PEACE CORPS TRAINING was intensive and stressful. Superficially, it seemed a lot like the college culture most of us had recently left. Walking around the University of Texas campus in Austin had a familiar feel since we lived in a dorm and attended classes much like any other students. However, the regimentation of fourteen-hour days was an unwelcome novelty. Back at the University of Michigan, when I put in a fourteen-hour day or pulled an all-nighter, I had arranged that torture for myself. In the Peace Corps training program, we surrendered complete control of our waking hours. Classes started at 7:00 am, and every minute was programmed until at least 9:00 pm. In the third week, there was a mini-revolt over the lack of time to go to the store or take care of personal business. The staff seemed to be taken by complete surprise that any of us would have needs that they hadn’t included in the rigorous schedule, and they responded by giving us “free time” on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 4:00 to 5:00 pm. I remember “tuning out” during a teaching methodology lecture and using my stolen moment to compile a list of what I needed at Walgreen’s so I could use my precious sixty minutes efficiently.
Beyond the intensity, the sense of always being watched was stress inducing. The director, various staff members, the language teachers and even the secretaries were continually observing us and almost impossible to elude. On top of this crew, we had two shrinks (psychologists) and a super-shrink (psychiatrist) involved in everything we did. Unlike college, our “grade” (being judged qualified to go in-country) didn’t depend on a final exam or a term paper but on a consensus decision by the training staff. We found ourselves second-guessing how our ordinary behavior would be perceived by the omnipresent watchers. There was no way to let one’s hair down because the shrinks and other staff members would always be around checking.
An attractive woman in the training group and I began to eat together and sit together at lectures. Each of us was pleased to have the other’s moral support and an empathetic partner to deconstruct the day’s happenings. However, a little more than halfway through the summer, I began to sense some unspoken concern on the part of the staff about us being a couple. To avoid the perception that we might have become too dependent on each other, I decided to spend more of the group’s communal time and what little personal free time I had trying to develop my relations with a wider circle of fellow trainees. My erstwhile companion was somewhat less paranoid than I and quite annoyed with me about the lessening of our earlier close rapport. We both were selected for assignment to Iran, but I’ll never really know whether the deliberate cooling of our sociable relationship played any significant part in giving the watchers confidence in our emotional independence and readiness for a two-year cross-cultural plunge.
Several in the group were not intimidated by the scrutiny. Six or seven devil-may-care trainees used to wolf down their food and dash out to the sidewalk just in front of the cafeteria’s picture window. There they exuberantly engaged in the “oldest established, permanent, floating, hopscotch game” in Austin until it was time for the daily culture studies lecture. The childhood game was both an outlet for pent-up energy and a rebellious statement to the watchers: “Shrink this!”
Although the Peace Corps seems to have a comfortable respectability today, certain powerful politicians were suspicious of the concept in the early days. Senator Barry Goldwater and some other conservatives were worried that naive American youth would be swayed by Communists or other political radicals whom they might encounter in third-world countries. The skeptics projected that we would be defenseless in such confrontations because of our general ignorance of American values, institutions and history. In return for his influential support for the Peace Corps legislation, Goldwater insisted on a clause requiring 10% of the training time to be devoted to American Studies, World Affairs, and Communism (ASWAC). The trainees, however, rearranged the words in the title of the mandated 80-hour program of lectures and discussions and pronounced the revised acronym “whack-ass.”
One morning at breakfast, the director asked anyone with a political science, economics or American history major to report to a seminar room in the student center after the second hour of language class. Eager to escape the endless grind of Farsi lessons, twelve of us arrived and were introduced to Jim Wright, an influential Democratic congressman from Fort Worth and the House Majority Whip. Our group spent the rest of the day with him talking politics except for the hour right after lunch, when we rejoined the other trainees to hear Congressman Wright deliver the daily “whack-ass” lecture. Wright had specifically asked the training program officials to have this extended session with the prospective Peace Corps Volunteers, so it seemed that even more-liberal politicians were also trying to get a handle on the value of the Peace Corps program.
The start of our training program in the summer of 1965 coincided with the peak of academic enthusiasm for the audio-lingual method of language teaching. The framework for this method was developed on an ad-hoc basis at the Defense Language Institute during World War II. After the war, scholars such as Lado and Fries at the University of Michigan did considerable research on language acquisition based on the Army’s wartime experience and began to popularize their findings. One of their disciples, Mohammad Ali Jazayery, was in charge of the Peace Corps language instruction at the University of Texas. Professors in the “publish or perish” world of modern academia find it hard to resist the temptation to turn everything they do into a research project. Instead of designing a pragmatic program to teach Farsi, giving us maximum benefit from every minute of precious language learning opportunity, Dr. Jazayery treated our group as a set of free government-supplied guinea pigs enabling him to explore the outcome of the most extreme form of audio-lingual teaching.
Language experts today, while keeping some elements of this methodology, make fun of the rigid form of it we were subjected to. John Dennis, a wryly observant English professor at San Francisco State University, called what we did the “drill your ass off” school of language teaching. We had five or more hours of Farsi per day in an ideal-sized class of eight or fewer. However, neither students nor teachers were allowed to bring pencils or paper to class; Jazayery even removed all chalk from the classrooms. We had no books. Teachers were not supposed to speak even a word of English, nor translate any of the new vocabulary, nor answer any questions, in class or outside. The endless repetition and manipulation of model sentences or memorization and performance of dialogues allowed for no spontaneity or consideration of adult understanding of language structure. Unable to break down the utterances we practiced, we desperately grasped at the vocabulary of concrete nouns, clear in meaning because the teacher could point to an object and say the word. The frustration of having only the vaguest idea of the meaning of the babble we could fluently produce was intense, especially for the visual learners among us. This state of affairs went on for 220 hours (the equivalent of twelve to sixteen semester-units of normal class time) before we had any kind of explanation.
The language teachers, all Iranian graduate students glad for a summer job, mitigated some of our frustration precisely because they were Iranian and college students close to our age. Being from a culture with a long tradition of finding ways around artificially imposed barriers, and not being linguists who bought into the experiment, they cheated. Sadeq, an engineering student and former Iranian Air Force officer, surreptitiously used small scraps of paper to write vocabulary words in his own improvised phonetic script, and Khodayar, my suite-mate, would answer questions late at night in our dorm room when no watchers were around. Sadeq got so frustrated one morning that he threw away the carefully scripted lesson plan and taught my group a Farsi saying which he felt fit our mutual situation: Showd, showd, na showd, na showd, velesh kon. We repeated this mantra in unison. After hearing Sadeq’s loose translation, we marched across the University of Texas campus and into the cafeteria enthusiastically chanting, “Try once, try again, but if then you don’t succeed, to hell with it!”