A totally unqualified riff on #Alt-Ac and me in Applied Linguistics/Language Teaching

Radio silence! I have syllabi to write and such. It is the very short break between the end of one Japanese academic year and the start of another. It is my first year that I will be mainly a part-time university teacher at three universities with marginal face-to-face freelancing.

One of my sweet distractions lately has been that, should my pipe dream of being a tenured lecturer not actually materialise, it might not be a bad thing because the working conditions for tenured staff can be absolute crap anyway. No, I haven’t been listening to The Auteurs again. I’ve been reading about alternative academia, or #Alt-Ac.

I don’t get grants to do research because I am part-time and I am – without doubt – not even registered as a blip to the people in charge anywhere that would fund anything as someone who would be doing anything remotely worth money to research and take time out and have a weekend at a conference and blah, blah, blah. The research I do is because either:

  1. it would be useful once and I might be able to use it again;
  2. it might be something I can show in a portfolio to get a better job;
  3. I might be able to sell something like materials based off the research and thus be a provider of children’s shoes to my household.

Would I be a better or a worse researcher if I were actually forced to be in an office dealing with millions of emails and several meetings and whatnot? I don’t know, but it would be rather nice to learn about research methods from media other than books and podcasts. A bit unlikely for a serial part-timer, mind but I do have an embryonic duoethnography probably underway once I actually get my arse in gear.

I keep entertaining doing a PhD (and will probably do a MRes so I can get academic credit for a biggish project I have on my mind). The only problem with a PhD is thinking about recouping the cost if I did one part-time or even recouping the cost of a wage cut if I did one full time. I know money isn’t everything but it’s very difficult to support a family on scholarly knowledge alone.

But Marc, you are getting ahead of yourself. Aren’t you a mere part-time instructor? Yes, I am. I also know that I have publications coming out, the probability of more, and might even have more publications than existing full-time instructors. I am pretty sure that my corpus work, if it actually ever sees the light of day when it is reviewed will be decent, and it’s not like there are a ton of ESP corpus linguists in Japan at the minute, unless I am woefully ignorant (and I kind of hope I am, in this case). There is a shortage of people obsessively interested in teaching listening and/or pronunciation (again, prove me wrong. Please!). There is no shortage of Task-Based Language Teachers in Japan, and my new job may mean that I get a bit more input there but I don’t know, so I’m not looking to carve a path there exactly though I have a book idea I am trying to work on because I have one more day off per week this year!

So, the new academic year: I am really looking forward to it, I have some cool courses to teach, some old and some new. I will have international students for the first time in about five years as well, which is nice because it keeps me on my toes pedagogically. And I can probably get at least a few blog posts and maybe a paper out of some stuff.

Anyhow, unfocused ruffian seeks tons of cash to research listening or make corpora. Hit me up in the comments if you want to give me money (joke [perhaps]).

You may also want to avail yourself of the not dry at all Research in Action podcast by Dr. Katie Linder.

 

 

 

 

The fabled 40-hour week

When I worked in a language school, I worked my contracted 30 hours a week. In exchange I got a decent starting salary. What nobody tells you from the company is that the salary only goes up a tiny bit and there’s rarely any real career progression.

That’s why I don’t work for language schools anymore. I went with agency work teaching business English and a junior high school. The agency also sent me to teach at a university. I was teaching PPP lessons, mostly with no planning to speak of (being able to wing it through a double-page coursebook spread is not very demanding). I was working about 35 hours a week, not including travelling between several workplaces in a day.

I did my DipTESOL, had my eyes opened to second language acquisition (SLA) and task-based language teaching (TBLT). This is language teaching and learning with purpose and evidence-based foundations, I thought. My planning time went up. It was a bit of a learning curve. My working hours went up to about 45 hours a week, not including travel between jobs.

Between my DipTESOL and my MA, I started working direct hire for universities and reduced my agency work as the agencies seemed to be reducing hourly rates and only get contracts in inconvenient places. With more university work and more ideas about how to support learners, I decided on portfolio assessments. I gave myself tons of marking. I decided to eschew coursebooks. I made my own materials because I couldn’t find anything decent or just what I needed. My working hours went up to about 50 hours a week, not including travel between jobs. Sometimes it’s more.

This new year, I decided to work less. Work what I need to do. I’m not compromising my principles by using stupid materials or going back to only PPP. I may change the portfolio assessments to something less demanding for me, so I am aiming for working about 40 hours a week, not including travelling about between jobs. Other professions do it, so why not us?

If you liked this, you will probably find TAWSIG interesting, too.

