An Interview with Andy Curtis

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Aviva Ueno, Meiji Gakuin University

Aviva Ueno: Thank you, Dr. Curtis, for doing this interview, and welcome back to TLT!

Andy Curtis: You’re very welcome, Aviva, and it’s great to be back. As you know, I wrote for TLT more than 20 years ago, and I was happy to see that my 1999 article can still be read online.

One of the things you’re well-known for is leaving medicine to become an English language teacher. What made you decide to make such a move?

Well-known is the polite way of putting it—infamous has been another common descriptor! Like most parents, mine wanted what was best for their children. But for the poorest immigrant parents like mine, this meant one thing and one thing only: medicine. Lots of prestige—with bragging rights among the other immigrant parents—and lots of money. I know that medicine is supposed to be all about healing, but most of the immigrant parents I knew at that time put so much pressure on their kids—not just to succeed, but to show that we were just as good as the natives and deserved to be treated with respect. Somewhere in the family archives are photos of the racist graffiti that was painted on the walls of our home. So, when I was awarded a much sought-after medical scholarship at one of the top teaching hospitals in the UK, my parents were the proudest they’d ever been. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when I told them I had decided to leave medicine. They were heartbroken. Not only that, but leaving medicine for teaching, with no prestige and no money. The phrase “career suicide” came up a lot! The most controversial answer I’ve given to the question, “Why the hell would anyone do such a thing, make such a move?!” is, “To save lives.” Sounds crazy, I know, but I realized that an equally powerful way of saving lives—and maybe even more powerful in some ways—was through education. I have seen with my own eyes, the moment when something happens in a classroom that shifts the path of young learners’ lives in ways that they could never have imagined. No amount of money or prestige can compare with that kind of moment.

Occasionally, you talk about “coming from three generations of slaves.” I’ve seen the shock on the faces of audience members when you say that. Would you be comfortable saying a little more about that aspect of your history?

That certainly has been a controversial statement, and not one I make lightly. But when I do say that, audience responses range from stunned silences to denials. Believe it or not, some participants have even shouted out, “That’s not true.” I know that for those kinds of people, slavery is something from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and it was bad, but aren’t we good for ending it. But according to the Global Slavery Index there are still millions of people in some form of slavery in the world today. My great, great grandparents were kidnapped by the slave traders of the British Empire, and shipped overseas to work on the sugarcane plantations of Guyana (then British Guiana). They were eventually called indentured labour but that’s just another name for the same thing. The reason I share that personal and painful part of my family history is so that people who doubt the power of education to save lives can see just how powerful education can be. If you’re a teacher having a bad day in class, and wondering what’s the point, I can tell you, if you’re teaching wholeheartedly, you are most certainly making a difference in the lives of your learners.

What are some of your most vivid memories of your year as the 50th President of TESOL International Association?

It was an even more grueling presidential year than usual, as the 50th anniversary of the Association was marked with many groundbreaking firsts, such as the Association’s first-ever event in India. And as the first-ever president of Indian origin, it was a big deal! Going back to the land of my forefathers and foremothers is always an emotional experience, and going back as a president made it almost surreal. For the first 40 years of the Association’s history, the presidential leadership was almost exclusively Caucasian, American men and women, who had been born and grew up in the USA, and who had spent most of their lives working there. The 15 or so years since then have seen more linguistic and cultural diversity in the TESOL presidency than in all of the previous 40 years, which shows how committed the Association has been to diversifying its leadership, and I took that aspect of my year very seriously. And I’m pretty sure I was seriously sleep-deprived for the whole of that year, with hundreds of thousands of miles of flying all over the world in the cheapest economy seats available. In reality, for me, being TESOL president meant thousands of hours of work for free, not earning anything, not being allowed to earn, and sometimes even having to pay out of my own pocket as well. But I don’t regret one single moment of that year as the chance to pay it forward, and to see, firsthand, the tremendous difference that TESOL teachers were making in the lives of their learners. I still get emotional when I see the sacrifices that some of those teachers were willing to make for the sake of their learners. In too many places, I saw teachers, who, even though they were being paid so little, buying school supplies, like pencils and paper, for their learners.

You’ve been described as a “pioneer” in the field of New Peace Linguistics. How did that happen?

