A pre-sessional, for those of you lucky enough not to have to worry about this sort of thing, is a course for overseas students who are about to begin degrees at a university. It’s a kind of benign square-bashing, where they get to read dense, lengthy texts and take notes on them, listen to lectures, and write essays. (‘I ave nevair writ a hessay’, François told me. ‘What I must do?’ God help us, another undergraduate who has never written an essay and doesn’t know where to start.) They find out the hard way that they may not simply copy and paste text from web pages, that tutors will not tell them exactly what to do and when to do it, and that they must manage their time and meet deadlines. It all comes as quite a shock to many.
My group of graduate students asked me if we could do some work on summary writing. On Tuesday morning, therefore, I announced the admittedly unexciting news that we would do as they had asked. I wrote on the whiteboard:
SUMMARIES – What? Why? When? How?
and asked the students in groups to pool their knowledge, so as to discover what they knew and didn’t know, and therefore what they needed to find out.
Nothing happened. I repeated and checked the instructions, then retired to the back of the room, all eyes following me. A few moments’ silence ensued in which I felt my inner control-freak kicking the door of his cell and hollering to be let out. At such times, I’m reminded of Basil Fawlty attempting to communicate to the uncomprehending Manuel that he would like him to remove two dead pigeons from the water tank: ‘look, Manuel, this is not a proposition from Wittgenstein…’ Anyway, I bit my tongue, and waited. A few sotto, desultory remarks were exchanged, followed by much silent contemplation of the table tops.
‘Right,’ I said, when this had gone on long enough. ‘What did you decide?’
Down at the front of the room, an Indian bloke began to define ‘summaries’ and offer some thoughts on their nature and purpose. Unfortunately his accent was thick as channa daal. I nudged the Saudi bloke in front of me and whispered ‘did you understand what he said?’ Headshake no. ‘Well, why don’t you [fucking well] ask him to clarify?’
‘Errr – you can to ummmm, repeat?’ This was said with the same enthusiasm that I might evince if asked to request a Barry Manilow track.
The classroom walls are papered with huge posters bearing useful phrases for requesting repetition and clarification, or expressing polite disagreement, but still it was like pulling teeth for another few minutes, nobody engaging with anyone else, nobody volunteering anything much by way of opinion or advice, so sod it, I took the floor and launched into the session, but did so in Greek. They could tell from my intonation and gestures that every so often I was asking them if they understood. Everyone blinked at me, mildly shocked but amused.
‘I’ve just spent five minutes talking at you in a language nobody here understands, but nobody stopped me, nobody asked me to speak in English or queried what the hell I thought I was doing. Why not?’
Now there were a few sheepish grins and the atmosphere was warming up a bit.
I wrote the word BULLSHIT in large letters on the board and asked for a definition. They all knew what it meant, apart from one Chinese woman who immediately started stabbing at her electronic dictionary, thus missing the explanations offered. Muslim eyebrows were raised at such language from a tutor.
‘Everybody needs a bullshit detector!’ I said, evangelically. ‘Don’t just let it go by if you don’t understand or if you disagree with anyone in the group, me included.’
And so we finally got down to the task in hand.
Christ knows what university rules I might have violated in uttering and writing such language in the presence of students, or what sanctions I might incur if reported - Britain is so bloody mealy-mouthed and scared of offending nowadays, I can't be doing with it. Nobody has reported me, at least not yet. The students are mostly so bomb-shocked by the whole experience of coming to study on the opposite side of the earth that they probably regarded it as just normal weird English behaviour. Anyway, we have had much livelier lessons since then.
Ages ago I was teaching a course in ELT Methodology in Kalamata in Southern Greece. The group was engaged in some task while I wrote the next part of the session up on the board. I became aware that as soon as I started to write, people abandoned their discussions and began to copy. So I interlarded the stuff I was writing with little bits of nonsense; ‘Mickey Mouse!!!’, ‘Whooo-hooo!’, ‘Eggs for Sale’, ‘Ding Dong!’ and similar crap, then suggested a coffee break. Everyone left the room, and I walked round looking at the open notebooks on the tables. Every last word from the board had been assiduously copied down, including those dumb, pointless interjections. All over the world, then, intelligent adults are depositing their bullshit detectors at the front doors of those very institutions that should insist they be kept about their persons and switched on at all times. Scary, innit?