Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Getting ready for fall quarter

This weekend I finally got a piece of paper (not just spoken assurance) confirming that I will be teaching microbiology at Davis this fall. This means I’d better get cracking on the class. I should update my lectures, start gestating exams, and of course start working on this year’s haka.


A haka is a highly ritualized dance and chant in the New Zealand Maori tradition. Probably the most famous haka is the one performed by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, before each match:

The All Blacks Haka is intimidating, and it serves a purpose general to all hakas. It establishes a relationship, honors both members of the relationship, and clearly states the nature of the relationship. This haka, “Kapa o Pango,” concludes “Our dominance / our supremacy will triumph / and be placed on high! / Silver Fern! All Blacks! / Silver Fern! All Blacks!” The hand gestures emphasize the words, and the bulging eyes and extended tongues are to intimidate the opponent. Other hakas are gentler, with words and gestures that honor heroes or welcome guests.


Like the applause at the end of the quarter, the introductory haka is an academic tradition apparently unique to Davis. The origin of this tradition has to do with the unique circumstances of the university’s founding, and the surprising connection between central California and the South Pacific. It’s relatively well known that John Sutter, the Swiss √©migr√© who founded Sacramento, came to California after a sojourn in Hawaii, and brought many Hawaiians with him. Less widely known is the connection between Davis and New Zealand. In 1906, when the University of California “University Farm” was established in rural Yolo County, there was a scramble to find experienced faculty for a diversity of agricultural programs. In addition to a viticulturist from Alsace and a rice specialist from Punjab, one of the hires was an expert in sheep husbandry, R. W. MacLaren, from New Zealand. To start without the need to train helpers, MacLaren brought with him a dozen of his own from New Zealand, including eight Maori men and their families.


Tragically, MacLaren died after only three years in Davis; homesickness drove him to drink, and he succumbed to liver disease. Before his demise, as a result of his growing debility, his teaching duties had been assumed by his chief assistant, the Maori shepherd George Te Wainoare. Te Wainoare went on to teach at Davis for over a decade, establishing excellent practices in the California sheep industry.


Te Wainoare also established the tradition of greeting his new students every year with a haka. A 1910 letter from sophomore L. H. Teter describes how “before so much as saying hello, the professor danced and yelled at us like a demon, sticking his tongue out at us. Clyde [Deacon] started laughing, but Nibs [Robert Gibbons] seemed genuinely scared…Teywiner [sic] explained that this was his people’s way…” Te Wainoare’s was a beloved teacher who enjoyed warmly collegial relationships with the rest of the faculty. This, combined with the strong strong Maori influence at “the farm” (there were eight Maori families, and only nine students in the first graduating class), it is not surprising that other professors and their helpers started doing their own hakas. The haka was well established at Davis by the time Te Wainoare returned to New Zealand in 1926.


The haka has evolved over a century in California. Professors still write their own hakas, as I must do now for my introductory microbiology class, and the content of the haka is appropriate to the class. The haka is still generally performed in the Maori tongue, though they have been done in the native languages of foreign-born professors and even, it is rumored, in Latin. As a bow to modern times, I will use the campus translation service to arrive at a serviceable Maori rendition (as well as to find suitable Maori words for “bacteria” and “microscopic”).


Despite these changes, the haka still serves to establish the relationship between professor and student. Students expect (and appreciate) a good, creative haka vigorously executed by the professor and the TAs. In return, each incoming freshman class composes a haka. This haka is performed only once, by the entire class, in an extremely moving ceremony during their graduation exercises.


I still haven’t worked out this year’s Microbiology 102 haka, and the haka is (by tradition) never recorded nor is the Maori chant written down. However, here is the English for last year’s introductory biology haka. I have to say that when the TAs and I performed it, it made quite an impression.

O ye small fry!

You were big fish in your pond

But we are sharks, we are sharks!

With this red pen

Your answers will bleed, will bleed!

We are the sharks!

We drive you and push you,

You will be lost, you will be confused!

The test will come

You will shake, you will tremble!

Would you contend with us?

Be rigorous

Hit the books, hit the books!

Consider and think

Grow in wisdom, in wisdom!

Be rigorous!

Consider and think

Then see us eye to eye!

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