Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages

This will be a quick blog. I am on my way to Buenos Aires shortly, to participate in the FAAPI Conference (Federación Argentina de Asociaciones de Profesores de Inglés) in Buenos Aires. I haven’t done many conferences so far this year, and I’ve done even fewer outside Brazil. When I got off the plane in São Paulo in February, I did not want to sit in another bucket seat for a good few months. But now we’re getting back on the horse. We’ve got FAAPI in BA this week, and another in Vilnius, in Lithuania, in less than a month’s time.

I largely enjoy conferences. My first English teachers’ conference was a TESOL Scotland event in the mid-1980s. I was one of a small team working at Stirling University at the time, and the conference was a sudden means of access to other people with similar interests, similar problems and better solutions. I realised that I had been feeling lonely and hadn’t realised it. And so I joined the Scottish association, and have been taking minutes in different places for one group or another, in some capacity, ever since.

Obviously, now, I get different things from conferences. One is simply to connect again with old friends whom I mainly only meet at conferences now. One nice thing about regular conferences is watching little explosions of pleasure here and there, as people recognise each other, yelp, and fling themselves into an embrace. Another more commercial reason for attending conferences, as an author, is to publicise your work and get useful feedback from those who are actually teaching with it. And yes, I do get a kick out of book signings. But what do I get from sitting in the audience now?

This question is raised, indirectly, in one of my favourite campus novels, Small World by David Lodge, which updates the plot of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the present day. Instead of going on a pilgrimage, his hero attends conferences – but the entanglements, misunderstandings, stories, and humour remain remarkably similar. Lodge writes:

“The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to papers of others.”

I did once go to a conference presentation that attempted to answer the question, “What do we get out of conference presentations?” The answer (the speaker’s detailed investigations seemed to suggest) is: “Not much.” The presentations themselves, he argued, are not the main thing about conferences; people don’t remember them in any great detail, it seems. The main thing is the social and professional networking in the spaces between the presentations – the discussions, arguments, gossip about the next big thing, and the opportunity to share opinions with informed and enthusiastic fellow professionals.

Perhaps that is true. Certainly some conference presentations I’ve been to recently by major figures in the ELT have come to resemble polished pieces of performance art rather than reports of research-based struggles to come to new and helpful understandings of the language and how to teach it. The best presentations (for me) combine a little of both. And I do remember ‘eureka’ moments of good conference presentations – an idea to take away and try myself, something to adapt, an article to follow up … an assumption questioned. The illumination I get from a good conference presentation is not always immediate: an issue that a presenter raises nags at the back of my head for a while, and then surfaces later, perhaps to change the direction my professional life is going. And of course bad conference presentations are also good. You learn what not to do. You gain confidence: “I can be as good as that,” you think, often foolishly.

And conferences, too, are changing. My email inbox is clogged with rather frightening invitations to join Virtual FAAPI and follow the conference proceedings in hyperspace as well as in the physical world. (I have avoided opening those emails up.) I am abashed by watching co-presenters tweet as they juggle their powerpoint slides or prezis. My Facebook pages are equally clogged by friends tweeting in real time from conference presentations they are attending. David Lodge writes, in another of his novels, that “Information is the religion of the modern world.” Sometimes I feel we have too much of it. When I am presenting, now, I have to suppress the idea that someone in the third row is simultaneously keying into a smart phone: “Fatter& greyer than his program pic. LOL!”

So I’m back on a plane tomorrow and looking forward to being in Buenos Aires again, meeting up with old friends and making new. There is a small knot of folk interested in intercultural language education, many of them orbiting erratically around the extraordinary ball of energy that is Andrea Assenti del Rio, my co-organizer of a Facebook group on that subject. It will be good to put some faces to the names, so do say hello. To finish with a last quote from David Lodge, again from Small World:

“Intensity of experience is what we’re looking for, I think. We know we won’t find it at home any more, but there’s always the hope that we’ll find it abroad.”

See you in Argentina.

FAAPI 2013: http://www.apiba.org.ar/faapi13

Intercultural Language Education SIG (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/groups/250536458398597/

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Instagrammar?

Instagrammar?

