Showing posts with label teaching English. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teaching English. Show all posts

Friday 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).

My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"

The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Sunday 17 November 2019

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language

The "Ball of string" theory

I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string.

Daily English is redundant and repetitive

Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily conversation people use a small variety of words. English, as it is spoken in daily life, is repetitive and redundant. You only need to learn how to understand and repeat the things you hear most often being said around you in order to begin “your ball of string.”

To Learn is to add something new to what you already know

When you are rolling a ball of string, as the ball gets bigger it becomes easier and easier to add more string and you will do it faster and faster. Learning is the process of adding something new to what you already know. The process is fast and efficient because you only learn what you really need to know right now. In every course, book or program for learning English, you will be asked to learn things that you don’t need immediately and you may never need. For example, a course or book might encourage you to learn, the conjugation of the verb “to write” in the present continuous: “I am writing, you are writing, he is writing, we are writing, you are writing, they are writing.” In real life you are probably never going to say any of these things, so why waste time learning them. Learn only what you need right now for your life, interests and occupation, (maybe “I’m writing to him right now” will be useful), the rest you will be able to learn easily when your ball of string is much bigger.

Watch low-budget television

This approach means that you focus on what you already know, practicing, repeating and perfecting what you know, instead of constantly trying to learn something that you don’t know and may never need. If you are living in an area where people around don’t speak English, you will have to try and artificially create the environment where the “ball of string” approach will work. I would recommend watching television soap operas—not big-budget shows. The lower the budget, the more tv-shows depend on actors talking a lot in normal dialogue and common language. You don’t even have to understand the show, just begin to understand the words and phrases that are being used most often to add to your ball of string.

What a teacher is teaching isn't necessarily what a student is learning

Even if you are taking a course to learn English, you can use this “ball of string” approach. I have often told teachers of English that what they are teaching is not necessarily what students are learning. Imagine a teacher is giving a lesson on verb tenses and asks each student in turn to repeat the different tenses. He might say “okay, good,” and “now your turn,” “very good” and “now you.” The teacher might think he is teaching the verb tenses but what the attentive, ball-of-string student will learn is “okay, good,” “now your turn,” very good” and “now you.”

Monday 12 March 2018

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Tense versus aspect

Some languages do not have verb tenses.  The English language has only one tense:  the simple past tense, also known as the preterite tense, which signals that an action was completed at a specific time in the past.  ESL teachers, like me once upon a time, confuse students by saying that English verb tenses refer to the past, the present or the future, but they don't really.  Once you start teaching verbs in detail you realize that we use modal auxiliaries like "will" and "going to" to refer to the future.  What we traditionally call "the present tense" refers to the present, past and future, as in the examples "I live in Canada" or "The population of Sao Paulo is 10 million."  The more difficult and significant distinction among English verbs are aspects like habitual (I study), continuous (I am studying), perfect (I have studied) and perfect continuous (I have been studying), which usually get taught as being different tenses.

Twelve tenses or four aspects?

The truth is that when I was teaching issues like verb tense I, like everyone else, always instructed my students that there were twelve different “tenses” in English.  In hindsight I recognize that by identifying the various forms of verb as referring to the past, the present or the future, I was mislabelling what the various forms indicated and necessarily misleading and confusing my students.  The crucial concept is not “tense” but “aspect” and most grammar books destined to instruct students learning English don’t even mention the concept of “aspect.”

Tenses do not correspond to the time frames which give them their names

Describing verbs as being “past,” present” or “future” is (with the exception of the past) meaningless and misleading.  The fact that English verbs can be “simple” (or habitual/repeated), “continuous” (or progressive, the French “imperfect” is sensible), “perfect” and “perfect continuous” is much more significant and meaningful.  Teaching “aspect” is a much more promising approach for getting the variations across to students than the self contradictory tradition of referring to every form of the verb as a “tense.”  The only way to prove my point is to consider each of the so-called “verb tenses.” 

Grammar and usage:  no point in one without the other

One caveat:  when teaching it was my ambition to teach grammar and usage together.  In other words, if I found myself teaching a sentence that was grammatically correct but I could never imagine anyone ever saying it in a meaningful context I would take a step back and reconsider what I was teaching.


Present tense.  “He eats spaghetti.”  Not very meaningful.  In context: “He loves spaghetti.  He eats spaghetti every chance he gets.”  We call it the “present tense” but obviously it refers to the past and the future.  The one time period “eats” does not refer to is the present.  The aspect can be described as habitual, repeated, factual or stative.

