One Flew Over the NEST/Non-NEST debate: Strategy Paper Four

In 2011 Marek Kiczkowiak was turned down for a teaching post because he wasn’t deemed a “native speaker”; not because of his level of spoken and written English or lack of teaching skills and experience but because of his lack of perceived “nativeness”. Rather than accept this situation (which was clearly one that affected many more people than just him) Kiczkowski embarked on a campaign within the ELT community to highlight the injustices faced by Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (or as he nicely puts it “perceived Non-Native English Speaking Teachers” because someone might be deemed so simply because of the colour of their skin or accent). He popped up on various ELT blogs raising these issues and then set up the highly succesful and popular TEFL Equity Advocates (later morphing into the TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy). 

The whole issue of NEST/Non-NEST teachers predates the intervention of Kiczkowiak (most notably through the work of Peter Medgyes) but what marked out Kiczkowiak’s approach was not to talk about the advantages/disadvantages or different experiences of Non-NESTs (as opposed to NESTs) but to directly challenge discrimanatory employment practices. In doing so Kiczkowiak was directly or indirectly challenging what Phillipson terms foundational aspects of the global ELT industry:

Of pedagogical significance has been the way monolingualism, native speakerism, the early start, and related fallacies were foundational for global TESOL and still persist. Sending under‐qualified native speakers (NESTs) to Asian countries, or monolingual advisers on educational projects, is indefensible.

Not surprisingly the campaign quickly drew many high profile supporters and Kiczkowiak was invited to ELT conferences to talk about these issues. We say “not surprisingly” because clearly there is a tension between presenting yourself as a profession (as many ELT practioners do) and believing that the mere posession of “nativeness” somehow qualifies you as an effective teacher of English as a foreign language. That said, however, tparts of the industry continue to advertise for “native speakers” (without clearly defining what one is let alone their importance) and many adverts for English courses still contain references to “qualified native English teachers”.

Not only does TEFL Equity Advocates provide free downloads on tips for fighting “native-speakerism” but Kiczkowiak has also branched out into larger discussions about the variety of Englishes available and the transtion from EFL (English as a foreign language) to ELF (English as a Lingua-Franca) challenging both the ownership of English and the way it should be taught. He has co-authored, along with Robert J Lowe, Teaching as a Ligua Franca: The Journey from EFL to ELF where he explores these ideas in greater depth and provides practical teaching ideas.

In short, Marek Kiczkowiak is a rather remarkable individual who not only exposes the injustices at the heart of TEFL but offers concrete proposals for challenging them. He is to be greatly applauded for his intelligence, courage and energy.

Beyond the limits of the NEST/Non-NEST debate

Marek Kiczkowiak clearly argues that it’s time to ditch the whole debate around the advantages/disadvantages of NESTs/Non-NESTs (indirectly criticising Medgyes), because it is couched in terms of the relative strengths of two imaginary groups (attributing  qualities to both groups based on birth and location rather training and experience). To quote him at length:

Numerous studies show, for example, that being perceived as a ‘native speaker’ in ELT is associated with being white and Western-looking. As a result, not all of those who might think of themselves as ‘native speakers’ will be perceived as such. And this unfortunately leads to bizarre and shocking situation when someone born, bred and educated in, say, the US is turned down for a job because they don’t fit the image of a white Western-looking ‘native speaker’.

So while defining a ‘native speaker’ is very problematic, assuming that all those perceived as ‘native speakers’ are endowed with a particular quality and teach in a particular way is frankly bonkers. As I argued in this paper with Robert Lowe (much more academically and much less angrily), the supposed advantages and disadvantages of those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ are NOT connected to the person’s first language, but to their training and expertise.

In other words, it should be no surprise that many of those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ have high language awareness. After all, they spent years studying the language themselves. And then likely did a 3 or 5 year degree in English philology or something similar.

However, it doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ have high language awareness. Nor that those perceived as ‘native speakers’ cannot have it.

Marek Kiczkowiak further explains the continuation of these beliefs:

The worst part about this ‘who is worth more’ debate is that it just further perpetuates the ideology of native speakerism. If you want to know more about the ideology, watch this video. But in a nutshell, native speakerism is the ideology that positions those perceived as ‘native speakers’ as linguistically, culturally and pedagogically superior.

Similarly to other ideologies, native speakerism is not spread in a vacuum. It is spread, maintained, justified and made to seem perfectly normal through powerful discourses or beliefs, which are then enshrined in social practices, or things we do.

So to give you an example, the discourse that positions those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ as fundamentally different, each with a set of immutable strengths and weaknesses, further supports the ideology of native speakerism. This discourse uses stereotypes about the two groups to put them in certain categories and position some as superior. 

However, if, as said before, native speakerism undermines the claims of professionalism many ELT practitioners make, then how could such beliefs be ideological (rooted in material interests)? Surely they would just be outdated superstitions about teaching. We can see little reason why most experienced teachers would prioritise “native-speakerism” over experience and training if this put them on a similar level to all the millions and millions of “native English speakers” around the world. Indeed many perceived NESTs who support TEFL Equity and the excellent work of Marek Kiczkowiak believe just this, that “native-speakerism” is just misguided and short-sighted bigotry rather than grounded in material interests. If we are to challenge such ideas surely we must be clear as to why they exist/persist (superstition or ideology) if we are to effectively challenge them. This is not to conclude that teachers can’t hold quite contradictory views, they clearly do, but to suggest that if such “misguided views” ideas exist/persist there must be powerful forces/interests behind them from which they find nourishment.

It is here where we depart a little from Kiczkowiak (maybe) and continue to find interest and inspiration in the work of Megdyes (admittedly nowhere does Kiczkowiak explicitly challenge Megdeyes and TEFL Equity even runs a piece on a re-issue of Megdyes book on the subject). We find great interest here because Medgyes is talking primarily from the perspective of state schoolteachers and not the experience of perceived Non-NESTs inside the world of TEFL adventurism. Medgyes was part of an intiative to improve English language teaching inside Hungary (after the fall of the soviet bloc). Much of this initiative was led by outside actors like the British Council in collaboration with the Hungarian state. No doubt many of these being what Phillipson describes as “monolingual language advisers”. There were in fact two groups (not two imaginary groups), one developing teaching materials and practices inside a Non-NEST world and another claiming expertise over the target language and methodology (the latter group clearly invested with more power). Medgyes became a conduit between the two worlds, attending ELT conferences and writing papers and books largely for this second group which at some point Medgyes may have imagined the first group would, like him, join.

However, as Jeremy Harmer pointed out in a set of perky comments on the NEST/Non-NEST debate in 2009:

see the thing about NESTs etc is that u can talk about it as much as you want (you = one in RP, OK?) but the fact is that the vast majority of ELT in the world is done by non-NESTs (95%+ I’d guess, so the question is a bit academic (in the other sense). It is true that NESTs who shouldn’t really be anywhere near a classroom get jobs above much more qualified non-NESTs (and that’s not something to feel good about). But most of the good EL teaching in the world is done by Non-NESTs anyway.

And this is something very important to consider, the current debate about NESTs/Non-NESTs is largely (though not solely) restricted to the world of TEFL adventurism, where English is (at least in the first years of a TEFL teacher’s career) conducted in a country from which the teacher does not originate. It is precisely here where there is an emphasis on “native English teachers”. However, for us the very limitation of this debate to this small percentage of English Teaching worldwide is testimony to the powerful hegemony of a small private tertiary sector backed up by powerful institutions of state-sponsored marketting (think the British Council), teacher training institutes, examination boards, “high status” universities and publishers. This is why every year the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language are happy to debate the NEST/Non-NEST issue at their annual conference in the UK surrounding by such organisations. It doesn’t matter that less than a third of attendees are actual teachers or that it is far from International, the point is for the Anglo-sphere to exercise hegemony over ELT.

