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.

March 13, 2010

What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? – Part 2: le sujet supposé savoir

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 10:55 am

As Anita Kwiatkowski eloquently implores us to remember, professional development begins with the acknowledgement that we should harbour ignorance in our midst in much the same way a 16th century poet would keep a skull on his desk – as a memento of the futility of our endeavours thus far.  This acknowledgement is both chastening and a spur.  It is a spur because it enjoins us to persist in the likely endless endeavour to ameliorate our understanding of what we do and why.  It is chastening because, while, as teachers, we are proverbially masters of our classroom and our subject, we yet know so little about our practice.

Did Lacan know what you are supposed to?

The psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan affords us an instructive concept with which to reconcile this contradiction, that of le sujet supposé savoir – the subject supposed to know.  In psychoanalysis, the subject supposed to know is the analyst.  He is supposed to know the meaning of the analysand’s words and actions, and make sense of it all.  The trick of the psychoanalytic  session, however, is that this knowledge is an attribution by the analysand to the analyst.  The analyst’s knowledge is merely a function of his position qua analyst.  As Lacan remarks, ‘even the psychoanalyst put in question is credited at some point with a certain infallibility’. The analyst knows he does not know, yet, his seeming to know is central to the efficacy of the cure.  Indeed, the cure may be said to have been effected when the patient realises that there is more of the supposé than of the savoir about his analyst.

This model might be a profitable way of describing the status of the TEFL teacher.  That is to say, there is a split between the teacher as an individual who may acknowledge their own ignorance, and the teacher as the subject supposed to know.  A teacher has to inspire confidence in his students – they have to believe that their teacher knows the subject and understands what they are saying, mistakes included, otherwise there is no reason to have a teacher at all.  Embodying the function of the subject supposed to know, the teacher is the prime mover of any lesson, albeit one subject to the determination of the students.  The teacher’s presence guarantees there is learning in the students’ acts; in the same way, the psychoanalyst guarantees there is meaning in the patient’s acts.  Considered from this angle, then, it may well be that belief in the teacher’s knowledge is more important than the actual knowledge the teacher knows.

March 7, 2010

What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? – Part 1: the obscene space

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 8:41 am

When we talk about trust in the classroom, what exactly is the nature of this fiduciary bond?  What does the student trust me to do and not do?  And why?

The first step to becoming a student is not filling out an assessment form, or handing over your Visa card; rather, it is willingly assuming the status of a dunce.  You declare, by becoming a student, that you are ignorant.  Ordinarily, this would be an embarrassment, but in the classroom it is not, or at least should not be.

Does this remind you of your classroom?

One reason for this can be found in the fact that the language lesson operates in an analogous manner to the psychoanalytic session.   In psychoanalysis there is only one golden rule, and that is that you must break the golden rule of the rest of the world: you must say what you think.  It is a form of reversion to childhood in which all the thoughts whose repression forms the foundation of a forbearing society are given full reign.  Indeed, the analysand is expected to give vent to the hideous majesty fomenting in their souls.  In the classroom, a similar mode of discourse holds sway.  The student, normally a model of poise and fluency, is reduced to a kind of babble, an incoherent stuttering wreck of humanity who makes less sense than a three year old – and who must do so in order to progress.

It is this socially transgressive behaviour which is the basis of the relationship between student and teacher.  It is, because it is predicated on failure, a form of intimacy.  Like most intimacies, it is founded on an agreement not to say what you think.  As a teacher, I neither laugh nor scorn when one of my students concocts a miserable sentence such as, ‘I can going at Saturday night’, even when they mean Sunday.  It would be like a psychoanalyst recoiling in horror at a patient who fantasizes about eating raw camel hearts in June.  It would be a betrayal of the very professionalism of the relationship, a professionalism in which normal human relations are somehow suspended so that the classroom can function as an alembic, filtering out the nonsense and thus leaving the integrity of the individual student intact.

