The Further Adventures of Dr Rusher
The Further Adventures of Dr Rusher
The quest for giving students marks for nothing at all goes on apace. The good doctor is now firmly esconced with the Jizzy Ra International Academy of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where candidates are greeted with the legend on framed vellum parchment ten feet high that management is 'Dully authorised to provide training in English language learning and award Certificates and Diplomas on behalf of Oxford College Britain.'
After they brighten up and learn to spell presumably. Here circling around the central issue is taken to a fine art, which is of course the problem of writing in English. Something the majority of students resist like a fetish. So, here in the Kingdom where English Diplomas are at stake, the main concern is bums on seats and the students receive 20% of their final grade merely for attending. This is one of the great secrets of working in a language school. The teacher is there solely to keep the students diverted from their onerous task. Language learning is not, therefore, the main goal. Time to put the clown suit on then? Not that it's necessary for the teacher to inject humour into the humdrum world of participles and gerunds. Witness this usual display of incomprehension and incoherence between educator and pupil.
Dr Ush: 'Yes.'
Dr Ush: 'I don't see the equivalence. I am not a washbasin.'
Stud: 'I go.'
Dr Ush: 'Where?'
Stud: Teacher! Go bathroom!'
Dr Ush: 'I refuse to go.'
Stud: 'Bathroom. Go.'
Dr Ush: 'I am not aware of the bathroom's capacity for movement.'
Stud: 'Can I go?'
Dr Ush: 'There is the door. There is no escape from the window.'
Stud: 'I can go bathroom?'
Dr Ush: 'You can go blue if you wish. I will not stop you. You are now at large within this institution.'
The point, of course, is that, laughter aside, these are mainly fee-paying customers for whom attendance means spending as much of the time as possible washing their hands, faces, and any other extremities they can find, in the bathroom (feet in the handbasin is not a taboo). One of the teachers here lurks outside the classrooms when he has a spare minute or two and collars the students as they emerge from mine after being told they can go to the ceramic palace. 'I caught this one leaving,' he berates me, 'get back in there!' he fumes, and the full-bladdered miscreant returns stoically to his seat. Which, of course, is counterproductive from the Academy's point of view. The customer pays and the customer should be able to leave the premises as and when he chooses. If not, he may stop paying and putting his bum on the seat (whether that of the WC or that of the classroom). He may even, God forbid, begin to consider the concept of 20% for sitting on his bum as anathema to the learning concept and demand that a final exam be the determiner of his standing in English language usage. Because that's what they're really paying for. The opportunity to take an examination. I know I never attended any educational establishment for longer than it took to register for the final three hours.
And what an exam is in store for the Academy clientele! One student, when asked by a friend to explain what he learned in our hallowed halls, said that he was being taught to draw a circle. 'The teacher says that, if I practice hard enough, one day I'll be able to make both ends meet,' he told him. A sample question will quickly allow us to clear up any obfuscation over this point.
Circle the correct answer
What time is it?
b) a lemon
c) 3 o'clock
We are, indeed, circling around the bugbear of writing. The answer here, naturally, is usually assessed as being 'sometimes' as it is almost never 3 o'clock when the student is sitting his exam. Although one student, taking an exam at 9.00 AM refused to budge from his seat until 3.00 PM in order to answer this very question and was rewarded with extra marks for his studiousness by the Academy's Main Branch Supervisor.
Students may be able to obtain 25% of their final grade for this nonsense and everyone pretends it to be a matter of great moment, so let's pass swiftly on with little remark other than to observe that, with 20% for sitting and 25% for circling, the student can obtain 45% without writing a single word in English thus far; or, indeed, opening any books either. Many is the time I have had to demonstrate how to open a book to a student who replies with a look of surprise on his countenance that is positively rewarding and makes all those long tedious hours of putting on make up and the clown's suit with the red nose and big shoes worthwhile.
