"Never cut what you can untie."

- Joseph Joubert

"Being on the edge isn't as safe, but the view is better."

- Ricky Gervais

"If you are the smartest person at where you work - quit."

- Paul Tyma

"There is no sinner like a young saint."

- Aphra Behn

"If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they'll kill you."

- Oscar Wilde

Look Back in August

A small personal landmark that went past unnoticed. My tenth blogiversary - at around 10pm on August 22nd, I'd been writing here for years in double digits.

Ten years ago....

  • I was dealing with the end of a hopeless relationship by getting pointlessly drunk and having lots of meaningless sex.

    This last weekend I got drunk with some old friends and afterwards decided to re-visit an old cruising ground, just to see if it still worked for me after all these years.

    And I had pleasantly meaningless sex with three strangers. One of who I kind-of almost fell for - we swapped phone numbers, but any thought of a relationship is, um, hopeless. Which is fortunate, because I only feel romantic when I'm drunk.

    That at least is different now.

  • I was teaching myself to sing, and trying to record some songs. But constantly getting sidetracked by technical issues.

    Today, having promised myself I'd start work on some music, I hit upon a way to synthesise a strummed guitar instead. And spent the day working on that.

  • I'd just finished a contract with an idiot employer.


  • I was running around with a band of socialists, despite severe misgivings about their theories, strategies, and indeed aims.

    Now, most of my non-net friends are disenchanted socialists.

  • I had vague ideas about being a science fiction writer.

    I have vague ideas about being a horror writer.

  • I was back living with my parents.

    Yes. But they don't seem to mind so much this time.

  • I couldn't figure out a snappy way to end a blogpost.

"People are not who they say but rather who their actions reveal them to be."

- Ziad Abdelnour

"Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God."

- Edward Abbey

"You need to be thought of to be ignored."

- Russell Peters

"The truth doesn't work for everybody."

- Robert M Price

"Arts degrees are awesome. They help you find meaning where there is none."

- Tim Minchin

The Crass Ceiling

I don't get many unwilling students.

I get students who party all night and don't have the energy to study all day - and that's fine. It's their youth to enjoy, their choice to make, their quota of daily strength to allot how they choose.

I'm all in favour of fun - in fact, I wish I'd had a lot more of it when I was a teenager. Getting drunk for the first time at 23, eating a block of marijuana resin at 28 - supplied by a friend who'd decided to give up...and falling hopelessly in love for the first time at 32 - that's my pattern, trying everything a decade after everyone else.

I do get students who want to learn english, but don't want to put in the hours practicing, so they never become fluent - that's okay too. I don't have the patience to get good at the guitar, or program properly in python, so I understand.

I get students who're only want to use english for one purpose - whether that's discussing ponies on facebook or (I kid you not) qualifying as a teacher of english. Kein Problem (german), La'isa Moshkila (arabic), No Hay Problema (spanish).

What I almost never get is students who aren't at all interested in the subject, and don't want to be enrolled in the first place. When I get them, it's because their pushy parents or pointy-haired bosses are making them take the course.

You can't force someone to be interested, you can't bribe them into it, and you can't rationally persuade them they ought to force themselves to work at it until magically it becomes interesting to them. Which is why, contra the preachings of certain managerial types, I don't try.

Teaching in the private sector, your job security is nonexistant and whether your employer is sensibly professional or a delusional nutjob is luck of the draw. But the job of teaching itself is bearable, because you actually are a teacher, not a glorified prison warder.

However, I do get two distinct types of student. Type A is happy to forumulate opinions, present them in clear sentences and discuss them openly. Type B is afraid to form any clear belief, really really doesn't want to put them into words, and is afraid to state them in case someone else disagrees.

Type A is known as "most of the boys". Type B is "most of the girls".

It's the conventional wisdom - and therefore probably wrong - that boys outperform girls academically until about 13, then girls overtake them. For all I know, that could be broadly true of physics and literature. But for language learning, the boys consistently outstrip the girls.

It's not for lack of raw ability - not that I think there really is such a thing. It's confidence. The attitude that there's no personal shame in making a mistake and being corrected, that if you don't understand the explanation you have the right to ask again, that one doesn't need to fit in and have fashionable opinions to be respected.

Among the boys, even the nerds are jocks. Among the girls, even the most forward are apologetic about it.

So what can I do about it? Not much. Simply because you can't force someone to be free, and you can't inject confidence by encouraging someone to invent their own there and then from nothing.

In talking about this with female teachers, they say the same, so I don't think it's just that I'm intimidatingly butch (ha!) or that female student connect better with female teachers.

The classroom is a rather artificial environment, so perhaps in the real world outside the boys become taciturn and the girls are the gossipy flirts. But I don't think so.

It seems that even though young women now want careers, independence, and not to be quiet housewives...they still habitually act as though they don't.

"Truths kept silent become poisonous."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

"Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

"If the world is crashing around your ears, you choice is future or no future."

- Eric Hobsbawm

"Patriotism is a disease."

- Albert Einstein

"The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts - the less you know the hotter you get."

