But before spring break, there were midterms.
Since I’m teaching primarily oral English, the midterms, too, were oral in six of my eight classes. (Nice work for the teacher! No papers to read, instant grading and fewer lessons to plan.) With class time running 90 minutes and sizes ranging from 19 to 41 students, oral midterms felt a little like speed dating. The sophomores were assigned individual talks to the class, on any subject of their choice, for 2.5 to 4 minutes, depending on how many had to be squeezed in. The juniors in “Advanced Audiovisual and Oral” were assigned one-on-one debates. Many students ran short; instead of speaking spontaneously, most had memorized their presentations and nervously raced through as fast as they could before they forgot a single syllable. (The sophomores didn’t tell until me afterwards that they’d never had midterms before.) The few who did run over, as measured by the stopwatch function on my iPod, were cut off with a “Thank you!” as if I were running an audition.
Overall, grades were better than expected. There were the predictable stars: the prize-winning Juliet, a professor’s daughter with near-perfect pronunciation and exquisite poise in front of an audience, scored a 97. Others who never talk in class if they can help it did very well, showing they really can speak English. Subjects ranged from Manchester United (from a boy devoted to the team who, I suspect, had not done much in the way of preparation) to traditional Chinese painting to vocabulary related to the word rain – very useful in Xiangtan. A number of girls told how wonderful their fathers were; a few, also apparently unprepared, led with “I want to tell you a little something about my life.” One spoke with great conviction about how important it was for her to find a good husband, and defined that husband as someone who would make a lot of money to support her. Excuse me, but could someone please direct me to 2010?
I am giving written exams, three take-homes, in my Friday night “Cultural Backgrounds” course. Although this is a good idea for a course (which I’m already marketing to Poland), it’s a tough crowd: the students have paid extra to take the elective but show little interest in doing any actual work. Overnight the term “cake course” surfaced in my head; although I’m sure they’ve never heard it, it’s probably what they were expecting. They are not English majors, and five minutes is about the outer limit of their attention span, even for a DVD.
The first exam, the finale to six weeks on the United States, consisted of ten true/false questions, five fill-in-the-blanks, four short answers, two essay questions and one optional five-point bonus question (“What is your favorite American movie, and why?”). I came to class the night the exams were due expecting to hear all kinds of excuses for lateness and complaints that it was too hard, even though there was nothing on it that I had not covered in class, if they were paying attention and not texting on their cellphones. Earlier in the day, a sophomore had advised me to play more games in class, like the other foreign teachers, to keep students interested. I thought about that a moment, then replied: “I came here to teach at the university level, not run a kindergarten.”
The next morning, a cool, rainy Saturday, I took to my bed to grade the exams while listening to opera on my iTunes. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. There was some obvious copying; to the fill-in question “The six most northeastern states are known collectively as ___________,” too many students answered “the northeast industrial park” — a phrase I had never uttered – instead of New England, which was clearly marked on their maps. One seemed possessed by revolutionary fervor, writing on the first essay that immigrants mainly “mobilize public opinion for revolution” and “offers combat troops for revolution.” More troubling were several instances of obvious cut-and-paste from the Internet. Two were exceptionally clumsy: one drifted off, in the middle of detailed immigration statistics, to the Amazon rainforest and Gondwanaland, and another consisted of seriously out-of-date information on the health care vote, presented in classic American newswriting style. Did she ever pick the wrong person to con! I was infuriated, and wrote notes threatening to fail the perps, until it hit me that in this culture they may have no idea what plagiarism is, or how it differs from research, and why it’s considered a seriously dishonorable form of cheating. Add that to this week’s lesson plan.
The answers to the second essay question — “Discuss, in your own words, at least three characteristics of Americans that Chinese may find strange, and why” – made me laugh out loud, over and over again. Early in the course, I had given out a reading about cultural traits of Americans, among them independence, individualism, the need for solitude and privacy, and the importance of time and schedules, and I expected to find it heavily cribbed. Instead, the answers were delightfully original.
“I don’t know why the Americans hair are not blak,” one wrote. Another was puzzled that we seem to eat only white chicken meat, while the Chinese eat both dark and light. (Guilty as charged, but I explained that some Americans do prefer dark meat.) At least one wondered why Americans are annoyed by “helpful and useful” advice like “you should wear warmer clothes,” which is constant here. (Guilty again, as I once told the class.) Many cited our tendency to move often, others the separate lives led by parents and children; the students are shocked that Americans expect their teenagers to earn their spending money, and grown offspring to pay back loans. Some mentioned a love of keeping “secrets” about things like their ages and how much money they make, which I explained as “privacy.” A number were uncomfortable with our competitiveness and directness, whereas the Chinese strive for group harmony. “Americans usually point out your mistakes wherever you are while our Chinese thought that is not very well. Because Chinese thought to tell your mistakes is not respectful.” (This came in the day after I screamed at The Boss after being told there was nothing wrong with my refrigerator, which hadn’t worked in two weeks, and may help explain why we find this country so organizationally challenged.) One did cite our obsession with time: “Their lives seem controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists, they never stop their steps . . . I can’t imagining how tired they are in the daily life. They must be under pressure everyday.” Some said Americans are much more friendly to strangers than the Chinese – which left me totally flummoxed, considering my well-documented problems sneaking in a little privacy amid all my self-declared new Chinese friends.
At lunchtime, to celebrate the completion of grading, I crawled out of bed and treated myself to the ultimate sliced Hunan beef with lemongrass at a restaurant near the North Gate. As I was finishing, a “Cultural Backgrounds” student emerged from the back dining room with some friends. She sat down next to me and apologized for not having made it to class the night before. Then she confided, very quietly: “You know, Diane, your homework was very difficult.” I smiled sweetly. “That’s all right,” I said, assuring her that most people had done well. “This is a university. It’s supposed to be difficult.”
I had already started writing the next exam, on Britain. This time the bonus question is “Who is David Beckham, and why should I care?” I can’t wait to see the answers.