Wednesday, 3 June 2015

dos MOOCs en Español

For a long while, there was no Spanish-language course of interest to me available at edX. Then, suddenly, there were two, both starting in February 2015: La España de El Quijote (Quijote501x) offered by Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Advanced Spanish Language and Culture (ASLCx) by St. Margaret’s Episcopal School. My past experience taught me that it’s a bad idea to take two (or more) MOOCs at the same time. But which one to choose?

In the end, greediness won and I enrolled for both courses. However, given that I had to go to work, and even actually work, I had to make some sacrifices. Like (o horror!) skipping homeworks.

Advanced Spanish Language and Culture

Of course it’s cool to put something “advanced” on your CV but for me ASLCx, a ten-week course presented by Marta E. Moore-Austin, felt more like intermediate than advanced. To pass the course, one has to score at least 70% of the grade. Grades were assigned as follows:

  • 12 quizzes (readings, videos, grammar) — 40% of the grade
  • 17 homeworks (readings, recordings, discussion forums and two emails) — 20% of the grade
  • Final exam — 40% of the grade
From this it was blindingly obvious to me that I should concentrate on quizzes and don’t waste my time on homeworks (each worth only 1 point). Especially I couldn’t bother with recording myself.

The topics of this course included:

  1. La identidad personal y pública
  2. Las familias y las comunidades
  3. La vida contemporánea
  4. La belleza y la estética
  5. La ciencia y la tecnología
  6. Los desafíos mundiales
The grammar points such as future, conditional and subjunctive, were presented rather formally and without much connection to the rest of the material. There were pleasant discoveries too, such as Ella o yo, or Nosotros, no, a short sci-fi story by José Bernardo Adolph.

To pass the final exam, one has to read five articles and answer multiple-choice questions. Easy, I thought, I had more than a week until a deadline, I can do one article a day or something. I started with a paper about Salvador Dalí, answered the multiple-choice questions and was about to go to bed (it was past midnight already) when by some reason I scrolled the page back to the top and read the following passage:

Contesta las siguientes preguntas de comprensión de lectura. Hay cinco selecciones. Debes terminar el examen dentro el tiempo en límite, 55 minutos, como el examen AP de College Board. ¡Buena suerte!
What?! I have only 55 minutes for all? Did the timer start when I opened the document about Dalí, or when I submitted my first response? In any case, I decided to carry on and, believe it or not, finished the remaining four tasks on time.

La España de El Quijote

I have to say straight away that this course, created and taught by Pedro García Martín, is not about Don Quixote, but rather about Siglo de Oro, Spanish Golden Age. I found it fascinating and challenging. The estimated effort (5—7 hours per week) sounds about correct... if you are a quick reader. In Spanish. I am not, and I some of the texts (all by Pedro García Martín) turned out to be rather demanding reading. On the other hand, I had no problems understanding the video lectures. And I did enjoy the Telenoticias. However, watching the videos is not enough to answer all the questions in the weekly exams. So you’d better do the readings.

Here’s the full program of the course.

Semana 1. Introducción: tiempo y espacio
  1. Tiempo.
  2. Espacio.
  3. El tiempo y el espacio en El Quijote.
Semana 2. La vida cotidiana
  1. La vida privada.
  2. La vida pública.
  3. La vida cotidiana en El Quijote.
Semana 3. Economía y sociedad
  1. Economía.
  2. Sociedad.
  3. Sociedad en El Quijote.
Semana 4. Política, religión e Inquisición
  1. Política.
  2. Religión.
  3. Inquisición.
  4. Política en El Quijote.
Semana 5. Literatura
  1. Escritores.
  2. Teatro.
  3. Literatura en El Quijote.
Semana 6. Las bellas artes
  1. Arquitectura.
  2. Pintura.
  3. Música.
  4. Las bellas artes en El Quijote.
Semana 7. La iconografía de El Quijote
  1. Iconografía de El Quijote.
  2. Adaptaciones nacionales.
  3. Cervantes, El Quijote y el Siglo de Oro en el cine.
Week 1. Introduction: time and space
  1. Time.
  2. Space.
  3. Time and space in Don Quixote.
Week 2. Daily life
  1. Private life.
  2. Public life.
  3. Daily life in Don Quixote.
Week 3. Economy and Society
  1. Economy.
  2. Society.
  3. Society in Don Quixote.
Week 4. Politics, religion and the Inquisition
  1. Politics.
  2. Religion.
  3. The Inquisition.
  4. Politics in Don Quixote.
Week 5. Literature
  1. Writers.
  2. Theatre.
  3. Literature in Don Quixote.
Week 6. The fine arts
  1. Architecture.
  2. Painting.
  3. Music.
  4. The fine arts in Don Quixote.
Semana 7. The iconography of Don Quixote
  1. Iconography of Don Quixote.
  2. National adaptations.
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote and Spanish Golden Age in cinema.

