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Moving usually means eating out a lot. One day last week I was sitting outside our favorite fast-food place, waiting for them to cook our order and wrap it in tinfoil, when I saw one of my students. Lamine is a serious young man; head of the English Cultural Club, president of his class, usually wearing a suit and tie. “I was just about to call you!” he greeted me. “I wanted to invite you to the final ceremony of the English Cultural Club.” He patted a bundle under his arm. “You will be receiving a reward.”

Reward or award? And I challenge you to explain the difference between the two to an 11-year-old (gulp—12 year old, that is—his birthday was last week and we didn’t celebrate at all!) without resorting to your dictionary, which is somewhere in one of those boxes. Everything I could come up with could be applied to both words—something you earn, a thank you, recognition, a response to your hard work, a monetary prize.

So Friday evening, I showered and changed and left my family still struggling with yet another load to moved. (How can one family have accumulated so much stuff? Especially since it’s only 3 years since the last big move/culling?) I caught a taxi to the University, worried since I was already 15 minutes late. I needn’t have been. There was no sign of anything starting when I arrived and was shown to the second row of chairs. I settled in next to Mr. B and chatted with the linguistics professor, on my other side.

Mrs. B called at 6. She’d been at the University since 8 a.m., giving oral exams non-stop all day. “You’re not late yet,” we assured her. Things didn’t get started till just before 7:00, when a local singer took the stage to slide her voice through the scales of Mauritanian music. She was a favorite with the crowd; her face beaming, swaying in her paisley-patterned muluffa, encouraging people to clap and dance. Her two young daughters sang with her; they looked to be about 9 and 11, but already had stage presence and were comfortable with mikes and long cords. The local media was there, and I was amused at how the cameraman got up on stage with her and put the camera literally right in her face, the light shining in her eyes. She was unperturbed—perhaps this is normal?—and just kept on singing.

Then came the long, interminable speeches. The event was held partly in honour of a visiting group of 16 Study Abroad students from Delaware State University, where the head of the English Department is Mauritanian. At one point, all the teachers had to join all the visiting students on the platform to be photographed. Even though I am technically not a teacher this year, I didn’t protest too much when the linguistics professor took my hand to accompany her onto the stage. I just went on up and hid in the back row, which meant that even though I was wearing my highest heels, I wouldn’t be visible. I knew if I stayed in my seat, they’d call my name over the sound system and then I’d have to be in the front row. Often not making a fuss about wanting to stay out of the limelight is the surest way to do so. Sure enough, 2 assistant teachers who didn’t go up immediately were politely requested to join the group. I smirked happily from my place in the back row, and declined any requests to move forward to where I could actually be seen by the cameras. I don’t like being photographed, and the whole evening was one of students coming up with cell phones and me having to smile graciously, knowing how washed-out and plump these quality cameras make me look. (Or maybe they just emphasize how I really look, which is what I suspect, which is why I hate being photographed)

After we all trooped back to our seats, it was time to give out the awards. An award was given to the English Department, and another to the US Embassy for their support. Then it was my turn. I was called up, and one of my students beamed at me and handed me my plaque. It’s a typical ornate Mauritanian frame, made of thick black wood with hammered silver and brass round it. The sheet of official paper inside doesn’t quite fit the frame. In big letters at the top it says: “Rewarding.” Then it says “The English Cultural Club: Politeness—Ability—Success” which is their new motto this year. Then: “The members of the English Cultural Club are delighted to offer this humble present to their faithful teacher (Mrs. PlanetNomad) for her help, expertise, and invaluable time she invested to contribute develop the level of English students.” It is signed by both Lamine, as head of the Club, and the Department head. I hadn’t prepared a speech of course, but I did take the mike and say, “I will never forget my time at the University of Nouakchott.” And this is true. In fact, I want to write a book about it all.

Afterwards, I was invited to a dinner with all the visiting students. It started at 9:30 but we didn’t really eat until about 11 or so, and it ended just before midnight. I had a fun time chatting with Mrs. B and the linguistics professor. We talked shop, about the university, about various students and professors, about some research the linguistics professor is doing on her native tongue Hassiniya, and how it’s beginning to disappear, swamped under a tide of satellite TV in Arabic and French, with contributions from Peace Corps volunteers teaching English in the village high schools.

When I got home, I was exhausted. Donn and the kids were asleep. But I’m still not entirely finished with thesis students; they need to show me they’ve made corrections and changes demanded by their juries so they call me at all hours. “Can I come right now? Where are you?” they say. Soon, soon.

[It’s good to be back. Our internet has been down since Saturday—5 days. I don’t have time to get caught up with all my blog reading, but I’ll be trying to do so in the next few days between packing.]