- Bertrand Russell

Boys of Summer

They voted me "Best Teacher".

It's not difficult to be the students' favourite - you just have to be the one out of fifty temps on zero-hour contracts who's on their side and admits the obvious.

  • Yes, the timetable is wrong.
  • Yes, speaking and listening is more interesting and useful than reading and writing.
  • Yes, you do learn more vocabulary from watching kids TV than a textbook chapter on marriage ceremonies in outer mongolia.
  • Yes, you're supposed to spell country names like mongolia with a capital letter, but it's okay if you forget.
  • Yes, this exercise is incredibly boring and doesn't teach anything you'll ever need. So yes, we will abandon it - but mark it as "completed" in my pointless pile of paperwork that I have to fill out but no one will ever read.
  • Yes, the managers are idiots, and so are their rules, and yes, if we want a productive lesson, we have to find ways around them.
  • Yes, the school's very own custom-made textbook which I'm under strict instructions to follow is boring, unclear, irrelevant, badly thought out and often just plain wrong. Which is why we just have it open on the desk in case an idiot manager looks in.
  • Oh, and yes, that other teacher is a complete moron who fills out very neat paperwork but couldn't teach to save her life.
Well, I don't actually have to say that exactly. The students say it themselves on their official "feedback" forms. The bits of paper they fill out at the end of the course, where I ask them to *not* emphasise just how much they learned from the Dr Who transcripts we went through and the Dr Who videos I'm not supposed to show.

I got an email today from someone I taught two years ago - just to say she's taking a baccalaureate in biology.

You can never predict who'll stay in touch. But you can usually predict who'll make progress while you teach them and after they leave. The best speakers have the confidence to stand up and make mistakes, to accept correction...and to not mind that there is no single correct way to say things.

They're also the ones who aren't bored by grammar but also aren't really interested in it either. Which means the best speakers are the worst linguists. Which is why I'm such a lousy language student myself.

Most teachers have a particular view of what students are capable of. Specifically, that:

  • They can learn the base meanings of 10 words at a time, but can't handle simultaneously learning three meanings of one word.
  • They can learn a grammatical rule, but can't cope with there being more than one opinion about what the rule is.
  • Anything the teacher doesn't know how to explain, they can learn by a magical process called "osmosis".

I always learn from my students. The only reason I know about drifting and slenderman is a class of ten year olds told me. Usually what I learn though, is that my book about their language is wrong.

The german word for "bullshit" is..."bullshit". Not even "bulschitt".

And no one has said "Angenehm" on meeting someone for the first time in a century.
In seven years doing this, two students have figured out I'm gay - and both were called Alex. Alejandro, nerdy bespectacled spanish polyglot. One of those clearly advanced-level students who gets miscategorised as lower...and thus gets to be the unofficial teaching assistant.

When we did the dumb lesson on "What do you want to be when you grow up?", he wanted to be a pole dancer. Then changed his mind to "dandy".

He lent me his Jeanette Winterson novel...and I lent him my William Burroughs. He said he was "interested in androgeny and sexual ambiguity...but liked girls". Can you say that in your second language?

The other, from this last month: Alexander, big blond handsome german metrosexual. Straight but loved flirting with everyone - boy or girl, staff or student.

The kind of guy who will offer, in front of the whole class, to do anything - "Anything at all, mein Kapitano" - if only I give him an A-grade. Which he deserved anyway. And he knew it.

I've actually never been tempted to try it on with any student. The idea isn't repulsive - just as the idea of sex with a tree isn't repulsive, just a bit surreal with no attraction.

I guess I'm nonpedagogicosexual.

It's not quite over yet. There's a few classes still running for the next one or two weeks. After which I'm officially unemployed again...or officially emigrating for work again.

"Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

"The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence."

- CS Lewis

"Whiners, if given power, become tyrants."

- Gary North

"Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away."

- Tim Minchin

"Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom."

- Quentin Crisp

Monsters from the Id

I am surrounded by idiots.

But everyone thinks that.

If you're an idiot, your definition of an idiot is anyone who disagrees with you. Seeing as that's pretty much everyone, they surrond you.

If you're not an idiot, your definition of an idiot is anyone who can't bear to think they might be wrong, misguided, or not respected. Seeing as that's pretty much everyone, they surround you.

The difference between an idiot and a fool is that a fool accepts all criticisms unquestioningly, while an idiot accepts none.

So if you're wondering whether you're an idiot, imagine someone calling you an idiot. If your response is to consider that they might be right, you know they're wrong.

But if you're wondering, you're already not an idiot, because idiots can't endure introspection - because that's a form of (self) criticism.

The result of educating an idiot is an educated idiot.

If you can list ten arguments against a belief which is important to you, you're educated. If they're all strawmen, you're still an idiot.

Idiocy is not a failure of intellect but of courage.

"Beware rhetorical questions. They tend to paper over whatever cracks are in the argument."

- Daniel Dennett

"It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

"The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice."

- James Frazer

"Crime is contagious. If the government becomes the lawbreaker it breeds contempt for laws."

- Gore Vidal

"Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery."

- Fyodor Dostoevsky