Not meaning what you mean

When a colleague in ESL or English answers “how are you?” With “I’m well”, I always think the substitution of “well” for “good” is a bit like pulling rank. It’s the linguistic equivalent of casually mentioning that you’d “been praying about something” or commenting on the gluten content of foods that your neighbor is eating – the invocation of a hierarchy that you know the you place yourself highly on, and everyone else lower. I do not accept the premise of that hierarchy (nor the others that I mentioned), but explaining that point is another long conversation that ends up making me look like the pedant.

Often, I find that in these conversations the core of the misunderstanding (from my perspective) is that there is a correct way to use words and that the speaker is showing off that he knows it.

There’s a switch in my mind that keeps flipping back and forth between annoyance and acquiescence at people’s tendency to talk about words this way – as if they had “true” or “original” meanings clear as day to prudent and thoughtful individuals (like the speaker), but which idiots (like you) are prone to getting wrong.

You see this most clearly nowadays in the Princess Bride meme, which always goes something like the following:

(can you believe Inigo Montoya and Saul Berenson on Homeland are the same actor?)


You might see this idea that words contain meanings which fluent speakers are capable of getting wrong (in its Princess Bride form or otherwise) deployed a variety of ways (here is one), but usually to condescend to someone and argue against their position ad hominem – the implication being that someone who is so slipshod with words must be mentally deficient in general. It also has a general-purpose use, outside of any particular argument, to serve as an in-group signifier. In these cases, the person complaining about other people’s poor language use is asserting his or her status as a “correct” language user. A knight of the old code, if you will, a defender of the faith.

The idea (that words contain true meanings which fluent speakers can be wrong about) behind this meme is clearly wrong, and no one who ever heard the words “social construction” as an undergrad should ever think otherwise. Words can only mean what speakers think they mean, and saying that someone doesn’t know what a word that they just used means usually is really a way of saying that usage is known but frowned upon (i.e., I am classier than you).

This is a transparent power play, often classist, chauvinist, or elitist. Certain words (I only know Japanese and English, but both languages have plenty) in languages are wedges used to distinguish members of groups, as in the story behind shibboleth. Two groups which seem to always exist in highly literate societies are “those whose language, culture, and customs are objectively correct” and “those whose are particular, local, and temporary”, and many words like “ain’t”, “a whole nother”, or the above memes, in addition to grammatical structures like “might could”, “to boldly go” or “It’s me”, serve as the stars on our proverbial Sneetch bellies. These usages aren’t really mistakes so much as an open flank for pedants to attack and claim the position of “correct language user” as outlined above. They have a negative sociolinguistic meaning, not an incorrect literal meaning.

Some pedants claim that such overcorrection is necessary, because languages need standards to maintain intelligibility. But intelligibility is never the issue. I’ve seen people point out the supposed illogic of a double negative in sentences like “I ain’t never”, but have never seen anyone actually act on the mistaken belief that the two negatives cancel each other out –  the supposed confusion is always feigned and exaggerated. If a pedant has ever legitimately been confused by “literally”, I’ve never seen it. The claim that by correcting misuse pedants are defending standards is doubly false – first because the violation is really an opportunity for them to play referee, and second because the standard doesn’t exist, or at least not as described.

Now, there are reasons as language teachers to treat words as objects of study in themselves, and use the metaphor of words “having” meaning, although as trained linguists we know that this can only be in the sense that an electromagnetic frequency “has” color or a country “has” borders. But grammar pedants are not all language teachers, and a conversation in the break room is not (generally) a language lesson. Turning lunch into a site of linguistic one-upsmanship literally decimates the mood of the break room, and is fulsomely ironic because as an otherwise full-time pedant you should be on a break.

Hegemonic metaphor

Assuming you don’t believe in free will – and I am of the opinion that no one should – have you ever tried to explain it to someone who’s never considered the question? Among the many stumbling blocks is the fact that you might find need for words like “choice” and “decide” and even “your mind” in your explanation. That is, you use language that implies the existence of the concept that you are arguing doesn’t exist.