Moreover, if you are a language school offering English classes in Italy for example, how do you demarcate yourself from the classes students are already receiving or received within the state sector if not by offering a different “superior” methodology and a “cultural” experience not available within the state sector. We wonder how many readers will have heard colleagues in such academies, or maybe even themselves, question the local education system or the quality of the state school English teachers without really having a deep knowledge of what goes on and the challenges such teachers face.

Clearly we understand that more experienced TEFL teachers and those that migrate into EAP and ESOL will be keen to challenge some of the foundational aspects of TEFL adventurism, like the four week training course and native speakerism, but they may carry some of those same prejudices ( the superiority of CELTA methodology/ that there really exist Non-NESTs and NESTs as two easily identifiable groups) even if in a diluted form.

What we indeed have, when we look at the bigger picture, is a contradictory set of contested practices. While it is true so-called Non-NESTs are openly discriminated against in TEFL, in Europe at least, the vast number of Non-NEST teachers employed in the state sector will enjoy better pay and conditions (especially when pensions and other benefits are taken into account) than their colleagues (NEST and Non-Nest) in the tertiary sector. Moreover, in other better paid sections of ELT, like EAP and ESOL, again Non-NESTs are likely to experience considerably less open discrimination (the result of greater “professionalisation”).

That said Anglo-phone Universities and Journals continue to dominate Second Language Acquisition theory and research (not just for English) and most international English coursebooks are written by perceived Native Speakers (coursebooks used in the state system, however, are a contested space and local publishers may promote the work of practioners embedded in that local state system). And despite English being more important as a lingua-franca than any other form of particular English, the Anglo-sphere continues to exercise hegemony over ELT, and does so in the interests of promoting their own national interests (cultural products, coursebooks, employment emportunities for graduates, overseas student enrollment and local branches of Anglo-sphere universities etc over national competitors)

In Conclusion

In no way do we want to distract from the excellent work of TEFL Equity Advocates and we urge all readers to expose and challenge “native-speakerism¨ where they see it. We also want to applaud Marek Kiczkowiak for wanting to shift the debate from not only employment practices but also to who owns English and what type of Englishes we should be teaching. However, we are also encouraging readers to challenge why the 5% should be lording it over the 95% (if Jeremy Harmer’s statistics are correct), this is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. In challenging this we get to the foundational roots of TEFL and can begin to envisage an alternative which is not based on marketting the Anglo-sphere or perpetuating inequality.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Precarity Part Three: What It Means for ELT

In Part One we offered a partial rebuttal of the claims of many writing about precarity. We were not dismissing the relative precarity that certain workers face (notably artists, academics and TEFL workers) or a generalised and well-extended subjectivity that we feel our lives to be more uncertain, that the material prospects of the younger generations are less than that of their parents’ generation. However, we want to say that objectively zero hours contracts, temporary contracts and involuntary part-time work are simply not as widespread as many writers suggest and the capital-labour relation is far more contradictory than they assume. In Part Two we went back to Marx to see how he viewed precariousness among the dispossessed classes and then examined how major writers in the field extended or contradicted the views of the great nineteenth century thinker. In Part Three we want to look concretely at the ELT industry, critically examine precarity as it manifests itself, and develop some ideas/principles on how we might draw up strategies for improving teachers’ lives.

Back to the Beginning

As said previously, this short response was in reply to the excellent work Paul Walsh had already started with regards to this theme. Moreover, at the outset we explained that we thought a more personal article on the subject, published in Open Democracy rather than a more academic piece you can find here, motivated us to join the discussion. Put briefly in the aforementioned article Paul explains how member of the ELT community and Film director/teacher had taken her own life when faced with the desperate plight of trying to pay the bills, keep a decent roof above her head and pursue her artistic ambitions. It is a heart rending story, not least because the person was (for a good part of her working life) one of us. There but for the grace of God, is the common expression. And indeed many of us may depend on either good fortune or kind and generous relatives given the difficulty of securing a decent wage, pension, affordable home etc., through the practise of our “profession”.

It is worth pointing out that being an artist has been one of those precarious occupations long predating modern discussions of precarity. Indeed, the “struggling misunderstood artist” is part of a modern mythology of how the creative process must be for the truly gifted. Way back in time such artists would depend on rich patronage or access to resources provided by “generous” family members. This romantic vision of the struggling misunderstood artist certainly does not help modern artists secure decent remuneration and support for their artistic endeavours. There is a fascinating podcast here on the campaign for artists to be properly financially supported.

To be brief we would highlight how the now super successful and respected artist, Tracy Emin, was able to depend on a “comfortable” Housing Association studio flat in Central London (with affordable rent and housing benefit during tough times) and an affordable nearby studio to make the art which led to her current fame. We say this not out of any malice but only to say we should take care of people so they might develop such talents to their full potential and we will all be able to share from the results. Even if the person doesn’t “make it,” we would not have discouraged others from attempting to do so. I wonder now whether Tracy Emin would have had her benefits stopped and be forced to deliver pizza for Deliveroo. What we do know is that our colleague did not enjoy the same support in terms of decent and affordable housing and financial support through difficult times (and this in a city which prides itself and markets itself as a city boasting many artists).

We also wanted to begin with this story because it is important to recognise that not everybody has the same principal objective in the ELT community. Whilst some of us may enjoy spending every conceivable hour preparing student-centred classes, researching ELT methodology and sharing ideas via blogs, others will have ambitions outside teaching and require time to pursue those ambitions (that is not to say some lucky ones might not develop as a great musician, cutting-edge ELT practitioner and attentive to friends and family members but it’s a tough call). This is important when we as a groups of workers come together to define collectively what we hope to get out of teaching. Diversity in the ELT “profession” makes it far more interesting but it also poses certain challenges as regards the “professionalisation” of ELT teaching (i.e., increased credentialism, which is unattractive to those not necessarily prioritising teaching as a “life-goal”).

What the Dickens

When reviewing the work of Judith Butler we saw she made a useful distinction between precariousness (a human condition) and precarity (the unequal distribution of precariousness):

Lives are by definition precarious: they can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed. In some sense, this is a feature of all life, and there is no thinking of life which is not precarious […] Precarity designates the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death.” 

 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

Moreover, in Part Two we were keen to show how Butler’s work was grounded in the pathbreaking work of Hannah Arendt and her concern that groups could be delegitimated, excluded from the public sphere. Moreover it was in the public sphere (a space which exists between individuals) that rights and protections can be and are created.

We explained that this could augment our Marxist understanding of precariousness as precarity went beyond the simple binary division around ownership of the means of production or the creation of a reserve army of labour (an overproduction of people as Bauman might term it). Oddly enough we can trace this back to Marx’s own times and the writings of Charles Dickens. While Dickens was concerned about the conditions of the labouring classes he was also (if not a whole deal more so) concerned about the precarity (and here we use Butler’s distinction deliberately) of his own social class. Three particular prominent Dickensian themes concern us here and they are debt, patronage and inheritance. Three themes that have resurfaced in the current regime of capital accumulation and impact greatly on ELT teachers.

Debtors prisons (originating during the middle ages) were not abolished in the UK until 1869 (the 1869 Debtors act)and it was not only the labouring classes who found themselves incarcerated but the middle-class “living beyond their means”. Charles Dickens’ own father was sent to prison for an unpaid debt and Dickens was forced to undertake work at 12 years of age to help alleviate the family situation (no wonder the theme comes up in so much of his work). The US abolished debtors prisons as early as 1833.

Legislative changes which not only allowed debtors a living allowance before paying liabilities but also protected the private wealth of investors and business owners whose investments had failed provided much greater protection to the population and, of course, the middle-class in particular. Obviously there was some resentment at the time and people felt such legislative change encouraged moral jeopardy but now it is generally accepted, particular with business investment, that risk takers must be protected if society is to generate wealth (a clear case of the role of public sphere – a deeply unequal one – in legitimating or deligitimating a specific part of the population).