Incidentally, one of the more bizarre things they do here in Arabia is tell the students to call you by your first name with 'mister' as a prefix. Your family name is then redundant. It's like becoming an orphan. They then prefix the whole thing with 'teacher'. Upon being introduced to someone like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, I can only imagine the Saudi Ambassador to England saying 'Pleased to meet you Mister Tony,' like some downtrodden character on the Tara estate in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind (1936). Teacher Mister Robin likes to explain a few things to them, especially those who are under the illusion that, if they go to England, the Queen and others will speak to them in the supermarket. 'I never speak when I'm in England,' I tell them. 'I read, write, listen to music on my mp3, use the internet, watch tv, and play video and computer games.' At which they laugh good naturedly. But I explain it to them. 'I know where the supermarket is, and all I do in England is pay at the till and say "Thank you", which you never say by the way,' I say, 'it would probably take you half a day to get on the right bus for the post office.' I, in my turn, smile good naturedly. 'For you it's all about information but, when you know where the stop for the number 26 is and you finally have the right change after being told by the driver to get off because he won't change a tenner and the shop proprietor won't either unless you buy some tic-tacs, who's going to talk with you about past present continuous?'
Here at Jizzy Ra we attempt to resolve this problem of communication with the project, which carries 20% of the final grade and requires the student to talk for five minutes (in practise two) using powerpoint images, whiteboards, smart boards, projectors, OHPs, handouts, cutouts (from magazines/newspapers), hand-painted miniatures, water colours, oil paintings, and all other multimedia applications, packages, and miracles of technology that they may feel is essential in order to illustrate the subject of their lengthy discourse, which is usually Taif (a city hereabouts) and requires neither communication nor a listener. Communication requires an interlocutor and the only person paying attention is the examiner who isn't listening for information or interest but only to hear if the material presented is coherent and understandable, which it never is. I often give my students the example of one of their number at a supermarket in England who, having mastered the art of interrogation by the simple expedient of interrogating the teacher for twelve months, asks someone 'Where are the biscuits?' Later he is himself asked 'Where is the milk?' 'I am from Taif,' he explains patiently and with the seemingly mandatory preternaturally black liquid eyes, 'Taif is a beautiful city...'
So, 65% of the final grade can be had without either writing words in English or demonstrating any skill whatsoever in communication. The student will also get 5% for homework and 5% for participation, a boon for the intelligent teacher who doesn't ask for either because he knows that, if he gives homework, the terrified student will not be seen the following day and, if asked to participate, the mortified student will similarly cease to place his buttocks on the chair. But isn't that the beauty of the attendance regulations? If the student doesn't attend, he can't participate or do homework. We're onto a winner! We can deduct marks and not have to justify our machiavelian evil. The student will protest that he did all the homework and participation required for the one hour out of sixty he was present but the teacher can legitimately ignore his pleas and, going against the customary grain, award no marks at all for doing nothing at all. I, of course, aware of the economic situation and the precariousness of my position, always award 5% for homework and 5% for participation. Snoring counts with me as participation. Farting too. Finding the classroom each day also weighs much with me. Clearly the student has done his homework. He has scoped out his daily route to excellence and we have arrived at the magic 75% possible of attainment without writing any words in English: the pass mark being 65%.
Not listening to the teacher is, of course, one of the great weapons in the armoury of the clever student, and I can only assume that it is this that enables the candidates here to successfully navigate the listening exam and obtain a further 5% towards their final grade. No longer having to filter out the hated voice of their tormentor their ears are drawn like magic and magnets to the sounds of the almost impenetrable Scottish burrs and American twangings that I find incomprehensible. In fact I spent almost three hours once trying to decipher what 'Indian earing' meant in the mouth of a South African. After giving up, I discovered five years later - with the help of a South African and a dictionary - that the man on the tape wasn't talking, as I had previously thought, about indigenous North American jewellery, but 'engineering'. Although credit where it's due! Any student able to pass their listening exam roundly deserves their 5% and I can honestly say that it's the only 5% out of the entire possible 80% so far attainable that qualifies as legitimate. Here's a sample.
