Writing is Fun, and Publishing Is Easy

The prose that is hard to write is not the prose in which you formulate your research ideas. It is the prose that justifies the purchase of books to entities which believe universities can conduct research without them. And the teaching that is hard is not the teaching in which you actually draw upon your research expertise, but the teaching of skills you do not remember learning yourself.

Teaching foreign languages is hard. I have 95 foreign language students right now, in addition to 20 upper division students in a couple of subjects and about five graduate committees. The foreign language classes are by far the hardest. You with 50% research assignments, who bemoan the difficulties that beset your research and writing should be out buying gift cards for your instructors and T.A.’s right now. I really mean this and I will repeat it below. Remember that your T.A.’s are also conducting research and I am, too; please do not try to tell me I only say it is not so hard because I do not know what it is, because I do.

If you give a 3 page test, and it takes 20 minutes to grade each test, and you have 95 students, then grading this test takes 31 hours and 40 minutes. That would be just one of the things you would do during a work week. Check it out. If you are, in addition, competing for purposes of tenure and promotion for good student evaluations with the faculty wives who are the instructors and who are able to devote 100% of their time to these courses, you will be fighting a losing battle and you will know it; this will be stressful.

Teaching foreign languages is hard for me in particular because going as slow as you have to is excruciating.  I don’t relate to the difficulty of it for students, although I know it is real. I am a lot better teaching skills building courses in skills I actually had to build with some effort. I could do a better job in freshman and sophomore mathematics, English, and history because I have a better understanding personally of where the difficulties in these subjects lie. I am also not a really social person and getting language out of each individual is like doing intensive therapy on them. It is exhausting.

Most specifically, I dislike teaching foreign languages because:

♦ We have to put students in groups to work together. I think this is a waste of class time except as a special event.

♦ One must create all these transparencies and other visual materials with drawings and photographs of objects, and fight to get projectors to project them on. I dislike doing this, and I disliked having to look at cartoon pictures in the foreign language courses I took.

♦ Matching and multiple choice exercises. Matching especially I found very disorienting as a student and I hate to impose it upon people, but it is in fashion.

♦ “Prereading” exercises. I know we must make students do these nowadays, but I am bored by them and if I were a student, they are exactly the kind of work I would skip to save time. It is good to read introductions to texts you are about to dissect but asking students to talk about how they feel in nature as preparation for reading a poem about nature is far too touchy-feely for me; it also seems like busy work.

♦ Almost every aural comprehension exercise known to mankind. They are far too complicated and stressful. YouTube has endless numbers of music videos and cartoons, subtitled newscasts, soccer, anything you want and it is better.

♦ Grammar lectures followed by “application” of the concepts. I thought that had gone out of style before I was born, but it has risen from its grave and is here, now, biting our neck.

There is more, but that is enough for now. I like taking language classes where you ease into things by easy salutations and conversation about yesterday, and then settle into looking at a videoclip or a text. Then you can start looking at a grammatical issue from the text, and be taught it inductively.  Then you start using that construction yourself and among yourselves, and then class is over. The next day conversation starts using that construction. You just go along and along, without so many interruptions, technical problems, impediments, and other elbows in the ribs.

My larger point, though, is the one I made at the beginning: teaching lower division, developmental and skills building courses is really hard. Much harder than research and writing.  If lower division teaching is not something you do, I repeat: go out this weekend and buy some gift cards for your instructors and T.A.s who are probably eating the last of this month’s groceries right now, holding their breath until next Friday.


15 thoughts on “Writing is Fun, and Publishing Is Easy

  1. Oh, yes. Why do we wind up trying to figure out how to teach the things we are good at, that came easily? I would be much better at teaching math, or history. But my students in English, every year, have fewer and fewer skills that I expect them to have in upper division, and I have to teach them as if they were freshmen or even farther back in their education, and I don’t know how. I wasn’t trained to do that, I don’t remember how I learned these things about grammar, and it is so frustrating. Writing, though, is easy and fun and rewarding.

