Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Fear no more the heat o' the sun.




It's been hot and damnably muggy this last couple of days and we were sent guidelines, set down by some kindly soul in Human Resources, for surviving such hellish conditions. We are in the West Midlands of England, not the Taklamakan Desert, but you can't be too careful.
   

TO ALL STAFF: GUIDELINES FOR SURVIVING THE TWO DAYS EVERY OTHER YEAR WHEN THE TEMPERATURE RISES TO TEN DEGREES BELOW WHAT MOST CHINESE AND ARABIC SPEAKING STUDENTS EXPERIENCE FOR THE WHOLE SUMMER.

1) Keep windows and doors open to encourage air flow. Amazing! We’d all been near to fainting in the heat and you know, opening the window really helped!

2) Use fans or mobile air conditioning units if possible. OK, install air con and we will. (Then you’ll need to issue further detailed guidelines on how to activate it without risk of electrocution or mental breakdown from trying to decipher the instructions.)

3) Where you have blinds keep them closed to keep excessive light/heat out. So THAT’S what they’re for!

4) Avoid extreme physical exertion. I took an executive decision and skipped the Pyongyang Happy Comrades Collective Aerobic Tai-Chi warm up yesterday. Students came in, sat down and the lesson proceeded normally. Hope that's OK. Bit of a glitch today though - see 6) below.


5) Take regular breaks from the work/the area you are located in. How?

6) Wear light, loose-fitting cotton clothes. The student who died this morning was found to have been wearing a parka and thermal drawers under his T-shirt and shorts, and I didn’t notice. Mea culpa. It won’t happen again.

7) Drink plenty of cold fluids, and avoid alcohol (???), caffeine (???) and hot drinks. Fuck off.

8) Eat cold foods, particularly salads and fruit with a high water content. Haven’t seen anyone piling their plates with bangers, spuds and gravy today – and it’s all because you care, H.R.



9) Turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment (including computers, printers, scanners, photocopiers etc.) – they generate heat. So they do, so they do – you really know your stuff, don’t you?

Someone is paid to churn out this patronising bilge. It is probably the work of the same person who composed the note on the lift doors asking us to cede our places to the infirm, the elderly, the unfit and other such Untermenschen that we might otherwise contemptuously kick aside. The note adds reassuringly: 'Nearby stairs provide access to upper floors.'



Saturday, 9 July 2016

End of Course 1



Some while ago the international office of the university decreed that The Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) would change its timetable this summer. We always ran three hectic five-week summer courses with a week’s break after each one. These would now be collapsed into twelve unbroken weeks with longer days, they told us. So there.

‘But this is silly,’ we said. ‘The students will be saturated by the end of week two and with no break in sight, demoralised and resentful.’

‘But their parents back in China will be happy that they are paying for twelve weeks’ accommodation instead of seventeen’, they replied. ‘And anyway, we’ve told everybody now so it’s a done deal and there’s nothing you buggers can do about it. It’s us administrators that call the shots in universities, not teachers. Get with the programme.’

‘Well it’s still silly,’ we muttered.

*****

The International Office lot will be feeling vindicated now. as a record number of students from the Middle Kingdom enrolled. The summer will be a bumper one for the good people of the Little Chef. It’s sweaty, muggy and knackering, but pecunia non olet: I'm going to get the living room painted on the proceeds. I’m still not sure this timetable is good for the students, though. We have come to the end of week four and everyone’s as zonked and saturated as we predicted they would be. For my students I feel alternating exasperation and compassion, and unfortunately exasperation is the more frequent emotion.

Last year a student told me ‘in China, teacher is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and student just play with phone.’ This must be why they tend to treat the lesson much as they might a TV in the corner of a bar, to be watched or ignored depending on what competing stimuli might present themselves. They don’t expect to be involved in a scenario, be co-creators of context or contributors to a discussion. They just expect to be bored and to zone out with their smartphones. Boorishly loud yawns often attend your warm-up, and material other groups have taken and run with turns to mud.

They have the attention span of gnats. (This may be to malign gnats: I’m no entomologist.) We have to remind them over and over to put away their phones, unless we have sanctioned their use for research purposes. Every student will have to be reminded several times in each lesson, and frequently tapped on the shoulder so that he realises it’s him we’re addressing. As a last resort, I often snatch the offending instrument from the kid's sticky mitts. If asked to find some information on the internet they will need to be policed to ensure that they don’t research using Chinese sites. Reading Chinese doesn’t help you to improve your English. You’d have thought this was obvious, but apparently…

Instructions have to be checked and double checked. And often checked again.

