A Graduate Course in a School of Education

December 24, 2013

Another post offers glimpses into many of the courses that I have taken during my years as an undergraduate and graduate student.  This post provides a more detailed look into one such course.  (A later post expands on some ideas introduced here.)

The title of this course was “Teaching People of Other Cultures.”  I was not seeking a degree in education; but if I had been, this would have been one of the four courses I would have had to take to obtain a credential to teach English as a Second Language (ESL).  It appeared that most students were taking it because the university, and ultimately I think the state department of education, had decided that students really needed this as part of their educational broadening.  I took this course at the state’s flagship university campus.

Course Schedule

It may be appropriate to begin with a description of how the course was organized.  It is no surprise that problems in course organization can plague students throughout a semester.

One obvious structural element:  the calendar.  This was an evening course, scheduled to meet once a week, for not quite three hours per session, for a total of 15 weeks.  At the start of the semester, the professor (presently rated 1.8 out of 5 in overall quality at RateMyProfessor.com) circulated a “Tentative Class Schedule.”  That schedule listed two or three items each, for the first two class weeks.  After that, it listed just one item per week:  “NPR Presentations” for weeks 3 through 5; after that, one chapter per week from the textbook by Garcia (chapters 1-8); and then “Cultural Explorations” (i.e., student presentations) for the last two weeks.  So, for example, in week 7, we were tentatively going to be looking at “Garcia – Chap. 2.”  There was no subsequent update; this “tentative” schedule remained the only one we got.

Let me tell you how that schedule worked out in practice.  The first session lasted 80 minutes – that is, less than half the scheduled time.  Of course, that does happen sometimes with the first class session.  I have noticed that it is less likely to happen in technical courses, where everyone can see that there is a lot of specific material to cover.  Then again, we are not talking about just the first class session.  In this course, several other sessions were of similar length.  Most class sessions ran for two hours or less.  I think the only sessions that continued for the full class period were two devoted to student presentations, toward the end of the semester – and in those cases the time was being filled by the students, not the professor.

The professor was absent from those two student presentation sessions.  She was also absent from the week 9 session.  We were told it was because her basement had flooded earlier that day, and she needed to supervise the cleanup that evening.  (Yes, this would be the professor who would inveigh against today’s “entitled self-esteem generation” of young people.)  She did not notify us in advance of her decision not to attend class that evening; we received this news when we arrived at school.  This experience gave credence to the claim, by students who had her for another class, that in that course she actually went off to a conference in Philadelphia without letting students know that she would not be in class that evening.  (Note that evening students are often middle-aged adults who drive to campus for the course.  I had met several students who had to drive between one and two hours each way to attend evening classes at this university.)  The instructor was also absent without warning from three or four other sessions; at those sessions, her doctoral students gave presentations on random topics.  One session was canceled due to bad weather; there was no makeup session.  The last session was a potluck, attended by about half of the students; the instructor had let us know, by email, that it was OK if we couldn’t make it.  Imagine, then, the nerve of this professor finally showing up at one class session, after being absent for several weeks, and deciding to take attendance, with a remark about how some students seemed to be absent.

While the “Tentative Class Schedule” claimed that we would be spending half of the semester focusing on the Garcia text, in fact there were no sessions devoted to study thereof.  At this writing, I do not recall what the “NPR Presentations” (supposedly the focus of weeks 3-5) might have been.  The potluck replaced the “Cultural Explorations” that would supposedly occur in the last week; that shifted those explorations forward by a week.  The “Tentative Class Schedule” did get the week of spring break right, but otherwise it seemed to have almost nothing to do with what we actually did that semester.

Purpose of the Course

The university’s catalog said:  “This course focuses on cultural awareness, understanding cultural differences, and instruction methods for integrating second cultures, especially the culture of the United States, into the curriculum.”  Another university, evidently seeking to meet the same state requirement, described its similarly named course thus:  “Issues that non-native speakers of English and people from other cultures face when entering the mainstream US school system or the professional world.  Techniques and activities to incorporate cultural diversity in the learning environment and assist students from differing backgrounds.”

