TEFL and masks

Dragan, an eccentric Yugoslav friend in  Oxford, made masks.   First he took casts of friends’ faces to create molds and then he filled these with liquid rubber.  When set, the masks were highly realistic, in a caricatured kind of way.   In fact, they were quite grotesque.  Each had a shiny, translucent appearence with elongated chins, noses and foreheads.  When worn they were really quite frightening.   Visual expression, now,  came not through the unconscious micro-management of facial muscles to give all those subtle nuances of meaning, but through every tilt and turn of the head.   It was these movements that emphasized, exaggerated or even contorted our verbal expression, whilst the face remained absolutely poker-straight and strange.

Dragan once  persuaded a few of us to wear the masks  for a few hours and then go to the pub.   We did.  By then, the masks were no longer strange to us and we almost forgot that we were wearing them.   Almost, but not quite.  In conversing, we now perceived each other differently as each tilt of the head or scratch of the ear had taken on a new, added exaggerated significance.   It was all very theatrical.  But we soon stopped being overly amused by it all and just carried on chatting as normal, our heads bobbing and nodding as we walked down the road.

Entering the pub, people stared.  This was actually quite unnerving for having got acclimatized to the wearing of the masks we’d forgotten about our strange looks.  We’d expected stares  on leaving Dragan’s house, but not by the time we arrived at the pub.    Entering, we all stood in a semi-circle just inside the pub door facing a semi-circle of curious spectators.   Then, spontaneously, everybody began to laugh, and so did we, unconsciously moving our heads in such caricatured ways that everybody laughed even more.  Finally we took off the masks, received a jolly round of applause, with comments that we looked better with them on, and for the remainder of the evening were quietly left to sup our beers in peace.  Just a few other customers came over to inspect the masks.

Masks have always attracted anthropologists’ attentions.  This is particularly true for their ritual functions in which mask-wearers participate simultaneously in two domains:  The spirit world and the human world.  With the arrival of functionalism’s explanatory paradigm anthropologists felt that to really understand masks it was important to understand the cultural contexts in which they existed.  That included the religious practices and mythical tales, the kinship systems, the modes of subsistence, the political structures etc.  In other words, the masks were more than simple fun affairs, as were ours, but held deep symbolic values relating to their specific cultures.  Decode the symbols and the cultural customs could be better understood.   Or in reverse, understand the cultures and you could understand the masks.  Both easier said than done.

Inuit masks are wonderful creations:  Often bizarre, abstact and incomprehensible to an outsider – unless you have the mind of the ‘Little Prince’ (St. Exupery, A.  1943) who quickly understood the rough sketch of a hat to be that of an elephant swallowed by a snake.   But arriving at such understandings is the task of anthropologists and one of the first things anthropologists noticed was that the masks often had assymetrical designs, with the left-hand sides being contorted and the right-hand sides being straight (to varying degrees).  This was great news for the structuralists, particularly one Sorbonne professor named Claude Levi-Strauss who saw binary oppositions in everything.  Through some pretty nifty reasoning, which meandered through mythological tales and kinship patterns, he related the masks’ asymmetries to cultural oppositions e.g. male: female;  sexual assess: no sexual access (i.e. incest taboo rules), and edible food: inedible food (food taboo rules).  In fact, Levi-Strauss finally concluded that the Inuit masks specifically dealt with Inuit conceptions of avariciousness and generosity.   It’s heavy reading, but he gets there in the end.

Now, you may be thinking I’ve lost the plot.  What on earth have Inuit masks got to do with TEFL?   Well, I’ll tell you.  In fact I could have told you direct, but this way makes more interesting reading (I hope).  I digress.  O.k.   So, let’s consider TEFL marketing – an activity most often undertaken by directors and marketing departments of language schools who make strong sales claims to potential clients about the teaching they can expect to receive from their teachers.  Well, there is a  slight discrepancy between the marketing & sales department’s presentation of the language teaching that will be provided (the advertising and packaging) and teachers’ own presentations of the language skills the clients receive (the product- or service).  This is a discrepancy that, as with the masks, strikes me as asymmetrical.  So, why the discrepancy?

The marketing & sales departments of language companies present objectified, even ‘idealized’, language training packages.   These are packaged and marketed in glossy brochures and well-designed internet sites.   Business English courses are the prime example with promotions containing images of young suited professionals studying laptops and conducting meetings:  Images used in order to promote the professionalism of the language schools.  This is the marketing mask.  It’s a mask which teachers do their best to uphold by turning the idealized fantasy model into a reality.  But, and here’s the assymetry,  teachers also have regular, interpersonal, intimate contact with their students in which these masks come off.   This is natural.  Student’s, as do most consumers, well understand the difference between product and packaging, and wish to quickly discard the wrapping to get on with the business of learning.   It is also necessary for the establishment of trust and rapport.  Eliciting classroom communication is more than just a sales ‘game’.   It’s personal and we can be professional without trying to keep the wool over our student’s eyes.  In fact, it’s better not to.

Hence, like the Inuit mask-wearers, teachers wear their own humane faces and their spirit (company culture) faces, treading between the two:  Professional presentation of their companies’ images and responding to individual students language requirements and personalities.  The two can be different.   Learning business language skills are partly the objectified language structures taught to survive a meeting in English (for example) without getting completely lost, and partly learning less easily objectified interpersonal language skills necessary for socio-professional contacts and networking.   Profit-steering marketing & sales departments need to be aware of this dualism, whilst teachers too need to be aware of their own marketing capacities in actively representing their companies and aiding students achieve their objectives.

2 comments on “TEFL and masks

  1. Dominic says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – “discarding the wrapping” is a great metaphor of what evolves in the classroom. Without completely exaggerating the process, we trainers/teachers are left with the delicate task of ‘splitting the atom’ so to speak, the critical moments when human interaction, rapport and to some extent bonding intervene and the cold, hard ‘product’ is consummated.

    • english13 says:

      Absolutely – whilst persuading our marketers that the wrapping is finished with once the sale is done and the product is on the teaching table ready to be consumed.

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