If you miss the ball, it’s a strike. And if you strike the ball, it’s a hit. And if the pitcher misses the strike zone, it’s a ball.
But isn’t he throwing a ball always?
Ahhh . . . yeah. This is all very confusing, I know.
—Conversation at Coveleski Stadium
While the nuances of baseball may have gotten slightly lost in translation, most of the 55 foreign-language teachers from 20 countries seemed enjoy their foray into American culture at South Bend’s Coveleski Stadium.
The Silver Hawks game was not just an evening’s entertainment for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTAs), who had come to Notre Dame in August for an orientation on U.S. academic culture before beginning year-long teaching assignments at their host schools.
Along with an information session on Notre Dame football, the game was included in the three-day program to give the new FLTAs something “American” to talk about with their new colleagues and students—right off the bat, so to speak.
“Based on my own experience coming here from Ireland 10 years ago, I quickly learned the importance of baseball and football in America,” says Brian O Conchubhair, the Notre Dame assistant professor of Irish Language and Literature who coordinated the orientation program. The program is hosted by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, as well as the Fulbright Commission, the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State.
“Sports is the language of the water cooler, the source of small talk that allows complete strangers to strike up a conversation,” the Irish professor notes. “So we thought this would give them an insight into American culture that they could use right away.”
The FLTA orientation at Notre Dame was one of four held in the United States this past summer, and the first ever for all language teachers in the Fulbright program, the prestigious, government-sponsored, academic foreign exchange. Similar orientations were held at the universities of Stanford, Columbia and Wisconsin-Madison.
Had it not been for O Conchubhair, however, none of the sessions would have happened—anywhere. Last year when the Fulbright Commission included Irish in its program for the first time, O Conchubhair suggested the need for an orientation. “There’s a vast difference between teaching in Ireland and teaching in the U.S.,” he says. “The culture in the classroom and the expectations of teachers and students are much different.”
With the commission’s approval, O Conchubhair put together a small-scale orientation that summer for the five Irish FLTAs. Impressed with the program, the Fulbright Commission and the State Department immediately saw it as a prototype that should be replicated and expanded. “So they came back and asked us if we could do the same for all the European languages, and from there it just grew and grew,” he says.
In fact, those represented at the Notre Dame orientation went way beyond the European languages, and included speakers of Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Persian, Hindi, Kiswahili, Bengali, Tagalog, and Wolof, as well as the European standbys Greek, German, Irish and Spanish. (In case you’re wondering, Urdu is spoken in Pakistan and India; Bengali in Bangladesh and India; Hindi in India; Uzbek in Uzbekistan; Persian in Iran and Afghanistan; Kiswahili and Wolof in Africa; and Tagalog in the Philippines.)
For three days some 20 Notre Dame faculty offered the group insights on everything from electronic teaching resources and the “needs and hopes of the American freshman student” to practical matters such as how to open a checking account or deal with discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.
ND language professors shared especially valuable trade secrets based on their experience with American students: For instance, never give an “exam,” one speaker said. U.S. students can take tests and quizzes all day long, but if you call it an “exam” they will be terrified. Or: If you teach an obscure language and are worried about motivating your students, remind them that their specialized knowledge might get them a job.
The young Fulbright language teachers, who have the equivalent of a master’s degree and take graduate courses while teaching in the United States, were especially intrigued by differences in classroom culture. “The relationship between teacher and student is much more formal in my country,” observed Riza Lestari, an FLTA from Indonesia assigned to the University of Hawaii. “Students dress up for class and never talk when the teacher is talking. Here it is informal, and classroom participation is expected.”
Brigitte Albers, a German FLTA now teaching at Indiana’s Wabash College, concurred and said she looked forward to that informality. “In Germany, the professor talks for 90 minutes and the students take notes. No questions are allowed. I like it the way they do it in the U.S., where you participate actively.”
For the Fulbright teaching assistants, the Notre Dame orientation was a chance to “get up to speed” regarding American academic realities. For Notre Dame, the orientation, which is hoped to be the first of many, was a chance to have a positive impact on young, foreign scholars, which may reap long-term dividends for the University.
“Most of these young people were coming to the U.S. for the first time, and so their first view of America has been shaped by Notre Dame,” O Conchubhair points out. "We explained the U.S. educational system to them. And so when they return to Thailand, Bangladesh, Spain or wherever, they’ll always see America through Notre Dame.
“And we’re hoping the spinoff will be that when they talk to their students in the future they’ll tell them about the good and interesting time they had at Notre Dame and our superb faculty. It may be a source of excellent foreign students in the future, because every one of these folks will impact thousands students over their lifetime.”
On the basis of Feruz Akobirov’s testimony, O Conchubhair may have hit a home run or o’z nuqtasiga qaytib borish, as the Uzbekistan native now teaching at Arizona State might say.
At the orientation’s closing dinner Akobirov summed up his experience. “When we first came to Notre Dame we arrived late at night, and so nothing was seen,” he said. “But the next day when I woke in the morning I saw this marvelous place. It is like a fairy tale. The campus is huge, and you have a wonderful library. I am really glad I have come here, and, to be honest, I don’t really want to leave here.”