Like so many of these things in my life, at least, it was entirely and completely unplanned. I was invited to give the plenary talk at the Hawaii TESOL Conference in 2016. That went well and in 2017, I was invited to develop and teach a new course on Peace Linguistics at Brigham Young University-Hawaii (BYU-H) on the beautiful island of Oahu. I had not taught at a faith-based institution before, and I did not know anything about the Mormon religion, so I read everything I could find, including their Book of Mormon. To our surprise, in spite of extensive research, we could not find anywhere that was teaching a university-level credit-bearing course on Peace Linguistics. And it turned out that, although the term Peace Linguistics had been in use for decades, there had been very little actual linguistics, in terms of systematic, in-depth analysis of language. Most of the Peace Linguistics that had gone before was about using language to communicate in ways that would avoid conflict, for example, not saying bad words that would make the other person feel disrespected or dishonored. But the New Peace Linguistics is focused on how people in power, such as world leaders, use language in ways that can bring about peace or that can create conflict. For example, if a president calls the coronavirus the China Virus, they are deliberately inciting racial attacks on all Asian-looking people. Such is the power of language when used by powerful people. I reviewed hundreds of articles in the most well-known journals of peace education and peace studies and was struck by how few articles there were on the importance of language studies or linguistics in creating and resolving conflict. After teaching the first courses on PL at BYU-H, I edited the first special issue of a journal on PL, and wrote the first book on PL, which will be published by University of Michigan Press soon, I hope!

You’ve also been active in the area of Virtual Reality and language learning. Where are we with that now, and where do you think we’re headed with VR and ELT?

My relationship with educational technology has been ambivalent, as it’s great when it works but so frustrating when it doesn’t! And although I’ve been teaching online for Anaheim University for many years now, I will always prefer old-school, bricks-and-mortar classrooms. To be able to walk into a room full of eager students on the first day of a course, to see their faces, to feel that energy, anticipation and excitement is not something that I have experienced online. But, as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, hundreds of millions of students and teachers all over the world have been thrust into the world of online teaching and learning, often with little or no warning or training. Lucky for me, I was given the opportunity to work with Dave Dolan (one of the first to graduate from the Anaheim MA TESOL program) and his team at Veative. They helped me see the tremendous potential of VR. Once I put that headset on, I was a convert! Since then I’ve been researching and writing and publishing and presenting on VR in ELT, accepting its limitations but also appreciating its ability to create an authentically immersive experience for the language learner. Of course, VR is not as good as going to England to learn English or France to learn French. But when you look at the costs of doing that versus the costs of the new VR technologies, which are going down all the time, then learners could be all over the world—without leaving their homes. Amazing stuff. And now, in the post-pandemic world, there are valid concerns about just how safe it is to fly around the world, queuing up in crowded airports, packed tightly into small metal tubes at 30,000 feet for 15-hour flights. We did not expect the safety aspect or VR to be a major attraction, but it could be now.

What advice would you give ELT professionals in Japan?

My biggest concern for teachers in Japan these days is the after-effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which will no doubt change every aspect of all our lives for many years to come. One of the biggest changes may well be in the move from face-to-face to online teaching and learning. That’s OK, but it looks to me like universities, colleges and schools in Japan and elsewhere do not have what they need to make that move successfully. For example, teaching online is not just about the teacher and the learners simply staring at the webcam or the screen! Just making our handouts, slides and other materials available online is not teaching or learning. It’s not even education really. That’s just presenting information. As those of us in the classroom everyday know, there is so much more to teaching and learning than that, but I worry that some university administrators in Japan and elsewhere do not seem to get that. They seem to think or say “OK. COVID-19. Just put everything online.” Of course, that’s impossible. Quite apart from the technology, which may not be up to the task, so much training is needed for teachers and learners in how to teach and learn online in ways that work. And in terms of covering the material, it is not feasible to expect teachers and learners to make the same progress online as they can when they are in regular face-to-face real-time classrooms, as it takes much more time to establish communities of learning online. So, covering less material but perhaps in more depth may be a more achievable goal, and even brief but regular online chats between teachers and learners can also help everyone feel more connected and more motivated. Moving from face-to-face to online takes time and requires significant up-front investments in technology and training, and it should never be seen as a quick, easy or cheap alternative to in-class teaching.

Thanks again, Dr. Curtis, for sharing, and we hope to see you back in TLT far sooner than another 20 years from now!

You’re welcome, Aviva, and thank you for the great questions!