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.
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).
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.