Present continuous

Present continuous.  “He is eating spaghetti.”  No obvious meaningful context.  Maybe Mom calls home to the nanny to ask what little Johnny is having for lunch.  “Is eating” does refer to the present, but it also refers to the past and the future.  In fact, in the real world we most typically use the “present continuous” to indicate the future:  “I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow.” The important issue is it’s aspect:  it signals something continuing or in progress.   The concept that students will eventually have to grasp is the difference between a “repeated” or “habitual” action and a “continuous” action.  It is difficult to come up with an absolute, teachable distinction between these aspects, but the most obvious distinction is that a continuous action can be interrupted.  (Think about it.  We all think we know the difference between a liquid and a solid but physicists have yet to come up with an absolute distinction.  Exactly at what point is a solid ice cube considered liquid water?  Same problem with continuous versus repeated.)

Present Perfect

Present perfect.  “He has eaten spaghetti.”  Can you imagine yourself saying this in the real world?  Here you would really have to stretch your imagination to come up with a meaningful context.  How about:  “He has eaten the spaghetti, but there is some lasagna left.”  This “verb tense” drives Francophones crazy because there is no equivalent tense in French, but the structure (verb “to have” + past participle) is exactly the same as the simple past in French—but it’s not the simple past in English. Again, we call it the “present perfect” but it refers to an action that has taken place in the past.  The concept that needs to be gotten across to students is the answer to "what does 'perfect' mean?"  The perfect aspect implies a time frame within which the action happens (not the action itself) that is “perfect” or “complete” or like a circle or at least has a beginning point and an end point.  The implied time frame extends from some time in the past to the moment of speaking, and the action occurs at some unspecified time within that  “perfect,”  completed time frame. 
I have presented the following scenario to try to get across the meaning of the “present perfect”:  John wants to ask Mary out, but she wants to politely, indirectly decline.  John asks “Would you like to see Star Wars with me tonight?”  Should Mary say: a) “I saw it.”  or b) “I’ve seen it.”? Native speakers will recognize “b” (the present perfect) as the correct answer but will likely be at a loss to explain that the present perfect is used to signal an action in the past (Mary’s seeing the movie) which touches the present (Mary’s declining John’s invitation).  Adverb phrases like “so far,” “already,” and “up until now” are the strongest signals that the present perfect is required.

Present perfect continuous

Present perfect continuous.  “He has been eating spaghetti.”  In this case the context is easy to imagine:  something you would say because Johnny has spaghetti sauce all over his face.  Take note that the action of this supposed “present” tense is in the past. In terms of aspect it’s “perfect” because the implied period of time extends to the present, but it’s continuous because some consequence (sauce on face) of the past action has spilled over and is continuing into the present.

Past tense

Past tense.  “He ate spaghetti.” This is a verb tense.  The one tense in English that it makes sense to describe as a tense.  The action takes place at a specific time in the past or it was repeated in the past.  It’s past tense because  the action takes  place in the past.  The past tense uses all four aspects:  simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.

Past continuous

Past continuous.  “He was eating spaghetti.” The important distinction to be learned is between the simple past aspect and the continuous aspect—exactly the same concept necessary to grasp the difference between the simple present and the present continuous; i.e., the continuous can be interrupted.

Past perfect

Past perfect.  “He had eaten spaghetti.” This usage seems a bit off.  When might you say this?  More likely, the context would demand “some spaghetti” or “the spaghetti” as in “His sister was angry because he had eaten the spaghetti” or “He got sick after he had eaten some spaghetti.”   The context needs to make the “spaghetti” more specific in order for the action of eating it to have been completed in a past time frame. The action took place in the past, but the important distinction is the implied, “perfect,” “completed” time frame within which the action took place.

Past perfect continuous

Past perfect continuous.  “He had been eating spaghetti.”  Here an imagined context jumps out at you.  It’s “perfect” (in the sense of completed, defined,  limited, or full-circle) because the action happened within an implied (or expressed) time frame, but “continuous” because some consequence passed or spilled over the implied limit—“ . . . and had noodles on his shirt” or “ garlic on his breath” or “he had to stop when someone knocked on the door.”


