Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh very young, Part 1

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?
You're only dancing on this earth for a short while...
--Cat Stevens

Less than a month since I returned to teaching and already I've collected several stories and points for reflection. No, it's not so much that I've slammed into the harsh hard wall of reality; rather, I've stepped on the flaccid whoopee cushion of disappointment. That's how it goes.

A quick update for those who don't know the story: I applied for a part-time teaching position at the Ateneo de Davao University. The Computer Studies Division hired me to teach a course on Information Security; a week after I started, they also gave me Open Source Technologies. Last week, the Humanities Division asked me to cover Feature Stories for a teacher on leave. An unusual arrangement, I know, but I relish the left brain / right brain balancing act.

Above all other reasons I took on this job because it gives me a chance to observe and interact with young people. I believe that I'm at a point where I can positively influence others, and a university is the ideal place to effect this goal. But as I said, it hasn't been without its surprises and disappointments.

Story #1. In the middle of a spirited exposition of Gene Weingarten's "Pearls Before Breakfast", I paused at the line, "Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money..." Then I asked my 3rd Year and 4th Year AB English students: "What does this tell us about the character of the person?"

After a long silence, someone piped: "That he has money...?"

"No! What does it say about his character?"

"Ummm...that he can play the violin?"

"No, no, no! There's already a clue in the sentence itself. He gives it away in his adverb."

Another long silence. Finally I break in: "Where's the adverb in the sentence?"

Heads bent low over the handouts, they pored over the lines, only breaking occasionally to mutter to each other.

"Class! What's an adverb? What does it modify?"

Yet more silence. Then finally a brave soul meekly said: "A verb, sir?"

"Very good! What else?"


At that moment I deeply wanted to channel Ian Casocot. What would Ian do? Alas, I was far too amused to be upset.

"Don't you know the parts of a sentence? Didn't you take up the structure of the English language?"

"That was last year, sir..."

Story #2. The week before, I gave my Open Source Technologies class a ten-point quiz. Very simple, actually: straightforward identification with all items having been covered in the lecture and assigned reading materials. Result: only six people passed.

The week after, I gave the exact same quiz. Same questions, same order. Good news: 14 people passed; bad news: that was still less than half the class; worse news: two people managed to score lower than they did before.

What exactly was the matter? Why couldn't these young men and women, already pushing out of their teens, be bothered to check where they went wrong the week before? Then again, why not? This is the same class that, when I chided them for not knowing their computer history, excused themselves in this way:

"That was in first year, sir..."

Last week or last year or three years ago: does it make any difference? From these anecdotes you can form any number of conclusions about these students. My own view tends towards the utter lack of intellectual curiosity. This is not to say that they are lazy or stupid, because that is not what I see when I look into their eyes. Instead, what I do see is the absence of any joy of discovery.

A far more insiduous defect in outlook, this; more than any inherent defects in character or in cognition: without any pleasure, they cannot really own what they've learned. Lessons become mere rote exercise, to be remembered only insofar as they are useful. Discard at earliest opportunity.