Sunday, October 14, 2007


On Friday morning I set off for work with a feeling of doom. I had told one class, of third year students, that they had to give a presentation. I hate presentations, and for good reason. Students are not good at them, so they are painful to watch. They are usually totally unprepared, no matter how much time you give them to get ready. And they are usually boring. But this class is supposed to include presentations and I didn't do any last semester, so I thought perhaps I should, even though I am ignoring the rest of the insanely optimistic syllabus.

Last week none of them had anything ready, so I was not able to check what they'd done. This was supposed to be the point of giving them two weeks to prepare. Nobody seemed particularly worried by this, so I told them that if they were not ready in time I would grade them on how well they ad-libbed. After that they suddenly started to work very hard, but wrote everything in Japanese. This was worrying, so then I said that I would grade them on how understandable their presentations were. Of course, I added, using software translation was out of the question, because even I couldn't understand that. Anyone who used software translation would get a zero, I said. AS USUAL.

This caused major panic throughout the classroom. (Didn't ANYBODY read the handout I gave them about this, or remember the homework I'd given back with big fat red zeros last semester?) Suddenly they all decided to write in English instead of Japanese, but since nobody had produced more than three sentences by the end of ninety minutes I was still not able to check their work, and was not optimistic about how well they'd do.

But perhaps they learned something from the horrible grades I gave them last semester, because when I got to the classroom on Friday every single student was ready.

It was amazing. (Note to self: remember the ad-lib threat for future occasions.) None of the presentations were a complete disaster, for which I am enormously grateful. Several surprised me by being quite reasonable, by which I mean that the students had prepared something that could have been good if they had any presentation skills, or had practiced.

The presentations were supposed to be about various questions that turned up in the Scruples game I'd had them playing a few weeks ago. (I have adapted a bunch of questions to use in classes.) They had to choose one of the questions and resolve it somehow. They could do a speech, a skit, a story, or any other format they could think of that involved speaking, either singly or in pairs.

I probably should have worried more about which questions they'd choose, but as it turned out some of the more off-colour questions were the most successful, for obvious reasons. I think I can say that my personal favourite was the one that went like this:

You are absent from work because you have hemorrhoids. The next day in a meeting the boss asks you why you were absent. Do you tell the truth?

The student who tackled this question gave a rather boring speech (I can't actually remember how he answered except that he gave adequate reasons and so on), but livened things up considerably by explaining first what hemorrhoids were. He did this by drawing a cartoon-style picture on the board. It was the back view of what looked like a sumo wrestler, squatting. It was brilliantly funny, naughty without actually being all that rude, and illustrated the meaning of the word perfectly.

Then he got really, really nervous, stood right in front of the picture, and prepared to give his boring speech.

But it didn't really matter that he was nervous, his speech was given in a monotone, and that he didn't know how to pronounce hemorrhoids. Every time he stepped aside and pointed at his picture with a trembling finger, we all laughed our heads off.

I'd call that a success.