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What’s so funny about (English for) peace, love & understanding?

I don’t think there’s a teacher worth his/her chalk box who wouldn’t hope that somehow, in some way, through their teaching, through engaging the language, a greater sense of compassion, of  interpersonal awareness and sensitivity, might develop among their students. One of the reasons that English is lumped in with the humanities is the implicit understanding that developing language skills involves wider, more holistic cognitive and social domains. And this is why the notion of English as a basis for teaching the Medical Humanities (long-time readers know that I teach in a medical school) is so in vogue these days. 



But how does it work? I’ve often expressed my distrust (here and elsewhere) of those who use the English classroom as a moral or socio-political soapbox, as if sensitivity and compassion are indelibly aligned to a certain narrow ideology. Moreover, the explicit teaching of compassion and sensitivity is, in many cases, likely to backfire. Your students can spot a preacher before you’ve uttered your first greetings. So, what are some of the redeeming qualities of these ‘medical humanities’?



Recently, I’ve attended several presentations and/or events, as well as read numerous articles and books, focusing on using English as an agent of teaching the (medical) humanities. Based on my experiences and observations, I’ll reveal 6 benefits of the ‘humanities’ approach, followed by 5 reasons why I harbour some doubts about the scene. I’ll use examples taken from medical discourse, but will also briefly apply them to EFL teaching spheres. Let’s start with the positives.



Pearls from the medical humanities:


Patients/students are experts in themselves


One expert in the field, Dr. Jim Parle of Birmingham University (U.K.), claimed that clinicians should recognize that patients are not ‘objects’ or ‘cases’ but are actually experts in the field of… themselves!


This can be applied to all our English students — in a sense, they should all be regarded as experts in how they personally approach and process a second language.


Similarly, doctors usually don’t cure patients but ‘treat’ them. To a considerable degree, curing occurs within the patient. As such, we don’t teach students English but we do help them learn it.



What does it mean for my daily life?


Above and beyond the traditional focus upon generating a diagnosis, clinicians should be aware that the greatest concern for patients is not just knowing what the diagnosis is but what this means for their lives (involving management/treatment and follow-up) particularly, how it will affect them fully as a person. How will it impact their daily lives? How can it be managed and at what personal cost?


Likewise with our students. The greatest impact upon their teaching will likely revolve around the question of ‘How will English proficiency impact my daily life?’ ‘How will it influence me as a person?’ and, ‘How will this particular course lead me to achieve the ends?’



Learning as collaboration


‘Taking’ a patient history should be seen more as a collaborative process between patient and clinician and not merely as a prolonged Q-A session, as if it were a job interview. History taking should be a matter of eliciting the patient’s story, allowing the patient to generate a narrative, rather than being a doctor-centered line of inquisition.


Let’s again apply this to our students: Learning a language should be treated as a collaborative process, not as a flow of information conveyed from a ‘knower’ to a ‘knowee’. Learners signal learning narratives that teachers should become sensitized to.



Gaining learner consent with open-ended approaches


Gaining a patient’s trust to elicit personal/private/sensitive information, through implicit or direct request for consent, is a skill that doctors should learn to master. Using open-ended interpersonal skills, as opposed to closed question formats, should be encouraged. ‘Tell me more about that’ becomes (perhaps) the most common and helpful healthcare worker utterance.


Language teachers should strive too to initially elicit the ‘consent’ of the student and thereby build up trust. Teacher-generated ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ questions with limited scope would thus become replaced with  the notion of providing spaces for learner narratives to emerge… and thereafter be continually reformulated.



‘ICING’ patients and learners


The ICE formula (eliciting the patient’s Ideas, Concerns, and Expectations) should serve as the fundamental ‘template’ for clinical history taking. When applying this approach, more of the doctor’s time is spent listening rather than asking questions.


Ergo, without the teacher being aware of how learners are ‘ideating’ the English language, what they expect from a university/high school/conversation school English class, and what their concerns are (e.g., Will it help me on the test? Will it be useful in some way in my daily life? Can I apply this is a meaningful way in my life?) it will be difficult for learners to validate both the course and their teacher. Teachers must therefore address this at some level.



Dropping Pretensions


False empathy, such as the popular, Patient: ‘I have a slight fever.’ Doctor: ‘Oh! I’m so sorry to hear that’ type of exchanges should be discouraged.


So then, too, should the narratives of using English as a means to affect or change major international issues, or at least the pretense that one is doing so in the local EFL classroom.



