Chronic pain is not like other pain: or, a paper wot I gave last week.

Last week I went down to Brighton University for the Understanding Conflict and Critical Research Studies Groups’ conference, Re-engaging Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, a 30th anniversary retrospective. I’d been really looking forward to it, as the programme looked awesome, with two keynotes speakers – Elaine Scarry and Joanna Bourke – whose writing has had a huge impact on my work.

I presented a paper called The Problem of Chronic Pain, in which I spoke about the early themes appearing in my research, from the interviews I have done so far with my participants. The paper started with a very short explanation of my research, including a brief summary of who my participants were, as a group – so I mentioned how they did and didn’t fit the picture of a “typical” BDSM practitioner (if there is such a thing!), and how there was a lot of difference between them all, in terms of impairments and practices. Then I picked out a few of the big themes that were starting to appear.

Firstly, I looked at language. In Elaine Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, she writes about how pain is outside of language, and our expressions of pain (such as “ow”) are not words. For me, this means that being in pain is dehumanising – that, a person in pain is understood as not being fully human – while at the same time, we can see that rationalising and describing pain is understood as making us human – to be human, we have to be able to move past the animal expressions of pain in order to use metaphors like “burning” and “stinging” to describe what we feel. This is, of course, rooted in an ableist, normative understanding of what it is to be in pain when a person is able-bodied and able-minded.

At the same time, pain is something that is normally thought of as unwanted; we do not like being in pain, and people who are in pain are expected to seek help – because pain is assumed to result in suffering. This ableist idea of what suffering is means that pain becomes ontologically impossible, to borrow a phrase from Fiona Kumari Campbell (2009). At the same time, non-disabled people, and people who are not in pain, do not like seeing or hearing about people in pain. It can even be difficult for me – someone living with chronic pain – to hear about other people’s pain; I struggle to watch films with gory or realistic surgery scenes, for example.

This situation is difficult for people in chronic pain – in order to establish themselves as “proper” humans (and get help), they have to be able to talk about their pain, but they are pressured to remain silent because people don’t like hearing about pain. This quite often means people in chronic pain are not believed – especially women and people of colour. This was a conflict for a lot of my participants, and made them feel both dehumanised and dismissed. At the same time, they did find support in communities of other people with chronic pain, friends, and family members – although this could be difficult to establish.

The next big theme, again influenced by Scarry’s writing, is the problem of pain being understood in lots of academic writing as an attack on the phenomenological self (to put it more simply, pain affects how we experience the world and our sense of self), and experiences of pain result in the world being “broken” – and then remade through recovery, once the pain stops. However, Elaine Scarry was writing about acute pain, specifically pain in torture – and this is not the same thing as chronic pain. From talking to my participants, I think that chronic pain does not result in a permanently broken world – because my participants continue to have lives and experiences beyond their pain.

Chronic pain does not lead, precisely, to a constant cycle of unmaking and remaking of the world and our sense of self – because people who live with chronic pain are people, and not simply bodies, and they are people living with pain, rather than bodies in pain. This distinction seems a little trivial at first, but I think it might be rather more important – not just because it challenges how chronic pain is understood, but challenges normative conceptions of pain. This does not mean, however, that people who live with chronic pain do not have their identities changed, that their sense of self is not different to who they might have been without pain – but that they have worlds and selves that include but go beyond pain. I used the metaphor of a mug that has been broken and glued back together – it can be very hard to see the cracks (the pain), but the person who glued the mug back together knows the cracks are there, and sometimes those cracks might be really important, but sometimes it isn’t – and sometimes the mug is becomes a penholder after it is glued back together.

I might be taking this metaphor a bit far.

Several people said nice things about my paper, and made lots of helpful comments that will help me with the rest of this – including some films to watch and some more books to read. I have copies of the properly-referenced version of the paper, as well as an audio recording – if you would like either, please get in touch (while I work out how to put audio on here – I am having a fibromyalgia flare this week and my brain is soup).

