As you will see, this post has been brewing for a while. Post conference chatter caused me (Mike G) to say something like, “That sounds like a great blog post, perhaps you’d consider writing it on my blog” and “If you write a blog post about this someday I will get you a beverage of your choice right now.” It is my great pleasure and honor to share this guest post from my friend, colleague, and companion for nerdy talk while drinking coffee, Michael Chesnut. Michael is interested in teacher development, teacher identity, linguistic landscape studies and more. His latest paper on teaching with linguistic landscapes is available at English Teaching: Practice and Critique. I appreciate him taking the time to write this post and all the conversations and thoughts that have come out of it for me, personally. I hope it will be thought provoking for readers as well. Both Michaels are grateful to those who commented on earlier drafts of this. Over to you, Michael C…
An artist’s conception of Michael Chesnut
Well, this rant has been brewing ever since I left the KOTESOL 2014 International Conference with a general feeling of “huh” after hearing a few workshops and some plenary speakers. Actually, I was really happy to have gone and incredibly impressed with all the hard work the volunteers put into the conference. I guess I was a little confused, or put out, or just left numb by the way Mike Long and a few other folks addressed the audience, and the way they presented their arguments. So, I’ll be ranting about rhetoric in TESOL here, rather than talk about any of these folks’ actual arguments or things really related to teaching. And yea this is a rant, which in my mind means I’m kinda playing with what I experienced, and trying to get a grip on what bothered me in these talks.
Mike Long’s talk was what really got me thinking along this path in the first place. I learned about task based language teaching at some point earlier in my life, but actually haven’t thought about it or related issues in ages. So, it was a refresher for sure, but the way he was talking, and presenting task based language teaching, to me, was kind of unreal. Now, I can’t remember exactly what Mike Long said, but the imaginary Mike Long of my memory said phrases like “I wish those who doubt task based language teaching would produce even one empirical study supporting their position,” “task based language teaching is the most studied form of language teaching with over 200 studies done,” “there has never been…,” “every study has supported….,” and “EXTERMINATE EXTERMINATE EXTERMINATE.” OK, well the last one I’m pretty sure comes from the Doctor Who marathon I’ve been watching, but to me this rhetoric was pretty extreme. There was no hedging or acknowledgement that others have legitimately argued for opposing positions. The rhetoric in this presentation seemed to suggest that all debate, or legitimate debate anyway, had been concluded, task based language teaching had been found to be the best form of language teaching, and all that remains to be done is finalizing the best ways of doing task based language teaching; no other studies of teaching are really necessary. In fact, if anyone in the audience believed everything Mike Long was saying the only questions they should be asking themselves are: Why have all these fools around the world failed to implement task based language teaching? Why would anyone bother considering anything but task based language teaching? What is the quickest way we can embrace task based language teaching and produce articulate well-spoken speakers of whatever languages we wish?
To me Mike Long’s rhetoric was the most surprising, but I felt touches of discomfort elsewhere. Ahmar Mahboob also spoke at KOTESOL and opened his plenary by asking for a definition of language, remarking about how strange it is that many teachers cannot really give a good definition of language, the object of their teaching (or something somewhat similar, again I can’t really recall) and he discussed how in TESOL generally there is a lack of professional knowledge. His talk on teaching writing was peppered with remarks about how this approach he was introducing “just works.” Again, I’m curious if this is an effective way to get TESOL folks thinking about issues of professionalization in TESOL, and teaching writing. In this case I really like this approach to teaching writing and hope it is further picked up by many teachers, but I’m not sure the rhetoric used in this talk is going to help others examine and adopt some of the ideas discussed in this talk. Is saying something like “Lawyers all know how to define the law, how come we don’t know how to define language?” an effective way to raise issues of professional knowledge in TESOL? Possibly, but it didn’t really work for me and just made me think how unlike other fields TESOL is. To be fair Ahmar Mahboob is very active through other media sharing his ideas about professionalizing TESOL and employs different rhetorical strategies there, but just his opening rhetorical move in his speech got me thinking more about the rhetoric of TESOL, even at the micro-level of opening a talk. It also got me thinking about how we persuade others in this field, and how knowledge is generally disseminated.
Truthfully, I don’t have a problem with the rhetoric of Mike Long in the context of an academic debate. If for instance Steven Krashen, another TESOL figure who also embraces this type of rhetoric, and Ahmar Mahboob wanted to discuss language teaching, this rhetoric could be well suited to their argument and we the audience could learn much by seeing these two knowledgeable experts challenge each other’s’ positions. However, in the case of this plenary which simply had Mike Long speaking about a topic undoubtedly near and dear to his heart this rhetoric really alienated me and left me wondering and maybe even concerned about the how everyone else took this speech.