The dubious bits:


We are compassionate and sensitive – let us save you


Often, the implicit assumption made by proponents of the medical humanities is that those of us with backgrounds in the humanities are more sensitive, aware, moral, and humane than those who come from STEM backgrounds. STEM people, the subtext seems to be, need our input to more deeply understand human feelings and thereby create more interpersonally effective communication and holistic care… as if STEM people are either insensitive or oblivious to these factors and thus require ‘our’ help. This is complete and utter nonsense. I think it panders to outdated and negative stereotypes, while allowing those of us with humanities backgrounds to pump our own moral chests while displaying our disciplinary inferiority complex.


Look, reading literature and appreciating art and music certainly enrich ones lives… but they don’t automatically make one a morally or spiritually superior person. Similarly, we may understand how English works, maybe how communication in general is enacted most effectively. But in no way does that make us advanced agents of morality, sensitivity, and compassion.



I’m not your mother


While English teachers should be expected to understand how effective communication is constructed (especially in a foreign language), very few of us have the counselling or psychological backgrounds needed in order to feel comfortable about including such content in our teaching arsenal. We are not experts in sociology, philosophy, anthropology etc. and we should not assume to enter that territory with any authority. Let’s not overstep our bounds of expertise under the assumed, and false, banner of our ‘deeper sense of humanity’.



I don’t have time for this…


Given the time limits and stressful workload that most doctors face, is it reasonable to believe that they should be behaving like counselors, spending a lot of time trying to suss out each patient’s ‘story’? Is this realistic? After all, doctors are not social workers.


Ditto for teachers with multiple classes of 30-40+ classes each. If a student seeks me out for something, I will be happy to oblige at a deeper, more personal level. But with a total of 160 students in seven classes for 90 minutes a week — Sorry, I’m not going to be engaging the holistic ‘you’.



Your magic has no power here…


In some respects, certain features of the medical humanities don’t cross cultures particularly well. For example, even indirect attempts at prying into the ‘deeper’ personal aspects of a patient’s life will surely be viewed as intrusive and inappropriate by many Japanese (and other Asian) patients. Many, if not most, might want, prefer, and expect the standard, expected Q&A routine. The doctor should stay in his/her territory and not assume other ‘roles’. This is extremely important within East Asian milieus.


And while the teacher playing the role of mentor is standard practice in many Asian countries (especially Japan) in the case of children, such concerns for one’s students’ well-being may well be interpreted as an intrusion into personal affairs (or even as ‘creepy’) once they’ve graduated from high school. Behaving like a prosecutor, by offering unsolicited ‘help’ to students by trying to coerce a ‘confession’ regarding their depression or problems at home, will almost certainly be viewed as overstepping one’s bounds.



Who would you choose as your doctor/teacher?


I’ve asked several clinicians and medical students how they rank the following qualities among doctors: a) Communication skills b) Clinical knowledge c) Hands-on skills d) Humanitarian principles. And, no surprise, ‘D’ almost always comes in last. If you’re not convinced, imagine that you are a patient facing a life-threatening operation. 


Likewise, if you are a student with a specific, instrumental English goal, who would you prefer as a teacher? The one who knows his/her content and has the skills and sense to make a meaningful lesson and manage a classroom? Or the one who prioritizes his/her highly-advanced ‘humane’ sensibilities?



One last piece of advice…



I haven’t been a JALT member for many years but I know that some readers are. For readers who are interested in applying the best of the humanities within classroom scenarios, I would rate JALT’s GILE (Global Issues in Language Education) SIG as worthy, despite the occasional foray into pamphleteering territory.  However, do regard with deep suspicion the PALE (Professionalism, Administration, and Leadership – now defunct?) and GALE (Gender Awareness in Language Education) SIGs. The latter in particular is JALT’s own little bastion of intolerance (in the guise of compassion and sensitivity) which serves largely as a forum for virtue signalling within a narrow ideological echo chamber, usually by engaging in finger-wagging at those deemed ideologically ‘incorrect’.


I see no reason to believe that they have the students’ best interests at heart… which is, of course, the baseline for both humanism and professionalism.

Mike Guest

2 Responses to What’s so funny about (English for) peace, love & understanding?

  1. Thank you so much for this Mike. Much of what you say is ‘preaching’ to the choir’ for me. I mean that positively as I wholeheartedly agree with you; I have always said to learners, or their parent (I teach from 3 to 73!), “I can’t teach you English, but I can help you learn it.”

    Your article has helped me ”thought-vocalise some things that I do already and made me think about how I could improve them. It has also given me additional food for thought and I am grateful for the nourishment!

  2. Much appreciated, Julian.

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