1. Where is John going? Listen.
Not John: 'Hi John. Are you going to the bus station?'
John: 'Hi, I'm going to the bus station.'
Not John: 'You're going to the bus station, huh?'
John: 'Yes, I'm going to the bus station. Do you know where the bus station is? Can you tell me the way to the bus station? I'm trying to find my way to the bus station. It's where I'm going. The BUS STATION?'
Not John: 'The bus station is right over there! There's the bus station. It's right there. The BUS STATION!'
John: 'Thanks. That's where I'm going. The bus station.'
Now circle the correct answer.
a) Harry Potter and the Magnanimous Gerbil
b) a large tree
c) the bus station
I had a student who was convinced that John was going to Listen but didn't know where that was. I myself often have to get up at 5.00 AM in the morning here in Riyadh to be taken to some godforsaken spot that noone knows the whereabouts of except our driver. It amazes me when I look at the huge automobiles around us made by GMC. In this land of the gas guzzling SUBURBAN where everyone can have four wives and a car the size of a bus to drive them and the kids to the local Gallery (yes, I was enthused at the plethora of such until I discovered that here a gallery is another giant shopping mall and not the Kingdom's equivalence of the Tate Modern) the joke here is that as we, far too far from merrily along in the stream of traffic congestion, go bouncing, jouncing and sweating in the sandstorms and 70 degree heat, the Jizzy Ra Academy is about to purchase even smaller vehicles because the teachers don't arrive at their destination properly cooked. It fills me with positive amazement that our Academy provides us with cars that were clearly built circa 1934 for the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz and that three of us teachers are supposed to bear them no ill will for making us share a back seat for upwards of two hours a day.
It's akin in mystery to the pen shared by the three students. Unlike the one eye held in common ownership by the three Graeae of Greek mythology and held hostage by the hero Perseus in exchange for disclosure of the whereabouts of the Gorgon whose head he was to cut off in order for its petrifying properties to adorn the shield of the goddess Pallas Athene, it's obviously a plausible hypothesis that two more pens could be purchased. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. I told one student to go and get a pen when he didn't have one and proposed to share. I went off to do some photocopying and found him and a classmate in the corridor. I could only assume that the classmate was there to carry him and/or the pen should he falter in his Herculean task. 'I'll send someone else to carry the pen,' I told them and went back to take the register.
I have two Mohammad Alis in B3 at the Further Institute for Pottery Maintenance. 'Mohammad Ali,' I poise with my pen over the register at student #4. 'Present,' he says. I pause. 'And who are you fighting next?' I ask to general hilarity. A minute later I come to student #15. 'Mohammad Ali,' I say. 'Present,' he says. I pause. 'When are you fighting Joe Frazer again?' I ask. It always brings the house down.
It's at the FIPM that the Japanese 'technical advisers', in somewhat Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957) mode and led by a kommandant who looks inauspiciously like the Emperor Hirohito, force the students to stand in the sun at the beginning of the day (7.15 AM) and do karate exercises. Japan's fascination with gizmos has certainly caught the students imagination even if learning to shoot your fist into the air and scream 'Ha-yah!' in the mornings doesn't. I spend most of my time in the classroom holding my hands in front of my face to protect me from the hidden cameras in their mobile phones, shouting 'First money, then photographs!'
We're told, of course, to be culturally sensitive when we come here, which is why there is no usage of s/he here in this article. There are no female students with male teachers. All of the English language teaching books cover up the faces of the cartoon women (in case the students get excited) with what are supposed to be headscarves but that look like someone has dumped yellow and pink candyfloss on them. It's particularly useful when the text is asking what colour hair Marie and Liz have? Clearly the correct answer is 'peach and meringue'. But it does prepare one in a way for seeing the students walk up to you hand in hand and say that they are going to the bathroom together. Women do not work in Saudi Arabia and, apart from shopping, are never visible. They wear a one-piece black coverall like a sack with a slit for the eyes. I guess going to the bathroom hand in hand with a man is a major culturally sensitive event in anyone's language and even Susan Boyle (please don't let them put her picture on the album sleeve) would look good here to a young man if she were visible. I just wave on the hand-holding young men in the direction of the door and the toilet cubicles. Sometimes I only have three or four students in the classroom out of around thirty. The rest are in the ceramic palace - shaving their legs in the handbasins and tweezing their eyebrows perhaps. I have no comment to make. Cultural sensitivity - like feminism and being politically correct in the West - is a must in the Middle East. They pay my wages, have all the oil, and declare fatwahs on writers. What more can I say? Lots.
