Saturday, December 05, 2015

The TESOL Conference

        Acting on an email invitation from my employer, I recently attended a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in an oil-rich Gulf state.  Up to now, I never took these TESOL conferences very seriously, thinking of them solely as vehicles for self-promotion.  Since the venue for this particular event took place not very far from I currently live, I thought I would go along and to see what the fuss was all about.

The TESOL Conference, held at a private university, was pretty much what I expected involving as it did lots of lecture-type presentations given by people trying to promote themselves, or their products.  I must say, it was not completely uninteresting, and one or two presenting teachers impressed me with their sincerity and sensitive themes.  One talk by a keynote speaker focused on how a teacher should create a culture of respect in the classroom.  Another keynote speaker noted, uncritically, how English teaching was being shaped by business models. 

My problem with the conference was the shape of the whole thing which indeed followed the business model whereby people market ideas enthusiastically and then somehow fail to get others to talk.  A token bit of pair work for the attendees made these presentations seem like lessons, or “workshops”.  The university space itself, with its open plan corridors and levels, resembled a pan-optical prison where private thought is difficult, intimacy impossible.  No one knew anyone else; no one attempted to achieve synergy by engaging in a deeper way with attendees.  The sessions were all top-down, and therefore rather stressful.

The choice of topics by presenters was revealing by omission.  TESOL teaching remains poorly paid in most institutions; TESOL does not have a proper seniority structure or effective union/association; English teachers and students are bored by the pre-planned curriculum; class sizes are too large; increasingly the TESOL environment becomes artificial with barriers to free speech and interaction with the real world, and so on.   In a worrying trend, the much-vaunted higher education (HE) sector in the UK is starting to resemble the US where the HE jobs market has shifted from full-time, tenured posts towards insecure contract work so typical of the TESOL field, especially in Taiwan.  In the Gulf, TESOL teachers are similarly being sidelined by a corporate culture that turns them into disposable workers.  I would say the disempowerment of TESOL teachers in the classroom is the number one issue we should be talking about together, but that would go against the dominant interests of big business so insidiously promoted at these TESOL gatherings where the agenda is defined in advance and papers censored in advance.  Presenters inevitably talk about what they think they should talk about by the dominant ideological formation represented by the conference committee, instead of talking critically about the real, thorny issues of TESOL; understandably, since do otherwise would be risky. 

Taking time out between sessions, I tried to get to know some other teachers at the conference, but no long-lasting relationships came out of this desultory networking.  One presenter did kindly send me his paper, on critical writing, which was probably the best of all the presentations, as a soft copy when I requested it from him via email.  However, there wasn't really enough time to get to know other attendees.  The TESOL Conference was too impersonal and, I believe, ultimately failed by not addressing English teachers’ overarching concerns and insecurities.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The CELTA in critical context

 It is not my purpose here to assess the usefulness of the Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (CELTA), except perhaps indirectly, or to analyse this increasingly popular qualification from a business opportunity/cost point of view; and neither do I want to recount my personal experience on the course in any great detail, suffice to say I took the CELTA in June 2014 at a language school in the UK.  Rather I wish, as the title of this post suggests, to try and put the CELTA in a critical context; my self-appointed task is to de-familiarise, or ostranenie, the CELTA, to critique it from the point of view of an outsider looking in.

   There is plenty of information online about the CELTA and most of it does indeed talk about the course from a judgemental/personal point of view.  The general thrust of this discourse seems to suggest that the CELTA is not easy, but good for you: “Overall, it was a very positive experience. It was pretty stressful, but also worth it” and so on. Critical remarks tend to be vague:  “I found the CELTA to be overly prescriptive...It is commercialised...” etc.  Some remarks are unwittingly critical: “They spoon feed you by those handouts, so embrace them!”  Then there the cynics, the jokers and the misogynists, no quotes needed.  Overall, a serious critique of the CELTA is missing, and this says a lot about the way the qualification has established itself as a respectable norm.  I believe we need some assistance, some tools and a framework of analysis, if we are to make sense of what the CELTA is really all about.

