Friday, July 22, 2005

Cassettes in English classrooms - why I dislike them

Fellow Blog Readers: what medium do you like to use to listen to music? Cassettes or CDs? If you don't spend a lot of time driving in your car, you probably answered "CDs". (Unless you are one of those who answered "Records". Or you could be one of those MP3 listening folk. Good for you! But this post is about teaching. Few schools use iPods, and even fewer expect you to mix up the decks. Tapes and CDs are the basic options here, as they can be played on cheap, portable stereos.) 

So how do these media feature in English teaching? 95% of the time, schools choose a textbook for a class. It is extremely unusual to do without a textbook: they provide a framework for the class, and provide lots of activities to test speaking, reading and so on. Schools also choose the accompanying class CD or cassette, which is sold under the same brand name. Why? These media are used for listening activities, because listening is a core skill for language acquisition. From time to time, the students will be asked to answer a few questions from their New Buzzword textbooks which involve a corresponding tapescript from the New Buzzword class cassette. For example, the students are asked to listen to Jack and Jill as they walk up the hill. What do they want to get? (A pail of water.) Do they get it? (No.) Do they walk down? (No, they tumble down.) 

Last year, I taught at one school which used CDs exclusively, and I was content. CDs are light, and they can generally (but not always) be cued to the right spot in seconds. Before class, you fast forward to desired track number x by pressing the fast-forward button x times. The LCD screen tells you where you are. Sorted. Later one, you may need to rewind - since students always need to hear the track again. So one just presses the rewind button once

I guess I was naïve. Working at that school, I got the impression that CDs were the norm - not the exception - as far as teaching English is concerned. But I learned I was wrong when I started doing part-time work at other schools. In Việt Nam, tapes are the norm. That's a shame, as I think CDs are far superior for teaching.

To start with, they are a purely sequential medium. One has to cue the tape to the right spot before the lesson, adding unwanted preparation time. Sometimes, that involves a few minutes of forwarding and rewinding while attempting to find the end of some infinitesimally small section. When it comes to listen to the track again, there's another round of rewinding. Like before, time is wasted while trying to find the exact place to start. My problem with this is not that it is embarrassing; rather, it breaks the flow of the exercise. Step 1: Rewind. Step 2: Play. If not at the right spot, repeat step 1. If I've gone too far, go to step 3: fast-forward. Then do step 2 again. It helps immensely if there is a counter on the machine, but few do.

Another problem with tapes is when I have to skip over sections of the textbook I dislike. I don't dislike them because they are uncool or boring, but that they are useless. Some examples:

  1. Listen and check your answers. This perversion is common in American Headway - the McDonalds of the English textbook world. The students have to answer some questions. Afterwards, the listen to a tapescript to see if they're right. I never do this. Never. You don't know if they're wrong, because the students don't say anything. But worse, the students often don't know if they're wrong either. (After all, their listening skills may not be up to scratch.) I prefer to get the answers from the students themselves. This approach provides more error-checking and more speaking. 
  2. Grammar focus. The idea (from New Interchange, another textbook I've come to dislike) is that the tape explains grammar to you. Fuck that, and fuck that for a sick joke. The students don't get any interaction out of it. I prefer to elicit a whole vocabulary table from the students: "I am, you are, he/she/it is..." Occasionally, write a few mistakes on the board, and act dumb, such as "I have like him". Is this right? (No!) It's more fun, and the activity centres around the students.
  3. Drilling vocabulary. This is another dumb idea from New Interchange. I might play the tape once, but once is enough. Sometimes, I eschew the tapescript altogether, and teach it my own way. Tapes don't give any concept check, such as (say) the difference between a suburb and the countryside.

Another disadvantage of tapes is when it is time to copy the medium. It is cheaper to buy one tape or CD and copy it than purchase 100 tapes or CDs - and most (but not all) schools here are untroubled by intellectual property infringement. Alas, tapes are harder and slower to copy.  Double cassette players copy, but then you have to wait for tape 1 to play while tape 2 records.  There's also the possibility of distortion from repeated recordings. By contrast, a CD burner may take time to set up, but does its job, and is available on many PCs.

Not that CDs don't have their problems. The tracks have to be organized just right. It is no use if you have one track per-page, but then have 3 listening actives on it. In this case, the utility of the CD descends to that of a tape, because you are back to fast-forwarding and rewinding at random. But that's the worst case scenario. In general, CDs dump onto tapes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

General William C. Westmoreland (1914 - 2005)

I heard the news today (Oh boy!) from fellow blogateers Driftglass and Billmon, an article from The Guardian, and finally a nice little obituary from the Times Online. Death appears to be due to "natural causes", polite longhand for "old age". The Times article starts:

Vietnam commander whose big battalions failed to overwhelm the communist enemy

ALTHOUGH he had been retired from the US Army for three years by the time Saigon finally fell to Vietnamese Communist forces in 1975, it was William Westmoreland who oversaw the build-up of forces and shaped the tactics that characterised the battles America fought against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong between 1964 and 1968. Taking over what was known as Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in June 1964, he aimed to fight large-scale set-piece battles against the communists, based largely on his experiences as an infantry commander in the Second World War.

