Vol. 1. No. 4 F-1 June 1995
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Thoughts on the Need to (Re)Claim, Explain, Define ESL/EFL/ ESP

Janet Sutherland

Forum Editor

Digging through the e-mail today, I came across a note about the upcoming issue of TESL-EJ to be dedicated to CALL. It is to be our first "special focus" or "theme" number, and those of us who have been working on it are eagerly awaiting its debut. But as I gasp my way through my current weekly schedule of teaching (23 hours), 2-day workshops (about one a month) and freelance translating (filling in all remaining gaps), a single question begs to be addressed: where will the time come from? Where will we find the time--individually and collectively--to learn new technologies, to explore their potential application in EFL/ESL, to develop materials and design courses that take full advantage of these new technologies? Even after I settle into a more "reasonable" schedule (16 hours) in the fall, will I be able to do more than maintain my current level of technology-related awareness and skills? Knowing the answer to this is important, since it is inextricably intertwined with the broader (but no less pressing) issues of curriculum reform and teaching loads. And these issues, in turn, relate to the larger question of who we are as ESL/EFL/ESP professionals and what it is that we do.

While its specific manifestations may differ from place to place, the problem is as familiar in other parts of the world as it is here in Germany. For those who are not familiar with them, German academic hierarchies tend to be structurally, if not in other respects, somewhat feudal; the "lords" (professors) typically teach half as many hours for twice the money as "vassals" (e.g., language and area studies teachers). The discrepancy is justified by and codified in laws that spell out different spheres of activities for professors (who are permitted to carry out research) and Lektors (who are prohibited from doing so during working hours).

The rationale behind this has to do with beliefs about the nature of language teaching (as opposed to literature, criticism and linguistics), i.e., that it is an activity that requires little or no special preparation or training, that there are textbooks available, and that since EFL instructors in Germany are not expected to carry out research, they have more time available for teaching. (Materials development and the learning of new technologies--if, indeed, these activities are considered at all-- are simply not in the same league as scholarly research and thus are not factored in when determining teaching loads.)[-1- ]

Under the best of conditions, these terms are respected (if not always cheerfully accepted by EFL teachers), and everyone goes about his or her business. When money is tight and administrations are on the lookout for turnips to squeeze, however, both professors and Lektors tend to turn defensive; an attitude surfaces of "my work is more demanding, more important, more valuable than his/hers." For a variety of reasons, those most likely to be caught in the squeeze are the language teachers--those who teach applied skills and area studies courses that administrations and professors consider secondary to the "real" work of a university. (This view has a long tradition in Germany; when foreign languages were first introduced into the university curriculum, "language masters" were grouped with teachers of skills: with "singing masters" and with "riding and fencing masters" -- in other words, with sports.)

Though the German university infrastructure may lend itself especially well to supporting "academic" teaching and undermining "service" teaching, the lines of contention are surely familiar to all of us in the EFL/ESL profession.

The catalyst this time around appears to be German reunification and the concomitant "unification" of foreign language and area studies teachers from the former GDR and the Federal Republic. Post-secondary language teachers in the "new" states taught 20 hours a week under the communist regime, and have continued to do so since reunification. If they could/can do it (so goes the argument), so can teachers in the "old" states (who currently teach 16 hours or less, with a few exceptions). Of course, such "single factor" thinking ignores collateral considerations as class size, types of courses taught (mainly translation and grammar in the GDR), proficiency levels, and accumulated teaching experience--all of which affect the number of hours that can be taught without compromising quality. It also ignores changing expectations and practices in foreign language teaching in the "new" states.

Discussions in the TESL* lists and TESL-EJ have also tended to center around single aspects of the complex of issues related to workload and professionalism-- not surprising, in view of the "engineering approach" to education taken in much of the world: define a "problem" and offer a "solution". The danger is that in formulating narrowly-defined solutions to equally narrowly-defined problems, we tend to create at least as many problems as we alleviate. We hold the line on class size and discover to our dismay that the "only" way to achieve that goal in the administration's view is by increasing the total number of hours we teach. We are continually pressed to choose the lesser of two evils, and each "choice", once made, effectively eliminates an infinite number of other choices we might have made at some point in the future. [-2-]