My colleagues and I were in the middle of trying to choose a topic for the final essay of a writing class when the topic of free will came up. The book that we assigned, The Power of Habit by Duhigg, has a final chapter that leaves a tasty morsel of philosophy dangling in front of the reader in the form of the question: Is there a meaningful difference in the decision-making power of someone who commits murder while sleepwalking and someone who gambles impulsively to the point of bankrupting her family many times over? Some people thought this would be a good foundation for a final essay, and I disagreed. I think free will is too heavy a lift for a 5-6 page paper in an ESL class, and only part of the reason is that it’s a hard topic in general. The main reason is that it’s a hard topic especially for language learners in that explaining one’s position involves a lot of scare quotes around otherwise normal vocabulary because one is using words while consciously denying that they really mean what most people think they do. It involves a great deal of questioning the meanings of the very words that we are using to explain our position, words which often come pre-packaged with an assumption that free will is real.

I am very fond of the story of the philosopher Wittgenstein asking his friend why people thought for so long that the sun revolved around the earth. His friend responded that “It just looks that way”, to which Wittgenstein posed the question, “What would it look like if it looked like the earth revolved around the sun?” (Paraphrasing, of course). The palette of intuitive concepts, what things naturally “look like”, is quite limited in our species. Whoever was the first one to think that maybe the relationship of the sun to the earth was the other way around almost certainly had to explain it to her tribe with reference to what came intuitively to them, that the sun “looked like” it went around the earth. Even stronger than the intuition that small things (as the sun appears to us) go around big things (as the earth looks from its surface) are intuitions like dualism of mind and body, linear time, heritability, purity (of substances, but also of blood, morals, etc.), and free will. These concepts are not just commonplace assumptions about how the world works, but they also infiltrate our language and force us to assert them offhand while having unrelated conversations. If I say “I decided to write a blog post about free will”, I’ve made an implicit argument already with my use of the phrase “I decided”. It’s the same if I say that “In my mind, I feel that duality is false”. Arguing against these concepts requires using language that presupposes them.

I call these concepts hegemonic metaphors* because they subsume even the arguments against them. Just like making extremely convincing arguments against capitalism is a highly marketable skill, arguing against the existence of a “will” fills the listener’s head with many repetitions of the words “choose” and “mind” and implicitly argues for the validity of the concepts that they stand for. I “choose” not to make my ESL students play this game.

*As with many of my posts, this naming reflects both a lack of reading of real philosophers who probably already a name for this phenomenon as well as a desire to give my posts the most pretentious titles possible.

On Tyranny in the ESL Classroom: 20 Lessons from 20th Century Pedagogy

(Pace Timothy Snyder – originally this post was going to be “Democrating Backsliding in the ELT Classroom”, but I haven’t actually read the relevant materials for that.  The point is the same, though – a series of semi-political tips for not letting classes or institutions slide into tranmissive dictatorships.  The usual caveat applies:  I certainly don’t apply as many of these rules as I’d like, and in fact wrote this partly as a warning to myself.)

Do not obey in advance

Let’s assume your students have shown a pattern of reluctance to choose input for themselves or engage in self-directed learning, which is common in language classrooms around the world.  Do not assume that this pattern will continue forever, and do not change your teaching methods in anticipation of this reluctance even before it happens.  Do not treat your students as unready for communicative or other modern methods simply because previous classes may have been.

Defend institutions

Defend modern ELT in principle.  Many classes slide into teacher-domination because expedience seems to demand it – because teachers accept the unilateral authority that the forces of student expectation and curricular deadlines seem to require.  Temporary suspensions of student-centeredness in favor of transmission-style teaching should be resisted, not just because they do not work, but because they encourage the view that  researched and rigorous concepts such as interlanguage are inconveniences standing in the way of truly efficient impartation of knowledge.  In reality, of course, that efficiency is more a path toward perfunctory teacherly role-playing than toward learners’ mastery of English.

Beware the one-party state

Many classroom dictatorships arise not because a teacher arrogates power but because his/her pupils choose to cede it when given the option.  Do not take opportunities that students give you to take full control of the classroom, and do not use your authority as a teacher to consolidate attention and legitimate authority around yourself.

Take responsibility for the face of the world

The appearance of the classroom should not reflect the will of a single person.  The only writing on the whiteboard should not be the teacher’s, the only printed text used should not be from the teacher, and the only voice heard should not be the teacher’s.  Classrooms should physically manifest the priority given to students’, not teachers’, expression.

Remember professional ethics

Oftentimes, a teacher-centered class emerges because students feel pressure to play the part of the student as they understand it.  This part, which is often defined by passive receptivity and obedience, is not simply unconscious habit – students may see it as an affirmative moral value in itself.  That is, the job of the teacher may not be just to present a more interesting alternative to silent absorption of information, but actively discourage students’ preconceived ideas of “how to be a student”.  Students have their own professional ethics of classroom conduct, and teachers would do well to acknowledge their existence.