   Ivan Illich’s critical/polemical tract Deschooling Society (1971) is, I believe, an excellent place to start.  Not entirely without problems, Illich’s ideas about schools and their role in society are so lucid and compelling as to be impossible to ignore; he puts the social and political back where they belong: at the centre of things.  Very briefly, Illich states that universal education is not feasible, that all schools should be abolished, and that the way education is conducted is a huge con trick, and worse that the obsession with certificates and degrees is polarising.  Illich’s arguments cover a lot of ground, and are subtle and deeply philosophical in places, but a lot of what he says is relevant to what I want to say about the CELTA. 

   Pertinently, Illich claims most people do not learn a foreign language as a result of sequential teaching in a classroom; they learn foreign languages as a result of odd circumstances, or because they need to learn a foreign language for a practical reason; qualified teachers are not needed.  For Illich, licenses and certificates are the means by which teachers are made scarce, a form of market manipulation pure and simple.  Virtually anybody, with a minimum of informal training, could be a language teacher at most levels.  But oh no, the school — in this case Cambridge — convinces people that they have the “secret”; they know, and you don’t know, about teaching.  Of course, the secret can be bought.  And what secrets are we talking about here?  In my opinion, the CELTA is a cobbled together medley of techniques and activities some of which are so divorced from the real world as to be absurd.  What, for example, is the point of running around a room piecing together bits of a fragmented text? The CELTA’s compulsory attendance, unnecessarily long sessions, and refusal to allow anyone to bring any real world experience to the table, are typical of school courses everywhere and have nothing to do with successful learning.

   The CELTA mirrors undemocratic and dehumanising mass education; it is both a symptom and cause of cultural domination. The fact that some CELTA trainees, if not all trainees, feel humiliated by this encounter with cultural power is a natural result of the assumed asymmetric power relationship between trainer and trainee.  The tears, visible or not, say it all.  Anyone who thinks this humiliation is good for them is suffering from Stockholm syndrome.  Oh dear, I just had to look up how to spell Stockholm — I must be stupid.  Certainly, “There’s no excuse for an English teacher to not get their spelling right...”  But if you are Shakespeare, we will forgive you for not being able to spell...A discussion about how not to worry about misspelling words because we all do it and because the English spelling “system” is totally barmy might be more helpful here, but that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom, of common folk beliefs, of established power.

   The real point of the CELTA is to create social division: henceforth there are two groups of teachers, one “qualified”, and one “unqualified.”  The qualified teacher is the one who has been successfully indoctrinated in the mores of school, who has accepted what John Fairbank calls the dominant ideological formation of the institution.  In our case, we are talking about Cambridge.  But who is “Cambridge”? And why can’t we ever talk to them? In fact, one day, a Cambridge assessor did turn up at the school where I was undergoing the CELTA indoctrination, and after a few pleasantries made it known that she was not available for any critical discussion about the course; she was only there to do her job, to assess.  Fair enough, but I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask “Cambridge”, like on what basis was consecutive ninety-minute-in-the-classroom sessions considered normal?  Of course, you are not supposed to raise such questions; you are expected to accept the norms.

  The central problem of modern education, as I tried to point out to one of my CELTA trainers on a sultry summer’s day last year, is assessment.  The obsession with standardizing education by assessing it quantitatively is self-defeating because it creates the need for a pre-packaged curriculum and, as any English teacher worth their salt knows, the pre-planned curriculum is a dead end; it is a power wall on which your head inevitably comes to bang.  As Ivan Illich points out in his brilliant book, all of life itself should be considered an education and valued as such, valued as much or more than any school certificate/s.  The role of an educator should be to bring people together, to help the group function socially to address unresolved questions.  Invoking the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, Illich states that students fail to learn because they are bound to the curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration; because the teacher is determining what words should be taught instead of allowing discussants to bring their own words to class.  Contrary to what Cambridge would have their trainees believe, Illich insists that lesson-planning and record-keeping are a colossal waste of time.  Successful education, believes Freire, is predicated on starting a process which must be critical in nature, always questioning, and initiated by the learner.  It follows from this that a student-centred approach to learning is entirely incompatible with lesson planning!  Language teachers often get frustrated by the passivity of their students, but such passivity merely reflects the fact that the political lessons of the hidden, or implied, curriculum have been well learnt: the teacher knows, the students don’t know, and so the students must keep quiet and listen.

