If it still doesn’t make any sense, then please
stop drinking tequila before noon.
I was sleeping on the living room couch the other night (long story, but trust that it wasn’t my fault) when a ruckus arose from outside. Arming myself with some chipped crockery and a few old bricks I save for the neighbor’s cat (you heard me—and I’m not sorry), I opened the sliding door and stepped out onto the terrace.
“Woahahahahah!!” is what I heard, a solo voice at first, and then “WOAHAHAHAHAH!” in chorus. Then BAM!BAM!BAM!
“What is it?” Ellen said behind me. I hadn’t even heard her come out, which isn’t surprising, because whoever it was, was singing was right below us.
“Drunken sorority girls,” I said,.
“You’re in China, remember? There are no sororities. “
“Oh,” I said, trying to keep the wistfulness out of my voice. “That’s right.”
“And they don’t drink. Remember?”
That was true, too. The other evening I was having pizza with a couple of the Fulbright ETAs when the subject of alcohol came up. I mentioned I hadn’t seen any beer cans or discarded bottles anywhere on campus, not even on Sunday mornings. Which seems, if you ask me, just plain wrong.
“They don’t drink,” one of the ETAs said.
“They don’t do anything!” another erupted. “No booze! No drugs! No sex! Just mention the word ‘boyfriend’ and they giggle behind their hands!”
Now I leaned over the edge of the balcony, trying to get a sense of what was going on. Maybe some pimp had brought in a load of blow and now everyone was—I don’t know, running around naked and rubbing their noses? I have to admit my imagination sort of hit a wall on this one: I’m from the Midwest, after all. And these were the Chinese. In Hong Kong, even the homeless are sober.
“See anything?” said Ellen, standing beside me. Clearly she’d forgotten about that thing—involving the baby, a live-sized Barbie, and three raw chickens—that wasn’t my fault.
I peered. In the hallway below us stood a dozen students in bright yellow shirts. Two were carrying a large banner strung between a pair of broomsticks. Two others carried a sagging cardboard box full of—well I couldn’t tell what, from here, but full of something.
“Woahahahahah!!” Then “WOAHAHAHAHAH!” Then BAM!BAM!BAM!
“They’re going door-to-door,” I said.
Ellen was on her toes, trying to see over the brick wall that separated our terrace from the neighbors’. “Yellow shirts,” she said. “The Super Mas.”
Sure enough. Now that she said it, I could see the zombie donkey cheerleader on the banner, one arm thrust forward, leaping into the sky—or out of hell, depending on how you looked at it. In the past week, we’d learned that the election had something to do with hall governance, that competing groups offered a slate of candidates for everything from dorm secretary to social director.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
We watched as they banged on another door. We couldn’t see exactly what happened after that, but in a moment something else—a lung maybe? a beating heart?—was tossed into the box.
“Maybe they’re collecting donations.” Ellen always has a reasonable explanation for everything. “For charity.”
“No,” I said. I’d just read an article about the Hong Kong triads, mafia-gangs that ran everything from the busses to the movie business. Back in the 90’s apparently they’d kidnapped an actress who wouldn’t act in a movie they were backing, raped her, took pictures, and sent them to newspapers. Real friendly folks, if you know what I mean.
“No,” I said, “They’re collecting insurance. Maybe breaking a coupe of knees.” The way I figured it, people like the Triads were so nastily efficient, they had to have been trained somewhere. Why not college?
The thing is, I’m afraid I’m not going to vote for the Super Mas, and it’s not because of the kneecaps. Sure, I love their donkey. Sure, I love their bright yellow t-shirts and their shouts of “Cho Sun!” every morning as I come down the stairs and head off to the pool. Yes, I like the saltines they give me in a nice foil package, two crackers sandwiched around either dried honey or sugared glue, I haven’t quite figured out which. Sure I love the fact that they didn’t come bang on my door, insisting I throw two mismatched sneakers and a hundred thousand dollars into their box. In short: I love the Super Mas. I really do.
But then the other team started putting up their posters. And to combat the zombie donkey, they came up with this nifty little logo:
What can I say? I love this logo. Love it.
What can I say? I love this logo. Love it.
Now to be fair to these guys—whom I previously referred to as the Horse Shoes—their name is “Joyful Cozy House.”
Knowing that, you get what they’re after with their logo: in China, the horse shoe is the symbol of joy; fires make the home a cozy place; and the house? Well, it’s a house. Put it together and what do you get? A joyful cozy house.
Now sure, the fact that the fire in this particular image seems to be all around the house—consuming it even—is a slightly disturbing image. Then again, would it be better if the fire were in the house? Wouldn’t that just remind you that the folks inside had already been turned crispier than KFC? You can see the rhetorical challenges the designer faced here: how does one use fire to show coziness, without scaring the living crap out of people?
That said, I need to be careful here. Because the way I’m talking about this seems to imply that I think the JCH people are sincere in their attempt to depict joyful coziness.
And I don’t.
Because, you see, I’ve been trained in literature. And in literature, if they teach you anything, it’s that nothing is quite what it seems. Toni Morrison has written about how slaves in the ante-bellum south used to trick out the rhythm and lyrics of field songs so that they could communicate with one another without the owners and field men knowing. And Edmund White talks about how men “in the life” recognize one another through a myriad of small gestures that—even if they notice—the straight population won’t understand.