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Panorama, painkillers, and pain.

I’m watching the Hooked on Painkillers episode of Panorama from the 2nd. I’m quite often leery of this sort of programme, as I think it can feed into the perception of people with a need for painkillers as drug-seeking, and further limit the access of people with chronic pain to longterm pain relief. People like me, really.

I’m not exactly reassured by the opening blurb, that informs me – over the dramatic synth OMG NEWS theme music – that there are people in the UK who are prescribed pain relief medications which are “in the same category as heroin.” Oh do fuck off, Declan Lawn. That’s opiate painkillers – morphine (check), codeine (check), tramadol (check), fentanyl, and oxycodone, and some others. I’ve taken opiates, as have other family members and friends. Scaremongering bullshit like that isn’t helping anyone. “I’ve got really nice boots on, I can’t possibly be [an addict], ” announces a middle-aged woman in a “nice” living room. Dear god. This is going to be awful.

8 million people with chronic pain in the UK (according to the National Pain Audit). We are introduced to a woman with spinal problems, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia, who takes a myriad of painkillers, and other medications. When she explains what she takes, we aren’t told what is and isn’t a painkiller – but she’s taking various antidepressants and others that aren’t primarily used for pain relief alongside painkillers.

“Once, [opioid painkillers] were reserved for cancer patients. But not any more.” Possibly because doctors have realised that chronic pain isn’t bullshit and does in fact require long-term pain relief? Lawn tells us that it is due to a culture shift, but doesn’t really explain what underlies that shift – whether there is a change in licensing, in diagnosis of chronic pain, or of how doctors are trained to deal with medicating chronic pain.

We’re a third of the way before we start to explore what the culture shift might be – after watching the lady with fibro and the middle-class addict with nice boots have described their experiences. But Martin Johnson from the Royal College of GPs only gets a few seconds to explain a little bit (he mentions the role of an ageing population, and that pain relief is a basic need), before back to Lawn starts in with the doom-mongering. Cue sad harmonicas. Cue big pharma. Cut to a few seconds of a film showing young black men on a street, leaning against a graffiti-covered wall, and a grainy news clip in which a panicked-sounding woman tells us of armed robbers in pharmacies. I’m not saying that oxycontin and other opioids aren’t addictive, and that there isn’t (wasn’t?) a thriving illegal trade – but this seems to be over-egging the pudding a little bit.

Lawn takes us to rural Kentucky, the “Ground Zero for the epidemic of prescription opioid abuse,” to talk to men in rehab, as well as a doctor whose son overdosed on oxycontin. Lawn doesn’t mention that it’s entirely possible that the two men who turned to illegal oxycontin also struggled to afford perfectly regular prescriptions, because America’s healthcare system is fucked up.

Oh good, back to Martin Johnson, who seems to be our voice of reason. He points out that while we can learn from America, the differences between the NHS and the US system are different enough (at least for now) to mean that there are also very different factors at play. Johnson seems to be leaning towards saying that there isn’t enough guidance for GPs – which is fair enough. My GP knows very little about fibromyalgia, and it’s been several years (and several house moves, and therefore several GPs) since I saw a GP who did. But we aren’t allowed to dwell on what that guidance would look like, because it’s time to find another middle-aged, respectable man to tell us about what it’s like to be in constant pain a drug addict. His family helps him manage his pain, and his medication – he is going to a pain clinic, because he wants to take less painkillers. Like every other person in chronic pain, he seems to be balancing the need for pain relief with the risks and reality of being dependant on prescriptions. I’m dependant on my prescriptions – not just my painkillers, but on my antidepressants too.

