Monday, March 5, 2012

Local English Teaching Magazine Falls into its own "Practical" Trap

The newest issue of "The English Connection" (TEC magazine) included a short editorial that I have some serious issues with. I sent my response to the editor, but unsurprisingly he has shown no interest in publishing it. This wasn't really my goal in writing it. If it was I would have waited until I was a little less emotional about this. But I think TEC magazine, in all of its virtues as a practitioner-oriented publication, overstepped its self imposed limitations and as a result has embarrassed itself and its readers. Anyway, you can read my full response below. I know I'm leaving myself open here, as this is quite an emotional response, but hey, what good is intellectual debate without a little fire?

Response to Elliot Patton's “Korea's Proofreading Woes”
by Curtis Porter

I would like to offer my humble response to the editorial by Elliot Patton in the Spring 2012 edition of The English Connection. In this short piece, the writer shares a story about a coffee shop he visited with his young son. He describes his feelings about a grammatical irregularity in the graphics painted on a second story wall, and he uses this as a springboard into an indictment of the use of Konglish in public spaces in Korea. The writer seems appalled by the inability of Koreans to use English in ways he deems satisfactory. After expressing how embarrassed Korean people should feel for such uses of English, he concludes with an open ended question about how teachers might best approach the “cleaning up of Konglish.” His goal seems to have been little more than to offer a crude reminder that we need to work harder to eradicate what he feels to be a contaminated variety of English. Mr. Patton gives the reader a straight-forward and practical question. Unfortunately he assumes that the problems that underlie his question are equally straight-forward. They are not.
Mr. Patton's unexamined convictions read like a caricature of viewpoints that were contested long ago in more intellectually rigorous media. He does little more than perpetuate half-dead myths that the larger field of English education has been slowly overcoming for many years. It has been over a decade since Vivian Cook (1999) systematically dismantled common-sense notions of native speakers and native Englishes. In the same year, Canagarajah (1999) provided a frame for ways international English teachers might develop a politically salient approach to their work. It has been almost thirty years since Kachru (1985) incited a larger debate in the rapidly growing field of World Englishes. Mr. Patton offers us nothing new or interesting in regard to these spheres of academic thought. He willingly admits that “many factors can potentially be blamed for this [persistence of Konglish]...” but finally concedes that “it is not my place to delve into speculation.” In other words, he wishes to gloss over the why in pursuit of the how.
More interesting than Mr. Patton's beliefs is the question of what they are doing in a professional publication. What value did the editors of TEC see in his work and what did they wish to accomplish by publishing it? Given the editors' call for responses, one might guess they were trying to provoke discussion on a potentially contentious topic. Yet the reader is given no hint as to what the topic of discussion is meant to be. Is this a linguistic issue? A social or cultural issue? An educational issue? As any teacher will agree, an important key to facilitating a productive debate is to introduce relevant parameters. This can be done by giving example arguments, presenting opposing perspectives, posing pointed questions, and so on. Yet given the lack of any direction on how to engage with these ideas, the reader is left to assume the editors are presenting this as the intellectual position of the magazine (which, in the rather arrogant words of the writer, involves a “policing of incorrect English”). If this is not the case, then the only other reasonable conclusion seems to be that they have published these ideas in order to invoke issues that they are not prepared or willing to deal with in an adequately intellectual manner. This brings the larger mission of TEC into question.
If Mr. Patton is correct in suggesting that TEC writers would do well to overlook the messier and more complex why questions in the pursuit of more concrete and efficient how questions, then the publication of his work speaks to a much larger danger in the professional model that the editors of TEC have adopted. The magazine is obviously written by and for practitioners and thus places great value on practical and experiential knowledge. There are obvious advantages to this approach. It is ideal if one wishes to swap teaching tips and personal experiences. Developing a space for teachers to share ideas without relying on highbrow academic conventions is both exciting and promising, and there are numerous high-quality practitioner oriented journals that have taken this approach. Yet if TEC seeks to build a practical and collaborative knowledge base in Korean ELT, it is important to recognize the limitations of doing so.
Put simply, there are finer points to teaching that cannot be adequately explored in 500 to 1000 word mini-essays. This is not a problem as long as you leave complex topics like those invoked in Mr. Patton's editorial to more progressive and academic minded publications. The decision to publish his piece in this setting, however, requires more creative and responsible editorial work. If you wish to begin touching on sociolinguistic and cultural aspects of English education in Korea in a less than intellectually rigorous format, then you must do so in ways that creatively and thoughtfully implement various perspectives, and you must do so in ways that encourage substantive debate. The short exchange between Deubelbeiss and Griffin later in this same issue is a fabulous example of how you might achieve such a goal.
As published, Mr. Patton's antiquated beliefs on important sociolinguistic and cultural issues seem to have no intellectual merit, and even the practical worth of his editorial is questionable. TEC's failure to responsibly engage with the issues between the lines of his piece exposes a danger of giving credibility to an opinion that is blatantly out of date and uninformed. It also begs an important question: upon what authority should this 'practical' approach to ELT knowledge be built? Creating a platform for the voices of teachers in the trenches is a noble goal, but must it mean that we are subject to the rants of every ex-backpacker who has managed to break into the business of ELT publishing?
I am in no way suggesting that the views expressed in the editorial should be censored or overlooked. Even ideas as short-sighted as Mr. Patton's prove useful from time to time. I simply take issue with the careless way his unexamined beliefs were promoted by your magazine. Clearly, it is not necessary to publish long winded academic articles in order to address contentious issues in Korean English education. But your decision to offer such an abbreviated treatment of them means that you have a responsibility to include a variety of intellectual perspectives (you might approach an informed Korean educator or a qualified professional in the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, or cultural studies). The editorial staff blatantly dropped the ball on this one. The decision to publish Mr. Patton's piece, at best, reveals consequences of taking an overtly anti-academic approach to English language education, and at worst, suggests the potential of TEC to do for education what Lonely Planet has done for cross-cultural understanding.

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999). Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2). pp. 185 – 209.

Kachru, B.B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk and H. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (pp. 11-36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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