In to view; a two-way perspective on job interviews

This is a bit more freelance than usual. I am on a long trip to an interview by train (not very long but long enough to need a sit down). After that I have a Skype interview with an organisation overseas that I respect very much. But, what’s an interview? Is it OK to not feel stressed?

Interviews: my take

Loads of people take interviews as a sales pitch for themselves. It’s an opportunity to market your brand. What are your values? I am going to go out on a limb here and say all of that is hogwash. I am not selling myself. That is not an interview, it’s a sales pitch.

An interview gives me a chance to find out what I haven’t already gleaned from an internet search and chatter among peers. Is this somewhere I want to spend time? Do I think it would be beneficial to me? I know I can help students to learn, but how will this organisation help me to develop that further? Is it in keeping with my beliefs about practice or not? It’s an opportunity for teachers to interview someone for the position of employer. It needs to be a two-way street.

So, bizarre as it may be, I’m not nervous. I’m wondering if these jobs are right for me or not. I am not just talking about money but that might be part of it, along with CPD opportunities both formal and informal, conditions made explicit and any possible red flags.

So, no, I don’t feel stressed. I feel interested. If I do not get the job I avoid a poor fit with an organisation. If I get weird vibes, it means I shouldn’t take it even if offered. On the other hand, if the vibes are good and people are nice and the conditions great, even if I don’t get the job I will watch for future openings.

Reflection post-MA and the onward movement

Some of you who know me a bit or have delved in the archives may know that I just finished my MA Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Distance Learning) through University of Portsmouth. Nothing is finalised yet but my work has been marked and in the next couple of months I believe I get a lovely new piece of paper.

Would I do it again? Yes. I loved reading up on stuff I am interested in and then chatting about it. Would my wife let me do it again? Perhaps begrudgingly. There are reasons for her antipathy, none of which are to do with the University of Portsmouth but to do with work-life balance.

My workload (as in paid work) right now is 15 hours university teaching (and does not include planning, preparation or assessment), 16 hours of school teaching, planning, preparation and assessment, and 3 hours thirty minutes of ESP/Business English teaching (not including preparation, planning or assessment). While I was doing my MA, I was teaching 3 to 6 hours less at university but instead teaching 3 hours more Business English, teaching YLs for 7 hours and coordinating YL courses with 2 assigned hours. A colleague told me a couple of weeks ago, “Marc, you should be really proud if you do pass because you have the workload of two full-time lecturers while completing the MA reading and writing.”

I am proud, but I wish I had controlled my work-life balance better, what with having a young son. I also started the MA when I was finishing up the teaching practicum of my Trinity DipTESOL, as well, which was stressful in and of itself. This was not simply unwise but totally stupid and irresponsible. I did all of it by sacrificing family life, mainly by burning the candle at both ends.

Why did I do it, then? I am not a pretty paper collector. I am stuck in a situation where I need money and it needs to go up quite often seeing as I have basically no pension, not really enough savings, and there are social norms in Japan about extra-curricular stuff that costs the kind of kind of money I will probably start to balk at come April. I can talk about the inherent edification of completing work above my comfort zone, and it is a huge factor in what got me through. Learning stuff is fun, kind of. However, I have to at least be a bit utilitarian. MA is basically the new BA. Perhaps I even understate it.

I also work for four different employers, plus myself. I am tired of this. I would love a full-time job that pays a similar amount to my current earnings, after taking into account the social insurance differences and such. Unfortunately, there’s a bit less job security there unless I were to chance upon a tenured position immediately. This is as likely as discovering a magic lamp at the bottom of my bag. However, an MA makes the probability of this at least a sporting chance. It also means that I can move countries if I absolutely have to. It also means that I can advertise my services as that of an expert rather than as a journeyman, and get more money for them. Alternatively, it means I can find better paying part-time work.

Anyhow, studies are finished, kind of. I just have to wait. My dissertation supervisor said in an email, “you should follow up on this research.”

“Hey, let’s move to New Zealand! I’ll do a PhD!” I said, in the mania of knowing I passed everything as opposed to the gnawing fear that I had failed. Also, I am a workaholic, which is definitely not a good thing but a side effect of impulsive decision making.

“Do they have good trains?” my son asked.

“Eh?” asked my wife, with the stoniest stare since Medusa. “No.”

So, not quite that. Instead, I am doing stuff, sort of a long-term research project come side business thing that I hope to use as a PhD by publication in the next few years, to increase the chance of finding a permanent, well-paid, full-time job (don’t laugh, PhD holders; I did say ‘chance’) . Luckily I have good library access with my jobs.