24 minutes into the programme and Lawn mentions that the lady with fibromyalgia isn’t just getting help with her painkillers, but also with her pain management. Perhaps this is the problem – that it takes months, if not a couple of years, to get to a pain clinic, where medication is integrated with other forms of therapeutic pain relief? Maybe that’s why there’s also a problem – we don’t have any other choice but to take painkillers, because we need some relief while we sit and wait for referrals, assuming we live where there is a pain clinic, and we have a GP who can refer us. Cathy Stannard, a Consultant in Pain Medicine tells us that coming off opioid painkillers is better even if there is no alternative – that opioid painkillers are best in the short-term.

The problem being that there is nothing else to offer. Some people probably are prescribed too many painkillers, for too long, and too frequently – and some GPs probably do jump straight to heavy-duty opioids before trying some of the others. But there is frequently no alternative – and being in pain is not acceptable, both to individuals in pain, and to society at large.

We have a crappy relationship with pain, in our society. Pain is cast as very, very negative – being in pain is constructed as unsustainable, as impossible to live with. A person in pain is not a person – they’re less than human, an animal. Doctors see pain as a personal affront – just as any other symptom needs to be cured quickly; pain is suffering, and suffering must be stopped as quickly as possible. People who live with chronic pain challenge this ideological standpoint, and there is a huge temptation to shove them under the rug, treat them quickly with what should work, rather than taking the long route. That is the real problem – not the people in chronic pain, and not the people in chronic pain who are dependant on painkillers.

 

 

 

 

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Letting it be

One of the best – and of course, most challenging – aspects of my research is that there isn’t a lot written about pain in disability, or pain at all (especially from outside of medicine). There is some about suffering, but a lot of it is focused on eradication of suffering – and while I’d like people not to suffer, it strikes me as being somewhat like a cure, that denies that people in pain/suffering can live happily as well – just like cures can deny that disabled people can live happily. A cure is a double-edged sword: it ends illness, but it also ends identities. And, much like Susan Wendell, I’m not sure I’d want a cure for myself, because my chronic pain is a part of who I am.

I think the idea of abjection is really important when talking about pain (and percieved suffering – not “I am suffering”, but “you must be suffering”); Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects has really helped my thinking on this. I sometimes wonder how much easier pain would be to live with if it were not constructed in a way that tells us that being in pain is bad; if pain were not abjected, if the person in chronic pain (like other disabled people) were not abject subjects, would it be pain – would it be ok to be in pain?

Pain – particularly chronic pain – is highly gendered and racialised (for example – more women than men have fibromyalgia; it is much harder for a woman, particularly a woman of colour, to get medical treatment for pain than it is for a man); and I think I’ve found some thinking that is helping me pull together abjection, which I see as rooted in ableism, with suffering. Lochlann Jain’s 2007 paper Cancer Butch calls for “an elegiac politics, or a retrieval of affect and death and illness in the context of profit” (p 506). This parallels with the assertion made by Robert McRuer, Allison Kafer, and others, that neoliberal-capitalist society is disabling, not just in terms of how it constructed “good” bodies and “good” subjects, but in how the pursuit of profit above all does violence to the human body, through injury, through disease, through war and pollution and toxicity.

Jain is discussing cancer – another illness not usually included in disability, but one that should be – when she writes of Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals (1980), “the most notable change since Lorde’s era lies in the rates of a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer, up from one in 20 [in the 1970s] to one in seven women [in the 2000s]. A politics of pollution and its violent and violating gendered effects haunts the scars that Lorde wants to recuperate” (2007, p508). This gendered effect – whether cancer or fibromyalgia – is the result of neoliberalism and capitalism on the bodies of women, and yet it is exactly these effects that are abjected, that erase other identities to create the abject subject – the cancer victim, the woman in pain.

This, for me, leads to a three-fold imagining. There is a challenge to ableism, and to neoliberal capitalism, because the root of pain and disableism and suffering is there – on a broad and also a very specific, individual level. This is tied to a challenge to polluting, toxic practices contained within neoliberal capitalist profit-making, as the cause of illness and death. But the third is a challenge to “acknowledge the ugliness of the disease and of the suffering that it causes and to let that suffering be okay, not because it is okay but because this is what we have … a space that allows for the agency and material humanity of suffering and death” (Jain, 2007, p 506). This unpicking of suffering, of what it means to suffer, of what pain and death and illness and impairment means and how it is lived – not just lived with, but lived, with all that living entails, is both the easiest and the most complicated.