In an ironic twist (return to the 19th century) household debt in the advance core of capitalist countries has reached record heights and personal savings have reached record lows as income has stagnated and debt has not only become more available but more necessary. In the case of ELT the vast majority of new entrants to the profession will already have student debts of around 50,000 Euros if from the UK and even higher if from the US. On top of this they can be paying in excess of 1,000 Euros for a teacher training course (CELTA level) and further 1,000 and for an advanced teaching certificate (Diploma). Some will then go on to study a Masters for 9,000 Euros and above in order to advance their career. Hopefully (though highly improbable for most teachers), not only can the ELT practitioner recoup this investment but they might also find sufficient resources to secure long term stable housing and sufficient funds for a comfortable retirement. No doubt we have triggered deep feelings of precariousness by just mentioning these plain facts.

Of course, some teachers might be helped by partners earning a more substantial salary in a more secure and lucrative profession or by contributions/loans by family members (particularly parents). Crucially, they may be helped by inheritance where they can benefit (at least in the short term as they may want to purchase those very same assets themselves) from inflated asset prices. This returns to other Dickensian themes (think Bleak House, Great Expectations and A Mutual Friend) of the importance of inheritance and, of course, personal patronage (in modern terms: “networking”). In Dickens’ novels we see a harsh critique of this dependence on the whims of others and how controlling this can be. Clearly we are abandoning the public sphere for a private sphere of personal domination and control, where “deviants” are left to survive on diminishing (because the wage no longer holds the same power) resources.

An American Anthropolgist in the New York Times wrote (talking about extensive interviews with students and their families):

An inescapable conclusion from my research is that the high cost of college is forcing middle-class families to engage in what I call “social speculation.” This is the third moral trap: Parents must wager money today that their children’s education will secure them a place in the middle class tomorrow.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this bet will pay off — for the parents or the children. And too often, I found, it doesn’t. Some parents’ saving plans were waylaid by crises — health emergencies, job losses, family breakups — that were common enough but impossible to foresee. Likewise, many children failed to land well-paying jobs out of college, forcing them to bear the weight of paying off debt during the most vulnerable decade of their adult lives.


It’s also no wonder that as so many of my interviews ended, parents joked about their financial predicament by saying they might win the lottery. They have come to see outlandish luck as their best chance of dealing with their predicament. And in the absence of real changes to the current system of paying for college, what other hope do they have?

Such speculative, wishful thinking may seem irrational. But until we reform how a college education is financed, that is how countless middle-class families are holding on to the American dream.

Of course we take middle-class here to be middling income, which includes “aspiring” (those that can aspire) working class as well as lower middle-class families. The simple fact is that in many homes in the advanced capitalist core the belief that one’s children will enjoy a better material standard of living than their parents is fast disappearing. Not to mention that some are not so lucky to be able to count on the support of parents and many of us would like to make our own way independently of our parents’ financial support (another issue of diversity and divergence within our ELT community).

Foucault and The Corporate Self

If families/social networks indulge in an increasing subjectivity of “social speculation” (again very Victorian) what impact might modern changes in regimes of capital accumulation impact on individual subjectivities. It is here we return to Foucault (see Part Two) and clearly identifiable trends in ELT, namely homo economicus:

In the figure of homo œconomicus—a subject of governmental rationality serving as a grid of intelligibility between the government and the governed—Foucault traces the profound depth of the transformation of classical liberalism to a neo-liberal form. Homo œconomicus, Foucault argues, ceases to be‚ one of the two partners in the process of exchange‛ and becomes‚ an entrepreneur of himself. This is such a fundamental shift that Foucault goes so far as to say that, “in practice, the stake in all neo-liberal analysis is the replacement every time of homo œconomicus as a partner of exchange with homo œconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings. Foucault argues that this figure is the bedrock assumption of all neo-liberal analysis.

In Foucault’s own words:

“… the life of the individual – including the relationship, for example, with his private property, his family, his partner, his relationship with his insurance, his retirement – making it a sort of permanent and multipurpose business” [Foucault, (2007), pp.262–277]

Basically the self, our value choices, our choice of partner and friends becomes a matter of “wise investments” and capital building. Indeed, modern companies feel the confidence to demand that employees personal value systems are aligned with their own and that despite whatever befalls the employee, they remain positive and smiling. The individual is no longer just selling their labour power but also their personal self.

Now we at MTG recognise this self as corporate entity very well, it is very well in evidence in the manner people are constructing and publicising their “value propositions” through social media or the conference circuit, keen to be challenging but careful not to stray too far with such criticisms. However, this practise is very much weighted towards the TEFL (tertiary private) sector rather than EPA (university sector) and TESOL (state further education sector). In these different sectors there will be different systems (ie., in EPA endless production of academic papers and acquisition of credentials and in TESOL endless targets to achieve and performance appraisals to navigate).

With all these systems there is a concentration on hierarchy and on self-monitoring in order to climb or appease that hierarchy; even if the need to sell your self (your personal value systems / the “public friends you choose”) is not so prevalent in EPA and TESOL. It should hardly be any wonder we choose to remain anonymous on this site as it allows us to be honest and critical where necessary and not worry about the damaging effects on our “career prospects” (as limited as they are already).

Challenging a Basic Tenet

Yes, it is entirely true that the TEFL sector is dominated by temporary or zero hour contracts. However, it would be wrong to think we are entirely dispensable. We have often been critical of EL Gazette on these pages but there is no doubting that Melanie Butler (a key figure behind the Gazette) is one of the most knowledgeable if not the most knowledgeable person in the TEFL industry. She never appears in the top six of ELT celebrities simply because she is a woman and deals with practical issues facing the industry. We in no way share Melanie Butler’s politics but credit where credit is due, since the passing away of David Graddol she is the only significant voice mapping future trends in the industry. And it is Butler who provides us with concrete evidence that it is schools with the lowest staff turnover, those that are able to train, retain and motivate their teachers that outperform rival schools. In the 2019 Rankings for ELT schools Butler provides empirical evidence that quality schools are based on quality teaching which is itself based on a cohesive core of teachers who know the school and each other well. This cuts against the idea that short term contracts and high staff turnover are in the direct interests of of the school/teaching centre, though the fear of precarity and the existence of precarity in “lower quality schools” can help depress wages and conditions in “higher quality schools” where staff turnover is much lower and training and experience is both promoted and valued. Food for thought indeed when we too easily believe ourselves to be readily dispensable.

Higher Wages and Improved Conditions Mean Higher Fees

We should not forget, however, for one moment that not everyone can afford languages classes (even in the TESOL sector). And as stated so many times before, if English (or other languages) can open doors they can just as well close them. Moreover, certain types of English (say standard British or US English) are prioritised over others (say non-standard Englishes which appear on social media- see note at end of aricle- or, more importantly, International English).

It would seem reasonable and rational that students would seek the cheapest and most efficient means of achieving the level required for their personal purposes, the question is how they might have access to affordable courses where English (or other languages) are taught in an efficient manner and the students can benefit from a broader curriculum than just a technical exercise of dominating certain linguistic structures. This is particularly relevant for people who may through advanced age (not having learnt a second language before) or through a disability may have difficulties progressing far with the language but the cognitive and social benefits of engaging with language learning are enormously beneficial.

All of this brings into question the role of local states and their willingness to promote inclusion and opportunity rather than turning a blind eye to how language learning (promoted in the tertiary sector, including the selection of recognised examinations) promotes inequality. The campaign for improved wages and conditions should be linked to a campaign to ensure quality language classes for all who would benefit from them. As pointed out before, many local states through subventions (often part EU funding) perpetuate low pay and conditions by rewarding private schools and operators who employ teachers on poor wages and zero hours contracts; the two issues are inseparable.

Increased Wages are Not Enough but It’s a Good Start

Whilst improved wages and better working conditions are a must in the ELT sector, improved wages and better working conditions will not help much if rents, house prices and interest payments on large debts incurred outstrip those wage increases. Indeed, we can choose to eat out less, buy less clothes but we are not allowed to pay less rent or default on our interest payments. We know certain teachers manage excessive rents by renting out rooms either on a semi-permanent basis (as long as they want) or through Airbnb or similar but this just feeding the monster rather than slaying it.

