The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Go Big Green!

Why didn’t I think of it before? Priya Venkatesan taught a required first year writing course at Dartmouth, which means she and I taught very similar courses, and I have to give her credit I never could’ve come up with her idea. Priya Venkatesan threatened to sue her students for criticizing her. She sent her class an email:

… I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws…

It’s brilliant. First off, this a good technique to make your students pay attention: “Hey class, pay attention and agree with me, or I’ll sue you.” Plus, they’ll be too busy freaking out to notice the grammar errors in the email. Apparently, the students disrespected Venkatesan by being intolerant of her views. Unfortunately for academia, the press has called her views “post-modern” and part of “French narrative theory,” rather than the more accurate label—stupid. If I had followed her example, I could have waltzed into class and said anything I wanted, and my students would’ve been forced to listen to me. There’d be no need to lesson plan.

Second, she reportedly missed about three weeks of class and stopped grading papers. Think of all the free time I’d have to travel around Asia if I didn’t have to lesson plan, attend class, or grade papers. I could learn to cook, spend time learning Chinese, or maybe even take massage lessons. Now it turns out that Dartmouth is making her class pass/fail. This means she didn’t need to do any grading at all. Her entire class is passing. For every hour of class there is about three hours grading, and Venkatesan found a way to around this whole system. Supposedly, she has left Dartmouth and is now at Northwestern, another elite university.

If you read her students’ reviews, they clearly hated her. But on the bright side, she’s writing a book about the whole experience. I could even imagine the autobiography of a delusional crackpot academic selling well. Her emailed finished:

… I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluation and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.


Have a nice day, indeed.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

I learned most of my Chinese history from playing Nintendo.

Before the age of ten, my neighbor and I had familiarized ourselves with the names of the important figures in China during the second and third centuries. Liu Bei, Sun Quan, Cao Cao, Cao Ren, and Cao Pi—we knew ‘em all. Combined, we spent countless hours and (our parents’) dollars playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a role-playing game where you attempted to unify China. Somehow—even without Wikipedia or the internet—we learned a bit of the actual history. Though, we always chose to play as the Cao family not for any historic reason, but because we thought Cao Pi—and this provided hours of entertainment—was pronounced “Cow Pie.” Come to think of it, the idea of “Cow Pie” conquering China is still funny.

I bring this up, because at dinner with some of my students, Romance of the Three Kingdoms came up in conversation. It turns out it’s an important historical novel based on actual events—not just an era acting as fodder for video games. Wanting to come off as more knowledgeable than I actually was, I asked a few educated questions: “Now, I know Cao Pi was Cao Cao’s son but how was Cao Ren related to Cao Cao again?” I impressed a couple people—briefly—but then someone inevitably asked how I knew the plot of a massive tome written in the 14th century. Sheepishly, I had to admit that I learned it from a video game.

But, they had too! While I learned my Chinese history from the first RotTK, a couple of my students learned from the much more sophisticated ninth installment of the game. It doesn’t sit completely right with me for a generation of people to learn Chinese history from a Japanese video game, but if you’re going to play video games anyways you might as well learn something that you can later teach your English teacher. Right?

“There is no politics quite as vicious as academic politics…” —Kissinger (apocryphal)

While on vacation in Laos, I got word that one of my old professors was denied tenure and will not be teaching at Columbia anymore. I didn’t have much of a relationship with him, and I’m sure he has no clue who I am. Yet to my surprise, the news really affected me.

This week I am going to apply to a new Princeton-in-Asia post, and I’ve had to think about that whole future thing. I’ve always wanted to do some combination of teaching, writing, and saving the world, and being a professor always appealed me. I guess it still does to a certain extent. But…

when Owen Gutfreund, a fifty-one-year-old expert on urban sprawl and the director of the Urban Studies program at Columbia, was denied tenure, it reminded me how ruthless academia is. Not only was he the director of the department who had been at Columbia for over a decade, he wrote a “groundbreaking” and accessible book on sprawl—which, out of modesty, he didn’t assign to his classes—as well as countless academic articles. On the one hand, his lectures were packed, and on the other, he loved to talk with students one-on-one. While I was waiting for a slice of pizza, he overheard me talking about a couple of urban studies classes, and he quizzed me about my experiences. He really cared about his program, and he listened to my blathering with genuine interest.

Professor Gutfreund is married, middle-aged man who has no idea where he’s going to be next year. He’s done everything he could as an instructor, administrator, and a scholar. I’m sure Owen won’t become some invisible adjunct for the rest of his career, but still, he has to uproot his family (if he has one) and face an unknown future. For someone so involved with local urban issues, it will be hard for him to leave New York.

There’s a glut of cheap labor with Ph.Ds in the liberal arts, and, with a dwindling number of jobs, universities can take for granted the fact that they can keep hiring accomplished lecturers for low-pay. I’m sure Owen’s replacement will also be talented and wonderful. That is until they also refuse to award him/her tenure.