This is where my research is going. To make a space to be in pain, to acknowledge pain, but not to dismiss it as negative. To let pain be ok, and not ok, and to live painful lives that are not lesser lives.

 

 

References

Jain, S. Lochlann. “Cancer butch.” Cultural anthropology 22.4 (2007): 501-538.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, queer, crip. Indiana University Press, 2013.

Lorde, Audre. Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books, 1997 [1980].

McRuer, Robert. Crip theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability. NYU Press, 2006.

Tyler, Imogen. Revolting subjects: Social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain. Zed books, 2013.

Wendell, Susan. The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. Psychology Press, 1996.

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Multiculture in the classroom

One of the things I found most challenging about my teaching this term has been teaching the topic of identity as it relates to concepts of culture, race, gender, and class. This is because the materials, and the texts, as well as the suggested scheme of work, are all produced from a mono-cultural viewpoint, a viewpoint that is undoubtedly white and from the global North, while my students are all from a mix of cultures, both from the global South and the global North, and with a range of ethnic/racial identities.

One of the greatest challenges has been encouraging students to reflect on their own class-based and racialised identities. Several students expressed discomfort with the notion of class, notably those students from Arabic and Gulf states. The students told me that they were uncomfortable with the notion of class, as applied to themselves, although this discomfort did not seem to extend to theoretical discussions around Marxism and class divides in Britain. For those students, class as it related to their cultures seemed to be not just a sensitive subject, but a taboo one, a far greater taboo for some of them than discussing sexuality (which I had assumed would be the greatest taboo for them, given their religious and gendered background). This presented a challenge in terms of discussions of privilege, particularly in getting students to reflect upon their own privileges; from my viewpoint it is difficult to check one’s privilege when it comes to advantages of class when one is loath to discuss how class impacts one’s own life, but for students who see class as irrelevant or unrelated to their current situation, it is difficult to include class-based privilege as a factor. The problems here were undoubtedly hampered by my own lack of shared cultural understanding with the students; my experience living in Gaddafi’s Libya was that while social class was not acknowledged in terms of working, middle, and upper-class, education and income showed distinct class barriers which were acknowledged by my friends and acquaintances, frequently in terms of familial poverty and employment opportunity. Getting students to see the meanings behind the words was challenging when the mention of the word “class” itself acted as a switch, turning off their listening and critical thinking skills.

For other students race and racialised identities presented an issue. While my students were largely comfortable discussing nationalities and cultural differences (and discussions of norms and values were fruitful and entertaining), the topic of racialised identities was presented from a viewpoint in which POC are largely underprivileged due to systemic racism in the UK and America; much of the sociological work my students were able to engage with came from this standpoint, although I tried to demonstrate how POC in the UK have strong positive identities as well. For my students the acquisition of a racialised identity, frequently one which affected their own previously privileged experiences, was understandably a complicated and uncomfortable subject. My own discomfort, initially with my position as a white woman teaching about race (along with which I was aware that for many of my students this would be their first introduction to the topic of race from a sociological viewpoint), was also in that I had naïvely not really considered that my students from African states had not previously experienced themselves as Black in the same way as students who had lived in the UK for longer periods may well have; their experience of racialised identity was one in where they have not previously identified as Black, not as part of a minority group made up of multiple national, regional, and tribal identities. While some of the stronger students were able (and willing) to reflect on this a little, it presented a challenge to myself and them, particularly as I did not wish them to see their identities negatively. For other students, they had also not considered themselves as possessing racialised identities, and had not considered that a racialised identity could be imposed upon them (which on reflection was something I myself engaged in) by the ways in which other people saw them could impact how they saw themselves.