Students of the Academy can obtain their final 25% towards their final grade by taking an exam in reading and, wait for it, writing. Which means that it's possible to attain to 87.5% without doing any writing. And this is what the students do - or rather don't do. They do do the reading. Here's a sample.
Dingo the jimblegrobbit spongled doobledly, jimming on his jignoodle while spongjobbling ettwarbly. 'Jinglespoonfully!' said Thrognardle the fnoor. 'Hibble becktwarts!' The djarbungle threeg jongled bagnorbally. 'Hobbly doof! Threep spardlejung. Hooble goofunt.' Jeeble snarfung grebt thrubwardle.
And more of the same. Here's a sample question.
How did the djarbungle threeg jongle?
a) the square of the hypoteneuse
b) tight end
The example is extreme but the essence has been preserved. I have seen students who are unable to read a syllable pass a reading exam at the Academy. It's only about recognition. See the word, know the answer. We don't need to know what a jarbungle threeg is, or understand how to conjugate the verb 'to jongle', we only have to recognize that bagnorbally is in the text and is adjectival.
And so to the writing! We are nothing if not ambitious. Students constitutionally unable to use either the definite or indefinite article are routinely asked to write paragraphs of at least ten sentences about their family, where they work, or the excitements of Taif. 'I am student' they will begin. It's almost Shakespearian isn't it? Reminiscent of Herman Melville's opener in Moby Dick (1851) 'Call me Ishmael.' Alas we deteriorate from here on in and it's a rare student that amasses more than three marks out of a possible fifteen in his writing component. But we process them on twelve monthly - or 'termly' as the Academy would have us say - certificated levels until at level twelve they again fail their writing exam and obtain an Oxford College Britain Diploma with 87.5% and an A.
Failure is deservedly blamed on the teacher. One of the Supervisors took me to task one day for not using the Smart Board technology in a sparkly enough manner. With a sweeping movement of the electronic pen he demonstrated how one could fill the students with awe and amazement by producing veritable constellations of coloured stars to highlight words and phrases. 'Now I am a magician!' he said. 'Well, if that's your fantasy,' I yawned. I call it The Sound And The Fury Approach To Language Teaching. It's all about mesmerising the student with loud discourses that are difficult to ignore and covering the board in seemingly scientific formulas and other indicipherable hieroglyphics that appear to communicate much but actually signify nothing. The students applaud the magnificent performance of the suit at the board but, when asked, have no idea what the lesson was about. I liken it to being a kid at school who, when asked if he saw Star Wars, says 'Yeah. Wow!' Loves it but has no idea of the plot (not that that matters in Lucas and Spielberg's '77 space opera). It's the Zap! Whiz! Bang! school of language imparting. Cousin to Streetfighter II and with about as much relevance.
On the other hand, it's not about failure. It's not possible to fail. As you've doubtless guessed. It's about satisfaction. And a lot of the satisfaction derived by the students is from getting what they want or, as we in the trade understand it, getting the teacher where they want him. Here in Riyadh a teacher has the same general status as the Philippino houseboy, which takes a professional teacher some time to get used to. He is used to being civil with students and fails to understand that he is expected to be servile. I saw one Egyptian teacher here actually bow to one old boy (who was parading the obligatory evil leer) while saying 'My respects to your father.' For some reason the older old boy had been mentioned and the younger old boy, positively gleaming with malice, encountered that thing he was there for - satisfaction! The satisfaction of seeing someone who was clearly his superior in every dimension humbling himself in order to bolster his job tenure.