Future.  “He will eat spaghetti.”  Unless prefaced by something Biblical like “God said . . . ,” I find it hard to imagine how this might be a statement about the future.  In general, I don’t see this as being a tense.  “Will” + the root infinitive seems more like all the other modals—“can,” “should,” “may,” “must,” “might,” “would”—than a verb tense.   Our sample only makes sense to me as a conditional sentence:  “If there is nothing else available, he will eat spaghetti.” Anglophones typically express the future by using the expression “going to.”

Future continuous

Future continuous:  “He will be eating spaghetti.”  Same argument as above—not a verb tense.  Still seems a modal to me.  Again, the important distinction is aspect:  continuous versus habitual.

Future perfect

Future perfect:  “He will have eaten spaghetti.”  Ditto the argument.  This is a modal verb + the perfect aspect, not a verb tense. 

Future perfect continuous

Future perfect continuous:  “He will have been eating.” Ditto previous claims about “will” as a modal and aspect.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Testing, Teaching and "Negative Capability"

Teaching for the test

I believe in testing.  Some years back, I was even certified as a Government of Canada Language Tester.  On the other hand, my experience as both teacher and tester confirmed my (and everyone else’s) misgivings about standardized testing.  The problems emerge when “the test” becomes the objective rather than one of the means at an educator’s disposal.  Nothing undermines the educational process more thoroughly and renders what is being taught more meaningless than when teachers are forced to teach for “the test.”

To Teach is to connect the unknown to the known

“To teach,” “to educate,” means to connect something new and meaningful to what students already know.  Meaning is context.  To learn something means that you are able to understand what it means or at least give that thing a meaning, which in turn means that you are able to place that thing in a context, to connect it to something that you already know.  That’s what good teachers do. They help students connect something new with what the students already know.  

The Opposite of teaching/learning

If you don’t believe me, consider the opposite of what I am describing.  You are sitting in a classroom, a “teacher” enters and begins talking in a language you don’t know and can’t identify.  The “teacher” continues for an hour and then leaves.  What have you learned?

"Negative capability"

The connection of new and old knowledge which defines teaching and learning rarely happens immediately and doesn’t come easily, which is why in the first class of my first-year undergraduate course I always introduced my students to the concept that the poet John Keats called “negative capability.”  “Negative capability,” which Keats described as the ability that all great poets have and I describe as what students need to have, is the capacity and willingness to hold onto information even when those facts and data may not immediately or completely make sense.  Students need to have confidence in the knowledge and ability of their teachers.  Students need to know and feel that their teachers will eventually help them make sense of what they have learned, help them connect the dots, but also connect all those dots to something that the student already knows about, giving them a fuller context and a meaning.  Teaching for the test means that what is being taught is likely to remain meaningless, to be un-connected from any meaningful context.  

But it gets worse.  

The Wire

If you haven’t had the experience (as I have), consider season four of my favourite television series, The Wire.  Yes, it’s fiction, but it does a good job of demonstrating what can and does happen when funding and teachers’ jobs are tied to students’ performance on a standardized test.  Schools (in this case a school in an underprivileged neighbourhood of Baltimore) will abandon their students’ interests and, by my definition, their education to a total focus on preparing for the test.


The Polarization of testing

Testing has become a polarized issue.  Macro-educators (specialists, administrators, institutions, ministries and governments) give too much importance to standardized testing, and micro-educators ( teachers, especially university teachers) abjure anything that comes close to a sit-down exam.

Traditionally a "discipline" means "an examination is possible"

I was involved in a protracted debate at my university about PhD Comprehensive Exams.  I was in favour of a traditional, three-or-four-hour sit-down exam.  The majority of my colleagues and the students preferred a take-home style of exam.  The single most compelling argument I could offer in favour of the traditional style of exam was that it would require that students study.  In the course of the debate, it came to me that the concept of “studying” had all but disappeared from the field in which I taught.

The Definition of "a test"

My definition of “a test” is that it is something that students have to study for.  A test should be based on what is taught, not the other way around, and not on something else--you’d be surprised how many teachers test something they haven’t really taught (or maybe you wouldn’t).  In addition to causing a student to study (by which I mean to review and reflected upon the course material), the test gives feedback to both the teacher and the student about what has been learned and what hasn’t.  

