What’s Your Class’s Constitution?

I have something neat going on in one of my classes, and I wanted to post about it.

One of the papers I wrote this summer was about the critique I believe is implicit in a couple of the creative projects I worked on with students in 2008-2009 — a comic book about the Goose Dad phenomenon, and a faux-documentary critiquing the cultishness of English education (and of the TEFL industry) in Korea. My argument is that while the narratives my students created was explicitly a discussion of the effect of TEFL on Korean society, it also contained a parallel, implicit critique of their personal experiences in the EFL system, and of the state of mainstream TEFL practice.

Anyway, one of the things I carried away from this was the sense that the fundamental basis of TEFL is a bizarre assumption: that a simulacrum of communication, interaction, and community can suffice for the language learner seeking to become fluent in a language. I mean simulacrum here in the sense we see in Baudrilliard, that is, in the sense that it is a simulation with no actual reference to reality.

Though I don’t do so in my paper, we could call this EnglishTEFL, as distinct from Englishauthentic. People acquire Englishauthentic in contexts where they are stimulated by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to engage in authentic communication of some kind with people, people connected to them in more or less authentic and meaningful relationships.

(Which is not utopianism. By authentic I just mean genuine relationships, as opposed to the awkward relationships that form between classmates who spend 3-5 hours a week with one another in a particular classroom, speaking English. Authentic relationships can be fraught, can be laden with annoyances and things that cannot be said outright; but the communication that goes on within them tends not to be verbatim from texts that encode a simulacrum of the language, and tends to be motivated by authentic motivations, beyond wanting a “good job” someday by having “good English.”) And most of all, the context of all these authentic motivations and relationships is not purely an economically-driven industry, as the simulacrum motivations and relationships and communication in the TEFL classroom are — in that they are driven, constrained, and delimited in many cases by the gargantuan TEFL industry.

In any case, the point of all this is to say that I think classrooms are really somewhat alien places, not suited to learning language (or plenty of other things). One parallel I can draw on here is the study of music. Certain aspects of music are a pretty good fit for the university model of courses, professors and classes of multiple students, and so on: music history can quite easily be taught this way, and with a good prof music theory can as well. But when it comes to individuals working to master their performance skills on a given instrument, composers crafting original works of music, aspiring conductors honing their skills, and theorists working through advanced topics in analysis and theoretical critique, the classroom model is a pretty useless one.

But what is a TEFL teacher in Korea to do? I’ve advanced observations like, “We ought to have one classroom where we have not desks and a podium, laid out for lecturing, but instead laid out as a social space, with some old couches and coffee tables between them. That’d be great for classes where group conversations predominate.” But university administrators don’t seem to get why such an approach might be good, so the closest I’ve come is hauling old couches into my office, so that I can hold classes there when there are twelve or fewer students in total.

Yet, okay, that is something a TEFL teacher can do: find a space and make it non-classroom like. Transforming one’s office, should one be lucky enough to have one, is one possibility. When it’s not too hot or cold or rainy outside, holding classes outdoors is another. (I’m thinking of holding a few of our group discussion sessions a little ways up Wonmi mountain, when it’s just a little cooler out, since we need to split the class and again, admin’s not all that understanding about why we might need a second classroom.)

Another thing a TEFL teacher can do is consciously cultivate an awareness that, whatever one’s experience of TEFL classrooms, this class is different.  So in my class, I made one of our first discussions the subject of one’s best and worst experiences in an English classroom — whether in Korea or abroad, at whatever level (primary, secondary, or post-secondary, or private cram school), and of whatever nature. I asked students to:

  1. SHARE EXPERIENCES: Discuss their best and worst experiences in an English classroom (suggesting a limit of the one best and one worst each, in the interests of time limitations).
  2. CONSIDER CAUSES: Discuss why they think these experiences were possible. What failure or problem led to the negative experience, and what change, exception, or positive factor led to the positive one? I spent some time pointing out that the causes can be complex, related to teacher, student, or peer behaviour; materials or equipment used; classroom practices; or other factors — and especially, that it could be related to more than one of these at the same time.
  3. EXTRAPOLATE PRINCIPLES AND GUIDELINES: Deduce principles and guidelines from these discusses of causation, in the interests of making a group contract governing responsibilities, expectations, behaviours, and more for students, instructors, and the institution in general.

We’re still at the point of extrapolating, though I’m having students fill out a poll with their experiences and consideration of causation. I may interview individuals for more information at midterm time, we’ll see how interesting the responses are.

The goal for the next few weeks is that I will collate their principles and guidelines into a draft document, and then the leaders of the groups will bring them to group members, for discussion, revision, and approval — which they’ll then collate as a group of leaders, and submit to me. I’ll do a little tidying and editing, and we’ll have ourselves a class constitution.

It’s an experiment, and I don’t know if it’ll make much difference or not, but I find it interesting that everyone — even the students who seem to be at a lower level — seems to be more comfortable in the classroom. Whether that’s a shift in demographics or an effect of these discussions remains to be seen, if I can ever really sort that question out, but I suspect that this kind of approach to getting students to consider their course differently is actually helping in some way.

4 thoughts on “What’s Your Class’s Constitution?

  1. I’d tell the kids to decide what they want to do with their lives and see how much English that really needs.

    Since it seems like everyone plans to work for Samsung’s upper management somehow, perhaps that won’t work.

    1. Yeah, though I heard a very interesting discussion in this very class about how it’s a “social problem” that in Korean society the preference for “high status” jobs is so extremely exaggerated, and the range of jobs considered “high status” of jobs is so narrowly defined.

      I’ve also had a number of students (and Korean friends or acquaintances) note, complaining, that so many of the people they know seem to think that working for a big company is the be all and end all of life… what’s interesting is how many of the people I know criticize that mentality. I think things will likely change in the next thirty or forty years as people start to really look at how the lives of working Koreans contrast with the lives of working French, English, American, and other people out there in the developed world. And as the old fuckers who runs these companies die off, followed by the companies themselves as they fail to adapt to the changing world.

      (I seriously doubt that many of the big companies running Korea today will survive the retooling necessary for dealing with our various ongoing global crises.)

      PS: I agree about having people really thoughtfully consider how much they need English, though since it’s a department course, it’s kind of for people who’re really invested in learning English, tend to already be pretty good at it, and intend to work in a field where it is directly useful to them (if not to live abroad).

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