Could you organize 34 Asian university students to each write and contribute one chapter of a perfectly-written novel, and then see it published in paperback? This man has. He's worked as something of an English literature boffin at Bangkok's most expensive university for over ten years. He knows a ridiculous amount about English premier league football (for an American anyway) and he's currently involved in one of the most difficult and intriguing student projects I've ever heard of. We welcome Ajarn Denny to the ajarn.com hot seat.
Ajarn Denny, or A.D as your mom probably calls you, ten years in one place of employment! How have you managed it?
I was quite the traveler in my youth. I made it to over 30 countries and almost 40 US states. ‘Vagrant’ was what my mom actually called me. However, when I got hired to come to Thailand, I made a conscious decision that it was time to learn what it was like to stay in one place for a long time. I figured there had to be something to be learned from sticking it out in one place instead of always moving on at the first inconvenience. I occasionally get nostalgic for the old days, but globe trotting on a shoestring budget is a younger and single man’s game.
We get a fair amount of negative feedback on the forum about the downsides of working for the 'religious institutes' How has your experience of working at a Catholic institution been?
Because I’ve only ever worked in Thailand at a ‘religious institute’, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to offer any comparisons to other types of schools. I just do what it seems necessary to do at any Thai run organization. I’ve learned to keep my head down, don’t complain out loud, pay lip service to official policies, and then get on with doing my job the best way I can. If either they or I become too dissatisfied with the other, both have options.
Having said that, I cannot complain too much about the way that I’ve been treated here. I have occasionally had small problems with minor bureaucrats in the system, but the leaders of the university have always sorted it out for me.
What's your workload like these days?
I am responsible to teach 15 hours a week, two semesters a year. Of course there is office and preparation time, but the truth is, I don’t suffer. The paid holiday time is one of the best reasons to teach at a university in Thailand. I may never be rich, but I do love my free time.
How many students do you typically have in each class?
Officially, it’s supposed to be 25-27 per class. It actually works out sometimes to be 15 or 35. I try to accommodate my students’ schedules as much as possible.
The students you do teach are often obscenely wealthy. Does this lead to a lack of motivation on the part of the students knowing they can live in Daddy's big pocket if life suddenly means no chance of passing exams?
While it is true that many of the students at the university where I work are rich, most are middle class, and a few are even working to pay their own way. I try to treat them all the same. One of my first lessons in any class has to do with how I don’t care who their daddy is or what kind of car they drive, either they work or they don’t pass. My belief is that any student who belongs in a university will come to understand that knowledge is a valuable and empowering commodity. If they don’t understand this, then they probably don’t belong at a university in the first place. This is independent of personal financial status.
I also hammer home the point that what I have to offer them can’t be bought, it must be earned. Whatever possessions one has are outside of the person. Knowledge, and specifically language, is part of who one is, not what one has. Any idiot can spend money. That does not require any special skill. What will make the student special as a person is who they are, what they can do, not what they have or can buy.
The university helps out because they do not interfere when I fail a student. I have heard many stories about grades being changed. It has never happened to me.
Tell us more about this special project with your literature students?
I get three or four sections of English One students (approximately 100 students) and I teach them for four semesters from English One through English Four. We do extensive reading of full-length novels, and I make them write a lot of guided journal entries every week. Then in English Four, each section writes a novel. Each student is responsible for one chapter. Of course, the student doesn’t start writing his chapter from day one. There is a process by which the section chooses and develops the storyline so that by the end each student knows which part of the story he must capture in his chapter. I do not interfere with the choice of topic that each section decides to develop into the novel. The students are completely in charge of what they write. My job is the how part, the process of helping them develop their ideas into novels.
In addition to producing original authentic fiction, the project provides an excellent opportunity for the students to practice all four of the major language skills. In order to make the storyline consistent, the students must constantly speak and listen to each other. The fact that they want to write a good novel insures a meaningful context for this oral communication. Additionally, each student must rewrite his respective chapter many times. After each rewriting, he must read many of the chapters before and after his in order to insure the consistency of the story. This is one of my favorite parts because traditionally it is very difficult to get students to rewrite anything.
