The Grammar Gods Must be Crazy

To many, Betty Azar’s English Grammar coursebook series is the book for grammar instruction. People even know the books by their nicknames: blue, black, and gray. Betty Azar herself, a nice woman whom I briefly met once, is often considered a guru of grammar – a grammar god, if you will – by many. I have even heard some sing her and her books’ praise: “We get to teach with Azar!”. I don’t get it. If Azar is a god and her books the holy word, I am an atheist, and this post is iconoclastic. As you’ll see, I don’t like her books and I don’t believe in their method. But, the great irony is… I use Azar. I use it because it’s there – all 300+ pages of it. I was given it. My students were given it. I don’t like to waste paper. It is used as part of a discrete skills grammar class, a type of class that is very common in intensive English programs (this deserves a separate post). A book like this usually is the syllabus for such a class. But not for mine. This post is going to briefly outline how I take Azar’s book, which to me seems like a glorified workbook paraded as a coursebook, and turn what could be quite a boring and unprofitable class into one that I think meets students need, both functionally and grammatically. Continue reading

The Contortionist Act

It’s no secret that a large number of people dislike coursebooks, myself among them (though not always). Through blogposts, argument and even research, we have expressed our dissatisfaction with them and suggested alternatives and remedies. Yet, the fact remains that many of us – those who find ourselves dissatisfied with coursebooks, railing against them online and off – still use them. I am lucky enough to have a director that allows me to innovate and teach sans coursebook (“going commando” as I call it). Yet, the truth is, I still use a coursebook for most of my course. Even if we are free to adapt and supplement, many of us still use one. Some have argued that pressure from big publishers forces coursebooks into teachers’ hands, but I don’t buy that argument. I think the reason coursebooks persist is because they are part of teaching culture. And this teaching culture expects teachers to be contortionists. Let me explain. Continue reading

To be or not to be or to not be: An exploration of corpora and viscera

The sentence was “Learn personal safety techniques, but I urge you to not buy a gun.” This was on a proofreading exercise looking for errors in gerund and infinitive usage. Though I had not taught it, many students highlighted the “to not buy” part and corrected it as “not to buy”. I told one of my students that either is acceptable and he said to me, “that feels weird”. This made me think of two things. This student has internalized a grammatical structure to the point where it had a sense of visceralness on par with “native speakers”. The other thought was, am I wrong? In this blog post, I will mostly focus on the latter thought, but I will come back to the more philosophical implications of the former.

To me, the placement of “not” in regards to an infinitive is fluid. It feels right to me in either place, though coming right before the verb does also have a feeling of emphasis as opposed to coming before “to”. I have been corrected on this before by a well-respected colleague I work with (one who I really enjoy getting into playful language tiffs with), but I always feel many of their corrections come down to prescriptivism and style rather that straight up grammar (we stI’ll argue about singular “they”). So, in order to answer my question of whether “to not” or “not to” is correct, I turned to my friends Google and COCA.

A Google n-gram search for “not to, to not” returned the following:

tonotgooglengram

Hmm…maybe I am wrong. “To not” barely lifts its head in recognition. But, what’s this? “Not to” seems to be falling with a slight upward tilt at around the same time “to not” makes an appearance. Is one trying to assert its dominance? That is probably a different story. “to not” exists, but may not be as common as thought, at least in books, edited by those who follow style guides

What about COCA?

Well, before drinking a cup of COCA, I noticed that the great corpus gods at Brigham Young have transformed the Google n-gram corpus into a POS-tagged database, which could give me a better look at the above search. A search for “not to [vv0*]”, that is, “not to” + base verb form gave me the following…byugooglengramnotto

…and “to not [vv0*]” gave me…

byugooglengramtonot

While the actual tokens are still worlds less for “to not” than “not to,” the increase has been almost double from 1990 to 2000 while “not to” has clearly been on a slow decline. Interesting. Six years later, this trend is likely continuing

Time to do some lines of COCA:

“not to”

cocanotto

“to not”

cocatonot

COCA mirrors the rise of “to not” from Google, especially in spoken English, though it is not absent in academic English. In fact, here are some KWIC examples of “to not” in Academic English:

cocatonotkwicacademic

All of this data tells me several things. First, “to not” is on the rise, most likely due to the fact that the ability to separate an infinitive has become more accepted and “to not” has probably rolled in through a snowball effect. Second, the placement of “not” does not necessarily imply emphasis, as can be seen in the sentences above. Third, while my speech may make some of the older generations shake their first with anger, possibly telling me I am killing English, I can now reply confidently that my speech is the vanguard of an English where “not” is as placement-fluid as “they” is gender-fluid. My speech may be a speech that is likely to boldly go where few have gone before. Or to not boldly go, because language change is really unpredictable, and this is just a tiny thing. Of course, I wouldn’t actually say any of this. I’m neither a grammar pedant nor an in-your-face defender of anything goes linguistic descriptivism.

