably, Teaching and Research are less weighted this year than in previous years, a fact which this article blames for Tokyo U’s drop in this year’s rankings.  As we shall see, these two areas are relatively strong for Japanese universities.

the-world-university-rankings-2016-2017-methodology-small
Source.

In the interests of finding out just how much the THE Rankings correlated to Japan’s internal rankings of universities, I went through the THE Rankings for Japanese universities and recorded the component scores that contributed to their final rankings.  I then figured out the average (median unless there were 3 or fewer departments, then mean) hensachis across all departments for those universities and entered them in a Numbers file, using this site to find hensachifor university departments.  Then I computed the correlations between the component scores, the THE Rankings, and the hensachis for those universities.  I only included schools ranked 800 or lower [EDIT: meaning better than 800]; including the final group of 801-980 would have doubled the amount of work.  Sorry.

Numbers

Not exactly a creative use of statistics, but it involved a lot of copying and pasting and you know, it’s the kind of thing you expect someone to do.  So I did it. You can see the raw numbers in the following graph.

THE rankings and hensachi.jpg
Means: Teaching 32.2, Research 23.4, Citations 33.4, Int’l Outlook 23.9, Industry Income 47.9. THE Rankings are given as averages of the ranges given, for example 601-800 is entered as 700.

The overall correlation between the THE Rankings and hensachis was -0.5778.  For only schools in the THE top 500, the correlation was -0.6128.  These numbers are negative because, as should be expected, rank falls as hensachi rises.  The closer a university is to #1 ranking, the harder it is to get into.  For schools ranked above #500, there is almost no correlation between ranking and hensachi: -0.1339.  This should not be a surprise, as almost all of those universities have identical ranking scores.

Immediately we can see that hensachis do not track the THE Rankings exactly, and sometimes are curiously divergent.  Schools that are very difficult to get into, for example Waseda University with its median hensachi of 69 (rejecting nearly 98% of all applicants) [EDIT: not really rejecting of course, just out of the reach of.  Students at -2 SDs presumably don’t apply to Waseda.] is ranked by THE as just as strong as Toyohashi University of Technology, which with its hensachi of 50 gives students even odds of getting in.  On the other hand, another school with the same hensachi of 69, Osaka University, is ranked just out of the top 200.  A student with much better-than-average scores, according to THE, would be much better off choosing Osaka.  On the other hand, a completely average student could get into a school which the THE considers just as good as Waseda, which in Japan has a level of prestige similar to Princeton or Stanford in the USA.

Correlations, positive and negative

So what about the components of the THE Rankings?  How do those compare with universities’ hensachis?

This next graph has the correlations of each component score with hensachi:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.10.21.png
Teaching: 0.7368, Research: 0.6833, Citations: 0.2492, Int’l Outlook: 0.4683, Industry Income:0.4145

And only for universities within the best 500:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.10.21 copy.png
Teaching: 0.8527, Research: 0.7785, Citations: -0.4863, Int’l Outlook: 0.3218, Industry Income: 0.3576

And above 500:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.10.23.png
Teaching: 0.3738, Research: 0.2289, Citations: 0.3258, Int’l Outlook: 0.1926, Industry Income: -0.2048

To reiterate, a hensachi tells us how difficult it is to get into a university; it is not a direct measure of quality.  It tells us how far above average a student has to be to have a chance of getting in, which depends on how many students try to get into a university and how many seats the university has available.  A high hensachi is a measure of selectivity, which is at best an indirect indicator of quality.

Out of the components that make up the THE Rankings, Teaching and Research are by far the most correlated with hensachi, across all spectra of Japanese universities in the THE list.  Among the top 500 schools only, Teaching and Research have near-perfect correlations with hensachi.  This supports the conclusion that Teaching and Research are responsible for much of any university’s competitiveness in Japan, as represented in its hensachi.

Interestingly, Citations are negatively correlated with hensachi among the Japanese universities in the THE top 500.  Universities whose research is cited more often tend to be less selective of incoming students, or students are dissuaded by the type of academic strength shown in numbers of citations when deciding which schools to try to gain admission to.  This is not the same as Citations being irrelevant; that would show up in a correlation of near 0.  I have no idea why Citations would correlate negatively with hensachi.  Hopefully someone in the comments can suggest a reason.

