Nov 29, 2010


I'm back!  This training at Pretoria was the general training of trainers, shortened to GTOT in accordance with Peace Corps' acronym fetish (similar to bureaucracies everywhere, I reckon).  The next group of South African volunteers are coming in late January, so they gathered everyone involved to figure out how it's going to work.  There were four PCVs, a few staff, and about 20 language trainers.  We spent the greater part of the time reworking all the sessions they had laid out, making sure they fit into the lesson format that Peace Corps has adopted.  Here are the characteristics they wanted to be sure could be identified in every instance:
1) Performer
2) Performance
3) Standard
4) Condition
Performer is who is doing the learning, the performance is where the learning takes place, the condition is when, and the standard is how learning is measured. In my opinion, it's a cumbersome and unnecessarily vague format, but that's not what really tripped us up. We spent the better part of a day trying to get everyone to understand the format, and another day arguing back and forth as to how the format should be applied, to no obvious benefit.  Neither I nor most of the language trainers had much to add, and what we did was swamped by the endless bickering, and the actual content of the sessions was often forgotten while trying to jam things into the format.  It seemed like the kind of task that should be accomplished by one or two people without such discussion.  The most important part of the training—who is going to do what session when—got pushed all the way to the end, and one of the other volunteers had to spend an extra day cleaning up the mess into a workable draft schedule.

Oddly enough, this kind of stuff is one of the reasons I did training in the first place.  Nearly everything Peace Corps does here is encrusted with a Byzantine layer of obscure bureaucratic language that tends to suffocate whatever it surrounds.  It's almost a problem of writing.  I'm always reminded of Orwell's Politics and the English Language, which for its faults is still razor-sharp on this issue:
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.
My desire is to break away the obscurities surrounding these sessions to reveal their cores.  Take the problem of communicating in the village.  The American style of communication is not at all appropriate there, and one needs to be sensitive and intelligent to get a good bead on people's thoughts.  Peace Corps' idea is to put this under the umbrella of "Appreciative Inquiry," which has the following characteristics (just to give you a flavor):
Just exactly the kind of abstract meaningless sloganeering Orwell was talking about. We'll see how successful I can be—at the training for SA22, there were something like 15 PCVs, for SA23 there are only five, so I will be doing a great number of sessions. Those poor suckers.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Turns out you can't edit comments. Sorry about that. Let's try again.

    You're a better man than I. I shivered with disgust thinking about the week you just went through. And don't be so hard on yourself. I am confident your sessions will be first class. Your aversion to b.s. will inject some useful information into training.

  3. Let's hope so. I'll be the first volunteer that bunch lays eyes on; I better be on my best behavior.