Teaching – Pazmany

Well, it sure happened faster than I thought: my school year is over. I taught my last classes at Pázmány on Tuesday.

And I still haven’t quiet recovered from the sentimental ball of goop I get at goodbyes.

One quality I sometimes worry about having as a teacher is that I like my students too much (which, of course, makes it harder to be hard on them when they do the occasional “oh-really?-the-essays-are-due-today?” kind of things). Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have really great groups everywhere I have taught in my short time thus far in this career, maybe it is part of the nature of teaching writing and literature, where emotions and personal experience tend to come out in the classwork more than, say, they might in algebra, but I have left every class I have taught so far with a feeling of sadness, like I’ve just made some wonderful new friends and now I won’t get to see them regularly anymore.

The experience is compounded at Pázmány firstly because of the distance between Hungary and home, as well as  the fact that the end of Pámány makes it all the clearer that this crazy, lovely, dream-world-like life the Fulbright year has been for me is winding down.  Yet, it also felt even more bittersweet because of how I saw some of my students grow so much — whether it was in their ability to speak more confidently in English, or the real “big success” for me — a student who is using the modern American women writers I taught this year for her thesis.

Then, those darned kids went and made me cry. In a good way. (more…)


… 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.

Despite the patient attention of my kisci tanár, Petra, yesterday, my Hungarian skills still most closely mirror that scene in Love Actually where Colin Firth tries to speak Portuguese to win his lady love.  After Petra’s careful attentions in the morning, I headed to my usual classes at C.E.U., where Gabi, my teacher, wanted us to explain our day. This meant not only using verbs, but using the past tense, so I think what I said most closely translated to something like: Yes, the day is full. I working at Fulbright Center 7 hours. I helping student write things. Essays. I helping students study exams. It was being interesting, and all students being nice.”

While Gabi tried to help me untangle this mess of Magyar, she also taught the whole class a new vocabulary word: hallgató, which is a word for student, but it is only used for university students. (By contrast, the word I had used, diák, is a more general form for student at any level).

Trying, as she always does, to get us to make sense of Hungarian structure (ha!), Gabi asked us what new word reminded us of. It’s a verb, she hinted. You remember this from last term.  Finally, one of my classmates hit on the phrase zenét hallgatok, or “I listen to music.” Igen, said Gabi, pointing to the similarity between the verb hallgat and the noun hallgató. 

So, I countered, this word for student literally means “listener?” That explains a lot!! One of my biggest challenges, of course, has been getting my students to talk to me, to engage in discussion. The fact that the very name for their position implies passivity in learning certainly helps me understand the clash between my comfort with interactive pedagogy and my students’ seeming desire that I just lecture.

But that doesn’t mean I’m letting them off the hook.  On the contrary, I’ll just be enacting an even firmer nem hallgató approach this spring.

This morning, I logged on to my computer today to continue my ever-present quest to be a “perfectly organized teacher” (ha. anyone else who teaches understands that as an oxymoron) by doing some early work on my reading lists and lesson plans — but, of course, I needed my quick morning perusal of the New York Times to be sure I was up on what’s up back home and in the world. And, what should I find in the #2 most e-mailed spot but a story which validates my whole philosophy of teaching (not to mention one of my main goals as a Fulbright teacher): this wonderful story about how Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) is moving away from its tradition of giant lectures for freshman classes.

Of course, at M.I.T, the courses in discussion are “hard” sciences — classes with names like “classical mechanics” and “electromagnetism” and other such things which make only the vaguest of sense to this humanities-mired teacher. But as anyone who has been following my teaching progress here (or who has asked the seemingly-innocent questions “So, how are your Pázmányclasses going?”), this switch between the tradition of a lecture-based pedagogy to what I consider to be a far more effective interactive classroom has been a big concern for me. My students (like many educated in the European system) are used to lecture, memorize, test, and I have written several times already about my struggles to get students to actively participate in class. While it was still a struggle to get a real conversation going, even by the end of the semester, the environment did improve — and I even had a few students email me about how nice it was to have a chance to speak and be heard in class.

