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What Swarthmore Did(n't) Teach Me

What Swarthmore Did(n't) Teach Me by Sofia Rivkin-Haas '09

Sofi Rivkin

Sofia Rivkin-Haas '09 recently returned from Vietnam where as a Fulbright Fellow she worked for a year as an English teacher. In addition to designing and teaching college courses in English conversation, she mentored and tutored students and founded a drama club at her university to promote English use and cultural exchange. In collaboration with a local teacher, she also created a theater skills course for tenth graders at a nearby high school. Write to her at

Okay, so Swarthmore didn't exactly prepare me for an outing at the local, outdoor market to buy a bushel of rao muong (a leafy green vegetable, reminiscent of spinach) or how to stave off the advances of a Vietnamese mother offering her son to me in marriage. No seminar I took covered the basics of crossing a street in Hanoi or the art of making a left turn on my bike amidst the trucks, motorbikes, and water buffalo that crowded the streets of Vinh, the city I called home for nearly a year. Or, for that matter, how to make 40 college students engage in classroom discussion.

And yet, I learned to navigate and negotiate all the aforementioned situations (and many more) during my year as a Fulbright English teacher in Vietnam.

There is no turn of phrase, however hyperbolic, to describe the distance - emotional and philosophical, I mean - between Swarthmore College and Vinh University, a provincial university in the heart of north central Vietnam not 20 miles from the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, fondly known as "Uncle Ho."

Sofia Rivkin

"Instead of asking my students, 'How can I make you talk,'" Sofia says, "I investigated ways of talking around my questions: Operation Circumlocution."

In Vietnam, education is a machine operated by the unseen hands of the Ministry of Education and Training in Hanoi. To keep this machine wheezing along, both students and teachers are expected to do favors and pay bribes. The machine operates relentlessly, ten hours a day, six, sometimes seven, days a week. This grueling and totally chaotic schedule does not leave much time or energy for independent investigation.

In Vietnam, quantity trumps quality - the greater number of classroom hours logged, the more knowledge accrued. As a person who spent most of her senior year at the Honors' tables in McCabe Library reading, writing, and talking with a few classmates over tea and snacks, this highly controlled though disorganized environment came as a quite a shock despite all the articles I read pre-departure. Throughout my year in Vietnam, it was often time - especially the students' impossibly full class schedules - that became one of the greatest obstacles to my work. It prevented even the most dedicated and enthusiastic students from participating in the extracurricular activities that I was offering at the university community's eager requests.

But perhaps the difference between Vietnamese universities and a school like Swarthmore that is most easily verbalized relates to the culture of inquiry. Questions are the lifeblood of Swarthmore. In Vietnam, questions - from either teachers or students - are regarded as antithetical to the very mechanism of education.

Sofia Rivkin

At a Christmas party, Sofia posed for photos wearing presents from her students.

"May I come in, teacher?" For my first two months at Vinh University, this was virtually the only question, and one of the few polysyllabic utterances, that my students produced. Despite my encouragement and energetic endorsement of the old adage, "No question is stupid!" the truth was that my students, all first-years from remote, rural areas, remained silent in class, staring at me fearfully. Given that I was supposed to be teaching English conversation, I felt not stupid exactly, but stumped.

What was left me in this land of confusing weather and students afraid to speak? Questions. My Swarthmore education did prepare me to ask questions and seek answers.

First, I had to re-orient my own mode of questioning, figure out when to ask questions, and when to just abide. So, instead of asking my students, "How can I make you talk?" I investigated ways of talking around my questions: Operation Circumlocution. In Vietnam, asking a direct question is akin to admitting that you haven't a clue what's going on. For me, of course, it is often the opposite – silence - that shatters the allusion of control. The issue was cultural and educational as much as linguistic.

Sofia Rivkin

Sofia with the grandson of a traditional boatbuilder she talked with near Hoi An.

With this rather simplistic realization came another, perhaps less obvious idea. I realized I was depending too much on language to solve a problem it wasn't really up to. I had to actually give language - words alone - a little bit of a break and try a new approach because no amount of questioning or verbal pleading was motivating my students.

