The Holliday Trap in ESL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing my mind

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

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

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

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

Success under/over coopted ELT

Geoff’s recent post got me thinking about my time in Japan trying to teach against or around a system that saw English as one of many quantified and commodified skills to sell.  Like a lot of discussions involving Japan, it triggered some vestigial indignation somewhere in my gut which had to be purged.

The process of quantification of the skill we call “English” for the purpose of rational allocation of workers to jobs has proceeded to an extreme level in Korea and Japan, who may represent the high-water mark among numerous other societies where English skill as represented by a single number or a blank space on a resumé is a matter of life and death for millions of test takers and job seekers.

As you might expect given the overwhelming importance of that blank space, the skill that it is supposed to represent often gets relegated to the background in favor of easily understood and common-currency heuristics like a TOEIC score or a university degree.  Tricks for gaming that number or raising it through brute force proliferate. “English teaching” at least in Japan and Korea is widely understood to be synonymous with standardized test preparation, and “washback” with connotations of dutiful responsibility rather than regrettable side effect.  Because the blank space for “English skill” is of extreme importance while there are no corresponding spaces for “average hours of sleep” or “happy childhood”, young people spend much of their adolescence in classrooms preparing to give the market what it wants.  This video brought back a lot of memories for me, including the sight of bicycles outside cram schools that I passed on my way home from work at 10:30 pm.

Geoff winds up concluding that because English teachers will find themselves serving this inhumane system, they should not go to work in Korea.  I disagreed with this point at first, mostly because it’s exactly the countries with these hegemonic, neo-liberal (two words I never thought I’d use after finishing my BA) English testing regimes that seem to have jobs for English teachers without MAs; that is, a lot of good teachers’ careers wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t gone to work in one of these countries in their 20s.  Therefore, I thought, these systems actually end up contributing a lot indirectly to global ELT.  Also, I believed that good teachers doing honest work within those systems could still have positive effects on students’ lives beyond tests.  My conspiratorial brain and my fondly-remembering brain disagree on this point.

A decent metaphor for the role of an anti-establishment English teacher in such a system is Daniel Kaluuya’s character from the 2nd episode of Black Mirror.  This character similarly feels righteously indignant and rebellious in an inhuman system, but sees that rebellious energy coopted and ultimately used as a piece of the same system.  If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Kaluuya’s character Bing has a musically gifted coworker at their grind of a job (hilariously, pedalling stationary bikes) in a vaguely dystopia future society where intrusive attention merchant-style media is omnipresent.  This coworker takes a chance at using her genuine, pristine vocal talent to audition for a TV talent show.  At her audition, instead of being made a popstar, she is coercively recruited to act in adult films instead, in a grotesque example of matching talent to market.  Bing, distraught, returns to the talent show later under the pretense of auditioning, and in the midst of a seeming dance routine he suddenly holds a shard of glass to his own throat and uses the captive TV cameras to deliver a searing, authentically emotional speech into the TV cameras.  The judges, suitably moved, declare his performance extraordinary and proceed to give him his own show where he delivers regular similar speeches, always with his signature shard of glass, for a devoted fanbase (still pedalling their bikes).  The episode ends with Bing living the high life thanks to having found a market for his talent due to his successful “audition”.

To give my Black Mirror-like take first, even with the most stridently anti-test, integrative, teaching-the-whole-person way it can possibly be practiced, ELT in Japan or Korea ends up feeding the system of commodification, just stuffing it with ever-more-valuable commodities.  Any attempts to break out of that single space just end up putting something all the more precious in it, as truly sincere and irreplaceable things are, like Bing’s speech, ultimately just rarer and accordingly more valuable products.  Those “genuine articles” in our case can include communicative competence, international perspective, study abroad experience, and above all, a real feel for English not only as an academic subject but as a living tool of communication.  All of these signify a truly high-quality English education, and to an HR office, a superior version of an in-demand skill.  A sincere and genuine English education also raises the mean on everyone else, making still more inhuman grinding necessary from those not lucky enough to have a truly outstanding, break-the-mold teacher or opportunities for international education.  A worldly, proactive, SKY’s-the-limit English learner represents inflation from the perspective of hiring or college admission boards.  As Bing’s judges declare, That is, without a doubt, the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on a resumé since ELT began.

