What’s love got to do with it?

Not long ago, I wrote a post in which I defined applied linguistics, and pointed out that “as a branch of linguistics, applied linguistics retains a primary focus on language”. At the time, I thought I was being pedantic and tautological, and that this much would be self-evident. Recent reading has made me wonder if I should have made the point more forcefully.

At about the same time as I wrote that post, I was asked to review an article for a special issue of the Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics. The article focused on the experiences of an English language and a mathematics teacher, who talked about their love of teaching and students. The psychology of language learning is a topic where interest is growing, and I felt that the article did have some potential, so I encouraged the authors to make corrections, but my main reservation was: where is the linguistics in this submission to an applied linguistics journal?

The article was recently published, taking into account a small number of my suggestions, but as this central question remains unanswered, I now feel compelled to revisit the paper with a critical eye.

If your academic institution subscribes to the Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, you can access the article by clicking on this link. You may want to take a look before reading on. Or you might decide that life is too short to read bad research, and trust that the summary I provide in the following paragraphs is accurate. Your call.

Scrabble tiles forming the word love
How useful is the construct of ‘love’ in Applied Linguistics? (Photo by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

Defining ‘love’ in language teaching and learning

In the article, the authors suggest that language education needs a definition of love that “entails responsibility, care, ethics, freedom and dialogue” (p. 554). They go on to define love as consisting of two facets, “love as passion” and “love as positivity resonance” (p. 555).

Love as passion

With regard to the first of these facets, they explain “that passion is also instantiated in teachers’ relationship with the students” and that “teachers who care about their students are better able to see students on their own terms, listen to their stories, and strive to realize their full potential” (p. 555). This is an important point, to which I will return, but for the time being I will just invite you, as readers, to reflect on whether this is a psychological or a linguistics observation.

Love as positivity resonance

‘Love 2.0’ by Barbara Fredrickson, with the author’s name prominently featured on the cover page

The second of these facets, love as positivity resonance, is derived from a popular psychology book by Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0. Some readers may know Fredrickson as the author of the infamous, thoroughly debunked ‘positivity ratio’ paper, where she claimed that people flourish if they receive 2.9013 times (!) more positive reinforcement than negative feedback [1]. I don’t know if ‘positivity resonance’ is as pseudoscientific as the ‘positivity ratio’, because I haven’t read Love 2.0. But, it would seem, neither have the authors, who write that their definition “is aligned with what Fredrickson proposed in his [sic] broaden-and-built [sic] framework”.

The idea, if I understand it correctly, is that people build love through small acts of affection. A teacher smiles, the students smile back, and love is built in this way, micro-moment by micro-moment. Of course, I am just an applied linguist, and Fredrickson, though discredited, is still a psychologist, so I would be wise to defer to her view, except I am not sure how her model deals with things like unrequited love and messy divorces.

What I can say, however, and I say this from a position of epistemic authority, is that even if love is built in such a simplistic linear way in a language classroom, it is a bold step to connect this process to language learning outcomes: You can love students all you want, but that won’t make them learn a language – in fact, if love involves accepting the Other (which I think it does), then a test of true love must be whether you can still love your students despite their failure to achieve whatever learning outcomes you have in mind (or the school system expects). And what this means is that love for students, whether waxing or waning, is really not terribly relevant to language learning.

Maybe there’s more than two aspects after all?

Having argued that love in the language classroom consists of two facets, the authors then inexplicably change their line of argument and put forward a new definition with four components (p. 556):

  1. Passion toward the teaching profession…
  2. The ability to see the students in their full potential and the desire to help them…
  3. Mutual understanding, support and care constructed through … positivity resonance
  4. A socio-politically and historically mediated dimension.

This might have been a good point to introduce language in this discussion that purports to be applied linguistics: perhaps the definition could include some kind of love towards the target language; or maybe the ‘socio-politically and historically mediated dimension’ could provide an opportunity to relate this construct with the way sociopolitical structures are shaped by language. The authors, however, had another plan in mind…

Adding Positive Psychology to the mix

Instead of connecting the confused definition of love with linguistics, the authors now embark on a survey of positive psychology in language education. This is another serious red flag, since the cult-like nature of positive pychology has:

marked the beginning of a breakdown of critical thinking, which has adversely affected the peer review process ever since, resulting in many PP [Positive Psychology] publications with serious deficiencies that should have been caught during the peer review process.

Wong, 2017. Critique of Positive Psychology and Positive Interventions.

