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!