Wednesday, June 08, 2016

TEFLology: A Review of a Podcast

So, I was out one night having some drinks with some coworkers, and we got to chatting away about various TEFL theories, when someone said, "You know, you really should check out this podcast called TEFLology.  It's done by 3 university teachers in Japan, and they really know their stuff."

And I thought, "Why not?"
This past year I've been trying to cut down on my TV time by putting on various Yale  - History Lectures instead.

So I figured, why not put on a TEFL related podcast next?  That way I could at least get a little professional development out of all my wasted time.

The entire podcast is online at the TEFLology website here.  And it can also be downloaded through itunes or listened to through your favorite podcast app on your mobile device.

I have now worked my way through the whole podcast series from beginning to end.  And so I thought I'd review it, since I'm in the habit of reviewing the series I work through.

I've got some positive things to say about this podcast, and some negative things to say.  I'm reluctant to criticize, because I get that these guys aren't professional broadcasters--they're just fellow teachers who do this podcast as amateurs.  And as someone who does a lot of terrible amateurish writing on this blog, I probably shouldn't criticize other amateurs.
And yet, for anyone out there reading this review I do want to set forth a clear guide on what your expectations should be going into this podcast. Being forewarned of the negatives ahead of time will help adjust expectations accordingly, and prevent any disappointment.

First a disclaimer: I have never listened to a podcast before before in my life.  (Such was my ignorance that I had to get my friend to set up the podcasting app on my smart phone, and set up the TEFLology subscription feed for me.)  So keep that in mind when I make all my comments about this podcast--I'm speaking as someone who's completely unfamiliar with the genre.  Is it supposed to be informative, or is it supposed to be just chatting?  Is a theme song mandatory?  I don't know.

But that being said, I will admit to being slightly disappointed with this podcast when I first started.  I was just coming off the Yale history lectures, where the information content to word ratio was very dense, and where the listener was given a lot of information in a very short amount of time.

I discovered very quickly that this was not the format of TEFLology.  Instead, there was a lot more chit-chat.  The three guys would sit in a room and chat about a topic. There would be some facts given about a topic, but they would be mixed in with a lot of opinions and banter.

Secondly, there's a wide-range of topics covered, and not all of these topics are useful to the TEFL teacher.  Discussions about actual teaching techniques (like the discussion of dictogloss in episode 14) are of course immediately useful to the teacher.  As well as discussion of language learning theories (like Krashen's input hypothesis in episode 11).
But mixed in with this is a lot of trivia that's not at all useful to the classroom or to the study of TEFL.  One example (one example of many) is in episode 18 which recounts  the life story of James Dresnok, an American soldier who defected to North Korea.  The connection to TEFL is that James Dresnok apparently taught some English in North Korea during his time there, but nothing is known about his teaching techniques or classroom situation,
And this type of obscuria makes up a fair amount of the TEFLology podcast's runtime.
The podcasters also have some degree of self-consciousness about their podcast and their place in the wider TEFL world, which causes a lot of TEFLology to be devoted to talking about TEFLology.  More than once, a whole podcast is devoted to TEFLology's own thoughts on the growth of TEFLology.

Thirdly, there seems to be some confusion about who the show's intended audience is.  Is it teachers first starting out on their CELTA?  Or is is people pursuing advanced degrees in applied linguistics?
I know someone who started listening to this podcast while they were on their CELTA because he hoped it would help them learn TEFL theory faster, but then quickly stopped listening once he realized how little relevance it had to basic teacher training.
The intended audience appears to be fellow applied linguists.  And yet, sometimes basic concepts are discussed as if they were new to the listeners (like audio-lingualism in episode 10)

And then there's the theme song...
I don't want to harp on this too much, because it is a minor thing.  And yet, it does also seem to be the first thing everyone mentions.  I've recommended this podcast to a few people recently, and after they listen to it, the first thing they invariably come back to me with is "Oh, that theme song!"  Even the guy who recommended this podcast to me in the first place had to comment about how much he hated the theme song.
It is incredibly cheesy.  And unfortunately, a little bit too catchy.  After a few days of listening to this podcast, I found myself humming this theme song as I was walking around the city.

(But don't take my word for it.  If you want to hear it for yourself, just listen to the first 35 seconds of this video.)



So all that is to the negative.

But for all those negatives, I still recommend this podcast to anyone interested in their professional development as an English teacher.
For one thing, these three guys are incredibly well-read and knowledgeable.
As far as I can tell, they are roughly the same age as me, and have roughly the same qualifications that I do.  But boy do they sure put me to shame on how well-read they are in the field.  They appear to have read just about everything there is to read on TEFL.

Secondly, mixed in with the regular episodes are 20 interview episodes.  And  the interview episodes are all pure gold.
In fact all the negatives I listed above apply only to the regular episodes.  The interview episodes, on the other hand, actually are very high in informational content.
What's more, the folks at TEFLology have somehow managed to gain access to a lot of the bigger names in TEFL.   Including many people whose books I've reviewed on this blog.
Paul Nation (whose book I reviewed here) is interviewed in TEFL interviews 16.
Scott Thornbury (whose books I reviewed here and here) is interviewed in TEFL interviews 12.
Nina Spada (whose book I reviewed here) is interviewed in TEFL interviews 5.
and Rod Ellis (whose book I reviewed here) is interviewed in TEFL interviews 3.

Thirdly, this whole podcast is completely free.  And you can't complain about anything free.
I mean, so what if some of the episodes go off on tangents?  It's not like I'm paying for any of this.
And since I've been using this podcast as background noise while I get ready for work in the morning, or while I putter around the apartment in the afternoon, I don't begrudge the lost time either.

And although not every second of this podcast is pure-gold, taken as a cumulative whole, I think it was over-all definitely worth my while.
And I did learn a lot.  For every useless fact about TEFL pioneers or North Korean defectors, I also picked up some useful activities, or interesting insights.

And it is with that mindset that I would recommend this podcast to any fellow TEFL teachers.  Sure, some parts of it are not great.  But there's enough in here overall to make it worth your while.  If you're at all interested in developing in the field, just put this on in the background, and it will increase your professional development.

The sheer volume of episodes is also impressive.  There are, as of this writing, currently 43 regular episodes, plus 20 interview episodes, which is a total of 63 episodes.  So it's just hour after hour of absolutely free professional development.

Other Notes:

Connections With Other Books I've Read
In addition to the authors I listed above in the interview section, there were other authors who were discussed (but not interviewed) on the Podcast.  The ones that overlap with my own reading list were: Stephen Krashen, David Crystal, Michael Lewis, Jack Richards and David Sedaris.

Japanese Teaching Context
All three of these guys are living and working in Japan, and although the intended audience for these episodes is nominally the global TEFL community, in actual practice much of the content is skewed towards Japan-related topics.
Many Japanese words even make it into the podcast (like eikaiwa for "English conversation" and "yakudoku" for "grammar translation").
I'm not sure how interesting all of this would be to an English teacher unfamiliar with Japan.  However, since I spent 8 years living and working in Japan, I was perfectly fine with it.  In fact, it was a nice little trip down memory lane.
For example, Assistant Language Teachers in Japan--both the JET program (on which I spent 3 years of my life) and contract ALTs (which I did for 2 years up in Gifu) are discussed in episode 32 and interview 15.

Frequent references are made to the English conversation school industry in Japan 9 (known as Eikaiwa in Japanese) throughout the podcast, and sometimes a whole segment will be devoted to examining an aspect of Eikaiwa (like the discussion of free conversation lessons in episode  21.)   For myself, I spent 3 years in the Eikaiwa industry in Japan.

The TEFLologists (as the podcasters call themselves) will also often talk about their experiences as language learners, and again the reference point is Japan and learning Japanese--something else I can identify with from my own experience.  (At one point during an experience of authentic materials, one of the TEFLologists mentions the satisfaction he got when he realized he could read the advertisements on the train in Japanese.  I also remember the immense satisfaction I got when I realized I could do this.)

Oita Prefecture, where I spent 6 out of my 8 years in Japan, is mentioned in episode 27 in connection with A.S. Hornby.  The TEFLologists make a special point of noting how far Oita is from Tokyo (and they're not wrong on this.)

As for other countries I've taught in...
CamTESOL (the annual TESOL conference hosted by my former employer in Cambodia) was mentioned briefly in episode 28.  (Actually, during my time attending CamTESOL, I've learned that it's a very popular conference for university TEFL teacher's in Japan.  It allows them to get out of the Japanese winter and enjoy the tropics for a few days in February.  So I'm not particularly surprised that CamTESOL got a mention in a TEFL podcast from Japan).

On Self-Othering
There's an interesting discussion in episode 31 (which partly refers back to what Adrian Holliday had said in interview 9) on "Self-Othering".

The idea is that when you give students space to write about their own country, however well-intentioned this is, you are inviting the students to "other" themselves--that is you are inviting the students to describe themselves as something other than normal.
The students are (consciously or subconsciously) aware of the conventions of the genre and will immediately start writing about their country as an "exotic other" or immediately start reverting to the stereotypes of their country.

This discussion got me re-thinking some of the own writing assignments I did with my students: Introduce Cambodia to the World, and Describe a Typical Day in the Life of a Cambodian Student.  At the time, it was my intention to give my students a voice, but I'm now wondering if what I actually was doing was encourage "Self-Othering".

TEFL Online Community
Although I've been blogging about TEFL related matters on this blog for years now, I've mostly been doing it in a vacuum.  This podcast, however, talked several times about the TEFL online community in both blogging and on twitter.  Through this podcast, I've started following many new people on twitter related to TEFL.  For example, as a result of episode 42, I've started following Sandy Millin on Twitter.  (I've already been finding her resources useful in some of my classes.)  As a result of episode 43, I've started following Russ Mayne.

Russ Mayne, before he appeared as a TEFLology guest, was himself a reviewer of the podcast.  On his blog he wrote of this podcast back in 2014, which I would mostly agree with:

TEFLology is 45 mins, fortnightly podcast. The three guys who host it are, I think, lecturers in Japanese universities, which perhaps gives the podcast more of a slant towards applied linguistics, over TEFL topics. The very early episodes were quite unpolished, and there are still moments where the conversation just seems to fade out into 'yeah...mmm....right' kind of moments but they seem to be getting better at editing these out. The Podcasts is usually divided into a 'TEFL pioneers' section, TEFL news and a more general discussion of some ELT topic like DuoLingo, linguistic imperialism or TPR. Overall The podcast is well-researched and well worth a listen. In fact the level of research they seem to put into the episodes does make me fear they will burn themselves out. The podcast has recently had an impressive list of guests such as Nina Spada, Widdowson and even an 'explicit' interview with Rod Ellis. It's also worth listening to for the 'home-made' jingle at the start.
TEFL Teachers and Marijuana Use
Episode 8 talked about English teachers in South Korea who were arrested for smuggling in marijuana.  The issue was framed in a discussion about how degenerate a lot of English teachers are.
Although I don't approve of going to another country and breaking its laws (and consequently have no sympathy for foreign drug users arrested in Korea), I wish that this issue would have been framed less as a moral issue and more as a cultural clash.

Both South Korea and Japan have an extreme phobia of all drugs, including soft drugs like marijuana.  But both South Korea and Japan have huge problems with binge drinking and alcohol abuse.
...actually, problem isn't even the right word for it, because going out and getting completely smashed with your co-workers isn't considered a problem in these countries--it's just part of the culture, and furthermore is considered part of your duties as a businessman.
See, for example, Black Out Korea, a blog that exists simply to chronicle the phenomenon of perfectly respectable businessmen getting drunk and passing out in public.  (See also here).

Now the problems associated with alcohol abuse are much worse than the problems associated with marijuana on just about every metric--in terms of the damage to your personal health, and in terms of addiction problems, and in terms of larger societal problems like drunk driving and alcohol related violence.
So when Koreans freak out because foreigners are smoking marijuana, there's a high degree of hypocrisy here. This is not a case of foreign English teachers bringing bad morals to Korea--this is purely a cultural difference.

To reiterate: no sympathy for anyone who goes to South Korea and then breaks their laws, but let's talk about this as a cultural issue, not as a moral one.

This Podcast is Still Ongoing
As of the date of this posting, I've listened to all the episodes of TEFLology.  (43 episodes plus 20 interview episodes).  But the podcast is still ongoing, so this review isn't complete.  As new episodes are released, I plan to briefly review them on this blog, and then index the mini-reviews down below:

* Episode 44: Ruth Wajnryb, Basic English, and Bidialectism
* Episode 45: The EFL Teacher Journeys Conference
Episode 46: Brexit, and Feedback Training with Jo Gakonga
TEFL Interviews 21: Shawn Loewen on Instructed Second Language Acquisition
Episode 47: Alan Waters, Oral Proficiency Exams, and Teresa May
Episode 48: Pokemon Go, Tsuda Umeko, and Storytelling
* TELF Interviews 22: Denise Murray on Computers in ELT
Episode 49: PPP, Technology Review, and Braj Kachru
Episode 50: Parallelism in Professional Practice, Dictionary Additions, and Francis Lodwick
TEFL Interviews 23: Hayo Reinders on the Future of Language Learning
 Episode 51: Halloween Special – Fear, Vampires, and English for the Alien Invasion
TEFL Interviews 24: Victoria Murphy on Bilingual Education
* Episode 52: Transformation, Interviewing, and JALT 2016
TEFL Interviews 25: Sarah Mercer (Live at JALT 2016)
* TEFL Interviews 26: Ryuko Kubota (Live at JALT 2016)
TEFL Interviews 27: JD Brown (Live at JALT 2016)
TEFL Interviews 28: BONUS! Forum Discussion (Live at JALT 2016)
Episode 53: Wilga M. Rivers, Female Dialogue in Films, and Teaching Organizations
* Episode 54: Toki Pona, Duoethnography, and Robert Gardner
BONUS Episode 55: A Duoethnography by Marek Kiczkowiak & Robert Lowe
TEFL Interviews 29: Anne Burns on Action Research
* Episode 56: Donald Trump, Assessment, & John Locke
Episode 57: Contrastive Analysis, Robert Lowth, and Linguistic Injustice
TEFL Interviews 30: Gabriele Kasper on Interaction
Episode 58: TESOL2017 Convention & Miguel Mendoza
Episode 59: Tim Johns, TEFL Exchange, and CAP
TEFL Interviews 31: John Kullman on Critical Issues in ELT Textbooks
Episode 60: Young Learner Materials with the ‘Let’s Go’ Authors
Episode 61: Job Interviews, Eilhard Lubinus, and Conference Review
TEFL Interviews 31: Jennifer Jenkins on Global Englishes
Episode 62: English-only Policies, Leo Van Lier, and ELTons 2017
Episode 63: Dictionary Update, Sustained Learning, and Pāṇini
TEFL Interviews 32: Chia Suan Chong & Mike Hogan on International Communication
Episode 64: ELF Revisited, L.A. Hill, and Interview Voices
Episode 65: Peter Strevens, English Learning Ventures, and Post-human Applied Linguistics

Link of the Day
Steven Pinker asks Chomsky a Question

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