Getting involved in national political campaigns over affordable housing and local campaigns over speculation and gentrification is also necessary if we are to improve our conditions and escape precarity. However, because of the diversity of the ELT community, the capacity and desire to engage in such activities will probably be less than what can be generated around campaigns to improve wages and working conditions (this is not say they cannot be raised in an appropriate manner in trade union meetings).

Joy, Generosity and the Public Sphere (avoiding a bleak future)

No doubt our references to Dickens may have been lost on some readers, but to quote a certain film, Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. ” To our mind it is most sad that we have returned to a world where debt peonage, patronage and the importance of inheritance have returned to assume such importance. Not only do they shrink our capacity for true individual expression and corrode solidarity, they also promote severe mental health problems. This is not to say that joy and generosity do not exist in such a world (Dickens shows that amid the nastiness of his own society they did indeed exist) and ELT, despite its faults, has its fair share of joy and generosity.

Our argument, however, is that we must embed this joy and generosity in the public sphere in the relations between us as a diverse community, not in the relations of the market and profit making, the privatised family, or the patronage of those high up in a self-reinforcing hierarchy. Tears should well up in our eyes to read about a colleague of ours who could take no more so she took her own life and we should be resolute in determining to do all that is possible to avoid a further recurrence rather than try to climb the slippery ladder to our own “individual success”.

This will require a new politics and a more radical politics. It will mean principally seeking to own the means of production but only as a means for exercising care and responsibility for each other (see Part Two and reference to Arendt), for sharing the pain and agony of our human precariousness and attempting to alleviate it where possible and comfort each other where not. It is in accepting our precariousness but rejecting precarity (unequal distribution of precariousness) that we can begin to give meaning to our lives and construct a meaningful public sphere which guarantees individual freedom.

It all starts with collective non-hierarchical organisation.

*Note conerning non-standard Englishes: it is a “constant joy” for us as ageing teachers that our students will often update us on the latest vocabulary and structures of youtube English and we find ourselves referring to the Urban Dictionary as much as Collins.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Battle to Go Beyond the CELTA starts with the Striking Delfin and IBAT Workers

In our last article Neil McMillan from Barcelona based SLB coop challenged us all to come up with a HOW to challenge the hegemony of the current CELTA certificate. We promised a concrete reply which would be both obvious and predictable and here it is: support the striking Delfin and IBAT teachers.

Both groups are fighting for proper trade union recognition but their union (Unite) is also fighting to set up a Joint Labour Committee for the English Language Schools sector. We covered this legislative approach here. Ireland is a particular situation where they have already sought to regulate the sector in view of a number of unplanned school closures which damaged Ireland’s reputation for English Language courses for oversees students, and what is seen as a possible Brexit windfall if they could offer guaranteed quality courses in Ireland.

It has already been recommended by a government appointee commissioned to look into the situation that they guarantee certain working conditions as a basis for ensuring the industry continues to be staffed by skilled committed professionals. It is exactly here where standards of teacher training and commitment to CPD (continuous professional development) can be written into teaching conditions and the advertising standards by which courses are advertised for visiting stufents. Indeed, as part of a ten point charter (promoted by ELT Advocacy Ireland) Unite are asking that teachers be paid and supported for CPD and standardised salary scales and transparent rationale for this be adopted throughout the industry. Clearly under such conditions we can begin to outline the desired teaching knowledge of teachers and ensure they are rewarded for undertaking training in order  to  achieve those levels. This opens up the question of what level of training is required and the contents of such training. For example the ten point charter also includes equality of pay and conditions for Non-Native Speaking Teachers and we would hope this would include paid recognition for a certificated level of learning a second or other language (the posession of which should also financially benefit Native English speaking teachers).  Create the need and the new qualifications and training institutions will follow.

We do not seek to abolish the CELTA or to put unnecesaary barriers to TEFL adventurers as they travel around the globe on a sabatical year or seek to broaden their horizons for whatever reason (good luck to them, many of us started out in the same way). However, we do want to make transparent what is a “qualified teacher” (a four-week training course not qualifying as such in our humble opinion) to potential learners and ensure teachers embarking on substantial teacher training be properly rewarded for doing so. Maybe schools should be forced to publish a recognised independently assessed index of the qualifications of their staff which should be weighted to show a healthy mix of entrants to the profession undergoing a solid CPD programme and the existence of already well-qualified and experience staff capable of helping those entrants. This does go on in a certain manner already but it does so on an ad hoc basis where skills and experience of “senior staff” are not currently well-rewarded and teachers largely fund their own training.

However, all this hypothetical talk will depend on the success of colleagues in Ireland and our capacity to use those changes for leverage in our own local contexts. For this reason we urge you to step up support for striking colleagues. It’s Christmas, can we not make collections in our local workplace and send it to the Unite Striking Teachers Hardship Fund? Can we not set up new initiatives in the New Year to raise funds and raise awareness of the importance of the strike?? Let them know we are thinking of them at this difficult uncertain time of year, send messages of support.

To go beyond the CELTA we need to get up off our knees and fight. Supporting the existing, possibly game changing, strikes in Ireland is a big step towards waging that battle.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Enough of Bah Humboldt: Forget the naysayers we can go beyond the CELTA

Last month we looked at the excellent work of the Barcelona based SLB cooperative as part of our ELT strategy series and were somewhat taken aback and disappointed by the direction of the discussion which unfolded (a settling of scores by twitter rather than attention to teachers’ everyday struggles to make a living). While somewhat reluctant to return to the arena of “celebrity culture”, a recent high-quality podcast (featuring “rock star” Scott Thornbury) produced by the SLB coop simply cannot go without comment; for both its good and its bad aspects. We encourage readers to listen to it and indeed all the coop’s podcasts.

The Best of Scott Thornbury

A large part of the podcast is taken up with Thornbury discussing the role of the coursebook in ELT, and we must confess his contributions on the subject were quite excellent- Scott Thornbury at his best. Thornbury clearly outlined the limitations of the coursebook but also identified the practical constraints of teachers attempting to teach without a coursebook. Moreover, Thornbury suggested trying to adapt the course book in creative ways, though this is hardly new given that this is a central core of CELTA inspired teaching methodology. His contribution was far removed from the “book burning controversy” for which he has humbly apologised and moved on. Our issue was always that ELT preferred the “provocative and easily digestible” rather than a thorough examination of the subject, and this is a perfect example, we think, of the difference between Scott Thornbury the ELT celebrity phenomena and Scott Thornbury, the man, who when pushed (at that time too rarely), will make every effort to be more reflective. Indeed, at the same time as his book burning comments he was writing more subtle reflective pieces which simply didn’t get the same oxygen as his more provocative pronouncements. We have said it before but it is worth saying again, we as teachers push Ted Talks as “serious” comments on modern society and far too many of us uncritically introduce themes like “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” into our classrooms.

Scott Thornbury also explains in the same interview why he has come to be one of the most vocal high profile supporters of trade union rights in ELT. Hats off to him, his support makes a real difference

The Coursebook Rebels

One issue we always had with attacks on coursebooks in addition to our stated position over nine years ago:

To argue for “doing away with” (burning) the course book, in the knowledge that course books are sediments of prejudice, expertise and training, is merely to avoid the questions of the type of institutional changes required in the “profession”

was that clearly some people not only saw the coursebook itself as a site of struggle but such individuals were also prominent in advocating improved conditions for teachers. One such individual is Hugh Dellar and another is Nicola Prentis (but of course there are many others). Both have been vociferous about the need for change and both have been committed to improving the materials available for teachers. Often those quick to criticise the coursebook have not been so quick to offer a realistic alternative (embedded in institutional change) to teachers and have said little about the content of alternative material other than they will be “student-centred”. We would argue that the dreadful Inside Out Series was “student-centred” with its appeal to popular cultural memes but it certainly didn’t challenge the student or the teacher to be reflective about the world they inhabit and their relation to it, other than celebrate superficiality in general and neoliberalism in particular. The less successful Global English series, while far from perfect, at least made an attempt to understand the global world in which we live and promoted a respect for the various English’s which exist in the world. In short, in what ways can so-called “student-centered” be too easily lumped in with a general depressing trend towards micro-marketing, Task Based Learning for Hotel Staff etc.

