Saturday, February 25, 2006

New Semester, Old Students

"Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students — even himself." -- Nietzsche

Obervations: The new semester has started here. I'm teaching 18 hours this semester, partly as the result of being the sucker they go to in emergencies, and partly to save money for my parents' visit this summer. At the moment I have 4 writing classes, 1st and second year English writing, first-year Listening, the introductory economics course, a research methods course, and the course I got stuck with last week, tourism english.

Having 18 hours is bad enough, but recently I've developed a medical condition that has forced me to curb my consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Not only are these the two substances that make expat life bearable, this means I have to do all 18 of those hours without any caffeine in my veins. Pity me! At the end of the day I drag my body home as though it were a corpse someone had draped over my bones.

Complaints: Of all the courses I teach I detest Listening the most. Any teaching in English would involve listening, so it doesn't make any sense to have a class in what they are bound to do anyway. Hence I try to take the two hours a week and teach something that everyone will enjoy and find useful, using video media as the aural experience. Usually I transform it into a myth and lit course through movies. I introduce the kids to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, make them read the Odyssey and the Gospel of Luke, and then we watch movies that are overlain with mythic allegory like A Fistful of Dollars, The Truman Show, and The Wizard of Oz. I finish with The Abyss, which is full of somewhat more complex images of rebirth and resurrection, and The Ice Storm, which is a difficult and beautiful movie, very moving. We go over these shot by shot, frame by frame, all in English. The kids are at that age where they love to discover the world of myth and imagery, which usually no one has shown them, and I think being able to make connections between apparently unrelated things, and being able to see below the surfaces of things, are two key critical thinking skills that you can teach through literature.

The basic problem with English is that the Applied Foreign Language model is fundamentally unsound. But more on that in another post.

Encounters: Poignant joy in seeing my students again, for this is the last semester for my advisees, whom I have been with for four years and have come to love very deeply. Standing in the corner of the elevator as Jasmine, who has been my student and self-appointed ego deflator since day one, and is now a grad student, comes in with a herd of students and prods me in my ample stomach: "Look, there are two people standing in this corner." Swapping jokes over lunch with Grace, Emily, Sara, and Linda. Learning Taiwanese from Angela and Tina. Exchanging hugs with Aaron. Getting punched in the arm by P. after poking fun at her strange haircut. Seeing Lily back after a two-year hiatus from school. Worrying about Frank's bloodshot eyes. Finally getting a chance to sit down and talk to M. Planning a BBQ at my house for my advisees with Marco. Meeting my new adult writing students, eager as puppies. Wondering whether X's loss of 15 kilos is a sign of successful dieting or something deeper. Wondering whether H.'s addition of 15 kilos is a sign of poor diet and exercise or something deeper. Pondering the mystery of L., who audited my Composition class and came for every session a year ago, but signed up for my Business Writing class last semester and never came. Chatting abut movies with J, a movie buff like me. Admiring all the new haircuts. Cudgeling the brain for the name of that girl sitting next to Peggy. Arguing about God with J.

That last was one of the most unusual encounters I've had. As an out atheist I never have any trouble here, since probably the majority of students are not religious at all, and those that are belong to eastern religions that politely tolerate other views, instead of rushing to stamp them out. Christians are rare in Taiwan, thank God.

Last semester I had a student, J, an attractive young woman with a ready smile, who always did her homework, and did it right. Toward the end of the semester I had the kids write a 5 paragraph essay on why the DPP lost the Dec 3 elections. She responded that she was a Jehovah's Witness, and couldn't write an essay on politics. What could I do but give her some other work instead? But inside I seethed at the thought of another beautiful mind lost to that sick authoritarian cult. She caught my anger, but naturally thought it was directed at her, instead of on her behalf. I apologized and explained myself. My "explanation" was of course intended, and received, as a challenge.

The other day I had J. in class for the new semester. When I sent the kids home she whipped out a JW tract. Apparently she had been thinking about what I said for six weeks over vacation. Challenge accepted!

We talked, J. and I. And thus began the new semester.


Jonathan Benda said...

Just a couple of curious questions--how many students are in your writing classes (are those for AFL majors?)? And I'd love to compare notes w/ you some time re: research methods...

Michael Turton said...

Yes, my writing classes are for AFL majors. 25 is the usual average, because they split the Class of 50 into two groups by ministry mandate, which has been in force for the last couple of years.

Sorry, I just started teach the res methods course. It is three hours a week. I am using a Chinese language text put out by Tsang Hai, Res Meth for the Soc Sciences, big blue book, but I am using the condensed version. Two hours I am spending on methods, the third hour will be on statistics. I am teaching third years to prepare them for their senior research project.


Anonymous said...

Your comment, "the problem with English...the Applied Foreign Language method is unsound" got me curious.

What is the Applied Foreign Language method? On wikipedia
I found references to notional-functional syllabus and CLT. But nothing directly to the Applied Foreign Language method. So another site would be useful.

Second, are you meaning that the method is inappropriate for English only, or for other languages as well?

Third, I look forward to the answer in your promised future blog.

CBO aka. "My wife is your groupie" (à la Taipei 101 bookstore at Christmas 2004)

Michael Turton said...

Actually, I meant Applied English major. I don't know why I said method.