Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Fear no more the heat o' the sun.

It's been hot and damnably muggy this last couple of days and we were sent guidelines, set down by some kindly soul in Human Resources, for surviving such hellish conditions. We are in the West Midlands of England, not the Taklamakan Desert, but you can't be too careful.


1) Keep windows and doors open to encourage air flow. Amazing! We’d all been near to fainting in the heat and you know, opening the window really helped!

2) Use fans or mobile air conditioning units if possible. OK, install air con and we will. (Then you’ll need to issue further detailed guidelines on how to activate it without risk of electrocution or mental breakdown from trying to decipher the instructions.)

3) Where you have blinds keep them closed to keep excessive light/heat out. So THAT’S what they’re for!

4) Avoid extreme physical exertion. I took an executive decision and skipped the Pyongyang Happy Comrades Collective Aerobic Tai-Chi warm up yesterday. Students came in, sat down and the lesson proceeded normally. Hope that's OK. Bit of a glitch today though - see 6) below.

5) Take regular breaks from the work/the area you are located in. How?

6) Wear light, loose-fitting cotton clothes. The student who died this morning was found to have been wearing a parka and thermal drawers under his T-shirt and shorts, and I didn’t notice. Mea culpa. It won’t happen again. Well, probably not.

7) Drink plenty of cold fluids, and avoid alcohol (???), caffeine (???) and hot drinks. Fuck off.

8) Eat cold foods, particularly salads and fruit with a high water content. Haven’t seen anyone piling their plates with bangers, spuds and gravy today – and it’s all because you care, H.R.

9) Turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment (including computers, printers, scanners, photocopiers etc.) – they generate heat. So they do, so they do – you really know your stuff, don’t you?

Someone is paid to churn out this patronising bilge. It is probably the work of the same person who composed the note on the lift doors asking us to cede our places to the infirm, the elderly, the unfit and other such Untermenschen that we might otherwise contemptuously kick aside. The note adds reassuringly: 'Nearby stairs provide access to upper floors.'

Saturday, 9 July 2016

End of Course 1

Some while ago the international office of the university decreed that The Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) would change its timetable this summer. We always ran three hectic five-week summer courses with a week’s break after each one. These would now be collapsed into twelve unbroken weeks with longer days, they told us. So there.

‘But this is silly,’ we said. ‘The students will be saturated by the end of week two and with no break in sight, demoralised and resentful.’

‘But their parents back in China will be happy that they are paying for twelve weeks’ accommodation instead of seventeen’, they replied. ‘And anyway, we’ve told everybody now so it’s a done deal and there’s nothing you buggers can do about it. It’s us administrators that call the shots in universities, not teachers. Get with the programme.’

‘Well it’s still silly,’ we muttered.


The International Office lot will be feeling vindicated now. as a record number of students from the Middle Kingdom enrolled. The summer will be a bumper one for the good people of the Little Chef. It’s sweaty, muggy and knackering, but pecunia non olet: I'm going to get the living room painted on the proceeds. I’m still not sure this timetable is good for the students, though. We have come to the end of week four and everyone’s as zonked and saturated as we predicted they would be. For my students I feel alternating exasperation and compassion, and unfortunately exasperation is the more frequent emotion.

Last year a student told me ‘in China, teacher is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and student just play with phone.’ This must be why they tend to treat me much as they might a pub pianist: they occasionally sing along with me for a few bars but I'm definitely secondary to competing stimuli. They don’t expect to be involved in a scenario, be co-creators of context or contributors to a discussion. They just expect to be bored and to zone out with their smartphones. Boorishly loud yawns often attend my warm-up, and material other groups have taken and run with turns to mud.

They have the attention span of gnats. (This may be to malign gnats: I’m no entomologist.) We have to remind them over and over to put away their phones, unless we have sanctioned their use for research purposes. Every student will have to be reminded several times in each lesson, and frequently tapped on the shoulder so that he realises it’s him we’re addressing. As a last resort, I often snatch the offending instrument from the kid's sticky mitts. If asked to find some information on the internet they will need to be policed to ensure that they don’t research using Chinese sites. Reading Chinese doesn’t help you to improve your English. You’d have thought this was obvious, but apparently…

Instructions have to be checked and double checked. And often checked again.

‘So, what are we going to do? Jerry?’

‘We read.’

‘Yeah, and?’

Silence. I smile encouragingly. I raise an eyebrow. I tell the rosary. I play the Mahler Symphony No. 5 on the CD player. Jerry’s still thinking.

‘I… dough…know.’ Or particularly care, by the look of it.

‘I want to tell them that I don’t enjoy teaching them, and it’s their fucking fault’ a colleague said at the beginning of the week. ‘How can I do that?’ she asked. Well, you can’t. ‘You lot piss me off big time, but I’m fucking stuck with you for the coming eight weeks.’ Not likely to improve matters, really. I should point out that these students are in their early twenties and two thirds of the way through Bachelor’s degrees, in case you’re assuming. not unreasonably. that they are no more than fifteen.

The students had progress tests last week. Most of mine performed brilliantly in the reading, less well in the listening, and their writing consisted mostly of all-purpose IELTS-type phrases stitched together for the occasion: on the one hand swords were double-edged, nevertheless on the other hand coins had two sides, moreover on the other hand there was a downside to everything. (Three hands.) One student ignored the essay title (the quintessentially IELTS-y 'Causes and effects of globalisation'... yawn) and wrote about mobile phones instead. At first I thought 'dumb ass', but now I wonder if it was his protest against the banality of the... No. Reading too much into it.

Of course, the students think it’s us that are peculiar. Why don’t they just rattle on about grammar and let us text our friends in peace? Why are they constantly eliciting our opinions? Why is ‘why’ their favourite word? We spell out our rationale for all this repeatedly, but it makes no difference. My end- of-course reports, composed yesterday and to be handed out on Monday, contain dire warnings that some of them might not be recommended to do the third year of their BAs with our university unless they participate more in class and stop faffing with those wretched phones. 

Next week the second course of the summer begins. I lose one of my Chinese groups and instead get a new group of graduates with a mix of nationalities. Graduate groups on past summer courses have invariably been a delight to work with and indeed it always has felt like collaboration rather than teaching - or pushing a heavy truck uphill. With my other Chinese group I get a new room, big, airy, modern and custom-built instead of the cramped sweatbox with screeching ambulances tear-arsing past that we have been stuck in for the last four weeks. I’ve been pestering the course director for a better room for ages. (I actually stipulated one with a spa and espresso bar, but small mercies.) So I am feeling a bit more optimistic about the remainder of the summer, especially after the troop-rallying pep talk my Chinese group is going to get on Tuesday morning. I will spell out the rationales for our approach yet again, always with the knowledge they may reject them. Wish us luck.   


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