However, the last thing it tells me is that grammar is not correct because of writers, style guides, or lines of random sentences. No, grammar correctness, and what is “correct” to a “native speaker” is something visceral. It is what “feels” right. Language is not a set of rules but a shared set of feelings about how we communicate, passed on as naturally to us as other concepts, such as love or morality. That is, we begin learning these things at or before birth from family, friends, and our environment. Of course, as second language students, language gets internalized later and in different ways, but at some point, things do get internalized. Students begin to develop gut feelings about the language based on prior experiences, whether or not we consider them correct. Language is the internal made external, and what comes out is never based on a set of rules, but what “feels” right and has felt right since we began listening to our first sounds of the language.

So, to me, both forms feel right and I am correct. To my student, one form feels right and they are correct. To teach or prescribe otherwise would be to not follow the spirit of communication and to deny the very “feeling” of being a speaker of a language.

(Updated and edited for typos and clarity.)

What Does “Intensive” Mean in “Intensive English Programs”?

I’ve worked in several contexts that have been called “intensive”. Most recently, I have spent the last three years teaching in one full-time – an “intensive English program,” or IEP. Despite knowing the pedagogy and politics of these programs, I have always wondered what the word “intensive” really means, and how teacher’s and administrator’s (and maybe student’s) interpretation of this word effects instruction.

Based on IEP organizations such as EnglishUSA and UCIEP, and communication with colleagues at other IEPs, it seems that there is a lot of variety in terms of how a program is structured, but there are also some common features.. Common features typically include 8-week terms, a minimum of 18-hours of instruction per week (required for F-1 visa holders and therefore a staple of IEPs), multiple levels of instruction per skills-based course (e.g. Reading, Grammar, Listening), faculty with a minimum of Master’s degrees, being part of or associated with a university, and being accredited by an outside organization. They also share the word “intensive” despite this word not being defined by any standards or mission statement I have seen.

What does the word “intensive” means in terms of language stud? Maybe I’m being obtuse, but, to me, this word seems to have two important definitions that, when applied to pedagogy, are at odds with each other:

  1. thorough, rigorous, in-depth, concentrated
  2. fast, accelerated, vigorous

An intense workout can be rigorous, in that it works out multiple areas of your body thoroughly. It can also mean a fast-paced workout that hits key areas of your body. Despite being described by the same word, the exercise takes on different forms and likely has different results. Applied to language learning, I’m not sure the second definition, the one that focuses on speed, is apt. Or, at least it shouldn’t be. Yes, 8-weeks is an accelerated period in which to learn language, but that is not the I’m talking about. Students are not expected to master English after 8-weeks. Eight weeks are the period in which they can hopefully improve key skills which can put them on a trajectory towards their ultimate goal of entering the university.

The speed I’m talking about is in the sense of covering multiple units, hitting multiple curricular goals, addressing a bunch of grammar points or reading skills, or churning out essay after essay each week. I’ve seen colleagues do this. By the way published coursebooks like to cram so many units into a single book, they expect us to do this, too. However, to me, language is not learned by rushing through it.

I like to take my time when I teach, being as detailed as possible and working with language from multiple cognitive and linguistic aspects. In almost all my classes currently, we are only on the second unit after one month of instruction. Adaptation and supplementation, assessment and reteaching really slow things down – but in a good way. Most terms, I feel bad because only a portion of the coursebook actually gets used (another charge against the notion that we even need coursebooks!). In my writing classes, students spent the first several weeks on research, planning, subskills, and drafting, and now they are doing it again. We’ll be feeling time pressure at the end of the term when trying to finish our third paper. Yet, I know some instructors who try to get an essay done each week. I’m not sure how they do it! The adage of “quality over quantity” comes to mind.

