Thursday, January 04, 2007

weak from the week

NB: While I aspire to the wittiness of Malcolm's post titles (scroll a ways down his blog to see what I mean), I know that I'll never approach his spare eloquence.

What a week, O Rodents!

On Tuesday, the first day back at work, we were herded into large, empty classrooms and given long lists of students to interview for level placement purposes. I interviewed sixty; I imagine my colleagues did the same, if not more. Unlike previous semesters, the rolls this time around are swollen with freshmen-- 180 or so. We had lower numbers in our intensive classes (only about thirty enrolled this term), and we interviewed most of those students as well. It turned out that, because of low numbers, one of my intensive classes was cut. More planning down the drain. This frustrates me, because I've been quietly but persistently advocating moving the registration period to a much earlier date every semester, thereby giving both the main office and us teachers the time to figure out what our numbers will be, without our having to suffer the bullshit of sudden cancellations.

Wednesday morning started well. My first class, at 9:40am, was Freshman English. The girls were bright and attentive, even though they weren't quite as proficient as I would have liked. They worked well with me during the standard getting-to-know-you icebreaker exercises, and we ended up having a lot of laughs. I mistakenly let them out ten minutes early, but it wouldn't have made much difference: the next activity would have required far longer to complete.

My second class, the 11:00am-ers, were also freshmen and also pretty good, though not quite as animated or motivated as the first class. As all teachers and public speakers know, you can very quickly get a feel for a room's collective temperament, and it was obvious that this group contained a few droolers and giggly whisperers, along with one very princessy chick whom I'll have to keep in line. She's not a bad kid, but I'll have to keep my eye on her.

My third and final class for Wednesday was my Intensive 3 reading/writing class, and they turned out to be a fine bunch. That class has only eleven or twelve people, whereas the frosh classes have sixteen and seventeen people, respectively.

Some of the girls in FroshEng ended up in my intensive class, so I got to see them more than once.

Today, I taught my two FroshEng classes, and then had my monster class: a three-hour CBI (content-based instruction) course that is the brainchild of our big boss. From the beginning, I had great misgivings about this course. What the boss wanted was essentially for us to lecture for three hours on a topic in order to give students a taste of what life in Western academe would be like.

While I think immersion is generally a good thing, it has to be total immersion to be effective. Confusing SL and FL environments is a fatal mistake. You cannot simply throw untrained students into a serious lecture environment and expect them to whip out pens and start taking notes. What I do at Smoo is all FL: when the students leave my class, they immediately revert to speaking in Korean. FL teachers have to factor that reality into their pedagogical approach; using the "throw English at them until some sticks" technique is rarely effective.

In my case, I was originally asked to teach history,* which is probably my weakest subject. I politely declined history, and then made the mistake of asking to teach a subject somewhat closer to my area of expertise: philosophy of religion, interreligious issues, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, religious studies, and the like. The answer was "no." Why? Because those topics might be "too controversial." Ugh. What did I get instead? Greco-Roman mythology.

Having spent a lot more time in recent years devoted to the Hindu pantheon, I can't say that I've kept up with the Greeks and Romans, so a good bit of my "vacation" (ha!) was devoted to reading up on the shenanigans of the Greco-Roman divinities-- forces of nature, titans, gods, goddesses, heroes, and all the other weird creatures that arose through violent, murderous, and incestuous interaction.

I eventually decided to rebel, to some extent, against the requirement of the lecture component. I thought it would be hellishly boring for my students, who I knew would be of mixed abilities. I wrote up a few activities that would require the students to talk with each other, something I felt they would be more comfortable doing than trying to take notes while I droned on and on. I did include a shitload of material for a brief Kevin-spiel here and there, but my primary goal was to make the class more student-centered and less about lecture. Wikipedia's articles on Greco-Roman religious practice and mythology were helpful,** as was, which needs to go on my sidebar. Edith Hamilton, of course, played a major role in my prep, but not Bullfinch. I ended up over-prepping, truth be told, but this turned out to be a good thing.

The Greco-Roman Mythology class began at 1:30pm. The students came in, all bright-eyed as usual; some of them were students from my regular FroshEng and Intensive classes, which produces some sunny smiles and chirpy greetings. Little did they know what horror awaited them.

