Teacher Identity, pt. 2 – idolatry

Why not keep the ball rolling here?  (part 1, if you haven’t read that)

What teachers from your own education do you see as role models?

Two stand out, for very different reasons:

  1. Mr. Madrid, my HS history teacher, for translating interest in the subject matter into interesting presentation.
  2. Mr. Knox, my HS math teacher, for making presentation an art form in itself.

Not to diminish either’s way of doing things, but I’m not sure Mr. Madrid was very keen on identifying and analyzing different teaching approaches and I never got the sense that Mr. Knox really loved calculus.  They managed to make their classes interesting with a large degree of what the other lacked, or at least didn’t need.

Mr. Madrid came to class with a menagerie of characters and stories in his head that he couldn’t wait to share with us, and we reciprocated his obvious enthusiasm.  History, as we were to discover, is full of odd folks and high drama (also check out the Hardcore History podcast for plenty more of these).  Not to take anything away from his accumulated professional experience, but especially in the early years when he was teaching my generation, I’m not sure if he brought much more into the classroom besides lots of content knowledge that he personally found interesting.  But this led to his naturally wanting to tell it to us and bring us into the fold of people who knew these interesting things, and that was almost always enough.  His infectious level of enthusiasm managed to bridge the gap between his brain and ours.

Although what I teach is not content-heavy in the same way as history, and I can’t tell students very interesting stories which also happen to be on an AP test, I do find my approach to ELT influenced by Mr. Madrid quite a bit.  My rule of thumb is, students will find what I say more interesting if I also find it interesting.  It’s better to talk with passion about something they might not know yet than feign interest in something generally considered more important.  That said, I happen to be the kind of person who finds grammar and words very interesting, and I happen to believe that students’ attending to meaning is important for their language learning success.  (I have to say that I think this inclination to find your subject matter interesting and naturally wanting to share it is much more influential on teaching success than sheer volume of content knowledge).  So whether I am talking about technical aspects of language or just sharing anecdotes with students, I know that my interest in the topic carries over into my presentation and encourages students to listen to what I have to say.  Mr. Madrid is the teacher who reminds me that doing this will result in memorable classes, many of which (“GULAG!”) I and my peers still remember.

Mr. Knox dressed up abstract mathematical concepts in comedy routines and self-consciously silly puns (example: looking out the window at a tree outside, Mr. Knox says: “Symmetry? Isometry.”)  In doing so he turned what could be the very driest subject in public education into a laugh-fest.  We usually weren’t hanging on his every word because we wanted to understand logarithm functions, but we wanted to get the next joke, and the next joke was in a sentence about logarithm functions.  So he got eyes and ears through jokes, and while he had them, he also fed them math.  He turned a drive through the open desert into the scenic route.

Interestingly in retrospect, I think Mr. Knox worked this way because he didn’t consider his subject inherently interesting.  This makes his approach, in my mind, the polar opposite of Mr. Madrid’s.  It also seems much more difficult because it doesn’t hitch its success on the teacher’s interest in the subject matter (which, because teachers previously studied the subject themselves, can be assumed to be present in at least some amount), but rather his/her dedication to the pure craft of teaching as a species of performing art.  Mr. Knox might be best described then as a natural performer who happened to have a Mathematics degree.  I can imagine Mr. Knox teaching almost any subject with a lot of success, once he has a few years to build up a stable (insert horse joke) supply of puns on that subject.

Mr. Knox is (was?) a serious Christian as well, a fact which everyone knew but was never mentioned in class.  This is, of course, in accord with the rules.  It also reminds me that while my other model teacher, Mr. Madrid, was always bringing more of himself into the classroom, Mr. Knox carefully left himself out of it.  I find this much more difficult.

(I’ve had a lot of great teachers I’m not mentioning here, just in case one of them reads this.)

Stuff I will miss – sour grapes edition

I must reiterate that I will miss these things, but in the spirit of the cynicism I’ve been feeling since Nov. 9 (in Japan) here is a revised list that puts a negative twist on everything that I like.

