Why Work?

Laura asked this week:

Remind me, what are the five things that make it worthwhile to get up in the morning and go to work, no matter what the weather? (Aside from getting paid, of course.)

Now, this is a question that usually hits me when I am in that worst class of the semester. You know, every semester there is at least one class in which no effort of mine, no encouragement and no discipline in terms of grades ever motivates more than one or two students beyond the pathetic sitting there, not speaking unless prompted with a script in hand. About mid-semester, it starts being really hard to make myself go to class, put in effort appropriate to my position (instead of a much smaller effort appropriate to my learned expectations for the class). It’s really hard to teach well when you know most people are sitting there wishing they were at home in bed, or just anywhere else in the world, and when you know that the next time you meet them, the majority of them won’t remember anything of what you taught them and had them practice.

There’s no stage director to turn to, and ask, “What’s my motivation?” here. Instead, I have to make mine. Money is a very small motivation, believe me; it’s enough to get me to sign a new contract when necessary, but it’s not enough to get me through the long haul of those bad days. For those bad days, I need something more in my head. And here’s what I rely on:

  • A conception I try to nurture of seeing my frustrating, unresponsive, and frankly lazy classes like these I’ve described above less as thorns in my side, and more as intellectual puzzles for me. I’m puzzling through how to get through to these people. I’m not hoping to be another Mr. Holland, or even a Kotter. It’s just that there must be a way for these people to be woken up a little, to get them to retain something more. Other classes do it, even those who aren’t very interested. So for me, there’s the motivation of learning more about the psychology of these “lame” students. I suppose the idea appeals to me that I can actually learn some kind of “cognitive pedagogical kung-fu”, where I use the inertial force of their lameness against itself, to wake them up and at least show them that they can engage with what they’re supposed to be learning.
  • The endlessly amusing goings-on of the office have been a bit of a draw for me, though with the number of extra bodies who are going to be crammed into our office, I’m not sure I can say I’m really looking forward to much time in the office. Too many people will probably equal too much tension and too much argument. I’m trying to stay far away from all of that. But still, watching the kinds of interactions that go on, hearing what certain individuals have to say (like Peter, a very eccentric German fellow in the office, who unfortunately may be moved out, or Chullsung, or any number of people). Beyond the few and limited off-campus friendships I have with workmates, the social interaction in the office has been quite fascinating to me, as well as occasionally infuriating.
  • That three-to-five percent of students that actually gives a damn and wants to soak up as much as they can from me… The kids who really care are a massive help to me, they make it all seem worthwhile in the face of a rather monumentally inertia-saturated classroom situation. They also help me to think of new ways of approaching the problems of the classroom situation, of getting the material across in an interesting way, and in working at the class being something more than the kind of class I hate, which consists of ramming a book down students’ throats with nothing more than a little verbal ketchup to ease the passage down. It’s because of these students, including the very few who actually come around toward the middle of the semester every year, that I’m thinking of using an approach that’s far less centered on topics and on the book, and more focused on structures and the use of them to construct comprehensible conversation.
  • I have a decent computer on my desk, finally, so the ongoing stream of bloggery and story-writing that normally goes on at home need not be interrupted by having to spend a few hours at the office between classes.
  • Perks. For all the challenges of working in Asia—and there are many of them, though sometimes they in themselves are a positive thing—there are some benefits that are unheard of back home. Have I mentioned my holidays? I have long, long holidays, which of course one needs in this kind of work if burnout is to be avoided, I think, but nonetheless they are wonderful! And if things go as they should, I also have a really nice schedule (the two-hour block classes go a long way in freeing up a schedule, believe me!), and that’s always a powerful motivator for someone to get up off his ass and do a good job of things.

If you want to see what other Friday Fivers use to motivate themselves to got to work, check out the Friday Five links in the right sidebar.

2 thoughts on “Why Work?

  1. That 3-5% is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going. Seeing students progress from barely intelligible sentences to basic conversation is nice to see and makes me feel like I’m not just wasting my time. Now if only I could get through to the rest of ’em…

  2. Yeah, no kidding.

    A friend of mine who’s taught students from all around the world said this was how Korean and Japanese students alike are. So much concern exists about losing face or making a mistake in front of others that advancement is difficult for almost everyone. This, in contrast with students from most otherparts of the world who, instead of deciding who should and can talk about what or just waiting for someone else to try, simply dive in and go for it, mistakes and all.

    So I’m wondering about how I might go about changing that up; I’m thinking hard about it, but I have to admit I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere with any of my ideas.

    I do think that classroom exercises designed to force students to participate, and to use what they’ve learned, and which require them to produce results by the end of the 2-hour seminar, are a possibility; exercises with double-blind information gaps and such, and using worksheets and so on, might be the way to go.

    I am thinking of pushing to have my classes relocated to an unused fifth-floor room in the building where my office is. In those rooms, there is space to walk about, enact imaginary conversations, circulate between different partners, and the like. Who knows if I’ll get anywhere, but there are such beautiful, unused classrooms up there. I would really like them to be put to their proper use.

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