2010-05-28

Thinking of a sabbatical

Having taught for 19 years in the university with no break (except for summer and winter vacations), I recently feel I am worn out intellectually and need a good dose of intellectual input. Since I am finishing my sixth year at the university, where I am teaching now, and I have received tenure there, I am entitled to take my first sabbatical next year. Unfortunately, however, I cannot get it next year for some bureaucratic reason, but I really hope I will be able to take it in the following year. Although there still remains at least one whole year until then, I have started to think of things I would like to do in my first sabbatical.

My fondest dream is to spend a year at some university abroad, preferably in the United States, and especially in New York City, my most favorite city in the world outside Israel. I am sure that such an experience will broaden my intellectual horizon and give insights for new research. But I am afraid that this dream is not so practical. The biggest practical problem that confronts me is what to do with the apartment I rent and all the books I have. I do not want to leave this apartment, but on the other hand it seems rather stupid to pay a rent for an apartment where I will not live for a year. I cannot shlep all my books with me, but on the other hand I need them, or at least a large part of them, for my research; I have spent almost 30 years to build my special private library.

So the most practical alternative seems to be to remain in Jerusalem, freed from the obligation of teaching for one year. Then I would like to take some courses as an informal auditor either at the Hebrew University or at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, which are my almae matres in Israel, or even at both of them. The mere thought of becoming a student again already excites me. At the Hebrew University I would like to take courses in sociology and improve my Yiddish and Russian; at Ohr Somaych Yeshiva or some other yeshiva in Jerusalem I would like to tackle the biggest intellectual challenge I have ever experienced - acquiring the skill to navigate the Talmud on my own.

Wherever I may be, the most important thing I would like to do in my sabbatical-to-be is to start working on my first book. I have three possible topics: the first is in the area of Modern Hebrew morphology, the second in the area of Hebrew-Yiddish contact linguistics, and the third sociolinguistic comparison of Hebrew, Yiddish and Esperanto. I will spend the next year choosing the exact topic for the book and making a detailed work plan.

2010-05-14

What to do with apathetic students

It is rather discouraging and disappointing to find that having taught for more than 20 years in various universities, I still encounter very fundamental problems in teaching. Since my life surrounds mostly around work with almost no private life these days, even small problems I experience in teaching affect me greatly and destroy my peace of mind. The problem that occupies me these days is what to do with apathetic students.

Fortunately, such students are far smaller in number in Israel than in Japan in relative terms, but unfortunately, there are enough of them in absolute terms even in this country not only in obligatory courses but also in elective courses. I am aware that I have been poor at teaching in general and "marketing" the subjects I teach in particular. But I have been unable to come to terms with the idea that even university teachers have to motivate their students. I still believe that only those who know why they study what they study must be permitted to continue their studies in the university. I may sound elitistic, but seemingly, we are paying a heavy price for the popularization of higher education: even those who are not meant to be in the university are admitted.

I know from my own experience as a student that even in the courses by the worst teachers we can always find some intellectual insights from time to time, if not always. So I find it very hard to understand those apathetic students whose eyes remain dormant and inactive all year round whatever I say. I am curious to see how they fare in other courses by better teachers.

The biggest problem I have with such apathetic students is that gradually but surely they shatter my motivation to continue to teach them. This is a vicious circle with no clear beginning. Generally speaking, its downward spiral can only worsen. Do I have a solution for this problem? Unfortunately, I have come up with no magical solution. My only humble desire is not to have my motivation totally shattered by an epidemic called apathy.

2010-05-07

Feeling like teaching outside Israel (but only for a short period of time)

Suddenly I feel like teaching in other countries outside Israel, even including Japan, (but only for a short period of time, as I do not want to live outside Israel for more than a few months at a time). The main reason is to break my routine. I have got so used to teaching Israeli students that I have been deriving less inspirations than before from interacting with them, as I can already foresee many of their possible reactions.

This may sound a crazy idea, but I feel like reexperiencing teaching in Japan. I only remember that it was not easy, to say the least, to teach there because I could not implement what I considered (and still consider) the most important activity in class - verbal interaction between the teacher and the students and between the students themselves - except when I taught Japanese as a foreign language and Hebrew. Luckily, however, I do not remember so clearly various concrete headaches and agonies I had while teaching there. By teaching in Japan every once in a while (but again only for a very short period of time each time), I will surely be able to appreciate what I have as a teacher in Israel. I do not want to make any value judgment, but I just want to express my personal taste: I definitely prefer the Israeli teaching methods to the Japanese ones.

I would also like to relativize my teaching experiences in Israel and Japan by teaching in other countries that have sociocultural backgrounds that are unknown to me and different from those in these two countries. The most "economic" way of experiencing teaching in other countries at the same time would be to teach, in whatever country, even here in Israel, a mixed group of students from various countries with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. I still remember experiencing pleasant surprises all the time with such a group when I taught Japanese as a foreign language in Japan. This is the most enjoyable and enriching teaching experience I have ever had so far.

There is at least one big advantage in teaching in a country whose culture you know well, as you can count on the same cultural assumptions with your students, but this can be less challenging and less inspiring, as everything becomes a routine. By putting myself in foreign sociocultural settings I will hopefully be able to see what is nature and what is nurture in us human beings.