Monday, February 23, 2009

back in the saddle

What is this... anxiety? I thought as my book was beginning to collect dust sitting on my lap. It was 9:10 am, Monday morning; I had to leave in five minutes to catch the bus and make it to school on time, and I had just been sitting in front of the Holy Book for about fifteen minutes without making it past one verse. Why couldn't I concentrate? Sure, this was the first day of the new semester, but all of my classes and students were the same, and I had gotten a pretty good handle on what I was doing. But, there I was, listless. Or maybe it was poised. My stomach churned and bubbled, and I remembered I was saving myself for a delicious Jian Bing on the street outside school (see picture). I rushed out. The Jian Bing tasted just as I remembered as I devoured it in the hallway; 9:55, right on time. I walked in through the back door of the class room to put my coat on the shelf. Many of the silent students took notice of the bustling in the back and turned to see who it was. They tapped each other and smiled and waved. Forget about too-cool-for-school American college students; they were happy to see me, and in China if you're happy to see someone, by god, you smile and wave. It felt good. I walked up the aisle very proud of my position, and my new deep blue sweater vest. I was looking and playing the part enough that I even fooled myself; a college professor. I then proceeded to do what most college professors do to open class; I pulled up a chair, stood on it, and led a game of Simon Says. Granted, the game is great practice for anyone learning a second language, but the irony remains. After the game, I asked the students to sit down, as did I.

"Are we thinking in English again?" I asked, fearing they had forgotten how to speak it over the holiday.

They nodded, which meant no. Usually, after a game, I had begun my classes with a famous quote. This time I though I'd do something a little different to help them jog their English memories.

"I'm going to write a short sentence on the board, and I want you to tell me what you think, okay?"

"Okay," they said sporadically.

Humans... are... animals. I turned around; not much of a reaction.

"Do you think this is true?" I asked. Most of them nodded. "Everyone thinks this is true?" They nodded again. I wrote another sentence: I... am... an... animal. I had them all yell it with me like animals.



"Is this true?" I asked again. This time not so many nods. Most of them had a problem admitting that they were animals, but had no problem saying that the human race belongs in the animal category. Eventually they realized the logical fallacy of this position, and either had to accept both or neither. My intent wasn't to convince them they weren't animals. It was more to get to the bottom of the differences between humans and animals. This was the conversation I wanted to have. And it was a good one, no matter if the class had poor English skills or whether it was one of my Undergraduate classes (only two of my eight classes will be getting an undergrad degree; the rest have to settle on a three-year degree that, unfortunately, doesn't mean nearly as much). The differences we found were vast; using tools, inventing/creating, studying, wearing clothes, making music, etc. I eventually steered the conversation toward our quote for the day: "Art is the signature of man" (GK Chesterton). After the chasm we dug between animals and humans, it was hard for anyone to say that humans were merely advanced animals. A couple of the classes even got to the point of talking about the soul. It was one of my favorite exercises in any class so far. I felt like a teacher. I half expected them to stand on their desks at the end of class and begin reciting "O' Captain, my Captain." I guess I need to undermine the administration in some way before I can get them to do that.

Today I tried something similar in two classes with the famous phrase; 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all... with varying results. No one seems to have any opinions about it so far. I ended up just giving the entire quote (from the Tennyson poem) and moving on. It's always hard to repeat a great experience; the danger of sequels... take the Star Wars prequels for example. George Lucas thought if he threw in some lightsaber-wielding Jedi, some backwards sentences from Yoda, and Natalie Portman, he could recreate the Star Wars magic. Have I already become George Lucas? Do I want so badly to feel like a real teacher again that I'll settle for the mediocre, the trite? Is it really all just about me? Have I forgotten my Han Solo?


Reconnecting with friends at school has been invigorating. It's amazing to watch as I'm blessed with new opportunities to be with them, and know them better. Whether it's eating lunch with them in their dorm, letting them use my hot water, or throwing snowballs at them, it's great to be back.

-----------------------

I replaced my rock slab (bed) for a new fouton. It has a dark forest design; so, I named it Fangorn.

15 comments:

Ryan said...

"Strong is Vader. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can."

-Yoda

Gosh we miss you guys. It is so great to read about what you are doing though. We have been and will be thinking about you this semester. It sounds like you've had a good start. For what it's worth I am proud of you.

Greg said...

What ever happened to The Allison Show?

Billy Colonna said...

Hey Jon!

I hope you enjoyed your break. I've actually started doing substitute teaching at good ol' NCH. It's funny, I try and spark up conversations about important stuff, but they don't usually amount to much.

PS. I hate being "too cool for school"

Keep up the Good Work

Peter Phillips said...

http://www.hulu.com/watch/20337/saturday-night-live-digital-short-the-japanese-office
thought of you when i saw this. glad you're keeping up with the indie music scene while in china.

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