Is TEFL too nice?

Criticism can be hard to take. In the book “kindly Inquisitors” the author relays the story of Georg Cantor a mathematician who “lost his mind because of the hatred and animosity against him and his ideas by his teacher Leopold Kronecker: He was confined to a mental hospital for many years at the end of his life” (2014: 296) Kubota suggests that “The field of L2 education by nature attracts professionals who are willing to work with people across racial boundaries, and thus it is considered to be a ‘nice’ field”. But is TEFL too nice?

It might seem an odd question to ask, after all, how can people be too nice? For me, sometimes the desire to protect relations and be kind tips over into a kind of censorship. This happens when criticism is withheld or watered down to protect people’s feelings. Here are some personal anecdotes:

  • Before I gave a talk once, the organisers asked me to remove references to certain people in a talk they had invited me to give.
  • While writing an piece I was asked if I could remove references to authors who held the views I was criticising.

Maybe I was wrong in these situations, after all, it is entirely possible to criticise a position without saying who holds it. That said, when discussing the prevalence of neuromyths in ELT, for instance, might it not be important to note that prominent figures are promoting these things? Or is being discreet more important?

Personally I find it a little frustrating when reading an article that says something to the effect of “many believe that correction is not useful” or “some people disagree with this idea” and not seeing a link to who it is who is making these points. I would like to go away and read their work and see exactly what they say, but instead I just have to take the writer’s word for it.

Should we avoid giving this useful information for fear of offending? I tend to agree with Rauch who notes, “people who are hurt by words are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: ‘Too bad but you’ll live'”(80)

So am I for people saying whatever they want? Well, not quite…

Anything goes?

One of my ELT heroes is Mike Swan. His articles seem to cut through nonsense and provide a clear and fair examination of authors. At the same time he didn’t pull his punches and wasn’t afraid of frank criticism. However, if you’ve seen his collected works you’ll notice that the articles are prefaced with his current reflections on them. Before one of his most scathing articles he writes the following:

‘The tone of the articles was consequently excessively polemic, anti-academic, and at times downright rude. I now offer my belated apologies to the several distinguished scholars for whom I showed less respect for me certainly deserved.’ (2013:1)

Reading the essay that Swan is apologising for, I was struck by how mild it is compared to blog posts and tweets we can see daily. Swan, I suppose, belated recognised that criticism is hard enough to take without adding unnecessary venom. 

Another negative side effect of overly unpleasant criticism is that your critics can dismiss you very easily. “I don’t object to what you said, just the way you said it. Let’s discuss that instead.” This kind of tone policing has been examined by Andrew Old, who notes that the subjective nature of ‘tone’ means that “almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis”. Notably though, he draws the line at insults, threats and rudeness and is quick to block those he feels crosses the that line.

An academic issue

Academic writing is often impenetrable, vague and dull. Language seem to be used at times with the purpose of confusing rather than elucidating. However, this dullness and cold objectivity can perhaps be used to temper the anger we might feel when reading a piece criticising something we have written.

Writing that someone’s view “does not seem to be supported by the evidence” might be easier to take than describing someone’s views as ‘crap’. Saying someone’s opinions are ‘moronic prattling’, while technically not insulting the person, is unlikely to lead to a productive debate. In fact, it is probably much more likely the other party will entrench their position rather than come round to your way of thinking. Sure, it’s great to get patted on the back after DESTROYING someone with FACTS and LOGIC but how much does this kind of rhetoric effect any actual change?

It can also create a rather toxic environment. If the discussion becomes increasingly extreme, only the extremeophiles thrive. Others will choose not to engage. We thus lose all but one type of voice and it becomes an intellectual cul-de-sac of sorts. 

The importance of criticism

“Controversy is good, it makes us think” Scott Thornbury,  IATEFL 2016 Plenary

Is it really a kindness to not criticise idea because you want to ‘nice’? Is it a good situation if everyone disagrees with you but is cowed into silence or should we encourage people to say what they think? What if what they think will effectively silence others? It’s not an easy question to answer.  I don’t know where the lines should be drawn and I don’t think people should have to put up with people being abusive to them. What I can say is that I think I’ve learnt far more from criticism than praise, no matter how hard it is to hear. To quote Kindly Inquisitors again “a no offence society is a no-knowledge society” (2014: 297).