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Published: September 7th 2012
Less than ten minutes into the student orientation for the Harvard Summer intensive English program, the third cell phone rang. Actually, it didn’t ring. It made the shut down noise. Voldermort’s (names have been changed to protect the not so innocent) head whipped up like a vulture startled from its scavenging. Glaring with beady predator eyes into the darkness of the auditorium, she snarled, “Bring me that cell phone this instant!” Nobody moved. She repeated herself. Still nobody moved. “Are you a coward or a liar?” she mocked. Then for the next twenty minutes, some 440 students, many of whom didn’t speak enough English to understand anything she said, and 40 teachers, who unfortunately did, sat in silence staring at the ferocious sneering gorgon on the stage. This may have been when she finally snapped and went from sadistic to plain old crazy. After another ten minutes of silence, she extended a withered bony finger eerily reminiscent of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing Scrooge to his own grave and thundered, “Peter pays for Paul, and Paul pays for all. No one will receive the All Requirements Met mark for this summer.”
Welcome to Harvard! Welcome to America!
Land of the free, home of the brave, and idolaters of the cult of radical individualism - except, apparently, at the Kremlin in Cambridge. For the privilege of attending Harvard and about $10,000k (tuition + room and board for 8 weeks), students failed to meet the program’s requirements before they even attended the first day of classes. Notwithstanding the Stalinesque ethics of collective guilt, I wondered about the legality of such a proclamation. Perhaps most importantly, Voldermort had introduced the program’s unique pedagogical approach - language learning through terror. This was the first definite indication that I had agreed to work for a lunatic.
Actually, I should have known something was amiss during the interview. In general, my impression of an interview is that there are two parties, the interviewer, who asks questions, and the interviewee, who answers them. The interviewer then decides whether or not you know ass from your elbow, if you torture cats for fun, and if you are likely to steal paperclips from the office. This was very different. In an hour and a half, I spoke for perhaps ten minutes while Voldermort waxed poetic about the virtues of the program and proper phonemic versus
phonetic transcription. Although unorthodx, I was grateful due to a couple of extraneous factors.
First of all, Voldermort insisted the interview be at high noon Boston time, which is 8 pm in Addis. I asked if perhaps we could choose another day given the time difference and the tiny fact (which I didn’t mention) that I had already told about 25 people to come to my house for a barbecue. This was impossible.
Another complication was that I had to talk to her on my cell phone. The week before, the Ethiopian government had decided that Skype was illegal. Apparently the Arab Spring had spooked the authorities, and it is harder to monitor voice-over IP. Not so with cell phones. At about minute thirty, the authorities got curious what we were talking about. For the next hour, it sounded like she was talking to me through a long cardboard wrapping-paper tube while simultaneously eating popcorn. I understood about 20 percent, so I limited myself to thoughtful interjections like ‘uh-huh‘ and ‘okay’. Meanwhile, the barbecue had moved inside and turned into a salsa party in the living room. When the interview finished, I stumbled out of the back bedroom dazed and confused, but miraculously, with a job teaching at Harvard.
While many aspects of the IEL program are well-thought out, others are less so. It is probably a good idea to have language students wrestle with ideas and authentic texts rather than endlessly doing fill-in the blank grammar exercises. It complicates things, however, if the teacher is expressly forbidden to teach, and there are students who write ‘new clear power pants‘ when they hear ‘nuclear power plants’.
In Voldermort’s program, teacher-fronted classrooms are expressly prohibited. Instead, students are supposed to independently research topics and then in class collectively tease out the meaning in group discussion - some kind of discovery learning. Undermining the proverbial sage on the stage teaching methodology is admirable, but there is no scenario where ten non-native speakers read a dense philosophical treatise that is at least fifteen percent gibberish and then in small groups outline the parameters of Modernism and Postmodernism in order to clarify the authors’ conceptualization of a new emerging paradigm known as Metamodernism. I also don’t have any faith that one intuits how to write academic essays by reading Moreen Dowd. Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the rules and tried desperately not to teach anything. Occasionally, I would accidentally do so, but this was usually during the entirely teacher-fronted ‘bonus’ classes I offered during the lunch break.
The next eight weeks were heinous for everyone involved. There was a twenty-two page single spaced annotated syllabus that no one read, two Dickens novels, a class reader that ignored entirely the fact that there is a significant cultural component to knowledge, and the aforementioned philosophical treatise. Along the way, dozens of students in the program got their visas revoked and were sent home for violating the zero absence / zero tardiness policy. Cowed teachers did ridiculous things like report a student with a prosthetic leg for being two minutes late. One teacher fell on a metal fence and ripped out her sphincter, another got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than a few showed clear signs of an impending mental breakdown. In the end, some of the students managed to learn a little English despite the best efforts of the teachers not to teach. Nevertheless, most of us got what we came for. The students get to write Harvard on their transcripts, and I get to write it on my CV.
As the summer session came to its merciful end, we learned that gorgons neither forgive nor forget. An email came: Voldermort's “statement to the entire student body with regard to no student receiving an AR (all requirements met) still stands. Whether any student receives an MR (most requirements met) or NM (requirements not met), based on the student's performance in class, which includes preparation, attendance, class participation, quality of work, is up to you. Remember in awarding codes that IEL is at Harvard.” This message prompted certain teachers not financially dependent on being asked to return the following summer to have discussions with certain administrative Deans affiliated with the university rather than the program. There was also a rumor that someone had talked to the press as administrators telling teachers what grades they can and cannot give students is apparently against the law. Perhaps none of this is related, but the following day, the teachers received another email: “The perpetrator has been identified, and thus class performance can determine student notations.” The gorgon had not been slain, but she had clearly been wounded.
Now thankfully, this little summer teaching experience is finished. I have returned to the important business of sitting on the front porch with the cat watching the rain come down. I am again unemployed, which should be tolerable for about a week. Then I must begin again the scheming on how to escape from Addis Ababa.
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