If there is a way to short-circuit this all-too-familiar cycle, it is to be found less in the specific negotiating positions we take as each new situation arises than in the broader definition we give to our profession and to our activities within that profession. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to develop a clear sense of our professional values and objectives, as well as of the conditions that allow us to perform at optimum levels. And we must find ways to articulate these in such a manner as to help both our students and our employers and colleagues in other disciplines understand what it is we really *do* and what the requisite conditions are for *doing* it optimally. Such definition is in our own interest, to be sure, but it is also in the interest of our employers and our language-learner clients. (Let's assume that all involved parties share the common interest of "optimizing" the performance of all concerned.) It is not an easy task --if indeed it is even possible--but to the extent that we fail to define ourselves, we will continue to be defined by others whose lack of knowledge about EFL/ESL leads to unrealistic expectations of the profession, and whose authority allows them to impose those expectations on us.

That said, if we were to write a mathematical formula to describe the interactions of the complex of factors that permit and encourage EFL/ESL professionals to perform optimally, what would it look like? I imagine it would be an equation containing multiple, variously interdependent variables, with each variable being mathematically so represented that its graphic representation (i.e., the resulting curve or line) would have both positive (person- and profession-enhancing) and negative (counter-productive, destructive) values. I further imagine that a single factor might vary directly in relation to others, or it might vary inversely, or it might, like the electrical conductivity of a semi-conductor, have fairly constant (say, positive) values under a variety of (non-critical) conditions, then shift suddenly to sharply negative values when a critical condition is met, rather like a single drop of coffee making an already full cup overflow.

Admittedly, I'm not a mathematician, so these metaphoric speculations may be somewhat fanciful. Nevertheless, there are a number of often unstated assumptions held by one group or another that need to be questioned as we work toward professional definition:

Let's examine these one at a time:

  1. More is better. Like the unqualified belief in progress or the saying that "it is better to give than to receive," this assumption is most welcome when applied to someone else--his or her teaching load, not mine. Even Japanese corporations, long famous for their 12+-hour executive workdays, now recognize that after a point, longer hours result in decreased, not increased efficiency and productivity. At some point, "more"-- more students, more hours, more marking, more extracurricular duties--exceeds everyone's adaptive capacity and compromises quality rather than enhancing it.

    Language and area studies faculty at one German university documented their professional activities over the course of a year and found to their dismay (though not to their surprise) that at the current 16-hour teaching load, they had worked anywhere from 100 to 500 overtime hours each during that period. This is despite the fact that classes are held only seven months of the year. During the semester, Lektor average anywhere from 45 to 60-hour workweeks. Despite this documented overload, the administration would like to increase teaching loads to 20 hours, the additional hours to be given in the form of intensive courses between semesters--currently the only time when language teachers can catch their breath, recharge their batteries, mark semester and state examinations and prepare [-4-] courses for the next semester's onslaught. Add 25% to the overtime figures currently reported--a calculation which assumes all other factors remain constant--and see what you get. Somewhere between the 40-hour week specified in the contract and the projected overload that would result from this calculation is the point at which the instinct to self- preservation presumably takes over and the Lektor torches the contract. Long before that point has been reached, however, one's health, the quality of one's teaching, and one's sense of professional satisfaction begin to suffer.

  2. Less is better. Granted, there are days when nothing appeals so much as the thought of no classes, no students, no papers to mark. But what happens when we have too little of the following: contact with students, input from peers, constructive feedback about our teaching, time to reflect on and assimilate our experiences, stimulation to think and rethink--both within and outside our field, and too little encouragement, respect, and recognition? What happens is that we stop growing, we stagnate and wither, and we accumulate a backlog of experiential "unfinished business" that sooner or later manifests itself in symptoms of stress: decreased resilience, increased rigidity, and, eventually, full-scale burnout.

  3. ESL/EFL teaching is a largely mechanical (i.e., not intellectual) activity. The consequence of this kind of thinking is often an overemphasis on the kinds of activities that are at least as effective at inducing trancelike states in learners and teachers alike as they are at encouraging learning. I suspect, moreover, that this assumption is largely responsible for the vast quantities of CALL materials that are little more than electronic versions of the mechanical textbook exercises we love to hate. Actually, my concern is not the presence of mechanical drills (which, I am convinced, do have value), but the relative lack of materials that fully exploit new technologies and provide a wider range of language learning activities.