Wherever I am, I haunt second-hand bookshops. There was a time I could navigate most cities I visited by their second-hand bookshops: Charing Cross Road in London, Homer Street in Vancouver, Leninski Prospekt in Moscow, Otago Street in Glasgow, Spittal Street in Stirling…

Probably the bookshops I fondly remember have long gone, but I’ve now found a cluster of them, sebos as they’re called here, in Sao Paulo, just along from FNAC in Pinheiros.

So I spend happy hours browsing. And last week I picked up a dog-eared, black-covered paperback called “A Primer of Visual Literacy”, written by someone with the unlikely name of Donis A. Dondis, and published by MIT Press in 1973. God only knows how it ended up in Sao Paulo, but that is the beauty of second-hand bookshops. The books have a mysterious history.

I’ve been reading “A Primer of Visual Literacy” with considerable interest and pleasure. This is a little surprising, since academic books of this nature tend to go out of date quickly. My publishers tell me they expect my textbooks to have a shelf-life of about three years, so finding something of relevance and use in a 40 year-old textbook is remarkable. But in fact some of the interest in the book is Ms Dondis’ prophetic instinct, in particular about the way photographs will change our means of communication:

“[The camera] forms the final connecting link between being able to see, and the external capability to report, interpret, express what we see, without having to have special talent or training to effect the process. There is little doubt that contemporary life style has been influenced, and crucially, by the changes enacted on it by the fact of the photograph. […] Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but, nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptibly toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future.” (p.7)

This passage was written several decades before the advent of the internet and the smart phones that would allow everyone (without ‘special talent or training’) to chronicle their everyday lives, and those of their dogs, cats, children and lovers, and post them on Facebook or Instagram or Flickr, with just a truncated message or a symbolic smiley to indicate an attitude or a comment. We now spend much of our days navigating snapshots and ‘selfies’, images endlessly created and recycled, forwarded and then no doubt quickly forgotten. Donis A. Dondis’ view was that some basic training would improve the quality of our reception and production of images, and that this kind of training was becoming increasingly urgent. If that was true in 1973, it is surely even truer now. The importance of the visual in English Language education is evident in the interest shown in the upcoming Image Conference in Brasilia (which I would love to attend but doubt if I’ll be able to: see https://www.facebook.com/The.Image.Conference for details).

As her manual continues, it is clear that Ms Dondis takes a psychological – we would probably now say a ‘cognitive’ – approach to the processing of images. She considers how, across different cultures, the viewer tends to begin looking at the top mid part of an image, the eyes tracking down to the lower left before swinging back up to the right. This fundamental interaction with the image determines things like the flow of information, context and novelty, and (she argues) a sense of pleasing balance versus displeasing irregularity. How we compose elements of an image, either representational or abstract, is affected by this basic mode of engagement with the page, canvas or computer screen.

The book, unsurprisingly, is full of advice on achieving harmony or contrast by arranging the elements of an image. The notion of combining elements of an image into a meaningful whole is, of course, a grammatical one, and we can consider the manual a little descriptive (or even, at times prescriptive) grammar of visual communication; however, at one point in her discussion, Ms Dondis alludes directly to the subversive power of language teaching:

“There is a Berlitz approach to visual communication. You don’t have to learn to decline verbs or spell words or learn syntax. You learn by doing.” (p.37)

In other words, the learner does not necessarily acquire visual literacy by reading about symmetry, asymmetry, flatness, depth of field, perspective, distortion or colour saturation. The learner acquires visual literacy by picking up the phone (or the camera, or indeed the pack of crayons) and making images.

And yet, here I think, in visual literacy as well as in language education, there is much to be learned from the appropriate use of models. I’ve also recently been reading about the classic ‘street photography’ of Robert Doisneau, the French photographer who captured iconic images of Paris, particularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. There are numerous debates about the ‘authenticity’ of Doisneau’s images, and the extent to which they were constructed or composed, but there is little doubt that they feel spontaneous, and that they capture a world that now looks distant, even to those of us familiar with the French capital. The past, as the author L.P. Hartley observed, is also a foreign country.

The images of photographers and artists can be used to help learners begin to make their own visual images – not, as in the audio-lingual method of language learning, to specify rigid ‘products’ to be mimicked, but, as in more communicative approaches, to provide a resource that supports the ‘process’ of learning how to compose, balance, and present the image.