   In the UK today, it is hard to do any sort of job without first getting, by which I mean buying, a certificate; it’s no use being self-taught.  It is surely only a matter of time before toilet cleaners will be expected to get a national diploma in public hygiene before they are allowed to mop up our shit.  The saddest thing is not that janitors will have to do this kind of shallow theoretical study, but that they will want to do it, that they will have been persuaded that it is good to undergo “professional development.”  Demand will be created, those under consuming will be made to feel guilty, if not inadequate, and certificates will be sold creating artificial scarcity in the marketplace.  Getting back to the CELTA, most English language learning does not need to be taught.  Actually teachers should be guides who make social groups, connect people to resources, and pose questions; a teacher should be a kind of guide/philosopher/interlocutor.  The CELTA is too prescriptive, but the alternative would mean a lot of teacher trainers would be out of a job, and Cambridge would be out of a nice little income flow. 

   Obviously, I would be a total hypocrite if I ever tried to dissuade anyone from taking the CELTA course; after all, I took it and gained clear social advantage from acquiring the certificate’s symbolic sheen.  The difference between most trainees and I, no doubt on account of my age, life experience, advanced degree in education, and still critical mind, is that I never bought into the ideas on offer, I simply bought the certificate.  Is CELTA training a complete waste of time?  Clearly, no...viewed critically, the course is a wonderful experience, a perfect lesson in school life.  For novice teachers, there are some real benefits from getting in front of a class and having a go at teaching.  For others, in a whole month you can’t help but learn something, though what you learn exactly will depend to a large extent on what you bring to the table.  Go for it.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Gary EFL Everywhere

Here is an extract from a book I wrote, which has just been published:

   Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is a field of employment that I have been involved with on and off since 1987; essentially it is my day job, work that provides me with a sporadic income while I await the Big Break. The TEFL English teacher, it must be said, is generally not taken very seriously or respected. People think if you can speak English, then naturally you can teach English, and so just about anybody could do it, and logically this implies the teacher is an anybody; a nobody. This attitude always perplexed me, but it was in part the result of the job not being structured along professional lines, but which I mean not unionized. If you go to see a doctor, you would expect them do have a proper grounding in medicine, and that is why doctors are respected; why were the same requirements not applied to TEFL teachers? Increasingly, they are, but a flimsy certificate is realistically all you need to get a job in many private sector schools. The TEFL field thus remains amateurish. However, on closer inspection the assumptions and practices of TEFL reveal a particular political agenda that go a long way to explaining the anti-intellectualism of TEFL, and even of many practising teachers.

   The first thing to say about practising English teaching is that it is not a politically neutral activity, you can’t “just teach English.” “Neutrality” is a code word that means agreeing with the system and being whatever the system requires of us, including the requirement that we be ahistorical. In fact, historically speaking, the role and spread of the English language in the world was a direct result British and US imperialism. English was used as a Trojan horse to infiltrate elites in non-English speaking countries, a tool for connecting with and developing comprador classes. Every single person born in a colony or ex-colony will know exactly what I am talking about here; the use of language as a tool of control by outsiders. It follows from this that the spread of English language use in the world is not a natural, neutral process, as is often unquestioningly assumed. The idea of language being a “tool for communication” is one I often heard being uttered by uncritical teachers who lean towards the language-as-neutral-tool assumption; they have been neutered and are not really thinking about what is actually going on. In fact, English played a central role in expanding global capitalism, and has also played an important role in the formation of social classes. It is noticeable how different social classes speak differently, reflecting wide differences in underlying political and social assumptions. How can a teacher account for these differences if not by a discussion of class formation and power relations? English grammar, for example, cannot be explained as a set of rules, because language doesn’t have rules so much as prevailing patterns that change over time and among different groups of people. If we were to say, correctly I think, that English language teaching has become part of a process whereby political and economic domination has been established by one part of the world (the North) over another part (the South), then we have moved a long way from the idea of English being used solely as a neutral tool of communication. But they don’t discuss these issues when you do a TEFL certificate, and this absence is itself very revealing.

