The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Working way down south

This week I'm in Mousehole, in Cornwall, right down on the bottom 'nobble', just a few miles from Lands End. We've rented a great little cottage for the week and have had some lovely days out walking along the cliff paths in the sunshine and having long pub lunches. I have, however, brought my laptop with me and I've given over a couple of days to working.

Some people have expressed sympathy that I've had to work while I'm on holiday, but I don't see it like that at all. It was a choice between this or a long weekend away and the rest of the week back at my desk. I think this option's much better! I don't worry about blurring the line between work and play, I had no trouble today doing a couple of hours work this morning followed by lunch in a pub in the sun, then a productive afternoon at my 'desk'. I'm now about to give up for the day and go out for a late afternoon wander along the harbour. Feels like a great work-life balance to me.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

IATEFL - brain full!

Over the past couple of days, I've been downloading my thoughts in the evening - dumping all the ideas stirred up by a day of sessions, discussions and conversations here before I go to bed. Today I'm posting early, because I only got as far as lunchtime before I decided my brain was full and I just couldn't maintain my concentration through another session! Over the years, I've realised that, for me, the best way to deal with big conferences is to be selective and to take plenty of breaks. 3 or 4 key sessions a day is usually enough, otherwise I just get a bit tired and overwhelmed and it all starts merging together. This year I seem to have reached my threshold relatively early. And as I've got my laptop with me and other work to get on with, I decided to spend most of the rest of my time down in Brighton "at my desk" or for the moment, out in the sun on the balcony of my apartment!!

As for this morning's sessions, I went to a fun and thought-provoking talk by Jim Scrivener about how the internet might be changing the way we read. Then continuing the trend of going to talks by people who I know are going to be good speakers (because I'm tired and no longer have the patience for poor presenters!!) I opted for a presentation by Mike McCarthy, Anne O'Keeffe and Geraldine Mark about their corpus research for English Grammar Today. They didn't really tell me anything much I didn't already know, but it was an interesting, if rather frustrating session for two reasons.

The first thing was the dynamic between the three speakers. Mike started things off and remained very much 'in charge' through the whole thing. It felt rather as if throughout the session, he would ocassionally summon his two females colleagues, almost like a teacher asking a student to stand up and say their piece! Unintentional I'm sure, but rather uncomfortable to watch once I'd picked up on it.

I also found the conclusions they drew from the learner corpus a bit shaky in places. I've been working with the same corpus (the Cambridge Learner Corpus) for the past 12 years and I know it inside out. I'm also very aware of its weaknesses. And while Mike did acknowledge that the data is skewed, to an extent, by exam tasks and questions, he still went on to make some generalisations which I'd feel very wary about making. It would've been nice to question him further about it, but I don't move in such rarefied circles! An entirely different issue that I think I'd better leave for another day!

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

IATEFL day two

It's been another busy day in Brighton. Perhaps today's most interesting session came right at the end of the day though. Paul Knight from Nottingham University was talking about the future of EAP - not from a linguistic or pedagogical perspective, but as a profession/career and business. He made loads of really interesting observations and predictions, but two key points stuck in my mind.

He highlighted a trend already underway for EAP to take place outside of the traditional anglophone countries. He talked about the emergence of more and more English medium universities in different parts of the world; picking out especially Shanghai in China and Abu Dhabi, where the Sorbonne is opening a new campus, with instruction through English, not French. Will future students be more inclined to gravitate towards these international or regional centres rather than coming to study in the UK or US? And the effect of this trend on EAP professionals? He suggested that those working in EAP in the UK could find that their skills become more in demand to train EAP teachers to work around the world rather than spending their time in front of students. It made me wonder whether EAP teacher training is a route I should be considering?

Taking an even longer-term perspective, he also talked about how global population trends might affect the future of English teaching. The buzz at the moment all seems to be about the huge potential of the Chinese market, but the Chinese population is ageing, with relatively few younger people. The Indian population, on the other hand, is still heavily weighted towards youth and as it continues to develop is going to provide a huge number of young people wanting and needing to learn English.

He predicted, however, that as the education systems in these key markets develop and students increasingly study English from an earlier age, they're going to come out at 18 with a level of English far above that of the current cohort of EAP students. So will EAP in the future need to focus less on basic language skills and even more on teaching academic skills (critical thinking, academic argument, etc)?

