Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Another Day In The Life (and a puzzle)

Yesterday I woke at five from uneasy dreams (proposing sex to an old school friend and being angrily repulsed, followed by something to do with the North Korean military) and took the train to work. I was anticipating a good session with the MA students on my intercultural communication module, providing of course they had done the reading and the tasks I had set them last week, tasks that had taken me quite a while to prepare and which I felt pretty pleased with. At ten o' clock, seventeen Chinese students sat silently staring at me when I asked if they had completed the work. After much prompting, I dragged out of them that nobody had. Thoroughly pissed off but outwardly calm, I told them I was canceling the session, and left the room. When I went back some fifteen minutes later to retrieve my memory stick, they were still sitting there. Shit. There's nothing worse than staging a dramatic exit, then finding that nobody noticed you go.   

'Steve,' said the Chinese PhD student who comes to observe the session, 'I think they have some ideas, but they are too shy to speak.'

Well, some intercultural communicators they are going to make in that case, huh? I ascertained that nobody really had anything to contribute, repeated the instruction for next week, and sent them all away.

Last week a lad in the class told me that in China, if you disagree with your teacher, you will be punished. My constant elicitation of their opinions and reactions must therefore strike many of them as a rather sadistic way of setting them up for a fall, and however much I try to convince them that we are not dealing in Right and Wrong on this module, nobody really believes me. Anyway, I think my deliberate shock tactic might have worked, as in the evening I received this rather touching e-mail:

Dear Steve

I apologise to you on behalf of the whole class , we do not have any excuse for our own lax. And I promise you we will do better in the future, I will also supervise them in my own good premise.

Please forgive us for today , we will show you in the future.And thank you for been a good teacher to us as you always do.

Best wishes, 


P.S. we all did printed and read today , so the next time you can be at ease to our class.
It's a perfect example of the Chinese preference for thinking collectively, and one I can use in next year's module. Rui is the class representative whose only official duty in that capacity is to return a completed register to the administrator after each session, but probably at everyone else's prompting, she has written to offer an apology on behalf of the whole group. None of the three Europeans in the group has contacted me, nor did I imagine they would.

In the afternoon, I had a session with a group of lecturers from Thailand. They are preparing presentations. They are a delightful group, dedicated and good humoured, and made a welcome change from the silent Chinese kids. The presentations will be made tomorrow, in the presence of His Mind-Boggling Pointy-Headedness The Dean, who is in for a treat; five groups have prepared reports on that perennially fascinating topic, 'the best mobile phone deal for overseas students'. I have tomorrow afternoon off, most unfortunately.

I leave you with a puzzle. On, a young man from Thailand, is putting a request to me. We are standing next to a printer in the computer lab. Only I have the password to the printer. On the PC screen of On, there are bar charts, pie diagrams, graphs and what not, detailing the preferences of Thai, Chinese and Cypriot students for Virgin, O2, Giffgaff, etc. On says:

'I knee ping lea saw'

Spare a thought tomorrow afternoon for the Dean... Given the context, what did he mean? Answers in your very best typing, please.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Hi, I'm Steve, and I'm a Misophone

Christ, look at this! Somebody at last understands! I'm not a congenital misery-guts, I've got a condition

Monday, 15 October 2012

Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap

Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap by Kronos Quartet on Grooveshark

Kronos Quartet here, from their excellent album Floodplain. I particularly love this track, and wish I could say something intelligent and enlightening about it. An alap, I do know, is a slow, unmetred exploration of the notes of a raga, but you could work that out for yourselves. Plainly, I can't say anything intelligent or enlightening, so just listen and float away on it.  

Saturday, 13 October 2012


I am briefly but intensely busy, hence the lack of posts recently. I have a bunch of students from Thailand, and they are a delightful lot, oozing good humour and enthusiasm and pausing every lesson several times to take photographs. I have a group of mostly Chinese students for my MA module in inter-cultural communication, a mixed-nationality bunch of kids for a foundation course in English for Business, and three groupies. The groupies are visiting lecturers from universities in China who appreciated my lessons and lectures so much that they were turning up every day, until the centre director requested that they cool it. Now, being appreciated is nice, but being showered with praise and respectfully questioned at the end of each session if I were the Buddha makes me rather uneasy. It’s all front, ladies. In my mind, I’m just a putter-on of shows, a deliverer of well-honed shtick, a performer who can work an audience and squirrel away the punters’ insights and reactions for later exploitation. Like so many teachers I know, I live with a nagging fear of one day being found out. It’s very wearing since it never happens, but even after 30 years I still feel I’m merely getting away with it.  