The meaning of intensity as rigor and not speed was brought home to me the other day by an observer in my class who commented that my class seemed “intense in the sense that [my students had to] do/accomplish a lot during the class hour.” This was interesting. We really only had two or three activities, but those activities demanded a lot of students. It was a lesson based on reading, and this lesson involved them in vocabulary review, re-reading and highlighting, discussion, and critical thinking questions. This may seem like a lot, but we took are time and moved naturally from activity to activity, doing about three-quarters of what I had planned. They did accomplish a lot, but they also worked with a text in-depth, from multiple angles, and were challenged on both linguistic and cognitive levels. To me, this fits the very definition of intensive: thorough, rigorous, and in-depth.

As teachers – language or otherwise – time is always against us, and in that sense, there is always some element of speed to our teaching. However, it should not be a defining element of pedagogy, and it certainly should not be seen as a key aspect of intensive English programs.

 

The Coming War in EAP (Writing)

I write this post at a time where Donald Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election and the future of international education is uncertain. Perhaps this has got me thinking in terms of politics and political metaphors, but the war I am talking about is more detached and niche from the current state of American politics, and even international education.

In fact, the notion of a “war” itself comes from one of Christopher Tribble’s (2016) latest articles in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, called “ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?”. It deals with the current tensions within English for Academic Purposes Writing Instruction (EAPWI, or what we could call #eapacrwri for cool hashtag purposes). The article has a particular emphasis on the native vs. non-native speaker dichotomy and its (mis)application to EAPWI, but I will save that for a future ELT Research Bites post.

In his article, Tribble outlines four major EAPWI paradigms that are now being placed at odds against each other:

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical, based on North Americans freshman comp classes, process writing, and the “essayist” tradition. Think your typical 3.5 paragraph essay.
  • Social/Genre, based on genre analysis, reading exemplar texts, and writing based on disciplinary conventions of moves and stages.
  • Academic Literacies / Critical EAP, based on challenging existing power structures (e.g. professor vs student, university vs student), “subversive discourse” (see Bensch, 2009), and assuming “alternative identities” (see Canagarajah, 2009).
  • English as a Lingua Franca Academic (ELFA), based on the rejection the unequal power structure in which students are forced to conform to native-speaker norms.

While reading the descriptions of these, I couldn’t help but notice loose parallels to major political ideologies in America. For example, the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach seems to share similar ideas to libertarianism, where individual rights are priority and only minor interventions from government are tolerated. In terms of writing, as Tribble argues (p. 31), the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition favors “individual inventiveness” in the essayist tradition, and follows rhetorical conventions without concern for discipline (read: greater society). The Social/Genre approach seems to be aligned with conservatism, favoring tradition (i.e. genre conventions) over individual inventiveness. However, it also promotes analysis, emphasis on audience, and eventually challenged , mirroring more liberal and democratic socialist approaches. The Critical EAP approach is akin to social activism or Marxism, focusing on and challenging power structures. Finally, the EFLA approach parallels anarchism, the absence of authority. Here, all native-speakers and their linguistic products are seen as overly authoritative, and any English that is to flourish must do so without any authority. Again, these are loose parallels drawn while reading with the previous election season still burning in the back of my mind.

Where social activism/anarchism and these EAPWI paradigms really depart is in, as Tribble points out, Critical EAP and EFLA having made little to no impact on pedagogy and instruction (unlike these approaches, social activism and anarchism have made important impacts on society). In fact, he wonders whether it is even worthwhile to critique from the context of pedagogy such approaches that may exist solely to raise issues rather than to be instructional. However, as ELF is making some (and what Tribble considers positive) effects on pronunciation instruction, it must mean EFLA is trying to affect pedagogy in some way. How it is doing so is unclear at this point.

Tribbles explains that Jenkins has put these approaches into a hierarchy, where the Intellectual/Rhetorical and Social/Genre approaches are seen as conforming and therefore lowest on the hierarchy and easiest to negate; Critical EAP is seen as challenging but worthy of the top-tier (Tribbles muses it may be because challenge is doomed to fail), and ELFA is at the pinnacle, seen as a paradigm shift even though, as Tribble points out, it offers no pedagogical applications, and, therefore, what paradigms are actually to be changed is quite opaque.

So, ELFA is setting itself up as the ultimate challenger and is hoping to cause disruptions in other (conformist, challenging) writing approaches. This is mostly achieved by focusing on dichotomies, especially the native vs non-native dichotomy. Tribble does a great job taking apart this notion of native vs. non-native dichotomies in EAPWI. While this is something I will write about in a future post on ELT Research Bites, I’d like to shift back to the “paradigm war” that Tribble refers to.

