Pam and Arlene are known around campus for their movie nights. Just as spa day is Tuesday for Pam and me (Thursday for Arlene), Friday is their movie night, when they invite students to their apartments to watch DVDs in English. Back in New York, I thought that sounded like fun and expected to do the same. But that was before I saw my apartment on South Campus, which is, shall we say, not equipped for entertaining, with its small square living room, complete lack of comfortable seating and TV in the bedroom. The TV has never worked after for the first time I turned it on back in February, and while I’ve been content to watch DVDs on a 17-inch laptop screen, I’m not sure the students would be. I’ve had as many as four over at a time, but it’s tight.
I thought I might have my movie night, of sorts, last Friday in “Cultural Backgrounds” class. It was the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, and I suspected attendance might be slim, despite two days of makeup classes scheduled over the weekend. We’re studying Australia, so the first half of Baz Lurhman’s “Australia,” which would just fill a 90-minute class, seemed a passable audiovisual lesson. It’s in no way a great film. My friend Beth, a Sydney native now living in Victoria, reports having tried to watch it and bailed out after 20 minutes. The first time I saw it, in the theater upon its release, I laughed myself silly; it bore no relation to any Australian reality I had ever experienced. But I watched it again not long before coming to China, and laughed less. It gives me an Oz fix, and sometimes that’s enough. In any case, it shows a good deal landscape, as well as Hugh Jackman’s torso – I mean, his accent, which is educational as a variation of English. And its romance/adventure plot is just about my students’ speed. So, English materials being in short supply in Xiangtan, I borrowed Arlene’s DVD of the film. (My own is at home in New York, since I came to China having no idea I’d be asked to teach such a course.)
So how did it go? In the words of “A Little Night Music”: I have sinned. And it was a complete failure.
The first rule of using technology in the classroom is, make sure the technology works. Technology in the two “multimedia” classrooms I’ve been assigned here is always hit-or-miss. Both have computers, but one of them has no Internet connection, and the other has no working DVD player. (I’m told Arlene has been known to bring in the one from her apartment, but that assumes there’s a TV monitor.) I’ve been known to bring my laptop into the junior debate class and call students up front is small groups to watch a segment, then report to the class. For “Australia” I took the DVD in two weeks in advance to make sure it would play, and it did, which is the only way I would ever consider giving over a whole class to it. (Again I say: I miss the luxuries of Poland, where a support staff – something that does not exist here — makes sure there’s a techie available if a teacher wants to use even the simplest electronic device in class.)
But that was two weeks ago. When the time came, the DVD sort of played and sort of didn’t. It chugged along bravely, but it was the pauses between frames, not the Aussie accents, that made the film unintelligible.(Oh, and the out-of-date software on the antiquated computer offered no way to turn on the Chinese subtitles that had worked on my laptop earlier in the day.) Having no backup lesson, I used the film to show stills. This is what the Outback looks like! This is what Aborigines look like! Look, there’s a kangaroo! See those camels? They’re not indigenous – oops, that’s a four-syllable word. I mean, not native to Australia.
A better teacher would have had a backup lesson. But it’s late in the semester, we’re all getting tired, and I am especially tired of this class. The Friday Night Ingrates, as I call them in my head, are the class I was assigned at the last minute, the one that interfered with my plans to travel on weekends (see Grounded, March 11) , the one that is keeping me in China nearly a month longer than would otherwise have been necessary, and thus away from Poland this summer. Moreover, they’re the ones with no manners at all, who talk and text throughout class, even after I fall silent, give them that universal teacher glare and announce, “Let me know when you’re ready to go on.” They come to class late, if at all, and assume they can do their exams over if they don’t like their scores. At least they do their exams, if not necessarily by deadline, but in this exam-oriented educational culture, that’s practically a given.
A better teacher would have launched right into the lecture on Australian government and politics that was to be the next class, and is bound to drive the students to tears and texting. (I still have hopes of getting a copy of the Australian lyrics to “Jingle Bells” in time to use it as a lesson in Aussie language.) But the fact is, this teacher hadn’t done that homework yet. So she dismissed class 40 minutes early, with a recommendation that they look for it on DVD or the Internet, their preferred way of watching movies. What the heck – it was Friday night. I spent the rest of it in front of my laptop, watching the end of the “Red Riding” trilogy, an hour ahead of schedule. My own private movie night.