Friday, March 10, 2006

Big Hominid on the vivisection table

Last week, a couple of us teachers were approached by a very nice linguistics student, JY, who is working on her MA thesis. Her paper is about communication breakdowns in the EFL classroom, and how such breakdowns are handled by both the students and the teacher. She said she needed to collect data for her report, and I openly guessed that (1) she would have to make in-class recordings, and (2) transcribe those recordings so she could review the speech samples at her leisure and do some Deborah Tannen-style discourse analysis.

Yup, that's right, she said.

So now I have a new "student."

It's sort of exciting, actually. Different teachers have handled JY's request in different ways. Some teachers want to inform their students about the "spy" in their midst, while others (me included) prefer to let her slip quietly into the class and pretend to be one of the crowd.

I remember a General Psych class from long ago, where we discussed something called the Hawthorne Effect (read about it here). The basic idea is that, when you perform an experiment on people, their awareness of the experiment will influence what you observe. My own feeling was that JY should pose as a student, but we both knew that she would have to "out" herself to the class eventually, because she plans to be taking copious notes during class.

So I asked her to compromise with me: since the semester only just started (we began this past Monday), why not have JY pretend to be a student for a few days, let the classmates get used to her, and then let her slowly reveal her true identity? JY agreed to this, and we're both hoping that the students won't freeze up when they find out what she's really up to. I'm pretty sure my students will be fine when JY unmasks herself: it's a fairly relaxed classroom atmosphere.

JY will be attending class for about four weeks-- enough time for her to see some of the more unsavory aspects of my line of work, including the inevitable student attrition. That doesn't really bother me; besides, JY told me she'd taken classes in my department before, so she knew all about The Way It Goes with student absences.

In the meantime, JY is also listening in on a couple other teachers. The classes represent a variety of skill levels and subject matter; the bitch of it all is that poor JY has to transcribe everything she records from every class, and she's generating a couple hours' worth of speech data every day. I wonder whether she might not have bitten off more than she can chew. Not being a statistician or a linguist, I have no idea how many samples JY truly needs in order to produce meaningful statistics.

Ah, me. There remains, somewhere in the dark depths of my warped and evil soul, a desire to go the linguistics route: to get a PhD in something like sociolinguistics and spend the rest of my life observing and analyzing speech patterns. But the pull toward linguistics isn't strong anymore; I find myself far more interested by hard science, philosophy, and religious studies.

I hope to provide occasional reports of how JY's experiment goes. She observed one of my classes today (Friday), and was very complimentary afterward-- not the most scientific attitude to take, but my ego appreciated it all the same. We discussed some of the things that went right and went wrong during class; I gave her a mini-sermon about how the books on theory sound nice, but ultimately, you put them aside, and just do it-- just teach.

JY's hoping to become an English teacher for Korean secondary school students (her English is very good, and she gets extra points for having spent time in the US studying at my alma mater, which is well known for linguistics), so I was eager to disabuse her of the notion that the books have all the answers. She seemed quite receptive to that point of view, which was a relief. The college-aged Kevin of 15 years ago wouldn't have been so open-minded: he would have nodded politely during the elder's sermon and then would have walked away shaking his head at the many points over which he disagreed.

So: good luck to JY and good luck to me as I go under the knife. I'll be curious to read those transcripts once JY gets them done.



Anonymous said...

Question: is she going to be recording in your class before the students know who she is and what she is doing? Maybe I'm just being pedantic, but having someone come in to class to make tape recordings sounds like something I would want to run by my students first, especially since all their words will be transcribed. Legally, you probably have no obligation to do that, but ethically... I don't know. I understand the Hawthorne Effect, but I would also have an ethical problem with making people subjects of an experiment of which they are not aware. Yeah, you're right, the students probably won't have a problem with it once they are informed, but they have a right to know.

Just my possibly misguided two cents.

Kevin Kim said...


That's a good question. In a few days, JY is going to reveal herself, anyway, so all concerns about the students' being in the dark will become moot.

However, that's not a satisfactory answer to the ethical question you're raising, so let me mull over that in the next few lines.

From my perspective, everything I do in class is done with the students' well-being (English sense, not Konglish sense) in mind. For that reason, I sat down and talked with JY for almost an hour the first time I met her, to determine what her project was all about.

