Friday, 27 December 2013

Eleven Answers, and then one.

Bloggers involved in the racket known as ELT (English Language Teaching) are answering eleven questions and then nominating eleven other people to do the same. I have been reading the answers of the Secret DOS (Director of Studies). I haven’t been invited to play, but I’m nicking the questions anyway, and adding one. I won’t nominate anybody else to respond to the questions, but any commenters are invited to choose one or two, should they so wish.  

1. Why did you begin blogging?

I had a ‘sent items’ box full of a decade’s worth of ELT-related moans, in-jokes and parodies, and thought they might conceivably entertain a wider audience than the original recipients. However, I soon found that I’m no longer sufficiently interested in ELT to blog about it to the exclusion of my other peeves and obsessions.

2. What keeps you teaching every year?

Back in the nineties in Athens, my job was exclusively teacher training and I loved it. I can only understand theories if I can see a practical application for them, and conducting seminars, observing hundreds of lessons and midwifing trainees’ research projects taught me much more about the theoretical background to ELT than it did the trainees themselves. For nine years at the centre where I worked I felt engaged, useful and appreciated. The cat and I lived hand-to-mouth in some pretty grotty places, but fuck it, this was the cutting-edge of the Bohemian experience, living entirely for my art while absorbing a  foreign culture! Since leaving Greece, what keeps me teaching is nothing more than the need to pay the bills and keep body and soul together - and the realisation that it's too late to do anything else.    

3. What is an aspect of teaching that you struggle with and have tried to improve on?

Standing up in front of a group of people and being presenter, director, producer,  diagnostician and counselor is not especially easy for somebody as moody and introverted as I am, and I have to deal with frequent stage-fright and a rather annoying feeling that I’m playing a character rather than being myself. So I have to work on being myself. It smacks a bit of new-agey woo-woo, but doing this involves breathing deeply, relaxing my stomach muscles and remembering my brief training in the Alexander technique from years ago. I have to make a conscious effort to dissolve the mental barrier I unconsciously set up between myself and the students. I also usually have to rearrange the classroom furniture so that there is no teacher’s desk between us.

4. What is your ideal lesson like? 

Well, first off, there must be nobody who’s under eighteen years old, and at least one specimen of male eye-candy. Once these two requirements are satisfied, we need a group of people who are present by choice, who get on well together and who have understood that they need to participate and not just sit there in respectful silence, even if that is what’s expected of them in their own culture. The students’ own input will then provide much of the material for the lesson, so that it is not just a dispiriting plod through a unit of a coursebook.  

5. What would you hope your students remember you for?

My wit, charm, good looks and modesty.

6. Why did you become a teacher of ESOL?

Yeah, why the fuck did I… I drifted into it at 22, heedlessly, as people say they drift into drugs and prostitution. Anyway, by the time I was 27 and had done a year-long diploma course, ELT had provided me with a full time job and restored some of the academic self-confidence that Cambridge had knocked out of me, contrary to its supposed aim. I wonder if I might otherwise indeed have drifted into prostitution. Now, there’s a thought; I’d probably be a lot better off.

7. If you were given a paid semester off to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?

If I’m honest, I’d probably just lie here faffing about online until I developed pressure sores. Thank God there’s no chance of my being given a paid semester to goof off.

8. Do you listen to music while grading? If so, what do you listen to? If not, why not?

I can’t ignore music: I’m either transported or irritated, so no, I don’t listen to anything while marking. I bung wax plugs in my ears and plough on. 

9. Who has influenced your teaching?

You can pick up all sorts of tips and ideas from books and colleagues, but really the only people who’ve influenced what I do in class are the trainees I’ve observed, the students I teach, and myself. I have made a lot of mistakes in my time in the classroom and reflecting on your fuck-ups is the best way to improve.

10. If you could go anywhere in the world to teach, where would that be and why?

Here the secret DOS and I are of one mind: ‘my sitting room’. Except I wouldn’t teach: I’d write, or at least edit. No stage fright involved in turning on your lap top. Bliss. 

11. What is your favorite resource (website, object, activity) in teaching?

I don’t have one. Again, I agree entirely with the Secret DOS: ‘It’s trite but my favourite resources are 1) my sense of humour and 2) the students I am working with.’ None of my students is aware of my answer to question 3.

Bonus question

12. Do you have a pet peeve? If so, what is it? If not, have you ever had one, and how did you get over it? 

I have a whole petting zoo  of peeves. Here are three, a skimming of the surface:

a) Students who chew gum,
b) students who don’t use deodorant,
c) students who hawk back snot instead of blowing their noses.

These are all culture based. Lots of students chew gum after lunch to sweeten the breath, but I do wish they’d do it quietly. Eating noisily is taken as a sign of enjoyment in some cultures, but the squelchy sound of open-mouthed gum-chewing doesn’t merely irritate me, it enrages me. 

Some (sub) cultures don’t mind B.O., others have a horror of it. I belong to the latter category. I followed a colleague down a corridor the other week as he was waving his arms as though to disperse smoke and gasping ‘fuckinelle!’ He and I had just endured four hours of the acridity of male sweat and cigarette breath from a group of a nationality I shall not disclose.     

In Japan and some South American countries, blowing your nose in public is considered disgusting, and the sight of a teacher blowing his nose in class is quite as shocking as if he were spitting on the carpet or tearing off farts. Now, after ten weeks of the porcine honking and snorting of a Brazilian lad with chronic catarrh, I feel that I probably have no unexpurgated karma.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Fireman Saves Kitten, etc.

This is a clever idea: take typically puerile and pointless arguments from You Tube threads and turn them into bitchy sparring between elderly queens. Wish I'd thought of it.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Season's Greetings

I haven't had anything much to say lately, so I'm hoping that 2014 will be fuller of incident. I'm waiting for my sister to arrive and drive me down to her place in Bures, a village half in Essex and half in Suffolk. We, of course, will be on the classier Suffolk side of the river, where they don't go in for this sort of thing...