It’s official—no more thesis juries. I finished the last one today, and then walked in disgust off the university campus—maybe forever! My closure was completed for me. But I’ll come back to that.

Today was an interesting day. I arrived on campus shortly after 9 a.m., which was our official starting time, but hey, it’s Africa. I was prepared for 6 juries; 3 of them my students (i.e. I’m their supervisor). My fellow jury members were an American couple, both English professors. We sat at student desks in the dim, tiny library, which didn’t even exist until this couple arrived on campus 4 years ago and basically created it themselves. Behind us, an AC creaked to life; its battered flap protesting as it blasted us with cool air. The students brought us bottles of water, juice, milk and pop, arranged plates of cookies and pastries on small plastic plates. We settled in and called the first woman.

Here’s a sampling of today’s juries:

· Student #1 had chosen to do her thesis on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also called Female Circumcision. She had linked it to a literary theme; one of Ngugi’s novels has it as a central issue. But her personal opinion blazed out through her pages. Afterwards, as we chatted more informally, she revealed that she’s been fighting her parents on this issue for years. Circumcised at age 5, she tells her father in no uncertain terms that she resents it, and she has fought to protect her younger sisters from this practice. She thought she was winning; her youngest sister is 7 and was still intact. She left her village in the south to come to Nouakchott for her last year of university, and when she was gone, her mother had her sister circumcised. Until today, I didn’t even know it was practiced here in Mauritania. I had imagined it to be an issue only in Eastern Africa. I was wrong—apparently it is widespread even throughout West Africa, and she had statistics for how very common it is amongst all the ethnic groups right here. She is discouraged about how slowly things are changing. I tell her; maybe it won’t change until your generation become parents, but I’m sure it will. Don’t give up, we urge her.

· Another student had opted for the Changing Role of Women in America. Her thesis was not well written; far from it. ‘At least,’ I groaned at my fellow jury members, ‘it’s not plagiarized!’ It was practically unreadable. I was prepared to be angry at her. Then I met her. She comes from a very traditional tribe and a very traditional family. She has 3 younger sisters, all married, but she has fought and fought her parents to be allowed to stay in school. Her tribe, she tells me, typically takes girls out of school after Grade 6. She wanted to become a doctor, but her parents would not allow her to study outside of the country, and Mauritania has no medical school. ‘What will you do now,’ I ask her, as Mauritania has no options for post-graduate work either. She sighs; she doesn’t know. She’d like to become a teacher, but that necessitates a year spent in another town, in the interior, and her parents wouldn’t allow that. But today she’s happy to have completed her thesis, and the future feels bright. I fear for her determination, but I know that no matter what happens in her life, her own daughters will face a very different future than the one she faces today.

Her mother has come up the school; maybe to support her daughter, but maybe also to see what her professors are like. We shake hands. This woman is so young; she is probably close to my age, which makes me depressed at first. But then, she was probably only about 13 when she had her first child, this stubbornly-unmarried and dedicated student who is now taking my picture on her cell-phone camera and asking for my email address so we can stay in touch.

· The fifth student of the day was one of my supervisees. (is that the right word?) A serious and contemplative young man, he struggles with a stutter, which when added to a foreign language can make things complicated. He had obviously spent a lot of time practicing his defense, which was delivered with agonizing slowness but very little stutter. His topic was a linguistic one, about how children acquire language and the obstacles against language acquisition like poverty, war and refugee status, etc. Later, one of my colleagues asked him his opinion about the Talibe boys, those boys who are sent away from home into the charge of the imams, who spend their days begging in the streets and their nights memorizing the Qu’ran in a language they don’t understand, who cluster on the streets corners and at intersections, fighting each other, opening their puppy-dog-brown eyes wide to plead for coins from passersby. With me, they practice their 2 or 3 words of French. The student, who is from the same ethnic group, lights up at this question—his stutter is a little worse, but the words tumble eagerly from his tongue. He tells us he interviewed many of them. “They can’t even speak their own language well,” he says, because of a lack of adult interaction. Some are 15, 18, years old (he says 80 but we understand him) and have never been to school; they enter the system at age 4 or 5. “I asked them if they wanted to go to school and they said YES,” he tells us, practically pounding on the desk. He wants to become a linguist and help children. I hope he does. He’s already joined the Lions Club.

By this point, I was yawning my head off (I’ve been staying up till 2 a.m. most nights and spending my days in that tiny library. “Don’t go!” the kids say every morning) but at the same time feeling very warm and fuzzy and inspired, and a little sad at the thought that soon I’d be leaving these students, who fight against such incredible odds and who have stories such as I, from my privileged Western background, can hardly understand.

