Fulbright Scholar Stories | John Stifler

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John Stifler

Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts
Discipline: American Studies
Host Institution: University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
Academic Year: 2008-2009


John StiflerWhen John Stifler successfully applied for a Fulbright Scholar grant to Sri Lanka, he originally proposed to teach a course on the relationship between major U.S. literary works such as The Souls of Black Folks, and social, political and economic issues. But when Stifler realized that the institution’s faculty was more interested in his ability to help improve the English fluency of their English degree students, he set aside his plans and began conducting classes on grammar, style and composition.

Now near the end of his Fulbright grant, Stifler writes that he is amazed at the connections between the command of English among the people of Sri Lanka and economic status. He has also gained lessons that he thinks he can apply to his work back at the University of Massachusetts.

Although I am not particularly trained as an ESL [English as Second Language] teacher, I have previous experience in this area, including long ago in the Peace Corps in Nepal and at a technical university in France. My job is to address on a more ad hoc basis the particular persistent problems I see in these students’ written English. It is the same job I have at the University of Massachusetts: to encourage students to become more skilled at using the English they already know, in order to express themselves better – and, in doing so, to learn more about the literature and language history they are studying in their other classes here.

John StiflerThese sophisticated students’ main problems with “English” are the same problems that American or British or Australian or South African students have, namely, problems of clarity, conciseness, organization of thought in writing. And this, I’m convinced, is where the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunity for students, lies.  And this statement is as true at the University of Peradeniya as it is at the University of Massachusetts.

It is heartening to have a job like mine here. The students seem generally to be very motivated, appreciative of the opportunity to study at Peradeniya. They tend to be very quiet in class, but there are many ways to get them to speak up. One of the best of these, as I learned from a former Peradeniya Fulbrighter, is to get the students to collaborate on a problem in the classroom. They hesitate to speak up to me, but they talk readily among themselves, and it is exciting to see and hear them at work.

Teaching writing to students who in some cases are not fully fluent in English, and in other cases have learned English grammar badly, will expand my perspective on how I teach in the U.S. Nearly every semester at the University of Massachusetts, I have a few students whose first language is not English. More deeply, my experience this year has given me more to think about in terms of how students put ideas onto paper.

I am planting as many seeds [of academic exchange] as possible. I am directing promising students to the Fulbright office in Colombo. I am very specifically encouraging a young colleague here to apply for a Fulbright for graduate study in the U.S. My University of Peradeniya English department colleagues, most of who have themselves had Fulbright grants in the past, are also encouraging him.Also, I have taught writing classes for economics students here and I've edited a journal article for an economics professor at the university. I see these activities as building a base on which to encourage scholars from each university to visit the other. When I get back to the University of Massachusetts, I am going to urge several of my colleagues to look at Sri Lanka for Fulbright research and teaching. The Postgraduate Institute of Management at Sri Jayawardena University in Colombo is interested in some sort of exchange with the University of Massachusetts’’ public policy program. When I get back to the University of Massachusetts, I'll see what my friends in that program think might be interesting in such regard.