Capitalist Realism and the CELTA

And so we return to the end of the podcast, and perhaps the most important part, where Scott Thornbury discusses the CELTA. This unfortunately was a classic case of Capitalist Realism, where it is more difficult to imagine the end of the world (or English teaching) than the end of Capitalism (or change to the CELTA). The arguments were that any increase in the length (and subsequently cost) of the course would only lead to people taking another cheaper course (which already happens). Indeed, there was a defence that the CELTA gets people up and running and eventually the teacher (no matter how many bad lessons they have taught in between) will progress to be a relatively proficient teacher.

This can be contrasted with the discussion of Hugh Dellar (from the “evil world of coursebooks”) in in his blog where he confesses:

For natives such as myself, however, who arrive on courses often having spectacularly failed to learn a foreign language at school, with little or no ability to articulate and explain how language works and with no teaching experience whatsoever, a CELTA offers a crash course in how to fake it. A while back, there was a popular reality TV show on Channel 4 entitled Faking It which tried to teach unlikely candidates how to pass themselves off as a genuine example of someone alien. So, for instance, they’d take an Eton public school boy and coach him how to be a doorman / bouncer in a rough East London club. And the time frame within which this coaching occurred? You guessed it: one month! I can’t have been the only native-speaker teacher who saw uncomfortable parallels with their own entry into ELT because – and I’m being brutally honest here – on leaving my own CTEFLA course (as it was back then in 1993), I was little more than a competent fake, an extrovert performer able to gloss over the gaping holes in my linguistic knowledge with running dictations, a bit of TPR and some jazz chants. And yet in the eyes of the market, I was as qualified as any one of my Polish or Brazilian colleagues who’d done the same course – and of course I was also ‘privileged’ to be a native, despite all their bilingualism and prior experience.

In short, in the interests of consumer protection and the need to recognise a track record in language learning (most notably that demonstrated by Non-Native English Speaking Teachers) the CELTA desperately needs to be challenged.

Pound Shop Humboldt

In the podcast there is an attack on long university courses (with no practical teaching experience) as straw-dog justification for sending out teachers with a minimum of teaching experience and extremely limited linguistic knowledge. This is an important issue of whether the accumulation of knowledge in itself prepares the bearer with the capacity to actually teach. For the great Prussian humanist (philosopher, linguist, diplomat) the commitment to acquiring deep and wide knowledge was at the centre of his great liberal project of creating world citizens. For Humboldt each individual must ‘absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form’  While not opposed to vocational training he claimed:

“There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

The impact of Humboldt’s ideas on European education should not be underestimated. Indeed, much criticism has been made of certain education systems (as we shall see in Part 5 of John Haycraft Notes towards a Biography andproposed  reforms to post-soviet education) and it is always this priority of knowledge acquisition and research over practical vocational skills which comes rightly under attack.

However, there is a huge contradiction at the heart of contrasting CELTA to preparation of teachers at a university level (as if this was the only option). Quite simply, CELTA is pound shop Humboldtianism. The idea is that the individual will take it upon themselves to perfect themselves as a teacher and through their reading, individual research and practical experience they will become a complete teacher. We have no doubt that many teachers attempt to do just that, but unlike the university course they do not have a clear and structured path for doing so and will be dependent on the coursebooks, other colleagues behaving in a semi-blind fashion and the goodwill of schools to provide extra training.

If one thing has changed quite significantly since we fist started this blog in 2009 it is that many teachers who have embarked on the long process of professional development are now calling out the lack of evidence behind much of current ELT teaching practice. Meaning that the CELTA is a guarantee for all types of quackery and incompetence unless corrected by a systematic diffusion of reliable knowledge and training (not just reading one’s favourite blogs).

Moreover, in many countries and institutions the only way CELTA teachers can teach ELT is if they already have a university degree. The nature of the degree is unimportant because in Humboldtian terms, this paper guarantees a thirst of knowledge which will compensate for any shortcomings in the practical skills the teacher might have at the time of setting out on their ELT journey.

Funding Longer Courses and In Service Training

At no point have we argued here that CELTA should be abolished or the TEFL adventurer prevented from travelling abroad. There are issues, however, about providing transparency as to what a language learner might expect from a teacher and certain institutions and local state authorities might indeed question their continued support for a system which discriminates against Non-Nest and Second Language Learning Competent teachers (failing to recognise their proven language learning knowledge and competence) and does not provide guarantees above the most basic of training preparation (roughly equivalent to training provided for Bar and Cafe work). Of course, through a system of state supported training and improved regulation and industry transparency, standards could indeed be raised.

Furthermore, it is disheartening to hear those talk about how it was in 1973 and what opportunities it has provided them without realising how the economic landscape has changed considerably for new entrants to the industry. For example, those trotting off to IH for a three week training period in 1973 probably hadn’t already incurred a student debt of over of over 50,000 UK pounds or above. Many teachers today (not all but a significant number) want to see a clear professional path where proper pre-service training can be supplemented by affordable (if not free) in-service training which is then reflected in the remuneration levels available for teachers who have undertaken such training. This is about raising standards and raising pay in those sectors we can, regardless of whether large parts of the tertiary sector prefer to offer low quality courses at lower (because that they are not that low) prices. Already students can do Skype classes for 7 dollars an hour, great!! However, for those requiring a more skilled language teacher they might prefer a course which guarantees higher standards and better-qualified teachers. Currently, many private schools live off the plain quackery of “Qualified” Native Teachers and they are allowed to do so.

In Conclusion

We will leave you then with the words of that “evil coursebook writer”, Hugh Dellar rather than the pessimism (Capitalist Realism) of Scott Thornbury on this subject:

Many on Twitter have pointed out that Cambridge themselves have been surveying current trainers and are keen to revamp the syllabus. We could look at this as a positive sign, of course; we could remind ourselves that many in the profession start from an even lower base and blag their way into work on the back of a week-long course or even a weekend-long one or, in extreme (but nevertheless still depressingly common) instances, simply on the back of having been born in the UK or US! We could embrace any changes and think it’s better than nothing.

Or we could rise up and say enough’s enough. We could refuse to teach on or offer CELTA courses as they’re inadequate preparation for the realities of teaching. We could point out the ridiculous advantages their continued status confers upon natives and just down tools, walk away and instead imagine a better, brighter future where ELT starts seeing itself more as a serious profession, and not one you can claim membership of simply by having done six assessed hours of teaching and twenty mornings of input.

The choice is ours.


Filed under Uncategorized

More on Ideology: The State Ideological Apparatus or the Tyranny of the Everyday?

As interesting as Althusser’s majestic work on the topic of ideology is ….in the world of ELT the simple truth is that prejudice and ideology is spread not by a malevolent machine (although it may indeed appear a machine at times) but the everyday practise of “getting on” with the job of teacher, filtering out the uncomfortable (not who is is the classroom but who is not, not who succeeds but who does not, not in the doors which have been opened but the ones that have been closed) in the naive hope we are doing good and because people are smiling and it could be so much more unpleasant.

This everyday filtering out of the uncomfortable is beautifully demonstrated by Noam Chomsky here on the issue of manufacturing consent in the media

And Charles Dickens here

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,

‘Mr Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!’

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

‘For MORE!’ said Mr Limbkins. ‘Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?’

‘He did, sir,’ replied Bumble.

Like Oliver Twist, we should indeed ask for more (more of others and more of ourselves).

Note: This article should be read in conjunction with another piece here where we attempt to demystify “ideology” and suggest it is nothing outside us but very much part of our everday existence which can be challenged by taking responsibility for what happens in our daily lives and subverting this reality by careful reflection and simple subversive acts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Commonality, Multiplicity and Solidarity: Lessons from Art

On request from the four shortlisted candidates for this year’s Turner Prize, the panel of judges  have conceded to share the 40,000 pound prize money among the four “competing” artists (thus subverting normal convention). 

