Theistic Performatives

I spent some time talking about performativity with a content-based class this summer, in both the linguistic “I now pronounce you man and wife” sense and the Butlerian “gender is created through its performance” sense. I didn’t anticipate to find the principle illustrated in the responses to two mass shootings in the days after our class ended, in the usual round of “thoughts and prayers” (sometimes in those words exactly and sometimes in other words as the original phrasing has become a bit of a cliché) being offered for the victims.

To be precise, he describes “thoughts and prayers” as a feigned interaction rather than as a performative utterance.

(To be clear, although this post is about language, I think the news and the banal responses are horrifying. This is a topic for a separate post, but you can always count on an ESL teacher not to buy arguments based on national exceptionalism – they seem more ridiculous the more of them you encounter.)

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Taking steps in class

I mean this literally. I got a Fitbit last year, and during the spring semester, I tracked how many steps I took during an average of 5 class sessions of each of the 3 courses that I taught.

My classes were a content-based IEP class with 13 students, a mixed-skills intermediate-level credit community college ESL class with 21 students, and an advanced ESL writing class with 25 students.

Across 5 class sessions, the average number of steps total for each class was:

  • Content-based IEP: 236
  • Intermediate CC: 626
  • Adv. writing CC: 440

Of course, since the class sessions were of different lengths, it makes sense to divide the number of steps by the number of minutes in which I had to take them.

Steps per minute of class time, including breaks:

  • Content-based IEP: 2.63 steps per minute
  • Intermediate CC: 2.78 steps per minute
  • Adv. writing CC: 1.96 steps per minute

Last, because higher numbers of students might feasibly require the teacher to move more and farther around the classroom, here are the steps per minute further divided by the numbers of enrolled students:

  • Content-based IEP: 0.20 steps per minute per enrolled student
  • Intermediate CC: 0.13 steps per minute per enrolled student
  • Adv. writing CC: 0.08 steps per minute per enrolled student

What does this tell me?

I tended to walk around more, all other things being equal, in the content-based class. I attribute this to the type of work they typically did – small group discussions in which I would move from group to group and either guide the discussion, participate as an equal, or just listen. The other two classes, at community college, usually involved at least some “lecturing”, standing relatively still or sitting at the computer and typing notes projected onto a screen.

I think my classes could benefit from structuring more lessons around small group work rather than lectures to begin with. As it turns out, a further benefit might be that it helps me reach my fitness goals.

Image result for fitbit blaze
Lecture disincentivization tool. (source)

Unfactives

As with the same class last semester, and as happens to me often, I have been spurred to blog by an unusual utterance by a student, or should I say an utterance which in its non-target-likeness highlights an interesting linguistic phenomenon.

Some verbs, like “know”, say something about the mind of the subject of the sentence as well as the mind of the sentence’s speaker. That is, if Kim says, “Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class”, not only Eva but also Kim believes that the proposition “3 students will fail the class” is true. If Kim believes that Eva is wrong about those 3 students, she will probably choose a different verb, like “believe” or “think”, because if Kim says “Eva thinks that 3 students will fail the class”, she avoids giving the impression that she agrees with Eva.

(It’s an interesting question how many clauses deep these verbs have to be before the speaker is no longer presumed to agree with the proposition. For example, if Laura thinks that Kim believes that Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class, is it implied that Laura agrees? Does the factivity of “know” leap out of its clause and infect every person in the sentence, or does one non-factive verb break the chain? I tend to think that if Laura heard a sentence like “Eva knows that 3 students will fail”, but thinks she’s wrong, she’ll change the verb to a non-factive one in relaying that information to someone else.)

As you see from my aside, these verbs are called factive. In short, they imply that the content of noun clause that follows is factual. “Know” is one of these, as are “understand”, “realize”, “prove”, and “remember”.

