Wednesday, July 13, 2005

explosive meteorology, or thoughts on sensitivity in community colleges

(If you suspect you might be my GEO200 teacher, I implore you not read on. Same thing if you're sick of all those priviledged college kids complaining about their classes. In doubt, do not! :P)

In 1950, an average 14-year-old American had an active vocabulary of 25,000 words. Fifty years later, the average vocabulary of the same demographic group has shrunk by 60%, dropping to the 10,000 words. Sad. Astonishing.

At least that is what my yoga-practicing, Bush-hating, Baha'ist and stevia-addicted professor in Birkenstock sandals of physical geology claims. (A similar claim is often made back in Japan as well, and they are probably true, sadly enough.) Thus, he proceeds, as a responsible college professor, he is obliged to throw mouthful words at his students. Good. I'm all for luscious, nuanced, even arcane words. I drool on them. I drool on men who nonchalantly manipulate pompous big words at his rein. Yup, my boyfriend knows that very well. (blush)

But there is a catch. In addition to the regular lecture note, my sun-worshipping professor has what he calls a "live note" projected on a screen. During the three-hour-plus course period, he occasionally writes down "nice college words" that just came out of his mouth, pops open a Webster dictionary in his computer, jots down the words and their meanings in the "live note," and THEY'LL BE ON THE EXAMS. These words, such as "ruminate" and "indigent," are obviously not related to meteorology in any justifiable way to be included in what students are required to learn in the course. Not surprisingly, there's been a dissatisfaction fermenting under the calm surface of the classroom, which eventually exploded yesterday.

A girl, who happened to sit next to me, enabling me to hear her desperate and slightly showy sighs and hushed "oh, god"s every time the lecture stopped to accommodate the linguistic crusade of the professor, raised her hand and asked him why these unrelated vocabulary had to be on the tests. "I don't see why we're spending this much time to learn unrelated stuff, especially when we're taking an intensive 5-week course," she said. I secretly raised my firmly clenched fist by about three inches under the desk. (Where there's no infinite blue sky to display our rebellious fists against, malventilated obscurity under a desk should suffice.) Yes! Go, girl!

After asking us to raise our hand if we share "her concern" and speak out what we think, our democracy-minded professor declared that the method had worked the entire time he taught in colleges, thus he had no intention of changing it. His conclusive question, "Is that alright with you guys?," was unwarranted.

What's fueling the conflict between some of the students and him is his ignorance of the power structure inherent in classrooms, be it a tactical disguise of ignorance or one that's naively genuine. It is apparent in his other behaviors: "invitation" to join him in his hourly sun-worship pose of yoga, "enlightened" policy of allowing students to ask permission to engage in private conversations during class period (in which case he would halt the lecture and wait), to list a few. When he says, every time his favorite phrase "spacial and temporal variations" appears on the text, that we can go home to tell our moms that "we learned about spacial and temporal variations," and that it'll totally impress our hand-wringing college moms, and proceeds even further to make one of us repeat our supposed response after him, many of us feel insulted, but don't say anything. He is apparently unaware.

Another hindrance he creates for himself is his insensitivity to the self-esteem of the students. Due to the accelerated nature of the course, many students are adults, returning to school for a higher education or a career change. It is not hard to imagine the sore it creates in one's self-esteem to be told that one's vocabulary sucks, especially, but not limited to, later in one's life. Even I, as a foreigner who has a convenient excuse for not knowing certain words, felt humiliated to be told so. True, humiliation could be a part of a learning process. And many of us are, frankly, linguistically quite underprepared for college work, of which we probably should be ashamed of. And yet, the professor's insensitivity rubs salt in our half-healed wounds we wanted to forget.

"Some of us are adults, not young college kids. I'm thirty five. I have three children. So when you treat us like grade school children, it feels..." The statement one of us started and couldn't finish should have been more than enough for him to realize that his so-called method was doing more harm than good: it's been turning us off than making us eager to learn more. Yes, we're weak-minded in our vulnerability to such humiliation. Maybe as long as we cling to our defensive attitude when confronted by the truth, asking for sugar-coated niceties, we'll stay in our slots of losers. Yet, his insensitivity to our dignity, combined with his almost caricaturish air of pretended equality with students offends me with no end.


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