If we accept the veracity of this analogy, there are several implications.  Not the least of which is that neither teachers nor students can be themselves. Ordinary people have very little patience for listening to nonsense; ordinarily, people have very little patience for producing nonsense.  There is, then, a kind of fictiveness built into the language classroom.  While many of us hanker after authenticity in the classroom, the classroom is not just a physical reality but also a metaphysical one, a contrived space designed to foster learning.  As with psychoanalysis, it is not the boy who dared to shout at the naked emperor with whom we should side, but the emperor.

February 28, 2010

Does Hitchcock direct your lessons?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 9:37 am

What, Pascal Bonitzer wonders, is ‘required to turn a Lumière  brothers’ sketch into a Hitchcockian fiction?’  What is the difference between the innocence of early cinema and the paranoiac, crime-stained universe of Hitchcock?

Taking as his example a short film depicting a soldier courting a nanny engaged in pushing a pram around a park, he concludes that it is enough merely to inform the audience ‘a priori that the nanny has decided to drown the baby’. This surplus knowledge then undermines the meaning of the whole sequence even if everything is filmed as before:

When one sees the baby babbling in its pram, the soldier clowning around in an attempt to seduce the nanny, and the latter simpering and shaking her rear, an underlying sense of horror serves to destroy the apparent meaning – what semiologists would call the ‘denotated’ meaning – of the scene, and distorts all its signs….  The first ‘impression of reality’ shifts to a secondary level, that of connotation.  For the camera is no longer saying to us: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is’, but rather: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is, it has only a few minutes to live, unless the soldier understands what is going on’.

What is required in filmic terms to produce this effect is merely the juxtaposition of two shots: one where we learn of the nanny’s murderous intent and another where we see the apparently innocent scene armed with the knowledge gleaned from the first shot.  The first scene is, then, a kind of surplus knowledge – the materialization of that knowledge, in fact – which stains the second scene.  It inhabits the second scene as a blot or anamorphosis, skewing our vision and instituting a condition of suspense.  What, we wonder, will happen?

Hitchcock's first film: Holbein's The AmbassadorsHitchcock’s first film: Holbein’s Ambassadors complete with anamorphic skull

What happens, of course, is that we become interested.  Interested both in the sense that we want to know what happens next, and also in the more fundamental sense of having an interest in, or rather being subjectivised by the anamorphosis.  We are therefore unable to remain neutral or objective; we are in the grip of the point of view created for us by the juxtaposition of the scenes, or the Hitchockian stain.

If Hitchcock was able to construct the place of his viewer in this manner, it might perhaps be instructive to consider how ELT subjectivises its students through its own, hopefully less sinister, juxtapositions.   At an everyday practical level, for example, what kind of student do we create when we ask a question to which we already know the answer?  The first scene here, the one with the teacher holding a lustrous blade, is the teacher telling the answer, and the second one is the teacher asking the question.  The only suspense such a scenario is likely to generate is a private suspension of interest.

When a more precious set of intimacies, such as the aspirations and ambitions of individual realisation, are tested in reality, what juxtaposition of scenes plays itself out in the mind of each student as they embark upon a course of study?  In the very first scene of their particular film, do they find their teacher enthusiastically extolling the glories of independent language learning, or is the stain of their initial lesson a series of mindless gap-fills while the pedagogue they entrusted their dreams to listlessly picks his fingernails in a semi-crapulous fug?  If it was the latter option, then no doubt the second lesson, or scene of their film, will bear witness to an atrophy of the student’s will and/or presence; if it is the former, then perhaps it may resemble a kind of Hitchcockian joy most obviously manifest in eagerness, or that strange phenomenon known as the student who happily does their homework.

January 10, 2010

Are boys aquatic animals?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 10:12 pm

No way!

What can possibly surprise a marine biologist?