A Test requires attendance

That’s what I believe, but the truth is the original reason I adopted the habit of testing my undergraduates on a regular basis was to be sure they showed up.  I’ve seen other professors’ syllabi in which they specify that a student who misses two classes would have to drop the course.  This always sounded like a bluff to me, and if it wasn’t it would require taking attendance in every single class.  Not only does that seem un-university-like to me, but do you know how much time you would waste every single class taking the attendance of 60 students?  I wanted my students to show up because my lectures were so brilliant and stimulating that they wouldn’t want to miss one.  On the other hand, I remembered all the really good reasons I came up with for missing classes when I was an undergrad. So I started giving my classes little quizzes every two or three weeks or so.  Students who missed the class would, of course, miss the quiz, and if they missed the class after the quiz they wouldn’t be there to pick up the corrected copy.  This was my original intention, but something strange happened and I never did use the quizzes to check attendance.

Students want to be tested

As it turned out, attendance never proved to be a big enough issue to disturb me.  Students who didn’t show up usually failed or did poorly, and if a student was brilliant enough to do well without attending regularly, more power to her.  Even in a class of 60, I gave 5% of the mark for participation which, of course, required that I be able to identify every student in the room by the end of the semester--not as hard as it sounds.  The strange thing about the quizzes is, as I came to discover, that students really liked them.  

Students like being tested

I remember turning up at the classroom one day around 20 minutes before class (which was my habit) and being surprised to discover that most of the students were already there.  One of the students came up to me to announce that they were studying, had even formed study groups and mine was “the only course that people had to study for.”  At first I thought she was complaining, but she seemed so cheerful about it that I took her announcement as a compliment.  As I got to know the students better, especially those that had more than one class with me, I suggested that we could drop the quizzes, but the students wanted to keep them.  I started analyzing my evaluation process and informed students that overall their marks were lower on the quizzes than on the other forms of evaluation--the essay outline, the essay and exams.  Still students asked to maintain the quizzes.  

Testing is teaching

The quizzes were painless little things, multiple choice, circle the correct answer which could be done in less than ten minutes at the beginning of the class.  (There is a sample at the end of this post.) They were closely tied to the lectures and to notes that I put up on the course web site.  I understood that students appreciated and even enjoyed being tested, and the tests gave me the chance to go over the material a second time (or more) that a number of students hadn’t gotten the first time.  It was also a source of endless curiosity for me why students found some questions easy and others hard.  In fact, the quizzes confirmed the theories of teaching and learning that I’ve been talking about in this post.  

Students learn what connects to what they already know and think about

Let me explain.  When I taught American Literature, I always had a few quiz questions on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  It didn’t surprise me that students always got the answer right to the question:  “Why was Blanche Dubois fired from her job as a high-school teacher?”  The answer “that she had had an affair with one of her students” was bound to have caught the attention of students not that far out of high school themselves--not to mention that anything sexual or scandalous is libel to stick in the mind.  Still it surprised me that students always seemed to know that the hotel where Blanche went with various men was called “the Flamingo,”  until one day I was driving down Main Street passed the pub which I knew to be the favourite hang out of students from the university and I noticed for the first time that the run-down hotel next door was called “the Flamingo.”  It is so obvious.  Students hold onto information that they can connect to, that has meaning/context for them, that’s what learning is.

The Evils of standardized testing

I believe that testing can facilitate the learning process, but it can also have the opposite effect.  The motivation/inspiration for this posting was the photograph (below) that one of my former students who now has school-age children shared on Facebook.  

The woman who took this photograph of her daughter in tears as she tried to correct her homework wrote a short piece explaining the image and telling the horror story of her daughter’s struggle to complete a standardized test that American schools are now imposing.  I have never read so many heartfelt responses to a single posting.  Even for someone like me, a career educator with a super bright child, I can remember how turning my kid over to the educational system felt like surrendering him to kidnappers.  If I made one false move the system could punish my child in retaliation.

This photograph of a little girl in tears is a perfect icon of an educational system gone terribly wrong.  One not governed by teachers and parents but by a Wall-Street mentality that sees pain and suffering as evidence of austerity, productivity and good business.  This image made me think about how that terrible, moving photograph of a Vietnamese girl running down the road naked and burned after a napalm attack helped to turn the hearts and minds of Americans against the Vietnam War.  It also made me think about another famous photograph of a young Black man being attacked by a German Shepard, which Malcolm Gladwell (in David and Goliath) describes as provoking a turning point in the civil rights movement in the States.  I’d like to think that this image of a little girl’s sadness could provoke some positive change.

In Quebec we talk a lot about “values” these days.  Any society which would wittingly put pressure on and cause stress for five-year-olds for motives as feeble as standardized testing and statistics gathering has a serious problem with its values.

