But this year is different. Oh, so different. Here is some perspective for you; some thoughts on university that I wrote in 2005:
Fourth-year students are required to write what is called a thesis. In real life, this is a 40-page research paper, but papers are kept permanently in the English Department office, students have to defend it before a jury of 3 professors, and in general it is treated with utmost seriousness. It is the only research paper they’ve ever written. All year, every year, students explain to me that I shouldn’t give them homework because this year they have their thesis. The irony is that nearly all students do it all in the last month, in the time-honored tradition of procrastinating students world-wide.
Thesis students represent a huge learning curve for me. I am supposed to take only 9 or 10, but they argue and plead until I inevitably end up with 12 or 13. Everyone wants to have an American teacher as a supervisor; they always regret their decision when they begin to give me their work.
One student hands to me, the day before the deadline, 40 pages filled to the brim with spelling errors, misunderstandable syntax, and other horrors. Reading it is like trying to wade through half-set cement. I feel irresistible fatigue stealing over me after every paragraph, when I read things like: “The American revolution had done the born of the wrong hop that after the suppression of the treat, the slavery passed away by itself, for the sources of the traffic one time cut, the institution was intended to disappear naturally.”
I read sentences like this out to my husband, friends, children, whoever will listen to me; we try to figure them out. (Although by this point, my friends are beginning to avoid me. Tired of university stories himself, my husband develops the habit of walking rapidly from the room as soon as I begin “This student…”) One student wrote his paper on American slavery almost entirely in the present tense, as if this was something we were still facing.
I hand back pages dripping in the red ink of my corrections. He makes the corrections under protest—“after all, Teacher, no one is ever going to read it!”—and then gives me his new and improved version. He is shocked when I make more corrections, and calls to complain. He grumbles that the printer where he goes to have his work typed has doubled his prices—it used to be 200UM a page and now it is 300UM.
So I learn, quickly. When you accept a thesis student in October, explain to them their deadlines. Explain they have to do it at least twice, especially as their first versions are usually handwritten on unlined paper. And most important of all, get their phone numbers, as in spite of explanations, you will not see most of these people again until the last half of April.
Of course there are always exceptions. One student read a French translation of an American book and was so moved by it that he translated it back into English for the quotes in his thesis. This was one who met deadlines all the year. When I finally got him an English translation of the book, he was thrilled, and stood turning it over and over in his hands, his face split by a huge smile.
Students face a huge shortage of books. Our small bookstore, Oasis Books, is the only English bookstore and library in the entire country. There is a small library at the university, started during my 2nd year there by another American woman who has joined the faculty. Other than that, their sources are in French or Arabic, or downloaded from the internet. A major resource is previous thesis topics, which explains why every year people choose variations on the same topics. This is frustrating, though, as the quality of other undergraduate papers is iffy at best.
That was then; this is now:
I have somehow ended up with 16 thesis students. Since I’m not teaching at the University, this wouldn’t be so bad, except that I will be required to sit on 48 juries! I’m dreading this.
Most years there is one bright young man who gets me his introduction and first chapter before Christmas. But this year, a student calls me on the day of the Eid and tells me he’s ready to hand me in his first pages, asks where and when we can meet. This is the equivalent of calling your professor on Christmas Day to hand in your work early. Every week he’s finished something new. He makes my corrections with alacrity and eagerly hands in more work.
He’s not alone. I offer to give them a class on note-taking and am amazed at the number of serious young men who turn up, dressed in sharply-creased Western clothes or billowing white robes, who sit quietly and absorbed through my lecture. Every day, it seems, my phone rings with a request from one or a notice of more work finished from another. My folder of papers to grade is stuffed, and I no sooner hand things back then I’m handed more pages filled with cramped handwriting. It’s strange. Who are these serious students?
Part of it, of course, is that classes haven’t started yet. Technically the university starts in October, but this year Ramadan fell during October (since the Muslim calendar is lunar, the dates of the holidays change from year to year), so it didn’t seem worthwhile to open since life slows to a crawl during that month of daytime fasting. Then, there were the elections in November. Since if there are going to be riots, they will most likely start at the university, the powers-that-be opted to keep the campus closed and quell anything before it even started.
Finally, the day after elections, my friends showed up to teach their classes. They began well, but after about an hour were kicked out of their rooms. The students were on strike! The trouble-makers are not the English students, but storm over from the other faculties to close things down.
I’ve heard that there might be classes this week but I don’t know. Also, the December break is coming up—usually the last week of December and the 1st week of January, not necessarily to include Christmas Day except by coincidence. The campus will again be closed for presidential elections in March. My committed, intelligent and ambitious students have basically lost their entire senior year.