This term is teaching has undoubtedly presented challenges in terms of pedagogical practice, and in terms of simple practicalities, but has also thrown out issues that I did not expect. I hope that I can use my reflections on this going forward, but I would also be interested to hear from any others who had experience of teaching sociology not just to multicultural groups but to international students.

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A sweary reflection

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve started my PhD. It’s been, well, mostly good. The panicking, the crying, and the sense of despair have been balanced by the joy of good feedback, a sense of achievement, and above all, doing what I actually love, even when I bitch like hell about it. Because even doing things you love can seem like a pain the arse when you’d really like to be doing that other thing you love which doesn’t have a deadline.

Doing my PhD has already taught me a few things. It’s affected my fibromyalgia – and been affected in turn – in new and interesting ways. As well as some old and frankly boring ones. I’ve met some lovely people, online and at conferences and talks, including the awesome people who volunteered to let me into their lives and be participants (and answer some really weird, nosey questions). I’ve been introduced to some ideas that I’ve loved or hated or just made me think, that have changed how I’m approaching my research entirely, or confirmed some of my suspicions that while I may or may not be barking up the wrong tree, I am not the only one doing so. It’s been awesome.

And, in the grand tradition of avoiding doing some work, I’ve made a list of the things I’ve learnt.

1. Say no

Whether it’s because you don’t have the time, or because you straight up don’t want to, say no. I’ve got shit to be getting on with. Sometimes that shit is sitting on the sofa, eating crisps, and doing sweet fuck all, but still, I’ve got shit to do. I have finite energy – you do too, even if your reserves are decidely larger than mine – and I have learnt that I can’t do everything that everyone wants me to do. So I have to say no – whether it’s to going out with friends (it frequently is, and my friends are the best for understanding this) or reading a book or travelling to an event. Most people have been understanding.

This is why I’ve quit my job, at least for the rest of the year, to focus on my PhD. I do, mostly, like teaching. However, this particular teaching role was throwing up demands on my body and mind that were impacting my priorities in life – I have been bitchy and I haven’t had the energy to be the person I want to be, or to do the things I want to do – or even the things I need to do. I’m lucky; G is immensely supportive, hugely helpful, and he does the hoovering. I like the income. But I need to refocus and get on with my research and my writing, and teaching EFL to teenagers wasn’t helping. So I’ve quit and it feels great.

2. I don’t need that in my life

If you can’t acknowledge that I might know what I need or want, and that I do know what I’m doing – or, conversely, that I still have the right to go ahead and do it anyway – then I do not need you in my life. If you can’t get over my disability, I do not need you in my life. If my disability (or whatever) is such a barrier to our friendship, or you employing me, or you speaking to me politely – guess what? I don’t want to be your friend/employee/colleague/whatever. So long, farewell, fuck the fuck off.

Seriously though. One of the bits about radical self care is this: don’t feel you have to keep someone in your life if they’re sucking your soul. Which is not to say I’m going to dump friends just because they’re having a shitty day/week/year; we all do, and sometimes depression makes everything harder. But it is to say that I don’t need sources of hate in my life, and I can’t win everyone over to the dark side with the power of my personality and swear-filled arguments, so I will choose my battles and my friends.

3. Say yes

Having just said all that – I have learnt to say yes. Yes to the things I want to do, the things I need to do, and especially to the things that mean I’ll be utterly useless for days after but I hope it’ll be worth it. I don’t always say yes – but I try to, especially when it’s something that might be fun, or open my mind.

4. Down time is sacred

I have a rule: unless there’s something urgent that needs to be done by tomorrow (or worse, by yesterday), I always have a few hours to watch TV, knit, cook, walk the dogs – time to live, in a quiet, low-energy way. G and I have some tv programmes we watch together – I have several I watch alone. I like cooking dinner for us. We can talk and eat and bitch about the things that need bitching about, and it helps keep me from going batshit insane.