  1. Varieties of tofu.  On the other hand, the low level of awareness of vegetarianism results in a ton of “vegetable” dishes that merely contain slightly more vegetables than usual in addition to chicken or pork, and many tofu burgers that contain parts of 3 different animals.
  2. Service.  If I’m with anyone more Asian-looking than I am I can look forward to barely needing to participate in the transaction at all.
  3. People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public.  What is called “casual” in the US would be “homeless” here.  If you want to go out with a minimum of attention to your clothes, you have to stay in your car.  And if you’re a woman, wear a surgical mask to hide your un-made-up face.
  4. Natto. I will be happy not to have to do the dance of negotiating the abject shock on people’s faces when I confirm that I “can eat” it though.
  5. Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  I have nothing cynical to say about this.
  6. Cheap paper.  Japan uprooted much of its native forests in favor of industrial cedar before everyone noticed wood from China was cheaper.  I live near an area famous for papermaking, but apparently they mostly make food wrappers now.  Printer paper comes from China.
  7. The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity. Recall the Lagunitas-Michelob principle – you don’t have to worry about the quality of the average product as long as there is enough selection to enable you to choose what you really want.  In Japan the selection for most things is small and of above-average quality, and you pay twice the price you would in the US for even the lower-quality option.
  8. Citrus.  Of course I’m going to California, so it’s not like I’ll be lacking in options or quality.  And mangoes are sold at dollar stores instead of being 800 yen each.
  9. The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation. I have a lot more to say about this. English teachers in Japan focus quite a bit on motivation as I said in the last post, partly because they absolutely cannot count on students being motivated about communication in general and English in particular.  This shows up in a lot of essays where you end up focusing on minutiae because you very rarely feel like the student actually tried to say something.  A lot of those minutiae are translation mistakes because students regard English writing as an application of translation techniques to a perfunctorily written Japanese document.  The feeling is similar to giving brush stroke-level criticism of hand-painted copies of artwork featuring dogs playing poker.
  10. Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Lately the only things I hear about shibas are “a shiba attacked my toy poodle… damn shibas” and “shibas are very popular overseas“, part of a “foreigners love Japan” meme I have never liked.
  11. The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  The most common arc for learning a new acquaintance’s political beliefs is that on a night out drinking after several months of knowing each other you finally find out 1) their first name, and 2) that they think the Chinese made up the Rape of Nanking.
  12. Mini Stop.  Convenience stores are huge here because they enable the anti-social norms of contemporary Japanese society.  You can pay your taxes and buy Shonen Jump at the same place, and without having to talk to anybody.
  13. Shocking students with root beer candy.  Another nail in the “gaikoku is weird and dangerous” coffin.
  14. Indian food.  I’m part of a “mixed roots” facebook group, and one thing I always think about when folks bring up minority rights is that the children of ethnic minorities in Japan who are not even half ethnically Japanese have very few advocates.  Many owners of Indian and Thai restaurants in Japan are long-term residents or citizens with kids here, and unlike other ethnic minorities can’t change their names and hope to “pass”.
  15. The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  It’s good that people want to know things, but you get to a point pretty quickly where you find yourself thinking, “how can you graduate from high school and not know that kanji came from China?”
  16. On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.  That doesn’t excuse being intentionally uncommitted because you just don’t know anything.
  17. Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  Actually only our dog will miss the cold.
  18. Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.  People call these 外来種 gairaishu “imported species”, as if other species of birds here emerged straight from Susano-O’s spear.
  19. A few beers, particularly Shiga Kogen IPA and other beers from Tamamura as well as our local Bayern Meister Bier.  See Lagunitas-Michelob principle.
  20. The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers. This is a poison pill for English education – the status of “authentic English user” being reserved for white people means that none of your students think they can ever be as good as you.  I can’t think of a worse assumption for a teacher-student relationship to be based on.
  21. In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Actually, I’ll be glad to teach classes where a majority of students already see the use for the thing I’m offering.  I don’t want to have to trick students into wanting to learn anymore.
  22. Having the time to blog like this.  Maybe I’ll have a job that will be more personally fulfilling than writing for strangers!
See you soon!

Nobody Has More Respect for Women Than I Do

People rightly laughed at Trump when he claimed this in the 3rd debate this past week.  The thing is, I think the audience was laughing at the notion that Trump could respect women, when the real problem is what Trump thinks a woman is.

There are multiple definitions of respect, none of which strike me as problematic (these are the verbs; the noun versions are similar):

: to feel admiration for (someone or something) : to regard (someone or something) as being worthy of admiration because of good qualities

: to act in a way which shows that you are aware of (someone’s rights, wishes, etc.)

