Monday, May 28, 2007

Teaching English at University: A dream lay dying

This is not a tale of teaching ESL in Korea but serious look at Journalism professor, Bill Maxwell, who chose to teach at a historic black college as part of a debt he felt he owed his own wonderful professors.

The article in full is here and I found it linked from Clicked.

I think 'historic black college' has a specific meaning and it may be clear to others. I may have missed it. My impression is the college this professor taught at was quite small, had been built specifically for black students and may have had a large percentage of donations, scholarships and subsidies operating to the student's benefit.

My own university is completely different from the idealized one I characterized (accurately or not) above. There are scholarships but also mine is a private university with tuition much higher that of provincial or national schools.

As I read the article, I was struck by the similarities and contrasts with my own situation.

During those first few weeks of school, the new equipment began arriving and my
hopes continued to rise. My first year at Stillman, which had fewer than 1, 000
students, had not been as smooth or as fulfilling as I had hoped. My students'
academic performance had been generally disappointing, and I could not persuade
most students to even attend class regularly.
Well, I teach nearly 500 students myself and there are more than 15 foreign teachers at my university, so while not a large school, we dwarf Stillman.
The classes I teach are mandatory and not in the student's major. They take ESL because they must. Maxwell's students should be somewhat interested in their studies as it was their own choice that brought them there.
My colleagues and I were witnessing the result of low admission standards. Were
we expecting too much of young people who scored poorly on the SAT, who were
rarely challenged to excel in high school, who were not motivated to take
advantage of opportunities to learn, who could not imagine where a sound
education could take them?
My student's were challenged and possibly even threatened to excel at high school but my university is a lower tier school so the bit about low admission standards is right on.
Maxwell describes how a white professor asked for assistance, wondering if there was a racial barrier in class:
A few minutes into my exchange with the class, I realized the white professor was not the problem. The students simply did not - or could not - read closely. My colleagues and I could not teach what we had been trained to teach.
"My students don't use me, " an English professor said. "At most, I may run into two or three a year who make me work. Talking over your students' heads is a waste of everybody's time."
My students don't appear able to take notes. Most arrive with the textbook and a pen and a few will bring a notebook (although they may not use them) and others arrive with only their cellphones.
I wonder if I teach over my student's heads. I think I'ved learned a few things from this article and will comment more fully at the end.
Many of my Stillman colleagues regularly invited their students to their homes for dinner. The discussions often were about personal matters involving romantic relationships, family crises and money problems. Professors were the first confidants many students ever had. Indeed, they often became surrogate parents.
We foreign professors can probably never get that close to most students. A very few times, I have eaten with my students. Again, with 450+ students in my classes, it would bankrupt me to take them to dinner.
The bottom line was the same as it is at most HBCUs.
Professors who had the best success connecting with students, especially
below-average male students, emphasized friendly, personal and supportive
involvement in their lives. For example, Stephen Jackson, who taught sports
writing, was an effective professor because he understood the importance of
winning students' trust. He even ate lunch in the cafeteria with students each
We foreign professors (or maybe just I) do have a looser relationship with our students. We are professors, but not 'real' professors. Most of us use our given names in class and are more familiar in class than a typical prof would be. This is part of 'Conversational English', in my opinion.
"Relax and be comfortable speaking in front of the whole class...but call me Sir", just doesn't work.

The flexible professor encouraged lively exchanges of subject matter, ideas, beliefs and opinions during class discussions. The flexible professor often did not require written responses or exams. The flexible professor let students keep pace by retaking exams, completing take-home exams or giving classroom presentations.

I had difficulty becoming flexible. The majority of my students in the English class failed to complete most of the assigned readings. Most of their essays were unacceptable, and attendance was low. I had a choice: Abandon my syllabus or flunk more than half of the class.

I abandoned the syllabus. Instead, I lectured and made assignments based on the problems and errors in the students' writing. I went over the same material, such as writing the topic sentence, again and again because some students could not master it.

