Today’s exam-taking tip: ”My oral English is very poor” is the wrong thing to say on your oral English final.

                I heard that sentence about  50 times on the first day of postgrad class in March, when I asked the students to introduce themselves. And I must have heard it 20 times during their finals – which does not exactly speak well of my teaching.

                The exam seemed simple enough: a five-minute conversation with me, one-on-one, on any subject of their choice (already downgraded from a five-minute presentation to the class). But it may cost 10 people their master’s degrees, or so they said afterwards. I sincerely hope it’s doesn’t, since the course, which is required, is entirely misconceived. The postgrads  are all technical majors, not the English majors I was recruited to teach. They may well need English for professional purposes someday, but  what they need right now are foreign teachers who specialize in scientific and technical English  – not me to teach them how to buy plane tickets, order in restaurants and go shopping.  (Originally I had been told I’d be teaching some writing. “Great!” I thought. “This is a technology school. I’ll teach them to write instruction manuals we can understand.”  But I was never assigned a writing course.)

                The postgrad classes are every foreign teacher’s least favorite. They are far too large to teach speaking effectively; mine had 56 students registered. They often cut class, rarely paid attention and could be shamelessly disruptive. “The postgrads are my biggest disciplinary problem,” a colleague said early on. Only a few were the least bit interested in doing anything but passing the exam. (The entire Chinese educational system is built around examinations; more on that in a future posting.) Just past mid-semester, I announced that I would not give the final to any student I did not recognize on the day, and I never expected all 56 to show up. They did — all but one, the Reluctant Postgrad (March 24), who had not been seen in months —  and I gave them all them the exam, stretching orals to four hours before my evening class and almost another hour after.

                Since we had scheduled the final for a time outside our regular class periods, our room was already occupied, by another exam. (It’s also next door to the worst toilets on campus, and I could imagine what that would be like on this broiling-hot day. At least I’ll never have to use them again.) I had always envisioned this exam taking place outdoors anyway – a series of pleasant conversations, maybe in the pavilion in the lake, with a breeze fluttering my hair. But the students favored the grassy slope just outside the Chemistry Building, so I took my place under a tree, looking like some sort of female Buddhist sage dispensing wisdom, and commenced. Stevie Nicks, who had heroically taken his own exam in public the week before to show his classmates what to expect, was by my side to help me with the Chinese names on my rosters and run the stopwatch.

                The postgrads had been told they need come for only five minutes anytime within a three-hour period. But this was an exam, and suddenly these people who had been cutting class all semester were model students. At least two dozen arrived before the 3 p.m. start; they waited patiently until their numbers came up, and long afterward until I told them to leave, patiently if not quietly. ( “Why do Chinese students think it’s all right to talk through class?” I had asked Stevie Nicks on his final. As usual, nobody got the message.) Moreover, this group that had clung to the back of the big lecture room all semester, declining all invitations to good seats up front, now clustered around me as close as they could, in the way that makes Westerners so uncomfortable, looking over my shoulder as their classmates spoke and I recorded their grades. When, oh, when will I get over these notions about privacy?

                A few demanded to go first – “I am very busy!” — including two or three I had never seen before, who were not on any roster. “No,” they explained, “we failed last semester and want to take the exam again. The school arranged it.”

                “Then the school should have told me. I have to examine my students first.” Dismissed.

                One by one, I called them up and we began talking. Some could converse  spontaneously; most had clearly rehearsed. Many flattered me by thanking me profusely for my teaching, especially when it touched on American culture, and one for “teaching us the rules,” which was news to me. Many expressed a desire to talk about travel, which they know to be a favorite subject of mine. When I asked what they had learned in the course, or what they liked best about it, too many said, “It made me open my mouth” – a phrase Stevie Nicks had used. Too many cited the lessons on restaurants and travel, the first ones of the semester, much like certain book critics who never quote a passage beyond page 6. A few gently bullied me into role-playing dialogues we had done in class, like a shopping scene. One said he had prepared two topics; the first was, predictably, a role-play on buying his girlfriend a raincoat, which we then performed together. “What was the second?” I asked as his time was running out. “It’s about history,” he said, launching into a highly intelligent list of reasons for studying history, in words clearly not his but ambitious enough to be interesting. The very last, an open-faced physics major who rarely missed class, explained Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to me, in English that was mostly his own. He passed.

                Most of the scores barely cleared 70, the minimum passing grade; only a few topped 80. Not surprisingly, the 10 or so who failed had unfamiliar faces, but they failed on performance, not attendance or spite. I felt bad about only one, who had come to class fairly regularly and done his best. But his answers showed me that he didn’t understand the questions I was asking, and I could give him only a 65.

                At the very end, near 10 p.m., those who failed marched into my evening classroom pleading to be allowed a second chance. Some claimed they would lose their degrees; others said they had just one chance to pass, which I don’t believe, given all the stories I’ve heard about students who keep trying their luck on the exam semester after semester, with different teachers, without repeating the course. I pointed out that I didn’t remember seeing them in class very often. “We sat in the back,” they said. “We were very shy, so we didn’t talk.”

                “This was a class in oral English. I told you the first day: you have to talk.”

                “It was a mistake,” they conceded.

                “Yes, a big mistake.”

                I made a mistake of my own right then and there, suggesting that they talk to the administration, and for all I know I may be ordered to re-examine them. It wouldn’t do much good; spoken language doesn’t  improve that fast, and they would simply memorize something, like the good rote learners their educational system has programmed them to be. Instead, I should have advised them to negotiate – a skill we practiced in class – for another way to satisfy the English requirement. But afterwards, I couldn’t help wondering just what my role here was supposed to be: to give a conscientious assessment of their competence? To give them all a pass on a requirement that makes no sense to them or, after 16 weeks, to me? Or simply to teach? Maybe I could and should have taught them better, but before they could be taught, they would have had to be present, in every way.

           Update: A week later, I offered to retest any postgrads whose degrees would truly be in jeopardy if they failed; I advised the others to repeat the course. Five out of 12 showed up,  and while their performances were not stellar, they all made a passing 70. I suggested that they do what a number of unregistered students did this semester: go to a postgrad class in the fall and ask the teacher if they can sit in, explaining that “Diane said I need more practice.” They all thanked me profusely and agreed to keep studying.

One thought on “Pass, fail

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