Those descriptions seem to indicate that the purpose of the course was to help various types of foreigners succeed in the U.S., especially but not only in its educational system.  (I realize that the word “foreigner” is not currently in vogue.  It is nonetheless useful, especially in the context in which this post unfolded.)  The course descriptions tacitly accept the classic “melting pot” or “Americanization” concept:  people will come here from all over the world; they will learn American culture and the English language; and this will enable them, or at least their children, to thrive and participate constructively in the larger society.

The melting pot does appear to have worked, for most races and ethnicities, over a period of several generations.  Yet there are reasons to dislike it.  Among other things, it risks leaving behind those who cannot learn the language effectively, who cannot accept certain aspects of the larger American culture, or who are stigmatized by their accents or origins.  It can impair a person’s ability to ever feel like anything other than a stranger in this land.  It also tends to treat non-native cultures and languages as though they were inferior, when in fact they may provide superior influence in some regards.

Those are political arguments.  They have perhaps not been well heard in statehouses.  Perhaps professors are, or should be, attempting to advocate on behalf of other viewpoints at the state or federal level.  Meanwhile, however, the catalog’s course description is a fact.  It evidently reflects the intent of the state licensing authorities, and it tells students what to expect.  When the professor made clear, to us, that she rejected the melting pot concept, she was essentially saying that she was not an obvious choice to teach this course.

Diversity

It is worth considering how the professor interpreted what the catalog said about this course.  Her syllabus read as follows:

This course is designed to help teachers build a classroom atmosphere of positive human relations while removing negative stereotypes and prejudices.  It is intended to provide them with the knowledge and teaching skills necessary to deal with the growing diversity in our schools.  It is designed to build a basis for responsive teaching by exploring diversity, including social, cognitive, and communicative roots; and to building [sic] understanding about the ways that children think and communicate in their homes, communities, and school environments.

I am in favor of “removing negative stereotypes” – or, more accurately, of understanding why a given stereotype exists, and the perspective from which it appears negative.  Among other things, it does seem like a good idea to have teachers who do not just assume unpleasant things about students who don’t fit the mold.

In light of this talk about “positive human relations,” I found it interesting to hear how the professor addressed the other of two white males in the course, on the very first day of class.  (Both of us were in our 50s.  There were also two Arab males, in their 40s.  The 13 other students were female:  one grad student from Africa and two from Saudi Arabia; the rest were white undergraduates.  Bear in mind, too, that males are decidedly underrepresented in the field of education.)

So:  I was saying that, on that occasion, that other white male raised his hand and asked a question.  The professor responded patronizingly:  “You were harmed as a child, weren’t you?”  What prompted her to say that, I don’t know.  His question was simple enough.

If the professor had been a student, one might have been interested in enhancing her own exposure to diverse kinds of people.  She was a white woman who had apparently grown up in a rural if not backwoods setting.  She said she had never been outside the United States.  Her remarks about experiences with different kinds of people seemed to be based on what she had experienced during several years of living away from her home state, while earning her PhD in Philadelphia some 30 years earlier.  Her speech was laden with local idioms that might not even have been familiar to all of the Americans in the class, never mind these international students.  And yet, when one of them did attempt to ask me, in the back of the classroom, to explain various figures of speech she used, she expressed irritation with me for giving him sotto voce explanations.  (I don’t think she ever expressed similar irritation when her white female students talked among themselves.)

Attitude was evidently this professor’s primary diversity-related credential.  In engineering or teaching, it seemed, success would require actual expertise; but in diversity, one needed only the proper creed.  Much like professors I encountered during my social work education, this instructor seemed to have overindulged the simpleminded belief that white men are the problem.  In reality, one or both of these fiftyish males may have embodied substantial departures from her adopted middle-class norm but – again, as in social work – what counted was not actual diversity, but a self-congratulatory effort to surround oneself with people who look different, even if they do hail from a similarly privileged and perhaps oppressive socioeconomic class in their home countries.

The professor’s syllabus, as quoted above, also said something about teaching skills.  Let it be clear that the professor did not make a serious attempt to convey teaching skills.  The textbook – Student Cultural Diversity:  Understanding and Meeting the Challenge, by Eugene García – did provide information about racial and ethnic minorities.  But even the 2002 edition was badly outdated, and some students were using the 1992 edition without noticing any practical difference in the course.  There was no real obligation to read any specific sections of the book, and in any event it was not remotely a skills workbook.  As one might expect, García agreed with this professor’s opposition to Americanization, and rejected the stated mission (above) of helping people who wanted to succeed in America.  Materials provided in a companion post offer further critique of this textbook.