Now we are in the process of publishing some of the novels. The first one has been done. Several more will follow soon. They have been edited for grammar mistakes, but the storylines have not been changed.
I am excited because this gives the opportunity to anyone who can read English to learn about Thailand and Asia from the perspective of Asians. I was aware for many years that my students knew about Hollywood movies and American TV shows and therefore had some knowledge about my country. However, basically nobody in the US is watching Thai movies or learning about Thailand. The fact of having written their culture and ideas into English makes it possible to begin to turn around the flow of information, hopefully to the benefit of both sides. This is where the name of the series of novels comes from, The Turnabout Series.
After costs are covered, profits from the sale of the novels will go to a scholarship fund for deserving students at the university. No teacher will make any direct profit from them. However, I’m hoping it won’t hurt my career.
I've seen the manuscript myself and it's good stuff. When will we see it on the shelves of Asia Books?
Yesterday, if I had the power to make it happen. However, this being Thailand, the correct answer is that I’m not sure. There are always little glitches that I can’t anticipate. Hopefully they will be available soon. In the meantime, if you want one, the novel is available in Assumption University bookstores, or you can contact me at email@example.com and we’ll try to sort you out a copy.
What are the downsides of university teaching?
Meetings and seminars. I find that many people in academia are more interested in impressing than informing.
How high are you aiming for on the teacher's ladder?
I try not to get the cart before the horse. I have this naïve belief that if you consistently try to do a good job, the reward will come by itself. As far as teaching in Thailand, I wouldn’t mind getting an Associate Professor credential since that would make it easier to insure that I could continue to live here.
Whatever position I may achieve, I always want to stay in the classroom. That’s where I think I do my best work. While I appreciate people who do the admin work, it’s not for me. At least not full time.
Your university has a real cosmopolitan teacher's room. Do the teachers mix well or tend to gravitate towards their fellow countrymen when it comes to socializing?
Teachers tend to gravitate towards other teachers who have a similar schedule. Most of the time it’s a smoke outside between classes or a quick cup of coffee. Since the university has opened two campuses, I see many of my colleagues much less often than before.
Complete the following sentence. I will never go back to America because.......?
I don’t believe that I could support my wife, myself and our first child, which is expected in August, nearly as well in America as I can here. Other reasons include the belief that I would not be allowed the academic freedom to pursue the projects such as the one mentioned above at a university in America, and the fact that it never snows in Bangkok. I hate cold weather.
Being a literature enthusiast, which three writers would you share an evening's bowling with?
Albert Camus, Richard Brautigan and Wilbur Smith. Two are dead, and the third is over seventy. I may actually be able to win at bowling for the first time in my life.
You have a passion (and a very serious passion) for English football. Don't you prefer your footballers with loads of padding, all high-fiving each other because they managed to get their helmet on the right way round?
I love the whole culture of sport. Baseball, basketball, rugby, football, American football, golf, even cricket on occasion. The only one that leaves me completely apathetic is auto racing. I don’t see it as a sport.
The reason I’ve gotten into English football here is that it’s what’s available to watch. A Premiership match down the pub with your mates is a much more enjoyable sporting event than the NFL alone with a cup of coffee at 8 a.m.
Also, sport is a lot like language. Knowing the rules of the game is just the outline, much like grammar in English. The interesting part is what people do within the rules. What will Thierry Henry do next, or Gordon Strachan say?
Come on you Baggies! Boing! Boing!
Give us a nice quotation to finish and not something you've pinched off Oscar Wilde either. I've heard the 'sensational diary' one before.
It may be a bit old fashioned, but I like the classic ‘Seek and you shall find’. Verbs with no objects. It’s a constant imperative for action, and a constant promise of results. It keeps life interesting.