Flip Flop


Feeling a bit confused? It’s behind you, just out of view like a bee behind your neck. It’s intellectual curiosity and it’s buzzing in your ear. Wherever you go, you’re thinking about unusual stuff. You no longer walk along minding your own business; you’re being subtly followed and nagged at. Your thoughts are no longer your own, they belong to that which stalks you: the MA you embarked on and now wish you never had. You’re thinking too much and to little purpose. You’re altered; messed up, all at sea. Say goodbye to peace of mind; say hello to worry, bother, doubt. There you were, doing OK, and now, suddenly, here you are drenched in doubt, saturated by unread texts, drowning in references. What happened to that quiet life, that well-trod path you ambled along? Why are you now messing with all this doubtful, difficult stuff?


Is there anything more intellectually satisfying than reading a text which illuminates your thinking? When you first heard Krashen’s theory, mangled through the Chinese whispers as it might have been, didn’t you think “Yes, that’s right!”? When you first read Vygotsky, didn’t you think he was saying something very important? When you first read Quirk nail the uses of the present perfect didn’t you clap your hands? When you first read whoever it was articulate what you long since thought, didn’t you feel enormous satisfaction? Those of us who enjoy intellectual activity take on successive challenges and we do it because we like thinking. We like reading stuff critically. We’re not particularly interested in Trivial Pursuits, not interested in capital cities or the dates of battles or the number of bones in the foot. We’re interested in the dance of ideas. We see the MA not as gathering facts but exploring ideas.


Doing an MA in Applied Linguistics is nothing more than a frustrating, worrying chore. It hurts the brain for no good purpose. You do it because you can’t get a job without it, and you think you’ll just plod through it till they give you the certificate. There is very little wisdom to be got and it doesn’t match the effort. Nobody knows how people learn a second language, and nobody knows the best way to teach it. The rules of grammar are easily assimilated; pronunciation is largely irrelevant; discourse analysis is academic wankery; testing is a matter of statistics; ESP is gilding the lilly. All you get from doing this MA is a pain which is difficult to describe. The pain comes from trying to guess what’s demanded of you; from jumping through hoops; from reading huge amounts of texts of dubious worth; from three or more years of sacrifice; from the constant pressure of keeping up to date; and from having the damn thing as a constant backdrop to one’s life.


Those of us who enjoy academic work like confronting an intellectual challenge: we find it stimulating, challenging, and, at times very rewarding. We recognise that an MA is in many ways the most demanding, least rewarding course of them all, because it’s too extensive and too shallow. But we like it anyway, because it makes us think. We like the challenge of reading what seems like an impossible load of texts and we like making sense of it all. We like being critical: finding the weaknesses and strengths of the views expounded and coming to our conclusions. We like getting better; we like feeling that we know more than we previously did and that we have a better understanding of the issues involved.

In short, we like reading academic texts, thinking about them, and writing well-composed papers. We try to think rationally about well-defined issues and we don’t mind that we don’t know the answers to our questions. We like the dance of ideas.


If you’re doing an MA, enjoy the buzz. An MA in applied linguistics is a brief tour of as yet very poorly-defined territory. Don’t feel overwhelmed: focus. Don’t feel oppressed, feel stimulated. Don’t set sail on a huge ocean, paddle in a pond of your own well-defined choosing. Don’t try to gather information, flex your intellectual muscles. Don’t read for the sake of it, read for a purpose. Don’t try to demonstrate knowledge

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