In defense of ELT blog culture

The insightful and never boring Geoff Jordan recently wrote a post called “The Culture of ELT Blogs” and his post certainly caught my attention and got me thinking. Geoff was kind enough to post my response to his post as comments on his blog but I thought I would share them here as well.  I chose this option mostly to share some links and because, especially as comments, what I wrote was very long. 

By the way, in my most recent post I interviewed Geoff on a range of issues but didn’t talk very specifically about his post on the culture of ELT blogs. My response to that is below. 

 

Dear Geoff,

How are things? For some reason it feels strange to offer the standard praise one might offer when starting a letter such as this. Not because I don’t believe all the nice things I might say about you and to you but because it might read like bullshit. It isn’t. Let me just say I love your blog and your voice and I am very happy you exist and happy you share things on your blog.

Blogging and blogs is what I wanted to talk about here, actually. In your recent post you critiqued the culture of ELT blogs. I wanted to share some thoughts and experiences on this. I am not sure I will be able to change your mind or convince you of anything but I think the value is in conversation so here I go. I knew I was going to respond to your post pretty much immediately. I noted that Nathan and Steve have covered much of what I hoped to say in the comments on your post, and far more eloquently than I’d hoped but since I already started this response I thought there might be some value in finishing it and sharing it. Please forgive me for the rambling and potentially incoherent nature of this response.

To be honest, I occasionally wonder if people are too polite in the ELT blogosphere. Yet, I tend to think too polite is better than the opposite. Personally, I sometimes have disagreements and concerns with what people have written. Sometimes I do my best to engage and politely disagree. Sometimes I keep my disagreement to myself but what I read informs my thinking and teaching. Sometimes I reach out in a private channel (Google drive and email are my favorites here) to discuss things on a deeper level. Sometimes I just think about the issues on my own and then write a (semi) related post. Sometimes I talk about things with friends and colleagues. Sometimes these discussions happen in pubs. Often on Facebook. One thing I am trying to emphasize here is that just because there is no clear battles or records of things on blogs doesn’t mean there isn’t critical thought happening on the basis of what people are writing.  Blog silence doesn’t equate to an absence of critical thought.

With that word critical in mind, I think maybe we need to be clear on what we mean by this word. Maybe we are operating with a different meaning of the word but I feel like maybe your definition falls more on the “critique” or “be critical of” side of things. Does that sound about right?

One confusion I had while reading your post was if you were advocating more criticism of the big names in the field or among bloggers to each other, or both. For me, these are altogether different matters. Just speaking personally, I don’t typically feel the need to trash another working teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps people are (justifiably?) reluctant to do so? When it comes to big names I don’t see the same reluctance, really. All the Mitra (admittedly not exactly an ELT person) posts in the aftermath of IATEFL come immediately to mind. I have the sense you were talking more about the lack of critical pieces about the accepted doctrines in field. Our lenses, perspectives, expectations, and definitions might be different but I feel like I see a fair amount of this type of critical post.

I took the challenge you suggested and checked out a list of popular blogs and (from memory) I noted and remembered quite a few blogs and posts I’d consider to be critical of the status quo in this field. Perhaps, as above, we have a different standard of what that might mean or maybe we also differ on what  a good or reasonable percentage of critical posts might be.

Even if we disagree on the optimum level of critical blog posts (or even the definition of such) I think we can agree there are many blog posts out there that are not critical at all. Of course there is a lot of crap and, to borrow your term, pap out there. Personally, I am not a fan of the “7 iPad apps you simply must use on Monday morning or you are a bad teacher and quite possibly a bad person” type posts. Not a fan at all. I am, however, happy to say that such posts are fine for many people and just not up my alley. I am not sure if anyone or anything needs to or can be blamed for this state of affairs but if I had to place blame somewhere it would be on the working conditions and situations many teachers (read: blog readers) are in. I think many teachers are looking for easily digestible and applicable ideas online. I dare say many (most?) English teachers don’t have the luxury of time to grapple with more in-depth blog posts.

I am not trying to defend all ELT blogs and bloggers but I think there is plenty of good and critical stuff out there. If there were more, I might not have enough time to keep up with everything! My contention is that ELT blogs are, or at least in certain pockets are, filled with critical thought. I’d suggest this ELT blogosphere is actually more critical than many other spaces. Could it sometimes be more critical? I suppose so.