PS:  Here’s an example of a literature quiz for first-year students:

First Quiz   
Instructions:  Circle the letter of the
best answer or completion to each of the following questions or statements.
1.  The word “quaint” in the phrase “your quaint honour” in the poem “To His Coy Mistress” is  . .
a.  a synonym for “great.”
b.  a metaphor for “cute” or “old fashioned.”
c.  a metonym for virginity.
d.  a pun on the word “queynte.”
e.  a hyperbole.
2.  The Latin expression “carpe diem” means . . .
a.  “god is dead.”
b.  “broken by the gods.”
c.  “I think therefore I am.”
d.  “buyer beware.”
e.  “seize the day.”
3.  The relationship between a sign and its referent can be . . . 
a.  discursive, non-discursive or logical.
b.  iconic, motivated or arbitrary.
c.  cultural, natural or ecological.
d.  physical, biological or neurological.
e.  phonetic, syntactic or grammatical.
4. The idea that words get their meanings from referents; that is, from things in the world is called . .
a.  constructionism.
b.  anthropologism.
c.  semiotics.
d.  linguistics.
e.  essentialism.
5.  How did the people of the Country of the Blind explain Nunez?
a.  He came from a strange and mystical place called Bogota.
b.  He came from rocks and was still unformed.
c.  He was a messenger from God.
d.  He was an alien from another world.
e.  He was a mountain climber who had fallen in an avalanche.
6.  Three traditional forms of irony are . . . 
a.  non-discursive, non-referential and aesthetic.
b.  poetry, prose and drama.
c.  verbal, situational and dramatic.
d.  Greek, Latin and Christian.
e.  textual, sociological and psychological.              
7.  Jacques Derrida defined “deconstruction” as . . .
a.  recognizing literature as the best writing that a society has produced.
b.  being true to one’s principles, beliefs and convictions.
c.  being conscious of the historical sedimentation of language.
d.  acknowledging that truth is beauty and beauty truth.
e.  the analysis of tropes and figures of speech in a literary text.
8.  “Vegetable love” is an example of . . .
a.  an oxymoron
b.  personification.
c.  a simile.
d.  an allusion.
e.  hyperbole.
9.  A “feminist” reading of “To His Coy Mistress” would be  . . .
a.  a sociological and resistant reading.
b.  a psychological and psychoanalytic reading.
c.  a formal and textual reading.
d.  a literal and historical reading.
e.  a reading of the poem as being ironic.
10.  How did the short story “The Country of the Blind” end? 
a.  Nunez returned to Bogota.
b.  Nunez and Medina-Saroté were married
c.  Nunez was accepted as the one-eyed King 
d.  Nunez lay down in the mountains, staring at the stars.
e.  Nunez was locked up because he was insane.

Monday 27 May 2013

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more

I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.  It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.  I think I finally did it right in the third year.  The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).  A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.  One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:  avoid irony. 

Every Joke has a victim

This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.  (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with.  Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?)  At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim.  I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.

Verbal Irony means saying what you don't mean

Verbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different.  The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar:  sarcasm.  A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful.  Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem.  Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous.  No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one.  Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist.  Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong.  According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.

If irony has to cross languages or cultures there is an exponential increase in the possibility of its being grossly misinterpreted.

Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"

Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive.  The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which.  Let’s try a case.  You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says:  “you’re looking sexy today.”  If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose.  However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind.  (With irony, tone is everything.)  Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”

The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utterance

We’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like:  “oh nothing,”  “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?).  Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands.  The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so.  You enumerate the possibilities.  You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc.  Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards.  Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it.  It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.”  Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far.  Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy.  You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office.  At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you.  What’s that about? 

Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.

What teachers say matters

Contrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them.  Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure.  Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic.  Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful.  Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.

Humour is a double-edged sword

It may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality.  I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail.  (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!)  Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes.  I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives:  The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke).  The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep.  Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.

Comedy and ironic distance

However, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim.  Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh.  We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature.  We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny.   Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.  

Cuckoos and cuckoldry

In late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry.  A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man.  (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds.  The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.  The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype. 

Teachers:  are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?

If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself:  what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience?  One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim.  I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students.  If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy.  It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.

"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Do No Harm

"Do no harm"

It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath:  “Do no harm.”  It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.  Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.  On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.  (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)

"Spare the rod and spoil the child"

But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”  It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it.  Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you?  Have you ever hurt a student?  As a student in the 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was considered a necessary requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers.  Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.