In the letter sent to the panel, the four candidates wrote:

“The politics we deal with differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important, significant or more worthy of attention than the others.

“At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society.”

You can read more about the individual pieces here.

We merely want to echo the artists’ words and ask that we reflect on how they might apply to the diverse ELT community in which we work and to the challenges we face.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Precarity and ELT Part Two: A Philosophical Review

In the first part of this discussion we started with a concrete rebuttal of the idea that current labour relations are dominated by short-term contracts and zero-hour contracts. This was not a rebuttal that such labour relations exist or that certain industries like academia and TEFL are not largely dominated by such precarious arrangements but that they are not widespread and not growing at the rate often claimed. Nor was it a rebuttal of the fact that despite the continuation of permanent contracts and relatively low official unemployment rates and relatively high official labour participation rates, people feel their lives to be increasingly precarious. Indeed, as the video presentation shows, discussion of precarity and precariousness has rocketed amongst the populations of the advanced core since 2010.

In this part we want to briefly review some of the more philosophical offerings of those writing on the issue and compare them to a more orthodox Marxist position. Not because we want to show the superiority of either but rather that we want to open up a productive dialogue which will help teachers and others reflect more clearly on their experiences and, hopefully, contribute to strategy and tactics which make us feel a little less vulnerable and better supported. A process, as we said which was first explicitly addressed by Paul Walsh in his writings here and here.

Precariousness a human condition

Contrary to the statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains” (a convenient rallying call against aristocratic bonds), we are indeed (men and women) born completely helpless and dependent on the love/goodwill/future plans of others. Not only this but at some point either through steady physical degeneration through old age or some unfortunate occurrence beforehand (accident, contagion, war etc.) we will die. Moreover, the people we love and the things we care about are not permanent either and we stand every chance of losing some those most precious things before we ourselves die. The best thing we can hope for, maybe, is that we live in some comfort and pleasure until we are old, that our children and significant other(s) outlive us and that the things we cared about can be passed to others who will cherish them equally if not more. It is a wonderful sense of irony that Rousseau gave all his children to an orphanage so he could dedicate his life to writing about morality and child-rearing. Perhaps orphanages are indeed the best start in life a child can have and great men should never be disturbed by their noise and demands but what is important is that his children were not born free but very much subject to Rousseau’s firm belief that “all the morality of our acts is in the judgement that we ourselves pass on them” (i.e., moral subjectivism).

Not only on an individual level but on a collective level we face the threat of “natural acts” that could decimate us as a species. We should not forget for instance that the explosion of Toba nearly 70,000 years ago nearly wiped out our species before it really began or the black death plague which ravaged Europe (resulting in an estimated 50 million deaths) during the middle ages. And now we face the challenges of climate change, brought about through the so-called Anthropocene; so beautifully and richly explored by Timothy Morton (which perhaps best challenges the idea of any “natural” act experienced by humans as other to nature). We are, like it not, doomed to a precarious existence (it is what we do to stave off such crisis, offer comfort and meaning in the face of such “terror” which should define us as human beings).

Back to Marx

Generally Marxists have not welcomed the work of one man, Guy Standing, who has been most acquainted with the idea of precarity and indeed the precariat. For Standing the precariat stands in opposition to the proletariat. Indeed, while the proletariat for him is no longer a revolutionary subject, he does not see the Precarity as one either, rather it is a dangerous class which is open to right wing populist manipulation. We heartily recommend reading Standing’s work although we have strong disagreements with it. It is well-researched and subtle in its interpretations of the challenges facing people on temporary and zero hour contracts. However, its solution “a basic income” (waged work being an opportunity to top up one’s earnings rather than a necessity) is equally about managing this dangerous class as it is liberating people from the need to work. It is no great surprise to us that one of the early exponents of a “basic income” was the right-wing economist Milton Friedman who saw the welfare state as inefficient (employing hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats to manage it) and in need of being replaced by a system that awarded the basic minimum to all believing that most people with a modicum of aspiration and consumerism would fill the factories and offices with willing labour. Indeed, Guy Standing is usually seen in Marxist circles as the new Andre Gorz, supplementing Gorz’s original work on “Farewell to the Working Class”.

We do not see Guy Standing (or for that matter Andre Gorz) as devils. They are merely articulating patterns of work and subjectivity gaining traction in the epochs in which they write. What’s more they are writing about labour conditions some considerable years after Marx, after having watched major changes in the advanced core of capitalist countries and the considerable decline in socialist consciousness, let alone revolutionary socialist consciousness, amongst the masses.

However, it is useful to say that Marx saw the proletariat as a precarious class and not a class in secure employment with guaranteed working conditions. Indeed, even Standing’s “precariat” live far more stable lives than the proletariat of which Marx was speaking. It was Lenin and others who later came to see a division between a layer of working people enjoying improved working conditions and those still in precarious conditions, and coined the term “Labour Aristocracy” to explain this group’s historic compromise with Capitalism and its reformist consciousness; namely funded by their position in an imperialist world order where such a layer could be bought off by gains made plundering poorer countries. Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, which is insightful but far from convincing, does provide a base for understanding Guy Standing’s idea (though similarly flawed) of a breach between those in secure employment and those not.

What we take from Marx is that Capitalism brought about a new kind of precariousness. Not that precariousness did not exist before but that Capitalism represented a possibility of both reducing precariousness (i.e., increasing productivity and abolishing scarcity) but also new forms of precariousness not seen before, namely unemployment and the threat of unemployment. This insight was not particularly new but it was how he developed this insight which is important to understanding precarity. For example in England, with the expulsion of farm labourers from the land and turning arable land into pasture for sheep so wool could be sold across the continent, the landowners grew rich at the expense of the farm labourers expelled from the land, unemployed and without any means to support themselves. Adam Smith recognised this and suggested that in such cases the state should employ the displaced persons to build roads and undertake other public works.

Where Marx took this insight to a new level was in his general analysis of Capitalism that “everything solid melts into air”. Meaning that in the circuit of capital accumulation, capital is forever seeking new profitable ventures, there is no safe hiding place for capital because it is always caught in a circuit where profitable enterprises or assets could soon find themselves severely devalued and unprofitable. This analysis went beyond the speculative bubbles Capitalism had experienced during its development to an understanding that dead labour (money invested in factories and machines, houses, art) had come from the surplus value created by labour power (living labour). That while living labour is the creative force of humanity (sustaining us and our communities materially and emotionally, expressing our creativity), under capitalism living labour was subordinated to dead labour (i.e., the rhythm of the machine, the business cycle and production and distribution of money). Indeed, as there were only 24 hours in the day Capital was forced to invest in machinery which replaced large sections of the workforce meaning the remaining workers could produce more per hour. Unfortunately, for Capitalism, what is good for an individual capitalist (the fallacy of scale) is not necessarily good for Capitalism, and with a number of competing capitalists investing in machinery those same factory owners are suddenly stuck with less workers to buy products, machines which can’t operate at full capacity for an over-saturated market and the impossibility of recovering the original investment made in that same machinery. Then the system collapses, bigger capitals buy up smaller competitors, investors find new sources to invest in and workers re-enter the labour market as Capitalism swings into boom phase (with profits rising). Marx talked about the anarchy of the market and the authoritarianism of the factory as two contradictory but necessary features of Capitalism with its subordination of living labour to dead labour. He coined the term reserve army of labour to explain that Capitalism sucked in workers and had an insatiable appetite to do so during the boom phase (rising profits) but was quick to expel them when Capitalism hit its inevitable downphase (profit-squeeze).

Of course Capitalism now is not the same as the 19th century, at least not in the advanced core of capitalist countries, with their welfare states, heavily monopolised markets, domination of capital flows through world markets, outsourcing of “low value” manufacturing  to “developing countries” (as opposed to just the capture at cheap prices of raw materials). Yet, still Capitalism shows its chronic inability to overcome its boom bust cycle, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crash from which we are only just recovering, aware that the next recession lies close around the corner. To quote Istvan Meszaros “it is not light at the end of the tunnel we can see but on an oncoming train”.

