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A Warning Label for Academic Discourse
Charles Jannuzi Sees a Gulf Between ESL Theory and Practice

Charles Jannuzi teaches EFL and comparative culture classes in Fukui, Japan. He has revised his comments from a posting about theory vs. practice on the NIFL-ESL listserv for this article on ESL MiniConference Online.

The subject of 'Theory for Teachers' came up on the NIFL-ESL list. This helped me to see that my views were neither pro-theory nor anti-theory in the usual sense. What separates 'academic theory' from 'effective practice' is that the academic tries to make things explicit in genres accepted for publication. This means the academic presents 'theory' in rather formulaic discourse away from the classroom. Academic discourse is sold as 'objective science or 'substantiated knowledge', but often it only presents the formal appearance of objectivity. Academic prose, even in the form of the 'research report' often presents overgeneralized theories which are uncritically accepted as 'objective' only because the formal trappings of academic genres have been met faithfully.

Teachers' 'theories of practice' arise while performing in classrooms where students are effectively learning. Effective teachers must build up their body of guiding theory from their past experiences as well as their professional training and reading. It also takes patience, creativity and commitment. It is a bootstrap learning process whereby the more one knows the more one is able to learn and improve. Teachers' theories apply in ways far too interrelated and complex to be decontextualized and presented in academic discourse.

Teachers should still present their knowledge in formal outlets like articles and conference presentations, but, when they do so, we must realize we get only 'snapshots' and partial insights from them. Perhaps the best people to make sense of this incomplete information, though, are practicing teachers.

I'm not arguing those who theorize and write can't or don't teach. What I am saying, though, is that once we engage in the 'academic discourse' language game, we have to realize the limitations--and hopefully push the conventions (especially if we become editors). And a note of warning: playing the research and discourse games of the academic can actually seriously detract from our teaching!

Comment by Charles Jannuzi
Fukui, Japan

2002 ESL MiniConference Online