On the sheer diversity of Fulbright experiences (or, thoughts from the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar)

Back in February, I had exactly three dates marked for the entirety of my grant period: Orientation, my eventual flight home, and the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar.

As I understand it, the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar is a staple of Fulbright grants around the world: a chance to reconvene with the other Fulbrighters in your country, share experiences, and re-orient yourself for the second half of your grant. In addition, Mid-Year tends to be held in a major city, and because all travel and lodging is paid for by Fulbright, it also feels like a bonus vacation.

This year’s Seminar was held in Salvador—a northeast port city that served as Brazil’s colonial capital during the height of the slave trade. It’s now the fourth most populous city in Brazil, as well as a center of Afro-Brazilian culture. Its historical center, Pelourinho (named for the pillories it once used to house), is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

Mid-Year’s programming ran from Monday through Thursday, covering presentations and workshops as well as a tour and some free time to explore the city. Like during Orientation, however, what I appreciated most was the chance to talk with other Fulbrighters. But I felt that opportunity was even more valuable this time, because we all had different experiences to share as well as the context necessary to really learn from one another.

And we had a lot of different experiences. There are Fulbrighters working at private and public universities. Some only teach classes; others are mostly working outside the classroom. The oversight and desires of host professors and institutions vary wildly. Meanwhile, Fulbrighters are living in apartments and houses and hostels in climates ranging from temperate to equatorial. Some are also researching with Brazilian academics, some are training with Brazilian athletes, and some are starting their own clubs to bring their own passions to Brazilians.

Even the challenges we face are different. Some Fulbrighters recounted how, on the first day of class, the students at their university declared they were proud of their non-native accents and that other non-native speakers should be similarly unashamed. By contrast, my students (who are mainly English teachers) are just trying to figure out how to get their own students to pay attention—they don’t necessarily have the luxury of worrying about how to resolve the tension in perpetuating a language whose prevalence is wrapped up in a history of conquest and colonialism.

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Speaking of luxury: the view from my hotel room

Hearing these experiences helped me realize what I want the second half of my grant period to look like. I’m limited by my circumstances—the fact that the majority of my students work during the day and then commute in means that any extracurricular events just aren’t really going to work—but by seeing what others have done, I also realized what it might be possible for me to do.

I don’t want to speak for everyone else, but I know I left Mid-Year feeling rejuvenated and ready to face the upcoming semester. Mid-Year made me feel more confident in my ability to shape my experiences, which included giving me some concrete ideas for how to address those feelings that I’m not doing enough. I don’t know if my efforts will necessarily amount to anything, but the motivation to try goes a long way.

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This year’s Fulbrighters in front of the Farol da Barra

Five months ago, we all started with the same three dates on our calendars. We arrived at Orientation together, we attended Mid-Year together, and our grants will all end together. But besides that, it continues to be up to us to fill in the rest.

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May/June updates from the classroom

Now that my first semester at UCS (over half of my grant period!) has wrapped up, I want to take a post to share the what I’ve been doing teaching over the past two months. Compared to my first two months at UCS, the second two admittedly felt sort of stagnant. Part of that was because I missed more than a few classes due to personal trips and the truckers’ strike, but it’s also because I began to run into some of the structural challenges of teaching at UCS—including student culture and curricula that was either undefined or ill-matched to students’ abilities.

 

Oral and Written Expression Skills in English

After my co-ETA Alex and I taught the class how to give ceremonial speeches (thus concluding our public-speaking series), the focus of the course transitioned to academic writing. Most students were in their penultimate semester and supposed to be working on their TCC, a thesis-like final essay. But I get the impression that most of my students don’t have much experience writing formal papers, so Alex and I spent much of our time in class explaining thesis statements and citations.

