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.
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