Photo: Ed Courtenay
 Merry Christmas, happy new year, and all that.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Shadow and a Dream

Sir John Tavener died today. Either he's gone to his rewards and crowns or he's simply ceased to exist. Depending on the day, either possibility can seem to me likely or absurd. Here's his 'Song for Athene', written for a young Anglo-Greek woman who died in a cycling accident. The final phrase 'Come! Enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you!' starts decisively and stretches out in a beautiful arc before descending back into the drone ( ison)  that represents the unchanging nature of God, and it brings me out in gooseflesh every time I hear it. Yeah, well...You're a long time dead. Those of us still on parade can be grateful that Tavener was for a while among us, and left us such beautiful noises.


Here's a beautiful orchestral version of Song for Athene arranged by Tavener for violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Tavener: Song For Athene by Nicola Benedetti; Andrew Litton: London Philharmonic Orchestra on Grooveshark

The lyrics are from Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral service. 

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Greek, Interrupted

Over at the Economist’s Prospero blog, economist Athanasia Chalari describes the appalling effects of the Greek financial crisis on people's everyday lives. Homes are being repossessed and life savings decimated. Nearly 65% of the 18-24 age group is unemployed and the suicide rate has risen by 40% in the last year. Chalari gives historic reasons for the crisis: the state has always been chaotic, and Greeks have had:
'...a tendency to ask politicians for personal favours that prioritise their personal interests. Previously there was no concern for the collective interest. The time has come for them to realise that this cannot work any more.'
All this makes sense. But then Chalari sees another contributing factor: it has to do with how Greeks talk. ‘Greeks,’ she tells us, ‘are very loud and they interrupt each other very often.’ Do they ever! This is one of the the earliest things you notice as an outsider living in Greece. Political discussions on the TV news are nigh on impossible to follow. The anchor will be moderating an exchange between maybe six politicians and journalists, each in a different studio and all shouting at the same time. Such challenging questions as the anchor may have prepared go by the wayside as he is reduced to hollering ‘Parakaló! Parakaló!! PARAKALO!!!’ ‘Please!’ to try to get them to belt up and listen to one another. At the end of the discussion, we are rarely much further forward.   
So there's this lack of communication despite strenuous effort to achieve it, and the reason, I always thought, is cultural. Here comes a truck-load of generalisations to annoy you. It’s important in Greece to make one’s mark in company, and talking long and loud is one way to do that. Men especially are proud of their opinions and theories, often unwilling to modify them in the light of incoming evidence, or indeed to admit that there is any countervailing evidence. A Greek friend - Greek, mark you - once told me ‘Greeks have very little sense of audience.’ Her observation seemed to me to explain a lot: why teachers could bore students into catatonia without apparently noticing, why middle-aged gasbags in cafes and on TV could bloviate for hours without gauging listeners’ reaction (or lack of) and why TV adverts would interrupt films mid-syllable and without warning.
Well, as I said, there's a heap of generalisation there, but it might be said that there’s no smoke without fire. Chalari’s explanation for political chaos is different, though. She blames the grammar of the Greek language:
'When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.’
This is a bizarre explanation for interruption. Greek is highly inflected and with almost every word tagged by its ending, word order is pretty fluid, so there’s no requirement that an utterance begin with a verb. Indeed in Greek, frequent the verbless sentence. (Mackridge, 1985.) Neither is there any reason that I can see to imagine that one could predict the content of an entire proposition from its first word. Face-to-face conversation is highly context-dependent, however, and you might well know what your interlocutor is going to come out with, given your understanding of the context. Of course, this is not peculiar to Greek: it’s a human universal. All human beings can interrupt one another during an exchange, regardless of what the grammar of their language requires them to focus on. What matters is how that interruption is received, and this will depend on culture and social context. It might be seen as engagement and enthusiasm, disdain and superiority, insubordination, impatience with your argument or simple pig-ignorance. Chalari says:
‘The way politicians talk in parliament and the way politicians present themselves in the media obviously makes it harder to reach an agreement.’
No question. But since any human being who wants to interrupt another has at least the possibility of doing so, it’s hard to see what the grammar of the language has to do with it. It remains to be seen whether or not a new concern for the collective interest will be reflected in a different attitude to turn-taking in political spoken discourse. Imagine politicians and journalists on Mega channel news patiently awaiting their turn to contribute and graciously ceding the floor to their opponents. That's something I'd pay to see.     

Mackridge, P. (1987) The Modern Greek Language Oxford: Oxford University Press 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Talk Soup

Fundies say the darndest things. On a You Tube thread, I pointed out to a Jesus freak that contrary to his stated opinion, the issue of gay marriage was indeed a political one. One group wants something, another group is adamant they shall not have it, and both pressure our leaders to decide in their favour - a no-fucking-brainer, really. He replied:

I believe that it's not debatable as far as God is concerned. But I also keep an open mind. God gives us the power to overcome things. [meaning homosexual desire, presumably] He gave us refrigeration to overcome death by shellfish and tampons to overcome "unclean" times in womanhood. With God, all things are possible.

FFS... I rejoindered:

God gave us refrigeration and tampons, huh? Look up 'history of tampons' and see how women have coped with this unintelligent design feature over the centuries. Why did he wait until the late 19th century to make refrigeration a possibility? Think of the lives that could have been saved had he inspired people earlier. 

This cuts no ice with your Bible Belt Bible-bewitched Biblebot. They won't credit human beings with even a spark of ingenuity save in the service of lies and skullduggery. The response was simply:

Think of how many souls could have saved (sic) if they had accepted God. 

Never mind. It's inevitable they'll accept gay marriage in the end - then claim credit for having successfully overcome the wicked world's homophobia, which God has always hated.

