Sunday, 30 August 2015

That's August done with.

Last month I mentioned that several members of a group that I taught had screwed up on their writing tests and were in danger of being kicked out of the university. I had entertained the hope that this might indeed be the outcome. When adult students who have been with us for four months are still pushing their written work under my nose and saying ‘is OK?’, I begin to lose patience. ‘Well, is it OK?’ I ask. ‘Does your introduction give some background to the topic? Does it tell us why the topic matters? Is there a thesis statement? You tell me if it’s OK!’

The failures were allowed to take a second test, and only one nose-dived again. I felt sorry for her, because she was hard-working and earnest, not like some of the blokes, who still blame me for their earlier failure. Their present teacher tells me that they are chastened, more hard-working and less complacent than before. Well, except for Hani. He says that if he does not get the required IELTS grade on this course, he will go back to Saudi Arabia and pay someone to do the test for him. It’ll rush him 2,000 quid to cheat the system.

‘You’ll pay 2,000 pounds?’ his teacher asked incredulously.

‘Is cheap!’ he replied, completely misconstruing the reason for her indignation.  

Even if these students are indeed chastened, it seems they still blame me and not themselves. They used to greet me enthusiastically in the corridor, and now they stare through me as if I were made of glass. Once upon a time, having a bunch of students blame me for their failure would have had me worried sick. This lot do not faze me, though, as I can point to all the materials I made, a record of exactly what we did in class, and the fact that the majority of the students I teach did not fuck up on the same test. Still, teaching can be a cause of some paranoia. It can for me at any rate.

Ten years ago at Essex University a young man from Thailand told me that he liked my lessons. Flattered, I asked why. ‘Because you’re not serious,’ he said. I wondered then how flattered I was entitled to feel: did he mean I was a push-over? Not as rigorous as his other teachers? This was my first university job and I wasn’t as sure of myself as I would have liked to be. A week or two before this, passing me on the stairs, the course director had asked me how it was going.

‘Fine!’ (What else am I supposed to say?)

‘You’re the calmest first-timer we’ve ever had!’ she said. So of course then I fell to thinking I might be screwing up without realising it. More recently I withdrew from an MA module I was teaching because a period of depression had convinced me I was useless at everything and that the very plants of my sitting room were fed up of me. Someone else took over. I met one of the students as he was on his way to a lecture with the new broom, and asked how it was going.

‘OK…’ he said, rather grudgingly. ‘But I’d rather have you a thousand times.’

New bloke must be cracking the whip and working them harder, I thought. He’s a lot pointier headed and academicalish than the likes of I. Imagining that students were happier when not being pushed said a lot more about me than it did about them. (They like me because I'm not good enough?) Oh, for Christ’s sake, learn to take a complement, people tell you when you’re in your teens. Well, I try, but my usual reaction is 'must think I'm somebody else.'

In my present group a woman from Greece flabbergasted me the other day by telling me I was a strict teacher and everybody in the class was scared of me. This is so far removed from my perception of myself that I was temporarily speechless. We are using a new book and so every lesson, however carefully planned, is to me as a dress rehearsal, and I’m constantly noting how I’d do stuff differently in future, or that I’ve accidentally skipped a stage or deliberately omitted something that I only now realise was integral to the unit. How I could come across to anybody as intimidatingly knowledgeable and academically rigorous is beyond me, but it appears that at least to one student, I do. I’m not sure I buy the bit about everybody being scared of me. This is probably Argyro’s own projection.

So, when students are happy, I tend to assume it’s because I’m not sufficiently exacting, and when they tell me that I am indeed punctilious and demanding, I worry that I’m scaring the shit out of them. This sort of barmy logic is not what I'd  expected to be stuck in now, all grown up as I am at fifty-six and a half. I suppose you never really get it together, you just get better at spotting how bloody stupid your thought processes can get if you don't watch them.   

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble - Dawn

Monday, 3 August 2015

Acid Test

I have a week off. It feels unearned, despite the last five weeks being full-on, for there hasn't been much work this year. Anyway, the break comes between two five-week blocks of teaching known as Pre-sessional A and Pre-sessional B, courses on which students from China, Brazil, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and I know not where else beside are taught how to write an academic essay, participate in a seminar, listen to a lecture and make sense of a journal article or chapter in a learned book. That’s the idea, at any rate.

I’ve been teaching for thirty-four years and trained scores of teachers, but pre-sessionals always make me feel like a rookie. I frankly haven’t a clue how to transform the word-salads churned out by our Mohammeds, Salehs and Saeeds into coherent essays, but I go sailing in there with my PowerPoints and task sheets, bossing, coaxing, cajoling and joking, and by pretending to know, somehow I persuade (or dupe) them, and they do usually improve somewhat. I have decided that Blagging Your Way Through is an indispensable ingredient in language teaching, and training courses really ought to include modules on ‘Looking the Part’ and ‘Sounding Like You Know What The Fuck You Are On About’ and 'Getting 'em On Your Side'. I taught a one-off lesson with a group of Chinese kids on the Friday in July that was Eid, when Muslim students and staff had the day off. The last hour in the muggiest room of the Hugh Pokemon building was a slog, and they hated me. Epic chutzpah fail there: I hadn’t convinced anybody that they were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. I texted a colleague: ‘went on last spot Friday at the Hugh, and I fucking died, darling.’

