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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

When I started teaching

When I became familiar with the academic system in UK universities, I started to think of our own, and how Iraqi postgraduate environment doesn't really prepare its students to be academics, and qualified university teachers.

I started teaching in Al-Mustansiryah University few weeks after receiving my Master degree in English literature. I thought then that I was now qualified enough to manage a class of more than 50 students. 

I turned to be wrong. 

Yes, I was top student, and knew everything about my field, English literature. Yes, I read so many books about the subject and I could answer, even then when I just finished my master degree, any question about English literature. But, was I qualified then at the age of 25, with no actual teaching experience, to manage a class? No.

When I started teaching, I didn't have any training to develop presentation skills. I spent my life as a student, at the receiving end of the educational process. Although I studied in College of Education where I was supposed to graduate as English teacher, I was not interested to become one. I never liked any of the classes of learning psychology or methods of teaching which were supposed to help in developing the teacher in me (which was never been my dream job, rather my dad's!) While I always got top grades in literary subjects as well as Linguistics, I practically failed in those classes which teach students how to become teachers. Even in my final year in college, when every student was supposed to spend the second term in a school practicing teaching English, I spent only 20 days of actual teaching in the same high school I studied in couple of years ago. The disappointment and disillusionment at seeing the narrow-mindedness of those who were my teachers once and now my colleagues overshadowed my days there. I abhorred all the experience and considered those three weeks the worst in my adult life. No training was gained from those days I spent in school. 

The master program in Iraq lasts for two years: two terms of courses directly related to the major of the student, and one year for thesis writing. I was active student in subjects like poetry, novel, Shakespeare, and criticism. Again no training was provided for presentation, public speech or academic research in the proper sense. We didn't have the opportunity to participate in conferences or public seminars the way postgraduate students do in UK, where students can develop the skills needed for conducting a lecture. or write an academic essay with distinct voice of their own. We were always told to avoid that personal vision, and rely on what other critics say. Master students in Iraq basically are trained to be parrots of established critics whose views they copy in their theses which would eventually would be thrown away on library forgotten shelves. 

Because of the lack of senior professors qualified to supervise and teach in PhD programs, many disciplines have to accept master degree holders to teach, even if they are inexperienced like me when I started my job, regardless of the fact that I was qualified or not. 

I started teaching holding in my head a torch of idealism about the world nurtured by geeky reading habits, enhanced by the fact I was in all-girls college, and protected by my anti-social life style that limited my human contacts to my immediate family and few girls I knew in class. This idealism was blown away by the chaotic aftermath of 2003 war, the fact that it was a college for boys and girls (and I had no experience in dealing with so many boys), and the cultural environment of the university itself which was totally different from what I experienced in the University of Baghdad where I studied. 

It took me almost two or three academic years to overcome my disillusionment, to be gain footage in the teaching process, and to start thinking like a university teacher. Now as I reflect upon those early years, I wish I can apologize to all my students then whom I harshly marked their papers, probably killing their dreams of learning English, and crushing brutally crushing down their self-esteem.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Memory of Pain

The hardest thing in life is to have a good memory; very good memory, to remember even the tiniest details: the time, the colors, the faces, and even the smell. To have memories surrounding every moment of the present, and invade my subconscious in sleep, twist their beginnings and usurp their ends. It is hard to have memories, too many, and can't be controlled, and all are memories of pain. Memories of those moments when life ended as it used to be, emerging new from pain to produce only more.

I have been always envied for my good memory. It made me pass school without paying much effort. It was enough for me to look the lesson once to pass the dictation with full mark, to look at tables once and score the highest in math.

I don't just keep memories, I connect them too. My memory is in ever-lasting dynamic process of connecting the dots and producing new forms, new ideas, new realities. My dreams are not flashes of scenes I have experienced before. Deja vus are common when I am awake. My dreams are stories with beginnings and ends. I live their progress and feel the poignancy coming with them. My memory has been always my asset, but also my torment.

In my last night in Baghdad, while all my sisters came to say goodbye, one of them told me that she feared that even in London I wouldn't how to be happy, that I failed to see the blessings surrounding me, and failed to recognize how my life was going ahead. I wished I could explain.

I have lived, experienced, life different from them. While they put their heads to sleep, have a dream once a week or twice, wake to remember only flashes, I spend the longest moments while my head on the pillow, chasing sleep. When finally it happens, my memories chase me, bring forth what I tried to ignore all the day, formulate a story I have lived before and remind me of people I tried my best to eliminate them from my life. All my sins I see them present in my subconscious, all the pain I have lived I relive it again.

ِThe people I wronged, intentionally and unintentionally, the people who hurt me, even if they don't know about it; all are present when I am awake and in my dreams. Is there worse hell waiting for me than my own memory?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First Year Teaching in the Department of English

For the last few weeks, I have been dreaming of visiting and meeting the people I knew in the department of English, where I had my first job in Baghdad after having MA in English. 

