Thursday, December 12, 2013

Teaching at Bunda College

Eric is giving two classes now in R statistics, and I am guest lecturing in the Crop Ecology class.  Not that I am such an expert on Malawian agroecosystems; I'm doing the basics like nutrient cycling, food webs, and natural selection.   The class is run by Dr. Wezi Mhango, who Eric had met previously in his Lynch lab projects.  (She did her Ph.D. at Michigan State under the first post-doc of Jonathan Lynch, Eric's Ph.D. and post-doc advisor.  Eric says that makes them academic cousins, or something.)

I told Wezi I didn't want to be "stepping on her toes" but she says she's glad of the help.  In the last two years, the size of the incoming class has been at least twice what it usually was in the past.  However, the size of the faculty has stayed the same.  So the professors are suddenly seeing class sizes double, and don't seem inclined to turn down help when a stray ecology professor knocks on the door asking to work for free.  Another professor told us that the class size increases can be traced back to the previous president of Malawi, who was very determined to expand and improve education.  However, education does not seem to be as high a priority for the current president, so now the college is dealing with increased numbers but isn't seeing the money coming from the government that is needed to deal with it adequately.

Campus has a lot of beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, though some people fear that these will be lost as the college must expand its classroom space to keep up with student numbers. 
When we ate with the Maliros on Saturday, we asked their son Prov how things are going.  He's a first-year student in agricultural engineering.  He's in some really big classes which are held in the marquee (the big white tent that they use since they're short of classroom space).  He says it gets pretty hot in there, with several hundred students packed in.  He says it's a fairly regular occurrence to have students faint from the heat.  Last week a girl fainted and fell into a fan - sounded like she might have lost a finger. 

I have found the students to be very motivated; they pay attention in class, copy down every word on my teaching slides, and respond to the questions I ask.  You get the impression that many of them are not taking the chance of a college education for granted.  True, there are those who skip class - students are students no matter where you are, I guess!

On the other hand, there are some problems here that I haven't encountered in the US.  The class schedule has just undergone what I hope is the last change, two weeks after it started.  (Changing the schedule of a course midstream don't seem to be as difficult as you might think. All the students in a given major and year take all the same classes, so if the new time works for one student it works for them all. In fact, if you fail one class you have to repeat the whole year's schedule!)  Crop Ecology meets three times a week, at a different hour and in a different place every time.  The classroom assigned for Thursday is too small so Moses recommended that I just strike  out with the class to find a larger room that didn't seem to be in use.   I haven't been that bold yet.

Things like that can lead to trouble: yesterday Eric found the room he thought he was supposed to use already occupied by another class, so he had to find something else at the last minute.  But while Eric felt a little frazzled by that whole thing, his students didn't seem fazed at all - someone chalked a note on the sidewalk outside the first room announcing the new room, and off they went.

Lecturing here doesn't worry me a bit - it's getting ready to start.  Will I be in the right place at the right time?  Will I be in the right place at the right time but still find another class has settled there?  Will the students find chairs?  Will there be a projector available?   If I find a projector, will it work?  (Some of the department projectors have very touchy cables, and one of them doesn't transmit any red so the colors are mangled.)   Will the electricity go off?  So far I've been lucky there  - no power outages while I'm teaching.  I'm too new to know which classrooms are on the generator and which aren't.  I always come with chalk and written notes just in case.

If I want chalk, I have to bring it with me from the department office - nobody leaves it in the classroom because it will disappear.  Another thing you'll never find in a classroom is enough chairs.  So it's hard to get started on time because for the first five or ten minutes the students who have been wandering around looking for chairs are straggling in with whatever they've found to sit on.  Again, this doesn't seem to faze the students at all.

The written exercise I assigned a couple Fridays ago was done in groups.  Normally when I do this I circulate among the groups to monitor how things are going.  This doesn't work very well when the groups are all speaking Chichewa!  I don't know how they manage to discuss the assignment in one language and write it down in another, but they do.  English is the official language of instruction in any level beyond primary, so at least I didn't have to grade any Chichewa papers!

Another difference here is the scarcity of textbooks.  There are some in the library but tend to be few and outdated.   I'm planning to leave my ecology text here - some students asked me if I could leave it at the library for them to look at.  When Eric went to the library yesterday to leave the books he brought on plant roots and on using R, the librarian told him their acquisition budget is about $7000 a year - not much, when you consider the price of technical books and texts, as well as the fact that anything they buy has to be shipped in from out of the country.  It made me think of all the textbooks sent by publishing companies as free samples to professors in the US, many of which never get used.

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