Category Archives: students

Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!


–O. Ayes


on education: a day in the life of a humanities major


On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.

updates from the city of dreams in action

As the Year of the Dragon progresses, lots exciting changes have arose for me in this city of dreams. This semester, I will be teaching again–this time at the City University of New York. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to do so and even more grateful for the freedom in being able to teach a course without a textbook! It’s a Writing Across the Curriculum course that emphasizes rhetorical analysis (or the ability for students to understand a piece of writing for its craft—how it was put together). Initially, I thought that I would use theme of social inequality, as I did a year ago in St. Louis, but there were a few limiting factors: 1.) that course had three textbooks, which I didn’t bring with me, 2.) I only have two weeks to design the course this semester, 3.) the curriculum was somewhat repetitive and didn’t fully execute the potential of a solution- or action-based approach.

This semester, I’ve decided to explore the cultural relevancy of happiness within the fields of social sciences, media studies, literature, and philosophy. I’m incredibly excited to teach, learn, and interact with students again. As in the past, I’ll be using this space to write and process my thoughts and experiences regarding pedagogy and ideas that are relevant to our lives as humans.

As if this news isn’t exciting enough, I also had an opportunity to connect with a young, world-renowned, New York Times-bestseller novelist, who encouraged me to “write books that people will read,” (i.e., non-literary). I’m not sure the direction of my craft, yet—I haven’t seriously considered the commercial fiction route—but I’m grateful to have been able to witness this genius at work so far. Creativity at its peak, transcends genre–in all art forms.

Furthermore, I’m excited to be involved with global tolerance, which promotes communication with a conscience. I am amazed, every single day, to discover the amount of ground-level and high-impact work that is being done to promote global consciousness and humanitarian efforts. Please consider joining gtconnect to share with individuals doing incredible, powerful, work. We are all agents of change, even if we are currently not in a place of freedom to be able to do exactly what we want. As long as the intent is there and followed by action, we can progress toward our ideal sense of self and community, which impacts the world, little by little, and eventually changes our current “reality”—that is, a world in which not every creature is happy or free. When our internal values are in synch with our external actions, change continues to happen. Our dreams and ideals are nothing, if we don’t follow through with action.

In the four months I’ve lived in this city, I’ve met incredible people who are promoting GLBT rights (Q-Wave) and establishing literacy programs in the Congo (The Mama Project). There are also teachers and artists and writers and dreamers who are part of the solution. And prior to moving to this city, I’ve come to know countless spirits who are doing the same. I’m continually amazed and inspired. It seems clear that our current state of consciousness involves full awareness of the inequities in the world, and our young minds and souls are getting to work to eliminate them globally.


–O. Ayes

Value Added Versus Value Perceived


If, in the 21st century, K-12 schooling is to promote literacy and an appreciation for learning, what is the purpose of post-secondary education? For some it’s basic: to compete in the global economy. For others, the purpose is an abstract idea about the value of a liberal arts degree, a continuation of this appreciation for learning. 

Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?

We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.

At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?

As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.

The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.

In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?

–O. Ayes

Students and “Mental Illness”


At campus #1, after showing a video from TED on the science of happiness (Nancy Etcoff), a student comes up to me after class.

“It’s funny that you showed that video because I’m clinically depressed and that’s why I haven’t been to class.”

I believe this student. She’s not the first brilliant overachieving student I’ve had who has encountered problems due to the overwhelming amount of work and expectations.

“How are you taking care of yourself? How are you coping with your courseload?”

“I’m going to the doctor next week, and I’m spending more time at home with my family.”

I nod my head in agreement. We exchange for a few minutes about ways to manage the rest of the semester. She thanks me for my understanding.

As she left, I reflected on other situations I’ve encountered recently. Earlier in the semester, a student (also brilliant and a singer), was institutionalized again. She came back to class on heavy prescriptions and could not function. She had to drop the course.

In the institute of medicine, the pharmacological/pharmaceutical agenda is pervasive. Sure, the pill is available if you’re feeling down, but how did you get to that point? What is in your life that is unaddressed that causes this cycle to continue? How can your support network help you with building the skills to cope with your stresses? How can you heal?

These are questions I wish were asked more often. Instead, we diagnose and leave it at that, as if these mental illnesses were always present in our lives. It’s developmental. It wasn’t always this way; therefore we can revert to (or progress to) wholeness.

