The Tesla Coil

April 3, 2010

What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? – Part 3: Traversing the Fantasy

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 1:03 pm

What is the end-point of learning English?  Where are all our students going?  What, in other words, is the aim of studying English?

"...and then you'll get an A in the CAE and live happily ever after!"

As often as not these days, English courses end in an exam.  Whatever the cons of the multitude of exams, they do at least minister to the teleological needs of our students.  They provide a satisfying narrative  which we can recount to them like so many Scheherazades before the Shahryar.  This is the beginning, this is the middle bit where you work, and this is the exam where you get the pay-off for gemming up on participle clauses.   But is this really the end?

Once again, it may be possible to find a profitable comparison with psychoanalysis.  This is because both TEFL and psychoanalysis are transformative discourses – they aim to leave their participants changed at the end of a course.  In psychoanalysis, as in learning English, I would suggest that this is not a superficial change.  For old-school Lacanians, the aim of treatment is called traversing the fantasy.  This does not allude to a cure, as such, nor to the more feeble notion of leaving one fantasy behind only to blindly embrace another, but, rather, to understanding the fantasmatic construction of the patient’s reality.  The analysand, in effect, becomes the analyst.  It is one of the reasons why all analysts have to successfully complete their own treatment before commencing practice as a psychoanalyst.

It is possible to identify a similar transformative dynamic at work in the classroom.  Nobody knows English.  This is simply because there is no English. There are Englishes, they are sublime by nature, and they are changing every day.  Teachers cannot, therefore, simply hand over the knowledge to their students; rather, they need to encourage students to become their own teachers.  A course of English ends not with the completion of a course book, but when a student has traversed the fantasy of  le sujet supposé savoir, and taken responsibility for their own learning, transforming themselves into autodidacts.  This, perhaps, is the real story we should be telling our students.



  1. My thoughts exactly summed up neatly in that last paragraph, Sputnik. I’m of the opinion that English and language teaching is not simply knowledge-transfer in the way that other subjects that we study are.

    The situation at school is that your teacher knows more than you do about something, and they pass this knowledge on to you. Not so in the case of languages (how big a brain would you need to know ALL grammar and ALL vocabulary, not to mention all the other stuff).

    As to where I hope a lot of our students go – mainstream courses (whether Business, ICT, Management, Bricklaying, whatever) – because simply studying English isn’t enough, and I think doesn’t wholey motivate for every single student (though you do get those that continue, almost like their collecting acronyms – E3, L1, FCE, CAE…)

    Another great read. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Mike Harrison — April 3, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

  2. Cheers Mike – yes, I think that has been one of the central realisations for me over the past few years, the importance of enabling students to learn on their own. I find more and more of my classroom time is spent encouraging them to be their own teachers.
    By the way, as you mentioned bricklaying – have you ever tried it? It’s ridiculously difficult, even with a teacher. The most useful thing you can teach your students who go on to do that is swearing.

    Comment by Sputnik — April 4, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    • Time for my crappy grammar alert – ‘…their collecting acronyms’ should, of course, be ‘they’re…’

      As for bricklaying, never tried it myself. Although I can definitely envisage it as a situation where four-letter vocabulary could come in handy…

      Comment by Mike Harrison — April 4, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

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  4. ” A course of English ends not with the completion of a course book, but when a student has traversed the fantasy of le sujet supposé savoir, and taken responsibility for their own learning, transforming themselves into autodidacts. This, perhaps, is the real story we should be telling our students.”

    I absolutely agree with this, yet I have not yet worked out how to successfully convey it to students, especially lower-levels or those from countries where rote-learning is common. The majority of my students don’t even have a dictionary (though I notice mobile-phone dictionaries are becoming more common). The majority of my students, when I ask them, admit to not watching any English-language TV. It is supremely ironic that they are in a country (erm, England) where they are surrounded by English yet choose not to engage with it. I frequently ‘do’ lessons that try to encourage more autonomous learning, but I doubt more than 1 or 2 in any given class act upon the advice. Needless to say, it is that 1 or 2 that end up being the best in the class and move on quicker than the others.

    How should we best encourage autonomous learning? That’s the question I have been trying for so long to successfully answer, but have so far not been able to….

    Comment by 26 Letters — April 6, 2010 @ 12:41 am

  5. If I find the answer, I’ll be sure to let you know 26 Letters. I’m in the process of interviewing my best students at the moment to find out exactly what they do extra, other than ask me for English books to read, borrow English TV to watch, do all the homework, and detain me for half an hour after every class in conversation. What is it that makes them want to do that, and others less than nothing?

    Comment by Sputnik — April 6, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  6. An amazing series!!
    Raises so many questions, don’t expect you to answer any of these, at least not immediately, but here goes:
    1. If teaching can be thought to rely on fiction, how do we distinguish between good and bad fiction?
    2. On the other hand, to what extent are we merely acknowledging the importance of a placebo effect in teaching?
    3. Having deconstructed the concept of authentic, should we “celebrate” the inauthentic? After all, most claims to authenticity are about as cute as Ridley-Scott’s 1980’s Hovis advert.
    4. If being non-judgemental inside the classroom (and on the analyst’s couch) is “good”, does it have limits?
    5. You say in this last piece, the teacher/analyst has been prepared for this encounter. Yet in psychoanalysis, the analyst undergoes analysis but many teachers eschew the classroom when learning languages. What significance does this have for the student/teacher relation?
    6. Following on from the above, to what extent is psychoanalysis the last resort. A failure of society. Many adult ELT teaching situations appear to start from this premise: Target Language has not been learnt naturally and student lacks the manner/means to do so. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (yes and a rabid Marxist) always favoured creative everyday endeavour to the couch!! In what ways is mainstream TEFL a response to “failure” and what alternatives are there to the classroom?
    7. In what ways is society “sick” rather than the learner? E.g why do we press many students to learn a language they will hardly ever use. Moreover, we expect them to learn restrictive models. We should compare this restrictive model to the “playful engagement” of second/third/fourth languages undertaken by millionaire footballers/football managers like Fabio Capello in England or Cruyf in Spain.
    8. Do you overstress the transformative role of mainstream ELT when learning to drive or learning to knit could be equally, if not more, transformative?