‘So, what are we going to do? Jerry?’

‘We read.’

‘Yeah, and?’

Silence. I smile encouragingly. I raise an eyebrow. I tell the rosary. I play the Mahler Symphony No. 5 on the CD player. Jerry’s still thinking.

‘I… dough…know.’ Or particularly care, by the look of it.

‘I want to tell them that I don’t enjoy teaching them, and it’s their fucking fault’ a colleague said at the beginning of the week. ‘How can I do that?’ she asked. Well, you can’t. ‘You lot piss me off big time, but I’m fucking stuck with you for the coming eight weeks.’ Not likely to improve matters, really. I should point out that these students are in their early twenties and two thirds of the way through Bachelor’s degrees, in case you’re assuming. not unreasonably. that they are no more than fifteen.

The students had progress tests last week. Most of mine performed brilliantly in the reading, less well in the listening, and their writing consisted mostly of all-purpose IELTS-type phrases stitched together for the occasion: on the one hand swords were double-edged, nevertheless on the other hand coins had two sides, moreover on the other hand there was a downside to everything. (Three hands.) One student ignored the essay title (the quintessentially IELTS-y 'Causes and effects of globalisation'... yawn) and wrote about mobile phones instead. At first I thought 'dumb ass', but now I wonder if it was his protest against the banality of the... No. Reading too much into it.

Of course, the students think it’s us that are peculiar. Why don’t they just rattle on about grammar and let us text our friends in peace? Why are they constantly eliciting our opinions? Why is ‘why’ their favourite word? We spell out our rationale for all this repeatedly, but it makes no difference. My end of course reports, composed yesterday and to be handed out on Monday, contain dire warnings that some of them might not be recommended to do the third year of their BAs with our university unless they participate more in class and stop faffing with those wretched phones. 

Next week the second course of the summer begins. I lose one of my Chinese groups and instead get a new group of graduates with a mix of nationalities. Graduate groups on past summer courses have invariably been a delight to work with and indeed it always has felt like collaboration rather than teaching - or pushing a heavy truck uphill. With my other Chinese group I get a new room, big, airy, modern and custom-built instead of the cramped sweatbox with screeching ambulances tear-arsing past that we have been stuck in for the last four weeks. I’ve been pestering the course director for a better room for ages. (I actually stipulated one with a spa and espresso bar, but small mercies.) So I am feeling a bit more optimistic about the remainder of the summer, especially after the troop-rallying pep talk my Chinese group is going to get on Tuesday morning. I will spell out the rationales for our approach yet again, always with the knowledge they may reject them. Wish us luck.   





Saturday, 25 June 2016

An Inspector Calls

Hell, I’m not used to this. I'm fucking knackered. Most of this year I’ve been a gentleman of leisure, rising when I pleased, going to bed when I pleased, going into work on the odd day, afternoon or evening and just about surviving financially. Then suddenly we received the news that twice the expected number of students had enrolled for the first course of the summer, and since the 13th inst., nobody at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) has had time to take so much as a leisurely shit. Not only is there wall-to-wall teaching, but every four years we subject ourselves to voluntary inspection by the British Council, and the inspectors left on Thursday last after probing into every facet of the Little CHEF’s being, like the drug squad searching for cocaine.

Like everyone else, I had prepared fifteen hours’ worth of detailed lesson plans, as every teacher is observed during an inspection. ‘Are you scared?’ one of the students asked me when I told them an inspector would drop in at some point in the week. I snorted unattractively. I’ve observed literally hundreds of lessons myself and had dozens of people observe me for one reason or another, so I’d be interested to meet the inspector who could faze me. That said, I was glad nobody was observing me between two and three on Wednesday afternoon, when I trotted out some materials I made for the same period last year. My group of 18 Chinese twinks just didn’t get it and sat there for about half an hour in that mental deadlock Chinese kids do so well. You ask a question and they just stare at you. You reformulate the question, and they just stare at you. They don't understand but feel that to convey any sign of incomprehension would cause the teacher to lose face, so they simply try not to convey any emotion at all. You feel as if you are teaching a group photograph. You abandon the task in sheer exasperation and the next thing you do takes off and there's loads of talk and laughter and you wonder if they are the same kids. One colleague told me he felt his observed lesson had been somewhat less successful than one could wish: ‘I might as well have dropped me kex* and shat on the fuckin’ desk.’ He had apparently omitted to make a photocopy of his lesson plan for his own reference and thus been fain to ask the observer to hand back his. This is rather as if an actor playing Macbeth spotted an audience member following the performance with a copy of the Penguin edition of the play and felt it necessary to cadge it off him.