Although the course started on 24 February, one could wait with weekly exams till April. The schedule as shown below could be fatal for procrastinators like me:

    Weeks 1 through 3: exams due 3 April 2015
    Week 4: exam due 10 April
    Week 5: exam due 17 April
    Weeks 6 and 7: exams due 20 April
As a result, I managed to miss a deadline for Week 1. Mind you, the task was not quite trivial: to adapt an excerpt from Quixote (there was a choice of three original fragments) by placing it in modern setting. I guess I could have done it by the end of the course. Oh well.

Monday, 4 May 2015

multifarious and took pride in it

From The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

No one doubted that Charles Babbage was brilliant. Nor did anyone quite understand the nature of his genius, which remained out of focus for a long time. What did he hope to achieve? For that matter, what, exactly, was his vocation? On his death in London in 1871 the Times obituarist declared him “one of the most active and original of original thinkers” but seemed to feel he was best known for his long, cranky crusade against street musicians and organ-grinders. He might not have minded. He was multifarious and took pride in it. “He showed great desire to inquire into the causes of things that astonish childish minds”, said an American eulogist. “He eviscerated toys to ascertain their manner of working”. Babbage did not quite belong in his time, which called itself the Steam Age or the Machine Age. He did revel in the uses of steam and machinery and considered himself a thoroughly modern man, but he also pursued an assortment of hobbies and obsessions — cipher cracking, lock picking, lighthouses, tree rings, the post — whose logic became clearer a century later. Examining the economics of the mail, he pursued a counterintuitive insight, that the significant cost comes not from the physical transport of paper packets but from their “verification” — the calculation of distances and the collection of correct fees — and thus he invented the modern idea of standardized postal rates. He loved boating, by which he meant not “the manual labor of rowing but the more intellectual art of sailing”. He was a train buff. He devised a railroad recording device that used inking pens to trace curves on sheets of paper athousand feet long: a combination seismograph and speedometer, inscribing the history of a train’s velocity and all the bumps and shakes along the way.
As a young man, stopping at an inn in the north of England, he was amused to hear that his fellow travelers had been debating his trade:
“The tall gentleman in the corner”, said my informant, “maintained you were in the hardware line; whilst the fat gentleman who sat next to you at supper was quite sure that you were in the spirit trade. Another of the party declared that they were both mistaken: he said you were travelling for a great iron-master.”
“Well”, said I, “you, I presume, knew my vocation better than our friends.”
“Yes”, said my informant, “I knew perfectly well that you were in the Nottingham lace trade.”

Sunday, 11 January 2015

ciao, GG101x

When I just started my first MOOC, the choice of courses at edX was very limited and most of them were called “Introduction to something”. Two and a half years on, edX has a bewildering array of courses, and not only in English but also in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish. And check out the names: Alien Worlds, The Art of Poetry or How Stuff Moves. Somehow, Introduction to is not sexy anymore. On the other hand, even a verified course in Jazz Appreciation does not look that impressive on your CV (if you still care about these things).

As I did stop (or like to think that I did) to care about my CV, I thought one can do worse than take a course boldly named The Science of Happiness, “The first MOOC to teach positive psychology”. It turned out to be a happy choice indeed.

Now “happy”, together with “love”, is one of the most abused words in English. We ask “Are you happy with that?” when we merely mean “Are you OK with that?”. Likewise, one says “I am not happy with your service” meaning “Your service is rubbish”, as if one would be truly happy otherwise. No s/he wouldn’t. So why bring in happiness in the first place?

“Father, I must speak. I can be silent no longer. All day long you mutter to yourself, gibber, dribble, moan, and bash your head against the wall yelling ‘I want to die’. Now you may say I’m leaping to conclusions, but... you’re not completely happy, are you?”
In Monday Begins on Saturday, Magnus Feodorovich Redkin, who collects various definitions of happiness, quotes a poem by Christopher Logue:
You ask me:
What is the greatest happiness on earth?
Two things:
changing my mind
as I change a penny for a shilling;
and
listening to the sound
of a young girl
singing down the road
after she has asked me the way.
Logue himself once said: “Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced”. Could be the same said about happiness? If so, how could it be studied scientifically?

