Sometimes I feel as if I’m starring in my own production of a Christopher Durang play. My theater-obsessed circle will, of course, recognize that title as a slight variation on “Sister Mary Ignatius . . .,” his 1979 play about a didactic nun who explains the basics of Catholicism to the audience, only to be confronted by former students, now grown, who were traumatized by her teachings. In “Cultural Backgrounds of English-Speaking Nations,” the course I’m giving this month in Wroclaw, I often find myself standing in front of the whiteboard, feeling as if I’m interpreting the entire English-speaking world to my class in the time frame of a one-act play. (Like the protagonist of “The Actor’s Nightmare,” another short Durang play that is often paired with “Sister Mary Ignatius,” I occasionally go up on my lines.)
This is essentially the course I was assigned to teach in Xiangtan to a class of 30 or so undergraduates, none of them English majors; they paid a fair amount extra to take it, for the extra line on their transcripts, but seemed little disposed to work for it or actually learn anything. “A good idea for a course,” I thought, “but the wrong audience.” I then proposed it to my university in Poland, and they jumped. Enrollment, originally to be capped at 15 students, officially reached 28, though two or three on the roster have never appeared in class.
Those who do come are an interesting, articulate and highly intelligent mix. The kids in Xiangtan were just that – kids—who knew next to nothing about the world outside China, and sometimes their home provinces. The students in Wroclaw are adult Europeans, and well educated; many if not most are working toward a master’s degree or Ph.D. Five – four Romanians and one German — are in the Erasmus program, which draws students from all over Europe, adding a bit of diversity at a school where my students up to now have all been Polish. They need little help with their English, and when I launch into my favorite question – “Do you know this word?” – more often than not they already do. They fill page after page in their notebooks, whereas the kids in China barely carried notebooks at all. Only the Erasmus students who opt to take the course for credit need to do the take-home exams, but when I handed them out last week, several others asked for copies to test themselves, just for fun.
At this writing, 6 of the 10 classes are now history. It’s time to asses the work I was actually brought here to do, between nights at the opera and trips to Warsaw for book interviews and return visits to my favorite restaurants.
I’ve had to repackage the course in part because of a different time frame – 10 classes of two and a half hours each, as opposed to 17 of 90 minutes in Xiangtan. Once you deduct the first, introductory class and the final wrap-up session, that leaves only eight to tell the students everything they need to know about the United Kingdom, the U.S., Canada and Australia. And that’s really just seven, since the next-to-last class is to be devoted to language, the variations in accents and usage in the countries we cover. I’ve also reordered the course. In China I started with the United States, given that my students’ main frame of reference was American pop culture. But here, partly for historical chronology and partly because my students are Europeans, I start with the U.K. and proceed west. (One important difference is that in Wroclaw there is technology in the classroom, and it mostly works; when a glitch occurs, it’s usually my laptop at fault. Another is that everything in the school is clean.)
Experience suggests that this course should be retitled “Selected Topics in English-Speaking Cultures.” There is no possible way to cover everything in the time available, so I’ve devoted classes, or parts of classes, to themes. The second class was a whirlwind tour of the British monarchy, with an emphasis on the human stories that shaped history, and why any of it still matters today. For me, it was a glorious evening: I got to talk about one of my favorite subjects for two hours (minus time for some film clips from “The Queen”), and nobody left the room or fell over dead! Ula remarked at the end that she didn’t know history could actually be made interesting – which I took as high praise – and on Monday she confessed that she had spent part of her weekend watching “The Tudors.”
Last night’s class, on the U.S. government, politics and civil rights, was a harder sell. It was originally scheduled for Friday night but seemed like hard slogging for that time slot, so I put it up to a class vote: which would they rather have on Friday, the aforementioned, or a reading and discussion titled “Why Do Americans Act That Way?” followed by an arts centered DVD? The vote was unanimous: the fun stuff on Friday. Attendance that night quite good – 15 – but, for the government class that followed on Monday, only six, with two lost at the break. To be fair, the five Erasmus students were on a field trip. They will take their medicine – I mean, have a catch-up session – on Friday afternoon. Anyone else who missed Monday will be invited to join us, but I have a feeling they’ll have previous commitments (their jobs, for example).
And who can blame them? The topic was scary (not to mention potentially boring), the execution exhausting, for them if not for me. The first half started with an amendment-by-amendment analysis of how the values expressed in the Bill of Rights play into the collective American psyche we had discussed on Friday. Next came a bare-bones explanation of the three branches of government with their checks and balances – child’s play for anyone with a basic mastery of junior-high civics, let alone a political science degree like the one sitting in my armoire at home. I followed with a quick rundown on the coming midterm elections, on the grounds that they may make the news here, and the nasty state of current political discourse, driven by the extreme, and extremely vocal, right wing. For listening practice, I played a Times Book Review podcast featuring Kate Zernicke, author of a recent book on the Tea Party movement, that let them experience a New Yorker talking like an authentic New Yorker — fast, loud, covering about a million ideas in eight New York minutes – instead of one using her “teacher voice.” After the break, I covered race, the northern migration and the civil rights era in 40 minutes flat.
“Are your brains fried?” I asked at the end.
“The first half was awful,” Ula said.
It was indeed a lot to take in – and how much better would most Americans do if subjected to two and a half hours of Polish political history and government? No doubt the jazz musician in class would prefer to hear about the current state of his art form in America, and others would prefer to talk about pop culture — which is, after all, what rules the world. Yet, given the impact of U.S. government policies on the lives of people all over the world, this material is so important. In an ideal world, I would not have to make such tough choices about what topics to present in class; the class would go on meeting into infinity, until we had covered everything everyone wanted to talk about. But this is a three-week, 10-session course.
I can only hope my choices and performance are not driving people away. I’ve spent enough time in the classroom, as both student and teacher, to know there is always attrition when you’re teaching adults who choose to take a course, rather than undergraduates who have to. People may sign up expecting one thing from their own interpretations of the course description, then find the reality to be something entirely different. Or life gets in the way. When I taught the advanced English class here last summer, paranoia set in as attendance dropped, mostly without explanation, from 14 the first day to 8 by then end of the second week, then to 6 and finally 4 on the last day. I expressed concern to Agnieszka, our administrator, that the students were dissatisfied, but she said the course evaluations looked fine. It was the end of summer vacation season, she told me, and people wanted to get away while they could. Given how enthusiastically I was welcomed back this fall, I have to believe she was sincere. Beside, these students have jobs, from which they arrive in class after a full day’s work; families, from whom they take time out to come; and probably other commitments I know nothing about. Being adults, and paying customers, they have a right to pick and choose when the topics interest them and when they can put their time to better use.
“Where’ve you been?” I greeted Rafal, a repeat student and one of my all-time favorites, when he appeared in class last week after missing two in a row.
He sighed. “Work.”
“It’s OK. I know you want to be here.” (Last year Rafal, a doctoral candidate, called the office in March to ask if I’d be teaching that August, only to have to drop out at the last minute because of time pressures.) “Come when you can.”
I extend the same invitation to everyone in the class, as well as any past student who’d like to sit in. Come when you can, and when you want to learn the things I can teach you. When you do, I’ll be there, to explain it all for you.