November 2009


After just five terms here I have finally got a handle on my timing and had a terrific term. I scheduled student presentations for the first two weeks in November and just took my time, giving the kids as long or as little time as they wanted. Essays were due November 2. As a result I’ve had all my marking done for two weeks now, and have been spending the last little while on a leisurely review of the term using video to spark discussion and relating that back to the course themes. While other teachers, especially the newbies, have had stacks of marking to wade through, I’ve been chilling in the staff room reading the local paper. It only took me 2 1/2 years, but I have this course humming like a little sewing machine.

This present crop of English teachers is as raw as you can get. The most experienced of them has a year under her belt. Last year’s crew was just the opposite, with scads of expertise. But this new crop are rising to the challenge and learning how to manage the curriculum and the kids. The new anti-plagiarism software has been a huge help to the English department, and has helped us to catch students who borrow essays from each other, as well as teach the students themselves the importance of citing their sources. Everybody is on board with its use, and it is becoming widely adopted in other programs as well.

A couple of months back two professors at one of Malaysia’s leading universities were caught by the Times Education Supplement of plagiarising. A candidate for her PhD had simply copied an online Harvard textbook and submitted it for her thesis. Her supervising professor simply accepted it without doing any checking. The thesis was on how to write a resume to secure employment, and it was submitted, along with other documents, to the TES in order to raise the university’s rankings in the world listings. The ironies abound! The real kicker is that while both of them were reprimanded, neither lost their position at the university and the candidate’s PhD still stands. This is the context in which we are trying to teach our students the cost of plagiarism.

This term I had one student who submitted her first essay which was 100% plagiarized from the internet, despite my prior instructions to the classs, and my warning about the new software that would detect them. I gave her a second chance, and her revision was self written, and passable. Her second essay on Lord of the Flies was 100% plagiarized as well, this time from another student, her roommate, who had left her essay on her computer and wasn’t aware it had been pilfered. I guess she figured if she plagiarized second hand she wouldn’t be caught. This time I gave the girl zero and warned her she was likely to fail the course if she tried this again on her final essay.

A month later she showed me a draft of her final essay, as I required, but didn’t upload it so it could be checked for plagiarism. However, given this girl’s past history I scanned the draft and uploaded it myself. It was 100% plagiarized. I called her in, warned her not to use any of the material from this draft, and gave her another chance. Her final draft submitted and uploaded two weeks later was 90% plagiarized and included the portion that was 100% plagiarized that I had told her she couldn’t use.

Not surprisingly, she failed the course, but you have to wonder at the sheer obstinate persistance of some of these kids. We have three students in the program, now in their second term, who have cheated on every single essay, every single assignment, every single test and are still obstinately pursuing that course leaving behind in their wake failure, mistrust and indignation from teachers and students alike. You’ve got to wonder why they don’t see how futile their course of action is.

However, these students are the exception, not the rule, and I have had a delightful term characterized by some fine writing and a genuine increase in awareness of the proper use of citation when doing research. The next step is to get them beyond what shows up on the first page of Google! But that is the challenge for the next course. This one, I am happy to say, was largely a resounding success.

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This has been my best term since coming to Taylor’s College back in July 2007. With one or two exceptions, the students this term were great; very motivated and hard-working with some exceptional writers and thinkers, three of whom are pictured here. The course work went very smoothly, unfolding at a good pace, neither rushed nor lethargic with plenty of time to develop the nuances of thought into character and motivation that I try to bring out. The final student presentations were finished early enough that I haven’t had to mark anything for two weeks, leaving me plenty of time to prepare my students for their final exam and giving me enough time to rest up for the final push of marking and reporting.

This is my fifth term here and my second time through ENG 3U, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I find it hard to imagine that I once was anxious about teaching this course in Malaysia. Now I can scarcely imagine doing anything else. I have always loved writing and literature and never had enough scope at my previous teaching positions to develop the courses to the depth that I wanted. Here I can go as deep as I am able, and the students can not only keep up, they dig deeper into the material themselves and feed back their insights. It is very rewarding teaching.