This was a difficult transition for me. I had trouble gauging how much students knew (or were supposed to know), and I didn’t fully understand what sort of form the TCC needed to take. In addition, we spent a couple classes covering skills that struck me as misplaced, like how to use corpus linguistics to learn phrases common in academic writing. It’s a great skill, especially for academics aspiring to write in another language, but I don’t think it makes much sense to focus on when my students are having trouble putting together a thesis statement.

Compounding this, I get the impression that it’s rare for students to complete extensive assignments out of class. I understand why—if I was working full-time and not expected to do my homework, I wouldn’t worry too much about finishing it either—but the result was that especially at the beginning of the process, students would use class time to research or write. Alex and I would check in with them, but then we were left sitting for an hour and a half, not really doing anything, just in case a student needed something.

However, one student did produce (early) a really interesting article about the translation of phrasal verbs in the subtitles of Bewitched, which I was able to work with her on throughout May. And as other students finished, I welcomed the chance to slip back into the role of writing center tutor and help give them guidance to become better writers.

 

Oral and Written Skills for Teachers

As I mentioned before, UCS is changing its curriculum so that this is one of the first classes new students take, replacing Oral and Written Expression Skills in English. I think this is a great idea—although it’s going to have to be complemented by a sustained commitment to English-language academic writing in other classes, in my opinion—and I took advantage of the opportunity to introduce some key skills early.

First, using worksheets and presentations, I aided Prof. Samira in helping students work on outlines, citations, paraphrases, and comma usage. The latter was especially fun—any day I get to bring up Grammar Girl and weigh in on the Oxford comma is a good day.

After we covered the basics, students were tasked with writing a five-paragraph argumentative essay. Over the course of several weeks, I walked students through the process—helping them brainstorm ideas, giving them guidance on outlining, and providing them with feedback on their rough drafts. I was especially impressed with the commitment of Prof. Samira and my students. Even when we couldn’t meet physically, we had class virtually, sharing documents through UCS’s online service and communicating over Whatsapp. And although I didn’t get to see the final essays, I have high hopes for my students’ future abilities if they’re starting to write this early.

 

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Most of our class time was devoted to the presentations my students had been giving me, which often inspired conversations afterward. I also gave a presentation about fake news in the United States (which I’d previously given as part of our conversation club, Netflix and Chill, but none of my students were there). Thesis, largely inspired by this article: fake news represents a crisis of epistemology that is difficult to talk about because there is no consensus on what the term “fake news” refers to.

Otherwise, it’s been difficult to come up with other activities for class. The textbook honestly seemed to be too easy for my students, and there didn’t seem to be a formal curriculum. At one point, I had students write a letter to their five-year-old selves (which I then shuffled and had students read out loud to guess the author) in order to practice different ways of talking about the future. I had intended to use the exercise as the springboard for a lesson about future tense, but nearly all my students used it flawlessly.

Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t doing much in class—or that I was cheating by learning more through the presentations than I was teaching—but I think the discussions we had were good practice nonetheless. And as a result, this was the class I got closest with. Everyone came back a week after classes officially ended to have a end-of-the-semester party with me:

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Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis

Also taught by Prof. Samira, this course had the benefit of a well-structured curriculum but the downside of being a topic I know very little about. Thankfully, once we transitioned from functional grammar to discourse analysis, I was much more in my element.

After giving an introductory presentation about rhetoric, I asked students to bring in a song to analyze. Over another virtual class, I tried to lead a discussion about Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” to demonstrate the multiple meanings that a text can have. On one level, it feels like a forgettable pop tune, and when you first hear the lyrics, the song seems like a feel-good anthem for body positivity. But at the same time, it also has lyrics that condemn skinniness and define beauty through men’s preferences, so I think you could argue it’s not quite as positive or feminist as it initially appears to be. My ultimate goal was to show that these meanings can coexist, demonstrating how texts can be sites of struggle over meaning.

I don’t think I was able to do the topic justice in such a short period of time—a suspicion that was confirmed when many students defaulted to explaining what the artists intended when they performed their songs, or trying to lay out what the songs’ lyrics might mean—but we did end up having some interesting conversations about a variety of philosophical topics.