Marx’s analysis is more pertinent than ever, living labour is more subordinated to dead labour than ever. The great monuments to death rise up against the city skylines of major cities as the homeless are driven by police from the doorways in which they seek shelter from the cold, the great lie of all boats rising with a rising tide undermined by the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, many escaping wars funded by the very countries who are building towers of death around the world from which the rich can escape when events turn against them others in their native countries; the lucky ones – the survivors, those captured by armed coastal patrol ships are herded into refugee camps where women and children suffer sexual exploitation.

And I suppose this is one of the contradictions of precarity, that it is a word used to describe a situation in the advanced capitalist world while wars rage around the walls those countries have built to keep those who are truly precarious from entering. There is no doubt that people are suffering from new precarious work relations but such suffering is nothing compared to the vast misery and human carcases piling up on the borders (What Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes as Auschwitz on the Beach). For Marx the working class had to universalise its experience before it could abolish itself, it had to become a class for itself rather than in itself. It is only when we can incorporate the precariousness of others (that we truly universalise through our separate international experience) that we can begin to truly fight our own precariousness.

Judith Butler and Hannah Arendt

For us it is no accident that large scale discussions of of precariousness in academic circles in the advanced Capitalist core began after September 11th 2001. While they have come to incorporate, indeed be dominated by, issues of labour relations, it was with the attack on the world Trade Centre in New York that the precariousness of life and the inability of large monolithic states with a vast imperial reach to “protect its citizens” came to the fore. In a series of Post 9/11 essays Judith Butler wrote:

US boundaries were breached, that an unbearable vulnerability was exposed, that a terrible toll on human life was taken, were, and are, cause for fear and mourning; they were also instigations for patient political reflection … [We should ask] whether the experiences of fear and loss have to lead straightaway to military violence and retribution … It would not be possible to maintain that the US has greater security problems than some of the more contested and vulnerable peoples of the world … The dislocation from first world privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minim-ised, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknow- ledged as the basis for global political community … Final control is not, and cannot be, an ultimate value.”

As highlighted in bold, Butler sees this event as challenging our notions of comfort and safety and a temporary space to view the world anew, but much of that perspective, accelerated by the great financial crash of 2008 and the sluggish growth and austerity (at least for some) which has followed has turned the discussion inwards, be it through a rightwing (anti-migrant) or leftwing perspective (anti-austerity).

This is unfortunate because Judith Butler links the two in powerful fashion distinguishing “precariousness” (an ontological condition) from “precarity” (the unequal distribution of precariousness):

Philosopher Judith Butler’s writing is a cornerstone for the growing body of literature on precarity. Butler draws a critical distinction between ‘precariousness’ and ‘precarity’. She sees precariousness as a generalised human condition that stems from the fact that all humans are interdependent on each other and therefore all are vulnerable. In her scheme, precarity is different precisely because it is unequally distributed. Precarity is experienced by marginalised, poor, and disenfranchised people who are exposed to economic insecurity, injury, violence, and forced migration. Further, social value is ascribed to some lives and bodies, while it is denied to others, and some are protected, while others are not. Neoliberalism, war, and climate crises render these inequalities especially acute. Butler sees the potential for emancipation in embracing the common circumstance of precariousness, as against the unequal fate of precarity. She renounces politics that aim at achieving stability for select groups and instead favors an egalitarian precariousness for all as a liberating moment (Butler 2004, 2010).”

We would also add here that Butler is reviving the work of Hanna Harendt and her passionate writings about the necessity of a public sphere in which we take responsibility for each other. Unfortunately Butler does not explore Arendt’s fear of the totalising effect of the corporate world on the individual and how the “personal is political” opens us up to further invasion by such corporate forces and separation from our fellow human beings (finding a particular technological and frightening twist in the impact of social media like the filter bubbles created by facebook and Google which maybe Arendt could never have anticipated but certainly provides us with an excellent starting point for critique).

Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennet

More than anyone Bauman has taken Marx’s insight that “all is solid melts into air” and applied it to a modern more accelerated context in his work on the “Liquid Society”. There are too many insights to mention here but clearly Bauman is concerned with how this liquidity, this undermining of solid foundations, has affected our attempts to navigate the modern world. Bauman’s work is mirrored, albeit in a different mode of discourse, in Richard Sennet’s marvelous book, “The Corrosion of Character”. Both author’s are essential to understanding the new subjectivities that have arisen during the last 30 years or so.

It is important to note, however, that perhaps Bauman’s greatest contribution to discussions of precarity can be found in his short book “Wasted Lives”. Here Bauman talks about certain human beings being surplus to requirement, no different from the piles of waste produced by modern consumerist society that must be collected, tidied up and relocated to a safe area (or maybe even recycled to be used again). He contrasts the modern “refugee crisis” with a time when the advanced capitalist core exported its surplus populations to foreign lands, clearing native populations aside, to make space for the new inhabitants and their new ways of exploiting the land and other resources. This would seem to mirror Marx’s idea of a reserve army but understand it from the idea of an integrated world market where the movement of labour between borders has become such an issue of international “waste management”. We might ask to what extent “TEFL adventurism” is a convenient way of dealing with surplus university graduates (at least for a year or two).


Foucault is indispensable to thinking about the new subjectivities which accompany precarious work relations (especially ELT). However, like Guy Standing (who incidentally abhors Foucault’s work) Foucault has a tendency to over-generalise the extent of these new labour relations and subjectivities. Indeed, it is a problem with Foucault generally who bends history to fit his theories rather than adjusts his analysis to fit historical facts.

This said, we are extremely indebted to Foucault, particularly for his work on power and his rejection of outmoded concepts of power in that they only exist as the exercise of “power over others”.

Under such a reading, power is neither possessed, nor does it lead to a repressive form of domination, whereby individuals’ conduct is consciously manipulated by other individuals. Power, in fact, ‘doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no’ (Foucault, 1980: 119). Instead, it is ‘productive,’ insofar as it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse’ (Foucault, 1980: 119). To suggest that it is ‘productive’ means that power is not so much responsible for prohibiting particular practices, as it is instrumental in guiding and normalising particular conducts. It means directing one’s attention to the conditions under which subjectivity is produced and generalised through the ‘discipline of bodies’ and ‘regulation of the population’ (Foucault, 2009). Thus, rather than acting as a repressive force as, for example, a ‘right to take life or let live’ (Foucault, 1990: 138) power turns the body into an ‘object of political strategy’ (Foucault, 2009: 16) that, in the form of ‘biopower,’ aims to either ‘foster life or disallow it to the point of death’ (Foucault, 1990: 138). In his genealogy of the neoliberal subject, Foucault provides an insight into the kind of biopolitics marking the neoliberal age. More specifically, he traces the emergence of an entrepreneurial subjectivity, understood as the contingent outcome of biopolitical state interventions guiding ‘the possibility of conduct’ through ‘competitive mechanisms’ that ‘play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society’ (Foucault, 2008: 145).

More explicitly in terms of this new biopolitic:

The neoliberal art of government’s success, therefore, lies in its capacity to compel the individual to become an ‘entrepreneur of himself [sic]’ (Foucault, 2008: 145), by adopting the form of conduct thought to be most appropriate for the various challenges posed by the ‘dynamic of competition’ (Foucault, 2008: 147). Since individuals are active in its production and because it is ‘generalized to all aspects of existence’ (Lazzarato, 2008: 121), that entrepreneurial subjectivity is all encompassing and, consequently, acts as a prism through which all decisions come to be rationalised and individuals come to ‘accept,’ and adjust to the reality of personal responsibility, competition and precarious life (Foucault, 2008: 269). It follows that no analytical or empirical distinction between the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ interests (Lukes, 2015) of individuals can effectively be made, for no true or real interests are said to exist outside the subjectivity in question. Truth and interests can change, but in virtue of their discursive character, they are dependent on the emergence of an entirely new regime of truth; of a new subjectivity.”

