Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Those who can't, teach...

Salleh Ben Joned
First published 25 December 1991, New Straits Times (reprinted in Nothing is Sacred)

The quality of teaching at our universities has been much talked about in the papers lately. Early this month, Dr T. Marimuthu, former Universiti Malaya professor of education and now Member of Parliament, was quoted as saying "not all lecturers who have been trained to teach are interesting lecturers; obviously, some lecturers who have not had that training can be interesting too, because the personality element also plays a part."

The fact is that not many lecturers have been trained in the art of teaching; and that very few of them, trained or not, know how to teach. The "personality element" may play a part in the ability or lack of it; but it is not crucial. What is crucial is the 'character' of the mind and whether it is fired by commitment to the vocation or not. The "personality element" can help, but one must be rigorously clear about what constitutes "personality" here. It is often confused with the showy behaviour that hides shallowness of mind and lack of real commitment. If that's the kind of "personality element" which makes a lecturer "interesting" and "popular," then he's not just useless like the familiar academic type whose salaried mind knows neither enthusiasm nor style; he's positively dangerous.

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who wrote poetry (and good poetry, too), was full of enthusiasm for his subject, but the "personality element" in him wasn't terribly striking. His style certainly wasn't the kind that launched a thousand students to the varsity and beyond. He was, in fact, rather awkward in movement and soft and, at times, even hesitant in speech. But he fired me with enthusiasm for literature, especially poetry, because it was clear that in his subdued way, he himself glowed with a hidden fire. He also had the habit of going beyond the call of examination-oriented duty. When we were supposed to cram the novels of Jane Austen and the poetry of Wordsworth, he would distract and excite us with T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' or Albert Camus' 'The Outsider' (neither of which had been sanctified by the curriculum). I found 'Prufrock' so much more fascinating than Wordsworth's leech-gatherer that I nearly failed my HSC English for spending too much time reading off the curriculum.

The "personality element," as I said, can help, especially the sort that doesn't advertise itself too much like that of the stridently non-conformist type of lecturer. You know, the type who loves to turn each lecture into a performance that entertains more than it teaches. I am not saying that having the ability to perform and thereby turn students on is a pedagogical disease. Those who can do so and really teach at the same time can be an asset to an institution, and a boon to the students. (Never mind that the particular institution would rather not have his type around.) And those who can't? They can always... well, just "teach," I suppose; in G.B. Shaw's sense of the word. (Shaw's well known line goes: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.") But, speaking from my own decade-long experience of teaching literature at Universiti Malaya, this kind of lecturer (and I must confess I was a bit inclined that way) can be a hero to a small minority of young souls eager for refreshing breaks from the soporific monotony of campus routine. But he can actually turn the timid or shy majority off.

I remember once turning up for a lecture wearing a sarong, a nice clean one I used to go to the mosque in (except it wasn't a Friday that day). Now, I did that not to draw attention to myself (all right, there was a little of that motive, why should I deny it?); I happened to love wearing a sarong and still do; I go to the supermarket or the movies in my sarong sometimes. I'm just an incorrigible Malay, I suppose - or an honorary Myanmarese, considering that the average urban Malay today wouldn't be seen dead in a sarong outside their homes, except of course, in the mosque or at a funeral. That day in the Arts Faculty Lecture Theatre (I remember it quite vividly), my entry in my nice dark purple kain Samarinda was greeted by half-suppressed giggles from some of the boys and an embarrassed silence from the rest (most of them girls, Eng. Lit. being a very 'girly' subject). I acted normal (normal?) and went ahead with the scheduled lecture (on William Blake, I remember) as if I was attired in complete conformity with the image of the ideal university lecturer - long-sleeved, immaculately ironed white shirt and tie and academic gown. I gave the lecture in my usual style, moving around a lot , sometimes sitting, even squatting on the long table, sometimes walking up the stairs of the lecture theatre and scattering my subversive pearls of wisdom from the back, over the heads of my beloved students.

That day, I noticed many of the girls seemed too embarrassed even to take down notes. It didn't occur to me until later that they were probably in mortal fear that my sarong would slip off (you know how sarongs, especially the silk-like Samarinda sort, tend to drop off just like that unless you hold them up with a belt). Imagine the scandal if my Samarinda had betrayed me! Most of the students, as was their wont, had their biros poised expectantly over their virginal notepads. They are great note-takers, our students; they take down everything, even the jokes. (Can be very useful in the exams, you know; might gain you an extra point or two.) But they were not taking down anything that day. Could it be just because of their anxiety over my precarious sarong? Then I realized I was not actually lecturing but reciting chunks of lines from Blake's 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' (our text for the day) which I knew by heart. I was driven by an overpowering, barely conscious desire to soak their minds and their senses in the mind-expanding, body-expanding music and images of Blake's verse. And they were anxious because there was nothing to take down.

What can we write down? And what's going to happen in that dreaded hell of an exams hall if he gives nothing solid and regurgitable to write down now? You damn long-haired lout! Useless lecturer! My pedagogic conscience heard the cry of their undernourished souls, and I, for a moment, felt a twinge of guilt for dereliction of duty. Halfway down the steps of the theatre, I suddenly stopped in my manic tract. With one of the Proverbs of Hell just escaped from my mouth ("Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity"), I changed my tack for a parabolic moment of pedagogic irony and fury to say to the class: "Sorry, boys and girls, I've been too carried away by that devilish Blake. Here's some solid exam stuff for you to take down. William Blake (and I spelt the name), Born 23rd November 1757, at 28 Broad street, Golden Square, London (where his father made and sold stockings) - and died on 12 August, 1827, at Fountain Court, Strand, London..."

You wouldn't believe it, the flurry of the biros scratching those virginal pads! When I interrupted the sudden flow of precious information with a half-laughing hiss ("You idiots! You can get that info in any book on Blake in the library!"), those poor undernourished young souls didn't even hear me, so absorbed were they in taking down the revelation much needed for that Judgment Day. "Sir (the fact that they call their lecturers "Sir" is painfully revealing), Dear Sir, give us this day our daily crumb!" Poor kids!

And who can we blame for all this? The system, of course, yes. But the lecturers themselves must not use the 'the System' as a convenient alibi. They must ask themselves: "If the students have a test to pass, don't we too?" Too many of them, I hate to say, are too complacent in their too-comfortable academic cocoons, heavily protected by a wall of research junk and many-times-recycled seminar papers, to even dream of asking that question. Because they know, deep inside them, that they would most likely fail the test.

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