Great video via Shanghaiist about the “Crazy English” movement. The title refers to the last phrase, which gets a bit messed up. ESL teacher as cult leader is not an obvious progression, but some of the elements of his teaching style–granting disciple status to women who shave their heads to demonstrate their desire to speak perfect English, for example–sure feel a bit extreme. And it’s hard to believe that the choral response that has served people so poorly in language classrooms works any better when mixed with pop psych. Here he is leading a 6:30am session at the Hunan University of Science and Engineering.
On the other hand, there is a fine line between cultish leadership and energizing students. Undergraduate lectures were often really hard for me to stay awake in back when I was a student. This was even the case when the teachers were really good. I still remember Mark Petracca’s ability to engage a class full of apathetic freshmen at eight in the morning, and James Danziger’s very different style that encouraged students to bring their own approaches to political material. When I was a grad student, a new faculty member had a sign behind his desk that read “I want to inspire.” I thought that was nonsense: faculty are not here to inspire, they are here to instruct, to present the material in a sensible and approachable way, and be a knowledge resource for students. Of course, with time, I’ve changed my mind on that. Clearly, the best teachers are able to inspire students to achieve their best; there is no teaching, only learning. I am not one of those especially inspiring teachers–not yet at least. It doesn’t come naturally to me at all. But I hope to get there.
I wonder, as our program moves more and more online, whether it is possible to inspire students the same way without having them there in person. One of the the most inspiring feelings is to “capture” an audience. It’s a deep-seated feeling of knowing that everyone in a room is hanging on your next word. On occasion, I accomplished this in a theater. Everyone in the audience perfectly still, perfectly quiet, as if their entire world depended on your next words. Silences were a weapon, and a shout went to the heart of each person in the audience. People’s hair stood on end, and they cried when you wanted them to cry.
I know the same thing can happen in text, and I know it can happen on a movie screen, but it’s just not the same thing, and it seems to be a lot more hit-and-miss. Who ever heard of an online cult? I am excited about teaching online again, but I need to find ways of making sure it’s not just to the brain, but also to the heart. I don’t know anyone who has really accomplished that yet. I don’t aspire to cultishness, but I do want to get students excited about what they are doing; that excitement is essential to the learning process.