BESIDE THE POINT by Philip O. Chomak


Close Encounters in the Global Classroom
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A teacher of English as a second language recounts a rich career.

In 1974, debut author Chomak came to the discomfiting realization that his master’s degree in English literature was no guarantee of a university job. He stumbled into a position teaching English as a second language part-time at Holy Names College in Oakland Hills, California, a post that became full time in 1976. He would remain there until 2003 and continue as an ESL teacher until 2012, a career spanning almost 40 years. Over the course of those decades, the author taught students from countries all over the world, including Japan, Iraq, Qatar, Switzerland, and Argentina, among many others. Chomak’s memoir divides into a series of generally brief anecdotes—many of them uproariously humorous—that explore the misunderstandings that can arise from cultural and linguistic cleavages. For example, the author’s first name sounds an awful lot like the Arabic word for elephant. Many of the stories are almost vaudevillian, revolving around the comedy that issues from terminological misunderstandings and mispronunciations and the untranslatability of jokes. Some of the tales involve drama in the classroom—when a Brazilian student failed to earn the much-sought-after Certificate of Proficiency by one exam point, she threatened Chomak with a knife. Others are more serious—a Saudi student found himself attacked by his peers in the wake of 9/11. Despite the generally lighthearted tone of the book, the author repeatedly returns to the theme of cultural difference and what it means to properly understand its nature: “Teaching, for me, has embodied the paradox of relating to a group while trying to connect to each individual in that group.” Chomak writes informally and jocularly, like he’s taking readers out for a leisurely drink and some friendly conversation. Despite his eagerness to skillfully share lessons learned, his remembrances are never didactically delivered. In addition, this is a valuable resource for teachers since the author thoughtfully reflects on his pedagogical practices. Finally, Chomak shares considerable insights into the character of the English language, one riddled with its own peculiar practices and colloquialisms.

A companionable recollection of a life interrogating culture through language.

Pub Date: Dec. 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9966198-0-6
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Louisa Street Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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