That is what I fear my legacy of 12 years of English school ownership will be: a few  former students with outstanding enough scores in a saleable skill to get salaries and bonuses 3% higher alongside hundreds more with only a vague memory that they once went to eikaiwa. Premonitions of this fate were common throughout the life of our school, as some of our star students reliably quit every year to devote more time to Center Test studies (our Suneung), made clear their intentions to drop English after getting into college almost as a rite of passage, or visibly stopped caring about any classroom pursuit that didn’t have a clear test payoff.  Mind you, it wasn’t every student who gave us this feeling, and we always had enough students to live, but once 2 or 3 of the students that you’d really been seeing bright things in the future for tell you that they’re quitting because their juku (cram school) teacher told them eikaiwa is a waste of time, a bit of the shine starts to come off of every student.  Parents even in some of the best cases tended to cement the impression that everything led back to tests – the most heartfelt thanks we usually got from parents was that they really appreciated how our passion and genuine connection to their kids had helped them increase their test scores.  The students themselves sometimes echoed these sentiments, which didn’t please us as much as they seemed to think it would.  Trying to beat the test or go above and beyond it only made us more successful at teaching the test.

That’s the dark take, and when I need some reason to feel better about my move to the US, it gives me some comfort, grass-isn’t-greener style.  On the other hand, if I need to remove the shadow that that view casts over my time in Japan and the genuinely warm memories I have of my students, I need to accept that not everything that is part of a “system” is inhuman or corrupt.  My former students making 3% more money doesn’t stop them from being complete individuals or having the same warm memories that I have.  In many other circumstances, I would view the reduction of a complicated construct to a single value to be very useful, given of course that no such value will ever be free from questions of validity.  A society-wide preference for quantifiable skills to an extent reflects a need to fairly and quickly evaluate millions of people a year, which isn’t a sin in itself.  Maybe what is needed is not an end to commodification but more commodification – a line on college applications for “average time spent on non-school pursuits” to be weighed alongside TOEIC scores.

The simple present, unsimplified

Since I started my hobby/rigorous research pursuit of conducting Google Forms surveys on grammar, I have been thinking about the big one.  The one that combines the most assumptions and nuance and the simplest form into a wad of meaning with white dwarf-like density, which is maximally unbalanced in its complexity and the earliness and brevity with which it is treated in grammar textbooks.  The big one is, of course, the present simple.

This is going to be a long post.

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My black robes, pt. 2

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

In the same vein…

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fire alarm effects in ELT

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

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

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

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

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

An objection to the feasibility of simulation

I used to have this fantasy about being able to predict the future by entering all the relevant data about the real world, down to the location of each atom, into a supercomputer and letting that supercomputer simply run a simulation of the world at a rate faster than actual time.  My inner materialist loved the idea of every geological force, weather system, human brain and every therefore manifestation of the emergent property we call a “soul” being predicted (something about my needing to take the stuffing out of humanity as a teenager), and I believed that doing this with the power of computing was eminently plausible save for our lack of complete data.  I now realize that it is impossible.  No, not because I’ve stopped being a materialist.

Any computer used to run a complete simulation of the real world must be at least as big as the system that it will be used to simulate.  That is, a complete simulation of an amoeba would require at least an amoeba-sized computer, a complete simulation of a human would require at least a human-sized computer, and a complete simulation of a planet would require a planet-sized computer, etc.  This is for a reason that is a “bit” obvious once you come to see it, as I did sometime during my undergrad years (if my memory of conversations over AOL Instant Messenger serves).  Data is instantiated in computer memory in chips as 1s and 0s, or bits, which have mathematical operations performed on them which in aggregate give rise to more complex operations, everything from blogging to Microsoft Flight Simulator.  At the moment, each of those bits needs at minimum a single atom with a charge to represent its value (the details of the bleeding edge of computer memory are quite fuzzy to me; replace “atom” with “quantum particle” in this argument as you see fit).  Any atom in a simulated universe would need great amounts of bits to represent its various properties (number of neutrons, location(s), plum pudding viscosity, etc.), and thus many atoms of real-world silicon would be a minimum to represent a single simulated atom.  Because all matter is composed of particles that would need at least that number of particles of computing hardware to simulate them, hardware must always be at least as physically big as the physical system that it simulates.  So much for running a predictive version of Grays Sports Almanac on my Windows computer.