   In English and the discourses of Colonialism, critical theorist Alastair Pennycook does make the connection between the spread of English, colonialism and domination. The story is a complex one but, as Pennycook rightly points out, that should not stop us from trying to understand it, and understanding the influence of colonialism on modern global relations. Interestingly, Pennycook discovers from his research that the (British) colonies were a primary centre for cultural production, and not mere receivers of the metropolitan culture. This is significant because many of the attributes, attitudes and unspoken assumptions of TEFL actually gained force in the colonies. Thus views of racial superiority, the superiority of Eurocentrism, and related ideas about the noble savage, the lazy native etc. all flourished in the colonies and were exported back to the colonial metropolitan centres. In the colonial mindset, those who did not speak English were considered non-peoples with no civilization and no history to speak of; their languages were not worth learning. To put it crudely, if you didn’t speak English you were not okay. This emphasis on English has been tremendously distorting. In India, for example, the bureaucracy still uses English as its primary language of communication, even though its use effectively guarantees that bureaucrats become dissociated from the people they are responsible for at the local level, a point well made by V.S. Naipaul in his book An Area of Darkness, and by others. Making the study of English literature mandatory for passing the Indian civil service examination was seen as natural in the 19th century, just as “foreign” students today are “naturally” required to study reductive, globalized English language textbooks that focus on subjects like shopping, dating and travel, the current preoccupations of Britain’s middle classes. Stuart Hall, the distinguished British cultural theorist, once said that he went to a very good English boarding school in Jamaica that offered a very good education, but where he never learned the names of the plants and animals around him, and never learned anything about local history before the advent of the colonial era.

   English teaching then has a role embedded in history and implicated in global economic and political relations. TEFL not only helped facilitate the global expansion of European and North American capitalism over time, but is now considered to be an important business activity in its own right, and is spoken of as such. So, now we hear the catchphrases common to business activity: TEFL is a “service industry”; English is a “tool”; the students are our “customers”, and so on. The process began in the 1930s when The British Council for Relations with Other Countries was set up. Ostensibly aimed at increasing “cultural understanding”, the British Council has been a key force in the marketization of discourse about English teaching; they pioneered the packaging of teaching English as a business. The English language thus became a “golden egg” to be exploited for monetary gain. After the retreat from empire, the British Council partly filled the vacuum and helped to promote British interests abroad, via English, and the marketization of discourse served as the new camouflage for this hidden political goal. Behind the scenes, the British Council is very much aware of the political and economic purposes of its work, and talks in plain English about them. Publicly, you hear same old guff about “cultural understanding.” The Council has cemented its influence by running teaching courses for TEFL teachers that are largely uncritical and focus on a market-orientated, “delivery” style of education, very much in vogue, but which are in practice disempowering because the same old colonial assumptions are at work: you know nothing; this is how we do it.

   [...] Many teachers complained about the way we were summarily treated by our employer, but they did not have a handle on colonial history, or of the nature of subject relations within a global system of economic domination. We teachers were deliberately treated like a subject colonial people who are supposed to accept their subordinate role in the set up, and not complain since if you get paid there is nothing to complain about. Promotion in this system depended on becoming a “team player,” i.e. an uncritical follower of the system. The increasing threats of punishment from on high did have a local flavour, but the system of authority; the hierarchical power structure, the assumptions on what was to be taught and how to teach, was straight out of the colonial book. Officially, there was no racism at the school, but non-native English speakers had to work harder to keep their jobs, and could be fired, and indeed some were fired, on a whim by our employer. People who were profoundly uninformed about education were in charge; the school was being run like a factory where teachers were the dispensable workers. The point is that this state of affairs was the result of a system of logic, not an accident or the result of ignorance — there really was no use in complaining. The continuing emphasis on attendance, on bureaucratic procedure, and on paperwork was all part of a massive system of control designed to keep people busy. Proper educational work, which is inter-subjective in nature, and therefore difficult to measure, was never observed. Instead, good teaching was viewed as a kind of performance, and a successful teacher defined by his ability to keep a class under control and focused on a task at all times. It never occurred to our masters that a kind word, a bit of mucking about, or a digression into music, might be, if handled in the right way, of more educational value than the prescribed curriculum.

