Wednesday, 14 November 2012

It is Better a Chylde Unborne than Untaught

HUMS (= ‘humanities) Module WTF 101’Sensitivity in Inter-cultural Communication’, Bernard Manning Building, room 3.11. Week 7.

‘This morning, ladies and gentlemen, we shall consider from a linguistic point of view the phenomenon of politeness, so shut the fuck up and listen.’ 

I notice that only half the group is present. (Nine people? This you call an audience? Hardly worth getting into the drag and slap for.) One student informs me that some project has to be completed for another module, hence the poor turn out. I am miffed that it should be my session they consider dispensable. I’ve spent three whole days researching and putting these two hours together, and now I have the grumpy, grudging feeling of having over-catered. Never mind.  

In preparing this module, I have made use of my many experiences of inter-cultural fuck-ups, and as a result become more forgiving of myself and others in situations where our cultural expectations (our ‘mental software’, as Hofstede calls them) have caused us to misinterpret one another's intentions, often wildly. I based a whole two-hour session on the saga of my first job in Greece, a monumental train wreck involving a marriage between a Greek school and a British Educational Trust, a match made in hell if ever there was one, ending in acrimonious divorce after only two years. This is a tale I might relate some time if I can disguise it sufficiently to avoid getting sued. Meanwhile I’ve also learned something useful about Chinese students and their ideas on politeness as it relates to behaviour in class.

I have to admit my prejudice here re newly-arrived Chinese kids, sitting there silent and motionless. Rote learners, I'd think. Parrots. No critical thinking skills. Cowed by authoritarianism. Once they started to open up, the thought would be there at the back of my mind that the thaw was due at least in part to my own efforts. The definition of prejudice is maintaining a frozen, over-simplified image of a person or race in spite of incoming evidence to challenge it, and I have been guilty of this, I’m afraid. Once the students get used to a new way of interacting, it's obvious that they are not and have never been simply rote-learners and regurgitators.

Teachers in China are accorded a degree of deference that would embarrass their western counterparts, or me at least. I now know that students in China are expected to be silent in class, and more important, why. ‘I understand what you want us to do, Sharon,’ one boy told a colleague in a tutorial in summer, ‘but all my life my father and grandfather have told me it is respectful to keep silent in front of a teacher.’ So Chinese students are taught to respect their instructors, which is fair enough, but it's a bit of a bugger for us language teachers that respect is shown by sitting schtum. 

Non-teachers will never know how unnerving it is to stand in front of a group of students, eliciting like mad and getting nothing out of them. Staffroom conversations at lunchtime are of blood from a stone, pulling teeth and pissing into the wind. The silence makes me ratty, I don’t always hide it well, and in this I’m not alone. Perceiving that the teacher is getting rattled but probably having no idea why, the students feel guilty for offending him and to atone, they lower their gaze even further and dial down their facial expressions to Buddha-like impassivity. This is done to ensure that they evince nothing that could be perceived as a challenge to teacherly authority, but it bloody infuriates the western teachers because to them, it looks like passive-aggressive resistance. I learned ages ago that it's best to get Chinese students working in small groups as soon as possible if you want a buzz in class, because nobody will speak out in plenary. I didn’t know why students were so reluctant to do this, and the reason again is politeness. To offer the teacher and class your opinion unbidden is seen as pushy, show-offy behaviour, vulgar and unbecoming. Discussing an issue in groups so as to arrive at an agreement strikes them as altogether more civilised.

So my module aims to get the participants to observe the behaviour of people from other cultures, and on the assumption that in classrooms and boardrooms all involved are most likely exhibiting behaviour intended to be polite and cooperative, make intelligent deductions as to why that behaviour matters within their culture.  
 ‘...and in this manner, ladies and gentlemen, we avoid stereotyping and culturism, and deepen our appreciation of diversity. Next week, gait. Observe if you will the sprightly step of the English lad: compare it to the sneaking Chinaman and the slouch of the Arab...' 


Candy said...

Of all the things that piss me off about being a teacher, this takes top honours. I remember totally losing that smidgeon of professionlism I cart about with me and storming out of a class in high 'd' when faced with the implacable blank staring of a class of teenage girls. God I hated them.....

Vilges Suola said...

Not Chinese? They would have been showing how deeply they respected that smidgeon of professionalism.

Alan Tait said...

Oh I do love being a spectator in your life, Steve.

PS It's spelt Ofsted, not Hofstede.

PPS I quite like picnics, lobster and champagne. Now can add something to my To Do list.

Vilges Suola said...

Glad you like kibbitzing! I'm sticking with Hofstede - I want no truck with Ofsted. They don't get their long, pointy noses into our department, thank God.


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