ELFA is not a sign of a coming war; the war has already been waging for years. The real war here is that the war between the Intellectual/Rhetorical (I/R) and the Social/Genre (S/G) approaches that have been raging for quite some time. Not only is the I/R approach winning in terms of published materials (most major EAP writing coursebooks follow the process writing and I/R approach), but they are still the dominant approach in many university-based English language programs and ESL courses (perhaps because of the coursebooks?).

What’s interesting is that the very foundation of the I/R approach, that is, freshman composition, is actually moving away from essayism and a focus on literature, and instead moving towards the genre-approach. I recently attended a talk by Christine Tardy from the University of Arizona. She talked about the rise of the genre analysis approach in freshman comp, and what is preventing it from flourishing. The subtitle of her talk, based on her research with graduate students teaching English courses, sums it up: “It’s complicated and nuanced, and it takes a lot of time.”

How do you teach genre awareness and genre-based writing if students do not know their major, are from vastly different majors, will have to write in a variety of genres during the beginning of their academic career, or have issues in their language skills that may be better addressed by more traditional approaches to writing? Is the I/R approach more generalizable than the S/G approach? Some research has pointed to the inadequacy of the I/R tradition for preparing students for academic writing. However, S/G may not effectively address these concerns.

Critical EAP and ELF (but not ELFA) have raised valid issues, but don’t seem to be offering anything in the way of real solutions or pedagogical implications. As Tribble points out, “it is necessary to adopt paradigms that will help to meet the needs of our students, rather than attempting to introduce new paradigms which do not appear to be premised on an understanding of how academic written communication differs from speaking” (p. 40). As the new war wages in the distance, mostly in academic journals, the old war still burns bright in the hearts and minds (and hands) of teachers and students, reminding us that the search continues for the best method, even if there is no best method.

References

Benesch, S. (2009). Theorizing and practicing critical English for academic purposes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(2), 81-85.

Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language
learning (pp. 116-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tribble, C. (2017). ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 25, 30-44.

On “The Life of the Mind” and Its Critics

Across the country this summer, first year college students all across America will be participating in the “Life of the Mind,” an annual event in which a university selects a book and asks students to read it before classes begin. The idea is that the hundreds or thousands of incoming students will have some shared reading experience in common that pertains to “the life of the mind” – the academic and scholarly world that they are about the enter into. While the books are different for each university, most will integrate the books in a similar manner: workshops, seminars, and discussions that focus around the selected books.

Universities typically select recent, relevant, and engaging books that are meant to draw in today’s reluctant reader – those who would rather read their Facebook feeds for hours on end than crack open a printed book.

The authors of the NAS report

The National Association of Scholars think this is terrible – not so much the program but the books they are choosing. They level 14 charges against the “Life of the Mind” series based on what amounts to traditionalist opinion rather than actual scholarship. They looked at a number of universities’ book choices during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years and compared them to their own assumptions of what should be taught. To me, most of these charges are unfair and extremely subjective, not to mention that their findings seem to be too harshly applied to a single book choice which, for some reason, the authors feel will affect students’ entire academic lives. My post is meant to point out these flaws, with my main argument against many of them being, “So, what?” as well as, “Yeah, so?”.

You can read the original report here and here, entitled “BEACH BOOKS: 2014-2016 What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”.

Below is an overview of their arguments, with my comments in blue.

The Findings

College common reading programs are:

  1. Dominated by Mediocre, New Books. Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books. Who decides what mediocre means in books? Why is “I am Malala” mediocre and “Garbology” unchallenging? To the last point, incoming first year students are about to be challenged in every class where a professor can help them make sense of dense material. Does reading meant to energize and engage them for the first time in academic life have to be so challenging? And how is challenging defined? Shakespeare is challenging because it is written in an archaic style of English. Plato is challenging because it is written in a more difficult register of English and it deals with philosophical elements. Isn’t “Becoming Nicole” challenging because it confronts our preconceived notions of gender?
  2. Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives. Yeah, so? Illegal immigrants. The environment. Racism and civil rights (the most common subjects – what they seriously call “timely propaganda”). These are things we have to confront every day. We all have different feelings and opinions about them. What is wrong with reading about modern realities? The classics (what the authors are mostly arguing for being read) are important but only insofar as they can be help us understand and analyze modern life. That means we must also read about modern life. In addition, many first year students are also first generation college students who come from the very backgrounds that these topics touch on. Validating these students’ experiences by sharing stories like theirs can only help these students succeed whereas immediately confronting them with what many perceive as “dead white men” readings could serve more to alienate them. Again, the classics are important, but they need to be read voluntarily, not forced.
  3. Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life. Oh no! Not community. Students were supposed to be prepared for academic life in high school. That probably didn’t happen though. One book is not going to fix this.
  4. A Homogeneous Market. A profitable common reading genre has emerged, in which publishers and authors market a homogenized product to a highly predictable market of college selection committees. Students are the captive readership of this market. I’ll give you this one. When market forces drive pedagogical decisions, you are right to be suspect. However, these books were not written to satisfy this market, so you can’t blame the books or the content – only the publishing companies and university decision makers. This argument is sorely misplaced.
  5. Enduringly Popular. A significant minority of colleges abandon their common reading programs each year, but so far they have been replaced by other colleges starting new common reading programs. So, what? How is this a bad thing that these books are popular? And how is it bad that these reading programs continue, likely due to the fact that students are actually enjoying these books. Students. Enjoying books. Isn’t that one of the major problems of modern life – people now hate to read. Why stop something that seems to actually hook students into reading just because they are not reading what you think they should: books that remain enduringly popular for you.

The Facts

  1. Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945. So?
  2. Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction. Again, so?
  3. Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances. This sounds amazing! What better thing to do than read a good book and then hear the author speak?! Would you be railing against this if they reanimated Shakespeare and got him to speak? Or if your living favorites came? Just because you don’t like these authors and their books doesn’t mean their coming is a negative. Plus, this could get students in the habit of attending other speakers’ lectures. I fail to see the problem here.
  4. Not Mandatory: In 2014, 29% of colleges required students to read their common reading. In 2015 the figure was 28% of colleges. It’s not mandatory likely because they don’t want to force students to do reading when they know students have four years of hard mandatory labor reading in front of them. I’m guessing – I have not found the data – that these programs continue to exist despite being voluntary because the books are engaging. I’d venture to say that if you switch to mandatory classics for pre-college reading, these programs will swiftly disappear. Save that for the English lit classes. Students will take them. Students will love them. But, not now. Not here.

The Characteristics

  1. Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. I’ve already stated that I think classics are important, but they are better served in English lit classes where students can have a better, more intensive focus with feedback from an expert rather than contend with the books on their own before they have even started college. That’s not the point of “Life of the Mind”. It’s supposed to engage them and make them more active readers. As we say in ELT, reading is caught, not taught. And you can catch more fish with live bait than dead bait. One final thought: who is to say the books chosen for the “Life of the Mind” have no lasting merit? Can you predict the future?
  2. Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable. How could civic engagement be a bad thing? And why is reading about the outside world – the real world that college is supposed to be preparing students for – why is this not valuable?
  3. Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language. This is perhaps the only point you make that I fully agree with.
  4. No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe. We’ve discussed this already. The modern books these students are reading are perhaps classics in the making. Wait. Modern classics? Please define this oxymoron and how you can become part of this genre. Why isn’t Chuck Palahniuk or Tom Robbins on this list? These are my modern classics.

I could go on and give my comments on their suggests – all as equally subjective and ridiculous as the “findings” above, but you can see where all of this will go. These authors – scholars and experts in their field no doubt and with way more experience and accomplishments than myself – still have no right to criticize book choices with such narrow-minded claims. Show me the data that says these books drop students’ GPA. Show me the data that these have negative effects on reading comprehension or first-year success. Show me the data that says that not reading classics makes someone an inhuman monster. Then, maybe, I can get behind your conclusions.

The authors seem like the ilk that would correct your grammar in public and have mini-strokes if you used singular “they”. Their subjective and non-scholarly drivel should not be a report by the National Association of Scholars who “upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship“. Much of this report reads as the antithesis of their mission statement.

This report could have been written by Statler and Waldorf, perched high above in the balcony chastising the masses below, heckling those who are at least trying (to engage less than avid readers with something interesting) while pining for the good old days (where students were seen, not heard, and “Understanding Poetry” [by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.] is the unspoken gospel). I don’t usually write outside my own field (English language teaching). But, to quote a classic, “I felt destroying something beautiful”. And I felt like going on a rant.