That’s what Science of Happiness is about. Created by the Greater Good Science Center (I love the name!), the interdisciplinary course was first offered in Autumn 2014 and ran for nine (or ten) weeks. This year, it is re-launched as a self-paced class so you can take it any time before May 2015. The last year program was as follows:

  • Week 1: Introduction to the Science of Happiness
  • Week 2: The Power of Connection
  • Week 3: Kindness & Compassion
  • Week 4: Cooperation & Reconciliation
  • Week 5: Midterm Exam
  • Week 6: Mindfulness, Attention, and Focus
  • Week 7: Mental Habits of Happiness: Self-Compassion, Flow, and Optimism
  • Week 8: Gratitude
  • Week 9: Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers
  • Final Exam

Every week, the students were asked to “check in” by answering quick questions about how they’ve been feeling over the past few days. These weekly check-ins track the changes to the student’s general emotional state through the course. They are are voluntary, confidential, and do not affect the final grade.

Apart from lectures, readings, homework and exams (easy-peasy, I should say), the course includes optional weekly “happiness practices”, such as Random Acts of Kindness. Unfortunately, I took their “optionality” rather literally; in other words, I skipped the practices. But nothing really prevents me from doing them now.

As you can see from my progress chart above, even without “happiness practices” my emotional state (the left part of the chart) had improved quite significantly. Does it mean I am a happier person now? I am not sure, but strongly suspect that the answer is yes.

Monday, 24 November 2014

native speakerism as a form of racism

Racism, as well as native speakerism, only survive if they are constantly reinforced through daily discourses that make them seem natural, increasing their power through making them invisible and less likely to be challenged.
Todd Ruecker

Six, no, wait, seven months after my CELTA course, the euphoria has all but evaporated. The reason? Job hunt.

According to the CELTA website, the certificate will “open the door to exciting teaching opportunities all over the world”. What it fails to mention is that even if the door is open, you have to be a native English speaker to go through it.

When you browse through jobs at tefl.com, you quickly notice that most positions on offer require not just EFL teachers but native English-speaking teachers (NESTs), also (quite absurdly) known as “native English teachers”. For entry-level positions in Europe, say Spain, the essential requirements are neither experience nor qualification but English “nativeness” and EU citizenship. (In plain English: British and Irish only need to apply.) Worse still, being a “native” is considered... a qualification [1].

Why? After all, there is no such thing as a native violin player, Java programmer, or surgeon. There is no question that violin, programming or surgery can be taught by the professionals in these respective areas. What is so special about language teaching? Nor the mere fact of being born or growing up in an English-speaking country is a guarantee of proficiency in English or even having English as a mother tongue. I know people born in Ireland whose first language is Irish. I know much more people who lived all their lives in England and whose command of both written and spoken English is absolutely dismal. But here you are. Some advertisers go as far as to claim that it is against the law to hire non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) in their school. Uh-oh. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that there could be no such law. You also would be right to suspect that it is actually against the law to discriminate on the basis of one’s place of birth [2, 3].

I think at least one of the factors to blame is a proliferation of language “academies” (sorry but most of them don’t deserve the title of “academy” without quotes) whose main claim to existence is “profesorado nativo” [4]. They are (rightly) worrying that being “diluted” by NNESTs will rid them of that singular advantage. Mind you, they also excel at blame-shifting. One recruiter, bless him, confessed to me that he himself was OK with my candidature — he wouldn’t tell that I was not a native, um, American English speaker until I told him otherwise — but it is the parents of the students who demand native English teachers. Yeah right.

There are other reasons behind the “nativeness” requirements though. A few days ago I came across the analysis by Todd Ruecker and Lindsey Ives whose findings “confirm the connection between White privilege and native speaker privilege” [5]. They suggest that

commercialization of the ELT <English language teaching> profession allows for stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals based on age and marginalizes NNESTs despite relevant qualifications, thus denigrating the level of professionalism in the field. In addition, by commercializing the ELT profession in this way, recruitment websites rhetorically reproduce power relations at the intersections of race and language background in a few different ways. First, they delimit who qualifies as a native speaker through the use of repeated images of White teachers and text demanding that teachers produce passports from a list of predominantly White, inner-circle countries <that is, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and USA>. Second, they reinforce the White native speaker norm by positioning the target cultures as exoticized Others in opposition to whom the White, Western teacher is defined. Finally, they extend the possessive investment in Whiteness beyond U.S. borders by articulating the cash value that comes with White native speaker status in the ELT industry.
Apart from that, by perpetuating the myth of native speaker superiority, the ELT industry sends a signal to the EFL learners that they will never be able to have as good a command of English as “natives”. That must be demotivating, to say the least.