(Yes, this is the opposite of Timothy Snyder’s point on this subject.  Bear with me.)

Be wary of paramilitaries

Clusters of students that are apparently sympathetic to the communicative, egalitarian, task-based curriculum that the teacher is trying to effect may appear and begin to dominate classroom activities.  The existence of these seeming allies among the student population is welcome to a degree, but can begin to create a hostile environment for students who are reluctant to engage to the same degree for reasons of identity or ability.  Remember that the job of the teacher is not to give more advantage to students who are already advantaged because of a higher starting point or previous experience with modern ELT classes, or to signal a preference for those students.  The creation of a privileged minority of students within the classroom should be avoided.

Be reflective if you must be armed

For students: Being appointed, being selected, or volunteering to be group leader means that you are responsible for the maintenance of communicative norms within that group.  When you have power over your classmates, maintain norms of discourse that do not privilege particular viewpoints – yours especially – or consist only of participation by students who are already fluent speakers.  Some students will take the reduced numbers of eyes on them when working in a small group as an invitation to dominate the conversation or to shrink back into individual study.  As the local authority, your job is to prevent either of these from happening.

Stand out

Taking a modern, communicative approach may distinguish you from your colleagues in ways that are mutually uncomfortable.  You may feel that you are passing judgment on your colleagues’ or institution’s way of doing things by breaking from it.  Indeed, some teaching milieux may have norms so deeply established for so long that trying something new is seen as synonymous with questioning everyone else’s competence.  Be open about trying new techniques and approaches and be honest about their success or failure.  Be prepared to justify them with reference to research.  Above all, be honest about why you teach the way you do, and do not acquiesce to unjustifiable pedagogical norms no matter how many people with pages-long CVs are pushing them.

Be kind to our language

Do not adopt buzzwords needlessly, and certainly do not use them without understanding them.  “Learning styles” were a litmus test for being a modern teacher for 15 years or so, during which many teachers described their classes and students with the vocabulary of what turned out to be a false theory of educational psychology.  Many still use the terminology of “learning styles”, describing an activity as “ideal for kinesthetic learners” when they could just as easily call it “less boring than sitting still”.  By adopting this terminology, teachers have appeared to endorse a theory which was debunked.

Believe in truth

In some teaching contexts, a long career is seen as a substitute for reflected-upon experience and confidence in one’s methods as equivalent to knowledge of their efficacy.  Foreign language pedagogy is a field with a long history and plenty of research.  This body of research is mature enough to offer at least some tentative answers to long-standing questions in our field, such as how central formal grammar should be in classes and how much of a difference input makes.  Access to the current state of knowledge on questions like these, and more importantly, believing that the questions have answers that can’t be ignored in favor of a local or individual long-practiced method, is a step toward more effective and more justifiable pedagogy.


That said, the answers to pedagogy’s big questions may not come in an obvious form.  Sometimes a teacher will have great success with a method or technique that appears to come from the middle ages.  Commit to trying to understand how different teachers have success with different class styles and the principles underlying that success.  Above all, do not accept pedadogical prescription or proscription without the application of your critical faculties.

Make eye contact and small talk

Humanity can be brought to the classroom by simple engagement with learners as people.  Some one-on-one or small group interaction with the teacher not as a fount of wisdom but just as a person, and with the learner not as a receptacle of knowledge or target of remediation but as another person, can bring much-needed humanity back to the classroom.

Practice corporeal politics

PhD researchers who don’t teach and chalk-faced teachers who don’t reflect on practice or theory are a perfect recipe for each other’s stagnation.  Take theory that comes from people who haven’t set foot in a language classroom in years with a grain of salt.  You cannot realize good pedagogical theory without contact with learners.  I mean this in two ways – your theory will be useless if it doesn’t survive contact with actual people, and putting your theory into practice with your own students ensures that at least some people will benefit from it.

Establish a private life

You do not need to share as much with your learners as they share with you.  There is a happy medium between sterile professionalism in the classroom and complete shedding of boundaries.  Affective factors certainly do affect achievement, and that entails at least some rapport and sense of community beyond a shared interest in skillbuilding.  However, oversharing runs the risk of reducing the teacher to merely an affective variable and not an expert in either the subject or how to teach it.