To be fair to myself, most of the Chinese undergraduates sit in ostensibly respectful (but more likely resentful) silence for 20 hours a week while their teacher uses everything short of thumb-screws and branding-irons to get the buggers to talk. The post-grads are usually slightly older, more confident, more forthcoming and more independent. I always make a special plea early in the year to be assigned to the post-grads come pre-sessiontide, as these days silent Chinese kids who are culturally and linguistically at sea try my diminishing reserves of patience: enough already. So I had an easy time of it with my Group 1 post grads, most of whom have been with us for quite some time and are used to the way we do things. I had a less easy time of it with the Group 2 post-grads, most of whom have been with us for just as long, but never really got it. Of them, more anon.

Every course ends with tests, one per skill: listening, reading, speaking, writing. Testing is always a headache. What do you test? How do you test it? How do you present the fact of testing to students without exaggerating or trivialising it? All our students come from learning cultures that are test mad, and many of them expect a course that ends with tests to have no aim other than to equip them with the complete linguistic wherewithal to pass them – not just the skills, but the exact vocabulary and grammar. I did three lessons with one group on critical thinking, introducing them to logical fallacies and getting them to spot strawmen, red herrings, slippery slopes, poisoned wells, question begging and all that good stuff.

‘Will this be in the test?’ Abeer wanted to know.

Stupidly, I said it wouldn’t, and omitted to point out that while there would be no requirement to spot and name examples of dodgy reasoning, being able to avoid them in one’s own writing would surely be a good thing. So I left Abeer with the impression that I was wasting her time, and handed her ammunition against me should she fail the tests.

Group 2, then. It fell to me to do quite a bit of essay writing with them. They were a lively, humorous bunch, and not terribly conscientious. I hammered introductions and conclusions, topic sentences and supporting evidence, a bit of sequencing (firstly, secondly, finally) and a few discourse markers (although, however, despite) You don’t want to overdo these: students tend to see them as indispensable to sounding sophisticated in writing, and cram their paragraphs with on the one hands and on the other hands until the ideas are completely obscured by the glue that links them - and there are usually few enough ideas without drowning them. We spent whole days analysing sample essays, noting how ideas from source texts were incorporated and moreover how they were evaluated. We saw how the writer didn’t merely use stock phrases and as many linking words as could be bunged in but actually constructed an argument. At the end of the last lesson, several students came up to me to thank me for all my help. This is gratifying, but it must be borne in mind that it’s at least in part intended to secure your good will when you mark the essay. Then everyone went and did the writing test and dive-bombed spectacularly.  

Christ, but the essays were awful. I am a generous marker as a rule because I know how difficult it is to write, and how much more so in a foreign language, but, well, even Mister Niceguy had to acknowledge that to call some of these essays crap were to malign faeces. The aggregate test scores for all four skills meant that we would be losing about half of Group 2.

Last Friday was the day we handed out the students’ reports with the scores. Group 1 was my main group and only two of thirteen had failed the course. ‘But it was very difficult, everybody thought so!’ said Reham, shocked and tearful. I tried to persuade her that starting a Masters next month with her present level of reading and writing would be very stressful for her and she would probably end up withdrawing. Abeer was equally upset though less surprised. I bundled both of them off to the centre director, assuring them she would have helpful suggestions, although if pressed I couldn’t imagine what these might be. I felt like a cruel landlord turning penniless tenants out into the snow.

On the train home I texted the colleague with whom I shared group 2, imagining the scene when she broke the news to the perpetrators of those bloody essays. ‘Did you have a nice afternoon?’ I asked, flippantly. Her reply:

Good god. U are a shit teacher, Laurent is a shit teacher and all the tests were too hard is all I heard for an hour. Hani shouted at me so I shouted back saying he is a child and needs to grow up and stop blaming everyone but himself. Nearly walked out on them. Just had Sami on at me too saying his essay was amazing and structured with lots of ideas – he got 34%! They are deluded!!

So from thanks-for-all-your-help last Monday, by Friday I’m a shit teacher. Well, did I not spend all the last five week plotting their downfall? Did I not tell them to cram their essays with stock phrases and to hell with the ideas? I dismissed concerns about accurate spelling and grammar – who cares! Bugger analysis, sod evidence, screw referencing, I said, we’ll see you all OK. Suckers!  
Naturally they all summoned a huff and went off in it to tell the course director how they were merely cheated of their hopes by grifters. My suggestion by text that he have them all shot was considered but probably rejected, so I await further information now he’s had the weekend to think it all over.

Next course, I have my nice group 1 again three days a week, plus two days with a new group not yet arrived. I really, really don’t mind if they are silent Chinese kids. Once I’ve confiscated their phones, we’ll establish a modus vivendi whereby they won’t think my colleague and I are their best mates who’ll scrape them through, whatever drivel they produce.  


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