I’ve always wanted to have my own code, wanted to be part of a gang that communicates through seemingly ordinary means right under the noses of the mainstream. Needless to say, as a straight, whiter-than-white guy who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in small-town Virginia, I’ve seldom had the opportunity. (The sole exception has been this past NFL season, when I’ve held up 4 fingers, chewed them off, then spit them out and fed them to the nearest cat, a gesture that Packer fans everywhere understand.)
But now, of course, I have the Joyful Cozy House people and their burning dorm. Oh sure, they hand out bananas to students and faculty heading to classes. And sure, they pass out milk tea when you come back late in the afternoon, exhausted and sweaty form a hard day on Face Book. Yes, their posters talk about winter balls and making valentines and karaoke contests and a soya chicken in every pot.
But we know what they’re really about, don’t we?
Burnin’ down the house.
And how could I not vote for that?
Now I know it sounds as though I’m making fun of these kids and that’s because I am. I mean, a flying zombie donkey and a bunch of pyros? You expect me to walk away from that?
But that aside, I love these guys. I really do. What they’re doing is phenomenal. Think about it: as a group, with no adult supervision, they came up with a name for themselves, a theme, a system of values, a symbol to represent those values. They crafted a rhetorical message, developed a campaign plan, acted on that plan. All of this in addition to the actual logistics: buying t-shirts, organizing a group to pass out milk tea, making the milk tea. Pretty much the only time I’ve gone down that hallway and not seen one or the other or both groups of students was last night when I got back after 10 from a late meal with the HK coordinator for Fulbright and two of my colleagues.
At the Hong Kong Institute of Education, one of the schools participating in the HK Fulbright program in general education, there’s a scholar—an American actually—who preaches the gospel of Problem Based Learning. This is a pedagogical approach that reorganizes the way the classroom works. Rather than focusing on this section of the book, then that section of the book, then a third section of the book, and then finding an efficient method for mass suicide, PBL centers the class around a series of challenges similar to those students might face in the real world—the hiring of a new supervisor, choosing the best location for a new factory, trying to locate your cell phone after your “friend” Larry stole it because you took pictures of him getting a lap dance at your cousin’s bachelor party.
Using the PBL method, course content is delivered in contexts that emphasize its applicability—what a concept, huh? The idea that you read because it might actually help you get through life? Additionally, students assume the bulk of the responsibility for their own learning—instructors are present and step in at key moments to offer advice or ask witty questions designed to show their own intelligence, but other than that, the students must think carefully about how their reading and the other information they’ve picked up can or cannot help them solve the problem they’ve been assigned.
The PBL approach has a number of benefits, besides its incredibly sexy name: first, its emphasis on applicability mirrors how the brain works. Hearing information or see it is one thing (or two things—whatever), but actually doing something with it is how we ensure that the brain actually engages in deep learning—meaning the students will remember information beyond the end of the semester, the final exam, and the post-exam kegger and brat fest.
All of this, in turn, leads to greater intrinsic motivation—fancy talk for giving a crap. Most classes, the only thing that keeps us going is fear of the grade and the knowledge that if we show up early, we’ll get to sit next to Candy Levina. For most these kinds of extrinsic motivation are okay, but not amazing. Sure, we hate to fail, but we also hate to miss the last episode of ER. And once the class is over, so’s the fear, and so’s the motivation—and so’s the learning, or most of it, anyway.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within and stays even after the class is gone. If the course material has grabbed us, if we see why it matters, then we continue to care about it even after we’ve received our B- and Candy has pulled off her wig and tissue-filled bra to reveal that she, actually, is a he.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
I also like Problem-Based Learning because it looks at things holistically: rather than separating one chapter, one unit, or one subject from another, PBL tends to recognize that any given situation requires drawing from a number of cognitive sources—more fancy talk for saying you need more than a hammer to fix a car. This is how real life works: when you’re, say, an architect working on a given project, you’re likely to draw upon knowledge from political science, sociology, environmental science, accounting, management, and communications or English. And that’s all while you’re still eating your first packet of Pop-Tarts.
Where am I going with this? Why the hell am I boring the crap out of you? Who gives a living toad-stool about PBL and LPG and PDA on the MTR?
Only geeks like me.
And sixty to eighty Hong Kong students who spend every waking minute they’re not studying or sleeping or going to class, trying to figure out what tools they’ve gained in their education thus far that will help them win this damn election. They’re not listening to music, or watching TV, or playing computer games, or doing Face Book or writing stupid blogs. No. They’re working, obsessed with this problem they have, drawing upon every resource they can to be the winning team.
On Wednesday, the vote will be held. That night, Super Ma will find out they’ve won. Or maybe it’ll be Joyful Cozy Home. The next day, one group will ascend to power in the dorm, setting the social agenda for the year, taking over the annual budget, issuing orders for the elimination or severe torture of everyone who opposed them these last three weeks.
The other team, meanwhile, will gather together all their posters and banners and campaign literature, and burn it, all the while pointing fingers at one another and throwing blame around like so many cherry-flavored Molotov Cocktails. Yes, one group will win, and the other will lose.
But both of them will remember.
Isn’t that kind of cool?
Please Note: This stunningly boring blog is mine and in no way represents the
views of the various institutions that have supported me thus far in my career
and that are now beginning to reconsider . . .