A few other considerations came to mind when considering your view of the lack of criticality in blog posts.  I have already mentioned time issues above and I think these apply to both readers and writers.  Next, this might sound like an excuse but I am not sure what sort of access most teachers have to journals and the like.  I might also suggest maybe what the big names say is not as important or relevant to most teachers on a day-to-day basis as one might assume at first. How important is what Ellis (just for example) says to the average teacher? How important should it be? How much time do teachers need to spend rebuking things when they can go on with their teaching and reject or accept ideas from the experts in their classrooms. Of course, the question of to what extent teachers follow the experts is an important one.

Just to give an example, while I tend to favor task-based learning at times, I don’t blindly follow (or particularly like for that matter) the Willis framework on this. Now, if I were to make a blog post based on what I do in class, I might not even mention the framework or the Willises (Willi?). I would likely just write about what I did in class and why I did it and how I thought it went. I think by not following accepted wisdom and sharing what happened I’m tacitly showing my take on their work. I don’t think I necessarily need to mention them by name and critique their work. I think at times the critique can be seen in the actions taken by the teacher.

At the end of your post you shared some suggestions for blog posts. I am personally not sure how interested I’d be in a blog post on “What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?” Maybe I would. I am not sure. If you wrote it I would surely read it, though. I liked and appreciated the other suggestions and I will keep them in mind for a rainy day. I hope others do too.

One final point, then. Part of the reason I was comfortable enough to respond to your post here is that we have developed a relationship over time and I trust that you will try to understand what I am writing in the way it is intended. If I didn’t have this trust I would have been unlikely to respond to your post. You mentioned Russ in your post. I have had some very critical discussions with him. I think part of this stemmed from building up trust and rapport and me feeling comfortable to dispute things he said (and vice versa, I hope and believe). My idea here is that both on and offline it takes time build up relationships to where people feel comfortable disagreeing and engaging in critical conversations.

Thanks very much for reading this and also for your provocative post(s).

Sincerely yours,

Mike

 

PS- Your post was the nudge Steve Brown needed to finish his excellent post on Globalization, so I thank you for that too.

PPS-If my memory is correct, in the past you have mentioned blogs by Russ, Alex, TheSecretDOS, Carol, Hugh, and Rose as examples. These are all great suggestions for reading. I might also add Divya, Kevin, Hana, Willy, Tony, The TEFL Equity Advocates and lots more.

 

15 comments

  1. geoffjordan

    Hi Mike,

    You say “With that word critical in mind, I think maybe we need to be clear on what we mean by this word. Maybe we are operating with a different meaning of the word but I feel like maybe your definition falls more on the “critique” or “be critical of” side of things. Does that sound about right?”. No, it doesn’t. I use “critical” in the sense “expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work”. As some pedant said on Twitter, much to the glee of many, criticism doesn’t have to be negative. Oh, really? My post, however, commented on the aversion I perceived in ELT blogland to negative criticism.

    You say “I took the challenge you suggested and checked out a list of popular blogs and (from memory) I noted and remembered quite a few blogs and posts I’d consider to be critical of the status quo in this field.” Quite a few? Less than 10 in 1,000 is my claim. Prove me wrong.

    You say “My contention is that ELT blogs are, or at least in certain pockets are, filled with critical thought.” No evidence is offered. As Groucho says “I may be wonderful, but I think you’re wrong.”

    You say “I am personally not sure how interested I’d be in a blog post on “What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?”” Well, there you go, Mike. How do people learn a second language? If you’re not sure how interested you’d be in this fundamental question, a question that should underpin your teaching, then you teach in ignorance. Maybe academics make the question too academic, but, one way or another, surely the question needs answering. As yet, there’s no clear answer, but progress towards an explanation has been made and I suggest that all EFL / ESL teachers should be interested in current views of SLA.

    Your final point is a very good one.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Geoff,
      Thanks very much for the response. I appreciate the clarification on what you mean by critical here and I think that helps me understand your original post more.

      Regarding the SLA and blog post part my intention was more like, “I am personally not sure how interested I’d be in a BLOG POST on “What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?. I think I could get that more easily in articles or books. I didn’t mean to suggest a lack of interest in SLA. I would agree that this questions and aspects of it can be seem extremely/overly academic at times. I’d also say that ahem, there is plenty of bullshit in SLA as you are well aware. I hope I am making sense.