The error that I saw that inspired this post was the opposite: a verb being used to imply that the content of the noun clause was false, as in “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, which all mean that the subject believes or says that the proposition that follows is false. These words, unlike factive verbs, don’t presuppose that the speaker agrees. When the newspaper says, “Dems doubt that Trump will leave willingly”, the newspaper isn’t taking the position that they are right about him. The newspaper is simply relaying the Dems’ state of mind.

(Confusingly for Japanese learners of English, “doubt”, 疑う utagau in Japanese implies that the subject has a sneaking suspicion that the proposition is true, rather than false as it is in English. Another strike against grammar-translation.)

The error that I saw used a factive verb with a negative prefix and was followed by a noun clause that the writer intended to say was false. It was something like “Many people misunderstand that the earth is flat”. The writer, as I understood it, was trying to say that many people believe that the earth is flat, but they are wrong. This left me sitting and re-reading the sentence for a few minutes as I tried to figure out just what seemed so strange about it. I did my customary COCA search and found a relative lack of noun clauses after “misunderstand” compared to “understand”, validating some of my intuition, but it didn’t give me an answer as to why.

One factor that occurred to me is that “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt” still leave the proposition standing on its own two feet epistemologically. They don’t bring up the proposition and in the same breath invalidate it – they just say that the subject disagrees with it. It is still free to exist as a proposition and be believed by other subjects. It seemed perverse to me that “misunderstand” would have a noun clause following it that was presupposed even by the speaker to be false.

As I was typing this though, I remembered “disprove”, which shares with “misunderstand” a factive root and a negative prefix. To my understanding, “disprove” is a true unfactive – if I say “Einstein disproved that matter and energy are distinct”, I am also stating my agreement with Einstein. If we accept the premise that some propositions are true and others are false, the above sentence can only be true if the proposition contained in it (“matter and energy are distinct”) is false. Therefore, the combination of negative suffix with factive verb to mean “the noun clause following this verb is definitely not true” cannot be the source of the strangeness of “misunderstand that…”

Another factor may be that unlike “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, and even “disprove”, the speaker’s and the subject’s opinions of the truth of the proposition in “misunderstand” are different. When “Trump disbelieves that” his approval ratings are low, Trump believes that the proposition is false, and the speaker doesn’t take a position on it. When “Einstein disproves that” matter and energy are distinct, Einstein and the speaker agree. However, in my student’s usage of “misunderstand”, the speaker and the subject definitely disagree. “Trump misunderstands that millions of illegals voted”, in my student’s usage, means that Trump believes it, but he is wrong. In my limited exploration of this issue, this is the only case where the speaker uses a verb to imply both that the speaker believes the proposition and that the proposition is false.

Perhaps for an unfactive verb to make sense, as “disprove” does, it has to say not only that the proposition is false, but that the subject is right that the proposition is false. Anything else is uncromulent.

Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 2

Lower Intermediate Mixed Skills

This course is a bit of a chimera – ostensibly a pre-requisite for transfer-level writing, but in practice very similar to free adult education courses. Students are quite open about this, and the extraneousness of the course in light of the growing AESL program is part of the reason that it will no longer be offered in the fall (in addition to a law passed in CA mandating that community colleges move ESL students up to transfer level writing within 3 years). On the other hand, it’s the course that I’ve taught in at this school the longest, and I have a sentimental attachment to it. In light of that, it might not be all that useful to be combing over my curriculum for areas of potential improvement, but I still want to see what I did right and what I did wrong.

Continue reading “Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 2”

Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 1

Advanced Academic Writing

This class is one level below transfer, which is kind of a big deal within ESL – students who pass this class are supposed to be able to hang with native-speaking teenagers in English 100 (Writing 1, English 1A, Humanities 101, or whatever your university calls it). This is the first time I’ve taught this class, and in doing my usual round of end-of-the-semester spreadsheets I’m mostly interested in what kinds of homework assignments predict overall grades, which in turn are (presumably) a good measure of English reading and writing ability. This will help me to choose assignments that are really worth doing to assign in the coming semesters and weight them appropriately.

