Agile teaching

I have been talking to two of my students – Valdeir and Daisuke, both software developers – about agile methodology, a working practice developed in the 1990s in opposition to large corporate software design models.

Agile does what its name suggests. Developers move quickly to produce frequent iterations of working software. Planning and documentation are kept to a strict minimum. The progress of a project is not linear – one sub-team handing off on a phase to the next sub-team when it is done – but broad-based, all sub-teams working together more or less at the same time, chucking responsibilities and code around like a rugby ball (hence the trademarked scrum methodology). The ethos is rooted in self-organisation – software engineers might be the best people to figure out what a good solution to a problem would look like – but is also strongly client-facing, involving clients in all planning and production phases where possible, and feeding them working software on a regular basis for feedback and evaluation.

Not only does it sound like a blast, but it sounds like the way I would like to run my classrooms. Not necessarily standing up all the time (as they do at agile planning meetings), but student-led, flexible, responsive to change, self-organising, and foregrounding working language over structural templates.  And light on the documentation. If the language works and sticks, that is itself documentation enough.

Of course, to really get agile in the classroom we would also have to subscribe to software engineers’ loose relationship with time keeping, drifting in mid-morning for a slow coffee and a look-see before kicking off. And that might conceivably cause some client-oriented friction.

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It’s only a paper moon…

There is a sense in which a company is nothing more nor less than the paper it is written on. Its headquarters can change, its product line can alter unrecognisably over the years, as can its brand, its ownership structure and even its name. What guarantees its identity is the vast paper trail that follows it through history: the balance sheets, the company reports, the personnel profiles and records, the payroll numbers, and the legal documents. And, importantly I suppose, the money, money being nothing more than a record of transactions underwritten by the authority of the state.

A company, in short, is unthinkable before the advent of writing as a technology, and probably unthinkable before the advent of standardised double-entry bookkeeping. It is a fictional (legal) entity.

We may like to persuade ourselves that companies are also people, the flesh and blood that runs through them. But this is not necessarily the case either. I was talking to my students yesterday about appraisals and appraisal systems, and we drifted into a consideration of the value of a written record. If you have an appraisal with a boss you have known for twenty or more years, then the appraisal itself is pretty meaningless. It is the record of the appraisal that matters, the paper trail of accomplishment, reprimand, training, qualification etc. which follows us though the company. Each employee is a gradually bulging file, and, like it or not, wholly replaceable or interchangeable. The employee goes but the file stays, for a while at any rate.

What will remain of us is a sheaf of documents, digital or otherwise.

Disappointing Firsts

Yesterday was a first for me. It was the first time that I ever had to teach the locution way + comparative. I don’t think I’ve ever really registered it as a structure, before (if it is in fact a structure): yesterday was way colder than Monday, for example. And it snowed way more.

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Adoration of the Magi in the Snow – Pieter Bruegel

It was also a first, yesterday, for one of our students, Fahad, who had never seen snow before. So unfamiliar was it, that I had to confirm that it was, indeed, snow (or anyway, that the mess falling from the sky contained, among other things, snow; there was also way more rain and hail in there than was strictly natural).

So, Fahad and I both experienced little milestones, both of which were, to some degree, disappointing. Fahad’s because real snow is a thing to behold, and yesterday it was not real snow. It was a miserable slurry. Me, because my sense of mild distaste at teaching such a slack idiom was coupled with an equally mild sense of dereliction – how could I have been teaching for twenty years and not have bothered to alert my students to this possibility?

But vague disappointment is often indexed to actual accomplishment. We tend to think of accomplishment as something which we will meet in a blaze of affirmation and joy. Finally, we have achieved this thing (whatever this thing is) and henceforth everything will be good. It is not like that. It is more like the slow accumulation of data. Oh, we say to ourselves, so that’s what snow looks like. We tuck the knowledge away, and then  get on with whatever it was we were doing, which was probably way more important anyway.

Bicester

I ran my students backwards through the hedge of British place names a few weeks ago (Leicester, Worcester, Gloucester – all vital knowledge) but forgot to mention Bicester (pronounced, Bister). How could Bicester have escaped my attention? How could I let my students return to their native climes ignorant of the fact of Bicester, one of the fastest growing towns in Oxfordshire, its growth fuelled  by its proximity to Junction 9 of the M40 motorway (as I read on Wikipedia)?

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Bit of Bicester – photo: Michael

It turns out that I did not need to worry, quite so much. Bicester, I discover, is a destination on our overseas students’ maps. I may in fact have gone through whatever remains of my life without once thinking of Bicester, had it not been for Sina, much-missed OISE alumnus, telling us she would be visiting Bicester this weekend. It seems that Bicester has a renowned knock-down designer goods outlet. Everyone who visits the UK ends up at Bicester sooner or later, buying cut-price Hermès to take home to their families.