But maybe not all that information is needed.  Maybe not all aspects of the system need to be accurately represented in the simulation for the result to be close – the number of neutrinos flying through the Milky Way surely can’t have that much to do with whether Leicester beats Arsenal 2-1 or 2-0. But consider that that game takes place in a universe where neutrinos definitely exist and people know and talk about them.  Some proportion of viewers, players, or advertisers are surely affected by the existence of scientific research being done in the city (Leicester and London are both home to renowned universities) where they live, even if indirectly – universities are huge employers with large real estate footprints.  Seen in the broader picture, the existence of neutrinos seems like a variable actually capable of affecting the outcome of a soccer match.  Even a single sporting event isn’t really a closed system – consider how directly they are affected by weather.  And of course the types of simulated realities that are en vogue recently thanks to Black Mirror are earth-like or at least have environments capable of fooling complete human simulacra, which means that the humans in them need referents for the things that they talked about when they were still flesh and blood – can you imagine a physicist being confined in a San Junipero happily if the rules of atomic motion are not part of the virtual world?  What would you do for fun when the 80s nostalgia wears off?

It’s an open question whether a simulated mind deserves moral consideration even if it has the subatomic workings of its nervous system simplified in order to make it run on a smartphone. The point I mean to make is just that it’s impossible to have a completely simulated anything without building a computer of at least that physical size in the real world.

Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

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

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

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

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Stuff I will miss 3: Intensely bitter grapes

I’ve been out of Japan, my home for almost all of my adult life, for a year now.  There are now some things I’d legitimately think of planning a vacation around to experience again.  Some of these are of the nostalgic flavor variety, and others are more profound.

(If you had had the power to predict back in 1987 that one of the effects of a global information network would be that everything textual had to be organized as a list, would that have helped you to make any wise investments?  What could you do with that information besides corner the market on scroll bars?)

Air conditioning.  People tend to think of Japan as an ancient country.  I disagree with the concept of “ancient countries” on philosophical and historical grounds (“ancient” being but one of many possible stances a modern person can take on the history of a current political entity), but in any case, you see no evidence of this claim living in an apartment in Japan.  It’s quite rare to find any domicile more than 30 years old, and the facilities within any given residence are bound to be either brand new or from around the same time the domicile itself was built (again, not a very long time ago).  Modularity is the philosophy of most interiors, leading to replaceable fluorescent ceiling fixtures, temporary flooring (often the rugs, tile, and the wafer-thin floor itself), and detachable wall AC/heating units.  The philosophy of housing in Japan seems similar to the philosophy of food in the US – ultrarational and at the convenience of industry.  My current residence in the US is older than any building I lived in in Japan, and its AC sounds like a fleet of Huey helicopters.  The idea that American buildings are old and sturdy and Japanese buildings are new and full of ad hoc fixes clashes with stereotype, but more importantly, sometimes slapdashness has perks in easy upgrades.  My AC in our school in Japan was practically silent in comparison.  If only the walls had been made of material capable of keeping heat in.

Unsweetened food choice architecture.  I still believe the point that I used to make, that the stereotype about everything in the US being incredibly sweet is false.  However, the sweet things here are definitely more prominently placed and almost always the first thing you notice on any given supermarket shelf.  There are croissants among the danishes and donuts, and plain yogurt next to the vanilla and strawberry yogurt, but the sweeter options are at least 2/3 of the options available and always hit the eye first.  This doesn’t technically force you to buy sugar-coated or HFCS-filled products, but it does make them harder to ignore.  Shopping here tends to nudge you towards cavities.  At least the dentists wear gloves here.

Meiwaku.  Interaction has a steep transaction cost in Japan.  Initiating random conversation, asking an off-script question to someone whose job isn’t specifically answering questions, mingling, sharing, and basically doing anything that anyone else might conceivably see all come weighted with fees.  Those fees come in the form of aversion to and fear of being called out for disturbing others (迷惑 meiwaku).  I don’t remember if meiwaku was in that book on Cultural Code Words, but it definitely should be – if there’s any single word that explains public behavior in Japan, it’s meiwakuMeiwaku, to me, is why people don’t usually talk on trains, get up to leave during the credits at the movies, or call out or loudly resist perverts on public transportation.  I see the threat of being accused of causing meiwaku as an additional burden that one feels in every public action, encouraging fairly extreme adherence to rules because the threat looms so large.  If it were a monetary cost, it would be a sales tax of 20% on all verbal transactions, pretty strongly disincentivizing public garrulousness.  The thing is, the revenue raised by this tax also allows for quiet and well-maintained (or at least not willfully destroyed) public spaces and a priority placed on social order, and it is something you can begin to miss in its absence.  Its near-complete lack in the US produces something also undesirable – reckless and risky behavior brought on by a lack of cost for disturbing other people – a recklessness subsidy, accompanied by a widely accepted cultural value on confidence and asserting onself.  In public in the US, all options for public behavior are available to everyone at no cost in face or shame.  As a result, people avoid boring, on-rails conversations but are much more likely to engage in all manner of misanthropic behavior because of how highly weighted self-expression is over public order or consideration of others.

The dream of a pretense of post-racial society.  Japan’s mainstream concept of itself is explicitly racial.  Not “we hate other races”, but “Japan’s story is the story of our race”.  I’ve come to think that most countries are this way, and a legalistic, “our club is the best but anyone is welcome to join as long as they follow the rules” definition of citizenship is a distinct minority of countries.  Now, if one squinted at US history and let the bloody details fade into the background, one could have said that this was the story Americans have always told themselves – that America is an idea that rises above race and class.  In fact, it was true until recently that even the most conservative politicians publicly espoused a legalistic rather than blood-and-soil definition of citizenship.  I worry that having had to defend this president will cause larger parts of conservative America to abandon even the rhetoric of equality.  Cognitive dissonance and all that.

I knew there were elements in the US who envied the easy worldview offered by an explicitly racial view of their nation, and sought to tie Americanness to a mythic concept of “whiteness” just as Japan’s is to “Japaneseness”. I didn’t think these people would ever have a voice in polite society or have their chosen candidate win a national election.

Of course, it seems silly to say I miss the rose-colored view of my home country that I had while I was away from it, but that is the truth.  I miss having the US as an example of a country that didn’t mythologize itself as the work of one uniquely virtuous race while I lived in one that did.

Shallow roots.  The US is unique not in its newness (its government is actually very old compared to that of most countries) but in its inability to pretend to be ancient.  Most people, when asked the age of a country like Japan, will inevitably answer in the thousands of years.  If you consider a claim like this in practical terms, that means either that the denizens of these islands have imagined themselves to be part of a Japanese polity before they even grew rice or that a series of governments, even without continuity from one to another, have been able to exercise control over these islands since the bronze age without the benefit of any communication faster than a pony (or in the earliest days, any form of writing).  Nonetheless, part of the current cultural software in some countries like Japan is a claim to continuous existence back into antiquity, made plausible by some historical facts (people really have lived here for a long time) and some guessing enabled by lack of evidence (nobody knows what these people did besides live in huts and make cord-inscribed pottery).  The US, with all of the history of its current government being part of the written record, cannot feasibly claim any of this.

Belonging to an “ancient society” weaponizes many of the arguments conservatives tend to make in every society – that our way of life has been ever thus, distinctive and characteristic of our land and people, until vulgarians and foreigners infiltrated it and began its corrosion.  Of course, you hear these arguments in the US too, but the difference is that in an “ancient society” everyone starts the discussion by ceding most of the conservatives’ points.  Yes, our way of life has existed unperturbed for millenia, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give women maternity leave.  Yes, our culture is unique and distinctive, but a little labor flexibility would help our economy’s competitiveness.  Progressives need to start with an acknowledgment of what they are breaking with or they will lose most people’s sympathy.  As I said, the US has versions of these arguments, but people often have to outsource their roots (“Western” or “Judeo-Christian”, nothing on this continent) and the mists of time don’t seem to reach much further back than 1955.  A loss of national or cultural identity can be quite freeing.

Of course, this is a list of the things I miss, and like in the last entry, moving here has certainly disillusioned me of my fellow citizens’ resilience in the face of appeals from antiquity.  The president seems to come to his particular flavor of chauvinism simply by liking things the way he’s used to (white by default and free of the burden of empathy), but others, even progressives, have come to embrace the framing of conservative vs. liberal as traditional vs. non-traditional or continuity vs. interruption.  I suppose I had hoped I would be coming back to a society that saw interruption as its tradition.

Let’s end on something light…

Natto maki.  More sour beans than sour grapes.

natto-maki
Source.  I’ll be sure to try them if I’m ever in Ho Chi Minh City.

The things that nobody teaches teachers (my turn)

Inspired by Sandy Millin’s blog post of almost the same name:

Technical problems

The copier in one building requires a login to operate and breaks often.  The one in the next building doesn’t.  This turns out to be the most consequential piece of information in the entire community college system.

SLOs, whatever they are, are crucial.  One of those words (like コマ koma in Japanese university) that everyone knows and treats as incredibly important but never appears anywhere in any training literature.  From what I gathered at staff meetings for the first few months I was working here, SLOs are things that the state regards as even more important than grades and you have to give a special test for, but are often curiously at odds with what everyone you know actually thinks you should be doing.  If you’re wondering what SLO stands for, that’s another of the things that nobody explains.

Students may be using computers for the first time. This being 2018, most of them know how to use a smartphone, but when it comes to using a computer, your students may sometimes make you feel like a desktop publishing teacher from 1993.  Each convenience afforded by LMS like Canvas comes with even more class time devoted to how to use it and an even yawning-er generation gap separating the college-age students from the parents and grandparents.  Here are a few of the misunderstandings I’ve run across:

  • Double spacing does not mean hitting enter twice every line (a classic)
  • A 2 page essay does not need to be 2 separate MS Word files
  • “Here” on the Internet means “click here and then follow more instructions”, not “post your homework as a comment on the announcement”
  • Contrary to the rules of good design in most other media, an essay should have a ton of text on the page, no curly borders and no colorful sidebars
  • Emailing an essay as the text of that email makes it very hard to tell if you followed MLA format (this was more common in Japan)
  • Turnitin.com’s similarity scores are more convincing than your assurance that you totally didn’t copy (and on a related note, and this is an area of genuine interest for me, the phrase “in contrast with” is not plagiarism even if copied from the Internet, while non-idiomatic non-chunk 3-word phrases definitely are.  It’s probably not obvious to students why this should be true).

The air conditioner is the seat of power.  Aside from the copier, no device has held the power to completely ruin the atmosphere (literally and figuratively (is “atmosphere” meaning “ambience” not literal?)) of a class like the air conditioner.  I’m a believer in Dogme and conversation classes; a broken projector is like a golden opportunity.  The AC on the other hand has both physical and psychological power over the students.  The physical power is obvious, although you might not expect the difference between 73 and 76 degrees to produce such epic ranges of comfort in your students.  The psychological power is what really threatens to tear your class apart, though, as students challenge each other for the right to sit near the AC controls and take up the responsibility or opportunity to choose who is comfortable and who is not.  This was a problem for me last semester, and I eventually had to make a rule that only I can touch the AC controls, and later that I would only listen to AC-related requests once per hour.

Classroom facilities may be new-ish or may need exorcism.  Back in Japan my university had one wi-fi router per floor (of 10 or so classrooms that fit 50 or so people each), projectors that rejected all input like a stubborn grammar-translator, and chalk boards.  Here in California some of my classrooms have remote desktop workstations which seem like a good idea in theory, some have decades of accumulated teacher skin cells on the teachers’ keyboards and mice (mouses?), and some have large, space-taking file cabinets on which sticky notes declare the entire contents to be the property of another adjunct.  Many of the classrooms and facilities are also modern and easy-to-use, but almost all of them have no white board markers within a 5-km radius.  Part of the job is being prepared for whatever type of classroom, with its random array of functioning and non-functioning equipment, you will be working in.

The classroom phones might not be able to dial outside lines.  The aforementioned generation gap sometimes plays out in older students not doing coursework that is presented online, not being able to login, and sometimes not being able to reach you or be reached through electronic means.  You may need to call these students to ask why they haven’t shown up in a week, but you probably don’t want to use your personal number for this, leading you to pick up the classroom phone.  But surprise, these only call on-campus extensions.  There is a rumor that a phone in one of the break rooms can call outside, but nobody knows which one.

Students can’t access the LMS from China.  In ESL, students sometimes have emergencies (or just plan their vacations rather poorly) and have to fly off in the middle of the semester for a week.  This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if one country in particular didn’t block access to most of the Internet by default.  Your students in China will be even more out of touch than you might expect while they’re gone.

Finals week doesn’t stop the parking lot from having a lot of cars in it.  The rest of the world doesn’t care that you have a test.  People will have tailgate parties in the parking lot while students 20 feet away in the classroom are struggling to distinguish between “felt” and “failed” on a listening test.

Teaching in society

The meaning of your job depends on the society you live in.  JALT, the main language teachers’ professional organization in Japan, is full of worldly types who are accustomed to being automatic social deviants due to simple demographics.  They take a job that is stereotyped as unskilled yet impossible for Japanese people to do (native-speakerism in a nutshell) and try to find some professional pride in it by taking it ostentatiously seriously.  To most people in Japan, a university English teacher (at least a “native speaker” teacher) is half exotic transplant and half effete intellectual, and JALT members seem to take both of these identities on board – even the Japanese ones.  In California, ESL teaching at community college or university, which nominally requires the same qualifications as teaching university in Japan, seems to carry none of the same connotations.  Here, the job seems to be defined half by peace love and understanding and half by grammar pedantry.  I know a few teachers here who enjoy getting into the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge, but the public face most ESL teachers put forward seems to be “I’m here to heal the world through adjective clauses”.

(Remember in Homeland when Carrie briefly quits the CIA and becomes an ESL teacher as part of her emotional healing?  It seems a lot more plausible now.)

Adjuncts need to balance attention with time.  Back when I was the owner of my school, I started each workday 10 feet from where I was going to be teaching all of my classes, with all my materials, board games, books, and office supplies close by.  It was easy to imagine making custom materials for each of my classes, if not each student, and spend some time reading stuff that was turned in afterward, as there were few official hoops I had to spend time pushing them through.  Now, if I need to use any office supplies or the copier I need to leave 90 minutes before my first class rather than 60, and the class after that might be in another city.  The time spent creating custom materials needs to be weighed against the time you’ll definitely need to take later checking them (especially if you made them open-ended, as I really, really love to do) and the possibility you’ll have to re-write them in coming semesters if they are too topical, not to mention the time they’ll take away from grading essays and answering add/drop request emails.  The point is, being a good teacher used to seem like simply a matter of having the best practices and applying them individually with each student and each situation.  Now, it seems like a matter of having the best practices that you can apply in 20 minutes maximum.

The 405 is the very worst of LA and Orange Counties.  The 405 and the 5 both go through Orange County, where I work, as do a few others.  Although I’ve been spending hours a week on both of them, I haven’t seen a major accident on the 5, while the 405 has accidents (including a crashed plane once) nearly every time I’m on it.  The 405 seems to have a perfect equilibrium of BMW-driving golems of entitlement, raised pickup trucks with custom rims that are more mobile advertisements for Limp Bizkit than modes of transportation, and Teslas which, like BMWs, seem to require the deposit of your frontal lobe to lease.  All of those exist on the 405 along with streams of normal people who are by some odious force only active on that freeway made to want to fill any space in front of the cars on either side of you at every opportunity.

It’s also name-dropped in my favorite SNL sketch ever.

Teaching in the classroom

Students come to play a role.  One of the first realizations you come to teaching English in Japan is that people who are regarded as “good learners” come to class looking to engage with the content silently in their own heads, not to interact with you in real time.  Back in the US, students from different backgrounds all have their own versions of what a “good student” and a “responsible teacher” look like.  ESL classrooms often feel like everyone’s been handed a different script that happens to have the same setting and characters.

Students react differently to your attempts to address affective issues.  A corollary of the above is that your attempts to “fix” students’ apparent reticence, overparticipation, or misunderstanding itself may have meaning to them that further affects how they see you and the class.  A stereotypical example from Japan is “NEST grows exasperated at quiet students -> NEST gives exasperated entreaty to PLEASE TALK -> Students now regard NEST (Native English Speaker Teacher) an overemoting foreigner”.  A slightly more advanced version is “Students don’t cooperate in NEST’s class -> NEST copies Japanese discipline styles -> Students are discouraged because NEST is no longer authentically a NEST to them”.  The general outline of addressing affective issues in the US is to give students more individual attention, more focus on them as unique people with unique stories, and overall more interaction, which may all be felt as bizarrely chummy and unprofessional.  Some students react how you might imagine to the teacher basically trying to fix what’s broken by breaking it even more – addressing mismatched expectations by going even further from the expected teacherly behavior – by withdrawing even more from the class.

You need to share.  When I was a school owner, I mostly just shared my students with public school teachers who had radically different objectives and methods than I did.  Here, I have a group of students for about 4 months, before and after which they’ve studied or will study with another teacher.  Their other teachers may be very Focused on FormS, very project-oriented, or take a much more holistic view of education than even I do, and I can’t very well spend time bashing other methods to create buy-in for the ones we’ll be using in my class.  This sounds obvious, but in eikaiwa, naming your house method, putting it in all of your fliers and on your website (a whole discussion in itself), and doing your best to set yourself apart from other forms of English education is simply a matter of survival.  Self-promotion (including things like blogging) has very little role to play in the community college system unless you’re trying to get classes at a new school or trying to move into a full-time job.  Likewise, your materials and methods are no longer what separate your school from your competitors, but ways for you to ensure students taking the same class from other teachers aren’t having too radically different an experience.  For the same reason, you need to steal from your colleagues as much as possible, and the students will be better for it.