An Essai

Sometimes I feel guilty when I teach my students how to write the standard college essay. You know the essays with clear theses, which are really just mini-outlines that state all the main themes; the ones where every paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the thesis, because everything must always support the thesis; the ones where you hold a position and defend it logically to the bitter end; the ones where you’re never quite sure what you’re supposed to say in the conclusion, because you’ve already staid it in the first paragraph. It’s the type of disciplined writing that will get you high marks, but it will never help you gain insight into the human condition. The essay questions are coursewide, which means a student can’t alter the question or explore the grey area surrounding a topic. Bush-whacking into a dense thicket of unknowns rarely leads to the clear path of a talented rhetorician, but it can lead to a surprising discovery. To shift metaphors, the college essay should be a tapestry where the writer is in control of every strand and knows from the beginning exactly the pattern he or she will follow. The type of essay structure that I’m teaching can be traced back to the education of the sons of Roman landowners, learning to defend their future legal interests. They were not trying to learn; they were trying to become lawyers.

Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, would fail my class. The word essay comes from the French essai, which means an attempt or trial. Montaigne’s goal was not to hold a position and to defend it. Defending a position may be necessary in law or in my class, but it is not a good way to make an attempt at understanding. Essais try to figure something out. They may not have a thesis. After all, you don’t know the answer before you’ve written it. Heck, you may not even know what it is you’re trying to understand till the end. Montaigne’s goal was never to maintain total control of his arguments but rather to try understand what it means to be human. In a single essay, he could make incisive, philosophical, and existential conclusions about humankind one moment and ruminate on the nature of farting the next. He would receive poor marks for his lack of paragraph unity; he would be penalized for never having a clear thesis, and he’d lose points for constantly including irrelevant information about his kidney stones.

It’s dangerous to be inspired by Montaigne in a college setting. Professors, not used to such a disobedient style, will not appreciate an attempt. Robert Frost wrote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” but the essays in my class are not trying to surprise. They are trying to convince. The college essay form tries destroy all surprises. Nowadays, the blogosphere is the true inheritor of the essai. The interweb is chocked full of people writing about what they’re curious about and being surprised by it. No one thinks in the five paragraph essay form, and no one wants to read them. Being a wealthy 16th century statesman like Montaigne and being a blogger aren’t so different. Montaigne’s status freed him from constraints. He didn’t need to write for a publication or for a particular audience or for an assignment. He could just muse over his beliefs and doubts and put them to parchment. Bloggers are similarly freed from writing constraints. There is never an editor or a Mr. Shay informing you how you should structure your argument. Of course, I have yet to run across a blogger as insightful as Montaigne, a once in a century brilliance, but if Montaigne were around he’d probably be on blogspot.


As I sit at my computer, I’m surrounded by mounds of essays that I mistakenly promised to get back to my students today. I didn’t get them done in time. Every interstitial moment of the past couple weeks, I’ve been either grading or feeling guilty about not grading. With so many students,  properly reading over, correcting, and grading a paper is a time-consuming and exhausting activity. I guess I sort of knew this in the abstract, but I certainly hadn’t fully internalized it. Everyday I teach I gain more respect for my old teachers. I love being in front of the class, where you have the chance to inspire, to learn something yourself, and to make real connections. The “you” that is in front of the class is the person who will be judged by all of your students. This more public part of teaching is obviously important, but at least it will be remembered by all of your students. However, all the work that goes behind the scenes is thankless. At least as a student, I knew I took it for granted.

In my case with 170 students, if each person turns in a 1,000 word essay it adds up to 170,000 words. For reference, Moby Dick is only 208,000 words. I have to copy edit the grammar, make suggestions about structure and content, and come up with a final grade. After a full day of teaching, I can only drink so much PG Tips before becoming too tired to grade fairly. The papers range the entire gamut from the slapdash to the profound. In the less successful essays, the English grammar is often difficult to correct, and in the truly insightful ones, it’s painful to reduce my students’ passion to a letter grade.

I have an idea to improve the lives of teachers. A colleague of mine at Shue Yan told me that it wasn’t just me but that all teachers treasure a little acknowledgment every and now again that some one has noticed that what they’re doing matters. I don’t need much recognition—I’m just a temporary visitor to the teaching profession—but the real teachers, who have devoted their careers to it, really do deserve more. I’m open to new acronyms but right now I’m calling the movement BARTAB, which stands for Buy A Real Teacher A Beer. From now on, I pledge that every time I’m at a bar or pub and I run into a teacher I will buy that person a drink. Not only does does the teacher probably need the drink, but the teacher deserves a little recognition now and then.

