Well, we’re currently in the throes of the first week of a new term. No-one’s had enough of a break, really: exams ran until 20 December, many of us (on the teaching side) were grading up till Christmas Eve, and the first day of classes was yesterday. Meanwhile, due to The Assorted Hols, there have been few working days in between and the usual amount of organization that goes just before the start of a new term.

On the upside, the students didn’t have much of a break either, poor lambs: so they haven’t forgotten all their French.

(OK, I’m not that mean: of course they deserve a break too. Most of them work hard, many are taking a lot of courses across a wide range of areas, many are also working while studying, and 13 weeks in a row then a “break” that’s little better than a long weekend is shitty for anyone.)

My ideal academic year, by the way, would be three terms with shorter breaks:

  • term 1: early February – mid-May (start of term, appropriately, around St Bridget’s Day/Candlemas/Imbolc)
  • break: 3 weeks, mid-May – early June
  • term 2:  early June – August (sorry France)
  • break: 3 weeks, September (best time to visit Scotland)
  • term 3: end September – end November
  • longer midwinter break: 9 weeks, December – early February (hibernate in a burrow or fly off to sunnier climes)

I’ve been thinking about that for quite a long time now. I vaguely recall reading an article in the National Geographic about Japanese schoolchildren and their school year. I read this at my grandad’s house, when I was a wee lassie. Might be anywhere from 20 to 30 years ago now.

The real throes right now are sorting out people who want to change class for one reason or another (often perfectly legitimate), or indeed who want to join a class and hadn’t registered until now (again, for many reasons and in a variety of circumstances. Don’t judge, lest ye be,…, etc.). On the French language side, all our classes are full full full fullissime to capacity and beyond. That is: 35. We’re turning people away. As a co-co-ordinator (with my fine and fabulous colleague Jacques) for the biggest classes the French side of the department teaches–101 and 102–I’ve been seeing a side of teaching this year that’s been quite an eye-opener. It’s quite a juggling act: of course every student is desperate and makes a good case for deserving a seat in a class, or special treatment. I’m being diplomatic here: some cases have been, shall we say, desperate in more ways than one. But no matter: you still feel for the poor person. But you can’t say yes to everyone.

We do run summer classes too, after all.

And there’s instructors to consider too. A co-ordinator’s got a duty of care; “responsibilities” sounds much loftier than the more honest “obligations.” No, I’m absolutely not going to add another five students to a class that’s FULL I repeat FULL. I may add 1, 2 max, but only on consultations with the instructor concerned and with their consent. I’m not adding five, six, seven for someone who’s doing this as a TA: that’s a lot of extra marking. Not a good thing for someone who maybe doesn’t have that much teaching experience. Though many of our TAs do–some have as much as faculty, ahem!–and all those that I’ve met so far, from beginners to very experienced, have been superb. But: they’ve got classes to attend and research to do. Some of them have more than one TA position, often in other universities or schools some considerable distance from UBC. And they have rights too. They have a union, fortunately: I dread to think what would have happened in this situation when I was a graduate student, as Princeton, being private, was immune to union activity. Not that it was illegal to belong to a union: just that they had no powers/teeth on university territory. I duly joined the AAUP and felt a weird mixture of smugness and impotence. Add that to useful experience in trying to see the world from the point of view of the other gender…

For my own other classes, they’re medieval (yay!) literature (double-yay!!) and with quite a different sort of work involved, so a few over the 40 or 50 isn’t a big deal.

But for language: there’s a lot of individual work through the term. Homework, tests, quizzes, midterm, final, and weekly language lab work. We’ve cut the weekly homework, because marking it proved back-breaking (when classes went past the 20, 25, 30 mark).

Here’s a snapshot of what the components of a grade look like:

CH. TESTS (best 3)
marked /25
marked /2.5

That’s 17 items per student.

Multiply that by 35. Sorry, 35 +++.

Add weekly homework (as indeed we did in Dublin–but minus some other components above): being softer, for 10 of the 13 weeks; being more rigorous, for 12: that’s 27 to 29 items per student.

Times 35 (or so).

You get the picture.

