Sunday, April 15, 2007

Black Friday

Last Friday I thought that Fridays weren't going to be too bad this year. There was the difficult first student, yes, but that class might be cancelled anyway (I am quietly hoping) and the other classes seemed pretty good. The second class of the day was a high level non-credit course, with about five students who want to talk, the third was a third-year elective 'discussion' class to which twenty-seven students turned up, not a bad number (although they proved themselves incapable of 'discussion,' but that's nothing new), and the last was a first year required class of arts majors, who are always fun. That class was a little large, with thirty-three students, but still manageable. The limit is supposed to be thirty, but if there are scheduling hiccups we're supposed to accept up to thirty-five.

It looked like being a good year. If the first class was cancelled, which I hoped it would be, I would have a good end to a long week. The last class seemed like a particularly fun bunch.

Yesterday was Black Friday, the second Friday of semester. Perhaps I should have been warned when I noticed the date.

In the first class, the lone student turned up again, surprisingly. There are still no more students to temper the effect of being stuck in an 11th floor classroom surrounded by empty rooms with a student whose normal response to anything I say is the occasional twitch. Nobody else is teaching on the 11th floor at that time. It was windy yesterday, and up there the wind makes horror movie noises at the least provocation. It howled yesterday, and I felt a little spooked in the long gaps between words when the building moaned. HOOOOOO!

The first ninety minutes were interminable. The decision to cancel the class (or not) will not happen for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I cannot tell the student to buy a textbook, and I simply do not know what to do with him. He will do whatever I ask him to, in the sense that if I ask him to read something or repeat something he will do it, but his obedience is exact and frightening and it makes me feel cruel. He breaks out in a sweat, obeys me, and looks utterly terrified, staring at his hands or the desk. It is horrible. What can I do to make this kid relax? (I already know the answer to that one: I can disappear.)

The second class went well. Those non-credit classes are a dream to teach.

In the third class of third year students I did a quick head count and noticed that I still had twenty-seven students. This was strange, because there were some I was sure I would have remembered (because THEY were strange), but I didn't. How could I have forgotten that very tall, skinny bloke with dreadful acne and hair down to his waist held back with little butterfly clips? That wasn't like me. I may not remember names, but even after only one meeting I generally recognize the faces, in a blurry sort of way. They look familiar. The class did not look familiar.

Then light dawned.

"Who is here for the first time today?" I asked, and half the class put their hands up.

I had forgotten it was an elective class. They're still shopping around. Bugger. I did not have enough extra copies of the class guidelines, and certainly was not going to brave the excessively slow lift (I was back on the 11th floor) to run and make some. Besides, I'd only get dirty looks from the office staff for not ordering my copies the week before, and possibly a lecture. We're not supposed to make copies the same day we use them. We get lectured about it all the time.

I ad libbed the class (which went surprisingly well), making a note to order the extra copies for next week. At the end I asked how many had already registered and how many weren't sure yet. Most of them had already registered, so I think I'll be able to actually start teaching the syllabus next week. (As much as I ever do, I mean. It's a very optimistic syllabus, not written by me.)

When I walked over to the other campus for my last class I was feeling pleased that I would be finishing with a good class. It is important to end the week well, I find. If the last class goes well I feel like I've had a successful week. Last year I was lucky, too.

I walked into the room, greeted the class cheerily (and they greeted me back - they're lovely). Then I did a double-take.

"Good god, what happened?" I asked. "You have MULTIPLIED!"

I did a head count of the sadly squashed students (it's not a very big room) and discovered there were now forty-four students.

"Forty-four?" I said. "FORTY-FOUR? Are you sure you're in the right class?"

They were all sure. They thought my reaction was funny.

I went down to the office and asked to use the phone. I called my boss, over on the other campus.

"What happened to the limit of thirty-five?" I asked. "How the hell am I supposed to teach the same syllabus to forty-four students that I'm teaching to thirty in my other first year classes? It's impossible!"

The boss is terrifically proud of getting this limit accepted by the various faculties. The limit used to be forty, but we were regularly required to accept fifty or more. (I do not miss those days AT ALL.) But now that the students are all supposed to get the same oral English classes in their first year (the English classes used to be all elective) it is easier to enforce some sort of limit. You cannot realistically expect a forty- or fifty-student class to learn conversational English. Thirty is bad enough.

The boss said he was on his way over, and I put the phone down. The office staff wanted to know what was wrong, and I told them. I knew I wasn't supposed to complain to them. The boss is the buffer between us part-timers and the Japanese staff, and we're supposed to make nicey-nicey, because every time a teacher complains about anything to the administrative staff the boss gets the flak later when they complain about us complaining and being uppity gaijin and who do we think we are? He gets very upset if he is forced to defend us too often. But I couldn't resist the opportunity to convey the message that THEY HAD SCREWED UP. BADLY.

"My boss made a mistake," I said. "He has assigned me forty-four students, and the limit is supposed to be thirty-five. Ha ha ha! But I'm sure he will sort it out. Don't worry."

Several of the staff stopped in their tracks and stared at me, perturbed. Did I really not know that THEY assign the students? Did I really expect my boss to fix the problem? One of the big shots from the back of the office approached me tentatively.

"Er, sumimasesn, we got a lot more intake this year than we expected," he said. "Some of the classes might be a little bigger."