Free Hugs

After class, I noticed one of my students squirming in his seat as I talked to a handful of his classmates. After all the other students had left, he got up and nervously asked me a question.

“Can I have a hug?”

I was taken aback but agreed. It was one of those short, awkward ‘man hugs,’ where each person does the three-pat back-slap. As soon as it over, he skipped off to his next class. I stood there for a moment and realized that I have a student who looks up to me. I hope I made his day too.

“You’re our teacher?!?”

In an Orientation meeting for new Shue Yan instructors, we were told—based on personality tests performed on the entire incoming student population—that two thirds of the student population were “analysts” and not “intuitivists.” Analysts are compliant and desire structure, while intuitivists are nonconformists with a broad perspective on topics. Because today’s global economy requires more intuitive thinking than at any previous time, we were informed that it was our job to transform our analysts into intuitivists.

Though obviously flawed as a method of depicting a mass of students, the description led me to imagine a class of students used to—even desiring—being filled with knowledge from an all-knowing and unquestionable lecturer. I feared they would react to my interactive—you could even call it “intuitive”— approach with an awkward silence.

Instead, my first classes were chocked full of enthusiastic volunteers. The variety of ways of asking about my love life left me both impressed with their English and their “intuitivist” approach to problem solving. They just kept trying new approaches to extract information, despite my repeated refusals to dispense with information.

Being a 22 year old instructor at a university means that I’m in this strange liminal state between being a teacher and a fellow student, a mentor and a peer. According to the university, part of the reason why I’m here is to “bridge the gap between students and instructors.” But it still makes navigating the teacher-student relationship difficult. The students certainly do not treat me like a normal lecturer. I can’t imagine they’d ask an older teacher whether or not he was single. It’s true; they were testing me, seeing what they could get away with. But for a first day, where a teacher tries to create a trusting environment where people are willing to take language risks, I’d say it was smashing success. Now, we’ll what happens when I force them to do some real work.

Tomorrow is only a day away

Okay, I’m a bit nervous. Tomorrow is the first day of school. I’ve spent the last few hours pacing my apartment, unable to focus on even the simplest tasks. This is worse than any first date I’ve been on. I sort of anticipated being a little anxious, but these kids really give me the jitters. I just don’t know what this whole teaching thing will be like. I don’t know much about the students’ English level. I have no idea how much time my planned activities will take up. I’m totally clueless about their educational backgrounds and preferred styles of learnings. Over five classes, I’ll be teaching about 175 students, who aren’t too much younger than I am. Somehow I never realized it as a student, but a class of thirty-five students is intimidating. How will I remember all their names? How will I grade all those papers? How will I avoid losing their grammar assignments?

But what’s most nerve-wracking is that I REALLY want to be excellent. I want to be liked by the students—preferably all 175—and respected by my colleagues. While I’m at it, I want to enjoy it too. It is the first time that I’ve been so emotionally invested in something that I am so completely clueless at.

There was a brief teaching orientation earlier in the year, and there was one lesson that I remember well. The gist of the class was, “you will suck at teaching.” Of course, the instructor continued to by saying that that was okay, and that you will only suck sometimes. For any teacher, not every class or every lesson plan will work. This is probably an important lesson to internalize.

I hope I learn it next month.

Late for a very important date

I was late. Real late. Due to a miscommunication, I didn’t know the exact time or location of the student Orientation meeting. Everybody was already there—my bosses, colleagues, students. I’d been wandering around the campus frantically searching for someone I recognized. On account of unexpected butterflies in my stomach, I’d not slept much the night before. I guess this was the first time I’d meet many of the people whose opinions mattered to me, and I really wanted to make a good impression. Finally, I called and found out the room number of the Orientation, but I continued to look in the wrong building for that room number. Sprinting up and down stairs two at a time, desperately trying to minimize my tardiness, I started to sweat… profusely.

I discovered my error with the building and quickly found and entered the room where the Orientation was taking place. I tried to sneak in unnoticed.

“Oh, it looks like one of the English instructors from America joined us after all. I haven’t even met him myself,” the head of the English Department said. “Go on, introduce yourself,” he told me.


Needless to say, I was a little flustered. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it came out as, “Uhhhh, my name is… uhhh… Christopher Shay… and I’m… uhhh… Portland, Oregon… errrr… I mean I am FROM Portland, Oregon. I just graduated from New York… errrrr… I mean from SCHOOL in New York.”

And then there was the looooong, awkward pause. Apparently, everybody had given much more verbose speeches, or at the very least, had indicated when they were finished talking. The crowd expected me to continue speaking, but I had nothing more to say. I just wanted the spotlight back on someone else. The merciful (but awkward) clapping started, and I was off the hook. The first impression to my bosses, colleagues, and students was over, and the rest of the Orientation continued without my input.

Boy, I hope my first day of classes goes more smoothly.