Friday, March 11, 2016

Women In TESOL: Introductory Remarks

Stephen Krashen
Presented at Women in TESOL Conference. March 11, 2016,  Clark, Philippines

I am deeply honored to be among the few males present at the "Women in TESOL conference," and also invited to give these opening remarks. But I am also uniquely qualified: You may not know this about me, but half of my ancestors were women.
In addition, some of these ancestors played a very powerful role in my upbringing.  I am, without question, my mother's son as well as my aunt's nephew (Mom and Aunt Sadie were best friends as well as sisters).
Table one shows how mom and I are similar in several important ways.
Table 1: Dad, Mom, and me

circadian rhythm
morning person
yè māo zi
yè māo zi
loved it
hated it
hate it

Before discussing table one I must, of course, say that my dad was wonderful. Our differences are not value judgements.
Dad was a classic morning person, with all the beliefs that go with it.  He never said this, but I think he thought that sleeping after 7 am was just not right. But he brought Mom coffee in bed every morning, and let me sleep late whenever I could.  Mom was a night owl ("Yè māo zi" in Mandarin) and I am too: I generally don't wake up until the sun goes down, no matter how much sleep I had the night before. Sleep only seems to help me when it is during the day. Mom never got enough sleep because she felt that it was moral to get up on time; as a result she spent her days trying to stay awake, and her nights trying to fall asleep.
Dad had no addictions. As a night person, Mom was seriously addicted to coffee. I resisted this – in those days we thought coffee was bad for you -  but I gave in when I was 25 years old and teaching in Ethiopia.  My life changed completely, for the better: "So this is how everybody else feels?"  And mom and I had many happy hours drinking the drink made from the magic beans.
Dad loved the great outdoors: Mom and I never saw the point of pretending it is the year 1291, without modern facilitities.
Some case histories from another field
Now that I have established my credentials, let's talk about women.  It might give us more perspective if we look at cases not from education but from another field: mathematics. I will describe the careers and obstacles experienced by two female mathematicians and then discuss education in modern times very briefly, and draw some conclusions. Both achieved great success in their work, both were able to pursue their interests, but both had help, and neither overcame all barriers to woemn present in their times.
Mary Somerville was born in the late 1700's in Scotland, a time when girls were not usually schooled. Her mother taught her basic reading so she could read the bible, but at age 10 Sommerville "could scarcely read" (Osen, 1974). At this time, her father decided to end her life of indolence and sent her to a "fashionable" and very strict girls' boarding school.  She lasted only one year. On returning home, she started reading light fiction for pleasure, dispite family disapproval.

When she was 14 years old, Somerville overheard some math lessons given to her brother, and developed an interest in algebra and geometry.  She managed to get a copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry and studied it every night: "Her mother was appalled and shamed by such aberrant behavior, and the servants were instructed to confiscate Mary's supply of candles so that she could not study at night. However, by this time Mary had gone through the first six books of Euclid …" (Osen, 1974, p. 56).  This was followed by years of independent study, until, when she was 27, she entered a mathematics contest held by a mathematics journal, and submitted the winning solution to a problem posted in the journal. The editor of the journal became her mentor, and guided her stunning career and math and science. An inheritance from her first husband who passed away at a young age allowed her to pursue her interests in science and mathematics.
Mary Somerville became one of the best-known scientists and mathematicians in England. Her work led to the eventual discovery of the planet Neptune, and she published texts in mathematics, as well as Physical Geography and  Molecular Science. She continued to work until she was 89 years old.
Amalie Noether (pronounced NER-ter) lived from1882-to 1934.  There is no question that she was one of the great mathematicians of all time. She worked in abstract algebra and ring theory, and her contributions, according to Harvard physicit Lisa Randall, are "critical" to modern physics, some saying they were as important as relativity.  Another physicist, Ransom Stephens, has said that "You can make a strong case that her theorem ("Noether's theorem") is the backbone on which all of modern physics is built”  (both citations from Ander, 2012).
Her work, however, is not well-known. Ander (2012) quotes David Goldberg, who conducuted a  "Noether poll" of physicists:  “Surprisingly few could say exactly who she was or why she was important. A few others knew her name but couldn’t recall what she’d done, and the majority had never heard of her.”
Noether was born in Germany and was part of a "mathematical family": Her father and brother were mathematicians. At this time, German universities did not allow women students, and she could only audit university courses. But she was able to take the examinations, and eventually earned a Ph.D. summa cum laude.
She met prominent mathematicians, such as David Hilbert, who argued in favor of her being appointed a professor at the University of Göttingen, despite opposition because of her gender: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her.  After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse” (from Anders, 2012).   Hilbert failed to make his case, so instead hired her himself as a "guest lecturer."
Noether, who was Jewish,  had to leave Germany in 1933 because of Hitler's rise to power.  Albert Einstein helped her get a job at Bryn Mawr College.  She died in 1934 after surgery, at age 53.
Despite the obstacles they faced, both Somerville and Noehter were able to follow their interests, their passion for math and science.  Somerville found a mentor, the journal editor who helped her, and had financial resources, and Noether had the advantage of being part of a family of mathematicians, and had influential friends.
Somerville's case also adds to the considerable evidence showing that an "early start" in school is not essential (Krashen, 2014),  and that "light reading" provides a helpful preparation for "heavier reading" (Krashen, 2012).
Anders, N. 2012. The mighty mathematician you've never heard of. New York Times,
Krashen, S. 2014. Literacy education: Need we start early?  Language and Language Teaching (Azim Premji University and the Vidya Bhawan Society), 3(2)(9): 1-7. (available at
Krashen, S. 2012. Developing academic proficiency: Some hypotheses. International Journal of Foreign Langauge Teaching, (2): 8-15. (available at
Osen, M. (1974). Women in mathematics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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