5. Own your weaknesses and limitations

They’re not something to be ashamed of. And in talking about it, I’ve found other people will also talk about it. I hope that, maybe, it’ll help someone else decide they can do a PhD and see that it’s not all stress and working yourself into the ground and crying. Sometimes it’s fun and the hard work is manageable, and you can do it while being chronically ill and constantly shattered. Or at least you can do the first year. Fuck knows what the rest is going to be like.

 

 

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Adventures in self-care, or, meet the glass boxes full of water

One of the things I’ve noticed while attempting to balance the phd and working is that sometimes I need a break. Not a long one – hell, not even a whole weekend, but instead just a little time off to do something unrelated – it’s a little bit of self-care and, yes, self-indulgence. Treat yo’self on a budget, or drawing inspiration from Audre Lorde’s words – “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (A Burst of Light, 1988); either way, I need to take a bit of time to do what I want to do. I know all too well that I’m stretched thin, and as I decided to celebrate re-enrolling for my second year by addressing my sort-of gant chart of what I’m going to achieve over the next two years of my life, and then promptly having a minor breakdown, I decided to take part of this weekend to do anything except work.

Mostly. I mean, I spent part of yesterday afternoon feeling guilty about not doing work and then transcribing interviews – after the required amount of procrastinating). And I’ve just spent the last hour finding and printing various activities for my current EAL class. But mostly, I’ve done a bit of laundry, walked the dogs, cooked, and fannied about with the glass boxes of water I’ve decided to scatter around the house.

I have three tanks. The biggest and newest (thanks to my father, who is incredibly generous when it comes to birthday presents) is the home of Wilberforce Filbert Stinkpot Soup, aka murderturtle. I’ve been waiting for the moment to tranfer his nibs into his new tank, after planting it up a few weeks ago – I wanted to give the plants time to establish themselves before letting Wilberforce loose on them, because the first thing he does when faced with any new object is try to kill it.

a large glass fish tank half-full of water and submerged plants

a small grey-green common musk turtle swims among submerged plants

He went into his new tank on Friday night, and I think he’s ok with it. He’s dug up half a dozen plants, killed all but the largest of the snails (which is too big for him to chew on), and glared at me through the glass. As his default expression is one of utter rage, it’s a little hard to tell if he’s happy.

This leaves two other tanks, which live in the study – much smaller ones. The smallest I bought because I wanted to grow the sort of plants that Wilberforce dug up or tore to pieces, and give the snails somewhere to breed in safety – I breed ramshorn snails specifically to feed to Wilberforce. Today, I pulled up the vast majority of the Lilaeopsis and the dwarf hairgrass, in the hope that this will give the Hemianthus callitrichoides a bit more room to spread. HC is a lovely little plant, but it is much slower to spread than the other two, and while it was getting there, it was taking forever. I also took some cuttings off the Bacopa, and the Hygrophilia. Yes, I am aware that I sound like my mother now – it turns out I’ve not got black thumbs, but that I require my plants to be submerged.

a small fishtank on a windowsill, with slightly cloudy water and a few sparse plants and a model TARDIS

It looks a bit cloudy and bare, because pulling up the plants disturbed the gravel and the dirt (it’s a gravel-capped soil substrate, rather than a fancy plant substrate). I’ve not got a filter running in there at the moment, because Wilberforce’s tank is using two (he’s a dirty little turtle), and there’s no animals besides a few snails. It’ll settle down, then when I’ve got a new filter for it, and it’s started to look less bedraggled, I’m planning on putting some shrimp in there, or a betta.