Given the bewilderingly insane stuff that passes for normal life under the ocean, I was interested to learn earlier last year that a small band of these underwater scientists had been astonished by the findings of a study they were undertaking on mushroom coral.  Shock No.1, of course, is that coral are actually animals.  This was no news to the marine biologists who had all been far more diligent than me in watching David Attenborough, but what was, was that mushroom coral change sex.  One year they were female, and the next they were male.  But why?

The answer was not that a lab assistant got drunk and started messing with the team’s laptops; rather, it was stress.  Apparently, when female mushroom coral are stressed they convert wholesale into male mushroom coral.

Wake me up when I need to learn something

This situation immediately reminded me of the average ESL classroom.  Dr Madsen Pirie, sometime President of the Adam Smith Institute, infamously remarked not so long ago that the reasons girls had overtaken boys in terms of academic performance at school was that the exams had changed.  Where once passing exams in English schools had relied on a do-or-die, revise-at-the-last-minute, up-and-at-‘em approach, the new modular exams are wholly or in part based on coursework, which favours a more reasoned and considered approach with effort spread across a year.

It was Dr Pirie’s contention that this methodical approach suits girls better than boys.  Girls like the calm and attention to detail of coursework, whereas boys like the stress and short burst of exams.

This seems to bear a correspondence with the ESL classroom. It is not that, for example, the Cambridge Suite is better suited to boys than girls; rather, it is that learning a language is better suited to girls.  Becoming fluent in a language takes patience, an attention to detail and an awful lot of coursework.  Hence, on average, a minimum of 80% of my advanced students are female in any one year.  Across the range, many more students are female to begin with, and, of course, they are always more likely to do the homework.  Learning a language, it seems, is a female pursuit.

No more needlework

So what do we do with the boys and the men?  Are our long-term approaches failing them?  Should we not introduce more stress into the classroom to help them?

I have had many ideas on this subject, including shouting, using cattle prods, and showing pictures of distressed puppies.  Perhaps more usefully, it might be possible to begin by separating boys and girls. If you have one boy in a class of 20 girls, you inevitably still spend 90% of your time on him, essentially, now I understand, trying to stress him enough to learn.  This, of course, is no good for the girls who just want to chill and patiently assemble the next part of their linguistic capability.  Boys could then have test-based lessons in a shorter, more intensive course leading to an exam, while girls take the less-stressful option of conversing in the classroom, and building coursework for a different kind of exam.

December 15, 2009

Is English next?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 11:38 pm

The horror of TESL

If any kind of self-reflexivity indexes the most primitive form of professionalism in a particular walk of life, then a hapless self-reflexivity is undoubtedly the hallmark of a mature profession. The wretched hand-wringing, the cries of ‘The horror! The horror!’, and a resigned dismalness all signify an acknowledgement of the abyss that lies at the heart of every profession: we know now how little we know and quite how useless we are.

Anyone with any familiarity of quite how arbitrarily English is learnt will no doubt understand that ESL teachers daily stare into the heart of darkness, acknowledging it with a practised incantation of grammatical runes.  We know they don’t work but somehow we keep chanting them anyway, partly to keep the darkness away, partly perhaps to minister to the needs of DoS Kurtz.

Still, however heartbreaking the knowledge may be that our profession is based on a lack of understanding of how we teach, at least we know what we are teaching.  We have that to hang onto.  Or at least we did….

The singularity of TESL

Futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil and John Smart, have long predicted that sometime in this century humanity will experience or face a technological singularity.  The Singularity, as it is called in these hallowed circles, is usually regarded as the point at which technological advances exceed our understanding, and when some form of artificial intelligence takes over responsibility for designing its own progeny. The brood of A.I.s can be expected to develop far more rapidly than we can imagine and will, with the aid of other technologies, alter the very nature of existence.