The professors involved in the new interactive classrooms at M.I.T. also reported a better attendance rate — something else that has been a struggle while teaching in Hungary. Students, used to a lecture where their physical presence matters very little, if at all, seem a bit surprised when I tell them they are losing points for not being in class. As one M.I.T professor in the article put it, students “… see the lecture as dispensable, that is that they can get it out of a book more efficiently than getting up, getting dressed and going to lecture.” Hence, lecture equals emptier classroom … which, in turn, this article argues, led to higher failing and dropout rates.

I know M.I.T isn’t Pázmány, but methinks this story is still encouraging for what I am trying to do here. In both situations, there is a tradition of passive learning and a certain resistance on the part of the student to change that — but that’s exactly why we should keep trying to do it. Down with the lecture!

I’m facing a nice, fat stack of essays for grading and commenting on this weekend. But what is the bigger lesson (to use the positive term here) is the number of essays that came in late … or not at all.

First, in keeping with my spirit of open-mindedness and keeping positive, the good news: the essays that did come in on time look great. My heart is warmed, for instance, to see how many of my Contemporary American Women Writers students chose to write about The Bluest Eye, despite the fact that this tale, in classic Morrisonian style, is dark, difficult and complex (and I’m just as excited to see how one student attempted the same with Beloved … a doozy of a book, to say the least).

But the semester’s end certainly provided some learning opportunities — both in terms of cultural difference and in my own teaching style. I was nagyon frustrated, to say the least, when half of one class showed up without their final essays. I know Hungarian students do not have a culture of essay writing, and thus the 7-page term paper (pretty short, by my American 4-year college measure… my term papers were usually more in the 10-15 page range, and tended to close in on 20 pages as I advanced) seems long.  They do the lecture-oral exam format more, as I have mentioned; the very practice of original thought and research at the heart of U.S. academic writing is not as emphasized here. But keep in mind that I am supposed to be here to offer a different way of learning … and that I had assigned this in October. I had reminded (and re-reminded) about deadlines. I had helped students find secondary sources. I offered significant feedback on outlines. Basically, I assumed I had done all I could do to make the process as easy as possible, while still doing what I should be doing as the visiting Fulbright professor: giving the students a chance to learn in the American style, which includes writing.

But many students still came with no paper.  Several offered this excuse: “Well, we have at least 10 classes, so I had a lot of essays to write.” True. But (A) of all, you had ample time and (B) of all, WHY IN THE WORLD DID YOU THINK IT WAS FINE TO NOT DO MY ESSAY, THEN?

After first storming about the lounge and complaining to Veronika (and asking Zsoli, our student worker, to please spread rumors that I was very frightening, so as to avoid this issue next term) … and then sweating it out a Bikram yoga class, I can see this as more of a learning experience, and, that while it is still frustrating, it is not all bad. Firstly, (more…)

…or the power of Toni Morrison.

The last time I posted about teaching, I had been very worried about how I was going to approach The Bluest Eye.  Because it’s subject matter is so difficult. Because it is hard to “get” Morrison without a good base in American race relations. Because my students here are more conservative with regards to feminism than I am used to. Because…well,a  lot of reasons. It is a great book. But it is not an easy one.

Yet, the students came through. Overall, they loved it. Several plan to write on Morrison for their final, and they were more talkative during the discussion session than I have seen them so far.  I wish I could take credit for this myself, but I think that belongs to Morrison — her magical prose, I believe, was what got them excited. No one writes quite like her. Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably compelling. 