The Thais are lecturers from a university in Bangkok with a name as long as your arm. Before they arrived, we had been led to believe they were all teachers of English who would need a mixture of language development and methodology: money for jam. It turned out that they are lecturers in a variety of fields from a university that proposes to cast its nets wider than Thailand, and will thus require its academic staff to lecture in English. So they sent them to us to learn how to do it. Ah, the naïveté of non-language teachers when it comes to the investment of time and effort demanded to learn a language to fluency! It’s truly touching. Most of these people would be hard pressed to conduct the getting-to-know-you stage of an interview, so imagining that they might progress in four weeks to the point where they could deliver a fifty- minute lecture on molecular biology is more than a trifle over-optimistic. Some of them appear to have learned entirely through reading and had probably never uttered a word in English before arriving here. Thai-isms in English pronunciation include simplifying consonant clusters, docking word-final consonants, and applying a swooping fall-rise intonation to the last syllable in a tone group, making every thought sound unfinished as well as incomprehensible.

Yesterday we rounded off a session on the use of the passive voice in academic writing with a running dictation. For those who don’t need to worry about this kind of thing, a running dictation is a japesome bit of nonsense for goosing up a heavy lesson and leaving ‘em laughing when you go. You stick a text outside the classroom door, one you have carefully crafted to exemplify the grammar you’ve just been thrashing. The students are divided into groups of four or five. They elect one secretary and the rest are ‘runners’ each with a number. The number ones go out of the room, read the first line of the text, memorise it and return to dictate it to the secretary. Immediately upon their return, the number twos go out to memorise the second sentence, and so on. The first group to complete the whole dictation wins.

A lad called On came back into the room muttering his sentence under his breath. ‘Freight-rongue ten ten!’ he said to me, grinning. Given the context, I was able to construe this immediately as ‘very long sentence!’ Christ, I thought. He has to give a presentation in front of the Dean before he leaves. I have ten days to make him sound like Noel Coward.


Personally, I don’t enjoy participating in games of any kind. Most just bore and confuse me, I mean cards, Jesus... However I seem to be in a minority here. I don’t know how valid an observation this is, but games seem to go down particularly well with students from the Far East, maybe because they find it pleasingly weird that classes can be so informal. I introduced Scrabble to a group of Chinese teachers a few years ago. They had never seen it before, probably because you’d need a space the size of a tennis court to play it in Chinese. They were utterly taken by it, passing around their cameras so that everyone took home a photo of their group seated proudly around a completed board. The running dictation usually unfolds in an atmosphere of mounting hilarity as people forget, garble and misunderstand, and have to go out again to re-read as time is running out. It failed only once. I had a bunch of rich, spoiled teenage brats from Spain. I set up the activity, and the first runners left the room, photographed the entire text on their mobile phones, returned, copied it out, and sat with arms folded, challenging me to keep them entertained, the little shits. I hope I never have to teach anybody younger than 20 again.

The Thai contingent is hitting Oxford today, the trip placing especial emphasis on the historic and venerable boutiques of Bicester Village. I didn’t know this had been arranged until after I’d given them a talk on Cambridge. We might be language teachers at our centre but we don’t do communication all that well.  

Monday, 1 October 2012

Crack of Dawn

The new academic year starts today. I've been up since four o' clock, having slept but little. I know I slept a bit, because I dreamed I was in trouble with a bunch of Muslim men for having invited a woman into my house - here a rather charming Greek island-style dwelling on a hillside overlooking the sea. One of the men, a former student of mine, tells me that the morality police have been apprised of my action, and that they will take steps. I find I'm holding a small plastic packet the size of those that hold a 'Stop' condom. (Available at good Greek kiosks everywhere. Widely, although probably unjustly, held to be as fit for purpose as bubble-gum.) On the packet, it says: 'The Naked Truth'. Well, the morality police are going to love that, I think, and I dispose of the packet by pushing it down a chute in the wall like a 'memory hole' in 1984. And Christ, I'm thinking, the house is probably chock-full of incriminating books, atheist stuff, gay stuff, Buddhist stuff, all the sort of thing you cannot justify to grubby-minded literalists of the kind I now expect to have to deal with. Fearing arrest and possibly torture, I get into wall-climbing paranoia and... why, it was all a dream!     

Fed up of tossing and turning and meteor showers of old memories, I got up at four, made coffee and dutifully wrote up the dream in my dream-diary. Here is more fuel for what Anthony Stevens calls 'hermeneutic frustration', i.e., the 'what-the-fuck-was-all-that-about?' feeling you get when pondering the symbols thrown up behind your eyelids every night. Am I letting the coming month's teaching keep me awake, for God's sake? Well, yes. I get dreadful stage-fright before meeting new classes. There's something even more nagging in dreams this year, though. Botched performances, collapsing stage sets, awaiting execution by beheading or being pushed off a high building - it's as if I am constantly being told I'm a fake, or at least that there's something elusively inauthentic about the way I am living.

Dear, dear. Must get into the shower, got to get the bloody train at seven today. All this will seem rather odd and quaint when the sun comes up.


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