The fuckup happened within the first five minutes and poisoned an entire hour. I crashed and burned when I opened the session with my discussion of basic concepts: a list of vocab words I wanted the students to chew over and define for themselves, in groups. We had eleven students, grouped 4-4-3 at three different tables. Discussion began... then faltered... then a gloomy silence fell as the students reached the paltry limits of their myth- and religion-related vocabulary.

And that's why it was good to have overprepared. I had reams of material on hand. We struggled through the basic concepts, and then I whipped out my gigantic sheaf of notes and told the students I would be leading them through a summary of Hesiod's Theogony, which is the main source for legends about the Beginning in Greek reckoning. The original work (available as e-text here, with notes and comments) was too long for my purposes, so I made do with Wikipedia's wordy summary (though I'm thinking I should have stuck with Edith Hamilton instead).

The students perked up at this point, because Wikipedia and I were giving the girls the uncensored version of the narrative. Koreans grow up learning about myths and legends from other cultures, and are very familiar with Greco-Roman divinities, most of whose names they know in forms that are closer to the original Greek pronunciation than the names we anglophones know. However, those myths are often transmitted to Koreans in watered-down comic book form, material readable by children and not bound to include any of the ugly, gritty tropes from the original story.

So my students watched me ape disgust at the thought of incest. They laughed as I pantomimed Ouranos' (Uranus') reaction to having his dick sliced off by his son Kronos, who had done the deed at the prompting of his mother, Gaea (Gaia, Earth). I mimed Kronos' picking up the severed dick and throwing it into the ocean, and stopped my histrionics periodically to offer snide commentary about how foul and perverse these myths actually were. Incest was particularly creepy for my students: Zeus, as you know, married his sister Hera, and Ouranos regularly had sex with his mother Gaea. Oh, yes-- I also mimed Ouranos' stuffing of his children back into Gaea's womb, then used my big, swollen belly to depict the pain that Gaea was going through, with her children stuffed back inside her.

This part of the three hours was probably the best. The students didn't quite get the various cycles of creation (beginning with primordial Chaos, then moving onward to the various other forces, titans, gods, and so on), but they understood enough for us to move on to the next phase, which was the naming of the Olympian gods in both the Greek and Roman manner. We covered ten of the twelve Olympians (my sources noted that the identity of the remaining two Olympians tended to vary depending on the storyteller), and briefly touched on their famous roles (a lot of people didn't know Hephaestos, a.k.a. Vulcan, le dieu forgeron).

Somehow, time passed more or less amiably. That second hour, the one during which I mimed my heart out and did my best to make the Theogony come alive for kids who could barely speak any English, was probably the best of the three. The third hour, while not as lively as the second, wasn't too bad, either. Having stolen a last-minute idea from a coworker, I went the comparative route, giving students passages from the Rig Veda (the famous creation hymn, RV 10.129) and the first two chapters of Genesis. I think the students were weirded out by the vedic hymn, which includes a series of slyly posed questions that make one believe the writer/s was/were in on some weird joke.

I managed to sneak in some remarks about my own field of study, and this led to an interesting tangent. One thing I had wanted the students to think about was the question, "What is religion?" They were as stumped in the third hour as they had been in the first hour,*** so during that third hour I force-fed them one possible way of looking at religion: religion can be thought of in terms of belief, action, community, and truth/reality. The first three elements are self-explanatory (of course, you could argue about whether "community" necessarily belongs in that list), but it was when I focused on the "truth/reality" section that the discussion got interesting.

By "truth/reality," I mean the objective, absolute reality to which religion is a response, and which is therefore the template for the truth a given religion proclaims. "What's the truth according to Christianity?" I asked my students. It took some doing, but I got the two or three Christians in the class to note that there is one triune God, and that Jesus (i.e., God the Son) died for all our sins. "What's the truth according to Buddhism?" I asked.

No one seemed quite clear on this, and there were no Buddhists in the class. Finally, one student attempted an answer: "Buddhism says that... we can all become gods?"


