Every week Bethany and I hold office hours in her apartment. Students are free to ask questions about classes or about English in general. We are there to support students who are having difficulties and we are there to help these students improve their English. More often than not, however, the students have different ideas when they stop by on Wednesday afternoons.
Last semester it was consistently phonetics practice. I taught 3 sections of American English Phonetics and our classes included a chalkboard filled with new sounds, words that contained the new sounds, and lots of practice (I say, they say). Although helpful for pronunciation, this process was tedious. When students came to our office hours with lists of words from class I would visibly cringe.
This semester the students generally avoid class questions, favoring simple conversation to practice their English. I enjoy these times because it gives me a chance to tease the students and I know it helps the students greatly improve their listening and speaking.
Occasionally we watch movies. Chinese students don't have the same taste in movies that Bethany and I do. I realized there were differences last semester, when I discovered that their music preference is a startling universal aversion to indie rock. After discovering that the two most popular songs in China seem to be "Yesterday Once More," and "My Heart Will Go On," I gave up trying to introduce the music I enjoy. In fact, as part of my listening class I play 2 songs each week. Students are expected to put a scrambled song lyrics sheet in order, or fill in blanks (like a cloze passage). As part of an evaluation, one of my students wrote, "Maybe if you play songs that are more popular we would like them more." I was providing quality, unique music with beautiful lyrics. Why couldn't they see that?
So when it came to movies I was immediately suspicious. Would they pick up a copy of "Fargo," at the same time giving an account of how they thought the Coen brothers should have won Best Picture in addition to Screen Writing, lambasting the contrived "The English Patient" with their fist held high in the air? Or would they rapidly scan for the Disney logo, never stopping long enough to read the back of a DVD case? Often I've found the latter to be true.
Today there was hope. One of my students lifted a Charlie Chaplin DVD from the pile and insisted that we watch. This was culture. This was class. We adjusted the volume, preparing to hear the music that would accompany the silent star on his journey. Instead a Chinese dubbing explained, step-by-step, what was happening. I felt troubled. I decided to try and watch anyway, finding myself laughing along with the rest. After all, I wasn't understanding much of the Chinese anyway, so it seemed the same. While I was laughing, one of my students asked me if I understood the Chinese. "No," I replied.
"Then why are you laughing?" they asked, genuinely perplexed.
In any case, this time is an opportunity for students. I have learned to temper my own pretentious criticisms of their tastes, and for good reason: who am I to critique their love of the Backstreet Boys? It's so upbeat.
And Happy Feet? It's definitely far from pages of English words for pronunciation practice.
So while the students are intent on having their preferences, I quietly persist with my own. But I no longer play Death Cab for Cutie for an entire classroom of students. They like John Denver more.