For example, anyone teaching in a school might look at Doisneau’s photo ‘Les Doigts Pleins d’Encre’ [Fingers covered in ink], which shows one schoolchild seated at his desk, writing tablet before him, staring thoughtfully into space while his neighbour peers across at what he has written. How can that image be ‘translated’ into the context of another classroom, in another culture, today? Would the learners still be seated in rows? Would the neighbour be stealing a glance at a writing tablet, or a digital tablet, a laptop screen, or a smartphone? Our own learners can be invited to recreate the image and compare theirs with Doisneau’s – at this point, the vocabulary that Dondis A. Dondis teaches us about symmetry, focus, scale and subtlety might come into play:

* Are the two learners in sharp focus against a slightly unfocused background.
* Is there a contrast in, for example, the hair colour of the angelic, blond dreamer versus his darker-toned, cheating neighbour?
* What is the point of view of the person holding the camera – teacher, fellow-pupil or just someone who wandered into the classroom, off the street?

This kind of activity makes a virtuous circle of visual interpretation (describing Doisneau’s original), practice in production (recreating Doisneau’s image) and theory (using Dondis or another theorist to help compare the original and the recreation). The recreation and updating of the image force us to notice things we might otherwise take for granted. And the verbal description of the two images – giving an account of the differences and similarities – extends both our learners’ visual and verbal literacies.

So go on: get your phone out. Become an instagrammarian.

References:

Dondis, D.A. (1973) A Primer of Visual Literacy. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press

Rose, G. (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage

Interactivity

Interactivity

Every so often, I realise that I am an old fossil from a different era. In particular, I realise that my educational formation took place at a time when things like lectures were quite different from the way they are now. For example, at some point in 1977 or 1978, in my first year as an undergraduate student at Glasgow University, I attended the final lecture in an introductory series on English grammar. The lecturer was a dapper gentleman called Les Collier, who wore the customary gown to keep the chalk off his dark suit. His lectures referred to a text-book based on early Hallidayan grammar, written by what seemed to be a team of Australian solicitors: Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard. As a climactic flourish, Mr Collier spent the full hour of the final lecture using the grammatical model to analyse the first sentence – only the first sentence, mind – of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. If you know the poem, you’ll know it’s a long sentence, a Latinate period, no less, harking back to the opening of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and the analysis was a tour de force. I remember furiously trying to copy his step-by-step reasoning into my handwritten lecture notes, while a voice at the back of my head was saying, ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’

I later called on my English Language tutor, an equally nice man called David Murison, who was a distinguished lexicographer of Scots, to ask him for help in understanding the finer details of the analytical model. He looked at me with the bemused expression of a man just about to retire, and said, ‘Son, there are three things in life you should never chase. A woman, a number 9 bus, and a new grammatical theory. There’ll be another one along in a minute.’

Education often happens in unexpected ways. I am reminded of Les Collier’s lecture as a consequence of participating, over the past weekend, in my first ever webinar. There were two reasons for this: the first was that the webinar was hosted by IATEFL BESIG on the topic of using literature to develop intercultural reading strategies, and it was given by a good friend, Claudia Ferradas, with whom I have collaborated on several British Council sponsored events over the years. And the second was that I’ve recently been invited by Cambridge Brazil to deliver one of their first webinars, probably around the end of October – and I said yes. So I wanted to find out how a webinar works.

There was a slight problem in that, on the day of the webinar, my wife and I had decided to escape to the countryside of Sao Paulo, to a farm that has no internet or phone connection. And so just before 11 am local time, I was dropped off in the small, rural town of Piracaia. I made my way to a LAN House, where I logged onto a pc at the cost of one Brazilian ‘real’ per 20 minutes, put on my headphones to baffle the noise of passing mopeds and horse-drawn carts, and joined the webinar.