The Idealistic Student Decides to Withdraw

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about an insightful student who is struggling with his ideals and being in college. Apparently, family drama has ensued that requires him to now take care of his nephew and niece. He cannot juggle work, new responsibilities, and his college courses.

He wants to enroll again in my class next semester, and I hope that he does.

I tell him, per our previous conversation: “I hope you find some time for yourself to be among trees.”

A Case Study: The Idealistic Student

Every semester, we have a spectrum of students: the slacker, the clueless, the goal-oriented. There are those whose main priorities are the location of the next party–clearly not ready to transition into adulthood. There are those who are overworked, juggling life and the pursuit of a better-paying job. There are those who stare blankly into the room during discussion or not-so-slyly look through their cell-phones.

This semester in my Honors Freshman Composition class, I lucked out with several very involved students. One in particular, a non-traditional student, stands out as intensely enthusiastic about learning. His first paper, a Personal Narrative, was a fictionalized account of his itinerant days. He received an A. I encouraged him to submit to the undergraduate literary journal.

A group project/presentation that involved another student, with whom he had had numerous (ideologically-)combative discussions with during class, caused him some trouble. He wrote a freewrite/critique full of angst–“we SUCKED!”–and proceeded to explain in two pages what had happened.

[Paraphrase:] “I was slighted. She would not take into account my viewpoints or contact me about working on the project. I felt under-prepared because the PowerPoint was not how it was supposed to be. She changed it without my knowledge.”

He spoke to me after class. I assured him that it did not seem as if he was under-prepared, only seemingly exhausted. They received an A for the project.

In contrast, a few weeks later, he led a group of more passive students to create a splendid mock-promotional advertisement for high school students, encouraging them to major in the natural sciences. (The other groups created promotional ads for social sciences, applied sciences, and humanities.) The presentation involved a well-executed script, a recruitment flier, costume (a military-style jacket similar to the character in the flier), even.

The next paper, a Persuasive Essay, appeared to be going in a similar trajectory. He decided to pursue a theory he’d had as a child, regarding a supposed antagonist (Skeletor) of an 80s cartoon series (Masters of the Universe) being the true protagonist. He meant to expose the screwed-up ideologies of “civilization.” He spent some 30 hours reviewing the entire series again and writing his paper. It was full of brilliant ideas. He received a B+. (The class curve was typical–mostly C papers.)

He spent the rest of the hour fuming, writing responses to all of my suggestions. He requested to speak to me after class. In hindsight, I should have given him a day to process his anger. We had a 3-hour long consultation. We discussed mechanics–whether a comma was necessary or whether to use “who” or “that” for a demonic, animalistic character (an intentional, stylistic choice, he insisted). I assured him that these did not affect his grades. The larger issues–clarity, coherence, organization of his supporting materials–were more difficult to explain.

He’s very much against the mechanical approach of how essays are structured. (I agreed and had encouraged him to exercise some creativity in approach during his Personal Narrative.) Yet, he was adamant that his presentation of ideas was clear enough to the reader. His prose, though, was immensely detailed and complex that it detracted from his overall point, causing me, as an uninformed reader, to be confused, thus making his argument convoluted.

“I still don’t understand. What do I need to do to prevent another B+?”

He wanted concrete answers on how to make his B+ paper into an A paper, and I could only give him suggestions based on what’s expected out of him (to be aware of his audience), as a writer in an academic setting.

This then led to a conversation about general disdain for his college classes–because the system is constricting–possibly resulting in him dropping out after the semester is over.
(How does one explain to a student to work within the system if he’s vehemently against it and does not value its conventions?)

“I miss sleeping in trees. I can work for $12 an hour and essentially play all day. Or I can drive an ice cream truck and make $100K a year, working only 5 months.”

“Why are you in college, then?”

“For security. When I get old and can no longer work, society will not take care of me.” (We had discussed in an earlier class about “taker” and “leaver” societies based on Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel, Ishmael.) “If I get a degree in education, I can spend minimal time preparing and teaching, yet I’ll have security later on.”

“How do you feel about having to sacrifice your ideals to be part of the system?”

My phone rang. He apologized for taking up so much of my time. I encouraged him to come chat with me again.