In the third tank, which was Wilberforce’s starter tank until a few days ago, now live a few guppies and some neon tetras. I cleaned the gravel a little, and pulled out most of the larger pebbles to put in the big tank (Wilberforce is not allowed standard-sized fishtank gravel in case he eats it, which he’s likely to do as I’ve found him chewing on bigger rocks before). Then I planted up the lilaeopsis and hairgrass, as well as replanting the valisnera and standard hairgrass that had been in the tank already – along with some refugee Bacopa and Cabomba from Wilberforce’s predations.

small bow-fronted fishtank, with a little gravel and some small plants. A couple of fish are swimming near the top

close-up of some small neon tetra fish - and some plants

I don’t know how well the plants will do as there’s no dirt in there – just the gravel from Wilberforce, which is admittedly pretty grubby. I’ll shove some root tabs in there, or if it all looks awful, break it down and start again with a dirt layer. The fish seem happy enough – they weren’t best impressed with the water changes or the planting, but they’ve been noodling around the tank and eating since then. I’ll see how the water looks in a couple of days, when it’s had the chance to settle.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. This evening, I’m putting an i-cord edging on a cardigan, watching the X-files, and trying not to think about how bloody early I have to get up tomorrow.

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Colonialism, English language teaching, and balancing politics with love

I qualified as an EAL teacher nearly ten years ago, as a fantastically naive eighteen year old school leaver with a promise of a job for six months, and no prior work experience save for three months as a shopgirl at M&S. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing beyond teaching for a bit to fill in the rest of my “gap year”, which was otherwise filled with retaking my chemistry exam and trying desperately to get into vet school. I thought that I would teach for six months, at the school down the road from my mum’s house in Tripoli (she lived and worked in Libya at the time), then return to the UK for vet school and never teach again. I trained from a position of privilege – I didn’t need to be a good teacher, and I didn’t pay for the training course myself (my grandparents did). I was also, as this post at Media Diversified points out, more or less guaranteed work because of my status as a white “native” English speaker.

I was hugely wrong.

I did need to be a good teacher. And while I did get into vet school, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, I didn’t stay there. So I went back to teaching in 2007 after discovering that: a) the bank of mummy, daddy, and grandparents was only willing/able to help so much (and they helped a lot, for which I am extremely grateful); b) student loans only covered so much, but April to October is a long time; c) working in a call centre really, really sucked. I’ve taught on-and-off since then, more on than off since 2010.

It turns out I actually love teaching, in a way that I only had a glimmer of in Tripoli. I love my students(even the ones I bitch about in the staffroom) I take every bit of feedback personally, and while I maintain that I don’t need my students to like me, I want them to walk out of my classroom having learnt something that they think will be interesting, useful,or both. I not only need to be a good teacher, but I want to be a better one.

We shall now pause to sing while bunnies skip and birds hang out my laundry.

English language teaching is, despite any pretences otherwise, an industry. An industry built on exploiting and maintaining English as the main language for business, science,and academia, a legacy built on colonialism. It is, to put it baldly, soft colonialism wrapped in a shiny packaging of phrasal verbs and phonetics. Welcome to learning English, pull up a chair, sit down, and learn some values. But pay first.

Teaching English is often promoted as a way to “see the world” – you pay a fee and you go out to a country in the Global South and teach impoverished kids the difference between “I went swimming” and “I have been swimming”. No qualifications needed beyond being a (white) native speaker and the money to volunteer for a few months. My route was the second – get a qualification, apply for a contract in somewhere warmer than the UK, rinse and repeat. For many of us, teaching is a way of earning money while doing something “worthwhile” – travelling, making music, art, photography, literature. It’s the false promise of neoliberalism in a nutshell – a job that isn’t too stressful (ha), that pays well enough to live on (ha), while giving you enough time to do the things you love (oh, the lols). And you’re doing something good – you’re teaching all those Other People how to Speak English, which will surely make their lives better, because English is the language of neoliberalism.