    1. I’ve got MA courses that look like the sophomore seminar I taught in graduate school, and senior courses that look like what I used to do for freshman reading & comp in connection with world literature. That’s OK since I know how to do it. But the faculty I envy are those who taught K-12 before doing the PhD. They know how to teach things I don’t, but apparently need to know how to do.

      Yes, writing is relaxing and rewarding and makes you grow and feel good, and I wish people wouldn’t insist we transfer all this difficulty and gnashing of teeth onto it.

  2. I don’t use any of the bullet points you listed in class at all except the first one. I’ve abandoned transparencies a while ago. Multiple-choice and pre-reading are things I never did, as much as people who taught me methodology tried to push me into it.

    But I do a lot of group work. Everything is pretty much group work in my language classes. What can be an alternative to that if none of my language classes have less than 25 students? What do you do instead?

  3. What I do instead: by popular demand — grammar lectures, and showing how to do homework. Put the workbook up on a transparency and do it before their eyes. They marvel at this and say it is mega helpful. Also show how to conjugate verbs. I am not kidding. Also, call on everyone, get them to ask each other questions, play team games, have semi staged debates where the audience is required to ask questions and object. This is Louisiana and if you don’t have super tight control of the whole group at all times then it turns Carnavalesque. In the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, you have to have small groups for everything and also assign people to go out for coffee with each other after class. I am not joking – I have evaluations that talk about loving to be assigned out of class group work there (here they’d hate that).

    What they are against is the idea of conversation in class or using the class as practice. They do not believe in this, they believe in learning, namely, I should explain and then they should understand and then they should know. This is apparently how the majority teach. There are instructors with up to 8 classes, which would be 240 students, so they can’t ask for any productive skills in writing, as they would never be able to read it.

  4. That is very hard, and even if you are good at it, you know it’s not the right way to teach a language.
    This brings up a lot of sour memories for me.

  5. Teaching foreign languages is bad in any situation – it really, really bores me and I’d much rather spend the time doing something else boring where one didn’t also have to deal with people at this intense level – but doing it in these circumstances is torture, yes.

    Remember also, the students and the instructors stuck in the 1950s are the ones with all the power, and we are their servants according to them (we are supposed to “deliver content” in ways that fit their “learning styles”).

  6. I love teaching languages, but don’t have 95 students nor do any of the bullet points you mention other than group work and pre-reading (which is usually just getting them to talk about the subject, not necessarily their feelings, so I can check their vocab knowledge). Then again, no one takes Arabic because they think it will be easy, so I luck out with a somewhat self-selecting group.

  7. So… when I said, after my first week of teaching in the US, that I was astonished and appalled at how little the juniors and seniors knew, I was, in fact, not being terribly foreign and condescending and culturally insensitive? Isn’t that lovely to know. A lot of ‘liberal’ Americans have this strange apologetic tendency to portray themselves as an underachieving whole, which is very odd, because surely those universities, although they did house many immigrant geniuses, were not built on foreign merit alone?

    1. U.S. high school graduation now means knowing about as much as I knew after finishing fifth grade, which I did at age 10, a normal age to finish fifth grade, at a perfectly decent, but not necessarily stellar public school. The things I learned in the sixth grade are the things I most commonly impart to college and even some early level graduate students.

  8. It’s completely different in lesser taught languages or if the students respect or appreciate the cultural group whose language they are studying.

    I’m from Comp Lit not a national language program and the natural first course for me isn’t foreign language, it’s intro to lit or comp.

    Khawattir, that’s not the newfangled complicated prereading that comes in textbooks and so on, that’s just introducing the text the way one has always done and always does in every class, at every level.

    It’s good to know nobody else is doing this transparency and aural exercise c***. I hate, hate it but I am told I am merely antiquated. I am told that because I have studied and learned so many languages I need to shut up and not use any of the things that worked for me, because I wouldn’t know what works for others, because I am good at languages.

  9. As everyone can see I am in a very foul mood about all of this and I guess it means it is about time to rebel and take power. No freakin’ matching, no freakin’ multiple choice, no matter how much the other faculty and the students insist. I SO hate matching, hated it in elementary school, hate it now.

  10. Pingback: Priyanka Nandy

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