Of course one cannot ignore the religious aspect of one's situation. One isn't a Muslim but one will relate a single anecdote in order to convey some impression of what is encountered here. I was giving a conversation class to a group of students from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so the talk turned to drinks and, after roundly condemning alcohol and the drinkers thereof in the strongest possible terms in order to continue depositing riyals in my bank account, I began to talk about soft drinks, Sprite meaning something like 'djinn' and Red Bull getting it's name from the drug taurine that is found in it and so on. Then I asked about Coca Cola. 'What does Coca Cola mean in Arabic? How does it translate?' 'It means there is no God,' said one. In a nutshell! Coca Cola is an American company and therefore a branch of Satanism. And the student probably believes this as an article of faith. It's a part of the popular myth.
Apropos of which, ten years ago I was teaching in Saudi Arabia's Tabuk, a town most interesting, perhaps, for its curious placing of an ancient Lightning, as well as other Air Force planes like huge Airfix models, in the middle of traffic roundabouts that also often have captured military vehicles from wars with the Israelis decorating them. I was an instructor at the King Khalid Military City's North West Armed Forces Hospital (NWAFH) and, apart from being taken to the guard house by soldiers perturbed at my hovering at 7.00 pm outside the closed building where I worked while strolling around one evening taking the air as I waited for the bus after a visit to the recreation centre to borrow a few videos from the library, my abiding memory is of the strangeness of finding, in an environment notorious for its lack of pictorial representations of anything other than the tomb of Abraham, a 30×20 poster of the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Centre stuck to the wall of a training centre otherwise bereft of imagery. Strange because it was still there on 9/11. As was I. Rumours of applause amongst the hospital staff, as they watched the events unfold on TV in the lounge, remain just that; but the picture remains forever in my mind: almost as a reproach for not being able to understand the omen.
America's invasion of Iraq is now enshrined in the Arabian consciousness as a part of the myth of the USA as the Great Satan. That they're interested in learning English is also a myth. The male army nurses I instructed in Tabuk explained that they needed English to work with the Americans after the first Gulf War. The impetus hasn't changed. Saudis have to have English for their work. But they're about as interested in us as we are in the mating habits of gadfly. Which is a big problem if you're in the habit of assuming hegemony with English language teaching. We're told not to talk about religion, politics, sex or music. We are, for example, actively encouraged not to play the musical intro to the audio material that goes with the coursebooks. I have a student who, I kid you not, like one of the three monkeys in the 'see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil' pantheon, sits with his hands over his ears when the funky boogie-woogie vibes of the New Interchange audio CD intro comes on. It is neither rare nor unusual for them to complain or even leave upon hearing music or discussions thereof, which makes it difficult when the hegemonically obsessive West insists on creating course units based on our perceptions of the beauties of jazz and hip-hop. No cherry or mauve headscarves to cover that lot up, eh?
I spent half an hour explaining Thanksgiving to some students. If you wanted to define the phrase 'a pointless exercise' that would do it. Without being asked one explains that Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November and Independence Day in the USA is, of course, on the 4th of July. The book then wants us to cross examine our students on their 'special' days. 'Ramadan' is the inevitable reply. Is it a holiday? 'No, that's the Eid.' Further interrogation reveals that the feast of Eid comes after the fasting month of Ramadan but it's impossible to say when that will be because of the peculiarities of calculating by the phases of the moon. In short, the Arabic peoples have no definite days for holiday time as we do in the West, so explaining ours is a bit like telling them that ham is pig but that hamburgers originally came from Hamburg and are almost always beef. They don't eat pigs because they are 'unclean' and forbidden (haram), so why would they need to know the etymological derivations of the word 'ham', never mind 'bacon' and 'pork'? Their point of view. Not the teacher's. Christmas Day? Now you're not trying to introduce religion, are you? No, it's just another silly excuse to eat turkey, honest. 'Turkey [a man's name here] does not want to be eaten!' I am reprimanded in harsh tones. 'And what is this problem with swine fever?' they ask gloatingly. The logic is that, because they don't have pigs, they won't have swine fever (they already do here in Riyadh) - and naturally all of us heathens will shortly die horribly. 'Do you know Allah?' they ask. Clearly Allah and swine fever are meant to be two halves of an equation that will kill or cure this pig of a teacher. Fortunately Ala is a girl's name here, so I pretend confusion and, explaining that I knew her in Sudan, ask if I can have her phone number.
