Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Loony Module

Today was session one of my new MA module, ‘Intercultural Communication’ Part II: same day, same time, same place – it’s back, and it’s mean as hell’. Our department is umm, relaxed about things, generally. I had been told that day one was to be January ninth, and so set up my room and materials, and waited. By five past ten, nobody had showed up, and by ten fifteen there was reason to hope nobody would. I went to see the centre director and by checking his e-mails, he ascertained that we were two weeks early and everyone was probably still in China. ‘Claim anyway’ he said. I said I certainly would, and went home. Don't you just hate it when that happens.

M le Directeur puts together the handbooks for these modules and in each one there’s a session-by-session breakdown. The sessions last two hours, and there’s usually enough material proposed for a whole week:

Embracing the differences: High power versus low power distance relationships. Polychronic cultures versus monochronic cultures; relationship based business cultures versus pure business cultures. We will scrutinise the language and paralinguistic features embedded in each of these phenomena.

There’s matter in’t indeed, then, but having produced these copious timetables, M le D waives them away - ‘don’t worry about that’ – implying that they are for somebody else’s consumption, and we can do what we want. This of course is just to give me the freedom to teach what and how I see fit, but unfortunately, since most of this content is as much news for me as it is for the students, deciding what to leave in and what to chuck out is no easy matter. I feel like an apprentice surgeon from the days when barbers sawed bones, dithering over a petrified patient.

‘Yeah, OK, but which bits do I chop off?’

‘Whatever. S’up to you.’

It’s a good thing the students don’t get to hear the casualness of this approach, as it might not inspire confidence. Imagine, as you buckle your seat belt for the long haul from Beijing to London, you overhear the pilot saying to the co-pilot ‘bruvver-in-law’s birfday larce night. Got a fuckinelle of an ed.’ Students are unaware of how much teaching is like this. They must be, or they wouldn’t keep coming back.

Yesterday and today I had the first-session nerves all over again, that lousy bloody rotten stage fright that seems, contrary to expectation, to increase with experience. There was Kong, the lad I was sure had complained on the feed-back form on the last course, and I fancied as I entered the room that I saw his countenance darken: had he hoped someone else was going to teach this module? When the session got underway I went and asked him if he had felt that there had not been enough communication and collaboration on the earlier module, because some bleeding ungrateful bugger had had the sheer bloody gall to moan that this had been the case. ‘No, no!’ said his girlfriend, brightly. ‘He like!’ Kong nodded and smiled, a man of few words as always. An appalling realization struck me: if the one moaner had not been Kong, the only male on the course, I no longer cared who it was. Then I was able to temper this apparently sexist gut-reaction somewhat. Kong had always been very quiet and reluctant to speak English, and I had taken his silence as disdain. When someone complained about a lack of opportunity for discussion on a course built around discussion and roleplay, I had, in my paranoid fashion, assumed it was Kong, and evidently assumed wrong. So had there been a silent and sullen female, I suppose I would have taken her for the malcontent. As it is, the moaner is obviously one of the women, all of whom thrash things out unrestrainedly, so I have no idea where this ‘lack of communication’ bollocks came from.

After an hour and three quarters of feeling like a concerned host at a party, worried that people were not enjoying the canapés as much as I’d hoped because they were accustomed to tastier, the course suddenly took shape in my mind. The students had been involved in a negotiation. Company A had send a man to company B for training in cross cultural communication, and the bloke had proven useless in his new post with company A despite the £5,000 they had shelled out on bringing him up to snuff. So company A’s representatives had to meet with company B’s to strike a new deal. As I circulated, I noted these utterances:

You trained our guy badly.
You need to revise your teaching and testing systems!
Your training was inefficient, it’s your fault.
His English wasn’t good enough for the job!
We thought you were the specialists and we trusted you!

I put these on the screen and asked if everyone thought they were OK to use in the situation. Everyone did, which gives rise, does it not, to the question ‘why am I asking you this, if that’s the case?’ In a British context, all the above would of course be perceived as highly insulting to the integrity of the trainers. You’d have to imply it all by saying things such as:

We feel he didn’t benefit from the course as much as we might have hoped. (Which of course was your fucking fault, but we leave that unsaid.)

His language wasn’t quite up to the demands of the job. (To put it mildly, which we always do, but we're not mild, don't be fooled.)

So we are on track now: it’s business English, but I can treat it as sociolinguistics and pragmatics, and all the stuff I feel more confident about.

After the session a student came and said, ‘you know, Steven, I really like the way you teach. I always learn something with you.’ Well, I came over all unnecessary at that. Earlier this month another student gave me a New Year present of a jumper and 500 ml of Hugo Boss eau de toilette. The jumper would fit a man twice my size, so it’s a bit delicate: if I don’t wear it she will assume I don’t like it, and if I do she will see that it makes me look like a bouncy castle. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for any explicit token of appreciation in a profession where you often feel that in students’ estimation, you are only as good as your last lesson, and the upper levels of management couldn't care less about you.


Bo said...

Oh well, that's all good, no? Glad it's going well! I got in a bit of a rage with mine today...

Vilges Suola said...

Yeah, it's a relief and a lesson I never take on board - it's never as bad as you think!

What did they do to rattle you, then?

Candy said...

Ah, bless! A Jumper and Hugo Boss!I never know what to do with my face in these situations. And, oh cross-cultural guru man, does one open the present in front of the giver or wait until one is safely out of eye line and earshot?

Vilges Suola said...

Well, I always wait until I'm alone, so my face doesn't betray my feelings. The jumper is not bad, qua jumper - just vast. And Hugo Boss is better than a snow-storm pyramid, sandstone camel, pot sombrero, or any Chinese assemblage of wire and coloured paper.


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