Course Requirements

There were no lectures in this course, and no exams.  According to the syllabus, grades were to be based on eight different activities, or types of activities.  The following discussion provides an overview of those activities.

1.  One category of required activities:  “reaction papers.”  These were to be ten papers, each of one to 1.5 pages in length, each providing our reactions to one week’s reading.  (The syllabus warned, “I will read no more than 1½ pages.”)  For the most part, there were no required readings, in the sense of something specified by the instructor the previous week and discussed in class the following week.  (In one of her few responses to emails from me, she said, “Reactions are to the readings and I don’t care which ones for which week.  Make sure you hover around ten at the end of the semester.”)  So – as I gathered from reviewing some of the materials posted by classmates on Blackboard – in most of these ten papers, most students seemed to assume that they were supposed to discuss a chapter from García.  Some of my own reaction papers thus focused, in slightly more detail, on thoughts related to the Americanization issue (see below).

It may be appropriate to mention, at this point, the level of expectations regarding student performance.  Out of my ten reaction papers, despite repeated requests from me, the professor handed back only one.  She had given it an A+.  On that occasion, she handed papers back to other students as well.  I was positioned to see most of them, and all of the ones I saw likewise had grades of A+.  I gathered that it was common knowledge, at least among the undergraduates, that this course required very little work for an A.  This university did not give plus or minus grades on transcripts, so the alternative was a B.  I had heard, from a professor, that the average GPA in this university’s education courses was 3.8, so evidently there were few B grades.  One student told me about one of her friends who, in a previous semester, had done all of her work for the course – doing her presentation, writing all of her reaction papers, and so forth – in the last week of the semester, and still got an A.

The syllabus said, “We will read each other’s papers and comment.”  This was an allusion to the requirement that we write a total of ten responses to other students’ reaction papers.  Like another bad instructor whom I’d had at one point, the professor gave this assignment without actually awarding any points for it.  Of course, we were not going to be doing much responding to papers that were submitted in the last week of the semester, but that’s OK; we did not necessarily do much responding anyway.  I did not see any responses that were critical.  Several students seemed to have a tendency or tacit pact to review only each other’s papers, and to write only the most vapid remarks.  Example:  “I totally agree!  That is why conversation in all language classes should be encouraged.  The more a student feels comfortable and feels he/she belongs [sic].  Belonging, as you say is of utmost importance in the student’s successful learning.”  There was no obligation to read what others had written, in these responses to the submitted one-page papers – which, themselves, could be the essence of superficiality – and as far as I saw there was no further discussion in any case.

So far, in this review of required activities, I have described one-page papers that may consist of stray prattle about a single paragraph in some loosely assigned or randomly selected text; and I have also described brief responsive remarks of no apparent significance.  It may not take much of this to convey a sense of mere busywork – of students going through the motions, generating paper and alleged activity, without anything of substance actually being accomplished.  There certainly did not seem to be much actual compassion, much commitment to teach us how to help immigrants who might want to succeed in American schools and workplaces.  This sense of make-work may grow as I continue to outline the graded tasks in this course.

2.  “A cultural campus event” was another required activity.  Stated examples included “Chinese New Year Activities or Arab festivals.”  In other words, we were supposed to attend something that would expand our cultural horizons, and we were then supposed to give a three-minute in-class presentation on the event in question; and we were also supposed to post the PowerPoints or other materials from our presentation on Blackboard.  Only a small minority of students gave any such presentations, and some of those occurred during sessions when the professor was absent.  In this and other assignments there was, to my knowledge, no instance when the professor followed up with anyone, to make sure that everything was being done, or expressed disapproval of anything that any student did in any assignment; there certainly was not a sense of pressure, much less academic jeopardy, for doing anything late or poorly.