In another age, this is what Hegel modestly called the night of the world, when an entire symbolic system is ransacked and in its stead comes a whole new way of looking at the world that is so fundamental it changes the world itself.    Whether this future world requires humans, let alone ESL teachers, is a matter of awkward speculation and some panic at the moment.  However, it does lead me to wonder what constitutes TESL’s night of the world.

Most professions have, at one stage or another, experienced a kind of intra-disciplinary singularity, the point after which nothing was the same again.  Quantum mechanics stands out as a clear instance of singularity in the life of physicists, but there are many more mundane versions. In advertising, for example, when Bill Bernbach started making adverts in the 1960s, he inaugurated an era of stylish and witty copy that fundamentally changed the Ogilivy-inspired generation of ad-men forever.

Looking at the history of TESL, from Berlitz to Dogme, I am inclined to think that it is actually a profession marked by a continuity of singularities, rather than a continuity interrupted by a lone singularity.  However, while seemingly radical, all of these changes in methodology function within a grammar-lexis continuum which presupposes that what is taught, i.e. the English language, is the sine qua non of the profession.   Any kind of singularity in TESL would therefore be one in which this is no longer the case.


Enter David Graddol with the single most important publication of the last decade: English Next.  With this small book, Graddol delivered a big blow to TESL.  Using Kuhn’s rather more conservative-sounding notion of a paradigm shift, Graddol takes the last leg from under the profession of TESL by announcing that there is no longer any need to teach English.  Simply, and effectively, this is because English no longer exists.

Indeed, in the dawn after the night of the world, English, World Standard English that is, is no longer a language as such – it’s a function-delivery system.  Pared down to a minimum grammar, a utilitarian lexis and a phonology redolent of the average grunting range of a teenager, it barely meets the criteria for a rich and complex language.  Rather, it’s what you use to negotiate a business deal, secure a hotel booking or understand the instruction leaflet with your rocket launcher.  In the case of CLIL, it’s what you employ to pass your chemistry exam.  As with all things designed purely to fulfil a function, it’s essentially a joyless affair.

The long goodbye

By way of an optimistic counterpoint, it might be useful to paraphrase Raymond Chandler here. He proposed that when we read a detective story, a story that is largely valued for its plot, it is not the story we like, even if we think it is.  Rather, it is the way the city backdrop is described in the summer heat, the way the moods of the detective express themselves in drinking binges, or the way the murder victim is hunched over a chess problem just before he is killed.  That is to say, we often value something which seems utilitarian for reasons other than its utility.  I suspect learning English has its own accidental motivations, some of which I touched on in a previous post, and few of which are deducible to focus groups which prompt an instrumental response.

All of which leads me to a rather more sanguine scenario for TESL after its Graddolization.  Happier, shiner times lie ahead for some of us.  The bulk and the blubber of TESL will disappear every bit as efficiently as a whale carcass on the Pequod with large chunks of the current system being carved up for state or local institutions to teach WSE.  This part of the ESL industry will principally be the preserve of reluctant teenagers who have no choice in what they study and, given the limitations of WSE, even less interest.  English for Special Purposes will no doubt thrive too, offering in its particularity an interesting foil to the dull ecumenicalism of WSE.

And then, somewhere, there will be learners, guided by cultural, political and psychological  compunctions that seek expression outwith the coarser rubric of WSE, who want to study the arthritic progenitors of WSE, such as now quaintly and briefly dominate course books qua natural English.  For these strange creatures,  the various native Englishes are a delight unto themselves and, as such, worthy of patient study.  To serve them, a dwindling band of ESL teachers will remain, shorn of the dilettantes, but infused with a more cogent professionalism, passion and pride than the current system fosters.  At least that’s what I promise myself.

December 6, 2009

Is ESL basically a doughnut?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 5:16 pm

What are we selling here exactly?

What do I get if I buy a doughnut?  Answer: a doughnut.  And if I buy a TV? Well, there it is – 36 inches of pure flat-screen atrophy and joy.  But if I buy a place on a language course, what do I get then?  A teacher, his time, a room, some chairs, some desks, a board, and sometimes, usually extra, a couple of  books.  O, and some knowledge.  Kind of.

