What kind of stuff do you teach at CMU? I teach English language skills - grammar, reading comprehension, listening, and writing, to all the university students who are non-English majors (the English majors are in a separate program). I have students from engineering, general science, biology, foreign languages, accounting, and many other disciplines.
English classes are required for all science and humanities students. These classes cover the first two years of study. As many as 1500 students may be enrolled in a particular English class during a semester. That means that there are probably about fifty or sixty sections being taught by twenty or twenty-five ajaans, each with two or three sections. Some of the lessons involve listening to a tape, and on certain days you can hear the same lesson reverberating through the hallways, as different classrooms play the same tape at the same time, but not quite in synch with each other. Or, you may hear a humanities tape and a science tape mixed together in the air. Charles Ives would have been proud.


The curriculum is pretty strictly controlled; that is, the lessons are already mapped out fairly well in the textbook, and we have a pretty tight schedule so we can’t afford to get behind. The English department at the university designs all its textbooks; none are brought in from the outside. This leads to some interesting situations, such as the lesson on the topic of constipation that included a cartoon drawing of a man sitting on the toilet trying very hard and not succeeding. Some of the farang ajaans are put off by this, but I say, just go ahead and teach it. The Thais dont object to it, and were in their country, so why should we?
The courses for science students focus a lot on reading and understanding technical material. They learn to read scientific texts, and to write about processes such as making paper or beer, or to talk about environmental problems. The humanities program deals with topics like politics, social issues, personal relationships. It is a little more oriented toward entertainment. I have taught lessons about prostitution, child labor, the diary of Anne Frank, Michael Jackson, and the current military regime in Burma (SLORC), just to name a few.
This semester, I am teaching a conversation class for the first time at CMU. This is a new and welcome challenge; the course curriculum is much less strict, and the object is to get the students to loosen up as much as possible. If I can get my students to write a dialogue, stand up in front of the class with another student, and deliver it, then I will feel that I have accomplished something.

So, how do the students handle the curriculum?
They handle it like children trying to figure out how to drive a car: the whole thing is a little out of control most of the time, and some of the time it is completely out of control.
English grammar presents many problems for Thai students, as it does for many other foreign learners. Grammar mistakes are to be expected, simply because of the vastness of English grammar compared to Thai grammar: “John is very falling in love with his girlfriend and he thinking to ask her to marry him,” for example. Or, “Stop to do” (instead of “Stop doing that”). Sometimes the confusion results from using the correct root but the wrong part of speech: “Keep me in your remember,” (instead of “Keep me in your memory”), or “Eat vegetarians for a healthy diet.” Students may misuse the passive voice: “It is recommended that you don’t eat meat, but you can be replaced by beans, seeds, and nuts” (instead of ” you can replace meat with beans, seeds, and nuts.”).
But the bigger problem, besides grammar, is what I call cultural thinking. When you study a foreign language, or you live abroad, you learn that life is simply not understood in the same way by people from different cultures. Sometimes students don’t understanding the real objective in a situation even when they can use the grammar correctly. So, when given the task of writing a statement of advice about the dangers of salt consumption (”Don’t consume too much salt” would be a good answer), a student writes, “Don’t consume unclean salt.” His grammar is correct, but he has missed the point in his health advice.
Organizing ideas of argumentation into pro and con, or advantages and disadvantages, is not a sure thing with Thai students. Sometimes they mix them up, and I can’t tell if it’s a problem of understanding the English or a problem of understanding the concept. But Thai students can follow a model, if it’s not too big. So, for writing a dialogue between a salesperson and a customer, they can make the salesperson present the advantages of a product (”This camera takes clear pictures”), and then have the customer state their objections (”I already have one.”) But again, sometimes they follow all the rules but still don’t get the right feeling. One student had the customer say, “Not everybody needs a camera that takes clear pictures.”
Sometimes I get the feeling that I can’t change anything, and that maybe I shouldn’t even try to. After all, who am I? Just a visitor. Thai culture has been around a lot longer than I have. When I start feeling like this, then I know it’s time to take a vacation.