More than teaching grammar

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  • Gourlay
Jonathan Gourlay taught at a community college in Pohnpei, Micronesia for 11 years.

The lure of a grant to study the 19th Century logbook of a Scottish trader establishing a trading post where the Morton College instructor once lived was rather appealing.
The Adult Education faculty chair and ESL instructor at Morton College understands there’s more happening in an English class than teaching grammar or reading strategies. He considers other factors one might not associate with the teaching of English, such as anthropology and economics.

“As an adult education teacher, maybe I’m ‘just’ teaching grammar or reading strategies, but even these are not without social and political meaning,” Gourlay notes. “Why am I teaching this particular lesson? What kind of English am I offering the students?

“Why does the student want the lesson? These questions are social and economic questions. This is why I use anthropology and economics to understand intercultural communication.”

Gourlay received a grant this summer from the Hayek Fund for Scholars. The program, based out of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, seeks to aide academics by providing funding opportunities to develop research projects and career opportunities in the social sciences and humanities disciplines, according to the program’s web site.

He spent the month of July in the Shetland Islands’ Museum and Archives, studying the logbook of native Andrew Cheyne, a sailor and trader who documented voyages in the Pacific from 1844 to 1846.

“This was a great opportunity to go there,” Gourlay said. “Part of the logbook hadn’t been seen outside of his immediate family members for 100 years. It was interesting what he had to say about the Pohnpei Islands in the 19th Century.

“The contact between the Pacific islanders and 19th Century traders involved an entanglement and intermingling of perspectives, economies and social structures. This contact produced the change that brought us to the modern world. Studying this intercultural contact of the past has broad applications to the classroom.”

Gourlay’s research forces him to question his teaching methods.

“What hidden cultural cargo do I bring to the classroom?” Gourlay said. “In what ways am I communicating my social reality and how does that resonate with my student’s social reality? Where there are differences, am I able to listen to students with empathy and compassion?”

His research is also part of the dissertation for Gourlay’s doctoral degree in Humanities from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.

“I’m looking at the Western traders intermingled with islanders and how communication was more through action than words,” Gourlay said. “The early traders brought a whole new way of looking at the world. But the islanders also brought a different history and social reality. The two intermixed.”
While it’s two different scenarios, Gourlay found what he discovered through studying Cheyne’s logbook relevant to his teaching methods.

“I’ve taught international and ESL students for 20 years,” Gourlay said. “We’re communicating in ways  beyond language. We’re bring our own realities and those are intermingled. I think we understand each other better if I come in listening.”

Gourlay has two master’s degrees, one in applied linguistics from UIC and the other from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in creative writing. In addition to teaching in Micronesia, Gourlay has taught at four-year schools in Connecticut and Kentucky.

“I’m happy to be back at a community college,” Gourlay said. “I like the kind of student you get at the community college.”