Wednesday, August 08, 2012

affect gauge

One day I gave the students something to do, like talking to each other, and observed that at least one was still wearing a winter jacket, even though the classroom itself was quite hot. I was always one to fix such disparities; for example, I'd open the door, if necessary, when it got too hot, but I couldn't simply take off this student's jacket, wouldn't dream of it, and that's when it occurred to me. Such things are psychological. A jacket is protection against a hostile world.

Now here's the tricky thing. Such things as electronic dictionaries, leading the student back to native language, are the same. Cell phones, they are the same too. A familiar world, native language, one's can you resist?

Toward the end of my teaching days I was in 75-minute classes and, since I tend to talk a lot sometimes, I noticed that the student-to-phone ratio was going up. In my early days I would have responded by saying, these students need to be busier. They need to be so busy using English that they don't have time or even the ability to turn to their phone. And I would have done it. Put them in groups, give them a reading exercise, have them write something - anything to keep the wheels turning in English somehow.

I never prohibited phones or electronic dictionaries for a simple reason. Although they are a terrible distraction, they take students' minds off of what is at hand, and, as a diversion away from learning their total effect is negative, they were of use to me. I could always tell when students were bored, and I could always do something about it. I used them as a gauge. I allowed them freely, then addressed the affect nature of what I saw.

At one point I remember saying this, and I'm not exactly proud of it. You wouldn't' take a blanket or a pacifier from a baby, because they would cry, and because simply removing it does not remove the insecurity that caused them to need it. The reason I'm not proud of this is because any blatant comparison of students to babies is embarrassing and brings up a host of justified complaints. They're not babies. They're not even kids. They were, for me at least, fully grown adults. But still, they had their insecurities, as do I, and I'm 58, this ain't my first rodeo, so to speak. What I'm saying is this. If you watch people closely, you can see that they wear their feelings about a situation, and you can address those feelings, make them more comfortable, make it easier for them to simply produce English or do things that will help their overall progress. This is true for people of all ages.

Now here's another interesting thing to consider. Somebody mentioned, perhaps in Funny Times, that it was only a matter of time before you could literally call up websites in front of your eyes, without even the benefit of a laptop or tablet, simply have the web with you as you go, and use it at will. And this obviously will not be good for navigating sidewalks and roads, look what texting does to traffic now...but it will provide an interesting way to measure what people do and how they feel. How many are checking the weather? How many would do Facebook and walk at the same time? How many like to be at a good site, say Facebook, when times get rough wherever they are? How many simply like to appear to be connected when they walk around, because that appearance alone gives them a sense of security?

Presumably computers can measure this stuff. Then, next step, build into Rosetta Stone, or whatever program you are using to promote language learning, an affect-responding device. When their jacket is on, start with this easy, mellow, friendly, non-threatening piece of English. Until they take off their coat, of their own accord, because they are so busy, and having so much fun, that they just feel like they don't need it anymore.

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teaching ITA's

I have arrived in Texas and am preparing for my assignment here, which will have three parts: 1) teaching ITA's, 2) teaching Linguistics, and 3) working in a writing lab. On the ITA front, I've been reviewing some of the past work I've done with ITA's, and I found myself saying, first off, that what international teaching assistants have the hardest time with, on a day-to-day basis, is the interactive nature of the American classroom. American students expect to be able to communicate: to show the teacher they don't understand, or show the teacher they don't agree, and they expect the teacher to respond. Now that doesn't mean students are equals of teachers, or that students respect the teachers less here. It doesn't even mean that the teacher has any obligation to agree, or change delivery, or change anything. But the teacher is, for cultural reasons, expected to notice, and do something about it. And this is true for virtually every minute of every class.

Aside from that, I know that generally international teachers demonstrate a general maxim that intonation is far more important than pronunciation. One reason is that while we analyze pronunciation constantly, and can adjust to individual pronunciation idiosyncrasies, we have much more trouble adjusting to discordant intonation, because we aren't analyzing it in the same side of our brain. Thus we are especially rattled by international teachers from places where their intonation is likely to set off jarring emotions that may interfere with our normal understanding of, say, a routine psychology lecture. Intonation is used to convey emotions in English, and certain intonations, standard in some languages for lectures, are likely to make us feel put down, diminished, intimidated. What do you do after an hour of this kind of lecture? Go home angry. Save up your hostility for the class evaluation. Do worse on the exams.

The heck of it is, nobody can ever tell the lecturer this. Ask the students what the problem is, and they'll blame it on pronunciation, which is a reasonable cover for something they really can't explain, or don't know why they are upset about it. Here they have a person who they know is nice, wants them to learn, cares about them, reaches out to them, yet, every hour they end up feeling crappy, degraded, etc. It's a kind of discord, but it's classic and it plays out all across the US as international teaching assistants teach what, a large percent of lecture classes.

Then it appears that what international teaching assistants are more likely to be doing, is teaching labs, in classes such as chemistry, biology, etc. What does a lab instructor do? Somehow the lectures are supposed to come out as practical assignments in the lab. I picture people pouring chemicals from one test tube to another, or poking at a dead frog before pulling out its kidney. What kind of things do you have to ask the lab attendant? There is a certain dynamic here. "Ask your friend" becomes a more likely response than "ask a teacher" when it is too hard to ask the teacher, or you are too likely to get a response you can't work with. Sometimes teachers are nice, present, willing, even aggressive and people still don't ask the teacher. But my sense is that the lab instructor is really required to have a more practical approach than the lecturer. How for example do you show someone how to do something, so that next time they can do it themselves? Or so that they do not feel totally robbed of self-esteem? Or so that their budding love of chemistry, or whatever, is cultivated rather than squelched? And to what degree does the approach of the lab instructor really make a difference?

These are questions I'll try to answer this semester. I bring everything I've picked up over about thirty years of teaching. I have an entirely new environment. But, as one guy said to me here in Texas, this ain't my first rodeo.

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