Students continue to amaze and delight me. I’ve taught a few classes now, and each one included moments of student brilliance and engagement.

In a small writing workshop for the classics department on the Apology of Socrates, the students had done a bit of freewriting. They passed their writing to their neighbor, and I asked each to identify the best idea in the document they’d received from another. The first to speak stood up and delivered an eloquent precis of her classmate’s hastily composed paragraph. The speaker generously offered a defense of an argument that was not her own.

Another class of about 30 students is reading the Hippolytus of Euripides. I had been a little anxious about this, for I worried that a tale so rife with tortured desire and malevolent gods might offend conservative religious sensibilities. These young adults, however, were eager to understand how Greek tragedy was approaching the fundamental problems of the human condition. I’ve used that last phrase with increasing anxiety during the last ten years or so, for my young colleagues back in the states are deeply suspicious of claims to universality. They prefer to attend to differences in Weltanschauung and like to affirm that the apparently essential is actually constructed. I agree in many respects: gender, race, class, etc., but I’m not as interested in what makes humans different as I am in what makes them the same. These Sri Lankan 20-year olds, several self-identifying as muslim by their clothing, had no problem working to find the human condition within this play written so long ago and so far away. They unpacked the problems of desire with maturity and subtlety. One young woman in headscarf proposed that Hippolytus’s distance from sex revealed his distance from humanity. At the end of this period I reproached myself for my worries about easily offended religious sensibilities. These students were reading this difficult play with precision and care.

Finally, I taught a lower level class in what is truly ESL. There were about 30 students, and I was asked to teach them how to give an oral presentation. The University often uses oral presentations as part of end-of-term evaluation, so this is a skill the students really need. I had prepared some materials and had determined that I’d build our six two-hour sessions as the steps in generating a presentation, complete with performance. It soon became clear that some of the students were quite comfortable in English, but others could scarcely understand my instructions. I did some theatre exercises to warm up their speaking apparatus, and then we turned our attention to phrasing. Students proposed the placement of pauses in the transcript of a spoken text, and, as expected, they came up with different places for those. What most impressed me was their willingness to engage the differences of meaning potentially created by these different pause points. ESL students are often looking for the right answer, and some of the styles of pedagogy these students have encountered would tend to foster that preference. Students were working against some of their training as they sought to understand how a tiny difference in form necessarily entailed a difference in meaning. The strongest had to give up their sense of superiority to risk accepting the validity of an answer other than their own, and the weakest had to risk being seen as mistaken in the eyes of their more advanced peers.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” as I tell myself several times a day, but neither is this place as strange and unknowable as I had expected. The students are energetic, open, even daring. They want to learn for learning’s sake; many have chosen to read Euripides just because it expands their thinking. They also want to make the world a better place; the ESL class consists of law students, and most professed a desire to bring legal services to their country’s poor. I am blessed to be able to work with such students, just as I’m blessed to be able to work with my students back in the States.

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