In the meantime, I am trying to find time to transform my dissertation into a research article and figure out how to get my jobs to let me use students as research subjects or else find time to get volunteers for research. Or get the time to try finding a magic lamp.

The Great Gig Economy in the Sky

Cool Lone Wolf Fantasy

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The ‘Gig Economy’, or as it used to be known ‘making people wait till you throw them some crumbs’ is one of the continuing shames of our profession. Casual work, often without contracts, with no holiday pay, sick pay, parental leave or any of the other benefits full-time workers enjoy is promoted as freelance work, with that kind of cool image of Tribeca loft apartments and commuting between clients on a bicycle with the wind in your hair. Not for us the waiting outside a meeting room, a bag of books, folders and papers hanging off us, eh?

I know that when I started freelance work and serial part-time work it was to do with better rates of pay. It’s always about better rates of pay. Working full time in a language school wasn’t going to pay enough to support a family. Yet two of the biggest providers of work for me for agency work are language school companies. The full-timers making about ¥2500 per hour get holiday pay and better health insurance and hybrid state and company pension. I forego those benefits to pay my own insurance and state pension but get more money.

This might be decried as me just having a moan, having cast myself as a Job-like figure of TEFL in Japan. Not quite. I earn decent money. What I’m complaining about is this:

If the same company can afford to pay ¥4000 per hour for very precarious conditions, or ¥2500 (or less) for less precarious conditions for the same work, isn’t it true that they can probably afford to pay the full-timers more or give freelancers less precarious work? 

This is before anything like qualifications and experience are taken into account, and generally in Japan, they aren’t taken into account very much at all.

“Oh, but with the gig economy you’re free to do whatever you want to do. Freedom is good!” I imagine people saying.

I say it is not. I say that you’re probably just as beholden to work with the gig economy or even more so because of a fear that work could dry up leaving you wondering if you could adjust to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s all about control. Full-time leaves you beholden, freelance leaves you grateful for anything that comes your way. I’m lucky, because now I get none of my work through any of the Uber-for-EFL sites which have the flakiest students who want amazing, bespoke lessons for basically nothing, along with the right to cancel at a minute’s notice (and I am not exaggerating) with no fee.

What are the alternatives?

It may not seem like it, but there is a tiny sliver of light in the unrelenting darkness. There are communities that we make ourselves. Worker-owned cooperatives are the model that I think would be best, but this isn’t easy to sort out when you’re stretched with work already. Just knowing that somebody has your back is enough on some days; on others you need sick cover or a bit of help making some materials that you can’t actually find.

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We need less of the rampant individualist and more small-scale collectivist behaviour. Know yourselves, your strengths and weaknesses. We need to work together, help each other and pool our labour to stop large operators being the only option. Otherwise we keep the status quo: TEFL elites writing million-quid coursebooks, junkets to large conferences and people from supposed non-profit organisations who haven’t taught in donkey’s years being paid ten times more than you to tell you about your classroom practice.

Stuff I am Glad I Do as a Freelance Teacher

Those of you who read regularly know just how much of a horrendous curmudgeon I am, and this past couple of weeks I’ve been questioning my career choices, much like Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he talks about shutting down his record shop to go and work in a Virgin Megastore. 
I have, however, come out the other side of this gnashing of teeth and realised that my relief that life is not all bad was helped by the following things:

Keeping a diary

Not a journal, although I do jot things or add them to a private Google document. No, I’m talking about keeping a detailed schedule and updating it weekly. If I knew I could gather the info as quickly online as I can with paper, I’d use an internet-based calendar but paper is just plain quicker. 

Finding how many classes I teach for myself is useful for paperwork for my son’s daycare. It’s also a lot quicker for scheduling new clients. 

Speaking Halfway OK Japanese

I had to phone the bank this week and if I hadn’t learned the Japanese I have, getting the information I needed woukd have meant waiting until my wife’s day off or hiring an interpreter or begging the bank to find someone who speaks English.

Spread the risk

I do not work for just one agency, or just one client. This means of one company goes belly up, or if a new client is bloody unreliable, I don’t lose out too much.

This was an issue when I was a mere part-time dabbler, living paycheck to paycheck. I know now that I would never again work for a fly-by-night company who photocopy all their materials. I also know that if I get paid late, somebody doesn’t care about me so what else don’t they care about? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still love a permanent full-time job with a good salary, it’s just that those are rare as hen’s teeth in EFL and I actually do enjoy my job. It’s just the times people treat you as an idiot that get me cross.