Maybe this is the wrong moment to be playing “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which came up when I opened iTunes for a little musical accompaniment to a blogging session. I’ve just finished my third week of classes here in Hunan, and the reviews are decidedly mixed, on both sides.
Oral English for sophomores seem to be going reasonably well. I have four sections a week, 19 to 32 students each (far too many for a speaking class, in a room far too cramped and echoing), and use the same lesson plan for each. No two classes are identical, of course. The Monday morning class, the first of the week, is always a bit of an experiment, and of course students’ questions can change the course of any lesson. So the plan keeps refining itself throughout the week, and by the last session, on Thursday afternoon, I usually feel I’ve nailed it. But the Wednesday afternoon class tends to be the best of the week — perhaps because it’s my only one that day (Thursday’s is the third in a row), but more probably because it’s a class of talkers. Although it’s a big one, about 30 students, they’re the easiest to keep motivated and on track, and they were the only ones who showed any sign that they might burst into song when I played the “Rain in Spain” scene from “My Fair Lady” on my laptop, having used it as a pronunciation exercise the week before. This class’s energy doesn’t seem to flag, and so helps me keep up my own. But by the last show on Thursday, when I’ve already done two lab classes in the morning, I find myself fatigued and slightly resentful about having to do one more show.
My Tuesday class is something of a paradox: it’s Oral English for postgraduates, but they’re all in technical majors and thus far less fluent, or at least less willing to speak, than the undergraduate English majors. The one older student in the class is the one who refuses to speak at all (and I do hope he starts before I have to fail him). All the foreign teachers hate the postgrad classes, which tend to be very large, 60 or more students, and the biggest “discipline problem,” with a constant undercurrent of talking. So we’ve all divided our postgrads into two groups, giving them 45 minutes each instead of twice that as scheduled. For me, that translates into a shortened, simplified version of the sophomores’ lesson for the week. A few postgrads do pay attention and seem engaged. One, who came to the first class wearing something resembling a long-out-of-fashion Mao jacket, speaks very well and would make a fine class leader, but he has a government gig that requires him to miss some classes. Another — a willow-thin, fine-featured, extremely self-effacing physics major — has come up front at every break and after class to chat with me. His English is better than he knows, and he mainly needs more practice to build his confidence. So I’ve recruited him as my assistant for this class. His chosen English name was originally Steve, but last weekend he e-mailed me to say he now preferred Nick, so I’ve come to think of him as Stevie Nicks. When I asked him to demonstrate a simple restaurant dialogue with me, he got that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face but managed to get through it, then pitched in to help me go around the room asking students for their orders from the menu of Amy’s Restaurant (Chinese) in Inwood. This morning I received e-mail from him proposing a way to approach this week’s assignment, on vocabulary for travel, and saying he would arrive bright and early this week to assist with both groups.
“Cultural Backgrounds of English-Speaking Nations” — the extra course that caused me so much grief a week ago when it dashed my hopes for weekend escapes — actually seemed like fun after the first meeting. The students are not English majors but are drawn from various departments around the university, many of them business and technical. They all professed a love of English and are rumored to have paid extra to take this elective. For me, the course is a chance to stretch beyond language and into the history, politics and cultures of countries where I’ve either lived or traveled. For the second class, I prepared what I thought was a concise, focused lesson, half of it on how America’s geography has helped shape its history, and half on the waves of immigration that have given the United States its “melting pot” persona. But when I asked for questions or suggestions at the end, the tallest, presumably coolest male in the class, with a Marine haircut and, I’d guess, a deep interest in basketball, piped up: “Say something interesting.” Well, excuse me! The university, judging from the only direction it has given me – the textbook I was handed 48 hours before the first class meeting — seems to want the course to at least touch on serious academic subjects; the students have yet to make it clear what they want to learn, but I suspect it’s less about history and literature and more about pop culture. (Who is Stevie Nicks, anyhow?) It’s going to be interesting to see how I balance the two, especially given the scarcity of materials available here and the all-but-nonexistence of audio and video technology in the classroom. (There’s a wall outlet and a television set mounted overhead. That’s all.) As a video monitor, a 17-inch laptop with no Internet connection does not go far in a classroom of 30 students.
The one classroom that does have a little technology is turning out to be my bête noire. On Thursday mornings, I’m assigned two sections of a junior class titled “Advanced Audio-Visual and Speaking,” and after three weeks, I still have next to no idea how I’m supposed to teach it. There’s no visual, only audio: language-lab consoles that play readings from the textbook, titled “Argument.” Apparently I’m supposed to be using it to teach debate and persuasive speaking, but how is still beyond me. (Once again, the university provided no training on equipment — I saw it for the first time when I arrived to teach the first class. Standard procedure seems to be to send the class monitor to pull a Chinese teacher out of class to help, which makes me look like a fool. Though the consoles run on Windows, remember that this Windows is in Chinese.) “Do anything you want” is the other foreign teachers’ advice. The first section makes no secret of its dislike for the textbook and the audio, yet when I ask questions, they mostly stay silent (perhaps because the class starts at 8 a.m., when I don’t exactly bloom either). The second class says it likes the book and the listening, but maybe not all of it, and again students remain shy unless called on. Each week members of both classes corral me to suggest improvements, but either I don’t understand what they want or I can’t make it work. In any case, suggestions are welcome.
On the other hand, a number of students have come up to me and said, “I love your teaching style! It’s so different from the other teachers’ ” – which only makes me wonder what the others do and, given an inborn paranoia heightened by 20 years at The New York Times, what I’m doing wrong. And twice last week, students who are not enrolled in my classes – four freshman chemistry majors who sneaked into the postgrad class, and two engineering students with friends in one of my Oral English sections – asked if they could sit in, just for practice. It’s flattering – “You’re just perfect,” one of the chemistry girls gushed — and suggests that I may be doing something right after all, despite a strong sense that I am pulling teeth. Curiously, they are more alert and enthusiastic than the ones actually enrolled. But maybe that should come as no surprise.