Sod them. Let's talk about soup.

When, as now, it turns back-endish, it's gratifyingly cheap, simple and healthy to boil up a big pan of root veg, garlic and herbs, and whizz it into soup to eat with dark, wholemeal bread as the rain lashes the windows. It's nice to work up an appetite by pondering what colour and texture of soup you fancy: broccoli-spinachy green, beety purple, carroty-turnipy orange, creamy or nubbly. I use cannellini beans when I want a smooth, creamy texture, because I don't like real cream. I usually chuck in some white wine or dry sherry. This weekend I had a hankering for a rich fish soup. I had specific gustatorial, visual and textural requirements for this one, so it took a bit of thought and research. Here's what I came up with.       

First, take a bulb of garlic, separate the cloves, toss them in a little olive oil and bung them in the oven until they turn soft and creamy. Meanwhile, fry some onions in olive oil with a bunch of thyme. It's amazing how many recipes tell you to pick the leaves off the thyme: who could be arsed? I just throw in a bunch of stalks and then fish them out before I make with the blender. I wanted this soup to be yellow, so when the onions had softened I threw in a chopped yellow pepper and a chopped leek. I got the yellow pepper from a stall on the High Street where six peppers of assorted hues were a pahnd a bowl, unlike at Marks and Sparks where you pay at least that for one. It means finding a use for two green peppers, though - any suggestions? It became obvious that the soup wouldn't be yellow enough, so I added a tiny bit of turmeric. I slung in a can of cannellini beans, water and a couple of fish stock cubes, and boiled it all up. When the vegetables were done, I put in a small piece of smoked haddock, and after a few minutes, squeezed the soft creamy garlic from the skins, added them, and blended the lot to a puree. I remembered to remove the thyme first.

These soups always taste better if they're allowed to sit and fester for a few hours. While mine was doing this, I roasted a red pepper, scraped it not too assiduously, chopped it into little cubes and added it to the soup. Seven hours later, I brought the soup back to the boil, threw in a slug of white wine, and some cubes of smoked haddock and some of muscular, bright red wild salmon. This last was extravagant, but I can't abide that slithery pink farmed stuff. Well, it was bloody marvellous with bread and a glass of dry sherry, which was just as well, because it wasn't cheap and considerably more time-consuming than my usual boil-it-up-and-blend-it efforts. Any suggestions for dairy-free improvement will be considered.  

Friday, 1 November 2013

Ab Fab In Ovo

This eight-minute sketch is the seed from which Absolutely Fabulous grew. I remember seeing and loving it in the early nineties. There's no Patsy or Bubble yet, just Proto-Edina and Ur-Saffy in their mother-daughter role-reversal. When Adrianna (the Eddie-to-be) has a fit and lets loose a load of bloodying and bollocking, the daughter wearily admonishes her: 'Mum, it's not clever, it's not funny, and nobody's in the slightest bit impressed.'

Friday, 11 October 2013

Sometimes I sits an thinks...

I do a couple of hours of English Language Support for undergraduates on Wednesday evenings. I haven't done this before at my present place and so was a bit taken aback last Wednesday afternoon when I picked up my class list from the office and saw that it had something like fifty names on it. I'd expected the usual class size of fifteen or so. I was assured by the centre director that it was unlikely that everyone on the list would show up, and even less likely that many of them would come back after the first week. So this little course is going to be a bit like busking, never knowing from one pitch to the next how many punters will stop to listen.

The allocated room seats 42 and there isn't an inch of wiggle room. The session started with a full house, and seven or so latecomers had to be turned away.

'So, ladies and gentlemen, please ensure that your smartphone is out of sight - preferably hurled out of the window, but at least in the deepest recess of your bag. I am supposed to do something about academic culture, and so have decided to hammer you with 'Critical Thinking'.'

Lecturers are much given to moaning about their students' deficiency in the critical thinking department, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus on what it is, as opposed to much chuntering about its absence. Students are bollocked for not putting their opinions into their essays, then when they write 'In my opinion...' they're bollocked for that as well. I tried to get them to see that they need to have an informed opinion that they can defend with reference to their reading, and when lecturers require of them 'original thinking', they don't mean that Wei Wei Wong, who has chosen 'Styrofoam' as his English monnicker (I'm not making this up) is expected to bring about a paradigm shift in humanity's apprehension of Accounting and Finance, but that he might perceive new links between issues raised in different modules, thereby deepening mankind's joy in accountancy and his own sense of calling to the discipline. Or something.

Well, anyway, after my Powerpoint presentation and a little video, I set a task designed to elicit from them something like the kind of thinking I'd been burbling about. I put a newspaper ad on the screen (EAP = English for Academic Purposes):


In small groups, the students were asked to decide how they could go about verifying the claim.

I don't know how well most of them got on with this, as it was impossible to monitor without an undignified clambering over desks and risk of accidentally kicking people in the teeth. I went and talked to a small group of three Polish girls and a couple of Brazilians, one of each, sitting at the edge of a block of desks.

'So, how would you do this?'

'Yeeeeeaaaahhhh,' whines the lad from Brazeeoow, 'I dunnow, make some experimentsch, make some researches...'

'What kind of experiment?'

'Write an essay,' a Polish girl offers.

'Who? Why?' I push.

'Yeah, see if it improve.'

If what improves? We are getting nowhere fast here.

'How about getting a group of volunteers?' I suggest.

'Yeah, obviously.'

'Do you think there ought to be an initial test to assess the volunteers' level at the start?'

'Yeah, yeah, of course.'

'And wouldn't you need to divide your volunteers into an experimental group and a control group?'

'Yeah, yeah, we know this...'

'And one group gets the EAP tabs and the other a placebo and then after three weeks you administerahigherleveltestandseeifthegroupwhotooktheEAPpillsscoreshigher. Right?'