It’s no surprise that in a writing class, writing assignments end up composing a large part of the final grade. But which writing assignments are the best predictors of the scores of all the others? To figure this out, I normalized each score (0 to 1, so some assignments don’t end up more predictive just because they were worth a lot of points), added them all up, and compared how much each individual one correlated with the total. The highest correlation is the assignment with the most predictive power for writing scores overall. This assignment turned out to be……….

Continue reading “Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 1”

Things language teachers know #3 – competence =/= performance =/= intelligence

(For part 1 or part 2 of this series, scroll waaaaay down to 2016.)

We had something of a popularity contest in the US in 2016 between a very comfortable public speaker and a slightly stiff one. Depending on one’s prior feelings or biases, the former may have looked either charismatic or puffed up, and the latter may have looked duplicitous or booksmart.

For a casual viewer, it could sometimes seem that the comfortable speaker simply knew his stuff better, which resulted in his greater comfort communicating that knowledge to large numbers of people. He projected confidence, which encouraged trust. For people not actually listening to the words he used, it was easy and tempting to consider the self-assured speaker a more experienced, able leader, who had earned his confidence through ability and experience. He didn’t choose his words carefully, but his ease on stage seemed as if it might have come from years of being tested and winning. The careful speaker always seemed to have to work a little too hard to find words that sounded right, and therefore felt dishonest – or worse, scheming – to many.

For people who were listening to (or reading) the content of the message rather than the delivery, it was practically irresistable to come to the opposite conclusion; that the stiff, careful speaker chose her words to reflect her nuanced, well-informed thoughts, which naturally didn’t come pouring forth like a river but in precisely measured portions. Meanwhile, the confident speaker’s spell was thoroughly broken on the page. Instead of a freewheeling and charming salesman, his words seemed like those of a buggy machine translator working with Nike slogans in Armenian.

Throughout the campaign and to the present day, it has been a constant joke that President Trump’s speech patterns reflect a lazy and uneducated mind. And while it may be true that he is lazy and uneducated (as opposed to unschooled), the evidence for this is not to be found in his basic speech patterns. As language teachers (and everyone reading this is probably a language teacher), we shouldn’t condone criticism of him or anyone else that is based on the premise that verbal performance is a reliable measure of intellect.

Source. It’s probably true that Obama picked up some good public speaking skills as a result of his education – but not everyone educated learns to speak in public. Do we really want to preclude from the Presidency anyone who didn’t take Debate in school?

It is a truth that is especially evident to language teachers that the sophistication of one’s thoughts and the sophistication of one’s verbal ability can differ widely. There are people who have chunks of academic circumlocution constantly at the ready to bring to bear on topics that they have no particular expertise in. There are also people whose words never quite build a substantial enough bridge for their weighty ideas to cross. Our entire occupation is based on mismatch between our students’ intellects and their communication abilities. If one reliably predicted the other, we wouldn’t need language as a separate subject at all. This is particularly true in ELT (my field), but all language teachers from speech pathologists to teachers of creative writing courses in college know that sophisticated thoughts are no guarantee of sophisticated expressive ability.

It’s also important to keep in mind that abstract linguistic competence doesn’t always manifest in perfect form in real-world situations. There can be quite a bit of “noise” between the language that exists in a person’s head and what escapes from their mouth in a high-pressure situation like an interview on 60 Minutes or an address that will be heard by millions. The presence of a threat, the need to present oneself a particular way to particular people, a time limit, or conversely, great self-confidence can disrupt or enhance linguistic performance. As language teachers, we have workarounds or accommodations to the phenomenon of performances not always matching competence – reducing the number of observers, trying to gather a sample for evaluation unobtrusively, allowing students with anxiety disorders to skip certain portions of the test, etc. It should be no surprise to us to that a politician’s verbal performance isn’t a reliable measure of their linguistic competence, or of course that their linguistic competence isn’t a reliable measure of their intelligence.

