Thursday, November 18, 2004

Mating season

It's the textbook ordering season, and the textbook publishers have come out of hibernation and are performing their mating dances. I don't know what's up with them this year. Perhaps there's some sort of Viagra for textbook publishers. Everywhere we go, there they are, trying to push their latest book on us and telling us how wonderful it is. It's starting to feel like we're being stalked. I've even been visited by the same guy twice. He was at one university lurking in the teachers' room after work, waiting to pounce, and then turned up a week later at a different university to disturb our lunch break. (To be fair, it's kind of hard to get hold of us at any other time.) This turned out to be a good thing, I thought, since instead of sending me the text I'd asked for, for inspection, he'd sent the sample CD that comes with the book, which wasn't much use to me. After complaining about this, and while I had him on the spot, I asked for one other text as well. If he didn't want to send it out, I told him, could he at least send an inspection copy to the school? I will not use a book I haven't checked out first.

A couple of days ago the first book I'd asked for finally arrived, but then instead of sending me the other one I wanted he sent me a different one, which his company had already sent me a copy of with their catalogue. My colleague, who had asked for two other books, got the same one. I guess that's their latest and greatest, and they're trying to get us to order it. Considering that he'd also left an inspection copy at the school and we'd already told him it was unsuitable we weren't very impressed.

The same company, yesterday, apparently organised a lunchtime meeting at the place I was at today. I'm glad I wasn't there, but from what I'm told it did have some entertaining moments. They brought along the writer of the book they're pushing (yes, the same one I have two copies of, which I know I won't be using), and also a 'very experienced teacher' to give us some hints about how to use the book.

The writer started off badly. She told the assembled teachers (who had been bribed with pizza) that she knew the problems we had with motivating students, and how important it was to 'engage their interest' and 'get them involved in their own learning.' For this reason, she said, she had researched the target audience and included only topics they were interested in. This made this book unique, she said, and particularly suited for the Japanese university student.

My colleague told me he was intrigued by the idea of a 'unique' textbook 'particularly suited for the Japanese university student,' and picked up the sample copy and leafed through it. He frowned, puzzled, and picked up the book he's been using this year. Sure enough, it had exactly the same topics as the new book. And exactly the same topics as every other textbook for English learning that has been published in Japan in the last twenty years or so.

Being a kind person, he didn't point this out. He chewed on his pizza and listened thoughtfully.

Our boss, however, wasn't quite so restrained. When the writer introduced her special guest, the man with extensive English teaching experience in Japan, who had "been teaching here for years and has a lot to offer," the boss interrupted.

"We have a lot of experience right here in this room," he said. "How long have you been teaching in Japan?"

"Four years," the guy replied proudly.

"Four years, eh?" said the boss, and no doubt got that horrible little smirk he gets when he's about to be heavily sarcastic. (I wish he wouldn't do that. It spoils the effect.) Then he went around all the teachers in the room - about twenty of them - asking how long they'd been teaching in Japan.

The shortest period he got in response to this question was from my colleague, who has been teaching here for nine years.

The same company is offering free drinks to any teacher who wants to go to a particular bar in Osaka tonight, where they'll be buying rounds and telling their captive audience all about their latest and greatest offerings. I am not there, obviously. I'm here. Even if it wasn't on a weeknight when I have to be up at 5.30 am, even the free drinks don't predispose me to being patronised by people who haven't researched their audience properly. The same writer and 'experienced teacher' will be there.

I didn't get my usual let-off-steam-dinner-with-the-guys tonight, either. I turned up at the Indian restaurant, as usual, and discovered that along with four other teachers, there were three strangers; a short dark intense-looking bloke with glasses and two younger women who looked a bit more relaxed. As I removed my raincoat, one of them pulled out a seat for me. I was a bit surprised, but assumed that they were friends of one of the other guys. However, once I was seated, the little short bloke with glasses leaned forward earnestly and said,

"First of all, I'd like to thank you all for coming to this meeting."

A quick look round at the guys' faces showed me I wasn't the only one who didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

"What meeting?" I asked.

"I haven't heard about any meeting," said one of the other guys.

"And, er... who are you?" asked another. "I mean, I don't want to be rude, but, er, perhaps you were expecting someone else...?"

No. They were expecting us. It turned out they were from another textbook publishing company. This lot were really serious. They had come from New York (the women, who were British) and London (the guy, who was American) to research the textbook market in Japan, and were visiting various schools and universities and setting up meetings with teachers.

I still don't know who set up this particular meeting, but we hadn't been informed. If it was the boss, who knows we go to the curry shop after work, I will have his guts for garters tomorrow.

I did, however, perform a service for teachers in Japan at this meeting. I told the researchers that we would all appreciate it very much if they would remove, from all their textbooks, that horribly unnatural question that is the bane of English teachers everywhere: "What's your hobby?" This question has enraged me ever since I first encountered it, and most especially since I had a peculiar fan follow me around for a while in the area where I live. He'd pop up in the most unexpected places, and one day when I went in a coffee shop to wait for my washing to dry at the launderette he followed me into the coffee shop. He wanted to talk, and I told him I didn't want to, so he sat at a nearby table, watching me and grinning dementedly while I tried to read my book, and wrote a letter to me, on a paper napkin. When I left he presented the letter to me. It began, "Dear Lady. Where did you invade from? What's your hobby?" stopped making sense for a bit, and ended "God save the Queen!"

I thought the hobby bit spoiled the tone of the letter, but my demented fan (who was wearing a dress that particular day) had obviously learned his lessons well. Every bloody English textbook in Japan includes that question in the first chapter.