Later his optimistic reports of the way the fighting was going were regarded as having contributed to the public’s deep disillusionment, when it became clear that massive American firepower and air mobility were having little effect on the enemy’s morale or capacity to continue fighting. The famous Tet offensive of January 1968, though it was in fact a military defeat for the North Vietnamese, came as a shock to the American public and did much to alter perception of the war at home.

In retirement from the Army after 1972, Westmoreland roamed the country restlessly, making speeches defending the American role in Vietnam and seeking to vindicate his own as a commander in the field. This effort culminated in his famous and costly libel action against the CBS network, which had criticised his tactics. This Westmoreland saw as a battle for his, and the Army’s, honour.

The last paragraph explains why I won't be shedding any tears for the bastard. Imagine you are an incompetent general in charge of a counter-insurgency war which kills or mutilates about a million people, and displaces a few million more. You survive until it is time to leave your job. Do you:

  1. Retreat into obscurity, with the option of a little reflection and soul searching on the side?
  2. Use your fame or notoriety to help the folks you hurt? (There are several possibilities here. Do you form your own charity, or jump on the board of another one? Do you specialize in areas such as land-mine clearing, or do you generalize by providing aid to the Vietnamese people as a whole? The permutations are endless.)
  3. Spend the next 30 years trying to repair your image?

Westmoreland chose option 3, the most tawdry of the three. (To compare, Nixon - a President during the conflict - wisely opted for option 1 for the most part, and Robert S. McNamara - a Secretary of State - went for a variation of option 2 - presidency of the World Bank) For example, in 1985, he served up the following horseshit:

The silver-haired, jut-jawed officer, who rose through the ranks quickly during World War II and later became superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., contended the United States did not lose the conflict in Southeast Asia.

``We held the line. We stopped the falling of the dominoes,'' he said in 1985 at the 20th anniversary of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade's assignment to Vietnam. ``It's not that we lost the war militarily. The fact is, we as a nation did not make good our commitment to the South Vietnamese.''

This was spoken at a time when there was no more South Việt Nam, a Communist Laos, and Vietnamese troops were also in Cambodia, trying to destroy the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Of course America lost. Would a victorious power need to evacuate its embassies in a hurry? Such as those in Phnom Penh and Sài Gòn? (The answer is "no", for those who are still finding it hard to answer this question.)

He didn't stop the falling of the dominoes either. The people who did were people like Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, and Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX of Thailand. Honourable mention goes to the British who did what Westmoreland could not - win a successful counterinsurgency war in Malaysia. Dishonorable mention goes to General Suharto of Indonesia, who stabilized that domino all right - at the cost of about a million dead.

Well, it is too late for Westmoreland to realize it. I doubt he would have understood if he lived on to the next ice age. A lot of people ossify in their thinking as they get older, and this general never seemed to be that open to fresh ideas in the first place. Leaving this aside, there are also psychological defense reactions at work. Imagine you start questioning - really questioning - what bad things you've done. There's the danger of waking up one night with the realization you've got the blood of millions on your hands. Most people couldn't take this, and Westmoreland - who saw himself and his army as honourable - would be even more aghast at the cognitive dissonance involved. 

It looks like there's not going to be any more Self-Deception Whistlestop Tours for this old general. He's dead.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A Lot Like Nostalgia

Nostalgia is getting worse, judging by the movie A Lot like Love. When I was a child it took about 20 years to elapse from spacetime point A to B, where B involves getting all misty eyed and weepy for ever-sundered A. I'm just old enough to remember the 70s movie Grease - a paean to the fictitious hot-rod culture of the 50s. About a decade later, it was the era of the 60s flashbacks, with programs like The Wonder Years, and lots of Việt Nam-era war movies. In the times since, I've noticed the nostalgia cycle getting shorter and shorter. Going by A Lot like Love, we now are down to 5 years. Five fucking years for nostalgia to kick in. That's seriously sick.

It makes me wonder as to the possibility - say, by 2012 - these cycles are going to shorter and shorter until we all hit some sort of nostalgia singularity. Some one-hit wonder hits his or her personal apogee in a week and then crashes. A week later, the magazines print the inevitable "Where are they now?" obits for the poor ex-celebrity. On the other hand, Peak Oil will probably interrupt this process. In the future, the only nostalgia people will have is for enough petrol to drive down to the shops. Oh, and having enough to eat. But I think I'm getting sidetracked here...

