On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending

I recently saw an article announcing the publication of a free e-book called “PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1).” This book promises to help teachers and students discuss taboo and controversial issues avoided in most classes and all coursebooks. These issues – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork – form the acronym of PARSNIPs, something I have discussed before here.

Genevieve White wrote an interesting article reviewing the “PARSNIP” book. To her, the book did not meet its claim of helping students and teachers “step out of the comfort zone.” In her view, the book falls short because it seems to be too caught up in the current trend of shocking people by not hurting their feelings, depowering controversial issues to make sure everyone everyone talks nice and no one gets offended.

After looking at the book, I have to agree with her. This book may serve as a great stepping stone or companion for those who want to dip their toes in PARSNIP-flavored water, but it really is not a book that will make students or teachers challenge anything.

My question, though, is whether a PARSNIPs book should even exist? PARSNIPs lessons deal with controversial, challenging, and complex topics. This requires several elements that coursebooks, and even resource books (such as the “Taboos and Issues” book Genevieve mentions), cannot bring to the classroom. PARSNIPS requires understanding learners, their backgrounds, and how much you can challenge or offend them. As she writes, you don’t want to make your learners “feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment.” There is a difference between academically challenging their opinions (academically “offending” them) and making them feel under attack.

Another important element is relevancy. I don’t think you can walk into class and say “OK, today we’re gonna learn about gay marriage.” There is nothing wrong with this topic, but unless the topic is connected to something else, such as a student experience, recent news, an interesting discussion in which it arose organically, previous comments students made, or even as a supplement to a coursebook unit – if it is not connected to something, then it seems like you are bringing in controversy for controversy’s sake. Controversy needs context.

One final element that I think is important is recency. As in real life, we usually discuss controversial issues when they arise, are in the media, or are being talked about by everyone else. This is very much related to the context idea above. Talking about recent topics that are in the news and on everyone’s mind will make any PARSNIPs lesson more meaningful. This is also another reason why I think the idea of a PARSNIPs book is bound to fail. And one doesn’t need a book. The news media (textual and visual) is filled with relative, recent, and controversial topics. For ELLs, Newsela is a great resource for this. Newsela offers lots of news articles – from the mundane to the controversial – at a variety of different proficiency levels.

Overall, I think the attempt to bring more attention to PARSNIPs-based lessons is noble, but without recognizing these elements, a book like this is bound to fail, or at least not meet the full potential it hopes to. PARSNIPs is not a five minute lesson. It’s not a lesson in a can, a lesson for busy teachers, or a filler. PARSNIPs is responsive teaching, and responsive teaching requires no coursebooks, no resource books, and no prefabricated lessons – responsive teaching requires students, teachers, and meaningful content that is relevant and current.

These posts and books come at an interesting time in the world of education. Just as higher education is discussing trigger warnings, some trends in ELT seem to be pushing in the opposite direction, purposely wanting to shock students. This warrants a whole different discussion which I do not feel qualified to participate in at the moment. However, it is a discussion that needs to take place.

2 thoughts on “On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending

  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for this really interesting post. I would have responded much sooner, but I’m afraid the weekend got in the way! 🙂

    I think your question (about whether or not a PARSNIPs book should even exist) is an important one. Although I find your reservations completely reasonable, I think that there is indeed a place for PARSNIP books in the ELT classroom (which is probably why news of the recent PARSNIP publication has caused such excitement).

    There are several lessons in Taboos and Issues which I would not approach with my current group of learners. However, with standalone photocopiable lessons there isn’t any need to teach the whole book: teachers can dip in and out as they see fit, augmenting these “off the peg” lessons with reference to current events.

    If a PARSNIPs book is worth its salt, then I think it will cover “evergreen” controversial topics. Over the years, the same hot topics resurface time and time again, and to be honest, I find quite a few of the lessons in the trusty old “Taboos and Issues” topic just as relevant as they were when I first started teaching seventeen years ago. To be honest, I hadn’t used this book for quite a while until some of the recent debate on free speech caused me to take a second look at topics such as “politically incorrect jokes” and “It should be banned”.

    Of course, in an ideal world, teachers would design their own material from the abundance of articles and videos available online. Yet, not every teacher has the time, confidence or experience to do this.

    So, while I agree with many of your points, I would argue that there is a place for off the peg PARSNIPs lessons (although I well appreciate that not every teacher would want to use them).

    Thank you again for your post!


    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think if I actually had a copy of Taboos, I might see more use in it. I’m not sure what it is like on the inside.

      I agree that it may be possible to have a supplementary book for PARSNIPs, something that teachers could grab that is relevant to a topic they are discussing. Controversial issues do repeat. And I know that many teachers cannot make their own materials all the time. So, I appreciate a resource like Taboos.

      However, I think that it is more important to think of PARSNIPS as more of a methodology to approaching and exploiting controversial issues in the classroom rather than thinking of it as another supplemental activity. I think this was one of the problems with the “PARSNIPs in ELT” book. It tried too hard to be a supplement to something that can’t easily be supplemented.

      Thanks again for your comment and for reading my post.

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