Lately, I’ve really embraced the idea of teaching with PARSNIPs. For those who don’t know, PARSNIP is the odd acronym that represents the whitewashing and dullification of ELT materials so as to not
overexcite offend any particular group of students. PARSNIP stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. It is the unspoken principle material developers and publishers live by, which explains why every textbook presents mostly the same uninteresting contexts, situations, and topics: making friends, shopping, the airport, saving the environment, development of cities, cooking, aliens, jobs, etc. Interesting? Mildly.
Have you ever had students look through a textbook and select the units they are interested in? Yes, they’ll pick some, but it is never with desk-banging enthusiasm. Now, imagine the first day of class and your students open their books and are met with units on creationism vs evolution, the prevalence of rape on college campuses, ordering drinks at a bar, the pitfalls of capitalism, how to cook bacon, and the joys of sex. As Tom Smith put it, “ Now the class will really be buzzing.” Does this kind of book exist? Not yet. And a PARSNIPs textbook doesn’t really need to be created (especially if you are against textbooks; incidentally, my colleague [author of “Spelling and Sound” and “How We Really Talk“] have talked about doing a PARSNIPs book together). Life is PARSNIPS. Language is life. The classroom is the place for both. Clearly, PARSNIPs has a place in the classroom.
I’m interested in PARSNIPs because, if we argue that we should teach/learn a language not for language’s sake but for real communication, we have to move beyond the safe but dull topics and move to where language comes alive – where students have an opinion they care about and will struggle to express what they want until they can say it. Life, like language, is messy. Life, like language, is both fucking horrible and fucking amazing. To treat life and language in any other way is to do them, our students, and ourselves a grave disservice.
Now, this doesn’t mean every class has to talk about bestiality or intravenous drug use. What it does means is that teachers shouldn’t shy away from potentially controversial or provocative topics, especially at the higher levels. As long as the students are mature enough to handle it, proficient enough to understand it, and you will not get fired, you should have no problems explaining the sexual innuendo in a music video or talking about terrorism and foreign policy.
To be honest, I’ve only recently adopted this attitude. Last term, as a kind of end of the term treat, I told students we would have a slang day. We watched “Mean Tweets” (if you don’t know what this is, get ready for some binge watching) and I had them write down interesting words or phrases they had never heard. There were a lot of things I had to explain – things I would never even say in front of my mother – but I explained it with a straight face, the same way I would explain any other vocabulary. It was mildly uncomfortable but what made it better was the fact that every student was engaged at a level I hadn’t really seen before. They were excited to learn the real English they had been deaf to before. As international students living in America on a college campus, they had probably heard these kinds of words hundreds of times, but these were added to the background noise of English, without any significant meaning to take note of. Needless to say, they came hungry and left stuffed. This showed me the initial power of teaching the down and dirty English we all live with.
A few weeks ago, we talked about Charlie Hebdo and questioned free speech. With a large population of Saudi Arabian students in my classes, talking about terrorism and the middle east always feels a bit awkward, as is showing the very same photos of Mohammed that cost those cartoonists their lives (I had told the Saudi students they could turn away if they wanted to). But, really, this is the best opportunity any of my non-Muslim students will get to shatter stereotypes that all Muslims are freedom-hating terrorists who will defend Islam at all costs.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, for speaking against Islamic rule of his country. This is Politics and Religion rolled into one, with touches of freedom and cultural relativity added in for good measure. With students from multiple backgrounds, a discussion about this is bound to create differing opinions – which is great, because who wants to agree all the time? And it will generate real conversation about real topics that are really happening. It doesn’t get more communicative than that.