Perhaps, however, it can be seen as lesson for the teacher: don’t underestimate the student.  If anything, the class proved it is better to assign the hard book that is rich and deep than to assign a “easier” text that doesn’t have all the layers.  This isn’t to say the students didn’t struggle with The Bluest Eye — how, for instance, can they understand the typology of the “assimilationist” black woman Geraldine without understanding the whole history of the “race question” in the United States? But the struggle proves useful, if the writing is compelling: it seems to create the natural drive to “figure it out”. So “hard” or “difficult”, then, is not always a bad thing.

My latest Hungarian language class revealed something very interesting about the language … and made me happier that we’ve now moved on to verbs (honestly, if you saw the …umm…”interesting” ways of conjugating, you might better understand why after two months of lessons, I am still stuck on a vocabulary that consists of various polite greetings and ways of ordering wine, beer, and coffee — the essentials, of course!):  there are but two letters separate the verb for “teach”, which is tanit and “learn” which is tanul.

I am no linguist, so I can’t use that discipline to explain the short space which separates these two functions. But I do find it very fitting that the language makes these actions so closely related. As a relatively young teacher, who often the “newest” to the classroom of all my colleagues, I often feel like I’m rushing to keep up.  Sometimes, I look at a student taking a note about something I have said or scribbling down a question I have asked and I worry a bit…“what if I was wrong? ”   Of course, I try to make my teaching discussion-based so that there are multiple voices and opinions, and I strive to never make it seem as if I am truly professing “answers” to any literary or cultural project but rather prodding inquiry. But I still find myself sometimes doubting, wondering do I really know enough to be here?  For instance, I just assigned Toni Morrison’s  novel The Bluest Eye for my Contemporary American Women Writers class, and I am a bit nervous about it. Morrison won the Nobel for a reason: in addition to her amazing lyricism of language and her incomparable ability to dissect the mythos of American society, Morrison shies away from no “ugly” part of the human experience … particularly, when that experience is lived under oppression. The Bluest Eye contains, in my opinion, the best analysis of racialized beauty standards in the U.S., as well as pointed and timeless critique on class and gender — but it also contains poverty, rape and incest. It is an important book, but it is a tough book. As such, I worry about doing the great Ms. Morrison justice. My students, more used to the “canon” of English literature than the modern American things I teach, might not be used to such subjects…and I worry they will shy away. In preparation for the discussion, I wanted to assign a scholarly article that helped illuminate some of the major themes in the book, but I couldn’t think of one on my own. I sent out a call to friends in Ph.D. programs and from graduate school, and got a few good ones back…including several I had never read. But the abstract of one of the new articles sounded perfect. I assigned it.

And then I got that bit of nagging Am I a fraud at this professor business?  feeling. Wouldn’t a “real” professor have already known that? Sure, I know I am exaggerating the ideal that every literature professor has read every article they assign multiple times, but I still feel a little like I am rushing to keep up. Perhaps it is a feeling exacerbated by the fact that I do not have a Ph.D. I don’t plan on getting one any time soon, either — give me students over a dissertation any day — but I do know those extra six years of graduate school would have given me a six-years-longer list of read works … and then, of course, the pricks of inadequacy come.

But Gabi’s Hungarian lesson on the closeness of tanit/tanul was a good reminder that just because “teach” and “learn” are so different in English, it does not mean they are necessarily such different positions. The true teacher must always learn, after all: how can you effectively teach a true discussion if you already have your mind closed to a new “answer”? Then you are not really posing questions at all, but merely leashing your students along. Indeed, my course design style, in all of my classes, has included a fair bit of selecting all those “things I meant to read” texts. Sometimes I worried that such an approach would seem haphazard; but, oftener, I felt that my learning alongside the students could be quite beneficial, as it not only enriches me as a teacher overall but also helps me better understand and aid their struggles as I grapple with new work. My learning something new about The Bluest Eye, then, might indeed be the best way to teach it to a new group.

And maybe my students, although they might not be comfortable with the material, at first, can help me bring new eyes to a novel and writer I, as the teacher, think I know so well. Tanit/Tanul: atfer all, the space between us is not so wide.

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