For the cultural events, most students did post something on Blackboard, but their postings tended to consist of things other than presentation-type materials.  Indeed, some of those postings were quite brief.  For example, one student just posted a brochure announcing her chosen event; another submitted five sentences about a performance by Irish folk dance students at the public library.  Some of the activities covered did not require any actual effort by the student.  The syllabus said that allowable “cultural events” could include “events in your schools if you are teaching or interning.”  So one student’s post consisted of a paragraph describing “multicultural night” at the elementary school where she was already engaged.  The operative sentence from that paragraph said, “There are different tables set up around the cafeteria were [sic] you can go by and talk to different people and see pictures and posters and learn some background about each culture.”  In other words, her cultural event was to have white elementary school children inform her about “major countries on display like China” with “pictures of traditional clothing, chopsticks and so on that had cultural representation.”

3.  As another category of required activity, we were supposed to do 20 hours’ worth of “observations,” and “post a summary to WebCT.”  The university no longer used WebCT; the professor had apparently not updated her syllabus since the transition to Blackboard in some prior year.  The observations were supposed to involve “ESL students” or “2nd Language classrooms, or regular classrooms with multiple cultures represented”; there was supposed to be “a culture/language group in the class” with which the student would have to “familiarize” him/herself.  So, sure enough, one student’s interpretation of this assignment was to tutor her teenage nephew.  Another wrote a series of posts involving observation of his son’s third-grade class.  Needless to say, a person can learn from almost any kind of experience; but with observations like these, one might ask whether this required course was adding anything beyond what people could get for free, from ordinary life and common-sense inquiry.

4.  The fourth of the eight required activities involved a literature circle.  For this, the class divided into four groups of three to five students each.  The purpose of this assignment was unclear.  The syllabus said that we were to read “both adult level work and some works for learners at your levels.”  That amounted to just reading one adult book and two juvenile works.  The adult book, according to the syllabus, was The [sic] Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  One of the juvenile books varied from group to group; the other was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Ellen Forney.  Originally, the professor said that our groups would be meeting often, in class, but in fact we only got together a few times.  That was OK, actually, because there was not much to talk about in these books.  The Three Cups story has been called fraudulent; moreover, it was quite a slog.  Absolutely True Diary was entertaining, and it raised some interesting questions, but it was not especially deep.  The professor required each group to produce an annotated bibliography.  In a separate post, I have provided illustrations of two of these groups’ annotated bibliographies, along with examples of our reaction papers.

5.  The fifth required activity was called a “cultural exploration.”  According to the syllabus, “This is a research assignment and your final grade.”  While that was unclear, it did seem clear enough that “we are interested in educational issues” pertaining to the particular “US minority culture” that the student had selected for study.  We were to give a presentation that would inform the class about that culture.

Regarding that assignment, the syllabus emphasized, in boldfaced italics:  “Of most importance is that you demonstrate what you have learned in this course concerning how to create and modify lesson plans for diverse populations.”  That emphasis, unfortunately, proved ludicrous.  Students did give presentations, but generally those presentations had nothing to do with these requirements.  Nobody said anything about lesson plans; research citations (if any) were largely on the level of Wikipedia.

It is possible that the professor would have corrected students in these regards, if she had been present during the class sessions when we presented our materials.  But since she was absent during those sessions, the better reading seemed to be that she just wanted her syllabus to create an impression that she took this sort of thing seriously, when for practical purposes she did not care what we did.

The outcome was certainly noteworthy.  What we got, in those presentations, was travelogues.  One student went to Costa Rica with her husband for spring break, and brought back photos of that; another did a presentation on China, which she had never visited but seemed to find interesting.  Others covered Australia, Japan, and so forth.  I was especially impressed with the student who began her presentation by saying, “This is Italy.  It is in Europe.”  The presentations recited various historical facts about the countries – such as the report that Italy started in the 9th century BCE, was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and had a mixed industrial and agricultural economy.

In their defense, these travelogue presentations did typically say some things about the educational system of the particular country.  That could have been very useful if we had been enrolled in a course on teaching English abroad, and if we had been unable to gain information about such places from other sources, and if we’d had sufficient time to cover the 190+ countries to which a budding teacher of English might be dispatched.  Otherwise, though, it was hard to imagine why the professor would require us to sit through a presentation on the Marshall Islands.