"You've just been wasting my precious time"

Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.”  (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.)  If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching.  The human instinct is to learn.  No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something.  (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me.  The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.

The Best way to spend three hours and learn something

The most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture.  It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself:  Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time?  They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep.  Making love.  Reading a book.  Browsing the internet.  Making progress on a challenging video game.  Day dreaming about the future.  Taking care of loved ones.  Having a conversation.  Exercising.  Taking a walk.  Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce.  Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars.  The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration.  The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law.  The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.

Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?

I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class.  One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer.  It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course.  The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries.  The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan.  The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process.  Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity.  And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling.  I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphan-hood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus.  In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.

Romanticizing suicide

I live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.

The Tipping Point

Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo and Juliet, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).  I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224).  By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911.  It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious.  I understand why . . . perfectly.  The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call.  Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide.  You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical.  911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer.  But 911 will take your call seriously.  The police will respond.  When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake.  You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react.  So call 911.

Honouring confidences

While I calculated and hoped that the study of literature would have a salutary effect on individual students, I repeatedly found myself stymied and second guessing myself as I tried to anticipate how a particular student might be affected by what I was teaching.  As I write these words, I find myself on the verge of breaking the oath which this post is intended to promote.  I don’t want to tell tales about my students.  But in order for what I write to be useful, meaningful and credible, it must be grounded in lived experience.  I intend to be discreet, and consequently somewhat vague, even though I know perfectly well that the salacious details might make for more interesting and credible reading.  I certainly would not want this blog to “out” any of my former students or reveal personal information that could be traced back to a particular individual.

Talking about rape and guilt and trauma

The instances I am thinking about, for example, would include the student who met me in the corridor outside the classroom to apologize for missing the previous class because she was testifying in a rape case in which she was the victim.  My lecture that day was centered on the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire.   Over the years students have told me about their breakups, their unwanted pregnancies and abortions, of being battered by spouses, the suicides of friends, their struggles with depression and schizophrenia.  I am still haunted by a young mother’s story of how she was responsible for the death of her child.  A Rwandan student’s accounts of her father and sisters being murdered, her mother hospitalized and her brother in a refugee camp simply left me numb.  Knowing that these students are in my classes didn’t change what I taught, but it made me careful, reflective, and aware of what I was saying and how it might affect or be hurtful to a particular listener—and still I can remember the times when students told me I had not been careful enough.

Sometimes "caring" is all we can offer

Of course, there is no solution to the problem I am pointing out (unless you have an answer), except that it prompts the general counsel to be careful.    I have been told that I bring the problem on myself, because students recognize that I am sympathetic and willing to listen.  It has also been suggested that I allow myself to be conned.  I always assumed that students were telling me the truth unless I had proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the contrary.  That presumption of innocence, that trust, always served me well in my relationships with students.  It's effect was, in my experience, almost invariably, mutual respect.  The idea that a student might be conning me to gain my sympathy never disturbed me because it was always my intention to be as understanding and generous with students as possible—no special pleas were necessary.   On the other hand, my conscious generosity was only possible because in every course I taught I would set up a substantial variety of methods of evaluation.  In my experience, if you give students ample opportunity to gain or lose marks, they will over the course of time determine their own grades.  I consistently attempted to set up my evaluation structure so that my sympathy could not overwhelm the outcome. 

Objectivity matters

Am I saying that I was consistently objective and egalitarian in my treatment and assessment of students?  No.  In fact, I would say that teachers who are convinced of their own objectivity are very likely to be the opposite.  Perfect justice and objectivity are the sorts of things we must constantly strive for, all the while recognizing that they cannot be achieved.  I know it is impossible that I was absolutely fair in equal measure with each of the students I came into contact with but I also know that I always tried to be.   If we want to “do no harm” then teachers have to be diligent and confident enough to rigorously evaluate their students but, at the same time, self-doubting enough to question themselves and their tools each time that they do.   The student who has been given an inflated impression of his or her achievements and abilities may, in the long run, be as harmed as the student made cynical because the work is too easy or too hard, or the student whose self-esteem suffers because of a low mark or a failure.  There are no magical, “silver bullet” solutions to these kinds of challenges, except to recognize that they exist and to strive against the complacency, cynicism and fatigue that facing these challenges are bound to engender.

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