Sunday, December 20, 2009

2009 in Review

Here are a few highlights from 2009.

January 1, 2009 - The first annual Baghdad Bowl in the Green Zone.

February 2009 - I traveled to Madagascar (above) and Tanzania (below). What an amazing experience.

February 2009 - Playing tourist in the Green Zone with a couple friends, we get our picture taken with a squad of Iraqi soldiers.

March (or was it April?) 2009 - Meeting Secretary Clinton during her visit to Baghdad.

June 2009 - My final R&R started with a few days exploring Jordan. This picture was taken on a mule ride to a monastery above Petra.

June 2009 - On a dream vacation - a Mediterranean cruise starting in Barcelona and traveling to Monte Carlo, Italy, Greece and Croatia, ending in Venice (above, St. Mark's Basilica).

July 4, 2009 - Independence Day, Baghdad style. The DFAC staff always does an amazing job decorating for the holidays.

August 2009 - Leaving Baghdad after a 13 month assignment. I really enjoyed depositing the flak jacket and helmet for the last time!

August - September 2009 - Home Leave in California. I spent some time with family then finally got to enjoy the cabin I purchased in January. Big Bear offered lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. The photo above was taken during a hike on the north side of Big Bear Lake.

November 2009 - After a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, my family and I stayed at the cabin for a few days. It snowed like crazy, but we managed to have fun.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010.

The Test

At FSI, the festivity of the holiday season has been overshadowed by the fervor of the language test season. In that spirit, I'd like to propose a radical idea - get rid of the language test. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to getting a bad grade on my first progress test (I did better than I had hoped), but based on my own experience and the experience of colleagues, State should seriously consider eliminating the language test. Here's why.

The most important reason is that passing "the test" has become more important than the true purpose of language training - preparing diplomats for their jobs overseas. How much class time is spent practicing for the test and learning tricks for getting a good score? ("Don't forget to start the speaking at length portion by saying, 'This morning I will speak to you on the topic of computers.'") I admit that test-taking skills often overlap with skills that will actually be useful in our jobs, but that is a fortunate coincidence, not necessarily by design.

Secondly, the test is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of untenured junior officers. JOs need to pass the test to be eligible for tenure; therefore, the test becomes a painful distraction. The test is also used to measure, to some extent, the success or failure of instructors and sections. Think about the consequences of that.

Lastly, as any language student (and a fair number of instructors) will tell you, the test does not accurately measure a person's language proficiency. Nerves, a poor choice of topics, and even lucky guesses can affect a student's score.

I'm not sure what an appropriate alternative would be. Perhaps a panel of instructors observing students in class over a period of several days. Or students get to prepare a presentation on a topic of their choice followed by a Q&A session by instructors. I don't know what the answer is. But I think it's worth considering that the focus FSI puts on "the test" does not prepare students for their jobs. If you're lucky, your instructor will be able to balance both goals. If you're not lucky...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Where a Diplomat's Self Esteem Goes to Die

Language training is designed to constantly push you further, so you never reach a comfort level. In preparation for my first progress test, I've been reading a lot of articles about bus accidents (apparently this type of thing happens a lot in Nepal). Just as I've gotten pretty good at reading for gist and for details, my instructor took me to the media lab and had me listen to some Nepali news reports about bus accidents. Holy crap.

I had two reactions to the news clips. The first - Why is he shouting at me? The second - Is he racing through the story so quickly because he gets paid by the number of stories he can squeeze into the newscast? More often than not, I leave class thinking, "I suck."

I guess language training is not an exercise in developing self-esteem.