The hour shot past. Claudia sat at home in Buenos Aires, the moderator introduced her from Austria, and my forty-odd fellow participants dutifully identified themselves as being from places as distant as Peru, the USA, the Netherlands, and Israel. While Claudia delivered a polished lecture, illustrating it with powerpoint slides and videos, my fellow participants and I kept up a synchronous commentary in a chat-box – praising, querying, joking, adding personal experiences, and just expressing thanks for being there. Claudia was talking about reading and rewriting literary texts to enhance language development and explore cultural values, and to her own evocative examples others added their own suggestions. She used, for example, a video of Benjamin Zephaniah performing his poem, ‘Talking Turkeys’, to which one participant responded that she had compiled a whole set of worksheets on Zephaniah’s work. Email addresses were quickly shared.

As well as the lively chat room, there was a second box for more serious questions that Claudia had been primed to respond to, but out of the 40-odd participants, only I used that facility (and that was probably because I was partly logging in to test the webinar’s functionality). Claudia later told me there were other interactive options that I’d missed – and these also hadn’t been used by other participants. And Claudia had answered my questions anyway, before she even got to the discussion part of the webinar.

It was a long, long way from that lecture-hall in Glasgow, where, with specks of chalk-dust suspended in the air, Les Collier had performed his scale and category analysis of rank-shifting in ‘Paradise Lost’. So what did I learn from the interactive webinar, apart from the useful tips about intercultural reading that Claudia shared? One was that no matter how the Internet collapses time and space, to enable someone like me to talk to Argentina, Peru, Israel and the Netherlands while sitting in rural Piracaia, we still like our geographical points of reference – or at least, our Austrian moderator did, as she regularly intervened to ask participants to add their location to their name. I queried this at one point, wondering whether we should give something like our favourite colours rather than our locations, but it seems, curiously, that we like to know where our fellow participants are situated physically, as well as virtually. And I am not immune to that desire myself.

Secondly, I was interested in how supportive the back-channelling was in the chat room. A constant stream of love and encouragement flowed – quite rightly – in Claudia’s direction. I wondered if Les Collier would have enjoyed the same, thirty-odd years ago. For some years, I found myself in the curious position of having inherited his first-year grammar lectures at Glasgow University, and, though the Hallidayan grammar book had long been dispensed with, for a while I toyed with the idea of reviving the ‘Paradise Lost’ theme of the final lecture, before reluctantly giving it up. Even so, I had to stare into the eyes of 400 students who were new to the subject, and explain to them how to recognise phrases and clauses that were intricately embedded within complex sentences. Would I have benefited from a synchronous feedback loop? Or would that have sent me screaming from the lecture hall? Claudia later told me that the biggest challenge of delivering the webinar was keeping one eye on the chat interaction while remaining focused on the delivery of the content – I can imagine that it was like spinning plates on poles, and she did incredibly well not to let them tumble and smash.

The third thing that occurred to me was that, despite its jolliness, there was little real depth to the webinar interaction. There were hints, yes, at a deeper hinterland in the participants’ engagement with the content of the lecture – the reference to the worksheets on Benjamin Zephaniah was one such clue. But the chat was largely chat – deeper probing of the issues Claudia raised seemed, well, impolite, and perhaps even a contradiction of the still-evolving norms of cross-cultural participation across several continents by relative strangers in a free learning event designed for their professional development. And very probably it is too much to ask of a lecture or webinar audience to grasp and formulate a considered response to the implications of a presentation the instant it is delivered – we need to go home, as I did thirty years ago, with my copy of Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard, and my copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, and spend some time just thinking and worrying – trying to answer for myself the question ‘Why?’ that plagued me during the lecture.

No doubt other webinars are different – and perhaps in the one I plan to give for Cambridge Brazil there will be awkward participants, questioning the basis of my every claim, with deeply considered theoretical challenges that they will formulate within seconds of my spouting some nonsense. For the sake of my own fragile self-esteem, I rather hope not. Still, if you would like to participate in the webinar and if you have any ideas about topics you would like me to cover, do email me by early October of this year. And watch out for the event on the Cambridge Brazil website.

After all, now we have interactivity, we need to learn to use it.

References

Scott, F.S.,C.C. Bowley, C.S. Brockett, J.G. Brown and P.R. Goddard (1968). English Grammar: A Linguistic Study of its Classes and Structures, London: Heinemann Educational Books.

IATEFL BESIG Webinars: http://www.besig.org/events/online/default.aspx

Cambridge Brazil: http://www.cambridge.org.br/news-events