I wrote the Chinese characters for "no-self" (mu-a) and emptiness (gong) on the board and spent a few minutes attempting to convey what those terms mean. I probably focused more on the no-self idea (and, sadly, didn't get into dependent co-arising or any other core Buddhist concepts), and that's when a student asked the million-dollar question. Not knowing how to phrase it in English, she asked in Korean, "If there's no self, then what about hwan-saeng?" In the Buddhist context, this term would be translated as "rebirth." In the Hindu context, it would be "reincarnation." I explained that the Hindu concept generally includes a solid, unchanging atman (self, kernel of personal being), whereas the Buddhists see "self" as particulate, fundamentally nonexistent, the parts flowing along together thanks to the momentum of karma.

To illustrate this, I grabbed a handful of coins from my wallet, put them on the desk in front of me, and pointed at the group of coins. "That's my 'self,'" I said. "Now watch." I then put my hand on top of all the coins, and shoved them so that they all slid together as a group across the table's surface. "You still see a group of coins, moving along together," I said. "But look at how they move. Nothing's really holding them together, except the push I gave them." I'm not sure the students got it, and I doubt I convinced my questioner of the doctrine of no-self (which puts her in the company of people like Dr. Vallicella), but I did the best I could on short notice.

Not long after, I freaked out the Christians in the class by doing a comparison of the two creation stories in Genesis, laying out the steps of creation in Chapters One and Two in columns on the blackboard for all to see. It dawned on the students that the second story, from the J (Yahwist) tradition, was disturbingly different from the first (the P, or Priestly, tradition). I had printed out the Genesis passage from an online source; one of the Christians asked me, after class, whether the story really looked that way in an actual Bible. I leered and said, "Yes; go check out a Korean Bible tonight!" she left looking rather troubled.

Heh. Mission accomplished.

Seriously, though: I don't derive quite the cruel satisfaction I used to from going through the whole "the emperor has no clothes" routine. After a while, such behavior seems childish. My purpose today was merely to do a bit of comparative work (I have Nathan to thank, in part, for the inspiration); giving my Christian students something new to think about was an incidental benefit.

The students left the lecture with mixed feelings. I'm sure that some were wondering how the hell they would survive another three hours in such a class. They were in a decidedly better mood than they had been during that first painful hour, but it was obvious that That Old Kevin Magic hadn't worked as well as it could have.

Some of the blame definitely falls to me. Although I had been against this sort of sink-or-swim style of CBI, I also knew back in December that I would be teaching a group with mixed levels. While I think the Big Boss was wrong to stress the need for a lecture component (ironically, my overpreparedness allowed me to fill the silence by lecturing at some length), I should have made the decision to ignore my boss's wishes back in December, instead of agonizing at the last minute over how best to shove lecturing into the corner. This waffling on my part led to bad planning and definitely harmed the quality of the lesson I had hoped to teach. It was only after finding myself during the second hour that I averted total disaster, but still... the damage had been done. It had always been clear to me that a motley group composed of students of wildly varying proficiency levels would need special handling, and that straight lecture simply wouldn't cut it. For the next three weeks, I'll follow my instincts instead of letting my boss dictate terms.

Strangely enough, despite all the problems, most of the students were friendly on their way out of the class, and a couple even hung back to ask more questions about Genesis ("Why does God say, 'Let us make man in our image'? Who's the 'us'?"). I ended the day tired as hell and unable even to think (hence the short blog entries earlier), yet somehow still in a good mood. Something-- I'm not sure what-- must have gone right.

Epilogue: Tomorrow, I'm teaching my free French class and hosting the English Circle again, then probably spending my evening at the office madly planning next week's lessons. Friday is, technically, a day off for us during intensive semesters. I sometimes wonder why I do this to myself.

*"Just 'history'?" you ask. Yeah-- me, too. I was wondering what that meant.

**Some of the entries had been vandalized by some prankster. I was simultaneously amused and annoyed. Aha-- the entries in question seem to have been cleaned up. For now.

***Not for lack of insights, mind you, but for lack of English vocabulary. Even though most of the students on my roll were classified as "intermediate" or "advanced," they simply weren't ready for this sort of heavy-duty activity. I felt worse than you can imagine during that first hour, especially when I saw the crestfallen looks on so many of their faces.


No comments: