On the Woods, and their Potential Invisibility from the Trees

multicultural-robert-danielsI am preparing for one of my favorite classes at the university: Academic Writing. It’s my favorite for a number of reasons.

It’s a challenge for all involved. It’s a focused development of an academic skill that the students will (Vishnu willing) see both progress in and real life application of. And it’s writing.

While I do like the course, planning for it is very time-consuming. Today’s preparation is perhaps extra challenging, because tomorrow, we are rebelling.

This is a required course for all first year students in our English department, as well as exchange students. Therefore, it’s one big mixed bag of multicultural nuts. There are Mexicans, Irish, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Koreans, a German, and a Lithuanian. And me.

It’s like a meeting at the United Nations, but with fewer translators and more candy.

The final assessment for this course is in the form of one argumentative essay, which is assigned in the 6th week and worked on throughout the remaining 6 weeks of the course. Since there are so many different cultures represented in the class, I decided to design an essay task on culture:

What aspects of culture best represent yours?

What a masterpiece.

I patted myself on the back all the up to my epiphany. Epiphanies are a fascinating phenomenon. Rogue in nature, they come singly, and at any time, in any place, and during any activity. Their often silent attack evokes a peculiar look, something in between surprise and the look one gives after stubbing their toe on a couch leg but before the pain arrives. As far as I am aware, I have had 23 epiphanies in my life.

My last epiphany came Thursday on a tram at around 12:30 a.m, listening to the Gallon Drunk cover of Series of Dreams, and dying for a late night hotdog, but dreading the carrot that was to be its factual stand-in.

It was this: I have this room filled with young people representing at least eleven different cultures, they are intelligent, speak a common language, they are studying in the capital of a major European country.

And not one of them has spoken to a person not from their own country.

Sadly, this is true.

One of the benefits of having a multilingual ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom is that when you mix them up, they are forced to speak their lingua franca: English. A Chinese student probably can’t speak Czech and a Czech student probably can’t speak Chinese, and if they can it’s very unlikely that they speak it better than they speak English.

However, as this is a writing class and not a language class, I have been lax on mixing up groups. Moreover, the heretofore thought ingenious task I have set all but demands that the different nationalities spend more time working in their homogeneous groups rather than mingling with other nationalities.

So, let’s review the facts. I decide to focus the main assessment task of a writing course on culture and, while I have them research, study, and write on the topic of culture, I fail to exploit the fact that the room is teeming with different cultures. Metaphorically speaking, this is akin to a teacher telling a roomful of medical students to ignore the man having a heart attack on the floor in order to get back to the chapter about coronary trauma.

Not a CV-building moment for me, to be honest.

But I can’t take all the credit. One of the ubiquitous issues of working at a university is that the classroom work is often heavily geared towards a syllabus. There are some very good reasons for this, to be sure: organization, observable progress, structure, etc. And to be sure, the syllabus can be a comfort zone for the teacher, allowing us to settle comfortably into a grammatical and lexical autopilot.

Still, many teachers will tell you that the syllabus often gets in the way of actual teaching. So when a sidetrack (albeit interesting) notion or concept comes up in class, the teacher must decide to either follow it and veer from the syllabus or to let it go and keep things on track. There is not a 100% valid argument for or against either. But there have been moments when I knew I was teaching a syllabus rather than teaching students.

But today, I draw up a rebellious lesson plan. The students will turn away from their groups and they will meet each other. They will talk to people in the room who know a different national anthem, and for whom holidays introduces a whole different set of characters.

In my head, this is a grand idea. But then again, so was the essay topic that blew up in my face like a piñata filled with hand grenades. It may go well, it may not, but at least we’re doing what I think is important and not what happens to be the next point to cover on the syllabus.

Hell. They might find allies in one another. They might realize that they all endure similar frustrations and aggravations. Then they might bond, bind together, and create one fortified group of student will, determination, and focus. And rebel against me.

I better bring candy.

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