Some criticisms (that is, almost all criticisms) of the current President are valid and if anything understated. But we should know better than to attack him for his way of talking. Obviously, this goes 10x for his wife, who seems to be, like him, far too small a person for their historical moment, but is also unfairly criticized for just sounding strange.

Source.

Again – there is plenty of other evidence that Trump is incurious and ignorant. There’s no need to insult most of our students by implication just to make that point.

Corpus Family Feud

Since I started teaching community college ESL, I’ve set aside at least one class period in all my writing classes to teach students how to use COCA and the other BYU corpora, but I struggled for a long time to incorporate it in an intuitive way into my intermediate multi-skill classes. I think its utility is clear, but the interface (computer literacy can be a problem) and baseline metalinguistic knowledge necessary just to use it have thus far stopped me from making it a regular feature. I do, however, have one activity that uses corpora (either COCA or iWeb) that is reliably entertaining and useful for classes of any level. I call it Corpus Family Feud.

Like the real Family Feud (a TV game show, for those of you outside the US and non-fans of SNL), the point is for participants to guess the most common answers to a survey question. Unlike the real Family Feud, the questions are specifically concerned with language use, and the “survey” is of corpus data rather than 100 people randomly by phone.

Also like the real Family Feud, it’s the studio’s (i.e., the teacher’s) job to prepare the questions and collate the survey answers beforehand, and then reveal them to the participants after they have made guesses.

The basic steps are:

  1. Before class, prepare sentences with one or more blanks, and then find the most common words that fill those blanks according to corpus data. 3-5 total sentences for one session seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep interest high throughout the activity.
  2. Also before class, prepare a slideshow (I use Google Slides) that features the sentence with blanks, directions for what kinds of words go in the blanks, and the answers in list form. The answers should be set to be invisible when the slide loads and appear on subsequent clicks.
  3. During class time, announce that you are playing a game, and display the slide with the first sentence. Tell explicitly what kinds of words can be used to fill in the blank, and tell in general terms that you found the top 5 words that people actually use to fill in that blank in their real communication in the real world.
  4. Have students write down the top 5 words that they think fill that blank in the real world. Announce that they will get 1 point for each of their answers that is actually in the top 5. Tell them also that it doesn’t matter which order they put them in; they get 1 point for any answer that was in the top 5.
  5. After a few minutes, announce that you will start displaying the answers. Drum roll and display the first answer. Students will probably applaud, shriek, or say, “ohhhhh”. Remind them to keep track of how many points they have as you continue drum rolling and displaying the answers in sequence.
  6. After you’ve displayed every answer, ask the students who has 3 points, 4 points, or 5 points until you figure out who the winner is. Give the winner a piece of candy or some other gold star-equivalent. Repeat with the next sentence.

As a variation, you can choose 5 words in advance, display them when you display the sentence, and ask the students to put them in order. This allows you to choose words other than the true top 5 according to corpora (which are often boring words that nobody ever thinks of, like “be” or “doing”), but requires you to give points only for correct order of words rather than giving points for any word that appears in the actual list.

For example, let’s say your intermediate multi-skill class is covering gerunds (I mean “covering” as in it came up for one reason or another, whether as a front-loaded chapter of a synthetic syllabus or as focus on form after a task). You might decide on a few chunks where gerunds are commonly used, like “I enjoy ___” or “____ is important”. These would be the questions for your game. Your slides might look like this:

I really ought to make this look more game show-like…

I display the frequencies, but this is probably unnecessary. In the variation where you supply the words, it might look like this:

Where only the ranking and frequency numbers appear on click and the words are displayed from the beginning.

Other variations I have used in the past look like this:

There is almost literally no end to the kinds of phrases or grammar you can use to play this game. Besides an excuse to use corpora in a mid-level class, this helps turn what could be an abstract grammar lesson into one that respects chunking and the conventions, rather than just the rules, of language. Have fun!