: to treat or deal with (something that is good or valuable) in a proper way

It is certainly plausible that Trump’s feelings towards women match the first and third definitions of respect here, provided we accept some rather retrograde definitions of the good qualities of women and what proper treatment of women entails.  I don’t think it would be terribly unexpected if Trump’s definition of “woman” meant that groping and grabbing were “treating and dealing with something that is good or valuable in a proper way”.  Likewise, regarding a woman not as a fellow homo sapien with mostly aligned priorities but as an unfathomably attractive but ultimately aesthetic object probably only deepens his offense at people lacking womanly qualities calling themselves that.  Metal fans aren’t just indifferent but morally revolted when Limp Bizkit fans (such as they exist) call their idols metal.

Disgusting slobs with fat ugly faces.

There are hints of this problem in the responses of Trump’s Republican (erstwhile) allies as well: Paul Ryan insisted that “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified”, which certainly doesn’t sound like an attitude one takes towards people essentially like oneself.  Whether or not Ryan respects women isn’t the issue; it’s clear that he does.  He just thinks of a woman as something like a rare giant catfish or a goldtop Gibson Les Paul.

Living in Japan exposes you to this attitude a lot: People don’t think they’re being sexist in a disrespectful sense by having only men drive on the freeway or having women do all the housework.  They’re being completely respectful of what they think are the essential qualities of men and women.  A lack of respect isn’t the issue: if anything too much respect is exactly the problem.

Struggling homunculi

Compare these three uses of “struggling” I’ve heard from teachers:

  1. “Johnny is struggling to raise his science scores.”
  2. “Jimmy is struggling to understand long division.”
  3. “Jackie Jormp-Jomp is struggling to behave in class.”

I think there is a rather insidious, or at least incorrect, assumption being smuggled into the last of these.  That is the assumption that a little man lives in your head that tries to control you, and who people will often assert really is you, but whose perspective is mostly aligned with local authority figures.

(to say nothing of “struggling to complete his homework”, which to me is literally the exact opposite of what it means: “not trying to complete his homework”)

Consider the meanings of both the words and the grammar used here. “Struggle” is basically “work very hard” and brings to mind an obstacle external to the subject.  One can easily imagine for sentences 1 and 2 that “struggling” takes the form of study and practice.  It is difficult to see what children struggling to behave are working against, if not themselves, and what progress toward their goal looks like.  In what part of a misbehaving child’s mind is this struggle occurring?

Source. First hit for “struggle” on Google image search.

The grammar “to (v)” refers to a goal, i.e. something you can imagine achieving and are trying to achieve.  This makes more sense with sentences 1 and 2, as it is quite simple to imagine a test score higher than you achieved before, and a child who has not yet mastered long division presumably remembers what it was like to master subtraction and multiplication.  A child that is “struggling to behave” not only probably isn’t actually working hard but also probably doesn’t have the goal that the teacher’s phrasing implies.

Hopefully you can see my problem with using this word and this grammar with a behavioral problem – it paints an absurd picture of a mind working against itself for a goal external to it.  It summons a homunculus inside the student’s head and shanghais it into service for the teacher.  As with all injunctions to let your central executive freely and rationally choose, it refers to a part of the mind that simply doesn’t exist (and people who appear to have such a part are also not freely or rationally choosing – the well-behaved kids don’t have a homunculus either).

This criticism isn’t to discount the subjective experience of being aware of the unacceptability of your own behavior as you perform it – I had this at a job interview not too far in the past – but we know kids don’t often behave with this level of self-awareness.  The level of self-awareness implied in the phrase “struggling to behave” actually goes further than the usual mind-body dualism – it posits a mind-mind dualism and chides children for not listening to the part of their minds that the teacher simply made up.

Much of the time that teachers say this, they are doing so because it makes the child look better than simply saying that he or she behaves badly because he or she wants to.  Still, we mustn’t let our diplomatic phrasing for the benefit of parents cloud our understanding of what is really happening.

100 posts.

This blog started as just a way to catalog my thoughts on Japan as I was getting ready to leave it.  I was hoping initially just to have a few friends and family members read it to get an inside view of my life for the past 12 years.  Over time I’ve really started to enjoy the organization and economizing of thoughts that occurs as I attempt to put them down in print and started blogging more or less as my main hobby.  I thought I’d celebrate getting to 100 posts in about 9 months by putting a kind of “Best of” together here, with posts that miraculously were seen by hundreds of people followed by some that sit huddled in the shadows.


So here are the posts with the most views.

White in Japan = Racial minority in the USA? was helped along by some retweets by influential people about 5 months after it was written.