Overall, I’ve been grateful to have these experiences—and I’m looking forward to implementing lessons learned once classes resume in August.

What I need to know about Brazil, according to my students (3/3)

This is the second post in a three-part series about the presentations some of my students are giving me. I told them the presentations can be about anything as long as they’re in English. You can find the first installment here and the second installment here

Brazilian comics and everything in between — Ismael

After patiently waiting his turn (as his presentation was delayed for one reason or another week after week), Ismael presented about comics and graphic novels in Brazil. He opened talking about an strip called Monica’s Gang, which has garnered some international fame and also inspired television and manga spin-offs. This stoked a spirited conversation among my students, many of whom have strong thoughts about this beloved childhood title.

Ismael continued to cover some other popular Brazilian strips, and then he detailed some famous Brazilian cartoonists and listed his favorite (under-appreciated) Brazilian comics. I actually really like graphic novels, so I enjoyed seeing what Brazilian artists had to offer. I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to read them—given how hard graphic novels are to find, and how unwilling I am to spend money on things I will then have to worry about carrying home—but I will have the chance to read Monica’s Gang! Ismael gave me a couple back issues, and I’m super excited to use them to understand this cultural touchstone and practice my Portuguese.

 

Brazilian literature — Giorgia

Giorgia gave an overview of Brazilian literature for her presentation. I’d heard about Amado and Assis before—they’re some of Brazil’s most famous writers—but I was surprised to hear about Lispector, who was basically Brazil’s Virginia Woolf. Also, Giorgia talked about The Yellow Woodpecker Farm, which I actually recognized from my host mom telling me about children’s books she used to read to her children. It’s since been turned into a TV show that (of course) spawned some sort of meme casting a witch-alligator character as a gay icon.

Paulo Coelho was also in Giorgia’s presentation. I know Paul Coelho from banning his book The Alchemist from being suggested in the book club I started in college. Giorgia said she initially was skeptical too—which seemed to be the consensus among the students in this conversation—but after she actually read his books, she discovered she really enjoyed them.

(I suppose I should give The Alchemist a try someday, but I don’t think I’m wrong to be skeptical. Any book that preaches that the universe conspires to help you achieve what you want, and is then lauded by enormously wealthy public figures, seems a little too self-serving to me. Also: I think the fact we eventually achieve what we want is more of a testament to our ability to make meaning from our experiences, rather than some sort of universal conspiracy. Rhetoric!)

 

Brazilian political scenario — Cristiano

Over the course of two hours, Cristiano gave the most ambitious presentation I’d seen: an attempt to explain (and provide historical context for) Brazil’s contemporary political climate. I knew I was in for a true crash course when I saw the summary slide alone included a dozen different bullet points. I don’t have space to chronicle all of the history Cristiano recounted, but I do want to highlight a few takeaways.

First, Brazil started as an extractive colony. In other words, it was never a place foreigners sought to build up so much as a place foreigners sought to exploit. From the beginning, this puts Brazil at a disadvantage (compared to somewhere like the US) in terms of infrastructure and development.

Second, Brazil’s history is littered with constitutions. It seemed like some of my students didn’t fully realize this point, but Cristiano argued it’s vital to understanding the state of politics in Brazil. If there’s a precedent of scrapping the past and starting over, it’s difficult to commit to fixing the problems that one government/plan entails.

Third, Cristiano argued that Brazil is currently in the midst of a parliamentary coup. I know this is an interpretation other Brazilians would vehemently disagree with, and I also know that I don’t know enough about politics to gauge its merit, but I do think Cristiano made his point convincingly. And regardless how you interpret the situation, it sounds like one fact is certain: Brazilian politics are incredibly complicated and incredibly fraught.

