2nd Presidential Debate: Answering questions in the town hall setting

In this debate, Obama was very good at answering questions. He listened very attentively, and then focussed coolly on individual aspects of the question, answering each in turn to showcase his position. He uses a relatively simple tactic in answering, namely to give highly structured and “signposted” answers – signposting meaning adding words and phrases to highlight the structure of the argument. It’s illuminating to listen to the way the candidates respond to the initial question by Jeremy Epstein, the college student who asks for reassurance that he will find a job after his studies.

Romney refers back to the last four years and says “I know what it takes to get this economy going”, repeating “I know what it takes” again and again as he starts new phrases. This is an example of hollow, unfounded repetition, which is completely ineffective as a political rhetorical device.

Obama by contrast accentuates the details: i.e. creating not just new, but good jobs, those that support the family, detailing the areas that need special attention. He signposts each one explicitly (“number one”, “number two”…), which makes him seem completely in control, and able to make transparent what he is doing and thinking.

In many questions, Romney evades the question and tells general stories that accentuate the difficulties that people are currently in, and uses the general argument “I know what it takes to make the economy work.” By contrast, Obama focuses on a key area of the question and picks up on related specific policy decisions, and then explains the effects these have on the citizens’ lives in that area, creating emotional and intellectual involvement that puts Romney at a disadvantage. These micro-policy-presentations must surely be extensively rehearsed, and Obama can retrieve them from memory at will, when he needs them.

In the debate setup, when one speaker has gone, he does not get a chance to respond to the response. In Romney’s case, this in several cases causes him to lose his cool, to the point where, after he has been “beaten” by Obama in an exchange, he can’t move on directly to answer the next question. Back-paddling at the beginning of the following question, and saying that the opponent’s statements are false, is ineffective in a debate, where each point is a separate entity and must stand on its own – unlike in a less structured discussion. The second speaker on each point has the advantage of being able to pick out the weaknesses of the first. This is something a good listener can do far better than someone who simply repeats his beliefs or states unrelated “facts”. In a debate, both candidates have to think on their feet, but the second respondent has to think more deeply and in greater complexity.

This debate was much more aggressive, and emotions flared, despite the town hall setting, where candidates often avoid divisive, head to head debate. After all, citizens want to look up to their presidential candidates. Overall, after the first debate went to Romney, Obama supporters really wanted their candidate to get into the ring and show Romney who’s President. And he did.

Who will win this election? The polls say it’s very, very close, but I’m betting on the incumbent, and I hope his supporters all go out and vote. My ballot goes out today.

John Cleese on Humor and Creativity

Back in 1991, John Cleese gave this brilliant lecture, a compact course in enabling creativity. (It was posted on YouTube in April 2012 and subsequently widely blogged.)

As he explains, “creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating”. He contrasts “closed” versus “open mode” thinking and explains (from 4:45) that creativity is not possible in closed mode – the mode we’re in at work: Active, tense, anxious, purposeful, trying to get things done, sometimes stressed and a bit manic. By contrast, open mode is relaxed, expansive, not purposeful, more humorous, playful and curious, because we’re not under pressure to  get anything done. There is a time for each mode: developing ideas and reviewing concepts in open mode, and then deciding and carrying out a plan of action in closed mode.  To be most effective, therefore, we need to be able to switch back and forth between the two. The trouble is that we often get stuck in tunnel vision when we would really need to step back. This, he says, is the most typical complaint about politicians, namely that they are too addicted to the adrenaline of responding to events to retain the ability to ponder in open mode. And humor, he says, is a key switch to open the door into open mode.

John Cleese indulges his listeners with very practical and useful tips on how to make time and space for creative work. This I think would make an excellent listening exercise for students, combined with the assignment of summarizing his instructions in their own words. He also explains de Bono’s creativity technique of generating random connections, or “intermediate impossibles”, which, allowed to co-exist peacefully and patiently, can then serve as stepping stones to discovering something new.