    A joy to read! That’s why you have provoked so many questions. 26 Letters, Sara Hannam and MTG (amongst others) are interested in the launch of a radical ELT journal. Perhaps you could help set up/edit/contribute to this and maybe develop some of those answers in longer pieces in the same.

    Comment by marxistelf — April 8, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  7. Hi Marxistelf, I’m glad you enjoyed the series. I will try and answer all your questions, although, as you suggest, they need a lot more justice doing to them than I can offer up.
    Anyway, off the bat, I think we can distinguish good fictions from bad by using values rather than aesthetic criteria – where our values come from is a whole other ball game and easier for some than others. In that regard, I’m not sure we should be celebrating inauthenticity so much as focussing on what works. Having said that, for me, there is a strict correlation between the rise of the self-reflexive aesthetic and the valorisation of authenticity, as they are merely flip sides of the same coin, so maybe we should. At the very least, we should try to encourage a little more counter-intuitive thinking when confronted with an idea. As for acknowledging the value of the placebo effect – well, at least it keeps us grounded!
    That’s a very interesting point about teachers eschewing the language classroom. I haven’t done so completely myself, but if I were optimistic I would suggest that those who do are frustrated by a lack of professionalism on the part of the teachers available to them. Do you have figures on that, by the way, or is it anecdotal?
    If I can tackle all your failure questions in one slightly abstruse answer, I am inclined to say that both language and subjectivity are a kind of failure, the kind of failure Fromm talked about in his reading of the Adam and Eve story. We see this failure manifest in the personalisation of each student’s struggle to learn English (we basically are our failures), and, for me, it is a wonderful thing – it is the creation of an identity in its own small way. And, yes, that may lead me to overstate the transformative role of ELT, but given the scale of the undertaking in comparison with activities like knitting and learning to drive, and the fact that it is a language people are learning, not a simple skill, then I guess I should make claims for it of a slightly greater scale than those I would make for other pursuits. But then again, I do have a vested interest!

    Comment by Sputnik — April 8, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    • And I forgot to add – yes, I’d be happy to contribute to your journal – thanks for the offer. Of necessity, my contributions would be limited in length, but that’s probably not a bad thing.

      Comment by Sputnik — April 8, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

      • Thanks Sputnik for all those replies and excellent news that you will contribute to a Radical ELT Journal (have in mind only an annual or twice yearly “publication” at present).
        On the point of “teachers eschewing the classroom themselves”, this is indeed anecdotal (would love to see studies done on this). This may also be in part (negative rationalisations by teachers apart)on the affiordability of appropriate language classes for ELT practitioners.
        Will check out that stuff from Fromm on Adam and Eve (sounds interesting- I recently read that Fromm was, as a young man,well on his way to becoming a Rabi so the biblical reference will be of special interest).

        Comment by marxistelf — April 9, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  8. I didn’t know that about Fromm but it makes sense. I must admit Benjamin is my favourite of the extraordinary Frankfurt cadre – just a ridiculously inventive thinker.

    Comment by Sputnik — April 11, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

  9. I can’t wait for the Radical ELT Journal to have that special issue on professional standards.

    Comment by Charles Jannuzi — April 16, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  10. It’s laughable to call any of the major figures of the Frankfurt school rabid Marxists. Considering where most ended up politically, it’s almost as over the top as teabagger descriptions of the neoliberal, pro-war milquetoast anecdotalist, Obama.

    Fromm is important however in that he anticipates later post-structuralist critiques and rejections of Freudianism.

    Comment by Charles Jannuzi — April 16, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  11. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting about 3, maybe 4 students who have motivation to self-study… (I mean, the ones that love language) they are attending English classes on the side and in order to get into contact with a teacher who can give them better direction, and advice, as to where deficiencies in their language lie and how to improve on those deficiencies.
    But it’s sad and it’s true that most of the students I’ve encountered are learning for the exam, for the grade, for the job promotion and there motivations aren’t as high as someone with a love for language or a love of communicating.
    Having said that tho, motivation to pass that exam or get that job can be enough to make the learner work outside class.
    As you mention there are so many Englishes surrounding the learner, mainly due to the internet, so pinpointing what the learner should study out of the classroom is a difficult question. I think certain teachers can get to know a learner, the sort of teacher who can listen to their students. This kind of teacher, if motivated by the same love of English, can match the learner to the desired materials. We can’t just say, learn on your own… goodnight. Teaching isn’t a one way thing, in order to fully appreciate who we are teaching we have to learn about them as well. Then, I believe, we can be the motivation that keeps them learning after class, after the course, and well into the future.
    Great blog ;0)

    Comment by eslteachertimmusgrave — May 6, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

  12. Lovely series. Thank you Sputnik. Re the end of a course, I like Carl Dowse’s approach – so simple. He runs a session on ‘what next’ (as many courses probably end) but then emails the students one month later:
    Just a gentle nddge, and goodness knows what the students will say, but perhaps and opportunity for us all to learn?

    Comment by Vicki Hollett — May 11, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  13. I think it’s a really important point that students have to take responsibility for their own learning. Teachers can guide and facilitate but at the same time the student must truly embrace the subject.


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