 

Brazilian educational system — Bruna

To wrap up this series, Bruna presented about the Brazilian education system. Essentially, different levels of government finance different levels of education: elementary education is funded by the city, secondary education is funded by the state, and post-secondary education is funded by the nation. There are also private schools, and you can have state schools that also offer elementary education, but that’s the general pattern.

I was also surprised to learn how dismally some teachers are paid—in the lowest-paying cities, teachers are making maybe US$1.25-1.75 an hour. Of course, these cities are likely in extremely rural/poor areas, but if anything, I think the low salary underscores how economically disparate Brazil still is. (I work as a communication consultant for the UN food agency IFAD, which is still financing rural development projects in Brazil.)

What was also interesting was the qualification needed to be a teacher. To work with young kids, you just need to complete a program in high school—which is why so many of my young students are already teachers. Others are teaching in private language schools, for which formal credentials aren’t always necessary.

Given that my class is full of teachers, everyone was eager to share their experiences in schools both as students and as teachers. One topic of conversation was how teachers are looked down upon around Caxias—many of my students related stories of having to justify their interest in teaching to family members, or being told that they were too smart to teach. I think we have a similar attitude in the US, but at least in my experience, there’s a component of it that treats teaching as at least a somewhat noble pursuit.

Bruna’s presentation prompted a discussion that lasted until the end of class, and I think it was actually the most vibrant conversation we’ve had. So I thought it was a fitting way to end this series of presentations—eagerly and effortlessly sharing experiences,  practicing English, and fostering intercultural exchange.

2018 Quidditch World Cup: A Review

So, I did it: I went to Florence and competed at the international level of a sport. It was expensive and it was hot and it was at times painful, but it was so worth it.

First, the results: Team Brazil finished 27th out of 29 teams. Because we lost all our games on Day 1 (to teams who would all make the upper bracket, including eventual champions USA), we got stuck in the relegation bracket on Day 2—where we competed with Iceland and Finland for the bottom three places. Iceland had to forfeit due to lack of players, but we beat Finland handily, and I’m proud to say I walked out of the World Cup with at least one victory.

Meanwhile, New Zealand—whom we were solidly beating in a scrimmage in the days leading up the Cup—placed 20th. So I’ll maintain that had the brackets fallen differently, we might’ve been able to eke out a better ranking.

I still had a really great time, though. Usually quidditch has just been this thing I did for fun in college, or a way for me to make friends while living overseas. But for the five days or so that I was in Florence, quidditch expanded to become my entire world. And it was so much fun to come together with people from all over the world to bond over this weird shared interest.

I arrived in Florence on Wednesday, going straight to the practice fields to meet the rest of my team. Some of them had played with each other before—either on the 2016 World Cup team, or on one of the three teams in Rio de Jainero—but for me, it was the first time meeting everyone. Of the twelve other people on my team, only seven of them lived in Brazil; the rest of them were Brazilians living in the US, UK, or Italy.

Later that evening was the Opening Ceremony, which actually turned out to be really cool. An entire pitch had been set up in Piazza Santa Croce, complete with stands for spectators and scaffolding for filming. (TIME live-streamed it, apparently.) There was Florentine marching and flag throwing as well as a parade for all the players already in Florence. But what was the most fun, though, was the exhibition match between Italy, the hosts, and Australia, the defending champions. It was low-contact and low-stakes (no one wanted to get hurt right before the Cup), but it was still my first time watching a quidditch match with a big group of spectators, and it was so much fun.

The atmosphere of World Cup was really what I loved. All the players had to stay at a campsite (with a sign calling it the Official Quidditch World Cup Village, which 110% made me feel more like an Olympian than I’d care to admit), so you were always surrounded by other players. Teams who brought flags hung them outside their chalets, and you could just strike up a conversation with whomever you found yourself waiting next to in lines. There was also a steady barter market for team jerseys, World Cup trading cards, and Pokemon Go, so there was always an excuse to go up and talk to someone.

