Why am I here?

Once again, I am entering the third month of a new appointment without having actually begun any work.   I am beginning to see a pattern in all this, although its origins still escape me.  In each location, I did what I could to generate work for myself.  In Rwanda, I wrote lessons for teaching English grammar.  In Nepal, I offered optional workshops for students at the university where I had been sent to teach.  Here in Tajikistan, I have written two “concept” papers about things that I could do, neither met with any response at all.    Of course, the delay here is due to the fact that the classes for which I was brought to design a curriculum have not yet begun, and my supervisor has made it clear that he wants me to observe them before  I start work on the curriculum, not an unreasonable request.   And after perusing the different options for designing an English course for media professionals for a program for which the U.S. Embassy actually refused to tell me its goals, I found myself somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed anyway.   I continue to wonder what “sense” I am to make of it all, if any, of all this.

Typically, a Fulbright Scholar applies to come to a country to conduct research in their field of specialization and are sponsored by an academic institution which, in turn, has them teach courses for them.  In some cases, the award is only for teaching but, in general, the relationship is set up between the institution of higher learning and the individual scholar.  The U.S. Embassy is only involved to the degree that they are the point of contact for the Scholar in country, given that the funds for the program come through the Department of State, in this case the Fulbright program instead of the English Language Fellow Program, in which I participated last year.

However, things were different for me.   In my case, the Embassy approached me and asked me to come to do teacher education and curriculum development, at least that is what the man who invited me said when they called me.  But, as with all foreign service appointments, which only last two years, he was long gone before I arrived and no one really seemed to know what he specifically had in mind, if anything.  The University of Central Asia, who officially sponsoring me, gave me a choice between developing a curriculum for an English for Academic Purposes class, which did not interest me, or one for journalists.  I came armed with what few books I could find on English for journalists only to find that the classes consist of media professionals of all sorts — radio, TV, news, sports, Facebook, etc.   Furthermore, until now, the course for them have had absolutely nothing to do with media.   They were simply special evening sections of a general English course in which media professionals enrolled.

But the bottom line is that, unlike most Fulbright appointments, this English for Journalists course is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy so I am, in effect, here to do something for the Embassy, and not really for the University of Central Asia.    That is, if the program were to be implemented, for example, by another institution, then I am pretty sure that the curriculum for it would move right along with it.

The U.S. Department of State has apparently a lot of money available for promoting English in this region.  As a result, a plethora of English-related programs are being sponsored, a new summer English for Journalists “summer camp” is, for example, slated to begin in the summer of 2020, and will be designed and implemented by, funnily enough, the University of Vermont’s School of Journalism.  Now in a logical world, one would think that the people designing curricula for two English for Journalists courses in the same country, one a summer program and the other an academic year program, would collaborate.  But this does not seem to be on the Embassy’s agenda for either program, despite the new Cultural Affairs Officer (the one who replaced the one who invited me to come in the first place),  spending not an inordinate amount of time explaining to me that he was interested in promoting more collaboration between the various Embassy programs related to English language teaching.

There are several other English teaching-related programs going on here that I know about:  1.   The English Language Fellow Program, which I did in Nepal, sends English teachers to teach in different institutions of higher learning.  2.   The Fulbright Teaching Assistant (TA) program sends teaching assistants to work in various communities.   3.    The American Spaces or Corners program (the program had one name, and then changed it, so now some places have “American Corners” while others have “American Spaces”,  establishes community meeting spaces which, in some cases, have libraries, where people can come together to learn about the U.S. and practice English.   4.   The English Specialist program, which brings in English specialist for specific short-term projects.    5.   The English Access Microscholarship after-school English program for high school students.        6.   The American Council also does something here, although I am not sure what.

If I had arrived on time in September, I would have been introduced to some of these organizations which, in hindsight, might have been a good idea but, given that I thought I had a full-time appointment, it never occurred to me that I might need to go out and drum up business for myself in another location and, in theory, there is still no guarantee that I would have time to do anything else if my actual job ever gets underway.    Of course, this is what happened to me in Nepal — I actually turned down a couple of invitations to help on various projects because my supervisor — who never gave me any actual work to do — didn’t want me to be spread too thin.

Last but not least is a very interesting program which would have been, in a perfect world, my “true home” —    Two ten month long in-service teacher training programs, one for secondary teachers and another for  university English teachers which run back-to-back.  The official goal of the program is to promote the use of communicative, learner-centered teaching-learning methods in a context where grammar translation teaching methods still dominate the field of language education.   The programs consist of four workshops offered over the course of ten months and, needless to say, the potential for this program has been far from realized, according to a recent needs assessment done by an English Specialist.

