Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Every Coin Has Two Sides*

(*or, Every Chinese Student's Favorite Maxim)

Just now, I found myself unable to answer a student who asked me whether it's OK to argue both sides of an issue in an essay. I suddenly felt conflicted, even paralyzed, first thinking:

Of course you can't do that. If every essay argued two different sides of an issue, then every thesis statement would be "moderation is good."

(Or would it be "moderation has both good and bad aspects?")

But wait, is this cultural imperialism? You know, "you must take a stand, fight for your individual opinion, show why you are right like a good American..."

Then I started going through all the contrastive (now called intercultural!) rhetoric stuff: do I believe "Chinese logic is circular" -- thanks a lot, Kaplan 1966 --or not? And, do I have to teach American writing conventions, or do I leave room for them to write "Chinese-style" essays in English? And how can I tell the difference between Chinese rhetoric and poor "Western" rhetoric?

And then I got even more concerned: Am I even teaching them about how to come up with thesis statements at all? So far we've talked a lot about "topics," and I've told them that their thesis needs to be supported by detailed, specific examples, but how much time have I put in to making sure they know how to craft worthwhile thesis statements? Is every thesis statement simply going to be "we should do X" or "X is bad?"

Which led to the other ultimate concern which plagues me every time I speak with the other sophomore English writing teacher, who focuses more on mechanics in his classes: Have I gone too far altogether by focusing on ideas and arguments instead of sentence structure, mechanics, grammar, vocabulary, diction?

I have a long way to go if I ever want to get as far as this guy...(ha ha!)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chinese English (pt 2): "I have right to speak English in this way."

After my students read Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" (yes, I realize this is utterly unoriginal in terms of comp class readings), I asked them this question:

Amy Tan believes that there is not only one way to speak English, but many different “Englishes.” Do you agree or disagree? We know about “American English” and “British English,” but can you describe “Chinese English?”

I expected that I'd get a lot of answers telling me the Chinese English (or "Chinglish," as some call it) is sub-standard and that students should work hard to improve their English. Why did I expect this? Because a lot of times, students like to give the answers they think we want to hear. I've read a ton of freewrites that end with something like "I know I must be a good student and study harder."

Actually, though, about 90% of the responses concluded the following basic points (my paraphrase):

1. Chinese English is as valid as any other English.
2. Chinese people can understand each other when they use Chinese English, so what's the problem?
3. As long as the basic meaning comes across, it's not necessary to use "correct" English grammar.

some even added:
4. Chinese English will eventually become known as a standard English*.

One of my favorite responses reads, in part:

"Sometime we use the wrong tense that American cannot understand what we say but we think we do the good work. And most of us pronunciation is not correct. It is easy misunderstanding. But I have right to speak English in this way."

Some responses indicated a pretty sophisticated understanding of language (as in, who decides what is the right way to speak English anyway?), while some were more nationalistic. One thing's clear: these students have no problem with Chinese English. What does this mean for me as a teacher of "academic English writing" in China? I don't know yet...

* I'll also mention here that almost all of my students, when unscientifically polled, believe in the inevitability of Chinese replacing English as the "international language" in the future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Briefly: OWL

The more I use Purdue's OWL (online writing lab), the more I appreciate it. It's a rich resource for students and teachers alike. I just did a lesson on plagiarism based mostly on stuff I found there. (Irony alarm goes off.)

More to come on Chinese English; I have a lot to say about it and so do my students.

Starting to think about next semester's courses. I've been really re-energized by the book Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess. The schedule here is still not ideal -- seeing students only once a week for speaking, and even worse, only twice a month for writing -- but I think we can do some cool stuff next term.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

All night lesson planning extravaganza

4 am, Beijing Time:

I'm in the middle of what may become my first all-nighter since I was a junior in college.

Note to self: don't do this ever again.