I suppose though, Mike Long should use this rhetoric as it reflects his honest opinion, shaped by his decades of foundational work with task based language teaching. Certainly he should be saying what he thinks during a plenary in the way he wants to, but that brings home the main point of this ranty blog post. I don’t know how TESOL as a field really communicates and creates paths for ideas to circulate. And I don’t know if the way these speakers actually speak limits how these ideas are taken up in the larger field. And I don’t know if there’s better ways of engaging with rhetoric in TESOL to more productively help teachers take up and use ideas. I do know that none of the major speakers really spoke to me in a way that helped me get a grip on their ideas or even made me feel welcome within the grand global TESOL ecosystem. And finally I do know that in most cases if I wanted to know what these speakers were really taking about I’d be better off reading one of their publications rather than listening to anything at a conference.
So, what should be done? Nothing is fine. KOTESOL 2014 was great and the unpaid volunteers did a wonderful job for no money and actually I’m really glad Mike Long and Ahmar Mahboob came to Korea and had a chance to network with folks, so yea we’re good. And this is a ranty blog so I don’t necessarily have to write something critical or give out suggestions, but I think I will discuss what I’d like to see or experience.
I’d really like to see Mike Long and Ahmar Mahboob have a discussion about their ideas in front of an audience, with both of them aware of the audience and prepared step back from speaking to each other and explain background concepts to everyone listening. I’d love to see someone like Scott Thornbury or a local knowledgeable speaker act as an honest broker and stand in for some of those scholars who really challenge the ideas of Mike Long, Ahmar Mahboob, Stephen Krashen and all the major figures who come and speak, and have him just ask genuine insightful questions so we can better understand the ideas floating around TESOL. I’d like to see followers of task based language teaching who have taken up Mike Long’s ideas ask him questions based on their experiences using task based language teaching in their contexts and I’d like to hear Mike Long’s answers. I hope those people at least had a chance to sit down with him and talk privately this go around. I’d love to see something online, like a Facebook thread, where folks like Stephen Krashen, Ahmar Mahboob, Mike Long, and Scott Thornbury could discuss their ideas and positions, ask tough and thoughtful questions, and carefully lay out their positions with us all getting to read along. I don’t see why KOTESOL or another conference couldn’t host something like that online a week or two before a conference, giving conference attendees a chance to get a sense of the discussions circulating around different speakers’ chosen topics. Actually, I have no idea if any of this would just result in greater confusion, would be convoluted and awkward to make happen, or actually would result in more people in the audience learning something from the talks, reading more about these ideas, and trying out new practices, but that’s fine. The key point here, if there is one, is that I have questions about the rhetoric we use in TESOL and I don’t have the answers, and that’s fine, especially, in my opinion, here on a ranty blog.
OK, I suddenly have to add one more point about rhetoric in TESOL. I saw on a post floating around that Claire Kramsch is coming to Korea for the 2015 KATE conference and she is a stunning presenter. All I want to do is see her lecture about whatever she feels like lecturing about. I saw her speak in person for the first time in 2010 and until that moment I didn’t understand that giving a lecture can be as artistic as theatre, jazz, and any live performance and that a lecture, simply an expert on a topic talking, can profoundly help me understand a topic, and understand it in a joyful fun way. She made use of a rhetoric that spoke to me in a way that is difficult to describe. It was everything I wanted to hear as who I was at that time. That rhetoric evoked or drew upon my image of who I believed Claire Kramsch to be as part of a persuasive performance that was informative and to some degree transformative. It was a performance in every possible interpretation of that word. But I want to make clear that the rhetoric she used should be put under just as much scrutiny as Mike Long’s or that of other speakers, perhaps even more so for all the effect it had on me. I’m looking forward to seeing her speak again, but I’ll try to pay attention a little more to the rhetoric this time. I’ll try to apply a little more analysis to how she’s connecting with me and the audience, and think a little deeper about how she’s conveying her message.
For all the work scholars put into studying TESOL and applied linguistics I wonder how much effort is put into understanding how information flows in TESOL, and how different parties can effectively make use of rhetoric in person and beyond. I think there’s a lot to be explored there and I’m hopeful someone will make the effort to do so soon.