Now: imagine you’re a TA. Or that you’re a sessional instructor with a heavier teaching load than other faculty: say, 3 or 4 such classes per term. And that’s being optimistic.

It’s not a pretty picture.

There is an online version of the exercises, auto-correcting (or rather: some exercises do this, others offer several solutions, and some assignments have to be gone through by the instructor), with notes on completion and marks going straight into an online grade-book, or in reports to the instructor. But there’s a problem: the textbook-and-bells-and-whistles we’re using is from a US publisher, and their online data is stored in the US. Subject to American law, including the Patriot Act. We’re in Canada, and subject to Canadian and British Columbian law. Including very strict laws on individual privacy and data protection. We cannot store student information in the US. So we can’t, right now, use these online exercises.

That could be a great thing: pushing us to make our own materials, including self-correcting practice exercises (as some of the other courses in the department already do, FREN 122 & 123 being the flagship and standard-bearer).

But there’s remaining niggles: and they’re at a higher level than the department.

(1) 3 hours a week of classes isn’t enough for beginners’ French.

I remember going through this in my pedagogy seminar back in 2000. I remember the last Princeton coordinator I worked under, Christine Sagnier, talking about this in 2006: and the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and MLA guidelines PLUS reports, studies, and recommendations from articles in journals in the field. I also remember the same again in Dublin in 2008: this time, assorted European bodies. I’ve been a Member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists for a few years now, and the topic reappears in The Linguist and some of their online forum on a regular basis.

We really need another 1-2 hours’ oral practice, pronunciation & phonetics, production, and conversation. Whatever that’s going to be called, whatever form it’s going to take, and whether it’s going to be based in a language lab or not.

We need a solid hour to work on reading and comprehension, including far far far more cultural material than we have time for right now. Another solid hour on writing / production. Grammar and translation can be integrated into either of these (in a nice combo communicative-flexible-mixed approach). Or stand alone too as separate hours, in a cleanly structured way.

This is just at the basic level; there’s other factors and complications further up.

(2) 35+ students is too many. Especially when combined with (1) above. My colleague Bill Winder draws a parallel that I hadn’t thought of before, and it’s been very much in mind since I first bumped into it online an hour or so ago. It triggered me to write this post.

[language classes] are not so much about what one knows but what one does: speak, write, and read. In fact, language classes are at times equivalent to music classes (where the numbers are often as low as two or three) because learning a language is like learning an instrument, not a particular content. We all learned our native language through one-to-one conversation; that is ultimately the foundation of second language learning as well.

Lovely. His ForceForms is seriously well worth reading. I urge and entreat you to go and read them. The main points are about class sizes, and standard sizes; you’ll recognize (I hope) many of the facts and arguments, not so much from here (though those who know know that I do go on about these things, sometimes to excess) as from the larger media, and the specialized media for education, higher education, languages, and literary and cultural life. Bill is particularly astute and nice in what he has to say about the politico-economic angle; how it is so worrying, something that is clear to anyone working in universities, especially in the humanities. I’d have been much more mouthy and ranty, myself: this is a threat to civilization, and the threat is from business models, or rather, what lies behind them. Not what they’re “founded on”–as in principles, theories, beliefs. No: what lies behind.  The same rampant rank gross consumerism, radical capitalism, and “Growth Is All” Viagra-economics that we’ve been seeing at work elsewhere recently in The World.

What lies behind: wolves in sheep’s clothing. Which leads me in a not very roundabout way at all to end on a medievalist note: Faus Samblant. In both my lit classes, I’m teaching the Roman de la Rose. In one of them, starting next week. At few times in history has Faus Samblant ever been so à propos. Apocalyptic aspects of that part of the Rose aside, I’d often regarded him as an uncannily prophetic, and altogether uncanny/unheimlich kinda guy. He walks amongst us… (cue 21/12/2012 doom brigade & co.).

Next week: a round-up of the best reasons I’ve received so far in the last few days for “why I must be in this class.” They’ll be properly anonymised, of course. Any students of mine who read this blog and recognize their own arguments: you’ll know you were convincing!

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