But along with the language comes the values. The bland, insipid values of the textbooks packaged to take learners from Elementary to Advanced, textbooks that take little notice of the myriad of cultures they’ll be used in, beyond occasional repackaging of soft “news” articles (“Brazilians the friendliest, says tourism industry”; “have you ever eaten insects?”) – and using respect for cultural differences as the reason for every character presented in the books being heterosexual, able-bodied, slim, gender-conforming and photogenic. And mostly white, with token “definitely not white, but smiling and Speaking English”. Characters have “English” names, nice, middle-class ones, like Tom or Claire (never Chardonnay, or Jayson). Occasional non-English names crop up, but only when attached to accented voices, usually asking for help or talking about “in my country”.

Gender differences are respected. While we learn “businesswoman”, and “Sarah is a scientist”, we never learn that “James is a stay at home dad”, or that “Richard is wearing a pink shirt”. We have wife, husband, son, daughter, but never stepmother or half-brother or “James is Richard’s husband”. Sam might use a wheelchair, but Sam is not a recurring character, he is nobody’s husband or boyfriend, and he probably does something inspiring, like raise money following a natural disaster by doing a marathon, or smiling a lot.

What I’m saying is that teaching English is problematic. It is more so if you are a POC, or a disabled person, or queer person; the system invalidates you even as you teach, and it does not give you the tools to challenge racism, sexism, dis/ableism, homophobia, and any other aggressions, micro or otherwise. Sexism while teaching in the middle east is a given. Racism in China and South Korea is par for the course. Students who assume your classes are at a lower level because you have a non-RP accent (as happened to one of my colleagues recently) are just something you have to deal with. Get over it. Deal with it. What did you expect?

What’s the solution? Well, as some have suggested, don’t take part in the system. Don’t teach abroad. (I really recommend reaching BiA’s blog, he’s got a lot to say that makes a lot of sense). But I do, very respectfully, disagree with this, but only in part. In part because soft colonialism doesn’t just happen in other countries; we practice it at “home” through the EAL industry here in the UK (and in the US and Canada). And we can challenge the industry from within as well as from without. And for teachers like me, for whom I can

First up, if you’re going to teach abroad, read Black in Asia’s 10+ Recommendations for Westerners abroad to (try and) not be completely awful. The next step, no matter where you’re teaching, is to view teaching as a learning experience – think critically about what you’re teaching, and how. Textbook doesn’t include step-parents and LGBTQ relationships? Put them in there. Make the half-sister you’ve put in that family tree a lesbian, give the uncle a husband and two kids. You could have a class full of straight people. Some of them might not be out. Present the words as part of the vocabulary – as something they may find useful.

Make your classroom a safe space. Challenge hurtful language from your students (I find this difficult, I’ll admit, especially at lower levels and with teenage learners). Encourage discussion of why that language is not ok, and encourage your students to ask questions. I had a student, a young man from South Korea, ask me (out of the blue) what the difference was between transgender and transvestite. Some of the other students laughed. I explained it, and he stood and nodded, and made notes, and one of the other students asked “what’s a drag queen?”. We had a good discussion – mostly about language, a little bit about gender and rights, and a bit about respect. Then the lesson carried on.

Use supplementary material, critically. Breaking News English has some pieces that can promote critical discussion, Film English is an excellent resource as well. I love a book called Taboos and Issues (a “mature” version of Instant Discussions), and while it needs updating, it is pretty much the only book that presents issues like racism, homophobia, and other demanding topics in a format that fits into a classroom and encourages discussion. The Headway Academic series present topics such as globalisation and environmental destruction in ways that can lead to discussion. Subversive 52 looks fantastic, and the blog is great. These are just starters – critical pedagogy isn’t a new idea, even in EAL, and there are plenty of things to read around the Dogme approach, even if there aren’t a lot of free lesson plans.

Listen to your students. Respect their opinions (even when they don’t respect yours), give them room to think. You’re not going to produce classes of critical thinkers and social justice campaigners; that’s just another form of cultural imperialism when we expect social justice to be the same in every place, and move at the same speed. Instead, you want a class who are willing and able to discuss issues, respect others, and are learning to think critically about values and ideas in English culture as well as their own. Hopefully, they might even feel confident expressing those views in English.

 

 

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