Times Higher Education Rankings and Hensachi got plenty of views from my former JALT colleagues, possibly wondering how their current place of employment stacks up.  Good news if you work at Toyota Technological Institute, bad news if you work anywhere else, and especially bad news if it’s a high-hensachi private school like Keio, Waseda, or MARCH.

International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America is of general interest to students of inequality.  In sum, international marriages tend to have the husband as the partner from the richer country in direct proportion to the difference in wealth between the two countries.

Eikaiwa websites: Advertising ideology may contribute a bit to advertising strategies for small eikaiwa.  If I were to live in Japan another 5 years I’d almost definitely write a book along these lines.

OC English by the Numbers was a numerical rundown of our now-closed school, which we ran together for 11 years.  A bit of showing off and a bit of humble pie.

In general, posts that took a proper amount of time to write (4 of those 5 involved a few hours of research) were rewarded with views.  Go figure, people want to read things that have some kind of payoff in actual factual understanding.  As you’ll see below, posts that featured me rambling on some abstract point that I think is the hidden cause of some intolerable present circumstance tended to be viewed less.

Winners, in the sense of a camp for low-self-esteem children!

I think these deserve another look (or rather, a look).  Ones I simply can’t stand that people haven’t read are in the menu above.

Wasei-eigo proposes that words been seen as belonging to the language they live in rather than the one they come from.  Plus it only has 1 view (me), meaning you’ll be in some very exclusive company by reading it.

A spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down encapsulates what I think the role of the synthetic syllabus and didactic syllabi are in modern ELT, along with the much more-viewed video games post (check the menu above).


Who’s the nation of 12-year-olds? features some well-worn observations on how little Japanese children resemble Japanese adults.

Infinite virtue ties 20th century utopian projects to moist, supple skin.

Blended learning, mixed results is on a mostly failed experiment with CALL to reinforce weekly eikaiwa lessons.

My year teaching English at Japanese university, part 1 explains the ways that eikaiwa is superior to university (part 2 takes the opposite view).

A memorable time at a JALT event chronicles an awkward encounter with a relentlessly positive presenter.

In addition, any of the class activities that I posted here are endlessly flexible and ones I used over and over again with many different age groups and class sizes.

Occasionally I’ll also lose half my subscribers by writing about metal bands too.  Use the search function… if you dare.

Thanks for reading!

A pro-social level of hypocrisy

People should be judged by the amount of good that they do (or the amount of bad that they avoid), not by how closely they adhere to their stated principles.  I say that as a hypocritical vegetarian liberal who wants to be judged according to objective standards, not by his own.

I’ve had dinner recently with groups of politically-minded folks who act on their beliefs re: consumption to varying degrees.  Let me try to break the groups down for you:

  1. Hedonistic Conservatives.  People for whom selfish overconsumption presents no moral problems, unless the Chinese do it. (These people are Japanese, but American conservatives see China in similar ways.)
  2. Coasters.  People who haven’t thought about what level of consumption would be problematic and simply abide by patterns and implicit rules from the society around them.
  3. Inactive liberals.  People who talk about the problems of overconsumption between bites of imported sea bass.
  4. Opportunistic liberals.  People who tend to take action on the most visible, social media-friendly progressive causes.  People who eat imported sea bass with their group of upper middle class homeless shelter volunteers.

You’ll have noticed that among my friends there are no liberals (or conservatives) who truly act on their principles in considered and logical ways – presumably they would find most dinner parties problematic.  Not one of the liberals in my current circle of acquaintances lives by their principles completely, including me.  I still consider these people morally superior to Hedonistic Conservatives and Coasters because their level of hypocritical, self-aggrandizing liberal activism still results in objectively less harm to other people and a human-friendly environment.

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The low-frequency trap

I’m sure someone smarter than me has named this phenomenon already, but just in case…

There is a section of the watershed popular psychology book Thinking, Fast and Slow about the availability heuristic.  Loosely, when asked about the frequency of some event, we tend to answer as if we’d been asked how many such events we can remember.  Because events like murders or terror attacks are always fresh in mind, we tend to rate them as frequent, although they are not (the death rate from terror in France is much lower than the famously low murder rate in Japan).  In fact it is their infrequency among other things that makes them memorable, which in turn makes them easier to recall, which makes them seem more frequent than they really are.

The infrequency of an event itself can result in that event seeming frequent.

You actually need very few assumptions to come to the conclusion that your instincts will reliably get questions of frequency very wrong.

One, that unusual things are more likely to be reported, passed on, or simply remembered when observed, and:

Two, that ease of recall is surreptitiously substituted for actual statistical frequency when people are asked “how often does X happen?” or “how common is X?”

