Sunday, January 5, 2020

West and [Middle] East – Academic meeting

Although it was quite a few years ago, I still remember my feelings as an 18-year-old freshman at UC Santa Cruz on the first day of college, physically registering for classes (pre-Internet days). I felt fear and great uncertainty as I circulated among my fellow new students, all mostly entirely white and 18 years old and having just completed high school.  Our accumulated non-academic life experience and self-confidence was rather close to absolute zero even if we tried to hide this lack. In terms of religion, most were Christian with a small sprinkling of Jews and Muslims.  The largest minorities were Afro-Americans (to use the current term) and Asians, whose cultural norms were not that different from the other students. In other words, our lecturers looked on a rather homogenous group of students in terms of age and cultural background.

I have been teaching English at the Braude College of Engineering in Karmiel in the Galilee in Israel, for over 25 years now. The college, currently with some 5,500 students enrolled in its various programs, is a second-tier engineering college, behind the Technion, which is the MIT or Cal Tech of Israel, and offers first and second degrees in various disciplines, including mechanical and electronic engineering as well as biotechnology, programming and industrial management. The contrast with my undergraduate experience as I observe and communicate with my students is quite striking in all aspects.

First of all, the ages of my students range from 18 to 28. The youngest are Arabs from the surrounding villages, who are not required to serve in the army or do national service and, in many cases, are encouraged to get a degree before starting to work. The oldest are those that served in the army, often both the mandatory period and sometimes an additional period as “regular army, often followed by a trip to a distant land to clean their heads and preparatory studies of a year or more to improve their grades to be accepted at the college. Moreover, most have had significant life experiences, including combat service, officer training, setting up businesses and enriching trips abroad. They are far from innocent and, in many ways, much more knowledgeable than me.

In terms of religion, since the college is in the Galilee, students may be Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Catholic, Greek orthodox, Russian Orthodox or none of the above, as in the case of many Russians and their children. This means that the holiday calendar, as reflected by dates on which quizzes may not be given, is rather complicated.  Of course, during Ramadan, which lasts a month, many of my students have a hard time concentrating, especially if the holiday falls during hot weather, since many of the Muslim students neither eat nor drink during the day.

Beyond that, the behavior norms of Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, are quite different from the Jews. While latter tend to be direct and clear in expressing their understanding, agreement or lack thereof, Arab mentality, especially among the female students, is much more understated. They tend to avoid expressing their true state of comprehension or unhappiness. The true situation is often only discovered during testing as reflected by the actual results.

Given the age of most of the students and their understandable desire to gain economic independence, they are very directed in their studies.  Engineering studies are quite demanding and difficult, often involving more than 20-30 hours a week just of class time, not to mention homework. Since their goal is clear, most of my students accept the heavy burden of study in good cheer.

This heterogeneity has a strong effect on the whole style of teaching. Israeli college lecturers can be subject experts and even mentors but not parental figures. To be effective, it is necessary to be sensitive and flexible in approaching students. Some need direct challenges and questions while others have to be handled more indirectly in a more non-threatening manner. In terms of authority, given the self-confidence and experience of the students, teachers must show respect but clearly exercise authority to maintain “possession” of the class. Otherwise, they simply lose the students, who do not hesitate to complain about any improper aspect to the course coordinator or department head. By the nature of group dynamics, this fine line between authority and respect differs for each group of students, often depending on the ethnic mix of students. Thus, Israeli college lecturers, to an even larger degree than for most teachers in the country, not only have to be experts in their subject matter but also strong personalities to successfully lead a class.

Kipling wrote that East and West will never meet. It is clear that college teaching in this nook of the Middle East and in the United States, I imagine even today, are extremely different despite the similarities in the subject matter taught. I can say that, after many years of teaching, the aspect I most enjoy of this profession is my interaction with my students, who not only give me hope for the future but also personally enrich me with their insights and understanding.

1 comment:

  1. A quite precise description of this rich and challenging teaching/learning reality. Thanks, Stephen.