You can observe a lot of nostalgia in this flick. At the start, we meet the main characters seven years ago, when they are decked in full grunge/Reality Bites/op-shop mode. A few years later, we move to the start of the 90's dot-com craze, where our hero is trying to get venture capital for his on-line diaper dispenser company. Then comes the dot-com collapse. A few years after that, the inevitable happy ending. The whole film is a rambling story about two people who fall in love (as you know they would) after lots of accidental meetings and departures over a seven year span, with lots of cultural references mixed in. You notice those references more when they go over the heads of the Vietnamese audience I saw it with. To give an example, you had the hero's shady manager's Toyota Hilux repossessed after the company went belly up. (From their perspective, the dot com collapse could be seen as a good thing. It's one reason why there's a lot of outsourcing in this part of the world.)

The "tell-a-story-over-lots-of-year-in-a-few-hours-of-screen-time" works if you are dealing with characters and situations of grave importance. Martin Scorsese is a past master of this, and he did it with mob flicks like Casino and Goodfellas. The same can be observed in other crime flicks like Scarface and The Godfather II. You see your antiheroes and anti heroines rise, hit his peak, and then fall, in epic progression. But it's hard to pull it off when you are dealing with vapid slackers.

How vapid are the characters in A Lot Like Love? After a three year absence, our lovers meet each other in Los Angeles. They hit it off, have a few ups and downs at a New Years Eve party, and crash at the hero's place. But the great tragedy here is that he has to go to San Francisco the next day to start at the aforementioned dot com company. The heroine wakes up the next morning to see the hero already gone, and nary a forwarding letter. He has to go, you understand. Love will tear them apart, again. Or work. Or maybe it's the distance. Never mind that the two cities are just 800 km apart, which can be covered in a day on California's great Interstate network. Or that phone calls are cheap, and reliable mail in available. In their world, these are insurmountable obstacles to a long-distance relationship. Can you see why I found the characters so uncompelling, and their banter about "first strikes" so contrived?

At a mere 107 minutes, it seemed like it was too long. For a supposed romantic comedy, I noticed how little the audience was laughing. 3/10.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London Burning

Multiple blasts paralyse London

Firefighters aid an injured passenger at Aldgate station Several people have been injured after explosions on the Underground network and a double-decker bus in London. A police spokesman said there were "quite a large number of casualties" at Aldgate Tube Station.

The map at the bottom shows where the explosions occured. It makes me anxious, to be honest. One of the explosions happened at Edgeware Road station. My sister lives at nearby Notting Hill. And since the bangs happened around communing time, I'm a little bit scared for her. I've sent off one email, but I've recieved no reply.

How quickly people find things out - even in this part of the world. One teacher got a phone call from an acquaintance watching CNN. People overheard, and asked questions. Others hit Google News. Distressing pictures were shown. (For example, this picture of a bandaged woman was on the front page of the BBC when I was viewing it.) All of this in under an hour. Another hour later, I hear there are two confirmed fatalities, with more to come.

Many of my teachers are from the U.K., if not from London itself. More than half have visited that city. Some had lived there. Many have relatives in that city. In this school, the London explosions are a big story.

My prayers go out to all involved in the blast. Especially my sister. May she be safe.

UPDATE: My sister emailed me (and family and friends) to say she is safe. She even apologized for her "blanket email". No apology necessary: I'm glad to know she is alive.

Meanwhile, Darp also posted on the subject with the exact same title. Don Arthur of Catallaxy analyses the parallels with Madrid.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Driftglass on Rumsfeld

Here's his take on the man.

Rummy always struck me as one of the "Quint-from-Jaws" guys of this Administration.

Deranged shark-hunter who’s working out God-knows-what personal demons by taking a boat that’s way too fucking small deep into lethal waters, and once the peril of following his lunatic plan becomes clear, he decides the best course of action would be to smash the radio.

You can just imagines him pumped up on testosterone until it’s squirting out his tear ducts, bragging to Bush, “I'll catch these terrorists for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down to the pond and chasing bluegills and tommycocks. …

And most especially, “I don't want no volunteers, I don't want no mates, there's too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

Difference being that Big Don hasn’t ever actually been on a boat, or hunted Great Whites, or floated in the water and watched friends die. He’s nothing but a swagger-and-thesaurus manure dispenser with bulletproof job security because the one guy who can fire him is also the one guy who is actually stupid enough to keep take big bites out of Rummy’s guano-burgers and ask for seconds.

Read it all. It's one of the funniest things I've read in a long time.