Industry Income is negatively correlated with hensachi in universities outside the top 500.  Correlations are all weaker outside the top 500, suggesting that objective (at least as far as the THE Rankings’ component scores reflect objective evaluations) evaluations matter less as those evaluations drop.  Still, I await explanation for why Industry Income could be negatively correlated with hensachi.

Discussion

Among the cream of the crop, hensachi can generally be a heuristic for quality of undergraduate experience.  The main part of a 4-year student’s experience of a university is in its teaching, and hensachi correlates very strongly with the Teaching component of the THE Rankings.  However, among weaker schools by THE standards, hensachi fails to predict quality as strongly in any domain.  Importantly, this applies to weak schools as determined by THE, not by hensachi: many schools with high hensachi are ranked above #600 by THE, including Waseda, Keio, and the aforementioned MARCH schools.  For Japanese high schoolers looking at prospective undergraduate universities, my advice is to choose the lowest hensachi school from the THE top 500, like Tokyo Metropolitan University or University of Tsukuba.

For graduate students, hensachi is a much less useful tool for assessing a university’s strength, as Research, Citations, and Industry Income are likely to be much more important to students conducting original research.  Of course, I have no idea if prospective graduate students in Japan look at their universities’ hensachi at all; hensachi are computed for the difficulty of gaining admission to undergraduate departments.

Of course this assumes that quality matters.  If students are looking at university is mostly a stepping stone toward a prestigious job in Japan, one may be inclined to ignore THE Rankings altogether and regard only Japan-specific rankings as relevant.  If one looks at the hensachis of the aforementioned MARCH schools along with Waseda and Keio not as reflections of the numbers of students wanting to be educated at those institutions but instead as reflections of the numbers of students wanting the career opportunities having been admitted to one of those institutions grants you, they make sense regardless of the objective academic strength of those schools.  High-hensachi but low-THE-ranked universities can be seen as expensive and elaborate filters of workers for Japanese companies, just as Brian McVeigh suggests of Japanese universities as a whole.

There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to “prestige” in Japanese universities which can be seen especially strongly in high-hensachi private universities.  Bearing in mind what I said about Japanese high schools a while ago, it may be worth attending one of these universities if only for the opportunity to spend 4 years with like-minded peers.  However, if most of these peers are at that school for the career boost and not for the education, you will essentially be placing yourself in a Community of Practice for careerism and not for cultivation of the mind.  This may account for the low THE Rankings of some schools whose student bodies are clearly very devoted to some goal; that goal may just not be higher education as THE understands it.

For those of you who skipped to the bottom:

The data suggests that hensachi is not completely unmoored from educational quality, but that some forces besides educational quality also drive hensachi upwards or downwards.

Getting rid of the native speaker concept

Denying or minimizing the importance of having native speakers (NSs) as teachers is a litmus test for modern language teachers.  Particularly where English is concerned, very few statements will get as many enthusiastic thumbs-up reactions on facebook, if your friend list includes as many JALT people as mine, as a denial that NSs should be given preference for certain teaching jobs or even that the NS concept is even valid.  Many professional language teachers in Japan seem to feel that the division that has grown between non-native speaker (NNS) teachers’ perceived roles and those of “foreigners” is unhealthy, particularly where it is seen as part of a worldwide trend toward the delegitimization of local teachers and the elevation of Westerners and the advanced educational cultures they supposedly represent. This dovetails with the anticolonialist (white) guilt many of us feel and leads to disavowal of the privileged position of NSs have in teaching their first language, and sometimes disavowal of their status as NSs as well.

As it currently exists, the NS/NNS divide in ELT in Japan prevents a lot of people from realizing their potential – most of all students – but also communicative teachers who happen to be Japanese, NNS teachers who are not Japanese, and NS teachers who see advantages in using Japanese in class.  Zoltán Dörnyei, for example, if he weren’t so famous, would have a rather hard time finding a job as an English teacher in Japan, NNS as he is.