  4. ESL/EFL teaching is a largely a matter of skills transfer, hence ESL/EFL teachers do not need to do research. This assumption is doubly insidious. On the one hand, it seems to minimize the complexity and value of effective skills transfer and to imply that skills transfer is a lower order of teaching than that done by those who do scholarly research. In fact, all teaching should incorporate skills transfer, including learning skills, and not merely information transfer. Knowledge transfer without skills transfer is of limited value; skills transfer at its best enables the learner to continue to learn as the situation demands. On the other hand, research by EFL [-5-] professionals can lead to enhanced effectiveness of both skills and information transfer as well as to continued professional growth. Who is in a better position to carry out the kinds of second or foreign language learning research needed to continue improving language teaching? What advantage can there be in continuing to forcefully separate theoretical and applied linguistics?

  5. Adequate textbooks are available for all flavors of ESL/EFL/ESP teaching and meet teachers' as well as students' needs. A glance at the discussions that take place on the TESL-L and TESLMW-L lists suggest that despite an abundance of materials, much of it of excellent quality, "it ain't necessarily so"; all needs have not been met. Does anyone know of a good content-oriented textbook for microsystem technology? Or for transformer manufacture? Or of one for computer science that isn't at least partially obsolete by the time it hits the market? And how about high quality CALL materials for any of these? The high degree of specialization we are often expected to build into our (especially cross-disciplinary) courses, combined with our own, often JIT (just-in-time) need to become conversant in fields far from our academic origins, makes adequate textbooks (were they to be written and offered to publishers) unlikely prospects for publication under current practices. Add to this the differences from one national market to another in terms of educational policy and curriculum and you have a nightmare for all involved: publishers, materials developers and teachers.

  6. Using textbooks saves enough preparation time to justify significantly increasing teaching hours. This kind of thinking robs Peter to pay Paul. How many of us use textbooks (rather than gathering and preparing our own materials) in part *because* we have so many hours that we have to choose where we invest the little time available? How many of us save time on preparation so we will have more time to give our students feedback? In the university study mentioned above, some Lektors found they were spending 1/3 of their time in teaching (i.e. in contact with students) and fully 2/3 of their time on class preparation, administrative duties, and marking. Marking was by far the largest proportion of the latter, which meant less time was available for adequate preparation. For better or worse, few of the courses taught by Lektors are texbook courses. Most are individually prepared by the Lektors between the semesters.

  7. ESP teaching is no different from "standard" foreign language teaching. Harumpf. To succeed, an ESP teacher must master more than a specialized vocabulary. Thinking styles, problem solving methods, and communication strategies within professional groups differ as well.[-6-]

  8. ESP teaching at its best requires teachers to be fully qualified in both EFL and in the subject area. Again, harumpf. Actually, I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two extreme positions, and varies depending on the language and content levels being taught.

  9. Language teaching can be content-free ("pure" language teaching) and effective at the same time. Even in my most avid audiolingual days, there were times when I found it necessary to explain culture-specific elements of the exercises. It may be that language teaching at beginning levels can be like Ivory Snow: 99 and 44/100 percent pure. However, at post-secondary levels the vast bulk of language teaching is at intermediate (that vast and ill-defined territory) and advanced levels, hence the assertion has little applicability.

  10. Curriculum reform (i.e., improvements) can be imposed from above and implemented simultaneously with increases in teaching loads. This may be true in cases where underutilization is a problem (a theoretical, if not real possibility), but in general, teaching loads and class sizes must be within reasonable limits *before* curriculum reform can be implemented. Why? Because such reforms invariably mean the development of new courses, new examinations, and often the acquisition of new competencies (e.g., computer skills, simulation facilitation skills, video production skills, and so on) before they can be implemented. And this means a significant investment of time, far more than can reasonably be expected of someone who is already working 45-60 hours a week on administrative and teaching-related activities. Ironically, planned reforms acknowledge the importance of teacher-student contact by calling for an additional 5 hours a week of mentoring by Lektors between semesters. (Compare: Professors, whose "right" to do research is apparently inalienable, would be asked to make themselves available to students for a single additional hour a week.)

None of this adds up to a clear statement of professional identity, but it may serve to point to some of the factors that need to be taken into consideration as we work toward such a statement. As increasing numbers of us--employers and EFL/ESL professionals alike--consider computer and Internet literacy and familiarity with CALL resources to be essential qualifications alongside the more traditional ones, it seems wise to stand back a bit and try to imagine how all the pieces might fit together.

TESL-EJ invites reaction to this Forum column. If you would like to add your voice to the Forum, please contact the Forum Editor.


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