I have been contemplating writing a post on this topic for a while. I would procrastinate even longer if not for an email I got three weeks ago:

Many thanks for applying for the position of Freelance Medical Editor with Longdom Publishing <yes that’s their real name>. I am sorry to say that we are only hiring native English speakers for this position, and will therefore not be able to consider your application.
Normally, I never answer these emails, rather press “delete” and move on. But that day I couldn’t help it. In this particular case the requirement of “nativeness” it is even less defensible than for an EFL teacher (nobody was going to hear my accent anyway). It took me about three minutes to write and send a response.
Many thanks for your fast response. You may be interested to know that it is illegal under EU law to discriminate against non-Native English speakers, which is exactly what your company does.
There has been no reply so far. It matters not. From now on, I will treat similar emails like this, it costs me nothing and makes me feel good.

  1. Rebuffet-Broadus, C. Qualification required: Native English speaker, 2 March 2014.
  2. Kiczkowiak, M. (Non-)Nativity Scenes, March 2014.
  3. Kiczkowiak, M. ‘Native speakers only’ ads and EU law, 1 April 2014.
  4. Vidales, R. (2014) La ‘burbuja lingüística’ dispara el fraude en las academias de idiomas. El País, 12 June 2014.
  5. Ruecker, T. and Ives, L. White native English speakers needed: the rhetorical construction of privilege in online teacher recruitment spaces. TESOL Quarterly, 25 September 2014.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

you get little credit for speaking swahili

From An Introduction to Sociolinguistics by Ronald Wardhaugh:
Monolingualism, that is, the ability to use only one language, is such a widely accepted norm in so many parts of the Western world that it is often assumed to be a world-wide phenomenon, to the extent that bilingual and multilingual individuals may appear to be ‘unusual.’ Indeed, we often have mixed feelings when we discover that someone we meet is fluent in several languages: perhaps a mixture of admiration and envy but also, occasionally, a feeling of superiority in that many such people are not ‘native’ to the culture in which we function. Such people are likely to be immigrants, visitors, or children of ‘mixed’ marriages and in that respect ‘marked’ in some way, and such marking is not always regarded favorably.
However, in many parts of the world an ability to speak more than one language is not at all remarkable. In fact, a monolingual individual would be regarded as a misfit, lacking an important skill in society, the skill of being able to interact freely with the speakers of other languages with whom regular contact is made in the ordinary business of living. In many parts of the world it is just a normal requirement of daily living that people speak several languages: perhaps one or more at home, another in the village, still another for purposes of trade, and yet another for contact with the outside world of wider social or political organization. These various languages are usually acquired naturally and unselfconsciously, and the shifts from one to another are made without hesitation.
There is a long history in certain Western societies of people actually ‘looking down’ on those who are bilingual. We give prestige to only a certain few classical languages (e.g., Greek and Latin) or modern languages of high culture (e.g., English, French, Italian, and German). You generally get little credit for speaking Swahili and, until recently at least, not much more for speaking Russian, Japanese, Arabic, or Chinese. Bilingualism is actually sometimes regarded as a problem in that many bilingual individuals tend to occupy rather low positions in society and knowledge of another language becomes associated with ‘inferiority’. Bilingualism is sometimes seen as a personal and social problem, not something that has strong positive connotations. One unfortunate consequence is that some Western societies go to great lengths to downgrade, even eradicate, the languages that immigrants bring with them while at the same time trying to teach foreign languages in schools. What is more, they have had much more success in doing the former than the latter.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

a real team effort

From The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford:

We all know that in most countries the Ministry of Defense is in charge of attacking other countries and that the Ministry of Employment presides over the unemployment lines. Cameroon’s Ministry of Tourism is in that noble tradition. Its job is to discourage tourists from getting into the country.
But I don’t want to give too much credit to the Ministry of Tourism. Discouraging tourists is a real team effort. According to Transparency International, Cameroon is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In 1999, it was the most corrupt country surveyed. When I visited in 2001 it was the fifth most corrupt, an improvement much celebrated by the government. A moment’s reflection should tell you that earning the title of ‘Most Corrupt Country in the World’ takes some effort. Because Transparency International ranks countries based on international perceptions of corruption, a winning strategy is to concentrate on screwing bribes out of foreign businessmen — for instance, at the airport. But the Cameroon authorities have spread themselves too thin, because Cameroon is massively corrupt at every level and does not just target foreigners. Perhaps it’s this lack of focus that caused them to slip from the top spot.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