      I think personally in a blog post I’d rather read about someone’s thoughts/experiences/whatevers on certain aspects of teaching and learning. I’d like to learn about their challenges and how they faced them and what conclusions they drew from this. I’d likely go elsewhere for all encompassing views on SLA. I might be revealing my biases but (to borrow the term from a friend) maybe a blog would be a watered down version. I wouldn’t mind seeing a blog attempt at this but it wouldn’t be the first thing that came to mind.

      The continuing exchange helped clarify things a bit for me in mind. I am still stuck on the idea of being critical of what other people (read teachers) write in blogs and what people (academics or other?) write elsewhere. It is all very interesting.

      Thinking about all this has been interesting for me because I chaff when I hear/read people say “just” a blog. But I do think it is something different to criticize a working teaching for something they wrote in their free time.

      Thanks again for the response,
      Mike

      ps- Regarding how critical blogs are and the evidence of such I will have to save it for another day
      I feel like I could pluck 12 (2 extras just in case) posts from memory in about 30 minutes. Unfortunately I don’t have 30 minutes right now!
      I’d like to see if the posts I have in mind would pass the GJ critical test. Maybe I will continue this line of communication on a private channel. Perhaps proving your point about ELT bloggers being too nice and sensitive, I’d rather not list them here only for the posts to be potentially dismissed as not passing muster when the intention of the authors probably didn’t include passing such a test. For now, however, I will remind you I did already mention 6 blogs I recommended that you check out in my response. There are part of the pocket I was referring to.

      • geoffjordan

        Hi Mike,
        !,000 apologies for the remark “you are teaching in ignorance”. I really didn’t mean to suggest for a second that you, Mike G., taught in ignorance. I was (too energetically) arguing for the value of having an up to date idea of attempts to explain SLA. .
        Best,
        Geoff

      • mikecorea

        Thanks Geoff, I somehow didn’t take it in a bad way at all. I took it more as “one who doesn’t consider this teaches in ignorance.” Thanks the clarification though, it is much appreciated.

        Actually the comment also got me thinking about the majority of teachers and how much knowledge they have or need of up to date SLA stuff. (Another thought was how much employers would prefer their teachers to have).

    • Florentina Taylor (@_FTaylor_)

      Dear Mr Jordan,

      Just for the record, the point I made was that “being critical doesn’t mean criticising” (if you are referring to me). I’m afraid the first paragraph of your comment suggests you do actually confuse criticality with “negative criticism” [sic!].

      I have no interest whatsoever in entering a debate with someone whose main (sole?) reason to speak is to make his voice heard. That is not a good debate, and not even actual communication (see etymology). A good debate is a discussion where all participants respect one another and are willing to be persuaded by the evidence. Actual communication, in my book, is a learning experience for all the people involved.

      Having grown up in a political dictatorship, I am saddened to see how you are trying to kick people into submission while allegedly encouraging them to be critical. Someone who regards communication as a learning experience and a democratic exercise might have noticed the irony in having to work so hard to convince people they are not critical. They might also have learnt something from the comments boycott that your recent contributions have been met with.

      Respectfully yours,

      Some pedant or another

      • geoffjordan

        Dear Ms. Taylor,

        You offer no explanation of your claim that I “confuse criticality with “negative criticism” [sic!]”, although the sentence has some merit in that it provides further evidence, as if it were needed, that you are actually a pedant.

        You presume to know what my main reason to speak is. This arrogant presumption gives way to a worn-out cliché used by many to defend feelings against the intrusion of rational appraisal. Ms. Taylor is only interested in talking to people of type X. I am not a type X person. Ergo, Ms. Taylor is not interested in speaking to me. There is the implication that all decent people will react in the same way as you, Ms. Taylor, reacted. I note the further rhetorical device of appealing to all manner of emotional triggers, such as “grown up in a political dictatorship”; “actual communication”; “learning experience”; “democratic exercise”: (you) and “trying to kick people into submission” (me).

        I appreciate that you’re far too upset by being called a pedant to think straight. May I suggest that when you’ve calmed down, you write a more carefully-argued case, check it to make sure that this time it contains some reasonable content, print it out, and then eat it with lots of salt.

