Information Sheet #152

January 17, 2007

Spread the Love

by Allison Carr (‘05)

It’s about 12:30 in the afternoon and I’m sitting outside the conference room in the English department, soggy with sweat. The sun is shining, the sky is clear, and I know it’ll probably rain soon. It rains every day. That’s why they call these months “the rainy season.” Because I haven’t known anything different in the three months I’ve been here, I have a hard time picturing Thailand as it is during the other 8 months out of the year—dry.

I have donned my best “teacher clothes”: off-white hemp shirt (long sleeves, buttons) and a tan skirt. I even busted out my “sensible,” closed-toed shoes—ugly but comfortable and unlikely to garner the stern looks I get from my conservative colleagues when I show up to teach in my brown, leather flip-flops.

My traveling companion, Liz, looks much more teacher-like than me. She always does. Though we are the same age—fresh out of college--there is something more adult about her that I just can’t master. She wears her hair short while mine is perpetually pulled back into a messy ponytail. She wears longer skirts. Her shirts are usually nicer—blouses, not polos. And she wears heels most days. She carries a shoulder bag; I carry a back-pack. She has poise. I am frazzled and excitable.

We’ve been teachers—ajaans—for three months and today we’re giving a presentation to the Thai ajaans about Writing Center Theory, though we’re not calling it that. We’re calling it, “Helping Them Help Themselves: An Interactive Workshop.” Everyone got fliers in their mailboxes:

This workshop will focus primarily on giving students the tools they need to be more self-sufficient with their writing assignments. Emphasis is placed on peer-to-peer collaboration, seeking out the “dumb reader,” and the importance of conversation to the writing process.

It would be dishonest of me to claim ownership of such a presentation. It comes from our work in a writing center back in the United States. The workshop was designed to show the differences between what we call “talk-based,” conversational conferences and “draft-based” conferences that focus on specifics in a student writer’s text. Needless to say, the participants—all women faculty from other schools—were skeptical.  

At Chiang Mai University, in the English Department conference room with twenty colleagues, all of them non-American, we just want to stress the importance of conversation as an invaluable tool to the writing process, something we figured would be tough for the rigidly structured minds of people who didn’t attend free-lovin’ liberal arts colleges in the United States. Our workshop worked like this:

We pass around a shoebox full of random items collected from our apartment—keys, loose change, band-aids, etc. Each participant is to draw an object from the box and they are given three minutes to write a poem about that object. We then give them six minutes to conference with a neighbor, three minutes for a first revision, adding one color word and one texture word, six minutes for a second conference, this time without using the draft at all, three minutes for a second revision, adding two proper nouns, six minutes for a third conference (no instruction), and three minutes for a final revision (no instruction).

The first nine minutes pass without incident. But just as we predicted, as soon as we ask them to work together without looking at their draft, the “conversation” element causes some befuddlement. “But what are we supposed to do?” they ask.

       “Talk about the poem. Just don't look at the poem.”

       “But, how will we think of things to talk about?”

I have to smile at that. I remember thinking the same thing when our writing center director asked us to do something similar at my first writing center retreat. I notice one ajaan has folded her paper in half so she can’t actually see her work, but she’s holding onto it tightly. I wonder what this exercise would be like if we asked participants to pass their papers to a central, unreachable location, to add some physical distance between the writers and their work.

The rest of the writing-exercise portion passes without much more excitement. The ajaans seem to have agreed to just do what we tell them, albeit begrudgingly.

Liz and I move into the discussion portion of the presentation. This is what we are nervous about. What if they don’t have anything to say? What if they ask questions we can’t answer? What if this thing backfires on us? Such thoughts are not new to me. These are part of the litany of questions I ask myself before each and every class. I can’t decide if this makes me more or less of a competent teacher.

We start with the “touchy-feely” questions. “How did it feel to write with such time constraints?”



“Relieved,” from Mel, a Japanese ajaan who spent twenty years living in Boulder and has been teaching at CMU for the last fifteen years. “I felt relieved because I know if I had unlimited time, I would agonize forever over my word choice, but with just three minutes, all the pressure was removed.”

We ask how it felt to talk about their work. Most agree that it is hard—they don’t like sharing their work with others. Liz asks if anyone found their conversations wandering away from their work. A few nod tentatively. One woman, very pregnant, has drawn a small Buddha figurine from the box. Conversation with her neighbor makes comparisons between the Buddha’s round belly and her own.

Most teachers want to know how we expect them to apply this exercise to their own teaching.  “It’s hard for Thai students to write in English anyway, so if we ask them to write poems in English, it would be much too difficult,” they explain.

Woah, backup. Liz, always graceful speaking on her feet, explains that we don’t intend for them to use this exact exercise in their classrooms; we’re just using it as an illustrative tool for how valuable conversation is to the writing process. I don’t think they’re getting it, which is frustrating, though I know I should relax and be patient. It doesn’t take long for Liz and me to both feel a little defensive, though.

One woman implies in her non-confrontational Thai style that this isn’t very useful. Liz takes a deep breath, and replies in her most non-confrontational Liz style, “I know most of you probably disagree with us but we're just trying to show you some of the ideas we've learned with our experience in our writing center...” It doesn’t cross the line, but it’s close. One of the biggest challenges with working in this country is finding a way to express oneself without offending others—this culture is built on politeness in all situations, regardless.

The room is quiet for a few uncomfortable seconds. Conversation gradually picks up again (phew!). The teachers agree that this exercise is more applicable when dealing with matters of content rather than grammar, and would be useful in boosting students’ confidence and getting them talking. Finally! Conversation really starts rolling. A lovely British woman, Hilary, tells a story about having her students write a communal story (you know, where the first person has 2 minutes to write a section of a story and then folds over the paper and passes it to the next person who must continue writing and it goes on from there and then the story is read aloud at the end). People are nodding their heads, everything is great, and then something happens.

My mouth opens, words start coming out slowly, and I don’t know how to stop them. “Yeah, that sounds like a great way to introduce students to the idea of collaboration in the classroom and for them to not be so concerned about their grade or their grammar, to just have fun with it. I mean--” and I know what’s coming and I know it’s bad and I am paralyzed, possessed, taken over—“grammar can be fixed with practice. With my students, even though they're in lower level English classes, I'd much rather give a good grade for good ideas and marginal grammar rather than perfect grammar and no content whatsoever.” I know it won’t be interpreted correctly and I know this isn’t the right time to introduce my wild and crazy ideas about writing, not even the right country, but I really believe these things! But this is not what the CMU curriculum is about. It’s all about grammar here. I realize the importance of grammar when learning English, but it’s just such a hard thing for me to prioritize over content.

The room is silent. Liz, ever-graceful, manages to change the subject before serious nuclear fallout.

Mel asks why we asked them to write poems. We both talk about the freedom of writing in a form that is free of some constraining rules, especially in such a short amount of time. We talk about how we aren’t asked to write poetry very often so this is just another way to get people thinking outside the box, etc. And everyone comes together. A chorus of pleasant conversation erupts and it is magical. For a moment.

They agree they wouldn’t want to ask their students to write poetry.

“An argumentative essay,” they say, “is easy to critique, but how do you critique a poem?”

It’s not about critiquing! I cry in my head. We are not here to pass judgement! We are here to write and talk and listen and learn! I can tell by the pained look Liz is trying to hide that she feels the same way, but neither of us wants to overload them with too much western, liberal, lovey-dovey crap. We agreed on that in the beginning.

Finally, our ninety minutes are up. Ajaan Suwimon, the ringleader of all this, presents us with our checks (the Thai’s like to make a big deal out of things like this). We wai politely, gather our props, and ride the motorbike home in the pouring rain. I don’t talk. I’m too frustrated, baffled, confused. The next morning, Mel takes me aside and tells me how much he enjoyed the presentation, and echos my frustrations, assuring me there is a serious culture gap that we can’t expect to breach in ninety minutes. I know this already, but it sounds so much better coming from him.




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