February 2009


… and I forget just how completely and utterly exhausting teaching is.  This semester, I have arranged my schedule so I only teach one day a week — Tuesdays — which means three-day weekends (huzzah!) . But it also means all three of my classes in one day, then immediately followed by a little comedy act I like to call Robyn Tries to Learn Hungarian. Today, said act comprised me repeating nagyon fáradt vagyok (I am very tired) while poor Gabi tried to get me to understand indefinite and definite present tenses (to no avail, sajnos).

I remember my mother telling us that no one but a teacher can understand how tiring it is when we used to tease her about long breaks or insist that her job was easier than ours as students. And, of course, in that irritating way mothers tend to be, she is right.  I’ve realized that when I teach, it really is like being on stage, like putting on a show. Particularly because I’m trying to get my students to be very participatory —  everywhere, but especially here, where I am doing it in spite of a general pedagogical culture that stresses passive learning — this show becomes more intense. I find myself teaching with my whole body — arms flying, making faces, doing voices, pacing from table to table.  I remember after my first semester teaching at Lord Fairfax Community College how quickly I learned that 3 hours of teaching was like a 12-hour day at an office job’s worth of energy. But the lovely two months off I got here sort of softened me, and after my second week back teaching, I have a strong desire to sleep until noon tomorrow.

But that said, there is one thing this semester that is great: two of my three classes are loud. My Conversation class barely requires any prodding: they all said they didn’t want to do grammar work, and complained that many have majored in English for many years but never get to speak English. Done and done, I said — we’ll just talk. Today, for instance, to practice speaking English quickly and extemporaneously, we played the game Celebrities. Good fun, and good English practice.

My class on Contemporary American Women Writers — which has many repeat students from last semester —  is simply wonderful, too.  I was worried, at first, to see that no men signed up for the course.  Perchance I did give myself a reputation as a crazy man-hater? I wondered at first.  But that concern faded fast because this group of women is so, so bright. The students talk easily with each other and me, they’re willing to work hard on doing close readings, they see clever things in the writing that I haven’t seen and they have open minds.  Being one who always has had co-ed education, I have long been skeptical of the single-sex education supporters who claim it is better for girls to be on their own, not influenced by male dominance, and so on. I didn’t even consider all-female colleges, for instance. What is the point of being with all girls? Dudes don’t frighten me — and besides, I have to learn to hold my own against them in the “real world” so best start now was always my theory.  Yet,  there is something about the dynamic in my Women Writers course which has me considering a different point of view. Everyone seemed naturally comfortable there. Which, of course, is not to say I don’t want men to take classes on women — indeed, I think it is vital. I simply adored the guys who would “man up” (pun intended) and sign up for courses cross-listed as gender studies or women’s studies in college. But, with a class of students this good, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the lack of male species in this particular course.

Now, my final course,  which is on the History of US Journalism and Media … well, that requires a little … or a lot … more prodding. As usual, I figured this would be the easiest course: we’re studying US history through important works of journalism and important journalism moments, which means scandals and muckracking and all that juicy stuff. Should be naturally enticing, no? But the atmosphere here is just much quieter. I think, in part, it might be that many students are still used to history as a lecture, or that they don’t have the scaffolding in American history to feel comfortable speaking about this subject. I’ve got a few more ideas which I’ll need to pull out  … but if anyone has any tricks in the “Please Get My Class Talking” bag, I’m listening.

And now, I’m going to bed.  Tanítottam, nagyon fáradt vagyok, es alvasom.

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Further proof that I am one walking, talking definition for middle-child syndrome (a.k.a. the type of person who thrives a wee bit too much on the compliments of others … this is always dangerous when Significant Others … or Insignificant Others, as the case often is for me… or students find this out, as it makes it way too easy to get out of trouble with me):

I am totally happy right now because a random Hungarian complimented my accent. Usually, such a small accomplishment in the day would go unnoticed, but I have been feeling like my language skills are actually getting worse, despite my efforts. And I know this is mostly my fault, because I don’t practice enough — I don’t need much Hungarian to get through my daily tasks and my Hungarian friends are mostly English professors, who can converse in my native tongue as well (if not better) than me. Still, after struggling through a class on the difference between the direct and indirect form of “I like” in Hungarian that left poor Gabi perplexed at how to better explain it, I was feeling a bit frustrated. That, plus the fact that, inexplicably, my old Italian skills have started to rear up when speaking Hungarian, so I come up with nicely hybridized phrases like jó napot kívánok, mi chiamo Robyn és tanítok amerikai litteratura. Mi piace molto means I’ve been feeling a bit down about my ability to make any real headway into the culture. (and no, that sentence does not make any sense. In any language).

But this afternoon, I was helping a visitor to the Fulbright Center after the TOEFL workshop by giving him feedback on his speaking section of the practice test. Not to overgeneralize a population, but he was using what might be called the “typical” Hungarian negativity: Oh, I speak English so poorly. I did awfully on this part. I will likely fail… (and yes, I note my own cultural bias here. I call “negative” what another culture might call “humble” or “cautious” because my brash American self is used to the land of the bragging. What we call “optimism” or “confidence” could indeed really be more like “big-headedness.” I get this. However, I do occasionally want to pump Prozac into the water supply. You know, just a little…)

I, of course, spring into the one part of teaching I think I have perfected: cheerleader-ing. Oh no, you spoke very well! Look, I understood eveything perfectly! You used great transitions! Here, how wonderful — you proved how well you understood the passage! And so on.  I also pointed out how great it is that Hungarian students can converse so freely in any foreign language, pointing out Americans sad, sad lack in this area. To prove my point, I jumped into my own broken Hungarian, telling him that  “Tanulok magyarul, de egy kiscit beszélek magyarul. Magyarul nagyon nehéz.” (Which, I believe, is some poor, childlike version of “I am studying Hungarian, but I only speak a little bit of Hungarian. Hungarian is very difficult.” Yup. The Colin-Firth-Speaking-Portuguese style again)

The kind student laughed, but then he told me that, even if I didn’t know all the words, I had a perfect accent, so people would still be pleased when I tried.

Sure, he was probably trying to be nice. But, you know, I like nice.

And I also like learning new things. Even when I am bad at them (just check the college transcripts, and you’ll note that that beloved Italian language got me the worst grades of my Georgetown career. But I couldn’t give it up!)

So, with a big köszönöm to my new Hungarian buddy (and hopes that he does well on his TOEFL tomorrow!), I’m going to finish my syllabi while listening to some Hungarian radio.

While I missed the game over here, I was happy to wake up to such headlines as this Post-Gazette one or this New York Times one.

I like that the Steelers started screwing up a bit and made the game close; in my history as a ‘burgh fan, I have learned they can only win when no one thinks they will. I like that the Times tries to explain the team’s importance to the cit’s people by noting that the Harris’s Immaculate Reception is immortalized in a statue at the Pittsburgh airport, the way other cities do with important politician figures or old war generals. And I love that, according to the Post-Gazette report, President Barack Obama made his first congratulatory call to Steelers chairman Dan Rooney (because in addition to having a great team philosophy, the Rooneys have a great political philosophy and supported Mr. Obama vigorously in the somewhat-hostile territory that Western Pennsylvania was for the candidate)

And I really, really, really love this Post-Gazette picture:

Proof God is a Steelers fan???

Proof God is a Steelers fan???

Someone give that photog a raise. Classic.

Finally, I feel that my blatant attempts to create more Steelers fans in Hungary with my Christmas gifts played a role. The karma can’t hurt, no?