The Slippery Slope of Captive Audiences

Recently I took up a part-time job on top of my PhD work, where I am employed by an agency to teach Business English to various groups of corporate clients several times a week. While there is a specified curriculum and textbook that I have to get through over the duration of a course (20 weeks), the lesson planning is open, and can easily be changed on the whim of the teacher (me). The level of English as a second language is very high in Austria, and given the corporate nature of the surroundings, I am usually loathe to resort to the very simple textbooks, which were written at the turn of the millennium and contain articles about the rise of Napster and possible solutions to overcoming Y2K. Added to this are a few pages in every chapter dedicated to preaching basic grammar. Frankly, it’s embarrassing going into the regional headquarters of one of the world’s largest companies and writing on a whiteboard about gerunds and infinitives (the rules of which, I know nothing). In addition to this, these people work hard in their jobs and deserve some effort put into their completely voluntary extracurricular education.

I therefore rarely use the textbooks; instead I look over a chapter the day before and find a news article online about the general topic in the chapter, or a topic related to their specific operational department. In a 90 minute lesson, we would then all read this article together, with me explaining any difficult words or expressions (at regular times throughout the course I would then use some of these terms and ask for explanations). With each paragraph, we would discuss the content, if everyone agrees with it, and whether the general meaning is understood. During this discussion, I would lead, and ask questions in an attempt to get the students to use the target language for the chapter in the textbook. For example, if the chapter was about reinforcing “conditionals”, I would print an article about online piracy and then ask a lot of questions about ‘what would you do to curb this piracy?’. In this way, the classes resemble an open discussion, and the students hopefully gain practice speaking and arguing confidently, while also maybe reinforcing some basic grammar. It’s a lot of fun, actually, and once a discussion really gets going and I have checked the target language boxes, I join in and argue with the group and try and express my view on the topic. I often get really into it, and argue at length with people about alternate views on the issue in question. However, after I see that I have been talking for a while, and that everyone in the room is listening attentively to me, it feels very good, until eventually I check myself and remember something important. They are not listening attentively to me because I am an interesting, intelligent person with well-informed views on various topics. They are listening attentively to me because they pay me to provide a service to them, and I am in charge of the entire room.

It really was a shock to me the first time this happened, as I realised I had let my ego get the better of me and that I could so quickly forget that I had a position of power within the group. When my group wants my opinion on something, they want it because I have an innate linguistic advantage over them in being a native English speaker, and not because they value my input or respect my opinion. It instantly made me stop and re-evaluate my views on the academic community for one thing. One big problem I have had with academia is that at the top of university departments and institutes are older professors who think they know everything about everything. Often I have to meet with such professors, and these meetings are usually long monologues about the state of their particular discipline and the extent of their publishing history. This would last up to a half an hour, and then I would present a form that I need them to sign in order to allow me to get money for a conference, or to use that institutes private library. This signature would be the sole reason I went to the meeting in the first place, and solely because that professor was the head of the institute and this position was alone in the world in being able to grant me what I wanted. Similarly, another professor in my university holds a weekly compulsory seminar, which everyone in the institute must attend. The seminar consists of masters students presenting their work, and this professor extolling the breadth of his academic acumen (which ended in the 1980s) towards the improvement of the research. In his mind, these students come to him as if he is a guru on the top of a mountain, seeking guidance from the sum of his ethereal knowledge. To everyone else in the room, the seminar is simply a box to be checked in order to continue with their study program. It would never occur to this man that the seminar is full only because it is mandatory.

I believe any position of power is susceptible to this kind of egotistical fallacy. In Ireland, anyone who wishes to get married must first get the express permission of the priest who will be performing the ceremony. Two years ago my sister was getting married, and my (now) brother-in-law was forced to endure an audience with our local priest in order to obtain the signatures the couple needed. The priest invited him to his house, and kept him there for two hours ranting and raving about the proper Catholic version of marriage, and how to live a decent life. My brother-in-law needed the signature, so he just had to sit there and take it, there was no choice involved. In a similar way, I believe also that many parents get into this mode when raising their children. Children don’t have a choice but to listen and approve of the ramblings of their parents, and after years of this, the parents might gain confidence in their ideas because they are constantly reinforced by those they have raised. Of course, children grow up into teenagers, who disagree wholeheartedly with everything the parents say, so therefore puberty can be quite distressing for parents as well as children.

I could take this up a level, and start applying all this to powerful dictators surrounded by cronies with no choice but to listen and obey. Yet I would prefer to go the opposite direction and take it down a few levels, and compare it more to the crazy person on the bus who sits beside you and won’t stop trying to talk to you. It’s about having a captive audience, and simply forgetting about it and continuing as if everything was normal. The crazy person on the bus knows he has you for a certain amount of time, begins speaking, and then forgets all about the idea that you are forced to listen to him. As I discussed in the opening paragraphs, it is surprisingly easy to forget the existence of hierarchy when you yourself are at the top of this hierarchy. Everyone likes being listened to and having their opinions heard: be it a priest, a professor or an English teacher. An important caveat in this is that if you are speaking and being listened to in front of a group of people, it is always advisable to ask yourself why they are listening to you at all.

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