“I try to make it as easy as possible: there’s no registration, I don’t take names, there’s no charge, so people just come when they want to and leave when they want to,” explained Brian Zack ‘72, who teaches an informal English class for non-native English speakers at various locations throughout campus.
The classes are co-sponsored by Friends of the Davis International Center, a group of volunteers who support the International Center to enhance intercultural understanding. The classes are designed to be accessible to all.
Zack, who is also a tutor in the Group English Conversation Program, another effort of the same group of volunteers, felt that University classes open to community audit were somewhat restrictive.
“I just wanted to make it open because one of my favorite activities is auditing classes at the University, and I know that they have restricted the number of people allowed from the community because there is just not enough space,” said Zack. “But I wanted to make mine as open as possible to people, both in the University and in the surrounding community.”
The class focuses on vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, idioms, and reading. During the school year, there are an average of 55 students each session. “I don’t keep track [of the students],” noted Zack. “Many of them have become friends...some just come in and out.”
Zack noted that his students are from diverse backgrounds.
“We actually get relatively few people who are themselves grad students, but we do get a fair number of grad spouses, a few postdocs, occasionally junior faculty, as well as people from the community,” said Zack. “We also get a lot of au pairs, actually, because a lot of them are not fluent,” referring to foreign individuals who help out with childcare and housework in exchange for room and board.
This diversity also extends to age, as, according to Zack, both old and young attend his classes.
“The au pairs are often high school or college age, and then people affiliated with the University can be anywhere from their twenties to their sixties and seventies,” said Zack. “Occasionally we get people who come here to retire and they hear about my classes, so it’s a very wide range.”
While he never intended to become an English teacher, Zack decided to try out teaching one of these sessions after seeing an ad from the Friends of the Davis International Center.
“I’ve always liked volunteering, and I wanted to do something,” said Zack, adding that he was co-director of the Student Volunteers Council during his time as an undergraduate. “From the time I started medical school until the time I retired, I was mostly focused on work and family, except towards the end I started doing more volunteer work, and realized how much I liked it,” he said.
Zack said that meeting people from around the world has been one of his favorite aspects of teaching the English classes. He has had students who come from all over Europe, as well as China, Japan, and even Mongolia.
“I love the interaction, and I feel good about providing something that I hope will be helpful to them,” said Zack. “Frankly, sometimes, I also think it’s nice for them to get to know an American in a positive way, [what] with everything else going on in our country and our politics right now.”
He recalled a memorable teaching experience with a postdoc in architecture. “I asked the guy what he did, and he said he was the architect for the Beijing Olympics,” said Zack.
Another student he taught mentioned that he had gotten the highest score in the Chinese math exam. “I said, ‘Oh the highest score in the University?’ and he said, ‘No, the highest score in China,’” said Zack.
Zack also spoke about how people in the community hear about his class. “It started with me just posting stuff on a bulletin board, but at this point, I think it’s about word of mouth more than anything else,” he explained. “If people are looking for English classes, they’ll naturally look on the International Center’s website and they’ll see all the classes,” Zack said.
Brian's informal English classes meet most Fridays on the University's campus, beginning at 9:15 a.m. and ending at noon.