in the field of silent air flows

Scientific job advertising clearly went downhill since... well, since my last successful application, some time in the last century. In the olden days, when they published job ads in Nature and Science hardcopies and had to pay per word, they at least made sure the ad was concise and to the point. The title had to catch the applicants’ attention and make sense. How the times changed. Now we don’t browse, we search with keywords. That means, the employers think the titles can be rubbish and the ad will be found anyway. That’s how I found these, for example. In (previously) respectable online sources. (I did not change a single word and left the capitalisation intact.) I wonder how many of these positions are filled now, and by whom.

  • ANTI-MONEY LAUNDERING
  • Associate Lecturer / Lecturer / Senior Lecturer in Flute
  • Associate Professor in Autobiographical Memory Research
  • Experienced Researcher for Missions to Phobos
  • Food Sensory Scientist
  • Hard Rock Geologist
  • Head of Bioprocessing (President minus 2 position)
  • Ladder Faculty in Space Physics
  • Mechanical Technician
  • MOLECULAR BREEDER POSITION
  • More Experienced Researcher
  • Plant Fellows
  • Post-doctoral position in Food Habits
  • Post-doc position in strong fields
  • Postdoc-Solid Electrolyte
  • Postdoc for Post-mortem analysis
  • Product Manager Allergy
  • Research engineer in the field of silent air flows
  • Researcher Specializing in Fraud & Cybercrime
  • Senior Atmospheric Scientist
  • Senior Editor, Medecine
  • Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood
  • SENIOR RESEARCHER FOR RESEARCH PROJECTS
  • Value-adding of poplar bark
  • Viral Evolutionary Biologist
  • Wood Professorship of Forest Science

Monday, 21 April 2014

celtado

I can’t say that I never thought of doing something useful to earn my living. For example, teaching English. It was not until last year though that I began thinking about it seriously. Well, as seriously as I could. Doing CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) seemed like a good way to learn how to do it.

And so, some time last November, I started to look for a reasonably priced place, preferably in the sun, offering four-week CELTA courses. That’s how I learned about The Irish Academy in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: probably the best deal (and location) in the whole of Spain. On the last day of the last year, I sent an email enquiry about the course... and got an immediate response. In the following week, I filled the form and completed a short pre-interview task. I had my skype interview on 17 January and started the course exactly two months later.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

at cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars

From Novel Notes by Jerome K. Jerome:
“Thought existed before the Printing Press; and the men who wrote the best hundred books never read them. Books have their place in the world, but they are not its purpose. They are things side by side with beef and mutton, the scent of the sea, the touch of a hand, the memory of a hope, and all the other items in the sum-total of our three-score years and ten. Yet we speak of them as though they were the voice of Life instead of merely its faint echo. Tales are delightful as tales — sweet as primroses after the long winter, restful as the cawing of rooks at sunset. But we do not write ‘tales’ now; we prepare ‘human documents’ and dissect souls.”
“Our religion hangs ready-made beside our cradle to be buttoned upon us by loving hands. Our tastes we acquire, with difficulty; our sentiments we learn by rote. At cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars, high art and classical music. In one age we admire Byron and drink sweet champagne: twenty years later it is more fashionable to prefer Shelley, and we like our champagne dry. At school we are told that Shakespeare is a great poet, and that the Venus di Medici is a fine piece of sculpture; and so for the rest of our lives we go about saying what a great poet we think Shakespeare, and that there is no piece of sculpture, in our opinion, so fine as the Venus di Medici. If we are Frenchmen we adore our mother; if Englishmen we love dogs and virtue. We grieve for the death of a near relative twelve months; but for a second cousin we sorrow only three.”

Friday, 28 February 2014

aku-aku, what have I done

From Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond:

Education is a process involving two sets of participants who supposedly play different roles: teachers who impact knowledge to students, and students who absorb knowledge from teachers. In fact, as every open-minded teacher discovers, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their teachers, by challenging the teachers’ assumptions and by asking questions that the teachers hadn’t previously thought of.
In the class discussion after I had finished my presentation <on the collapse of Easter Island society>, the apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn’t sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended? One of the students asked what I thought the islander who cut down the last palm tree said as he was doing it. For every other society that I treated in subsequent lectures, my students raised essentially the same question. They also asked the related question: how often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences? How often did people instead do it without meaning to, or out of ignorance? My students wondered whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.