   Every teacher has an obligation to learn, and if you don’t learn something from your teaching then it will not be possible to develop a meaningful practise, or praxis. I use the term praxis advisedly, since one must try to make some connection between theory and practice, and it is not enough to rely on folk psychologies, like the belief that a teacher is an authority who is supposed to tell the student what the general case is, or what to believe. Rather, an educator seeks to guide the learner to a better understanding of their own mind. Far from being depressed by the grim employment conditions of the school I worked at, I felt that my knowledge and insight into the nature of TEFL, such as it was and is, gave me a kind of power. Of course, I had to make compromises in order to fit into the system, but I always did so knowing what the real deal was; within the classroom I always acted in a way consistent with my own principles of equality, dignity and liberation. Within my sphere of influence, I knew that I was a very important and influential role model, and if we teachers were told not to ask the question why, then with my students I made sure to ignore that violent dictate. [...]

   Day to day, the institution tightened controls, but usually only when there was an inspection by an outside organization or authority. At other times, they could not care less what was going on. During such loose times, irresponsible behaviour ensued, which was eventually detected, and then there would be another round of threats, purges, and fresh petty bureaucratic procedures to follow. And so it went on in its merry dysfunctional way. Experts were flown in, talked about mission statements, flew out again, and of course the mission statement never materialized, or not one formulated by us teachers anyway. New managers came in full of good intentions and expertise. One of them, I remember, gave a talk in which he admitted that our school-wide tests were not really valid. We all knew this—standardized multiple-choice testing was discredited as long ago as the 1950s. This type of testing is still prevalent only because it serves corporate interests: it is quick, efficient, seen to be fair even though it isn’t, and gets easily sifted and quantifiable results. So, what was the genius manager’s solution? He talked about Rauche analysis, some mysterious mathematical formulation that re-computes test results to make them fairer. No one asked if the Rauche analysis took into account cheating because we were all asleep, or playing games on our hand phones. “We need to build a test culture,” he said, without irony.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Critical Language Awareness (CLA) and EFL

Critical Language Awareness (CLA) is a notion that has partly developed from the considered application of Critical Applied Linguistics to language education, in turn partly as a response to the incorporation of uncritical “Language Awareness” into language education curricula in the 1980s. Pennycook has provided us with a very useful introduction to Critical Applied Linguistics in this article, and so I will concentrate on CLA, and the pedagogical implications of CLA for EFL in Taiwan, in this post.

In a sense, many of us “possess” some kind of CLA from a young age. Our CLA may be heightened by us being marginalised in some way: perhaps we are gay, an immigrant, working class, or belong to an “ethnic minority.” Such marginalised people tend to get a handle on the way language can be used as a weapon against them quite early on their lives, though they may not be able to describe at a deeper level what is really going on. I believe that EFL learners, “coming into” EFL from cultures that do not necessarily espouse the same social values as to be commonly found in dominant EFL discourses, may also be possessed of some “natural” CLA. Again, some ability to go deeper at the analytical level may be lacking—not surprisingly, as disempowerment is the logical outcome of uncritical approaches to language education.

Perhaps one useful way of easing ourselves into this complex topic is to start examining, in a critical way, some of the underlying assumptions behind commonly used ideological labels such as “common sense”, “appropriate” and “politically correct.”

Brian Street has observed that “What counts as common sense in one culture and in one era may indeed be arcane or ideologically fundamental in another.” Street made this comment within the context of a discussion on literacy, and he went on to note that the apparent common sense approach to literacy that prevails at the official level in the UK and the US is in fact highly ideologically invested. Emphasising language as code and promoting the teaching of phonics in fact supports an autonomous model of literacy, one where language is plucked from its messy social, political and economic contexts, and where the learner is constructed as an autonomous individual. In fact, there is nothing common sense about this approach at all. As Street observes, literacy is always ideological in the sense that it will always involve contests over meanings, definitions and boundaries. You cannot reduce language learning to code-breaking.