All really interesting thoughts and predictions with potentially significant effects for me as both a teacher and a writer.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

IATEFL day one

Today was the first day of the IATEFL conference and saw a couple of interesting talks plus some good meetings with friends and colleagues.

I went to the Pearson discussion session - Which words are worth the worry? - with Diane and Norbert Schmitt in Brighton and Averil Coxhead and Paul Nation on a Skype link from New Zealand. It was an interesting session for several reasons. Firstly, it was an odd format. Although the Skype link-up worked quite well, it meant that Diane and Norbert were in the room, but sat at a desk in front of a webcam, which meant you couldn't see them. So the whole thing was very much of a listening exercise with little to look at and it was quite difficult to maintain concentration.

It was fascinating to see Averil Coxhead, albeit only on the screen. She's someone whose work I've followed and had a lot to do with in recent years and who I suppose I had a mental image of. And she looked absolutely nothing like I'd imagined! Some of her comments were very interesting though. One thing that really struck me was when she was talking about potential mismatches between what we think we're teaching students (in terms of vocabulary) and what they think is important to learn. She told a story about a Chinese student who said she was only interested in learning verbs, not nouns, because Chinese people like to do things! It was one of those really interesting thoughts that really got me thinking. I've made a mental note to ask my own (mostly Chinese) students in the summer what kind of language they think is most important to learn. I'm intrigued to see whether Chinese learners really do have a preference for verbs!

I also went to a really interesting session with a former teaching colleague, Catherine Mitsaki, about critical friend groups. She talked about a project in which she put EAP students into groups to critique each others' writing work and to provide peer feedback on a regular basis throughout a course. The idea being to promote critical thinking and encourage learners to be more independent rather than always relying on the teacher. It was a really interesting idea and one I'm definitely going to mull over before I teach again in August. I'm not sure it'll be quite as effective in such a short course (just 5 weeks) as it seems like an idea that takes some time for students to be comfortable with and really start to benefit from. I'm sure I can take elements of it though.

Some interesting food for thought today and looking forward to more tomorrow.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Old kit

I'm now installed in my cool Brighton pad for the week and have resisted the temptation to go out shopping and have spent the day working away on my laptop. (Not that much of a hardship as it's rather grey and chilly.) I've got a nice big table to work at in a bay window, so bright and quite inspiring even on a cloudy day.

As you'll see, rather than the graphics tablet I'd intended to bring with me, I've got a standard mouse. The reason? Well, when I went to plug my graphics tablet into my new laptop, it wouldn't recognise it. Unsurprising perhaps, seeing as my tablet's more then 12 years old! I got it when my RSI first started and I went freelance, along with my screen, keyboard and chair, all of which are still going strong. I think that's quite impressive in today's throw-away age!

I know I could probably have downloaded the relevant drivers to get the graphics tablet to work, but I had a long list of other stuff to do, so just grabbed the mouse instead for this time. The set-up's not feeling too bad, especially since I propped the laptop up on it's case to give me a better typing angle. I need to find out if there's such a thing as a combined carry-case/cover and stand - if not I might have to design and make my own.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Working away

Today is my last day at my desk before I go away for more-or-less the rest of the month. I'm off to Brighton tomorrow for a week for the annual IATEFL conference, then I've got just a day at home before I head down to Cornwall for an Easter break. I could have done both trips as long weekends, but I decided to add a bit of time to each to enjoy a change of scene. That's not to say that's going to be time 'off' because I'm going to be taking my new laptop and working while I'm away.

In both locations I'm renting an apartment with wi-fi, so this won't be squeezing in a bit of work sat on the bed in a hotel room. I'm quite excited about setting myself up a new working space for a few days, but also feeling a bit wary about working from a laptop. I'm always warning about the dangers of working at a laptop and I'm very aware that the set-up I'm taking with me breaks a lot of the rules when it comes to ergonomics. I'm going to be taking my graphics tablet with me (that I use instead of a mouse), but I don't have a laptop stand yet, to adjust the height I work at, or a separate keyboard. It's a tricky dilemma, because one of the other effects of the problems surrounding my RSI is pain and weakness in my shoulder, which makes carrying stuff difficult. So having specifically chosen a lightweight laptop, it then seems silly to add to my luggage with a whole load of extra bits and pieces.

I guess I'll just have to see how the experiment goes ... I'll post some pictures from Brighton.

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