Kind of, because when I sell you a doughnut, I sell you a doughnut.  I don’t tell you the recipe, hire out my kitchen, make you buy the ingredients and then train you to be a chef so you can make your own.  If I did that you might expect me to pay you.  Similarly, if I sold you a TV, you would be somewhat miffed if you got the box home and it had a 6000-page manual on advanced electronics inside it and the 3700 components of a flat-screen all jumbled up together.  As a business model, only IKEA can do this, just.

But this is what we do when we sell English language instruction: we sell labour – our students’ own labour – back to them.

As a teacher, I can’t give my students fluency.  I can tell them what it sounds like.  I can model it for them, not unlike a gourmet demonstrating how to eat cake in front of a crowd of starvation-wracked waifs.  I can even tell them how to get it, but only one morsel at a time – see, here’s a crumb of cake, imagine how good the whole thing tastes.

But it’s a service, isn’t it?

Of course, I get it – ESL is a service industry.  We sell a service.  We’re like people who sell karate lessons or cookery courses.  We have an esoteric knowledge – we are experts, gurus, or, if you are called Swan or Thornbury, even swamis.  But, actually, not really.  For, there is nothing cryptic about English – there are more courses on the net than on a titled estate, more unopened books than in Gatsby’s library, and more pirated films than even Jonny Depp has starred in.  English has a ubiquity that lays waste to the claim that ESL teachers are some kind of purveyors of cipher.  English is not exactly the Engima code.

In short, we sell people information which is accessible for free on every corner of the planet.

How do we get away with it?  Well, I assume we don’t:  we are clearly not selling a product, or a transfer of knowledge, because if we were, we wouldn’t get away with it.  So what are we selling? I wonder if the recent call to arms by CLIL aficionados doesn’t hold an attraction precisely because it addresses this question, if somewhat obliquely, and not entirely convincingly.

ESL really is a doughnut, kind of

So, I come back to the doughnut, and not just for personal affiliations.  When I buy a doughnut, I’m not buying a doughnut at all.  I’m buying the experience the doughnut gives me – the flavours and feelings, the cream neuron hitting the jam electron and them all bouncing off the big fat ganglia which quiver only in the presence of fried food laced with sugar.  In short, the doughnut affords me 3.8 seconds of aesthetic ecstasy, like an abbreviated narcotic.

ESL is not a narcotic of any kind.  Indeed, the only illicit thing about it is the faint tang of masochism that attends to mastering the abstruser aspects of reported speech, for example.  No, the unique selling experience or USE of ESL is not of the hit-and-run kind.  To be sure the early gains of beginner and elementary students are enormous – they may perhaps get a little heady with the amount of things they can say after only a few short weeks.  But once they hit the buffers of pre-intermediacy, the ‘hit’, or the flow, is derivative less from the material itself and more from the experience.  This experience is of two parts.  One is the collegiate atmosphere, the random banter and in-situ friendships throw up by the ESL classroom.  The second  is a more intangible but longer-lasting feeling of self-improvement.

Thanks to more propaganda than Goebbels could dream of, learning English has come to be seen as a valuable thing to do.  If you study English, you aren’t wasting your time – you’re making something of yourself.  Sure, this is not the main driver of a refugee facing deportation and death unless she can triumph over the present perfect in the latest Home Office test, but for the vast majority of ESL students it has resonance.  This idea of self-betterment is what keeps people coming back week-in and week-out long after the honeymoon glow of elementary level has faded, long after they’ve stopped doing homework, long after they’ve even stopped being remotely interested in the subject.  They still keep coming, patting themselves on the back, getting that sense of well-being which comes as a kind of reflected glory when someone asks what they do with themselves of a winter evening:

‘O, I study English.’

‘That’s great.  Wow, I just eat doughnuts.’

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