Until English text books are devoid of Western culture you won't find anyone genuinely satisfied in Arabia. There is a real hatred for what they perceive as us making them do. I had a student who, when asked to write a paragraph at level 5 about a painting by John Singleton Copley entitled The Shark (1778) complained that I wasn't helping him. 'Is this a good sentence?' he asked 'The boat water.' 'No,' I told him. 'The boat is in the water.' Clearly he was not impressed. '"The boat water" is not good?' '"The boat is in the water" is good,' I said, emphasizing for good measure. I always have problems with explaining the verb 'to be' ontologically and, as a rule, order them to buy a copy of Descartes, learn Latin, and decode cogito ergo sum. I guessed from his silent sullenness that he was happy with his understanding of the present simple in the sentence and also with the preposition on account of the shark's medium being water and their not likely to be seen flying above it, but he hadn't liked my tone and decided to stall on the definitive article. 'Why isn't it "a water",' he decided to goad me beyond bearability. 'We use the definite article when we're clearly talking about something already identified, like the water in the picture.' I said aloud, while fulminating silently and juggling in a Prince Henry-esque fashion with the idea of giving sonority to words less carefully chosen. Goading is, of course, one of the great student entertainments. My favourite is the student who, when told Unit 15, exercise 7, keeps demanding of you the page number, as if it were a veritable impossibility to find Unit 15, exercise 9, without a map, compass, team of sherpas, and a guide dog. I could see this one didn't like my tone again. 'Write it for me,' he said. I duly wrote - 'Water boat is the in.' - in his book. 'What is another good sentence?' he said. Clearly this would go on until I understood I was a peon and the paragraph was written. I refused and was replaced in good order in that class by management desperate to keep a customer.
Conversations with management can be quite illuminating. Happiness - or at least the simulacrum - is at a premium in Arabia. After three months here, one of the Egyptian teachers noticed my usually taciturn frown melting a little. 'That's the first time I've seen you smile,' he smiled. You don't understand how insulting that is unless you know that the Koran exhorts the faithful to smile - continuously if possible. I was being criticized. 'Well, fuck you!' I thought. But happiness is what the management seek to find in their students. One representative explained to me that he didn't care how many units of the coursebook were covered as long as the students were smiling inanely. Another explained that the syllabus was of no importance. 'Just smile, talk to them about their family, get them to write a few sentences about their job,' he smiled on presently - and continuously.
On the subject of insults, working in Arabia is a bit like being gay, and you have to understand the culture to cope with that. Here it's almost a crime to be single. You're not allowed in the Kingdom Tower, the glorified shopping mall here, for example, if you aren't with a family. MacDonalds is split into areas for single and marrieds, and a family would be offended if it weren't. So, if you come to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), be prepared for the shock that you are expected to share if single - as a punishment if you're prejudiced to see it that way. 'Why don't you share?' management wanted to know. I could live in a compound with the rest of the alcohol drinkers and have a bar with a swimming pool with women to gawp at as long as I was happy with a man to live with. Insulted? You bet. At the derisory accommodation allowance described as sufficient for 'all my living space and travel needs' for one thing. You don't want to explain that you're not homosexual, thereby accusing their culture of being so, but the phrase 'I'm not gay' would readily spring to mind if our government in England decided to resolve the housing problem by forcing single males to cohabit. Riyadh is even split into married areas and single areas. The students complain over it being 'hard'. Just how it is, one can only guess. But at least at my cheap hotel I'm not walking hand in hand with a man into the bathroom - or indeed the sunset for that matter.