Flexibility is the name of the game in Korea. Things change from week to week and two days warning is the local definition of 'long term planning'. Again, I will discuss this more at the end; I quote it now because I see strong similarity with my own classes.
Maxwell's colleague gives her observations of the students:
"Our kids haven't had many good things in their lives, " she said. "Many of them are angry and negative and rude. They've had hard lives.
Some of them don't belong here."
I would say the opposite is true here. Well, the students have had hard lives, being trapped in the hagwon system awaiting the entrance exam from Hell. Still, they have never worried about money or some form of parental support.
I always was amazed that so many of the women tolerated the
crude way the men spoke to them. One afternoon in my English class, a male
student called a young woman "a big-assed ugly bitch." I expected her to slap
him, and I would not have intervened. Instead, she dismissed the whole thing
with a wave of her hand and turned to chat with her roommate. After class, I
asked her about the insult.
I am not sure about the male/female interactions that go on in my class. I do hear phrases and comments, that in their tone and timing and the response they get, would seem to be insulting, but I don't think they are as mean-spirited as in the quote above. I do hear a lot of 'fuck you' in class from one student to another. I would throw the student out if I could be sure who it was. It mostly seems a sort of elementary school boy chatter, like the French curses my classmates and I used thirty years ago. A curse is more funny than stinging when given in a foreign language.
"Have you noticed that our students never have a sense of
urgency?" a colleague asked one afternoon as we walked to a faculty meeting.
"They don't seem to be going anywhere in particular. They just stand around or
mosey along. Frivolity."
That seems to be the case here. Korean students think the excuse, "I am late because I was sleeping" is sufficient. University is nationally considered a time to play in Korea.

He was right. Greek organization activities such as step
shows - the rhythmical, patterned dance movements favored by fraternities and
sororities - and any excuse to party and play music were the most important
events on campus.
I have an evening class this semester and have seen the classrooms come alive at night. Three rooms each have their own dance routine going on.
The effects of poverty made teaching and learning arduous. I
asked a student why she always fell asleep in my reporting and news writing
"I work full-time at Target at night, " she said. "I can't get enough
This I don't see in my classes. Oh, I see a lot of sleepy students, but few from working long hours. The ones that do work, I do my best to support.
Each week after that, I went to Kmart and CVS and shopped
for travel-size cosmetics and toiletries to replenish the basket. I learned that
several other professors also found acceptable ways to make personal items
available to students free of charge.
Maxwell is talking again about poverty. This isn't something I face in many classes but his generosity and desire to help his students is admirable.
Campus-wide, professors bought many of their classroom and
office supplies. In my building, for example, we rarely had an ample supply of
paper for our copy machine. I learned early to buy my own paper and keep it in
my desk.
I do this, too. I don't think my university is low on funds, they, uh... I'm going to avoid negative comments about my university. Complaining about unnamed students is one thing but I have mentioned the name of my university before (heck, its one of my tags) and I don't want to cross Korea's libel laws.
While disagreeable staff members and financial red tape were
constant irritants, nothing was more appalling than the students' disregard for
college property.
The staff members are a joy here. I have received all the help I could ask for, although I have had to ask to what I thought would be obvious things.
Disregard for college property is common here although I haven't noticed any fires as he later describes. Classroom fill with garbage and every inch desk space is grafittied.
By the end of the spring semester, I knew that I could not
remain at Stillman another year. I had a few good students, but a few were not
enough. One morning as I dressed for work, I accepted the reality that too much
of my time was being wasted on students who did not care. I felt guilty about
wanting to leave. But enough was enough.
I feel for Maxwell. He was clearly a motivated professor who was worn down by unmotivated students.
I've been writing with amusement and seeing irony in the comparison with Maxwell's situation and my own. We both have students with low SAT scores. Our students are untrained in western classroom skills. Many of his students had hard lives while mine generally do not. Our students are interested in the "University life" but not in studying. His difficulties have led him to go elsewhere while mine are clearly not so bad.
He finds it necessary but difficult to connect with his students as I do. He recognised what a professor needed to do in that setting but had difficulty.
At the end of last semester, I posted some suggestions I had for last year. I think Maxwell has some good suggestions and will soon follow this post up with suggestions for myself for next year.

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