They look at me as if I have just announced that Tuesday follows Monday and thirty minutes is half an hour. It was obvious how to test the claim. 

These kids had no idea how to approach the question, could not focus on the task or articulate a procedure. Yet when I sat with them and fed them the whole bloody thing, they felt I had presented them with a task too trivial for their attention. They hadn't even noticed that they had contributed nothing at all to the discussion.

Yeah, well. I'm tired and jaded and probably missing all sorts of 'learner factors' and shit stuff like that. Do tell me if you think this is the case.

* © 2008 Garnet Publishing Ltd

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Toumani Diabaté

My nephew just drew my attention to this piece by kora player Toumani Diabaté. I had not heard of him. It's a fascinating, sparkling, cascading sound and I immediately ordered a CD.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

He's Ever So Good, You Know

I just came across the New Living Translation's version of Psalm 139, verses 13 to 14. First, here is the King James version:

13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. 14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

You wouldn't think that needed any fixing up, would you? Perhaps just a gloss for the term 'reins', meaning 'kidneys', which were believed to be the centre of human emotions. It gives a visceral, bloody, fleshy feel to that first clause, abetted then by the use of 'fearfully' to invoke wonder and awe. It seems the translators of the NLT thought it might be rather strong meat, though, so they've made the two verses into a polite thank-you note. Guess which bit I added.

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.  14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous. How well I know it. I'll definitely be using you again. Highly recommended!

Friday, 20 September 2013

Oy, Gott II

On a Tumblr blog I found this photo of a famous relief of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his chief wife Nefertiti with their daughters. It is notable because instead of showing the Pharaoh and his Queen in the traditional monolithic Egyptian style, in which the king's stillness communicates unassailable power, it depicts the royal couple in an informal moment playing with their kids. But so that nobody should imagine that Akhenaten and Nefertiti wanted to be seen as just folks, Akhenaten has the family bathed in the rays of the Aten, to whose precepts they alone were privy. The bizarre dolichocephaly of the little girls, and the strangely distorted features of the king in other carvings, probably served to underline this separateness from the rest of humanity. It does not seem to be a representation of an actual physical trait, as elsewhere Akhenaten is depicted as quite normal. The blogger is an 18 year old art student and teaching assistant, and her comment on the image made me want to initiate an inquiry into the US school she attended, which seems to have failed her. That, or have her shot. Get this:
lol look at akhnaten and nefertiti with their little alien-lookin kids look at the little tiny one on her shoulder lmao and is he kissing one why is he holding it like that are the alien babies naked???egyptian art is sick

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Why Smartphones Piss Me Off

A little short of a year ago I wrote a post about teaching Chinese students. I had finally come to understand that their silence and passivity in class was not a sign of rudeness, or indifference to the content of the lesson, but a way of showing deference and respect to the teacher. I felt the need to communicate this insight to my fellow educators.

Yeah, right.

For the last four weeks I have walked into class every morning to find twenty-odd silent Chinese kids, each staring raptly at the screen of their smartphone, poking or stroking it as it were some fascinating little creature. They do not appear to register my presence. Even when I yell 'OK, put your phones away now, please!' there is no immediate response beyond a wordless 'yeah, hang on, we'll get back to you.' I repeat my request a little less politely and ask that the phones be switched off and put out of sight. We can then begin the lesson, but it will be necessary before the end to ask them several more times to put away their phones, and on occasion to actually confiscate the bloody things, setting them on the casing of the AV equipment where ever and anon they ping and buzz to each other like little aliens.

I do as little up-front teaching as possible so as to keep the students actively involved. Most of the talking I do in class is by way of instructions for the coming activity. Deprived temporarily of text messaging and social media, some of the students hold whispered conversations or flick through their books and files, thus missing the instructions unless I intervene. It's all such a waste of time and so bloody juvenile. I've decided this 'respect for the teacher' business is to be taken with a good pinch of salt. I'm pretty sure that back home these kids are used to walking into huge classrooms where they sit in serried rows, and free from the expectation that they might be asked to participate, they can simply zone out. It also occurred to me that since every one of them is an only child, they've probably expected adults to let them do as they please far more than kids from larger families might, but maybe I'm just being a middle aged grump. (Again.)

Most of these students are nice kids. They greet you cheerily in the street or corridors, waving and smiling. They will come at the end of the lesson with questions that could have been dealt with in the class, but at least it shows they are listening some of the time. Some have told me that they prefer our style of teaching to the style they're used to in China. One lad even said 'English teacher is care more for student than Chinese teacher.' I asked why he thought this. 'Because English teacher always say students to put away smartphone and listen.'      

But why can't you just put away your smartphone when the lesson... Oh, I dunno.


On the train yesterday my earplugs were penetrated by the raucous voice of a gabby young woman sitting across the aisle, quacking into her smartphone. Then I became aware of what sounded like the Muslim call to prayer. I removed an ear plug and realised that the same young woman was listening to music on the same iPhone, and of course it wan't anything like the Muslim call to prayer, but some banal pop stuff. I caught the eye of the bloke sitting opposite me and we raised eyebrows in synch.

'Is that your music?' he asked the woman.

'Yeah,' she said. 'Is that alright?'

'No. Haven't you got any ear-phones?'

'No. Sorry.' And she switched it off.

Christ, I thought. I wear ear plugs, I often change seats to get away from people who are annoying me or pinpoint potential sources of irritation on the platform and make sure I don't sit in the same carriage, but I'd never actually ask them to desist like that. I do envy them as has that kind of balls.

I had blood tests for everything but pregnancy the other week to see if there might be some physical explanation for the anxiety that I feel so often these days. The tests all came back normal. 'So you're just crackers, then,' my sister said. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


 We're on the pre-sessional, five weeks of academic square-bashing in which an intake of mostly Chinese kids is knocked into some sort of shape prior to entering their departments in October.

'Get them bloody conclusions polished, you orrible little oiks!'

'Call that a paraphrase, lad? That's fuckin plagiarism, is that, an I'll 'ave your bollocks for it!'    

That sort of thing.

Today we listened to part of a lecture, after I had drawn attention to the devices lecturers use to guide the listeners' attention: firstly, secondly, finally, crucially, in conclusion, and so on. Signposts, we call them. I drew one on the board.

'Anyone know what we call this in English?'

Usual Chinese reaction - silence. Then with tremulous timidity, one girl offers:

'An erection?'

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Happy Pills

Not blogged in a while, and 'ere's how come. A colleague told me the other day that I have over the last few months become rather uncommunicative, out of it, and that I 'look worried all the time'. I thought, well, of course I bloody do. Stands to reason: anybody who isn't worried all the time is not fully apprised of the utter desperateness of the situation. On more mature reflection, I realised that this must in fact mean that other people are not worried all the time and most likely don't feel under permanent threat. This is what I've accepted as the dominant state of my mind for a long time, as one who resigns himself to bad weather. After a while, you just stop noticing it. The same colleague suggested I might consider getting some anti-depressants. I ummed and ahhed over that. The last lot of anti-depressants I had 25 years ago did nothing but dehydrate me, and I slung them down the bog after two weeks of having a mouth like a woollen mitten and passing stool like broken glass. But I've had ten days of boiling anxiety that has prevented me sleeping and eating, and decided I'd better make an appointment.

'How are you?' the GP asks heartily as I enter the presence. This is his little iatric joke. You provide the knee-jerk rejoinder 'fine thanks' and he says 'well, what are you doing here, then? Arf arf.' I suppose it brightens up an evening looking at diseased bodies, if that's what he actually does. I've noticed that British GPs these days don't do physical examinations. I'd expected that he'd take my blood pressure and check on the heart, given the symptoms I'd described, but he ordered some blood tests to be done next week, gave me a prescription for some happy pills, and I left, feeling that my physical presence had not been strictly necessary. We could have done the whole thing by e-mail.

I read the leaflet in my new box of Mirtazapine. (Mirtaza Pine - sounds like incense.) Side effects include rapid weight gain, lethargy, dizziness, vivid dreams, desire to commit suicide, hives, desire to self-harm, confusion and anxiety - this last the very thing I'm taking them to assuage, and the most common side-effect. AND YOU CAN'T DRINK ALCOHOL!!! So I'm eyeing them, wondering whether to start taking them or not. I cannot afford to be confused, anxious, lethargic or dead, as we are maniacally busy at work, and I've been confused and lethargic enough lately. Maybe I'll leave them untouched until September, when there's time to see what they'll do to me without involving others.     

Monday, 29 July 2013

Listen Up

Students did a listening test today. This was a lecture on cross-cultural communication in the classroom. The kids (for so do undergraduates appear to me now) took notes and then turned these into little paragraphs as answers to five or so questions. Amazing how often students will come up with pointless observations of the blindingly apparent: 

Interculture in the classroom. When teachers are teaching in the classroom, they always use something which already exists the classroom to help them. Such as desk, window, building.

I cannot deny it: this must be what they call a cultural universal. Even so, it had nothing to do with anything on the CD.  

Several students wrote stuff about sheets, but none of the tutors has managed to work out what they meant or what it was they misheard:

In Europe, the students participate in class by sheeting.

Answers on a postcard, please, in your very best joined-up writing. Nothing obvious, please, such as 'cheating' - that's been dismissed already. Exercise some ingenuity. 

Some of the students' notes brought odd images to mind:

In USA, students can do anything they want to attract the teacher

'Please, sir!'
And one young lady found the whole thing just too, too much:

Sorry I tried my best to understand what record said. But I still REALLY confuse about this question.  But I think I should write something here, or the white paper would make people upset. Hope you see this will not mad at me. Have a good day. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Put Me Right If I'm Wrong

There's all sorts of stuff I just don't get.

I mentioned a week or two ago that our small department was once again under threat of being taken over by a private education provider. It appears that this is not going to happen in the coming academic year at least, which gives us a little breathing space. The privateers will be running a couple of foundation courses, though, one of which is the English for Art and Design Course that I mentioned here. Uncharitable as this may sound, I do hope it's an unmitigated flop.

I have not heard any good news about private providers. They pay teachers very considerably less than university rates and require them to teach to a rigid timetable: if it's 14.00 hours on the 25th of October, you know you'll be on page 30 of the course materials booklet. This means there is severely limited scope for creativity, or for the kind of leading from behind and following the mood and direction of the class that I think is one of the chief rewards of teaching intelligent adults. Only one teacher of my acquaintance actually liked being told exactly what to do in this way. She worked for a franchise in Greece that had schools all over the country and had hit upon the cookie-cutter lesson approach as the only way of dealing with the fact that many teachers of English in Greece are clueless about ELT methodology and need to be regimented in this manner. I had taught Ruth on two training courses and knew that the ability to combine planning and principled improvising was one she never developed. Are the private providers adopting the same approach in anticipation of their having to employ less able or experienced teachers?

I sat talking with Professor Jiaying Wang the other day, she who had been so helpful when I had a bit of a meltdown back in February. She hasn't heard much good news about private providers either. She said that the kids who've been yanked through these courses enter their departments in October still very hazy as to how to gut a book, write a summary, construct an essay or offer a well-worded excuse for lateness. It then falls to the lecturers to start filling the gaps, which is a huge waste of time.

If anyone who reads this has more positive things to say about private providers, or feels I have misrepresented them, do leave me a comment and put me straight.


At the building where I work, we've had the builders in since March. This means the lift has been out of commission and there's been nerve-frazzling racket from hammers and power-drills. Students have complained. The din has been toned down during lesson time and classes have been moved elsewhere whenever possible, but the whole business is a damn nuisance and has pissed everybody off. At a time of cuts and staff reduction, when even the very paperclips of your filing cabinet are all numbered, this is the reason for the building work. No further comment.           

Wednesday, 24 July 2013


Introductory sentence from a Chinese student's essay:

'As time goes on, the world has taken place.

I rather like this. It sounds at once meaningful and meaningless. You could preface it with 'Ahhhh, Glasshopper...' That dates me. How many readers understand that reference?

Bongggggg. Chingggg. (gongs)
Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (Shakuhachi there)
Master O-Nan Wang (the blind one, obviously.) 'We must not seek the answers to the questions, Glasshopper, but the questions to the answers...'

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Season Ticket

Expires 02/08/13
Monday morning. I board the 8.05 to work and find a quiet nook to sit in. I open my bag to get my season ticket, which usually resides in a small pocket along with my debit card and other plastic. Today it is not in its accustomed place.  Shit. It had better be somewhere in this bag: it’s worth £275.

It’s a capacious black bag with three compartments. It is stuffed with books, board pens, post-its, typewriters, wax tablets, mummies and dust. There's evidence of a breeding population of Bic biros down there, but only ultrasound will prove that. I scrabble about searching the blackness for a small navy-blue wallet.  No ticket. I’m getting angry now and sweating like a horse. It’s not here. Swining bloody rotten fuck. Fortunately my debit card is there, and I just have to shell out £19.00 on a day return.

I decide on the train home that I must have put the ticket on the kitchen counter when I emptied my pockets on Friday evening prior to shoving my clothes into the washing machine. These days I check my pockets carefully, having washed several season tickets over the last five years. (They stand up to this treatment remarkably well, but obviously get too soggy to go through a ticket barrier.) It’ll be sitting there when I get home, no sweat. However, the ticket is not on the kitchen counter, or the mantelpiece, or the living room windowsill, in the knife drawer, behind the CD player or under any of the many cushions. It's not under the microwave, under the sink or in the CD tower. Shitty rotten damn. I’m getting rattier and sweatier as I fail to turn it up. It is not on the bloody bookshelves or in the fucking fridge.

Did I leave it at the check-out of Tesco or Marks and Sparks, or Adnam’s wine shop on Friday on my way home? I call Adnam’s and end up talking to a machine. I call Tesco and end up talking to some bloody uncomprehending half-wit in some central office miles from Stamford. He says he’ll put me through to somebody or other, and then the line goes dead. I don’t call Marks, because the computer freezes and I can’t find the website to get a number. Every fucking bloody thing is fucking bloody rotten useless when you bloody bloody want to get something bloody well flaming done. I’m livid. The moronic, hysterical whooping of pigeons, that curse of the high summer, is now like the Chinese fucking water-torture and I could cheerfully wring their necks.

Did I put the ticket along with my plastic into my carrier bag at Marks, or Tesco, or Adnam’s? I do, sometimes, if I’m too laden to open the black bag. And Jesus fucking wept, did I throw the damn thing out with the carrier bags I stuffed with rubbish on Saturday morning? I put a pair of food bags over my hands and go outside and down to the big communal bins. It’s 32 degrees C, and throwing back a bin lid, I release a cloud of flies and a hot blast of putrefaction. It appears somebody has thrown away a Chinese take-out, as the oozing, soggy bin bags are covered in rice. I look closer and see that the rice is retreating from the sunlight - I've disturbed a maggot rave. I start rootling through the putrefying mess, while mentally conducting a telephone row with an obtuse fucking bimbo at Crosscountry trains.

‘No, I haven’t kept the receipt. But I have the debit card number and the bank transaction code.’

‘We ainley accept receipts?’

‘Why in bollocking hell can’t you accept the transaction code, you silly bitch?’

‘Bear with me?....’

I rip open old M&S ‘bags for life’ and rifle through green bread, blown fish skins and suppurating chicken bones. Get on with it, woman.

You have to gay to the station where you bought it? And fill in a form?’

‘And how bloody long’s that going to take?’

‘Bear with me…’

Next door’s chucked out a pizza which now looks like a septic scab that dropped off a rhino. You silly cow, don’t keep me stuck here much longer.   

‘I’m afraid I dayn’t neigh.’

Useless bloody rotten arses. I mentally hang up, give up, and go inside. I’m drenched in sweat and feel soiled in body and spirit, as if I’d been exhuming the week-old corpse of a murder victim. I want to move house.

I decide to look in the swing bin in the kitchen. In it, there’s a plastic carrier. It’s full of old receipts, and there among them is the little wallet with my season ticket, clean, dry, unharmed.

After peeling off my sodden clothes and a shower, I reflect that the swing bin should have been the first place I looked. I should have started with the simplest, most accessible, most obvious place. I realise that I unfailingly go for the worst-case scenario in any situation.

‘You’ve got a fan,’ a colleague told me this morning.

‘Oh yeah?’

It’s one of the new teachers, hired for the frantic summer courses, and to whom I’ve been assigned as a ‘buddy’.

‘Oh, she thinks you’re great -  you’re always so calm and relaxed, and really helpful and reassuring.’

I saw myself on Monday evening, Mr Calm-and-Relaxed, the Helpful, the Reassuring, dripping in sweat, furiously riving stinking, maggot-blown bin-bags apart, effing, blinding and fantasising the slaughter of pigeons and innocent call-centre kids.

I wonder if those people who crack up and go on shooting sprees are like me? They’re usually polite loners who shock everybody: ‘he seemed so normal!’ I just had a look at the mugshot on my rescued season ticket, though, and I reckon the reaction wouldn’t be ‘he seemed so normal’ from anyone who saw it, but more on the lines of: ‘God, he looks a cold-hearted bugger, doesn’t he? It’s just what you’d expect’.   


Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Visit of the Fleeting Gentlemen

Know all men by these presents:

Friday, 5 July 2013

'...makes it all worthwhile.'

TGIF! At 15.00 hours this afternoon I was hightailing it along the corridors of the David Beckham Building on my way to the station and freedom, last week now a stone removed from my shoe. In the corridors I am often enthusiastically greeted by people I think I don't know from Adam, so I wear what I think of as my 'Mykonos face', the expression of unfocused, vacuous affability that business owners on that pricey Aegean rock feel obliged to evince at all times, lest they offend some returning visitor who patronised their bar or restaurant on one occasion in 1989. Anyway, on my way out I coincided with Hanan coming the opposite way.

'Bye!' she said. 'I was happy today, because you were our teacher!'

You cannot grab and kiss veiled Saudi ladies - you risk being misunderstood. But I felt chuffed to bits for about a minute and a half. At least.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Perfect Piece

No, don't.
I thing it’s you can easy know, if the sentence who you are reading it was write from a berson who it’s have English for him ferest langauge, or it’s write from other one people who it’s not English him ferest langauge. Isn’t it? One point must further consider, even English sentence it looks so clear, it is not so train-wreck as previous, and you are easy to understand, it is possible to know the writer if his provenance is Anglophone one or not. I think you can have knowledge feeling. 

Yes, we’ve been marking essays again. Look, mes agneaux, this is your first attempt at putting together an essay using a number of academic sources, quoting them, paraphrasing them and referencing them. It might be only 800 words in length, but we understand that most of you find typing it as laborious as chiselling it onto a marble slab. We do not expect perfection, or anything approaching perfection: indeed we get a bit fed up when perfection is handed to us and the writer claims it as his own unaided work.

Mansoor sent me a draft of his essay on Thursday last for my final comments. The language level was pretty much that of the first sentence of my opening paragraph, but Mansoor is a dedicated and hard working lad who had really got to grips with the source texts, done some independent research, and produced a piece of work that was well organised and informative. The language was eccentric and erratic, but this is relatively early days, and that can be fixed. I e-mailed the piece back to him with a few small suggestions. Three days later I received the essay through the centre’s website. It was flawless: perfect grammar, perfect spelling and punctuation, not a single clod-hopping collocation, sentences flowing effortlessly from theme to rheme, and such a dependency of thing on thing as e’er I heard in draft. Obviously a native speaker had gone over the earlier version and given it a damn good buffing up.

When questioned, Mansoor produced a stack of drafts with my notes and corrections on them, and said he had followed my guidelines to the letter, and this explained the nonpareil before us. Well yes, a friend had cast an eye over it, just a bit. Now, as I said, Mansoor is a thoroughly dedicated student, and a touchingly earnest and grateful boy with it. I don’t believe he had any intent to deceive: in fact, I’ve decided he got his friend to check over the essay because he didn’t want to disappoint me after I’d given him so much feedback and advice. I think he sees the essay as a kind of present to me. It’s my fault for (once again) taking it for granted that all the students have understood that in our lessons, we focus on process, not product, and that getting somebody to edit your essay deprives you of a learning opportunity. I’m going to have to hammer this more in future.


A pox of paraphrasing: would it had never been invented. It’s the bane of an EAP student’s life around this time of year. I imagine myself faced with the task of paraphrasing Greek academic texts in order to produce an essay in Greek. I wouldn’t fancy it, and I’m very glad I’ll probably never have to. I found some arresting instances of the paraphraser’s art in Khulud’s essay. She has got the idea that paraphrasing your sources involves changing the words, but imagines that this is achieved simply by ransacking the dictionary: I wonder if Smith would recognise himself here:  

'ERG theory is capable to proffer model foe needs likewise to Maslow for definition pyramidal concatenation individual categorical in lieu of immobile (Smith, 2001)'

There's more in the same vein:

‘However, there are numerous theories and makes that help as replace tittles to the description of motivation.’ 

I might have got this arse-backwards, but I take this to mean that there are numerous examples of motivating forces. I checked one of her online sources, where the writer gives as an illustration of extrinsic motivation the parental bribe ‘I’ll give you a candy bar if you clean up your room’. Instead of simply quoting this directly, Khulud chose to paraphrase it, and came up with:

‘I will stretch you a chocolate piece if you spotless your area.’ 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Rant and a Recipe

It’s an uncertain business these days, English Language Teaching: famine or feast. Allowing for the fact that there’s many a slip, etc., for this year at least I’m in the chips until the end of November. I can’t look any further than that, though. Such regular readers as remain to me may remember that a couple of years ago our department fought off an attempt by the management slime-bags to sell us off to a kind of educational Macdonald’s. Well, it seems they’re at it again. At least they won’t issue a straight denial, which is as good as saying they’re still plotting. Maybe someone who knows more about economics and education and integrity than I do can explain this? We have the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners), a small department that is staffed by well-qualified people, is fairly busy most of the year and bursting at the seams from June to mid-September. It receives glowing feedback from the punters, and relative to its size, is the most profitable department in the university. Would you not expect such a department to be designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, and that any attempt to despoil it be decisively repulsed? Why do they want to flog it off? Well, they can replace us with younger, slimmer, prettier people who have just rolled off the CELTA production line, and staff with a fraction of our collective qualification and experience can be paid less than half what they pay us. Sod the long-term consequences, so long as certain fat cats get fatter. Once their desiccated hearts and fatty livers have packed up, what will they care about the state of education in this country?

Photo Well of Health
Anyway, I was going to share a recipe before you got me started. I decided famine rather than feast will be the leitmotif of my remaining days in this world, and I’d better start spending less on food. The other day I made a salade Niçoise: lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, tuna, anchovies, olives, capers, basil – no arguments about ‘authenticity’, please, I just used what I had in. I also added a couple of soft-boiled eggs. I have tended to limit severely my intake of eggs over the last few years for fear of their cholesterol content, but now they appear to have been reinstated, and man, what is more comforting than warm, runny egg-yolk mingling with the vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, lettuce and capers in your salad? Or bursting over crisp toast at breakfast? I looked up egg recipes in my large (and largely ignored) collection of cook books, found ‘fisherman’s eggs’ in The Silver Spoon, the Italian cookery Bible which I bought yonks ago and have never used. I cooked this a few evenings ago, adapting it to what I had in the cupboard and omitting the butter that blights the original. As I’ve said before, the allure of butter is lost on me, but by all means include the loathsome stuff if its vomit-and-sebum aroma appeals. Don't let me put you off.

Right, for the ‘fisherman’ bit, you need a couple of cans of sardines in oil. For the rest, get a fistful of chopped parsley, a smashed clove of garlic, two or three eggs and, optionally, a few capers and a splash of virulent chilli sauce. I say optionally as these are my additions to The Silver Spoon's original recipe. Heat the oven to very hot, and warm up a small oven dish. When it is warmed through, throw in your sardines, drained of oil. Pepper them extravagantly, add the garlic, and bung them in the oven for five minutes or so. When they are warm, scatter over them the parsley and capers, then add the eggs, taking care not to burst the yolks. Return the dish to the oven for seven minutes or so, until the whites of the eggs are set but the yolks are still smooth. Add the teensiest slatherette of chilli sauce. (Or the whole bottle, if you want - who am I to dictate?) I ate this with wholemeal toast rubbed with garlic, and a green salad. It was at once smooth and crisp, bland and salty, punchy and comforting, and probably cost about one pound fifty.

The original recipe tells you to remove the bones from the sardines, but I’ve never felt that necessary with the small, tinned variety at least - and anyway, how bloody fiddly would that be? Not as fiddly as that seventies Anton Mossiman recipe that called for the hollowing out of small, artfully corrugated courgettes, that they might be stuffed with pureed carrot, steamed, then sliced into decorative 'cog wheels', but too pernickety for me these days. I’ve been using Tesco more lately, as Marks and Sparks and Waitrose are getting absurdly overpriced. People in Tesco are more likely to talk to you in the queue, I’ve found. ‘They reckon you shouldn’t eat ready meals,’ an old woman in front of me said recently. ‘I can’t see what’s wrong wi em. Forty year cooking for two, now I’m on me own, I can’t be bloody arsed.’ Maybe I’ll be like that soon.    

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Now You're Cheating

I spent what must have amounted to several months of my fifteen-year stint in Greece trouncing badly-designed practice tasks in home-grown English language teaching material. Here’s one I’d regularly denounce in teacher training seminars:

Complete the sentence with the correct form of the verb:

Look! Mary ……… out the candles!

a)      is blowing
b)      has blown
c)      blew
d)      will blow
e)      is going to blow

We do not know – nor is it of any great consequence to us – who Mary is, where she is, or when the action is taking place. We don’t know who is drawing our attention to the fact that there’s a connection between Mary and the extinguishing, at some point in spacio-temporal continuum, of some sodding candles. Is it a doting Granny at a little girl’s birthday party? A dispute over who gets to close a Satanist ritual? Unless we know and give a stuff, all five options are a possibility. Context, I’d say evangelically, is all. No context, no meaning.   

This evening I got a text from a colleague telling me to start on page 9 of the course book tomorrow. This has practice of the distinction between simple and continuous forms in English, and our supposedly up-to-the-minute coursebook gives us this to do:     

Five of the following sentences are wrong. In pairs, identify which they are, and discuss why they are wrong.

1.      You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you.
2.      I was writing a letter to my mum on the train, but I didn’t have time to finish it.
3.      She’s working as an au pair until she goes to university.
4.      We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done
5.      My grandfather is knowing how to text.
6.      Look. He talks to the linguistics professor.
7.      Peter is studying telecommunications at the moment
8.      These days mobile phones get smaller.

Cotton D., et al (2008) Language Leader Upper Intermediate Harlow: Longman. 

You are supposed to go for numbers 1, 4, 5, 6 and 8. However, I reckon only number 5 stands out as obviously not 'natural'.Even the grammar checker on my laptop doesn't like it, because ‘know’ is a stative verb, and stative verbs are not used in continuous forms, except when they are. (‘Yah, it’s rarely good on you – and I’m liking the mandarin collar.’) Of course there are stative and non-stative uses of verbs rather than verbs that fall decisively into one or the other category, but I can’t, off hand, think of an instance of ‘know’ used in a continuous form, can you? Anyway, all the other ‘wrong’ forms seem perfectly OK to me, potentially:

1.      You’re absolutely right! I am agreeing with you, right, so chill, dude, yeah? (Use of the full form of the auxiliary here might itself suggest that interpretation.)

2.      We stay with our parents until the work on our house is done. It’s always such a pain. Where do you stay when you have the builders in, now your mum’s dead?

3.      My grandfather is knowing how to text. (‘Wrong’- or at least it tastes a bit off. However, see Scott Thornbury's comment below.)

4.      Look. He talks to the linguistics professor. Honestly he does. He talks to him after every lecture, but he never gets any sense out of the bugger, OK?

5.      These days mobile phones get smaller, computers get more sophisticated, consumer choice increases, yet how many of us, brothers and sisters, are truly happy?

In a university in England in 2013, are students to be presented with perfectly formed English sentences and required to judge them wrong? Well, not in my class they aren’t. I just hope everybody else is skipping this bit that got past the editors – or maybe even got put in by them. I know from painful experience that not everything you write for your book actually gets into it. Editors have egos too. 

Back in Greece, I gave a group of new teachers a few sentences to judge correct or incorrect. This they did quickly and decisively. Then by placing the sentences into various contexts, we proved them all ‘correct’. One woman was not happy. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘now you’re cheating.’  


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