The start of the school year at the university is always a bit fluid, but this year even more so than usual. I well remember my first year there. It was my introduction to the concept of inexact calendars. Of having a holiday on a Monday so taking the rest of the week off. Of closing down for nearly a month because a war between 2 countries thousands of miles away was imminent. Of changing the deadline for thesis papers 3 times and then changing it a fourth time because one student, who had very vocal and well-connected parents, hadn’t finished quite yet. Of running things partly on the Western calendar and partly on the Muslim calendar, which is lunar, so that I never knew when the holidays would be until the day before or maybe even the morning of.

The University of Nouakchott doesn’t operate on a semester or trimester system, but instead offers courses for a year. All students in the same year take the same courses, and if you fail, you repeat the entire year. This means class size runs from about 100+ for fourth year to 400+ for first year. It’s a cumbersome and unwieldy system, but requests for change are met with blank stares. It gives freshness to the expression “like talking to a brick wall.”

I used to teach writing to the 4th year English students, but I quit last year. Just teaching that one class, to 113 students, took an enormous amount of emotional energy. The sheer amount of grading, especially given that these are all non-native speakers, plus the rudeness of many of the young men, and the unyielding bulk of an administration who wanted me to base the entire year’s work of a writing class on one final exam—all combined to make it just not worth it to me, in spite of the high prestige and pay of just under $2/hour. I already teach two ESL classes plus do a weekly conversation group at Oasis Books, not to mention my radical notion of spending a bit of time on a daily basis with my husband and kids.  So last year I hit on a brilliant plan—I would continue to supervise students for their memoire, their undergraduate thesis, which is like a 40-page research paper that has to be defended orally, but I wouldn’t actually teach a class. The administration is more than happy to allow me to do this. It’s a tremendous help to the other overworked professors, and allows me to still feel connected, to still teach writing and literature (which I love), while at the same time giving me a manageable amount of students and lowering my stress level.

I had 15 of them last year, 12 young men and 3 young women. All of them managed to complete their papers, all of them passed (even Romeo, for long-term readers of this blog, the one who copied pages about wedding planning directly off the internet and inserted them without change into his paper on Romeo & Juliet—at least until I saw that he’d done that).

Classes haven’t started yet. First of all, it’s Ramadan, and it’s silly to start classes when hardly any of the students or faculty will show up, right? Ramadan ends about the 3rd week of October, but then in November we have elections coming up. We have a lot of elections this year. On Aug. 3, 2005, there was a coup d’etat here, but the new leaders promised democratic elections within two years and also promised that they wouldn’t run themselves. So far, so good; they are keeping their word. However, with more elections scheduled for the spring, I don’t envy the professors—no doubt classes will be cancelled for another month or so then.

There are 2 reasons not to start classes at the university before or during election time. First, many of the professors are involved in politics, and are too busy campaigning to come to class. Second, if there are going to be riots and unrest, they usually start at the university, so it tends to get closed down pro-actively.

The serious students are taking advantage of this time to start their thesis papers. They phone me; “When can I see you? I have begun my outline.” They email me; “Dear bright teacher, I am with great felicity to ask you to be my supervisor for the next year. actually i have chosen some topics,you can give me your suggestions about them,but before that i  would like to give me your answers in a jiffy before Thursday…If you have some topics which have sac racy references you are welcome. Thank you very much indeed. I am thirsty to receive the answers.”

I love this time of year. Everything is fresh and new. The students are so grateful, so respectful, so excited to start. We are months away from the 11 p.m. phone calls demanding that I return, in the morning, with corrections, the 40 pages that were just given me. I’m excited too. I mostly get students doing literary topics, and no matter how familiar I am with the work they’ve chosen to write about, I always re-read it so that it’s fresh in my mind and I can make better correlations and offer better suggestions. Last year, I had a lot of Victorian literature. This year is more varied—I’m re-reading Chaucer (which ought to be a challenge for my student), To Kill A Mockingbird, Wordsworth and Shelley, and Dickens. Another student has vaguely chosen “Elizabethan literature” so I expect I’ll get more Shakespeare—finding sources here is incredibly hard, so there’s not much choice. I had a student last year who wanted to do John Donne and had to give up and go with Macbeth. And there’s more to come—I only have 5 students so far and I’m expecting up to 15, and throughout the year the disorganized will come and plead for me to supervise them. 


On a personal note: We’ve been getting good water and I am making great inroads in the laundry pile. Although the weather’s been quite hot (97 today), there are cool breezes and the nights are pleasant. The electricity’s been staying on and the internet is even working—slowly, but I’m catching up on my reading while I wait for pages to open. I’m feeling very spoiled…

I spoke too soon. Now it won’t let me post this