For the next two weeks I will be invigilating exams and compiling marks. Not the most exciting tasks that teachers do, but necessary ones. Many of these students are here on government scholarships, and unless their marks are high enough they don’t get to go on to university in Canada. They have a lot riding on the line, and get understandably pretty anxious about their results. ENG 3U is not high on their list of priorities,as it is simply a prerequisite course for ENG 4U and will not count for entrance to university, but given their high level of drive for excellence, I know that they are going to try to score high regardless.

Love is not a river,
nor a heartache, nor a gain,
not a flower, nor a hunger,
nor an endless aching pain.
It is not these things, no.

Love is a commitment
that you make to one another;
it’s a promise, an agreement
to be brother, father, lover.
To be friend, and foe.

To be them all in each their season;
past regret and nights alone,
past contentment, even reason,
to an end you cannot know.
Hand in hand together, go.

Each teacher in the school where I work is assigned a group of students to counsel. I find it kind of artificial, as I am more likely to counsel whoever needs my counsel anyway. I just always figured that was part of the job. In fact I will counsel kids who don’t ask for counsel if I think they need it. That too is just what any caring adult would do if they saw a young person struggling and thought they could help.

But this particular crop of students is in my ‘mentor group’ and we are getting near the end of the school year and I thought I would treat them to a movie and help them to try and relax before we head into exams for the next two weeks. 2012 just hit the theatres here and most of my students hadn’t seen it yet, so I took them out as a treat.

I’m sure many of you have seen it by now, so I won’t provide a review. You already know that despite an attempt to place this picture in the future, it is essentially the story of Noah and the Arc retold with high tech gadgets. You just can’t get away from the fact that some of the greatest stories on the planet are in the Bible. The science starts out on a fairly solid footing. Yes, there is a neutrino collection facility in Sudbury, Ontario and one planned for Tamil Nadu in India. Yes, the sun does erupt in solar flares and that activity will hit the peak of its eleven year cycle in 2012, but from there on out the science gets increasingly dodgy. By the time the tsunamis have flooded all of India and are cresting over the seven kilometer high Himalayas you are ready to give up. Even the most die hard literalists of Biblical interpretation are willing to concede that the Himalayas must have risen as a result of whatever cataclysm struck the world in Noah’s day, as there is not enough water on the planet to cover it to that depth.

But I’m nit-picking. Nobody goes to a show like that looking for good science, you go looking for special effects, and there are some dandies. My particular favourite was watching California slide ever so gently into the Pacific Plate, although I must admit that watching the Yellowstone caldera erupt was a close second. It was good entertainment and very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow it is back to work for another two weeks, and then a well earned holiday before the new semester. I wish all of my students good luck as they write their final exams.

Cambodia is one of the countries worst affected by HIV in south-east Asia. Despite a decline in prevalence from 3.3% in 1998 to an estimated 0.9% currently, over 250,000 people have been infected with HIV since the beginning of the epidemic in 1991, and over 16,000 people have died of AIDS.

The decline in prevalence is attributed to a combination of high mortality rates among those infected with HIV and successful HIV prevention programs among some populations. These programs were the result of committed efforts on the part of government, non-governmental organizations and civil society. The new challenge is to avoid becoming complacent.

While the highest levels of HIV infection are still to be found among sex workers, men who have sex with men, men in uniform, and drug users, national statistics show that the epidemic is also shifting from these traditionally high-risk populations into the general population. The highest number of new infections now occur among housewives as men switch to having casual sex with ‘sweethearts’.

Partly as a consequence of high levels of HIV prevalence, it is estimated that 7.8% of children below 15 in Cambodia have lost one or both parents – approximately 335,000 children. Care of orphans is a major concern in a country still recovering from decades of civil unrest and facing extreme poverty. Many of TWR Cambodia’s existing programs for children, youth and women already do address some of the issues around HIV/AIDS but staff are concerned that this is inadequate.