The discussion follows a familiar trope: teachers are overworked, stressed, and at risk of burnout. Psychology has tended to focus on the negative emotions of teaching, but positive psychology, which emphasises strengths, is a much better way forward. In my review, I pointed out that this narrative suggests citation amnesia, or unfamiliarity with already published knowledge. I wrote:

The claim that “most studies of teacher emotions have underscored the negative emotions…” is contentious, and suggestive [of] uncritical alignment with the messianic narrative with which positive psychology researchers at times invest their work. What about papers like Elbaz (1992), to name the first one that come to mind? What about discussions of love in the teaching profession by, e.g., Godar (1990), or even Jackson (1968)? Lotrie talked about the joy of teaching in 1975! And what about the entire corpus of work that is informed by humanistic psychology? All of this work predates the neoliberal turn at the end of the last century, and – pace the likes of Seligman – it also predates positive psychology. Much of this work could, and should be cited in the literature review.

I admit that the narrative that discredits all the work done before the advent of positive psychology annoys me, and my comments reflect this sentiment. That said, I do think that I was being constructive, both in pointing out the breadth of existing literature, and in suggesting key works.

The authors’ response was disappointing: they added a sentence to their article claiming that “love has been documented in much of the positive psychology literature on teachers (e.g., Elbaz, 1992; Godar, 1990; Hargreaves, 1998)“. In doing so, they inaccurately describe lots of publications as psychology, when they were not; they anachronistically categorise this work as positive psychology, several years before Martin Seligman launched the movement in 1999; and they commit a serious scholarly faux pas by gratuitously referencing work that they do not appear to have consulted.

Stalk of wooden blocks, spelling love
Depending on which section of the paper you read, the definition of love contains either two or four components.

Investigating love in the language classroom

After a confusing theoretical overview, the start of the empirical section of the paper offers an opportunity for hope. Such hope is short-lived.

The study

Half-way through the paper we are informed that the study aimed to find out how love is “manifested and co-constructed in two teachers’ teaching practices and their relationship with students, institutions and broader social contexts“. It is not entirely clear why this question worth answering: It does not seem to be an attempt to either refine or validate the theoretical model put forward, as the authors seem fairly happy with their conceptualisation. This could prompt some discussion about the hypothesis-challenging purpose of empirical work, but maybe this is not the place for such comments [2]. The other thing that is still not clear is the question that has been unanswered since the beginning of the paper, and since the submission of the first draft: where is the discussion of language in this submission to an applied linguistics journal?

Where is the discussion of language in this submission to an applied linguistics journal?

The data

To answer this question, the authors elicited data from two teachers: of them one was an English language teacher, and the other one taught mathematics (through English). Specifically, they used semi-structured interviews to get information about “specific teaching instances and teaching contexts”, and they also claim to have used “teaching materials”, “teaching slides” and “syllabi” (p. 559), all of which would presumably provide insights about love, but none of which appear in the article. Oddly absent, given the relational nature of love and the references to ‘mutual understanding’ in its definition, is any data from students.

Some findings

It is unclear how the data were analysed (such opacity is a common problem in poor qualitative research), but the authors claim that “love emerged as the major motive that guided their [i.e., the teachers’] decision-making: love of their profession, love of teaching, and love of their students” (p. 560).

Love comes in many forms, I imagine, but some of the forms encountered in the data seem to stretch the definition. For instance, in the second of 13 data extracts presented, one of the teachers points out that none of her students is “terrible” (so much for seeing them “on their own terms”). She then goes on to describe her love (?) towards them in the following terms: “As long as they are motivated to learn, I would feel obligated ethically to do what I should do in the classroom” (p. 561). Elsewhere, a teacher describes her love (?) as follows: “I want to listen to students’ stories and help them, but I have no time for that” (p. 563). I have at times been accused of being unable to understand how women think, and maybe that’s why I find it difficult to empathise with manifestations of love that are conditional on good behaviour and the absence of distractions.

Love of teaching is also expressed in somewhat odd ways in the data. One of the teachers informs readers that “The reason that I chose to become a teacher is partly because … being a teacher means that you expect to be respected by students, parents and society. … It also guarantees a relatively good salary and welfare and small risk of getting fired by the school” (pp. 566-567). If ‘passion for the profession’ is one of the aspects of love in the authors’ definition, love is hard to discern here. A better example of passion is provided in p. 560:

My passion in teaching comes from my students’ success. … I am a good teacher in their eyes. If I think students could learn from my teaching and make progress, I would feel I am doing something meaningful. Or in other cases, some of my students used to loath mathematics, and because of my patience and encouragement, they picked it up and grew to love mathematics.