Contribute to good causes

A local, institutional professional culture may fall short of maintaining pedagogical standards.  Sometimes, a national or international group, formal or informal, may function better as a community of practice for a teacher hoping to grow and keep up with current wisdom.  In any case, join (i.e., send money), attend, and especially present.  If a group of which you are a member is failing to provide something of value, you should provide it instead.

Learn from peers in other countries

ELT and especially SLA are worldwide fields, and different cultures, countries, and institutions around the world often practice radically different pedagogy.  Staying in one milieux for too long threatens to particularize your skillset; working in many countries or at least communicating with fellow teachers and learners in other countries exposes you to different sorts of problems to be solved and ways of solving them.  A frequent stumbling block in your milieux may have an extremely commonsense solution elsewhere in the world – and you may be surprised by the depth of thought that goes into an issue you thought only had one answer.

Listen for dangerous words

Pedagogy can be circumscribed a bit too cleanly by the words used to describe it.  “Syllabus”, “material”, “instruction”, “grammar”, “participation”, “master” and even “know” are all words that language teachers have good reason to take with several grains of salt.  If you hear these words being used as if their meanings were obvious, and especially if they are being used with obviously mistaken meanings, don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean?”  Often, the most useful discussions with colleagues and students occur over supposedly commonsense terms.

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

Emergencies and exceptions are dangerous times.  The last day before the test might seem like a time when the norms of student-centeredness might best be suspended in favor of teacher-led review sessions.  This might even be presented as the only responsible option.  Of course, if teacher-centeredness is the most responsible path right before an exam, another exam will come soon, and the exceptional circumstance might be stretched a bit longer.  In fact, every lesson contains something of vital importance which seem to deserve priority over the luxuries of free student participation and self-directed learning.  There are always circumstances that would seem to make every class session a temporary exception or an emergency and cause the teacher to resort to a more “efficient” method.  Be very suspicious of exhortations or enjoinders because of the supposed unique circumstances of the present class period.

Be a patriot

Be a teacher, not a deliverer or keeper of information.  You can take for granted that you know the subject matter better than your students.  Knowing the metalanguage around your subject matter, including serious-sounding terms like “adjective clause”, makes it easier for you to convince other native speakers that you really earn your paycheck, but of course you will never catch up to Google search in your grammar knowledge.  Your job is bringing other people to a more complete understanding (see “dangerous words”) of the subject matter, not just knowing it yourself, and certainly not impressing your students with how much more than them you know.

Be as courageous as you can

If none of us is prepared to work for our betterment, then all of us will labor under mediocrity.

My Knowing You Has Moral Value of Life and Death

I’ve been pushed for the first time since the early weeks of this blog to comment on vegetarianism, thanks to a thoughtful post by Wandering ELT.

Like most of the strongly held opinions that made up my identity when I was in college, such as the utility of taxing custom rims or the superiority of Megadeth over Metallica, vegetarianism has turned into from ideology into mere habit.  It still exists like an old UCI sweatshirt as a vestige of the intellectual life I used to have.  I still practice it (and still listen to Megadeth) more because it’s what I did yesterday and not because I am a consistently, mindfully moral person.  Obviously, no completely moral person can listen to Megadeth as much as I do.

Most of this post will have the odor of long-dormant dogma reactivated.  If I begin to sound too strident, just be glad you know me now and not when I was 22.

The moral crisis that fomented the change in my life from meat eating to not began with the death of one of my dogs in the summer of 2001.  I felt suddenly aware of how much his admittedly simple life had meant to me, and how distressing it was to think of his last moments of suffering.  I suppose almost any pet owner in the same situation feels the same things.  This time, for some reason, I was also very aware of just how few beings in the world would be capable of drawing this kind of reaction, and as weeks went on afterward, this took up more and more of my thoughts.  I was still feeling the loss itself, and some odd guilt as well for feeling this so selectively.  I began to notice that the gap between my overriding preoccupation with my dog’s well-being at the end of his life and my complete ignorance of the well-being of every other animal on earth said something very bad about how my moral circle of concern applied to the world outside.

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The way I thought my moral circle was

My dog’s death that summer, and the terror attacks soon to come after it, made very salient in my mind the inhumanity of how I drew my moral circle.  Many of us have heard “expanding circle” arguments about morality, in which we treat the things that are close to us as valuable, and further things less valuable, until we are basically indifferent to things that are very distant or different from us.  What my dog’s death made very clear to me is that 1) my moral circle where animals were concerned had a monstrous gap between the animals I cared about and the animals I didn’t, and 2) the center of my moral circle was quite small and was only justified by my own ego.