As no Briddish Kyncellor came to my classes on Tuesday or Wednesday, I knew I could expect one on Thursday. Somewhat anticlimactically after I'd spent most of the previous weekend making materials and lesson plans, he sodded off after about ten minutes. This was either because i) he knew a consummate professional when he saw one, or ii) he was pig sick of observing lessons after three days. Anyway, at a focus group for students the inspectors asked what mark out of ten the students would give us for the quality of our teaching. They said 'eleven'. 

In summer, I always hope for groups of graduate students but this year I have two groups of Chinese undergrads. They are lovely kids, (well, early twenties) friendly and funny, but Jesus, I’ll swear their concentration spans get… hang about, I need a refill… shorter every year. I’ve moaned before about their dependence on their smartphones. On Friday, I made everyone switch them off and surrender them to my safe keeping. Twenty of the damn things lay dead in a row on my desk, and I knew a brief moment of triumph. But it was brief. My colleague Sophia informed me today that there is such a thing as FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. This is anxiety caused by the nagging thought that your friends might be having a marvelous time somewhere and you have not been informed, hence the constant need to be checking your e-mails and texts. I don't suffer from this, because I know damn well that other people are almost always doing something more exciting than I am and I'm resigned to the fact. Apparently FOBO, or Fear Of Being Offline is also a thing. When deprived of their phones, my students' FOMO/FOBO seems to cause a complete mental shut down, an inability to be: they just bloody sit there and stare holes in their books. Well, they are going to have to get used to unsmartphoned moments and learn to bloody concentrate. I’m not indulging FOBO (FFS) all summer.

Ree-speck, by the way, to our course leader for his unfailing patience, empathy, courtesy and good humour in the past week, and always. At least in public: he might have a collection of cloth dolls at home that he stabs with pins. In his place I’d probably have punched somebody by now.

*****


*Kex = Lancashire for trousers.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Anybody out there?


Well, I'm still here. Don't know if you are. I haven't said a dickybird since December.

Recently I was down to four hours teaching a week and what I earned in April and May will just about cover the June rent and a few standing orders. CVs sent to other establishments have gone unacknowledged. (Bastards.) If you know anyone who's thinking of going into English Language Teaching, beg them to reconsider. The unpredictability and lack of career structure in ELT were what attracted me back in the eighties and nineties, but now they are a source of persistent anxiety and it's wearing me down. My blood pressure has hit some alarming spikes lately. On the brighter side, blood tests revealed last week that I have the liver and kidneys of a hero, and a mean prostate. The anxiety grinds on, though: all day my stomach feels like a washing machine full of tennis balls.

In the short term, things are looking good. The other week we learned that 141 students from the Middle Kingdom are arriving mid-June, and thus the predicted fifteen hour working week for June - July is whacked up to 25. We have a frantically busy summer ahead of us with a record number of students. Even so, I can't look beyond September. All sorts of possible courses have been suggested but until they are approved and have enough participants to be viable, we know not if dearth or foison follow. This is a pain in the balls.

*****

Periods of anxiety are not uncommon for me and although they usually have a real-world cause, while they last my perception of reality gets rather skewed. At three o'clock last Thursday, when I was gloomily convinced I had wasted everybody's time for four hours, several students came up to me to tell me how useful the day's session had been. It was as if they had shaken me awake. I'd spent something like eight hours preparing four hours' worth of teaching and had no reason to denigrate my efforts, but was doing so anyway. Three years ago, when my mind had soured and curdled, colleagues were complaining (not to me) that I had become distant and uncommunicative, whereas it seemed to me that everybody around me was pestering me to death and I wanted them to leave me the fuck alone. And yesterday a young Saudi lady gave a perfectly acceptable presentation and then had a meltdown in feedback because she was convinced she'd made a complete balls of it. (That isn't quite how she put it, of course.) I spent ten minutes restoring her self-confidence, and told her of my own experience last week of thinking a good day's teaching had been an ignominious flop. She left smiling - I could see her lips through her tear-soaked niqab.

*****

In order to clear such mental smoke, I do two or three fifteen-minute sittings of zazen each day and attended a Buddhist meditation class on Friday evenings until the course ended. Carrying the peace of meditation into the rest of the day is quite a challenge but you feel more positive if you accept it. You need to watch your emotions with a kind of detached interest. 'There's fear / boredom / irritation again', you observe, then you let them pass by like clouds, as they will quickly do so long as you don't spin a narrative around them. The rolling stomach and butterflies in the chest will blow over: they need not become part of a mental scenario in which you are old, poor, cold, infirm and alone, a recurring image which has been freaking me out for the past month.    

In Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence  Shainberg recalls an exchange with Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa:

'So, Roshi, how are you today?'
'Fine! Fine!
I'm not sure why, but his answer annoys me. 'Come on, Roshi, you always say that. Nobody's fine all the time. Don't you ever have bad days?'
'Bad days? Sure! On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine.' 
His answer annoys me too, or rather, frustrates me, because it tightens the double bind that Zen deliberately traps you in: you want to feel that sense of freedom and detachment and the very wanting is what keeps you from it. 'On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine'. If I said 'well, I'll have to think about that,' I know the answer would be 'not thinking, Steven San! Thinking, this why you problem!' Before anyone objects, 'not thinking' in this sense means not succumbing to the kind of mental bad weather created by random, unacknowledged thoughts and judgments. It doesn't mean suppressing cool, deliberate cerebration.

'Don't keep any mind! Don't hold onto anything! This moment. This moment. No fixed ideas. No pictures. Anyway, don't worry, Larry San. Be patient. To be born is to suffer. Now you suffer girlfriend. Next week you suffer something else.'

Yeah, well, I'll have to thi...


What you think doing Buddhism will be like.
What doing Buddhism actually feels like.


Shainberg, L (1995) Ambivalent Zen New York: Vintage Books


Sunday, 27 March 2016

Mad Metaphors #2

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Indubitably

From a student essay: 'Cloud computing provides extra hard dick capacity.'


Saturday, 19 December 2015

The End Days




That’s it for 2015. The teachers’ room is dark and silent, and the elevated discourse that is customary there (‘I had a packet of them McCoy Thai chicken crisps. They were fuckin’ rank.’) will resume but fitfully in the new year: there’s very little work before Easter. Yesterday was the final day of the last course of the year, and students were given their test results.

‘This are not my result!’ says Nawaf indignantly when I hand him the slip that tells him he’s nose-dived again. 

Yes, they bloody well are.

‘No. This are my result from the last course.’

Why the fuck would I be giving you those again? 

‘No, no. This is no the true. This is false. This is injustice.’ 

Fortunately it is not I who must remonstrate with him: the centre director and the academic coordinator are waiting in their offices, sitting ducks for the tearful, the indignant and the obstreperous. Go and see one of them, Nawaf. 

No, one of them, not me. 

Nawaf is a bit odd, to tell you the truth. The following is a sample of the kind of exchange he and I have been having over the past ten weeks:

He: (indicating an article he’s just read) I agree with this. Very good.

Me: What is it you agree with?

He: Well, he says A, B and C. Very good.

Me: But where does he say A?

He: (airily) I dunno. Maybe here.

Me:  Look at the topic sentence of the paragraph. Is he going to say A, do you think?

We establish via a few minutes of Socratic midwifery that the author actually says the opposite of points A and C, and that point B is entirely absent.

He: Well, yeah, I know!     

Me: Know what???

He: (as to a half-wit) That he’s saying X, Y and Z! And I agree with this. Very good.

Anyway, Nawaf and a handful of other litigants depart to see the people I’ve palmed them off to, and I go to the teachers’ room and faff about on the Internet so as to keep well out of everyone’s way. When after an hour or so I venture out again, Nawaf is still wrangling with the academic coordinator about his grades, which had been maliciously assigned. How could it be else, given that his essay had been perfect and his presentation trenchant and skillfully executed?

The fact is, Nawaf, that your essay was merely word salad and your presentation pointless, which is why they failed. Get it? It had nothing to do with the assessing tutors being in league to wreck your career. I had told everyone to keep their PowerPoint slides simple, but you put your entire introduction onto one slide and read it out word for word, likewise the conclusion. Between the two, we had a few random observations touching on weather and food prices in the UK and the USA. Or something. It was the ninth presentation of the morning, my mind was wandering and nothing you said brought it to heel. 

Anyway, by the end of yesterday morning Nawaf was told that his results would be passed on to the faculty he hopes to join in January, and it would be up to them to decide if they will accept him or not. I think they probably will. They don’t strike me as overly fussy: Christ knows how some of the overseas students manage to do degrees, given their lousy English. Nawaf’s English isn’t lousy – far from it. But his mind is a hall of mirrors in the form of a Mobius strip. Picture that if you can.

*****


And now the good news. As of last week, my nephew (above, with my sister) may preface his name with ‘Dr’. If you are having problems with your laser – and they can be the very devil, I'm sure you'll agree – he might be able to sort you out, but don’t be pestering him with your piles or sciatica, he isn’t that sort of doctor. Well done, lad.   

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