vol # / no # / april-may 2006 / issn #

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A Joyful Teaching and Learning Experience

Reflections on a Fulbright Exchange Semester at UE
By Dr. Gerald T. Burns

A definition of “vocation” is the “place where one’s deep joy meets the world’s deep need.” Thanks to my UE students, I now realize the emotional element of this definition.


Some time during my first Fulbright fellowship in the Philippines, in the early 1990s, I wondered aloud to people in charge of the program here, Why should this kind of exchange opportunity be confined to recognizably elite institutions, such as UP Diliman and Ateneo, where I was then posted? Challenged during the course of the little argument that followed to offer a constructive alternative, I mentioned the schools in Manila’s University Belt. Surely there was an important constituency to be served there as well?

So when asked this time around whether I would consider an assignment to the University of the East, I found it hard to say no: it would have felt like declining my own invitation. Even so, before accepting I found myself reviewing the points made by my opponents in that earlier mini-debate, about the need for placing exchange professors for maximum impact, about disparities in academic environment and working conditions, etc. And I entertained a few questions of my own. Would I be welcome at a place like UE? Would I find enough in common with my colleagues, and enough support from the administration, to work comfortably and effectively there? Above all, could I reach the University’s students—or rather, in keeping with the “learning-centered” pedagogy I hoped to implement, could we reach each other: I with professional knowledge and passionate concern for a subject matter, they with a genuine desire to encounter that subject matter, born from their own background and interests?

Now that the semester is over, I’m pleased to report that all doubts have been erased. Not only has this time at UE given confirmation to my side in that earlier debate; it has turned out to be one of the most rewarding and even joyful teaching and learning experiences I have ever been part of.
The first two of the questions that gave me pause, about being welcomed and finding a congenial working environment, were soon put to rest. College of Arts and Sciences-Manila Dean Carmelita Flores and her staff extended warm support from the start. After spending some time inadvertently isolated in the “Chairs’ Room” of the CAS Faculty Lounge, I heeded a bit of well placed advice to “get out more,” and discovered colleagues who are seeking, as I am, to fashion teaching practices more conducive to student learning. Subsequently, a group of them made the offer to deepen the discussion over dinner and drinks. A final sign of fitting in came when the security guards at the Gastambide gate, who for some time seemed to hear “Visiting Terrorist” when I said, “Visiting Professor,” began to greet my arrival with sunny smiles and “opo,sir’s.”

The other, more pressing question, about making connection with the students here, took longer to be resolved. Actually, the gap to be bridged was probably less than might have been the case with some other exchange professors. For one thing, my previous experience in the Philippines (together with being married to a Filipina and knowing a smattering of Tagalog) could be counted upon to cushion the impact of any cultural differences. Then, too, I teach now at a distinctly non-elite school in the States, where the students display a wide range of backgrounds and capabilities, and are strongly oriented to education in support of their career choices. I expected, and found, this profile to match fairly closely with that of the UE student population. Still, uncertainties about proficiency in English, about background for literary study, and about level of interest in the literature of another country in another time, hovered over the course I was slated to offer, EN308, on American writing 1900-1945.

My plan for meeting these challenges involved, first of all, a syllabus that started with the “user-friendly” poetry of Robert Frost and culminated with Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, a crossover work of both American and Philippine literature. The second but more basic aspect of the plan was to deploy a range of “learning-centered” strategies. Among these were (1) finding out through ongoing diagnostic exercises where the students are actually at (as opposed to where the professor thinks they are) with respect to knowledge of subject matter and the development of relevant skills; (2) devising active, creative, collaborative learning experiences of the kind best suited to spark students’ engagement with the material and allow them to learn as much as possible on their own and from each other; and (3) encouraging a personal stake in learning, for intrinsic motives relating to individual interests and life goals rather than extrinsic ones such as grades and peer or parental approval.

Each of these measures revealed, initially, the extent of the challenge facing both myself and the students in reaching the course objectives. At the same time, they defined the paths through which progress was made or could be observed. I want to refer to them now in briefly telling the story of the course: how what began in challenge ended, generally, in achievement and joy.

As best as I can tell, the size of the under-confident group within the class shrunk throughout the semester. The either panicked or glassy-eyed look on so many faces in the first sessions gradually gave way to an expression of interest.