Extract 1; mathematics teacher; emphasis mine

It is an odd form of love, that seeks to take credit for the achievements of the individuals on the receiving end, and it’s certaitly not the kind of love that involves “listening to their stories“. And it’s an odd form of data analysis to ignore what seems as an indication of narcissism in the data, because it doesn’t fit the construct studied (Are narcissists capable of loving or “seeing students on their own terms”?). But most of all, it is a very odd form of linguistics, that looks into the effects of mathematics achievement on a teacher’s psychology in order to make a claim about language education.

Two serious problems in publishing language education research

I suppose it is easy to dismiss this particular study as an example of bad scholarship that is often carried out, with more enthusiasm than competence, under the banner of the psychology of language teaching and learning movement. But I think that this particular paper offers an opportunity to look into two more serious and disturbing trends in language education research.

Interdisciplinarity as a pretext

A very disconcerting trend that this paper reflects is the readiness of many researchers in language education to cross disciplinary and competence boundaries, in the interest of originality, before they are prepared to go anywhere near them. [3] The problem with this particular paper is not just that it claims to be applied linguistics, when in fact it tries to answer psychological questions. It is that the authors have tried to answer psychological questions without having the requisite knowledge and expertise. Claiming ‘interdisciplinarity’ as a pretext for dispensing with the competence requirements of both linguistics and psychology is an act of intellectual disingenuousness.

A discussion of love, in language education and elsewhere, requires taking into account theoretical perspectives from humanistic psychology, existential psychology and object-relations theory, and it is best conducted in a context where editors, reviewers, authors and readers have sufficient knowledge to appraise this discussion, its potential and its limitations. By submitting psychological work to a journal of applied linguistics, rather than a psychological journal, the authors deprived themselves of the opportunity to get the best possible feedback – and to me this suggests that their goal cannot have been a bona fide attempt to understand love or language education.

Circumventing the peer-review process

Given the grave conceptual and empirical flaws of this paper, it may come as a surprise that it got published. But I am afraid that its publication was not a mere accident – it looks like a systemic problem in academic publishing that was at work. Typically, before an article is published in an academic journal, it needs to be approved by the editor and two or more reviewers. Peer review, as this process is called, can be a quite brutal process, and it results in most articles being rejected, at least in the better journals. So what went wrong this time?

It is a lesser-known fact that sometimes ‘special issues’, such as the one in which this article appeared, cut corners in peer-reviewing rigour. Special issues are outsourced to ‘guest editors’, who typically commission articles after reading a short preliminary abstract. Once an article has been commissioned, it’s relatively hard to reject, both because of the embarrassment that this would entail, and also because the production deadline is pressing. Sometimes, the best one can hope for is that the authors will use any feedback they get to improve the article as much as possible before they run out of time. What this paper demonstrates is what happens when the authors (who were also the guest-editors of this special issue) decide that they can’t be bothered.

Scrabble letters forming the word love
Doing research about love in language teaching requires competence in psychology that goes beyond the literature found at airport bookshops.

Why does any of this matter?

If this was just a matter of two authors wasting their resources and the readers’ time to publish bad research, maybe this wouldn’t be such a large problem. However, allowing such bad research to go unchallenged entails three major risks: Firstly, it rewards mediocrity over good research, by making academic progression easier to those who invest less effort. Secondly, if an academic journal accumulates a critical mass of bad papers, it risks becoming de-indexed from the databases that list credible academic publications: this means that all the work published in this journal, including valuable contributions suddenly become worthless. And finally, publishing bad research at a time when anti-intellectualism is on the rise contributes to destroying the credibility of all intellectual authority, and is nothing less than a threat to democracy.

Notes

  1. The ‘positivity ratio’ was derived from a series of complicated equations taken from publications in fluid dynamics. Unfortunately, neither Fredrickson nor her co-author, Marcial Losada, understood that these equations would always produce the same result (2.9013), and that the number was being used in the original publications as an example that produced aesthetically pleasing graphs. The claim was “formally withdrawn as invalid” after maths-literate readers from outside the positive psychology ecosystem pointed out the mistake. Losada has never been heard from since, but Fredrickson still maintains that there must be some positivity ratio, possibly around 3:1 – a claim that, taken at face value, must mean that if on the day my dog dies, three positive things happen (e.g., I find a 5 Euro note in my laundry, there is no traffic on my commute, there’s no queue in the coffeehouse), then I will flourish, mathematically speaking. [back]
  2. The scientific method generally requires that after we have formulated a tentative theory or hypothesis, we then do our best to refine or disprove it. If it still holds, despite all our best efforts, then we can have some confidence that it’s valid. In qualitative research, it’s unusual for empirical data to fit the model exactly, as seems to the the case in this study. [back]
  3. As the editor of a book entitled Challenging Boundaries in Language Education, I am acutely aware of the irony of making this comment. [back]

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