Ironic that I, lover of words, was suddenly stuck without any, just months after graduating with a degree in English and history, two subjects that filled my head with language. This led me to think back on my seminar on Modernism with Professor Philip Weinstein, in which we often discussed the point at which language breaks down and how artists and other intellectuals react when facing this precipice. In my pedagogical crisis, I came up with three interrelated facts:

  1. Language is an utterly sketchy enterprise.
  2. Communication through language is tenuous (at best) because every utterance assumes a certain degree of shared knowledge (i.e. culture).
  3. This tacit agreement often falls through.

And falling through it was. At particularly confusing moments, I fancied myself in a semi-Beckettian universe where things and people did not operate according to "normal" (read "Western") regulations. Unlike Beckett's characters, however, I was determined to do more than spin round and round in the anxiety-ridden status quo.

Sofia Rivkin

Preparing rao muong, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, was one of many things Sofia says she learned during her Fulbright year.

I had to create some shared knowledge to get the language juices flowing. I decided to play it safe for the first lesson in the new vein, evoking the avuncular figure in whose birthplace I was now struggling. What ensued was a conversation with Uncle Ho (voiced by me and physicalized by my water bottle). My intent was to show my students, systematically and ridiculously, that we could make this communicating thing work.

After initial introductions, Uncle Ho and I discussed many important things: how he handled stress at school, how he motivated himself to learn, and what were his biggest disappointments in life. Sometimes Ho gave a frustratingly monosyllabic answer and I would have to switch quickly to the teacher voice and ask, "How?" or "Why?" to follow up.

Midway through my Socratic boogie with Uncle Ho, a chorus of laughter made me realize that I was using very comedic and improvisational skills that I had learned in Quinn Bauriedel's Movement Theater class my junior year at Swarthmore. "Uncle Ho," one student piped up, "Did you ever fall in love?"

Sofia Rivkin

Sofia says she and her students often laughed about the gaps between their lives and languages. "It was in this cacophony," she says, "that we began communicating."

That was a turning point for me. I could not change the Vietnamese educational system, which is corrupt and a tool for anything but change. But I could do something in my own classroom because now I had a captive audience. The next seven months were spent figuring out how to make active participants in the play. This proved a constant struggle, but by the second semester, my students would not let me, or their classmates, get away with asking a yes or no question. "Why?" students often shouted. "You must explain more fully!"

To follow my students' sincere injunction, I must do a bit more explaining myself. How did this silly skit with a water bottle change my whole Fulbright experience? It made me realize that it is humor, and most basically physical humor, that is the key to communication. In short, to be a successful teacher, especially when words aren't working, you must be an actor and an interdisciplinary thinker. None of the teaching manuals on foreign language teaching clued me into the fact that language is not very good at saying anything. You have to figure out how to talk to the people you're trying to talk to before you open your mouth or expect them to open theirs.

Sofia Rivkin

Sofia graduated from Swarthmore with high honors. Above, she departs her English exam.

At Swarthmore, the ingredients of this recipe were available in idea form. For example, in Bob Weinberg's honors history seminar, I analyzed the complexities of gender construction in socialist regimes and, in particular, the double-burden of women in Soviet Russia. At Swarthmore, I learned how to think about people different from myself, but this year I witnessed my colleagues living those differences. My female friends lived the double-burden - working horrendous hours and childrearing - in a society that touts gender equality while remaining silent about shocking rates of rape and domestic violence.

Sofia Rivkin

"I did not live in the Vietnam of anyone's memory," Sofia says. "I did not live in the Vietnam of story or film." Above, at the Perfume Pagoda, a pilgrimage site outside of Hanoi.

Swarthmore supplied me with theories about developing nations, especially those espousing socialist ideals, and this helped me understand what I was seeing around me in Vietnam. But living amongst people who often pinched my arm to see if I was real, offering my students English words, giving my colleagues lessons in American history, and trying to put some Vietnamese words into my own mouth allowed us all to acknowledge and often laugh about the gaps between our lives and our languages. It was in this cacophony that we began communicating.

I did not live in the Vietnam of anyone's memory. I did not live in the Vietnam of story or film. I did not live in the Vietnam that's now a popular tourist destination. I lived a year in the gritty and damp decay of the ever-developing present in a nation that wants change both now and never. The Vietnam I know and love is a Vietnam in the throes of growing pains. Where will it all lead? That's just one of the many questions I'll be asking for a long time.