It follows from this that what constitutes “appropriate" in language use is also contested and cannot be treated as an absolute category. Although we may certainly observe patterns of language use in different contexts, and indeed should seek to analyse such patterns, we cannot divest those patterns of their ideological intent. Moreover, it is simply impossible to lay down the law about what is appropriate in language use, though many EFL teachers do clamour to lay down strict and formal rules for learners to follow. The main problem with the didactic notion of “appropriacy”, as Norman Fairclough has elaborated, is that it assumes speech communities are characterised by well-defined varieties of language. But in fact language communities are characterised by indeterminacy, heterogeneity and struggle that makes a mockery of talking about “skills.” Take, for example, the skill of writing of a resume. Clearly the writing of a resume falls in to a genre which implies certain patterns in linguistic choice, but is it really “appropriate” to include one’s photograph on a resume? As Fairclough notes “Appropriateness models…should therefore be seen as ideologies, by which I mean that they are projecting imaginary representations of sociolinguistic reality which correspond to the perspective and partisan interests of one section of society or one section of a particular social institution—it’s dominant section.”

In recent years, I have heard the phrase “politically correct” used as a label to attack those who are trying to challenge dominant discourses by using self-emancipatory language forms. But what actually constitutes “political correctness” in language use? Consider the following possible letter salutations: a) Dear Sir, b) Dear Sir/Madam, c) Dear Madam/Sir, d) Sir. Okay, so which of these salutations is “politically correct”? My answer is b) because it is the salutation that currently corresponds with the dominant ideological-discursive formation (IDF) of business English. What was your answer, and why?

As Pennycook points out, critical applied linguistic work in language education “always concerns how the classroom, text, or conversation is related to broader social critical analysis of social relations.” Before discussing CLA more specifically and and its implications for EFL, it is necessary to take a closer look at the relationship between language and power, which is the central concern Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA).

CDA seeks to understand the interconnectedness of three levels of social phenomena: social formation, social institution, and social action. For our purposes, that means the interconnectedness between class, school and pedagogy. According to Fairclough, all institutions (schools) produce generative discourses, and that to participate in the social action of the institution (i.e. to become a teacher) one must master the discursive and ideological norms which the school attaches to that subject position. But critically the ideology of the school becomes, in Fairclough’s words, opaque, or so normal that no one questions it. One is typically unaware of the ideological representations that underlie one’s talk. “Sit down”, “stop talking”, “be quiet”—whose interests do these utterances really serve? The important thing, as Fairclough notes, is that “the interests of the dominant class at the level of social formation require the maintenance in dominance in each social institution of an IDF compatible with their continued power.” If it is appropriate then to be talking about skills in EFL that is basically because the dominant social class does not want young people to be asking awkward, or serious, questions about what they are learning.

CLA should not be seen as a discrete category, in the sense of a “skill”, but rather be viewed as social practice. In CLA we are seeking to examine texts (a text here means any extant of language written or verbal) in a critical manner. CLA raises a number of questions about the the ways particular ideological messages are conveyed in any given text, how that text may be positioning the reader, and how wider social processes shape the text. Obviously CLA has many “applications” but I want to now focus more narrowly on CLA and EFL.

CLA has direct relevance to EFL. Typically, as Catherine Wallace notes, EFL learners are not encouraged to engage with texts in a critical manner—in a sense, EFL learners are the classic marginalised group. EFL texts are typically seen as neutral texts which act as a vehicle for presenting linguistic structures. But as I demonstrated in my post on feminism and EFL, texts are anything but neutral. In fact, international publishers, and Taiwan publishers, have taken a market view of English teaching as a commodity. The “global textbook” is reductive and presents a consumerist view of the world. The content of English language textbooks tends to be narrow and parochial and often reflects the preoccupations—dinner parties, dieting, dating etc.—of the textbook writers. As a sometime EFL textbook writer and editor I can confirm that, though I have had my successes, it is difficult to challenge this order of things. There is not enough emphasis on serious literacy in EFL, and further learners are not encouraged to engage with serious social issues. Thus we get Communicative Language Teaching which privileges short-burst informal talk. I agree with Catherine Wallace that developing literate English must be a priority in EFL, and we should move away from the communicative and task-based approaches that have come to dominate commercial EFL in Taiwan.