The result of these two factors colluding plus the omnipresence of information and news in modern life is that people vastly overestimate the prevalence of airplane crashes, rare diseases, and Olympic medalists from the country whose news they consume.  On a smaller scale, you will judge more prevalent a strange-looking breed of dog you’ve only seen once or twice, a particularly pleasant or unpleasant social encounter you had while visiting a new place, and a bad meal at a restaurant that’s usually good.  Of course the converse, that people will underestimate the frequency of mundane or expected events like deaths from heart disease or days without terror attacks, is true as well, and has some warping effects on the public policy choices of our representatives in government, who are beholden to electorates who suffer from these endemic mental processing bugs or suffer from them themselves.

This and basically all the other chapters of that book leave you with the inescapable impression that trusting your gut is a terrible decision.  Unfortunately it is also a decision that most other people will sympathize with and understand, and is unlikely to lead people to blame you when your illogical choice fails.  The temptation to engage as little of your slow-thinking brain as possible comes from both the uncomfortable mental labor involved as well as from people we have to explain our decisionmaking processes to.

Names and superheroes

I had a sudden flash of insight this evening while reading reviews of Suicide Squad, thinking to myself how few teenagers waiting for these movies are named “Bruce”. Likewise any “Tony”s watching Iron Man or “Hank”s watching Ant Man (yes, I know the main character was Scott Lang, not Hank Pym).  Even if those names are way underrepresented among the current crop of teenagers and young adults, there is a good chance that the next cohort of moviewatchers, this cohort’s kids or grandkids, will include Bruces and Hanks again.  The same way that the top baby names for 2016 include names my generation considered antique such as Ethan, Sophia and Charlotte; Ethan and Sophia’s kids might be able to watch X-men and say, “Psylocke’s real name is Betsy? I have 2 Betsys in my class”, a feat last possible in the 1960s.

Names are frequently recycled from times of yore in English-speaking societies, perhaps to give an air of historical sophistication and gravitas to the next generation greater than the mundane ordinariness of the names that we’re used to.  My generation has a plethora of Mikes and Daves, and the next generation has names that Mike and Dave consider timeless or just old enough to be classy.  Of course, that’s how our parents’ generation felt too, which is why Lindas and Freds are so underrepresented among their kids.

None of this is so in Japan, where new generations are often given freshly minted names with no apparent precedents.  There is very little chance that the equivalent of “Bruce” in Japan will be widely used again in our lifetimes.  This fact of naming has implications for the current superhero boom, and helps to explain a bit of the differences between popular heroes in the US and Japan.

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Tom Swifties

I started contributing to a comment thread on a facebook post all about Tom Swifties.  I just thought I’d repost them here to further aggravate readers who expect something about life in Japan or ELT.

“I just dropped off a letter”, Tom posted.

“Free hot dogs!”, Tom shared a link.

“I am bringing back traditional forms of heating”, Tom repeated.

“Cars in Japan have maintenance required by law every 2 years”, said Tom, shaken.

“I don’t check sources for tweets”, Tom said ex-post-facto.

“I think I just gained a level”, Tom said from experience.

“Vin Diesel can’t do sci-fi”, Tom ridiculed.

“Should we ban swearing?”, they discussed.

“If only more teachers read about task-based language teaching”, Mike said longingly.

“We dress our daughter in pink”, Tom engendered.

“I will always support my sister”, Tyrion implied.

“Try lowering the action”, Tom said, high-strung.

“TV needs more Stephen King adaptations”, Tom reiterated.

“Hmm, so Alaska’s native people don’t like being called Eskimos”, Tom intuited.

“Looks like we’ll need the engine to make it back to port”, said Tom, disgusted.

“I can photosynthesize”, Groot believed.

“I was named after my grandfather”, I remarked.


Here I go punching way above my weight in anthropology.

I don’t think anyone uses the word “traditional” in the right way.  This is because to me “traditional” always just means  “I’m fooling myself into thinking this is traditional”, making the word impossible to use in any intellectually responsible way except self-referentially, to mean “what other people consider traditional, which they can only be right about in a tautological way”.  All words when you come down to it have an element of conspiracy to their definitions, as meanings are inevitably co-constucted among fluent speakers of a language and not objectively set, but in the case of “traditional” things really rise to a Da Vinci Code level of obfuscation and ideologically-driven incuriosity.  The word practically only exists as a vessel for ideology, with no real-world referents.

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