Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Metaphors of Bach and Karate

One of the things that I often do as a college teacher is to read and advise on research proposals written by my students. Writing a proposal is not easy for them because the academic discourse is so different from the oral discourse of their daily life. After all, it's not a tea party.

An academic paper must be rigidly structured. Background must lead to Problem Statement properly, which, together with Literature Review, must direct the reader to Research Question. RQ demands a valid Method that must gurantee a certain result, which should be discussed in a more general term and must develop into the answer to RQ in Conclusion.

Yesterday, an undergraduate student of mine came to me with his research proposal. It was written, as should be expected, rather loosely. The purpose of the study appears in one section, and later in another. The section of Method includes one of the possible implications of the expected result, which should be actually examined in the section of Discussion.

It's not that he's a bad student. He just writes as he'd talk about his thesis to his friends in a party. (Indeed, he'd sound very odd if he talked in a party in the style of an academic paper). He just hasn't learned to write academically.

As I knew he was a good player in the University Wind Ensemble, I decided to use a musical metaphor to explain what he has to learn. I said something like this:

Please don't try to write like Mozart. Good music doesn't flow out of you unless you're a genius. Rather, write like Bach in counterpoint. Write not what you want to write, but what you must. What produces a good work is not your current talent but the great rule of music. You may have to revise and revise like Beethoven or Bruckner, but you first have to teach yourself to be true to the logic of music.

A change in the look on his face told me that the metaphor worked. It is really good to share a common interest.

Another student of mine came to me today with his research proposal. He said he'd like to find a better method to teach paragraph writing in English as a foreign language. However, I found his focus shifted from one aspect of paragraph writing to another without realizing it himself. It was apparent that his idea of paragraph writing was vague. His research proposal was not a model of paragraph writing, either. He was not experienced in academic discourse.

I said he should think about "what to teach" before "how to teach." One of the preoccupations that students in Faculty of Education have is that all they have to learn is "how to teach." They rarely know that they first have to learn the content of teaching before the method of teaching (Having graduated from a high school doesn't mean that you know enough to be a high school teacher). As one of such students, he was not really convinced of what I was trying to say.

Then, because our common interest was Karate, I chose to use a Karate metaphor:

Imagine a novice coming to a Karate Master. The novice says he's interested in how he can teach Karate to others. The Master reminds him that he's only learned Karate for a week and that he still doesn't know what Karate is. The novice says he already knows, but the Master says that the novice doesn't even know that he doesn't know Karate. "Your expression of 'How to teach Karate' is too vague," said the Master. "If you are to teach, you need to focus on a specific aspect of Karate first, like how to stand, or rather how to use your inner muscles when you stand, or even which inner muscle you should use in one way and which other inner muscle in another way when you stand. You don't know specific aspects of Karate yet. You just can't teach 'Karate' before you know and embody them yourself."

As he's been practicing Karate for many years, this metaphor hit him hard. "Now I know what you mean," said the student. "My 'paragraph writing' is like 'Karate' of the novice. I first have to have an analytical understanding of paragraph writing; but more importantly, I first have to learn to write in paragraphs in English for myself. Trying to teach something to students, or rather, trying to teach teachers how to teach something to students before I learn to do that myself is silly as the wish of the novice in the Karate dojo is."

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that I'm really good at paragraph writing in English myself. I have to learn to write well in English as well. In fact, that is part of the motivation of writing on this blog in English. No genius like Mozart, I have to be aware of what I have to do like Bach and make many failures and revise them like Beethoven or Bruckner. No, I shouldn't compare myself to Bach, Beethoven or Bruckner! I have to learn like a humble student in a music academy, with books in his bag, spending many hours a day playing his instrument.

Anyway, what I learned from these two episodes was that metaphors work when they're proerly used and that they sometimes produce a greater effect in a listener than a speaker expects.

Or maybe that Bach and Karate are just great.

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