It’s at 32:25 that he launches into full-fledged “open mode”:

“And now, in the two minutes left, I can come to the important part, and that is how to stop your subordinates from becoming creative, too, which is the real threat. Because, believe me, no-one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are, and how they stop decisive, hard-nosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently. I mean, we all know: We encourage someone to be creative,… the next thing, they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas and asking us questions. Now, if we don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, we’ll have to start justifying our decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information, the concealment of which gives us considerable advantages in our power struggles. So: Here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going here:

1. Allow subordinates no humor. It threatens your self-importance, especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive. Because subversive is, of course, what humor will be in your setup, as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition, since if they express it openly, you’re down on them like a ton of bricks. So let’s get this straight: Blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working. This is important. And I mean that solemnly: Your dignity is no laughing matter!

2. Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ self-confidence. A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in on all the things you can find they’ve done wrong. Never, never balance the negatives with positives. Only criticize, just as your school teachers did. Always remember: Praise makes people uppity.

3. Demand that people should always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. So: Demand urgency at all times, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety and crisis. In a phrase, keep that mode closed. In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiny, tiny microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able completely to control ever again!
Thank you, and good night!”

Note to self: Allow myself more time and space for the open road – erm – mode.

Ian Badger on Listening, and apps for teaching

I had the opportunity to hear Ian Badger speak at MELTA in the mid-2000s, and even back then he was saying we should be teaching the English people need at the workplace, not the standardized language codified and prescribed in Business Engl9780007423217ish course books. Now he has an excellent book/audio CD, Collins English for Business: Listening, which I’ve been recommending wholeheartedly to learners for self-study.

Using a self-study book in class for teaching when I am the only one who has bought it is always treading a very fine line in terms of copyright infringement. MELTA recently held a webinar on the topic, broadcast by BESIG/LTSIG, which a small group from ELTABB attended. (Read Khushi Pasquale’s excellent review.)

In my compact classes for assistants, I have been using a few of the really wonderful audio selections from the book to exercise my learners’ listening skills. I give them an introduction to what we will be doing, and then quickly dictate a few content-related questions to them, or a line to recognize or differentiate. We then listen to the selection. After  discussing the answers, they get two more questions to build lexis.

Frankly, this does not work ideally, because a listener really needs more visual support when doing a listening task, a book or worksheet, to focus his or her attention. The problem is that, in my real world of teaching, there is no way I can get everyone in a class to buy a book, especially not when it is a supplement. And I’m definitely not allowed to photocopy. Even extracting a short text and putting it into the script I write myself as a quote, attributing the source, would mean having to explicitly ask for permission from the publisher. I have avoided that so far, though perhaps it might be a way forward.

In any case, now I’ve bought the Collins Business English Listening App, containing the same audio. An app is naturally geared to self-study. However, I can also use it in teaching: With my iPad hooked up to a projector, from now on I’ll be able to go to the selection and play it, and while we listen I’ll be able to let the learners do the interactive exercises, much as they would with more standard classware products, projected to the front of the class, with them giving and dictating answers, or reading along in the transcript.

I’m not sure whether this is legal. However, if I just use the material as an extract, and I use it well, I would argue that I am doing far more to recommend the publication to potential customers than to damage it through unauthorized use.

I really think apps can change the game in teaching. Tablets are the future. They may be pricey, and Apple may not be the business machine of choice in the corporate world, but more and more learners are getting them, and “getting it”. I just hope publishers see the light and start making apps explicitly for teaching, as classware. There should be apps to purchase bite-sized bits of content and to present that content in class; apps to buy for home study; and apps to select and push content around, e.g. allowing us to upload tasks and completed work to a wiki-like course site. And they should be simple, and preferably all-in-one. It’s what English teaching professionals are waiting for.

Reposted below is Ian Badger’s presentation at IATEFL 2012, which contains some of the excellent audio collected in “Collins Business English: Listening”.

It would be wonderful if he were to come to Berlin to give a workshop at ELTABB. That’s way up on my wishlist.