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The way I saw it after summer 2001

The way a circle of moral concern is often understood is that we simply don’t care about the things/beings outside it; we don’t wish them harm, but we also don’t actively try to improve their lives.  In my case, the momentary suffering ending in death of one creature debilitated me for some time, which is an inevitable and even healthy response for pets and family members near the center of one’s circle of concern.  The creatures outside of my moral concern, however, weren’t simply benignly outside of my attention.  I paid people to emiserate and kill them, albeit indirectly.  I enjoyed the fruits of their deaths and considered the savings from not giving them comfortable lives a bonus for my wallet.  In short, I wasn’t indifferent to them; I actively participated in their torture and destruction.  The revision of the outline of my moral circle from a slow fadeout into a sheer cliff was intellectually jarring.

And the center of my moral circle was me, just me and all my coincidental associations.  I don’t think things enter or leave my life for cosmically meaningful reasons.  My dog was adopted by my family, lived with us, and was loved by us because we happened to choose him that day when I was in fifth grade, not because he was made of clearly superior stuff and the universe especially wanted him to have a good life.  Through the accident of his association with us, in addition to having been born a domesticated dog rather than a pig, chicken, or cow, he was granted a life of gentle leisure rather than one of neglect, prolonged discomfort or constant agony.  His death would be seen as a tragedy rather than a transaction because he happened to come into contact with us.  In other words, my family and I were the center of a bizarre moral universe in which only the few animals near us had human-like moral value, and all others deserved to die to make our sandwiches tastier.  Our circle of concern wasn’t based on logical or universal criteria like the capacity to feel, consciousness, or a complex nervous system, but was transparently based on whether you happened to be lucky enough to know us.  It was a solipsistic moral circle, and as I mentioned earlier, the edges were dropoffs into moral worthlessness.

So by becoming vegetarian I convinced myself that my moral circle was something I could justify.  Now at least I wasn’t basing the moral value of animal life on its proximity to me, and deeming those animals who failed to meet that arbitrary criterion subject to slow torture and death.

I don’t completely agree with this point of view now, since the suffering of animals outside of human society is arguably worse than that of animals living in countries with decent animal welfare laws, even if they are being raised for meat.  If I had the choice between a meat meal from an actually happy cow (the ones from California regrettably aren’t) and a vegetarian meal of 100% imported and processed rainforest-grown grains, I might really need to think about my choice.  Of course, we don’t live in a country with decent animal welfare laws, so I’ve never had to resolve that conundrum.

(FYI, my last meaty meal ever was chicken soft tacos from the Del Taco on Campus Drive.)

The Devil’s Dictionary of Correction Codes


Wrong in ways I can’t be bothered to specify.


Everyone from your junior high English teachers to your ESL instructor has tried to explain the differences between gerunds and infinitives to you using logic and rules of thumb.  We were just trying to make ourselves sound smart.


You accidently requested that the reader commit a human rights violation instead of informing them that one had happened.  I don’t have time or space to explain that, so here’s a single letter instead.


Please stop writing according what 99% of your input implies are the rules for native-like English.


The teacher is willing to treat this as a language error, but secretly believes you wouldn’t notice if you suddenly had 3 cats instead of 1.


Wait 100 years or so until the 3rd person singular dies out and this will no longer be a problem.


In English clauses, you don’t need to show degrees of formality, gender, intention, or whether the information in it was learned directly or indirectly.  However, you must always be clear when it happened (roughly divided into the past except when it’s relevant to the present, the present which isn’t really the present, and the future except in subordinate clauses) and remind the reader of that with each finite verb.  We’ll just assume you know what a finite verb is and which ones they are.


As an ESL student, you are expected understand and apply metalanguage that native speakers need to complete at least 2 years of post-graduate work in linguistics for.


I won’t let you transfer or get your second Master’s degree in engineering until you show respect for conventions of writing that are present in only 0.01% of natural input.


Just giving you the answer would save us both time, but making you do the work allows me to claim that my marks are student-centered.


Your teacher consulted Google and confirmed that this comma should not be here.  It might belong somewhere else.  Google it.


We expect your use of conjunctions to be more correct than the New York Times.


(I hope it’s clear that I’m making fun of teachers including myself here and not learners)

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.

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!