Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Varia II

Odds and ends from the last ten days.

A student from Iraq who has been worried sick about her husband and daughter was recently hugely relieved when the two of them were finally able to join her in England. We were so pleased for her. Last week, just a week or two after Esther was given cause to rejoice, another student had to return to Iraq where his brother and another relative had been killed in a shooting.


The 20-year-old nephew of one of my colleagues left last Thursday morning for Australia, where he was going to spend his gap year. Unfortunately, he was on Malaysian Airways flight MH17. I didn't know before this that my colleague had a nephew, but nevertheless have shed tears for his family over the loss of this young man they loved so much.


I was marking a batch of essays this evening on the train home. Abdullah's had the usual unmotivated choices of auxiliary, subjectless verbs and hit-and-miss spilling. Speling. Spellinge. In just short of two months, he is going to start an MA in English Language Teaching, God bless and save us. I've been getting increasingly indignant about this issay / esay / essai as the evening has progressed. DAMMIT, Abdullah, when I started to teach myself Modern Greek in 1985, I pored over grammar books. I wrote letters to a friend in Greece, looking up vocabulary, checking the spelling of every word and getting the grammar as accurate as I was able. Each letter was as laborious to complete as if I were chiselling it onto a stone tablet. When I received a reply from Voula, I'd set about decoding the thing, and it was up-hill work. Voula is Greek but she completed her primary and secondary education in Venezuela, so her Greek spelling was as erratic as your own efforts in English. When you see a Greek word, you know how to pronounce it, but because there are several ways of representing the same vowel sound in writing, you don't necessarily know how to spell a word from hearing it. If I had to look up a word from one of Voula's missives and failed to find it, I'd have to try alternative spellings until I hit on a word that fitted the context. This lead to my being able to spot words derived from the same root, and these days I can correct native speakers' bloopers, but forbear. Mark that I had no ambition to teach anybody Greek when I put myself through this. So on Thursday, Abdullah μου, I am going to suggest that you get a bit more obsessive-compulsive about your Inglish, Eglish. Fuck it. You know what I mean.


Tutorial with Niki, newly arrived from Thessaloniki. She said she was worried about her spoken English. I almost said 'good, so you should be', but thought it best not to. I'm used to students thinking such deficiencies are more my problem than theirs. But Niki is sensible and realistic and she knows she has a problem. After discussing her options for improving her spoken language we turned to more immediate practicalities.

'Yeah' she mutters, rifling through a file, 'I need to activate my cunt.'

Well, you're barking up the wrong tree with me, love. Or maybe I misheard?

Still rifling, she clarifies: 'my cunt at HSBC...' 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Crossed Wires II

Shit teacher trainers say to novice teachers:

'Always check your instructions for tasks and activities.'

'Check that everyone understands the vocabulary you are presenting,'

'Grade your own language to the level of the students.'

That last one! Sounds obvious, right? Try it. Takes a fair while and repeated failures to acquire the knack. Every time I hear the bloke from student services address a new intake of dazed Arabic, Chinese and Thai speakers, I want to tell him to shut up, stand aside and let me make his speech for him. My favourite example of failure to grade appropriately was recorded by a colleague in Cambridge in the late eighties. A yellow-cardied and sensibly-shod trainee teacher-lady, wife of a Fellow of the University, was teaching a group of students of the level usually described as 'pre-intermediate', i.e., 'not knowing an awful lot of English yet'. They were reading a text and she was eager to move on.

'Well now,' she purred. 'If you can bear to tear yourselves away from this...'

I fear I've been less than totally successful myself this week in making sure all students understand what's being heavily piled onto them over the course of each muggy day. A colleague and I have been hammering the Harvard System of Referencing into a bunch of graduate students from Saudi Arabia, China and Taiwan. We point out repeatedly that not all departments use this system, and they will need to find out which system to adopt when they start their courses in September. Today I had the class look at the reference for the text I was using and tell me what information it gave them. This they did successfully. Then, inevitably, Badi chimes in.

'Teacher, I have quistion. How I can know how I must rifrence book?

'Like that. The one on the screen. In bold type. The one we have just pulled apart.'

'Yes, but teacher, how I can know how book will rifrence?

'Like I just fucking told you. What do you mean?'

'I mean, how I will know how I must rifrence books?'

Just before I nearly gobbed him one, the penny dropped. All the explaining Joanna and I have done about different referencing systems has been interpreted by Badi to mean that the system chosen depends not on the department but the individual book. Christ... I felt exasperated  this afternoon, but now I'm not sure if this misinterpretation is a dumb one or a clever one.

Group N were given three short texts on the evil that is plagiarism, and how it is to be avoided. They then had to write a short essay based on these texts, defining plagiarism, suggesting why students might resort to it, and ways in which they might be delivered from this evil. I marked the essays on the train on the way home. Fang Hua had produced hers by copying verbatim and without acknowledgement from source texts exhorting her not to copy verbatim and without acknowledgement from source texts.

Synthesising ideas from a variety of sources is something few of these students have ever done, despite being graduates. The colleague with whom I share Group N tried to clarify matters. 'This text presents idea A, and this one idea B, this one idea C...'

This mystified a Chinese girl even further.

'So which of those is my idea?   


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