I have spent his week with the team here presenting to them the potential for accessing funding for a dedicated HIV/AIDS program. They are an excellent team and excited about the possibility. Next week will be spent doing some background research in a number of areas and I will return the first week in December to work with them developing an in depth proposal and meeting with some potential partners in this venture.


Transportation is a huge problem in Kuala Lumpur. There is no way we can justify or afford the expense of a car. Malaysia imposes an excise tax of 100% on all imported vehicles and their local product, the Proton, is notoriously unreliable. Scooters and motorbikes abound, and while they are an attractive option for me, it would be a pretty selfish, and possibly career ending decision. There is just not enough respect on the roads to make it a wise move. Even the young teachers over here are wary.

Public transport, including cabs when necessary, is the way we have chosen to go, and while that option can be extremely frustrating given the lack of expenditure by this city on buses and trains, it has the twin virtues of safety and economy to commend it. But public transport won’t get me to school, or up to the 7-Eleven, and so I have decided to buy a bike.

I wish I had done it when I got here; I love it! I always had a bike in Canada, but they just are not seen on the roads over here. I guess the need for speed is just too all consuming in Malaysia. Obviously I would never take it out of the city, or even out of Subang Jaya, the little college community where we live, but around here it has been just great. There are plenty of little trails leading from one residential area to the next, so I basically never have to go out on the main streets. When I do I am given far more consideration that I am given when I am walking (which is all Asian countries is zero), and I feel pretty safe out there.

But even more important I feel free. My poor feet, which have degenerated from occasional pain to chronic disfunctionality, have some relief, and perhaps the possibility of recovery over the long term, and already I have been able to get out far more than I could. The knees, well they are letting me know that they do not like this new regime, but I think they will come around in time, and once I have relaxed the death grip I am presently employing on the handle bars, my hands should feel better as well!

This is ItI am a culture junkie. I like to see how people interact with the world around them and compare their attitudes to it. Theologically I am an absolutist. There is only one God, and no you can’t placate him with your own efforts at piety and purity. But culturally I am a relativist; culture is what we make of it.

So what do you make of Michael Jackson? Was he just Wacko Jacko? Millions would disagree with you and call your read of the man simplistic and your view a mere parroting of the toxic journalism that has made money off his misery over the years. They would cite his millions in record sales and rub your nose in the fact that Thriller, Jackson’s 1983 blockbuster, is still 25 years later the highest grossing album in history.

They would point out his business acumen in securing a 35% share in Thriller and subsequent albums, amassing for him a net worth in the low billions at his peak. They would point to his legacy; that since his ground-breaking routines no significant pop star has been able to avoid a measure of dance competence in order to compete at the highest level. They would even make reference to his humanitarian efforts, echoed in the likes of Bono and Bob Geldorf.

Whatever you make of him, his swan song This Is It is worth a view. I dragged a very reluctant Pam out to see it on the weekend, and even she was impressed. Here was a man, obviously in the terminal stage of his career, putting forward an effort and attention to detail that can only be called heroic. Every move was an obvious pain, only alleviated by the equally obvious joy he took in expressing himself through music and motion.

Like every tragic hero Jackson had his tragic flaw. In fact he had several of them: his attraction to prepubescent boys, his obsession about his appearance – which has been identified as body dimorphic disorder, and led to multiple disfiguring operations on what was once a beautiful face – and his perfectionism, which must have driven everyone else around him nuts.

It also brought out the best in others as well. The backup dancers were out-and-out amazing and the young female lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris is clearly going to be a huge star in her own right. Of Jackson she says “I wish he was still around. He made me believe in myself.” Jackson’s off stage antics had a lot of people not believing in him anymore, but seeing this film had you grieving for what might have been. He was without doubt a troubled and disturbed man. He was also an enormously talented musician and dancer. And perhaps, in some weirdly relevant way, symbolic of the culture that bore and crowned him King of Pop.

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