The purpose of CLA is to treat texts as cultural objects, or artefacts, and to interrogate them critically. Where do we start with CLA in the classroom? Well, it’s all about asking some critical questions, and this can be done in different ways with different levels of learners. Young learners may not have an understanding of functional grammar, or other metalanguages available to those engaged in CDA, but the critical question “why?” is one that can always be asked. Some basic questions are: Why is this topic being written about? How is the topic being written about? What other ways of writing about the topic are there? (a very important question that often revels hidden ideological intent—should that be “The Power of Reading”, or “Power and Reading”?) Who is writing to whom? CLA helps learners to recognise the power vested in the speaker or writer; when a critical approach is adopted learners will see how people from certain groups tend to dominate language interactions and how language tends to impose the speaker’s view of the world on us. Learners may be guided to the realisation that they need not be the “ideal reader”—who reads for “fun”—and may explore the possibilities of contesting the discourses that marginalise them.

No doubt there are risks involved in challenging dominant IDFs, but we fail in our responsibilities as language educators if we ignore what CLA, as an explicit pedagogical mode, has to offer.

Friday, May 04, 2007

This is a feminist blog

Feminism is an ideology that seeks to challenge sex-based discrimination, and foster relations based on equality and mutual respect between the sexes.

A detailed accounting of the origins and shape of sex discrimination in Taiwan is outside the scope of this short post. Suffice to say, such discrimination is self-evident and all-pervasive today—just go and ask any woman. Sexism is not just about a man having a bad attitude or saying something nasty or “inappropriate” to a woman, rather it concerns a whole institutionalised system of discrimination backed up by an extensive ideology that genders women and men. I am interested in this phenomenon of gendering as it applies to educational contexts, particularly in the EFL arena. My expertise here is in critical discourse analysis, and below we will take a detailed look at a typical EFL text to reveal its gender bias.

Firstly though, I would like to make some general comments about gendering. Gendering is a social process by which men and women are given a certain sex-conscious identity, a process that is linked to socialcultural reproduction in any society. The given identities are designed to support and reproduce certain economic relations. To give an example, in traditional Taiwanese indigenous cultures men were given the identity of hunter, and women of weaver; the identities clearly and directly correspond to economic function. In fact, there was no good reason why a man shouldn’t weave, or a woman not hunt, except that it was not the “done thing” to do—gendering par excellence. In the West, gendering continued throughout the twentieth century partly as a function of Fordist capitalism. Again the need for a division of labour is the key to understanding gendering; in this case the women stayed at home and looked after the children whilst the men worked inhumanly hard in factories. Despite the successes of the feminist movement, gendering continues today, and is very much alive and well in Taiwan.

A small anecdote: the other day I took the 508 bus up to Yang Ming Shan, a bus route that runs past Tun Hsu Vocational High School, a school where I used to teach English as it happens. On the bus sat a number of Tun Hsu students. I observed the new school athletic uniform had added a pink stripe down the sleeve for girls, and a blue stripe for the boys. Such distinctions did not exist on the old uniform. The pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys scenario is a classic example of gendering in the West. It’s interesting how this gendering pattern has been picked up at Tun Hsu High School in the year 2007!

In Taiwan, gendering starts in the family where parents typically have different expectations for girls and boys. The gendering is then reinforced in school at a very early age, girls and boys being rigorously separated in kindergarten: “boys over here, girls over there”, etc. By the time they get to high school, many girls are already suffering the type of chronic lack of self-esteem that will lead them to exhibiting dysfunctional and/or manipulative behaviours. This scenario does not apply to all girls, but I would say it applies to a good many, and the critical age is between fifteen to eighteen years: it is during this period that Taiwanese women are “finished off” in terms of being made to accept an unequal relationship to men.