        Geoff

  2. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,
    I like reading your blog for many reasons but there’s one which stands out: you can express your ideas clearly and bluntly but you are never offensive, no matter how much you rant. I realized this, and I also said it, long before I came across the whole debate about the need of criticism and the subsequent comments.
    I also like to read Geoff Jordan’s blog. It didn’t really occurred to me before that his posts were rude or something but I think it’s because I wasn’t personally and emotionally involved – I cared about the ideas, not about the people discussed.
    When you mentioned my blog (above) and said publicly that it’s worth reading (thank you!), I was very flattered but I panicked for a second or two. I imagined G. Jordan visiting my blog and tearing it into pieces. That would probably require little effort, given the nature of my blog. But then I thought that a nasty remark could do a lot of harm: it might totally put me off blogging or it could make me change my style forcibly. I wouldn’t like it because I love blogging and I blog because I consider it an amazing way of exchanging ideas and insights.
    What’s my point then? First, I agree with you that the sort of blogging most of us working teachers do serves a particular purpose and we adjust the style and format accordingly. Second, I believe that when people are hurt, they get emotional and no decent discussion comes out of it. So the equation is simple: interesting content + politeness = lots of responsive readers.
    Hana

  3. geoffjordan

    Dear Hana,

    You express fear and you appeal to the fearful. Nor you nor those you presume to represent need protection. Just say what you want. I doubt very much that anybody will hurt you by making unfair comments, but we warned that a few of us have a nose for bullshit.

    • Hana Tichá

      Thanks for your reply, Geoff.
      I was only meaning to say that some of us have emotions which live their own separate lives no matter how rational we try to be. Yes, we sometimes produce bullshit, even though we did our best to produce art, science, whatever. All we need is little empathy so that we can go on discovering :-)
      Hana

  4. kurtkohn

    Hello Mike,
    I very much liked your comment on how much successful (blog) communication depends on mutual “trust”. This is where cognition and emotion meet. As regards criticism and critics attitudes, I feel it is important to look at the balance between the two. A purely cognitive/rational approach may have its merits. More often than not, however, it is considerably weakened by negative emotions it tends to produce in the person being criticised. Many scientists might argue that scientific communication is (should be) purely cognitive. Well, scientists are human beings after all, and for us human beings cognition and emotion cannot be separated existentially. Cognition can of course be blurred by emotion. The best safeguard, however, is not to put a ban on emotion but rather to make it part of our communicative endeavour.
    If (human) communication is indeed shaped by cognitive AND emotional forces and processes, one may conclude that a linguistic theory of communication like Relevance Theory, which is conceived on purey cognitive grounds, only captures part of the picture. RT can, for instance, not account for the common observation that communication falters when emotional vibrations between the interlocutors are bad. Interestingly enough, Grice’s Cooperative Principle (which was pushed aside by Sperber & Wilson) can be reinterpreted to open a window for reconciling cognition with emotion.
    Rainy Sunday greetings from Lake Constance.
    Kurt

    • geoffjordan

      Hi Mike,
      My advice to you is to ignore this blather from “Emeritus Professor” (academic qualifications unknown) Kurt Kohn .His non-intentionally ironic citing of Grice is typical of his ability to put his foot in his mouth and carry on spouting nonsense: recall the first Gricean maxim: “Give the most helpful amount of information”.
      Geoff

      • kurtkohn

        Well, Geoff, what’s eating you?
        You may find it hard to believe but I generally admire your sharp and erudite wit – although our views on language and language learning seem to be quite different. As regards your empathy and interaction skills, have you ever tried tai chi?
        I have the feeling we might get along quite well over a pint of beer or a glass of red wine.

  5. Pingback: Is there an ELT blog culture? | Sojourning English Language Teachers
  6. jdslagoski

    I really enjoyed reading both Mike’s and Geoff’s blog posts. I only came across them as I completed my dissertation that investigated a few ELT bloggers in Japan and Korea. I wanted to write sooner, but my PhD process demanded all the free time I had. I am a fan of this blog, and always look forward to new posts. This post has helped begin my postdoctoral project on investigating the ELT blog culture. If interested, you can read about it at http://sojourningelts.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/is-there-an-elt-blog-culture/ Thank you!

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