"Oh, but I'm sure you must have told the boss about it," I said. "He should have assigned extra teachers to take care of the overflow. It's really hard for the students to learn English in such large classes. How can they possibly get a chance to practice speaking in that situation? He should know better. It's cheating the students. Forty-four students in an oral English class? How ridiculous!" I burbled on and on, pretending not to notice the frozen lack of response. Then I added, conspiratorially, "But don't tell him I complained about him. I might get in trouble ... "

Perplexity reigned. Was I really so dim? People carefully avoided each other's eyes, and nobody seemed to know what to say.

"Yes, I think big classes must be difficult," said the big shot, nervously. "Er, sumimasen. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu..."

Then the boss arrived, and the office staff suddenly discovered they were busy. I went back to the classroom with him.

"I don't suppose there's anything you can do at this stage anyway," I said, "But I just made a wee stink in the office. I told them it's a ridiculous situation and the students are being cheated."

He frowned ferociously and opened his mouth, but I got in first.

"Don't worry!" I said, cheerfully. "I blamed you."

He shut his mouth. Then he opened it. Then he shut it again. Indecision crawled all over his face. Had I screwed up, or not? He did not like it that I'd smeared his reputation, but on the other hand, if I'd put the blame where it belonged, then ...

When we got to the classroom the jury was still out.

It turned out to be true that there was nothing he could do. Mine was not the only class grossly overloaded. Several others also had 40 or more, but the students could not be moved around to make a new class because some of them were different courses, and also because those that were in the same course had already bought their textbooks. We only have a very short list of texts we can choose from, but as luck would have it we had all chosen different ones. This means we are stuck with our ludicrously large classes.

The boss told me later (rather defensively) that the faculty of COURSE knew the classes would be overloaded, weeks ago at least. They should have split the first year students into more classes, and told him about it since he is responsible for providing teachers. But they didn't, which is why he only learned about it from the teachers in the second week. They were probably trying to save money.

I'm wondering now why those extra eleven students did not come to the first class. That is very unusual for first year students, and I am deeply suspicious. If the boss had known about this problem in the first week he still would have been able to do something, because we tell the students which textbook to buy the first week and it would have been possible to split the classes. But we ALL had at least ten missing students the first week. There is something decidedly fishy about the whole thing.

There was one good result, though. Halfway through class I went back to the office to ask for more photocopies, and they leaped at the chance to be helpful. They were fantastically polite. There were no lectures about ordering copies the week before, and I got yoroshikued and sumimasened several times.

THAT was a first.

I smilingly assured them that it was not their fault.

"If only the boss had done something sooner!" I sighed. When their expressions turned tragically confused (she STILL doesn't get it?) I told them not to worry, I would manage somehow. "It's a real shame for the students," I said, "It will be very difficult for them, but I'll do my best." Then I rushed off, trailed by more yoroshikus and sumimasens.

And it's true. I will do my best for the students, and it is a shameful way to treat them. They are a lovely bunch, which might make it a little easier, but really, there are just too damned many of them.

It is going to be an interesting year.


fallensnow said...

Haha! I absolutely love your writing! Even something unpleasant can be written is such a delightfully funny way. The way you talk to people, and the way you write. You're such a gem!

kenju said...

I agree with fallen snow. You are. And I suspect you will figure out how to teach all of them with the same care and grace you'd teach fewer.

Maria said...

thanks for the maps link! i took a brief look at it and it is amazing.

i can totally understand the black friday thing - its my frist week of class here to (as a student) so i was very much looking forward to the weekend and getting the first week over and done with.

its funny to read about the "yoroshiku onegaishimasu" aspects of the post - i get it all the time when i have to deal with administrative stuff as well! (in my other blog, i wrote about my woes with the japanese academic bureaucracy and trying to get into japanese language classes - i have come to hate that phrase and what it portents if the situation is bad.)

Maria said...

ps. mind if i add you to my blogroll?

Badaunt said...

Kenju and Fallensnow: I could only write about it funnily (is that a word?) because it was the day after, and I'd had a good sleep. If I had written about it after getting home from work it would have been far more irate, pissed off ... and probably boring. (I will try not to write blog posts on Friday evenings this year.)

Maria: Isn't that map site wonderful? (Strange Maps for those who don't know what we're talking about.)

Also, along with yoroshiku as an annoying word (ACTUAL meaning: 'deal with it, stupid) is muzukashii. It may translate as 'difficult,' but it means IMPOSSIBLE, NO WAY, NEVER, DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. Which can be annoying when you are thinking it means 'difficult (but possible),' and getting your hopes up.

And of course you can add me to your blogroll! Would I pass up an offer like that?

Carrie said...

You are the absolute QUEEN of negotiating sticky situations! I love it when you do things like that, knowing exactly what you are doing while making everyone else confused. Too bad about the class though. That is way way too many.

Kay said...

Yes, you have thoroughly learned how The System Works, and that it does not work for the students (we won't even mention the gaijin teachers)--good job! The thing is, with the interactive stuff you do, you'll get the highest evaluations of all! Having fun all the while.

Wiccachicky said...

Ugh - class overloading is one of my biggest pet peeves. We're having the same problem at my university - taking classes that should be taught at about 20 to 35 or 40. It's awful and the students are really getting the short end of the stick. Good luck with it!

tinyhands said...

Now that you've mastered university politics, I fear you're too clever to remain. I shall see about getting you nominated for shugiin.

Pearl said...

oh, that was a tale fabulously told.

Teaching 35, 40 students is hard. I did that a couple times. Are you allowed to spread out around the school in knots of student groups?