The trainings are done by English Fellows who, in many cases, are not experienced teacher trainers.  The sessions that I observed were, to my mind, painfully teacher-centered.    And, based on my own experience both as a student and as a teacher, I know that it is impossible to help someone become learner-centered using training methods that are not, themselves, learner-centered.    Of course, another problem — from my perspective — of the program is that it is more-or-less a collection of separate technique-based workshops, that focus on different practices without examining the values that give rise to the activities themselves and the importance of aligning practice with theory, whatever one’s chosen theory might be.     I have suggested a re-design of the program which would, to my mind, resolve the problems identified in the needs assessment, as well as the things that I would like to see change, but I don’t expect anyone to take me up on it for the simple reason that I, as reflexive practitioner, speak  a different language than foreign service appointees.  We may come from the same national cultural, but we look at English programming in completely different ways.

I have come to realize that public diplomacy programs appear to be more focused on simply getting the word — the American English word — out without any particular commitment to providing high quality English education.  Not unlike in Rwanda, where speaking any English at all made you an English speaker, being a native American English speaker qualifies you to teach English or, in this case, to train English teachers.     And I suppose that, to a certain extent, this is true.  That is, any American, even with little to no experience teaching English, as in the Fulbright TA program, is bound to do something that will promote America more than if they were not present in a situation so, in truth, expertise need not really be a priority.  All that really needs to be done is to get as many Americans in place as possible and then let nature take its course.

To be honest, I think that I am the only one that has a problem with the status quo with regards to English programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.   That is, I think these DOS appointments in TEFL may simple be wrong  for me simple because I am motivated by a completely different set of values than my diplomatic sponsors.   Peace Corps worked better for me because, at the very least, the organizational values are the same as my own since I  nursed at the Peace Corps bosom during my entire foreign language teaching infancy, first as a consultant for Peace Corps, then as a student and teacher working at the organization which was originally responsible for conducting all Peace Corps training when the organization first began and whose values, because of this, informed the values that Peace Corps embodies.

As a reflexive educator, I am always looking to see how teaching practices are aligned with theory and, if they are discrepancies, figuring out how those discrepancies can be corrected.  But this is simply not anything that anyone in the state department cares one iota about.   And given that our current administration also obviously does not care a whit about aligning actions with values, I realize that it is I who am a fool to have expected anything else.

To be sure, other Americans  have noticed the same lack of connection between theory and practice here in the Tajikistan educational system.   But they don’t seem to see that it is also true for our own activities.    That we say we are here to promote learning-centered teaching but then engage in everything we do in a teacher-centered (aka colonialist) manner.    Telling people what they should do rather than showing them what they could do and then asking if they are interested in doing it.

I don’t know where this constant drive to align theory with practice comes from but one of its practical consequences is that I am always pushing my students to examine whether their actions actually reflect their beliefs and, if not, to try to change them so that they do.   For me, this is a normal question.      It is not apparently so for everyone else.   My linguistics students in Vermont commented on this not infrequently.   Time and time again, one would come to me and say, “you pushed me to go further than I ever imagined I could go”…. I never understood this comment at the time because I was just doing what I thought every teacher does.    But now, as I look at my does-this-activity-achieve-its-stated-goals-and-if-not-how-can-it-be-changed-to-better-accomplish-this approach to education in the harsh light of my government’s approach  to public diplomacy, I understand better what they meant.   I don’t think that many people in the world live their lives constantly asking themselves the question in what do I believe and am I acting in a way that reflects this?     And I really don’t think that our foreign service teaches our diplomats to do this.  I am not sure what it teaches them, but it is not this.

I think that most of us just do what we do because we have always done it that way, or because our parents did it that way, or because other members in our community or profession do it in that way, or because our bosses tell us to do it that way.     I am reminded of how often I do this myself each time I suddenly discern an easier way to do some task that I had always done in another, less efficient, manner until the light dawned and I realized that I could do it in a different way.

A life characterized by deeply  inquiring into the nature of our beliefs and how they inform our actions in the world is not what consciously guides many people although the mystics would argue that unconsciously we are all driven by the desire to achieve our highest potential by transcending the bonds of everyday existence which prevent us from doing this.    I suppose that, if nothing else, this is something that the Trump administration has laid out before us in sharp relief.

My yoga teacher would have said that this is all that my constant search for better alignment between theory and practice in teaching really is — a misdirect of my innate spiritual drive for self-realization is.   Maybe he is right.   Certainly this would be a more generous interpretation of Trump’s need for self-aggrandizement.

Although, to be sure, I am not quite sure how such insights are going to enlighten me with regards to the more mundane question of what I am supposed to be doing, now, here in Tajikistan?   And… why?

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