She came across as almost painfully polite and very sincere, and while she was obviously aggressive about pursuing her project and obtaining her data, she was willing to compromise re: how to get her data.

We both agreed that, ultimately, the students would find out she wasn't a normal classmate: she would be taking notes and occasionally playing with her pencil case, which contains her little MP3 recorder. We were both concerned about whether the students would, upon learning about the experiment, suddenly "turn shy" and give us minutes on end of silence.

This is why I suggested that compromise to her: attend class as "one of us" for a few lessons-- actually participating in the exercises with the rest of the class-- then openly reveal what she was up to. I was trying to work this around my notion of Korean psychology: Koreans are sensitive about things like "kibun" and "bunwigi"; they like cultivating interpersonal relationships and will tolerate a lot once a "good feeling" has been established.

So the rationale behind my decision not to tell the students (at first) what was going on was to get them to develop that sort of emotional comfort zone with JY. Some of the students are naturally shy, partly because they don't know each other; in the first few lessons of every semester, I usually take it upon myself to dominate the lesson with loudness and stage presence so that the students' "affective filter" (Stephen Krashen's term) will be lower, making them more receptive, later on, to partner- and group-oriented activities. I'm hoping that, once the students are comfortable enough in a few lessons, JY will be able to reveal herself and the students will simply go, "Oh, really? OK, cool." It's a gamble, but I'm pretty sure there won't be disastrous consequences.

The ethical question itself-- "Should you engage people in an activity without letting them know there's an ulterior dimension?"-- is an interesting one and worth exploring. People employ trickery all the time to achieve certain ends (e.g., telling your crying child to count to "3" before you yank out a nasty splinter, then yanking it out at "2"), and whether such trickery is adjudged ethical may depend on whether your own ethical framework is more consequentialistic or more deontological.

I lean more toward consequentialism myself, which I think I revealed in the above justification of my decisions: "In the end, nothing terrible will result from this" is what my above argument boils down to.

Oh, yes-- I forgot to mention that JY has, in fact, revealed herself to one or two students already. I'm leaving all revelations up to her. What may happen is that the class will, student by student over the next week or so, slowly "al-gae-dwae-da" about JY and her reason for attending class.

And maybe that's apropos. In Korea, things so rarely occur in linear fashion. Moving from Present Situation A to Eventual Goal B often ends up looking more like a loopy, tangled scribble than a straight line segment. Having the students discover JY's identity in nonlinear, rumor-spreading fashion might be better than pausing dramatically before going "BOOM! She's a mole! Gotcha!"

Other teachers are approaching the experiment in their own way. One teacher says he will definitely be running the proposal by his students before he considers letting JY into his class. Another teacher has decided to take my "hak-saeng-deul moreu-gae" approach. No matter how we start off, the students are going to find out soon enough what's really up.

So-- there are are. Not much of a justification, but I'm confident the students will take it all in stride. If you're an ethical deontologist, you'll reject my consequentialism and say, "No, no-- the results aren't the point: it's just wrong to experiment on people without their knowledge, no matter the type of experiment, no matter the time lag between the start of the project and the day the students discover what's really going on."

But before I sound too much like I'm dichotomizing these two ethical perspectives, I should point you to a Wikipedia article that explores whether the dichotomy is false. The article makes some very good points, and I agree with the basic idea that the dichotomy is too neat: each perspective in fact contains elements of the other, or might even be considered a form of the other.


Anonymous said...

There you go using your fancy words again. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't consequentialism another way of saying "the end justifies the means"? Personally, I think that can be a dangerous philosophy. Is it dangerous in your situation? Probably not, but where do you draw the line? Right now, you're looking at it from a practical perspective, and I can understand your line of reasoning. But I'm looking at it from a more abstract perspective, and in the abstract I would have ethical problems with the situation. I don't know how I would react if I were actually in your situation, but I think I would probably be against the students not knowing. So I guess that makes me a deontologist (I'm going to have to start writing down all these words I learn from you).

Still, though, as you pointed out, the situation is not so cut and dried. Judging by what you've said, it would appear that the revelation will be a gradual, organic thing. Does that change the fundamental issue? No, but theory doesn't always fit neatly into reality.

Anyway, good luck with the experiment, and let us know how it goes.