As with the Critical Period Hypothesis, arguing against the NS concept involves acknowledging a certain level of biological reality while not letting that acknowledgement serve as justification for the huge and unwarranted extrapolations that the education marketplace makes based on that reality.  That is, I personally think the NS is a useful and real concept, but certainly not as clear-cut as the way the term is often used implies – much like CPH is observably true for immigrants, but using it to recommend 1/2 hour weekly EFL classes for infants is extremely specious.  Also true of both of these SLA hot topics is that even if the teacher is aware of the controversies surrounding them, most often he or she is the only person in the classroom who is.  Most students accept CPH and the NS concept to the degree ambient in their culture, making dismantling them an uphill battle.

So I agree with most of the fashionable modern abandoning of the NS concept, with the caveat that the problem with it in Japan is not ultimately one of broad favoritism for NSs in all arenas but pigeonholing and stereotyping of both NSs and NNSs based on easily observable characteristics (i.e., whiteness/Japaneseness) and prioritizing those stereotyped characteristics over professional experience, training, and identity as a language teacher.  As with sexism, stereotyping of 2 dichotomous groups leads to degrees of favoritism and oppression for both, and as entrenched as they are, has had some self-fulfilling-prophecy-like effects as groups practice playing out the roles they are forced into.  Does anyone seriously doubt that salarymen are as stuck in their prescribed role as their stay-at-home wives, or that if salarymen suddenly started sharing cooking duties, they could make something besides instant ramen?  Now, I’m not saying stereotyping yields equally advantageous situations for both sides, but the point is that neither side can cross over easily into the realm of the other, particularly when individuals have spent careers practicing their stereotyped roles.

The NS concept in ELT leads to both favorable and unfavorable treatment of both NSs and NNSs, and I don’t want to focus on the unfair lot given to one another of these groups, as both, particularly in East Asia, have lots of legitimate grievances. I instead want to talk about the sacrifices to their status both sides would have to make to render the NS concept moot, and why they probably won’t make them.

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Google image searching “native speaker” in Japanese provides a good glimpse into how racialized the term is.   And by the way the page this image comes from is a very depressing ad for an online eikaiwa which stresses that its teachers “are not just Filipinos”.

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A spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down

A constant struggle for language teachers is having your craft taken seriously by the society around you.  It works against you that a lot of what you have devoted your career to is:

  • apparently just talking,
  • in a language incomprehensible to any outside observer, and
  • typically done by immigrants (including you).

A related but more specific struggle is working with people who have a very specific idea of what your job should look like, an idea born from myths and miseducation that much of your training was specifically aimed at overcoming.  It sometimes feels like trying to teach cubism to people who have been raised to think that great art should always feature a musclebound baby Jesus.

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Jesus played by a younger Gene Hackman

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Noun is difficult

Polysemy is one of those concepts I got from Steven Pinker and was totally hoping would be a part of my Applied Linguistics MA course.  It wasn’t, of course, since it is more relevant for philologists and other deep parsers of language than ESL/EFL teachers.

In a nutshell, polysemy is the ability of words to have several related meanings, for instance “supermarket” referring to both a business and a building.  In English we use the preposition “at” to show our location with reference to the former and “in” with the latter (“at the supermarket” not necessarily being physically inside of it), which shows that the conceptual difference is there even for people who are not explicitly aware of it.

In keeping with my general theory of language, in essence that everything affects everything else, I did some wondering about how the lack of plurals in Japanese might affect polysemy in ways other than the obvious – that each noun has to stand for multiple instances of itself in addition to the usual (for English at least) one.

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“Sumo” – the sport, the person, the people

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My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 3

My usual schedule at our own school is Tuesday-Saturday, 3-10 PM with an extra class Saturday mornings.  Fairly typical eikaiwa stuff.  While I was working at the university, it was those hours plus 8 AM-12:10 PM on Mondays and Thursdays.  So yes, I was working 6 days a week, one of those a half day and the other one I called my salaryman day.

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Optical illusion – the other passengers are actually sitting sideways and the salaryman is upright.

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