In the Al-Mustansiriyah University, I started my academic career thirteen years ago. I was excited when the head of the department Dr. Suasen agreed to give the chance to teach though I had just finished my MA studies and had no prior experience of teaching. But, after Dr. Al-Wasiti "tested" my ability to explain a sonnet, he told her to let teach history of English literature to the third-year class after the travel of the class teacher. 

My first lecture was with the evening classes, where students were mostly people who lost the chance to enroll in regular classes and now compensating for the time lost. I remember walking in Section B where there were more than 50 students who all looked my age or much older. I was barely 25. 

After greeting the shocked audience at the short person who had just walked in and climbed the stage, I informed them of my name and that I would be their lecturer for this academic year. No one said anything. Silence was the only thing heard in the class. To break the awkward moment, I immediately started the lecture with historical survey of the distinguished periods of English literature. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was dry, but stopping for a breath was not an option. I had to go on to avoid awkwardness. When finally, I exhausted myself, I paused for a moment and asked, "any questions?"

One lady, who looked couple of years older than me. She looked more confident than her lecturer at that moment, asked me "Sorry Miss, but can I ask how old are you?" 

She caught me off guard. What my age had to do with it? I restrained my annoyance and answered her, "almost 25, I was born in 1978". There was humming noise in the class, and I could see some shocked looks, some ridiculing smiles. A guy then talked "I am the youngest of the class and I was born in 1972!" The lady then said "you are younger than our youngest student here!" I didn't know how to take that: to consider it a compliment that I was younger than all and yet I already had a MA and teaching in the university, or to consider it a rejection on the students part to be taught by someone younger than them, or they are just tying to tell me I am too young to be qualified! 

In that moment when I could still here my heart beats, and feel my face burning, I managed to tell  them that I was the lecturer and they had to deal with it. 

When in the next day I started with the morning class, things were not any better. Students were still close to my age, and they were used to have teachers many years older than them. Attendance in the morning classes was minimum to less than 10 students in a class of 60. The only way to make them take me and my class seriously was to set an exam date. 

During the exam, I was overwhelmed by the number of students in every section. Third year morning class was of more than 150 students, of whom I had met only 20 or so. The same number of students in the evening classes, but I met more as evening classes were little more serious about their studies than the morning ones. 

The exam seemed to be hard for students who never attended a class; many didn't know about the exam. I had many empty exam sheets that were easy to mark. But that was not the shocking thing. What started me was the English of many students who tried answering the questions with many misspelled words, incorrect grammar that almost all sentences (if it was appropriate to call those as such!) made no sense to me. I had to fail them. 

When they saw their marked papers, a student approached my desk and slammed his exam paper hard on the old piece of wood and told me: "you are....not mercy!" I didn't know then whether to get angry for being impolite or to laugh at this incorrect remark! I decided to act calm. I looked at his paper and saw my big red cross all over his answer, giving him 3 out of 10, which was the highest mark I gave to couple of other students. I told him that, but he was still looking at me with fury. I asked him to go back to his seat and this was not the way to talk to his teacher. Then I corrected his remark: "I am either "have no mercy" or "I am not merciful"! 

I did that to prove my point that their level of English was disappointing, that their "English" made no sense and what I made of the content of their answers told me that they were not listening to my lectures at all. They told me I was fast and they wanted handouts for the lecture. I was shocked again: didn't they have a textbook? didn't I present the information in the textbook? didn't I explain all the information to them? but this was not the way they used to in that department. One of them explained to me how the process of teaching and learning was done in literature subjects:

Be it a novel, drama or poetry class, the teacher produces handout simple English, (and sometimes incorrect!) in which she/he writes all the important points: character description, theme, stanza or quotation paraphrases. In the exam, students learn by heart the content of these handouts, then the questions come directly from the contents they have memorized which they just reproduce on the exam paper. If a student is good at memorizing long pieces of writing, they will pass with full mark, if they are not, they fail and labeled as "bad students". If a student had the time to devote many hours memorizing these handouts, they will pass, if they have jobs, if they can't force themselves to memorize words they don't understand, then they will fail. It is not expected, not actually required, that a student writes in their own words anything! Since an answer to any question in literature tend to be essay long, it is not expected that the students will reproduce the content with such accuracy. It will suffice to find the key words there regardless of the grammatical structure. The top student is unable to write few lines in "correct" English. 

(But then how could they when their teachers were not capable of doing so? a fact I discovered later to add to my misery in that department!) 

After learning the shocking facts of the process of teaching and learning in the department of English, it was not surprising that I was the most hated teacher because I refused to make things simple by giving handouts, because I insisted that students read The Norton Anthology, which explains the history of English in a level of English students are not used to, and because I asked them to use their own English!! 

By the end of my first year in the department, I realized that the higher education after 2003 was collapsing. It was not the students, but the instructors as well. I wished I could find a better choice, but unfortunately I was stuck in that department for the next 12 years, and only in 2015 I managed to leave with the wish never to teach there again!