Thursday, 18 September 2008

EAP and Black Magic

A muggy classroom at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. My English for Academic Purposes students are nodding off. A reading passage about dung beetles has failed, oddly, to fire them up, and some are so punch-drunk with predicting, skimming, scanning, deducing and what-not that they can hardly blink their eyes in unison. Before I bore them completely catatonic I had better do something to goose up the proceedings a bit. We shall do Black Magic.

I’ve been trotting this out for yonks. This is what the class sees:

The teacher tells the group that one of the members present is in fact a clairvoyant of unexampled mantic powers, and that s/he has consented to give a demonstration. The seer stands up, takes a bow, and leaves the room. The group is then asked to choose an object in the room – say, Siming’s pencil sharpener – and to focus their thoughts on that object. The psychic is called back in. The teacher indicates an object, perhaps the OHP. ‘Is it this?’ Psychic says no. Teacher points to a pencil case and again, the psychic shakes her head. The teacher goes on to point to various objects, all of which the psychic rejects, until we get to Siming’s pencil sharpener, when she nods and says ‘that’s it!’

Now the possibility for language production here is obvious: the class can speculate as to how the trick is done and agree upon certain conditions for the next demo. At least that is supposed to happen, and what in my experience usually does. Today was different. Some of the class were reluctant to accept that what they had just seen was really no more than a trick. Hassan, a computer scientist and a business man noch, would brook no scepticism: ‘yeah, yeah, it’s true, there really are people who can do this!’ and Sylvia the Seeress was sent out while other objects were chosen, which each time she hit on, no bother.

The following day, I met Sylvia in the cafeteria. ‘Those guys keep asking me questions! They think I’m a witch! I’m scared I’m going to get burned!’

A while ago a colleague at a different university told me how a Saudi man, who was about to start a Master’s in linguistics, had informed the group in a presentation that Arabic was God’s own language, because, as is well known, there are documented cases of people with no prior knowledge spontaneously uttering in praise of Allah, and being able to read the Koran. So maybe it was not so surprising after all that my class were disinclined to accept that Sylvia and I were just arsing about with a hoary old party trick to fill in the last twenty minutes of a long week. To think we might have a witch among us was more entertaining than the truth.

I didn’t tell you how Black Magic is done. The teacher has to prime the accomplice. He will point to the class’s chosen object AFTER pointing to something black – hence the name of the game. Sorry if that disillusions you.

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