I would like now to illustrate how gendering is supported by one EFL text. My example has been taken from part of a graduate paper I wrote concerning ideology in texts. As I stated in that paper: “The work of Bakhtin, among others, has shown how language is saturated with ideological meaning; all texts are inherently ideological whether we admit to it or not, and all texts are a composite of others’ ideological meanings…” –and that also applies to this post! Okay, so what I did was take an “ordinary” EFL text and denaturalize it. Among other findings, the text turned out to be highly biased. How? In the whole text five males are mentioned, four of them by proper nouns, versus no females. Meanwhile, in a computer concordance of the rest of the book (see below) I found the pronoun “he” used 26 times, whereas “she” is used only seven times. A further analysis of this concordance revealed all seven mentions of “she” occur in one Reading describing the death of a woman. By contrast, “he” finds himself in a varied set of contexts in the eight Readings of this textbook. For example, he “works hard”, “is a good servant”, “is very good at tennis”, “never lies”, “is at a science museum”, “ignored his girlfriend”, and “shot an arrow.” It is interesting, isn’t it, how “he” in these texts seems to represent middle-class values and behaviour, while “she” turns out to be a victim of violence.

Selected Computer concordance results

She in eight collated Readings

ry special French girl. She was born in 1412 and was
ly to her parents. When she was 13, she started
rents. When she was 13, she started to hear v
to hear voices. She believed they were the vo
nto France. By the time she was 17, England c
burned her to death. She was only 19. voice: the s
. oil: She cooks with a lot o

He in eight collated Readings

eaning for other people He works hard. He
e works hard. He is a good servant.
vide: to cut into parts He divided the cake into thr
't thank Joan. Instead, he let the English put her i
to beat: to win He is very good at tennis, a
very good at tennis, and he often beats me. wo
d Bill never eats meat; he only eats fruit a
businessman, and he is on the road again.
his life changes. While he is at a science museum,
as superpowers. He can also climb walls and
b walls and shoot webs. He becomes Spider-Ma
Lee was very upset, but he didn't give up. Marvel C
nusual: not usual He is a very unusual
ust: to believe He never lies, so I trust hi
e witchdoctor was afraid he might lose his be
beautiful daughters, so he made a plan to protect th
a plan to protect them. He took Mehni, Weema
o turn them into stone. He thought that he would bri
stone. He thought that he would bring them back
th Cinderella as soon as he saw her. tribe: a
ng or someone He ignored his girlfriend an
end that is long He hit his head on the edge
e into zombies. He asked eight witchdoctors
ks food He is an excellent c
very much not the same He has a brother, but they a
sharp point at one end He shot an arrow at the

Well, you get the picture. If you can’t see the gender bias now, you must be blind. But in actual fact, many people just don’t notice it because it is spread out through whole texts. The vast majority of books have these kinds of biases built into them. Granted a few of the larger publishers have made an attempt to “weed out” bias. However, gender bias is not a technical problem, it is a cultural phenomenon linked to economic relations and one must challenge the system as a whole. Feminism seeks to re-design the world in a more feminine way, not just allow women to act, think and behave like men.

As educators, I believe we must take an assertive feminist position. The sexist subjection of females not only harms the interests of women, but it is part of a wider subjection of domination that warps and distorts male personalities. Here are some concrete steps that all educators can take in class:

· Always challenge male dominant assumptions
· Always give girls at least a fifty percent chance to speak
· Don’t allow boys to dominate girls in the classroom
· Don’t gender students by separating them, or in other ways

(separation may be desirable for explicit discussions about sexism, but that is another story )
· Raise critical awareness of texts: analyse texts for bias
· Treat girls and boys equally and be consistent about this
· Always have high expectations of your female students

· Make your anti-sexist policies explicit and public

My advice to girls studying English is to be aware of gendering and sexism in the English you are learning, and don’t be afraid to challenge male dominant assumptions. Going against the grain is hard, but ultimately you must not allow your self-worth and dignity to be denied.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gary EFL Taiwan

Greetings all carbon-based bipeds: i'll be posting on EFL-related experiences and issues on this blog soon. I'll try not to bore you stiff. It only remains to say, in the words of Kojak: "Who loves you baby" --a rhetorical question, so no question mark required :)