Speed Dating in an English Lesson

A few weeks ago I finished my first academic year of teaching Oral English at a university in the Middle Kingdom. There’ve been ups and downs, yadda, yadda, but it’s been, overall, good. Even the work has been okay. Here’s a short piece I wrote back in March about my favourite lesson.

This week, in the often frustrating battle to make my students speak English, I’ve been doing a speed dating exercise with my classes. After a bit of context setting, vocab work and guided discussion in the first hour, I sit them down and tell them to write 5 questions for a first date. Once I’ve run around and corrected the most painful mistakes (“How about you character?”), I split the class in two along gender lines. Because men are underrepresented in most of my classes, I have to even up the numbers and some of the women end up pretending to be male for the rest of the lesson. They don’t mind as soon as they realise that they won’t have to work with any icky boys.

Then the ‘men’ all sit down, spread around the classroom, and the women choose their partners. They talk for 3 minutes or so, using the questions they’ve written, then the women get up, find someone different and repeat the process. This tends to go on until I’ve had a chance to listen to everyone talk, or at least until I realise they’re not bothering to use English anymore. It’s not always the most productive of activities but it is among the most student-led ones. It seems to work well and students who barely say a word most of the time have surprised me, talking almost non-stop. A few even seem to have fun. I think that, for a lot of them, it’s as close to a date as they’ve ever been on.

As soon as you walk into a classroom here you start to notice a few things. One of the most obvious is that boys and girls sit apart. This is university remember, not school. Their ages range from 18 to the mid-20s. Part of my start-of-the-semester spiel is about how I expect them to be adults, to talk to me if there’s a problem, to be responsible for their work, to borrow a pen if they’ve forgotten one instead of just sitting there. But I still find myself referring to them as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. And it’s not just because a lot of them look so young.

They seem to lack a huge amount of experience which their Western counterparts might take for granted. On the whole they don’t go to parties, certainly not the type of parties I went to in my teens. Most of them don’t seem to have had the time to just hang around and do stupid stuff, they’ve been too busy at school and then kept at home with Mum and Dad. And they just don’t seem to mix with members of the opposite sex. It’s most obvious when the rooms aren’t packed to capacity. The boys will sit together, all clumped up in one corner at the back, while the girls will usually sit at the front, often with a row of empty desks separating the two groups.

I’ve had problems in the past with some activities. Quick class surveys can be a real issue. If they need to ask 10 people a set of questions and there are only 7 or 8 boys, getting some of them to walk up and speak to a girl can be painful. I had one guy, usually a cheeky so-and-so who cracks jokes at my expense all lesson, nearly burst into tears when I tried to put him into a group with 3 young ladies for some homework. And I thought I was doing him a favour.

When the girls had to find someone to sit with during the speed dating, they all raced to sit with another female, barging each other out of the way, rather than sit with a lad. Quite often there were a couple who would sit down together, hoping I wouldn’t notice. If there was one girl who was a bit slower than the rest, I’d usually have to chivvy her towards the last free boy or she’d just stand around, too embarrassed to do anything herself.

Maybe it’s normal. Maybe I only think it’s all a bit weird because I come from middle-class, suburban England. But it seems to be symptomatic of cultural gender roles that I’ve been brought up (or dragged up, as my parents prefer to say) to feel uncomfortable with. I’m not sure if I’d cause offence calling the female students in a UK university ‘girls’, but one of my students seemed quite put out when I called her a woman.

It’s the kind of thing I’ve heard referred to as ‘traditional’ attitudes, usually by men who want a girlfriend that’ll clean their apartment without complaining. I always feel a bit uneasy talking about this kind of thing. I’m white, middle-class and male and I’ve never really had to deal with prejudice or negative stereotyping. They taught us about the Suffragettes at school and some of it stuck. I know who Germaine Greer is, not that I’ve ever read any of her work. (I did read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman at Christmas, and still can’t decide if I want to know that much about a female mind or not. Good book though.)

It’s just that the unreconstructed, young-innocent-female and superior-provider-male world view seems to be completely prevalent here. In one lesson I had someone tell me, in all seriousness, that a woman who drinks and smokes is of low moral character.

I’ll let my students speak for themselves. One of the most common questions that the boys came up with was ‘have you had a boyfriend before?’ This was often the first thing they wanted to ask, and I was told by more than a few that if the answer was yes, that was the end of that.

The girls, on the other hand, wanted slightly more information. One wrote down the following 5 questions:

  1. Have you got a good job?
  2. Have you got a lot of money?
  3. Have you got a house?
  4. Have you got a car?
  5. Do you like children?

She certainly knows her priorities.