Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Center of Attention

This Simpsons image was lifted from a Wikipedia entry.

One of my private students has been attending college at a U.S. military base for a few terms now. She has only taken two classes so far because her English ability isn't sufficient to take multiple classes simultaneously. Both of her classes have been taught by the same instructor and have been composed of largely the same relatively small number students so they have gotten to know her through the two courses they've shared.

In her most recent lesson with me, my student told me of a rather unnerving experience she's been having in her lessons. When the teacher asks her a question in class, all the other students turn around so as to face her. This is something that only occurs when she is being addressed so it's not a class-wide phenomenon.

The other students are all African American, male and belong to the military so she already feels very different from everyone else. She believes that they have developed this habit because she often does not understand the questions as the teacher asks them and they are standing ready to "translate" into simpler English for her. While she appreciates their good intentions, she's very embarrassed when this happens and wanted me to advise her on a way to make it stop without alienating her fellow students.

Unfortunately, I could not come up with a means by which she could discourage their turning around en masse to look at her while encouraging them to continue to be helpful and friendly. Any attempt to address their behavior would probably be viewed as a rebuff of their attempts to assist her.

It occurs to me that a little cultural awareness on the part of her classmates would go a long way in this situation. Japanese people want to blend in. The last thing they want to do is to be singled out in such an obvious manner, even when it is done so with the kindest regard.


Nanny Haha said...

You could recommend she speak to her instructor privately. You could encourage her that amongst Americans this is a normal thing to do and her instructor would not think less of her. She might actually appreciate the cultural freedom that comes from being about to speak freely with an American instructor in a way that she might not be able to with a Japanese superior. The nice thing about this being a group of Americans is that we are open and straightforward and will look for solutions rather than turning a blind eye so as not to "offend". One solution could be for the instructor to mention to the students (in the absence of the Japanese student, if this could be possible) to simply not do it because it unnerves the Japanese student who values their good intentions but feels like she's being inspected when she's speaking. The second solution could be for the instructor to straightforwardly--in class with everyone present--ask that all students face the front when ANY student is speaking, as a simple matter of class cohesion. (It's kind of like when a person falls down in public--why does everyone need to turn around and LOOK? It just isn't necessary to turn and look when someone is speaking) There is nothing wrong with either approach. There is also nothing wrong with the instructor pointing out publicly (without naming names or even stating that the idea came from a student) that certain actions can be unnerving. This teaches sensitivity and discipline to the while class. I think it's nice that the American students are standing by to help "translate" into simple english, but this can still be done without turning to face her when she speaks.

This is definitely something that Americans do. I can remember in school we would always--almost as a reflex--we would always turn and look at whomever was speaking. I don't think these Americans are doing it just because they are waiting to help her out with english. I think it's an instinctive habit that American students have.

Shari said...

I considered advising her to speak with the instructor but the main consequence of that would likely be that the instructor would tell the other students not to turn around and talk to her when he questions her. This would almost certainly result in a change in atmosphere and the other students feeling awkward around her because they'd fear looking like they defied the teacher.

The teacher is a pretty casual guy. I've listened to her lessons as she has recorded them and he's not likely to tell all the students to face forward. It's just not his style. He's more of the type to hold classes that are one big chat session.

Beyond that, she's very timid and wouldn't have such a talk with the teacher. In fact, her teacher hasn't answered a time-dependent question that she asked via e-mail and I told her to call him before the deadline. The thought is so terrifying to her that she asked me to do it for her.

I did tell her it's not such a strange thing for Americans and that it didn't mean anything bad but she's still pretty uncomfortable. The main problem is that the students don't do it for anyone else in the class. They only do it for her. Even if it is done in American schools on occasion, she's not going to be entirely convinced given that she's the only one who it's happening to.

Also, it's definitely to explain things to her. There's no doubt about that because they are rephrasing the teacher's questions for her all the time. All of their behavior is confined to her and not spread to other class members. I did ask her twice if they turned to look at any other students at any time and she said (most emphatically) they never did it to anyone else.

By the way, I want to thank you for all your interesting and thoughtful comments. I probably won't have time to reply to all of them but I did read them all and appreciate hearing your perspective. I hope you'll keep doing it. :-)

Luis said...

Two solutions come to mind. Left to herself, she could sit in front of the other students, so they wouldn't turn around. Or, if she spoke to the teacher, the teacher could rearrange the seating so that everyone sat in a circle, or some other arrangement where such dramatic turning would not be needed. That is, if she doesn't want to make an issue of it with the other students--though personally I think it's selling them a bit short to think they wouldn't understand or would be offended when told of it.

Shari said...

Luis: It is a good idea to have her sit in front but I think she may not like this much either. However, I will suggest the possibility to her though I just heard from her via e-mail that she's taking a distance class next time around.

As for "selling (the other students) short", I'm not going to advise my student to take the risk on the chance that they will be understanding and not be put off by any requests to stop turning and looking at her. It's important to her to make friends at school and I won't be responsible for suggesting she do anything that might alienate people.

More often than not, you're more secure banking on people being offended than them being understanding or rational in response to suggested changes in behavior. People always feel their behavior represents what is reasonable, normal and best and don't take well to suggestions that would indicate the contrary in any way.

Joanna said...

Hi Shari:

I guess you inspired me to start my own blog. If you want to read it, it's at:

As for you student, maybe if she confides in the student that she feels uncomfortable and shy, when they all stare at her, they in turn will inform the other students in the causal way. That might be the best approach since she doesn’t want to alienate the class. This might make her less of a novelty as well.

Roy said...

If this girl is even a little bit attractive, I bet the other guys are just using it as an excuse to turn around and check her out.

That's the first thing that came to mind when I read your post. But that's how I think so...

Shari said...

Heh, heh. You would say that, Roy. ;-)

She's 44 years old though I don't think she looks her age (as is often the case with Japanese people, they look younger than their years). I am really bad at assessing physical beauty and actually don't even appreciate a lot of "classic" beauties (the Ken and Barbie-type looks, for instance) so I can't say if men would find her appealing. I guess they probably would though she's not a glamorous type (she tends to dress down).

I'm going to tell her what you said. It'll probably make her feel better. ;-)