Penman for Monday, June 22, 2015
I HAD a great time last week with the English faculty of New Era University in Quezon City, who had invited me to speak at their three-day workshop on “Enhancing English Teaching Practices.” For three days, I met with a very lively group of about 30 to 40 college and high school teachers of English, talking about writing, reading, and teaching the language in today’s Filipino classroom.
I was backstopped in these discussions by the young and very sharp Ms. Cyndriel “CY” Meimban, who had taken her high school at New Era before doing an English degree with us at the University of the Philippines and then a master’s in Education at Arizona State U. CY—who also just happens to be the daughter of an old friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Dr. Adriel Meimban—took a break from her teaching duties at Northern Arizona University to help out her fellow teachers at NEU.
It was my first visit to the NEU campus near Commonwealth Avenue, which was rather ironic because we’ve lived on the UP campus just across that avenue for the past ten years. The NEU is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo complex and is run by the church, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s open to all faiths. There’s a substantial Muslim population in that very area, for example, and many students from that community attend New Era.
We held our workshop in the new Professional Schools building, which housed NEU’s colleges of Law and Medicine, among others; more prominently, along Commonwealth Avenue, the College of Evangelical Ministry which Dr. Meimban (a former president of NEU) now heads trains young INC ministers, including about a hundred students from overseas—Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Europeans, among many others; I was surprised to be addressed by a young black man from South Africa in perfect Filipino. I was, in other words, in a very rich cultural and linguistic environment, in which language is used not just to express oneself or get jobs but to propagate the faith.
Otherwise, the workshop attendees voiced the same problems I’ve heard elsewhere: a clear decline in English proficiency not just among students but teachers as well; the lack of new materials in the syllabi, particularly in literature classes, as well as teaching guides for these materials; and the persistence of outdated approaches to the reading and teaching of literature and of English itself.
I began my presentation with something I always emphasize when I teach English in UP, especially in my American Literature class: we study and teach English not because we want to be Americans, British, or some other Anglophone people, but to become better Filipinos. We learn English and study other literatures in English to gain insights into and understand how these other societies operate and how certain human values and truths transcend national and social boundaries. Thereby, we should lose our unfamiliarity with and our awe of the foreign, empowering ourselves as citizens of the world.
I did a module on creative writing—focusing on fiction and nonfiction—as a way of showing teachers how writers think and work, so they can themselves become writers or at least understand what writers do and how they do it. In reading and teaching literature, I went over several poems and stories, and asked my audience to draw up a list of questions that could or should be raised about the text beyond “What’s the moral lesson?”
I emphasized the importance of considering and discussing form and technique as much as content and meaning as a way of seeing how language works, on the level of the sentence or even the word. I argued for the enjoyment of language for its own sake—in effect, for the study of literature as an exercise in pleasure as much as in education.
The problem with too many literature classes is that they’re taught as anything but literature—as philosophy, as religion, as politics—rather than as the imaginative play on words that lies at the heart of literature. When teachers march into class and declare, “Class, this is what this poem means, and believe me because I’m the absolute authority on it,” students and even teachers miss out on the fun of discovery, of teasing out sense from seeming chaos.
Inevitably, the question of a “language policy” came up. Would students benefit from the imposition of an “English-only” policy? Was it all right (or was it criminal) for a teacher of English to resort to Filipino when teaching English, or literature in English?
I went out on a limb here—and I’m sure that what I’ll say here will turn many a reader livid with consternation and disgust—but I said that, even as a former chair of the UP English Department, I’ve always been opposed to an English-only policy, because it’s silly and it simply doesn’t work.
We study English—and try to master it—because it serves us well in communication and in business, especially in a global sense, but to deliberately throttle our use of other languages (of which we have an enormous wealth) in the notion that it will somehow make us better users and speakers of English is downright stupid. I’ve yet to meet someone who now speaks and writes perfect English by having paid 5 centavos for every Filipino word he or she used. Most writers of my generation are happily bilingual or even trilingual, and we don’t get our languages or linguistic registers mixed up; what’s key is appropriateness—which language and which register is best for which occasion?
I would even argue that code-switching from English to Filipino can work in the teaching of English, and especially of literature in English, if it relaxes the non-Anglophone student and allows him or her to speak—and even to make a mistake, which should also be encouraged (and gently corrected) without too heavy a penalty. Patience and understanding, rather than force and sheer authority, have always gotten me better results in the classroom. I hope my colleagues in New Era University got a taste of that treatment, and that they enjoyed the experience.