Despite my displeasure at having to waste six hours listening to such presentations, I did understand, to some extent, why my classmates would find it reasonable to serve up travelogues.  That, after all, is what the professor’s PhD students had given us, talking about their own home countries – Iraq, for example, and Thailand – during those multiple prior weeks when the professor was absent.  And yet, with all this said, I still did not expect to be the only student who, for purposes of this presentation, actually went out and investigated an unfamiliar educational setting involving a U.S. minority culture.  Classmates had told me that I just needed to fake it; I had just not grasped the level of faking that seemed to be expected.

6.  The professor required us to submit what she called a “learning portfolio.”  It amounted to a resubmission, on Blackboard, of everything that we had already submitted on Blackboard.  There was no indication that she had read any of the hundreds of items that we had collectively posted there.  I wondered, then, whether she let us worry ourselves with all sorts of Blackboard posts that she would never see, saving her energy for the awarding of A grades to everyone at the end, upon receipt of this so-called portfolio.  It might have been interesting to post bizarre materials during the semester, just to see if she would notice.

To clarify one point, I did say that she handed back a graded printout of one of my reaction papers, midway in the semester.  That does not mean that she retrieved that paper from Blackboard.  Rather, in the spirit of this portfolio resubmission, she required us to submit each paper in duplicate:  on Blackboard, and also in hard copy.  Her reason seemed to be that she wanted to do markups on paper.  But since professors can write comments on digital submissions (sometimes more easily than on hard copy), and since she did not hand back markups for the vast majority of papers anyway, it seemed that we were required to submit hard copy just in case she did decide to grade something.

So we were to submit these portfolios, consisting of all our previous work, with a “cover letter that highlights the decision, activities, and information learned and why they are useful” – which seemed to assume that they were in fact useful.  In that instruction, it was not clear what “decision” was being referred to.  That might have been a good question to raise in an email to the professor, if she had been inclined to respond to emails.  I could imagine that I might be able to churn up a great quantity of material regarding “activities” and “information learned,” especially pertaining to my multiday investigation of that minority culture educational setting.  But at the time when I was assembling the portfolio, two weeks had passed since my presentation and Blackboard submission on that investigation, and the professor had not evinced the barest glimmer of interest.  So there seemed to be a good chance that nobody other than me would ever read my exposition of further thoughts.  I had already seen, on Blackboard, that other students’ “cover letters” could be simply a page labeled “Cover Letter,” containing a single paragraph saying nice things about the professor and her course.

7.  Our seventh requirement was participation and attendance – which her syllabus described as “highly valued in my class.”  Note that this came from the frequently absent professor who not only said it was OK if we couldn’t make it to the ending potluck session, but who also excused a handful of students the previous week, when some of us were presenting, because some other professor or organization wanted them to attend something else instead.

8.  The final requirement for this course was “conference attendance.”  This was an obligation to spend $60, and an entire day, to attend an ESL Symposium at a nearby hotel.  That symposium consisted of two presenters.  The morning presenter was a woman who showed us some techniques for teaching Italian.  The afternoon presenter was an octogenarian who told us about what it was like to be a Mexican-Jewish man in the 1950s.  The latter seemed completely extraneous, except in the sense that our professor ultimately seemed to find relevance in anything that had anything to do with any nonwhite culture.  The former did convey useful tricks that would have made for a solid 15-minute video on getting by without spoken language.

Reflections and Conclusion

It was bad enough that the state and the university required students to waste time and money on a course of this nature.  It was much worse that this was the kind of supposedly higher education that many of this state’s education students were getting.  They were going to march forth into the world and carry, with them, the idea that this was what an education was about.  The facts that this course existed, and that it had apparently been offered by this professor for many years, raised questions about the quality of teacher training in this state generally:  it did not appear that anyone was checking up on what these academics were doing.

For me, this course was a complete waste of time, except for one thing:  I took the assignments seriously, at the risk of offending the professor with my critical reviews of readings, and as a result I had some good experiences that few of my classmates seemed to have.  This seems especially true with respect to the cultural exploration assignment (point 5, above):  among other things, it yielded a video summarizing what I had observed in my multiday trip to visit the state’s historically black colleges.

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