Of course, once you factor in the cost of the journey to Bicester, and the pain of having to travel to Bicester on a Saturday morning, and the soul-sapping business of rummaging in a bargain bin for cut-price Hermès, and the embarrassment of having to explain to your loved-ones that their much-prized designer goods are soiled or blemished and were found in a bargain bin in a shop Bicester, it might not all be such a bargain.

But what do I know? I have never been to Bicester, nor does a need for Hermès feature in my life. I just find it curious that the mental maps visitors have of Britain differ so wildly from mine that they would find a space on them for Bicester.

Never mind Prince and Victoria Wood: the man who said mind the gap has died.

Phil Sayer (if that really was his name), formerly a BBC regional presenter, did his pioneering voice work in the 1990s, from what I can gather (his biographical record is rather sketchy), laying down not just the classic mind the gap, which has been the comfort and salvation of millions of gormless travellers on the London Underground for decades,

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mind the gap…

but also numerous delay and cancellation notifications, in use on various British overground stations. And so like Prince, and to a lesser extent Victoria Wood, his recorded legacy lives on.

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Repetition has an odd dual function, not only in language learning: it makes things both more familiar, and less consciously noticed. Repeat a phrase in a foreign language over and over and it becomes automatic; and once it is automatic, we can stop thinking about it. I don’t know if that is a good thing when you are trying to persuade people to mind the gap, because pretty soon they stop hearing the warning. Perhaps that explains why people occasionally do not mind the gap. But with a third conditional (for example), if you can familiarize, and internalise, and then entirely forget the structure which you are (correctly) using, then that is really the aim. You have arrived at your destination.

It cuts both ways, of course; repeat an error enough times very soon you won’t even hear yourself doing it. Retrieving this sort of error is an archaeological delight of teachers, but a frustrating business for students.

So just as you are unlikely to think much about mind the gap until the mind-the-gap man fails to mind the great cosmic gap and gives notice of his own irretrievable delay, you are unlikely to notice the little singularities in your language until someone points them out to you. Over and over.

Proficiency

One of our returning students, the inestimable Moritz, recently took an A in his Cambridge Proficiency in English examination (CPE to you and me) – and an 8.5 in his IELTS, with a 9 in the listening.

That is pretty impressive. The CPE is a difficult exam. When it was first set, in 1913 – the first of the Cambridge suite of exams – it lasted 12 hours and had only three entrants, all of whom failed. Unsurprising, in fact, since there were questions such as this:

Explain fully and comment on the following passages, stating the connexions in which they occur and any difficulties of reading, phraseology or allusion: “Wert thou the Hector, That was the whip of your bragg’d progency, Thou should’st not ‘scrape me here.”

So, a tough exam. But its name perhaps suggests otherwise. Proficiency seems to be some degree short of expertise, or mastery. It is not unlike a glorified competence – at the University of Cambridge, students from various subjects used to be invited (and perhaps still are) to take an examination equivalent to the language knowledge of a second year undergraduate studying that language, and if you passed the exam you were awarded a CCK – a Certificate of Competent Knowledge, which always struck me as a rather mealy reward, and hardly worth the bother.

Proficiency has a similar ring, associated in my mind with the cycling proficiency test which small children are encouraged to pass when they first learn to ride a bike. If they are proficient, then what am I? Similarly with English. But while mere proficiency may seem an underwhelming accolade, it is anything but. Moritz has essentially nowhere to go now, unless he qualifies as a barrister and takes to publishing poetry in English in his spare time.

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Curatorial

I was pleased to extend my knowledge of Australian slang yesterday, when I read that Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s curio of an apology video (for bringing some dogs into Australia illegally, I think) was ‘going off like a frog in a sock’.

It is, in all senses, a lively idiom. I suppose a frog in a sock would jump about and make some noise. It paints a picture, even if you have never seen a frog in a sock  – and let’s face it: who has?

But it will not last. Over-lively language never does, and that is probably a good thing. I was chastised yesterday by one of my more sensitive colleagues (JM) for using the verb curate in a non-curatorial context. Quite right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I spoke of someone curating an untidy desk. No one would do such a thing. It is a foolish locution.

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It is, however, all the rage. It suggests careful organisation and arrangement of parts. Shops ‘curate’ their stock, event’s organisers ‘curate’ an event, and blogs (this one, for instance) curate their content (and in fact, the use of ‘curate’ with regard to the vast museum of objects that the Internet has become is perhaps not so inappropriate; many very good blogs are no more than assemblages of found objects).

The verb is in fact a back-formation from the noun, curator. Back-formation is a phenomenon of language where a new word is formed by dropping a prefix or suffix from an existing word. Other examples would be diagnose (from diagnosis), enthuse (from enthusiasm), escalate (from escalator) and surreal (from surrealist). In each case, the longer word came first.

I suppose I could use that as justification: language changes, and there’s no point going off like a frog in a sock about it. However, there is also something to be said for filtering for pretension – only Tracy Emin would curate a messy desk, and we are much more down to earth than that.