This is part of what’s wrong with you! You do too much singing!
Yesterday I covered a class for an absent colleague. I was asked to focus on speaking and listening skills. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years and I still have next to no idea about how to teach speaking and listening. I’ve bought books -bloody expensive ones- on how to set about these endeavours, but the truth is that my interest wanes somewhere shortly after the introduction. It could be that today;s post is a sort of anonymous public confession. But deep down, way down in the murky depths of my inner soul, I’m kind of proud of what I did yesterday. Perhaps I just need validation?
Where I work, classes are ridiculously long. Seats are ridiculously cheap. Which means that students’ arses must be ridiculously sore. No matter how much I have this in mind, these days I find my teaching tends towards lecture styles with students spending a long time sat there listening to me expound upon the virtues of one thing or another. Yesterday I excelled myself (or reached an all time low, you decide).
The students have a reasonable level of English. These days I would be inclined to saying that they were B1+ or B2. The letters and the numbers give me a sense that there is a science to categorising people’s linguistic proficiency. If you were to push me for a slightly more detailed description of the abilities, I suspect that I would be come incoherent and inconsistent.
They are also interested in learning what is termed academic English. In fact, it is probably capitalised, thus: Academic English. I tell them (and myself) that there is no such thing. That this is evidence of how the language has been commodified in order to be sold off in lucrative chunks to those who need to pay for it. English iz English, sez I.
But still I give consideration to what it means I can get away with in the lesson. The life of a teaching DoS means that there is not enough time to either manage well or teach well. One tries to do what one can in whatever time is available. On this occasion, it means that I feel justified in lecturing the students. For a long time. For a very long time. For about an hour, to be precise. And about probably means slightly longer than.
And do you know what I lectured about? I hope not – the only way you’d know is if the scandal had broken…and I admit, I have yet to read the newspapers. God! Please don’t let me have blown Putin off the front pages! But I lectured them about classical rhetoric. My lecture was based pretty much entirely upon my notes from the illuminating website The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay.
Students listened as I told them how Aristotle took the Sophists on in order to stop rhetoric falling into the hands of ne’er-do-well manipulators. How Aristotle proposed the three means of persuasion and how Cicero and Quintilian built upon this to devise the five canons of rhetoric. I held forth about invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. I discussed how invention required the rhetorician to consider their audience, the evidence available, the means of delivery and the timing; how they needed to bear in mind the classical arrangement of their argument: introduction first; then facts; then division; then proof, refutation and conclusion. They listened as I instructed them upon the need to adopt a clear and correct style which kept things simple; and how they should consider memory training as a daily exercise that would help them become better language users. I looked at memory palaces (“like Sherlock Holmes!”, said one of the more mischievous students) and talked them through one of mine. Finally, I looked at delivery and instructed them in the importance of practising, pausing, using the right tone, adopting supportive body language, gesturing, hitting the right speed and maintaining eye contact.
At the end I told them -without fear of overegging the pudding, I think- that they probably knew more about the use of classical rhetoric than anybody else in the building with the sole exception of me. I felt proud. Of myself, of them, of…damn, I need a third thing for the completion of this rhetorical flourish.
One of the students said approvingly, “This is the first time that I have felt as if I was in the university.” My prefrontal cortex was hit by a tsunami of dopamine. There was a palpable sense of engagement in the topic and a sense of achievement in the students who had journeyed with me along this historical trek. Crimminy! They knew the five canons of rhetoric. They could explain the difference between ethos, pathos and logos. Because of my lecture! Woo-hoo!
To what purpose? There’s the rub. I will be following this up on Friday with mini-lectures that introduce them to some short little speeches: some students were fascinated by my juxtaposition of the Christian Martin Luther King with the Muslim Malcolm X. Perhaps we could listen to some of Malcolm’s ballot or the bullet speech. But I think this will take a little too long for me to prepare. Instead, i want to explore how they can use their knowledge of rhetoric to better prepare presentations; how they can employ the structures offered to them by classical rhetoric to tap into cultural frameworks for short anecdotes that will help them through IELTS speaking exams; how the classical arrangement of an argument can be used to write IELTS essays. I want to build upon the framework that I have offered them by exposing them to alliteration, anaphora, metonymy. I want to give them strategies for making their anecdotes more sticky (building upon the fascinating dissection of this phenomena offered by Chip and Dan Heath). I want to explore some of the memory training techniques offered by the likes of Joshua Foer.
All of which makes me want to exclaim Goddamn it! Why aren’t textbooks doing this for me?!?! Why are we fed insipid pap when reading texts could explore the conflict between Malcolm X and MLK? Why aren’t we instructing students in the use of rhetoric? Why aren’t coursebooks training students how to develop their memory? Where are the exercises allowing the students to practise their mastery of alliteration (and thus expanding their lexical resources)? Might it not be that in the communicative approach’s determination to focus upon communication, we have taken our eyes off the target of learning how to communicate well?
Imagine a coursebook where famous poems, speeches, texts are set forth. Students are set the homework of committing them to memory (I have frequently asked students to memorise The Road Not Taken and Dulce et Decorum Est). Wouldn’t it be something if students had ready and easy access to those bits of language that we have stored in our brains (To be or not to be, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo; It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; I wandered lonely as a cloud, We shall fight them on the beaches; Ask not what your country can do for you, I have a dream, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways, We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!)?
But students don’t need this sort of thing, do they? They need to talk about their families, their homes, their countries, their friends, their likes and dislikes, their jobs…Yet, perhaps…perhaps…Dogme ELT made a bold claim by saying that if conversations were allowed to run, students would be exposed to the grammar that they needed. Logically, if conversations were left to develop, students would find themselves floundering in grammatical lacunae that the teacher could help them traverse. Might it not be possible that a focus upon our cultural treasury might also allow the common topics of conversation to emerge? Could it be that in exploring some of the texts alluded to above, we might also touch upon friendships, family, jobs, homes, countries, interests, colours? If we were to engage with literary texts, does this exclude the possibility of someone walking out of our classrooms and having the language skills necessary to ask for directions, or to buy a kilo of cheese?
Or have I just lost the plot? Has @surrealanarchy’s recent publication Trivium 21C led me too far off the path of sanity? Should I stop reading Sam Leith’s wonderful book You Talkin’ To Me? Does Aristotelian rhetoric really have no relevance to the lives of twenty year old Ahmeds and eighteen year old Xu Pengs?
I don’t know. But I do know that the class I covered seemed to really enjoy the lecture. And I suspect that they now know things that they never would have known otherwise. If I can build upon this knowledge and help them apply it to their daily endeavours to master our language, then I think I will have my answer. In the meantime, if you would care to tear me down from my self-indulgence, you are welcome to give it a try!