Today I gave my first pop quiz. The mortal terror on the faces of the intended victims slaked some vicious and primal thirst that I didn't even know existed until I drank deeply from the chalice of fear.
Teaching poetry and classic English literature like Shakespeare or Wordsworth is really difficult when you're teaching it to people who are learning English as a second language. It's hard enough to get students to read with interest literature in their native language (as some of my droll literature classes at Villanova can attest); it's a whole other set of problems when you add in the myriad barriers presented by literature to non-native readers. And the skills necessary to speak another language have no correlation to understanding or enjoying an artistic work in that language. That is to say: just because you can read it doesn't mean you can understand it.
It's amazing just how much is taken for granted in language and literature. Anyone that speaks English shares a hugely similar background in terms of history, education, and religion. Even if you were a home-schooled atheistic nomad, simply speaking English has inured you to the pillars and traditions of The West. You know, Greece and Rome, Latin and Greek, Christianity, European history, Renaissance and Enlightenment and pointless, bloody fighting over religion. So how do you explain all of the allusions to Hellenistic culture and history and society in Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn? How can you expect them to enjoy Shakespeare or Wilde when the concept of a pun doesn't exist in Chinese? The whole point of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is lost, and explaining it doesn't make it funny, it just reinforces the idea of English literature as this obtuse and difficult subject that, in the end, isn't going to help anyone when they get a job teaching conversational English.
So my first quiz wasn't about interpreting a deep piece of poetry or explaining Hamlet's existential dilemma. It was five simple, plot-based questions about Robinson Crusoe. We spent all of last class reading it, discussing it, and making sure every little nook and cranny of the short excerpt was understood. And I told the class ("hint hint") be ready to discuss (wink wink) this story next class. That is your homework (ahem wink): be (wink wink) prepared (wink wink). So with as much warning as I could possibly give for a supposed "pop quiz," I still met with stifled complaints. Some tried to explain that they weren't here the last two classes, and all I could say was the obvious: making up classwork is your responsibility, you've made no effort to contact me for information about the missed classes, and the course doesn't stop when you're not here, now does it? This is, you know, a UNIVERSITY. Not kindergarten. After taking a look at the quiz, I got a lot of complaints: "this is too difficult" and such. No, it's not; if you came prepared to discuss this story, if your DID your HOMEWORK, this quiz should be no problem.
But what is this?! Foreign teachers are supposed to be our singing, dancing monkeys! They aren't supposed to actually teach us anything! I have no delusions of being the savior of the English language for anyone here, but I am teaching a real literature class, and you can bet your ass that if it were a Chinese literature class, they'd have quizzes and be expected to talk and come prepared, just like any other university class. And this was just a simple quiz about plot points in a story!
So I went over the rules (no talking, no book, no notes), the answers (short, complete sentences; spelling and grammar, while important, will not be held against you), the grading (five short-answer questions worth twenty points each, bonus definitions offering a total of ten bonus points), I read each question aloud so there could be no confusion as to what I was asking, ensured there we no questions and that everyone's name was in the top right-hand corner, and we began. As if to foretell the inevitable, I saw many students cheerfully and promptly put their name on the top left.
And lo did he humbly understand the proverb: the best-laid plans of mice and men do oft go awry.
I guess I should have anticipated just how long it would take them write down the short answers I was looking for; shifting all those mental gears obviously takes time. I should have thought ahead, in case the class wasn't finished in the first forty-five minute period. But the bell rang for our ten-minute break, and no one in the class was finished. So here was a nice big window for the whole class to talk about the quiz, in Chinese of course, me oblivious and powerless to stop them. I warned them: no talking about the quiz, no writing on your papers, no looking in your book during the break. But it was futile. As soon as the bell rang to begin our second period, I heard the incessant tearing of tape on paper, happily, gingerly lifting the incorrect answers off the page and leaving fresh pulpy scar tissue, perfect for jotting down the class's consensual answer.
The quiz wasn't hard, and I had no desire to trick anyone; and the quiz was more preparing them for the questions they'll see on the final than anything. I guess it's just too much to ask for an honest quiz. I wanted to bitterly scream "I'll get you fuckers on the final!" but really, I just want them to read carefully and understand the damn book. I'll make sure to trim the quiz for next week's classes, so it's doable in the first half of class. Live, as they say, and learn.
Pop quizzes, love for an unappreciated subject, bitterness toward thankless students, pettiness clouding the genuine aim of education ... man, I am such a teacher!