Where we would disagree with Foucault (in addition to the reservations expressed earlier) is that we would argue that both forms of power (“power over” and “power through”) coexist dialectically in Capitalism. Crucially for us, Foucault is a counterweight against Standing’s idea of “managing precarity” through governmental means rather than (as per Hannah Arendt) creating new social spaces and subjectivities in which we can rethink precariousness (which may involve regulatory changes which go way beyond a left cover for Friedman-like social policy).


Unfortunately we have no space left for the precursive work of Beck and Bourdieu but we would not discourage readers from reading either in order to bring themselves up to date on the major thinkers behind contemporary readings on precariousness. In the final part we will see how we can bring this philosophical review to life in our discussion of the concrete expression of precarity and precariousness in the world of ELT.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Throughout the world today we will be organising activities to demand change and, sadly, commemorating those we have lost this year through gender-based violence. As we consider ourselves also part of the ELT community, we ask that teachers participate in their local activities and also use the space of the classroom to raise these issues. Unsurprisingly, there are few if any mentions of this issue in published ELT materials but this shouldn’t stop of us from finding creative ways to raise and discuss the issue.

Thanks to the website ESLchestnut people can find a variety of interesting resources.  There is also a ready-made lesson included here that whilst far from perfect (what is??) is a decent starting point. Of course, we ask that teachers also make available a list of contact points of professional advice and services available to those suffering domestic violence or persons they know who may be suffering from such violence.

We also take today as an opportunity to raise the point that shelters for women and children suffering from domestic violence are under threat around the world, including rich countries like the UK, Australia and the USA. And to mention creative responses to tragedy and oppression such as “Love Grace- Handbag Initiative”



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This is What Ideology Looks and Sounds Like

n a recent BBC politics programme where audiences ask a panel of politicians and social commentators (generally representing the range of mainstream opinion) an audience member is captured making the most incredible rant. In short, (and you can see it below) the man argues that the British Labour Party are “going after him” for tax (as expressed in their manifesto for the forthcoming UK elections) despite him earning only 80,000 pounds a year. He argues (wrongly) that he is not part of the richest 5% of the population and his earnings are average, so he should not be targeted for increased taxes.

To hear the man in his full glory, check here

Now, there is considerable disbelief amongst the panel and the audience towards the man’s claims (that he is an average earner/that he is not in the top 5%) but the audience member is indeed adamant.

We could of course be cruel and say that it his naked self-interest which determines his belief (we have been accused of such crass determinism elsewhere) but we rather see it as an excellent case of how banal ideology truly is. Put simply we mainly construct our views from the ordinary mundane world which surrounds us, our relationships, our everyday existence. We know for a fact that whilst inequality in incomes between the top 5% and the rest of us are enormous, the inequality between those in the top 5% is even greater. He is clearly not a billionaire and objects to being lumped in with such persons for tax purposes. No doubt his friends, the people where he lives etc also earn salaries around or in excess of 80,000 but he has no contact with billionaires ( and probably little with people who earn under 50,000 a year let alone 10,000). He probably works extremely hard and may not have inherited much wealth, which would make him more dependent on earned income than some of his associates and henceforth more opposed to increased income tax as it affects him more. He is in his own mind an average guy trying to make his way in the world like everyone else, and not the top 5%.

Roberto Frega has usefully described this as the normative structure of the ordinary. We often confuse ideology as something rational when it really boils down to sets of everyday (often contradictory) beliefs which allow us to negotiate the everyday tasks of the social order (a social order infused with economic inequality and unequal gender, class and racial power dynamics). We see our “normal” as the natural order. Nicola Prentis is not wrong therefore to question the lack of women speakers at ELT plenary sessions (namely IATEFL), because that invisibility sends out a clear message of what is “normal” for men and women. But, perhaps, she is wrong to see ELT Plenary Sessions in themselves as “normal” with their emphasis on “celebrity and status” and just maybe women tend to be a little bit more sensitive to this hierarchy and pomposity. We might ask further why state school teachers rarely find the necessity to mount such “conferences”. And then we might ask whether it is teachers who are actually organising a conference or just a conference organised by commercial organisations where teachers, something like 33% of attendees, are invited to an event in their name but not in their interests (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). No doubt, some readers at hearing our criticism of IATEFL where they may have spent considerable amount of money in order to attend and, god forbid, actually enjoyed the thing will feely equally as offended and under attack as our 80,000 a year man.

And then there are all those who will criticise the coursebook but defend the CELTA, as if the very continuation of the CELTA doesn’t depend on the skills and craft of coursebook writers who fill the gaps in pre-service training (see amazing discussion in the comments section here ).

But this is how ideology works, not with a bang of full-bloodied and well-thought out self-interest but a whimper of compliance to the status quo and people’s attempt to negotiate their place within it.

Note: for those looking for a juicy in-depth Marxist discussion on the concept of ideology, we recommend the quite wonderful book by Abercrombie, Hill and Turner: The Dominant Ideology Thesis

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Precarity Part One: The Overstretch of an Idea

Paul Walsh has recently been writing on the issue of precarity in ELT, usefully collating the main thinkers and ideas in this area (Sennet, Bourdieu, Butler, Beck, Foucault, Bauman, Standing etc). However, it is one of his articles in Open Democracy (containing no such references to academic thought) where he is at his absolute sharpest and most poignant. It really is a call to arms, not just as a community of ELT teachers, but as human beings. It is a must read (see important note at end of article).

In three parts, starting with this counterfactual approach to many claims being made about precarity, we want to add to the discussion started by Paul Walsh. In part two we will be looking at precarity as a trans-historical condition and asking what is particularly new about our current relation with precarity (pushing a more orthodox Marxist philosophical line of argument) and in part three we will be addressing ourselves particularly to the ELT community where many of the larger claims of precarity (dismissed below) do seem to actually hold. We will also be closing the discussion in part three by asking how “precarity” felt in the ELT community can be used as a force for organising ourselves rather than, as it is at present, a force for dividing us.

The first part is indeed very easy for us because it is a video presentation by the author of an important book which challenges many of the widespread views currently held on precarity. Joseph Choonarah, the author, is a leading light of the British Socialist Workers Party. People should not be put off as (whatever your disagreements with vanguardist parties) this organisation has produced such interesting thinkers as Nigel Harris (economist), Terry Eagleton (cultural theorist), Alex Callinicos (expert on post-modern philosophy), Alasdair MacIntyre (revolutionary in the area of ethics) and Roy Bhaskar (giant in the philosophy of science). That said, perhaps Choonarah represents a more orthodox turn of that particular tradition, seeking to defend existing orthodoxies rather than renew ideas.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Choonarah does not dismiss that certain jobs are precarious but provides striking data and analysis which undermines much of the claims of many pursing the idea of precarity as a widespread phenomenon.

The weakness of Choonarah’s overall position, and this reflects the deeply held syndicalism of his particular strand of Marxism, is that the political, the sets of institutional arrangements beyond the workplace, are subordinated to this direct labour-capital relationship. This does not allow him to see how the non-ownership of property and other assets in a regime of capital where asset inflation has purposefully rocketed (it has been engineered), may also be a major source of precarity (the wages in permanent jobs being insufficient to secure a long term home with predictable costs and/or a living pension in retirement).

Indeed, again while he recognises that the subjective experience of precarity is widespread but does not reflect the objective conditions of most work contracts, he dismisses this subjectivity, believing a few strikes won in the workplace will somehow change this subjectivity, without the need to develop sets of minimum political demands about access to affordable housing and guaranteed living pensions for all.

That said, enjoy, he really is an engaging and convincing voice on the subject:

Important Note: There is no equivalence suggested or implied here between the views and politics of Paul Walsh and those of Joseph Choonarah and the political organisation Choonarah belongs to. Moreover, in the comments section Paul makes clear his distaste for such organisations and makes clear his particular perspective on certain manifestations of marxism.


Filed under Uncategorized