Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Emptiness of Words; Expectations

Today I had a couple of conversations with some fellow teachers at the college that I found really informative. Two different people were complaining about the students' constant use of "general" language in their writing. "Chinese students like to use a lot of empty words," one of them said. I wasn't sure what she meant. "You know, words like lovely, beautiful..."

Actually, the (over)use of these words is also something I have kind of been marveling at. The view of my colleagues, generally, is that the students are being lazy when they use this kind of language, that they need to work harder at expanding their vocabularies and at describing things in detail. From my (naive) perspective, though, I find this language oddly moving. It's not at all unusual for a student to write a sentence like "I think my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world" or "My friend is a lovely, sweet, and kind girl." When I see this, I think, wow, they're expressing a lot with a limited L2 vocabulary -- good for them! But maybe I just want to believe I can see a wealth of meaning and feeling behind these "empty" words; maybe the other teachers are right. I suspect the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.


Expectations: well, they can and should change. I went into the writing classes not knowing what to expect, but assuming that my students would be fairly competent English readers at this point. Now that I've seen them once and seen their writing, I've had a chance to rethink my ideas and adjust the type and amount of work I hope to do with them.

Also, I expected that I'd have a pretty big degree of freedom in designing my course, since all the instruction we got when we arrived here was "here are your books, use them if you want to, or not, no problem." However, 3 weeks into the semester, I've learned that I am supposed to consult with another (Chinese) teacher -- who's teaching the other sophomore writing classes -- and make sure our courses are "the same," or as he diplomatically put it, "basically similar." Apparently the issue is that feathers will be ruffled the powers that be get to feeling like our students aren't learning the same information in our respective courses. (Cause, I guess, that would be like dis-orderly or something? I think this may be a cultural thing that's beyond me.)

Luckily, my colleague and I -- though we have different ideas about how to approach the course(s) -- have a lot in common*: we're both new at this university, we both find it a bit frustrating that we are being asked to compromise, and we both agree that as long as the students are learning fundamentals of writing, there shouldn't be a problem. Of course, I'll let you know later whether we agree on what the "fundamentals of writing" are...

(*Also, he is only L2 English speaker I have met here who regularly and correctly employs the word "sucks" -- as in "their writing sucks" -- in conversation, which makes me feel right at home, somehow.)

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