Text Analysis

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In response to Scott Thornbury’s post “P is for Power” which appeared recently on his blog, one commentator admonishes Scott for including a  quote which makes “a gratuitously insulting and entirely unjustified comment about IATEFL.” Here’s what he says:

IATEFL first: well lets’s start with the fact that anyone, anywhere in the world can attend IATEFL for free, online. Shoddy? I don;t think so. And that many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed; that two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence; that IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible. Yes, there are publishers and exam boards everywhere, but without their money and support IATEFL could not even begin to think of organising conferences where people like Nicola and Russ most deservedly have a chance to communicate their research and feelings to the whole profession – and however well- or badly-informed the comment have been about that, the fact is that a loud discussion is taking place and that’s good – and without IATEFL it wouldn’t have happened. Hand on heart I really admire IATEFL and the effort it makes to be inclusive, egalitarian and fair impress me. It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up.

I showed this text to my daughter. Her opinion was that, given the quality of the text, its author was obviously educationally challenged, and her advice was that whoever had the onerous task of looking after him should enrol him in some remedial course where he could learn the rudiments of sentence structure and written discourse.  She was surprised to hear that the text was written by a professional writer; astonished at the additional information that people actually bought his books; and she fell off her chair when I told her that his book “How to Teach Writing” was required reading in all CELTA courses run in Whoofingham on the Weed.

Let’s take a closer look.

textanalysis

The first argument is: IATEFL offered free online coverage of the conference, so it wasn’t shoddy.  Doesn’t work, does it?

The next sentence is a complete mess, but we can isolate 3 bits:

many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed. I think this means that some talks were given by people who weren’t associated with publishers, and some by people who weren’t greedy, but perhaps it means that many talks were given by people who were neither associated with publishers nor greedy. Anyway, it carries no force as an argument.

two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence.  Since we don’t know what “that kind of power”  or the “others” refer to, it’s anybody’s guess what he’s talking about.

IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible.  This is pure assertion, and carries no weight as an argument.

The next sentence gets off to a promising start, but after that it collapses once again into chaos. To be fair, it does just about manage to make the point that the conference relies on sponsors.

Having declared his admiration for IATEFL and said how impressed he is by its efforts to be “inclusive, egalitarian and fair”, the writer concludes with yet another sentence which, grammatically speaking, falls at the last fence.

It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up. He means I don’t think they hold up. 

What’s notable is that the final sweeping remark attempts to majestically tie up an argument which has never been made. And this is the key to a critique of the text: it’s not just verging on illiterate, more importantly, the strangled arguments gasping for expression rely almost entirely on appeals to overworked sentiment. There’s no need to argue your case, it’s enough to really really really believe in it. In a talk at the IATEFL conference the author yelled “Why do I say this? Because I believe it.” In the text examined here, if he puts his hand on his heart and tells us he really admires IATEFL, well he must be right. If, as a proud member of IATEFL, he doesn’t think the accusations hold up, well then they don’t.  As if in some ridiculous,  Americanised, heart-on-sleeve parody of Dickensian school teachers, the discourse equates bossy sincerity with moral high ground. Running through all the dross of this text is the absurd assumption that with position comes overweening moral authority; power bestows authority to sentiments so that their expression acts as a kind of categorical imperative. I, as a senior, well-recognised, much-garlanded figure in my field, have deep, heartfelt  feelings on this matter. I honestly, sincerely, completely believe I’m right about this. Ergo, I’m right about this.

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7 thoughts on “Text Analysis

  1. Geoff, while I agree with you in saying that the comment on the “kinds of power not in evidence” was vague and hard to understand, I fail to see how one more rant against the same person does any good to this cause. Aside from the fact that this was a comment on a blog post, not a book, there isn’t anything productive to our dialogue in criticizing the way someone writes. I do think he has a point when he brings up the fact that many presenters do not represent big companies. Presenting at IATEFL or TESOL would be a wonderful opportunity for many of us who are starting our careers in ELT. The professional connections created with teachers from all over the world is undeniable, and IATEFL is a powerful venue to maintain that collegiality. Now, having said this, I do not plan to renew my membership until they acknowledge the need for a TaWSIG or take a stance in this subject. We need to find a way to come together as professionals in ELT. How about highlighting the work that IS being done by people who are doing very specific things to make a difference?

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  2. Hi Laura,

    In this post I wasn’t trying to promote any cause, and I wasn’t taking part in a dialogue. I was pointing out the atrocious writing evident in Harmer’s post, the weakness of its argument, and the righteousness of its tone.

    Harmer’s writing is shockingly sloppy wherever you look, from his blog, to his articles, to his books, including “How to Teach Writing”. Since his books are on sale and he dares to tell people how to write, I don’t think I should be criticised for drawing attention to just how badly he writes.

    Harmer rebukes Scott for quoting one sentence from my post ,which Harmer considers “gratuitously insulting and entirely unjustified”, and tells him that the comment “has no business here.” Who does he think he is? What gives him the right to tell Scott what he should and shouldn’t say in his column? My “analysis” of the text suggests that Harmer slips easily into the mantle of senior statesman, and from this lofty position assumes that giving vent to his ever-so sincere feelings is a sufficient condition for being right.

    Harmer gives no evidence in support of his claim that my post made gratuitously insulting and entirely unjustified comments about the IATEFL conference. I didn’t say the conference was shoddy and of course I didn’t suggest that all the presenters represented big companies. I acknowledged that lots of good stuff went on in SIGs and I suggested that many great presentations went on in the smaller rooms. My post was a provocative, deliberately exaggerated sketch, and it would have been easy enough to pick holes in it, but Harmer fails to identify a single one. He limits himself to expressing, on the one hand, disapproval of Scott’s poor judgment and of my insulting remarks, and on the other hand, solidarity with all the wonderful, dedicated, principled, engaged and committed people who work so tirelessly to make the event such a warm, admirable, impressive, inclusive, egalitarian, fair and pluralistic event.

    All published texts and public presentations are open to public comment. I neither know nor care if Harmer is a decent human being, and I have absolutely nothing to say about his character. I limit myself to criticising his writings and presentations, which, in my opinion, lack any originality, critical acumen, or intellectual rigor; represent the conservative views and values of those who presently control the ELT industry, and serve to obstruct the urgent need for change.

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  3. Laura, Sorry, I forgot to say that I agree with you when you say we need to find a way to come together as professionals in ELT, and that we should highlight the work that’s being done to make a difference.

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  4. I found this post rather interesting, but your ad hominem attack on Harmer really takes away from your analysis. I understand you have a grudge (rightfully so, I haven’t decided) against him, but that kind of strategy to criticize him and his writing style in a blog comment detracts from the rest of your argument.

    If this were written by someone else, and the comment was a little more succinct, with the upshot being “The IATEFL seems to be more progressive in that most of its presenters do not represent commercial interests (while some do, they are necessary to fund the event itself) and it is providing platforms for challenging common ELT beliefs,” would you feel the same vitriol?

    (I have no stake in Harmer’s argument since I am not an IATEFL member nor could I afford to join such a conference or organization, but for arguments sake I am writing this comment.)

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  5. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for this. You’re quite entitled to your view.

    As to your question, I was pointing out the weaknesses in the writing so if it had been written as you suggest I wouldn’t have had anything to comment on, except to say that I agreed with the 2 points made.

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