(I opted out of the whole trading card thing because transhemispheric airfare is expensive enough, but I enjoyed looking at the cards my teammates had collected. My favorite was a headscarf-wearing beater from Malaysia whose card read “hijabis gonna hijabeat”.)

This friendliness extended to the pitch as well. whether we won or lost the match, I couldn’t help smiling as we all got together for a photo afterward.

Granted, the Cup had its challenges as well. First of all, my cleats had begun to break right before I came, and I was reluctant to buy new cleats without the proper time to break them in before the tournament. I managed to fix this problem with a combination of super glue and duct tape (called “American tape” in Italy, interestingly enough), but wrapping my cleats further shrunk the toe box, prompting worse blisters than normal. And although our uniform’s blue socks were snazzy, they were also sort of loose around the foot, and I don’t think that helped.

Second, World Cup games were spread over eight pitches across two complexes. Walking between the two farthest pitches took a solid fifteen minutes, as you needed to snake between fields and could only use certain exits and entrances. What’s worse is that all but two of these pitches were turf, which was fairly punishing to fall on and left me with scrapes even from the first day of practice.

Third, with temperatures reaching the mid-nineties, the tournament suffered from a lack of shade and clearly marked water sources. These conditions not only affected players but also the already-thin ranks of volunteers, and a couple games needed to be canceled on Day 2 due to a lack of people to staff them.

I had already decided this entire trip would be an adventure, though, so I tried to take everything in stride. This attitude had generally been helpful as I literally dashed through the Frankfurt airport, begging to skip lines, just so I could catch my flight to Rome after my flight in from São Paulo had been delayed. It was also helpful when I needed to return to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport the day after my arrival when my checked bag, which evidently didn’t make the Frankfurt connection, somehow went missing. And it was also helpful when I showed up to a campsite just outside of Florence at 9:00 p.m. Wednesday evening, two hours and a steep mile-long hike out of my way, and realized that I’d had the campsite wrong for over two months.

So when my captain asked me to try seeking (which I had never done before), I said yes. It was hard and not particularly enjoyable, but at least now I can say the first and only times I played as a seeker was in the Quidditch World Cup.

A few takeaways from the tournament, if you’re interested in the state of this sport:

First, the quality of play is increasing around the world. US, Australia, Canada, and the UK have dominated in years past, but this year Belgium and Turkey took second and third, respectively. This was probably due to bracket weirdness (we had a repeat of last Cup’s championship, US vs. Australia, in the quarterfinals), but these teams also played really well.

Second, quidditch seems to be spreading mainly through people from these top countries. It wasn’t uncommon to hear US-accented English from players on other teams. South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Mexico were all led by veteran US players—some of whom play Major League Quidditch in the US—and I think it helped them stand out from many of the newer European teams.

But the US isn’t the only one sending players abroad. Per IQA rules, a player is eligible to play for a national team if they are at least sixteen and either hold citizenship, lived in the country for at least three years, or have only played quidditch in that country during the last international season. The last clause is how I managed to get on Brazil’s team, and it’s also how a French beater who studied abroad in Dublin could play for Ireland, for example.

Third, there’s still a lot of controversy over how the International Quidditch Association is running itself and spending its money. If this sport is going to continue to grow at the international level—and all signs are pointing to that it’s still trying to—IQA is going to need to figure out how to run itself effectively. And with its current head stepping down, the replacement’s going to have their work cut out for them

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C/o fearless captain Phill Cain

But all the drama and politics aside: I had an incredible time at World Cup. Despite the heat and the scrapes and the blisters, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was also rejuvenating to spend some more time in Rome, my favorite city in the world—to see some old friends, people-watch at the tourist sites, and gorge myself on proper Italian food. I also want to extend a special thank you to Monica and her family, who allowed me to stay in their apartment in Rome (even when they were away) and thus helped make this trip possible.

Brooms up Brazil!