There was one jury left. The student was Tunisian; his supervisor a Mauritanian professor. Mr B left; Mrs B and I waited for the Mauritanian man to come. We finally managed to get him on the phone. “I’m sorry; I’m busy,” he told us. “I can’t come. We’ll have to reschedule.” WHAT? Something in me snapped. Here I am, staying up till 2 a.m. reading papers, not seeing my kids on their vacation, not helping my husband with packing, stressing because we are MOVING OUT OF OUR HOUSE in 3 days and I haven’t had time to do anything about it. (Note: we don’t leave in 3 days; we’ll stay at a friend’s) My colleagues have similar tales of great stress. And yet, we were all here, on time, every day. Mr. B and I were on all the same juries this year; 32 of them. This professor had only the one.

He tried to tell me he didn’t know he was scheduled, but the words were hollow; we both knew he was lying. I was furious. I told him, “I can’t reschedule. If you don’t come, you’ll have to find someone else.” I was really angry, and it was evident to all. “I’m sorry,” he said again, but you could tell how empty the words were to him. I was still angry with him when I walked off that campus and caught a taxi home. I’m still angry with him now, although the strength of the emotion has dissipated into tiredness and resignation.

I have written of students who obviously don’t care; who copy and paste their work direct from books and internet sites. But this is another major problem at the university—teachers who don’t care. The professor of grammar shows up twice in an academic year; once for the mid-term and once for the final. He’s been doing this for years and years. And yet he receives his pay check, just like my American colleagues do, who are pathetically overworked. (Mrs B had over 900 essay exams to grade this year) Teachers blatantly work other jobs and don’t come to class. I vividly remember one day in late March, when another professor showed up and said that he was supposed to be using my room. He was supposed to have started teaching his class in October, as I had, but this was the first time he’d shown up.

Not all are like this, but the majority are. I was the only non-Mauritanian teacher my first year there, and also the only one who showed up with any consistency. My students didn’t know what to do with me at first. Now, there are 2 other Mauritanian teachers who are dedicated and hard-working, plus the American couple and a Canadian teacher. Things are improving, but there’s still such a long ways to go.

I was so optimistic with those two students this morning, but sometimes it’s hard to maintain, especially with a lack of sleep. Anyway, for better or for worse, I’m done with juries.

My two favorite sentences so far:

“The deceased were sentenced to external paradise or hell, and they were excellent in writing novels.”

“It is a novel which burns with passion and tension, with a fire so strongly flamed that in every word and every sentence one can almost hear or smell the burning of the author’s own flesh.”

Yes, I’m barely treading water here in the deluge of thesis papers that have swamped my living room. 33 juries to go, and the department head called me yesterday and changed the dates from July 4-6 to July 1-4, just to keep it interesting. Oh yeah. Bring in on. And yes, they did want me to show up for juries at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and yes, I told them no way on a Sunday. They will suck your blood if you let them.

So I need to go read papers. Right now I’m online googling for plagiarism, which is this great new way to find out if they copied directly off the internet. You type the phrase, with quotes around it, into google search and see what turns up. So fun! We professor-types really know how to live it up. Later, we’re going to drink coffee late at night and argue about spelling. Don’t envy me because I know how to party.

In honor of my favorite plagiarist of all time, the student I nicknamed “Romeo”, I’m rerunning a post I wrote last spring (in April 2006).

I am rereading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. I enjoy this book, which is an odd mixture of memoir and literary criticism, among other reasons because it reminds me a little of my own life. Don’t get me wrong. Life in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is very different to life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We enjoy much more freedom here; for example, it is not the law for women to veil, although all Mauritanians do because it is their culture. Mauritanian women don’t fit many Western stereotypes of Muslim women—they drive cars, own businesses, work in the government. But I see many similarities in our students.

Unlike Nafisi, I don’t teach literature. I taught Writing to the 4th-year English students at the University of Nouakchott for 3 years, but this year I’m only supervising 15 thesis students. To better understand the quality of Mauritania’s only university, instead of “thesis” you should think of it as a 40-pg research paper that has to be defended orally. And even though I don’t teach literature (it’s not that they haven’t asked me), because of my background in lit most of my students are doing literary topics.

Papers are due April 30, which is soon. (In fact, I’m not really blogging right now—I’m correcting papers) In the time-honored tradition of students around the world, the procrastinators are only now getting serious. One of my students chose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; perhaps the most famous love story in English history. About a week ago, he flung the beginning to his introduction on my desk one evening, and left. Reading his work later, I was startled to learn that the fault of the whole tragedy lies in the person of Juliet, instead of in circumstance, chance, and the pointless feud between the families Montague and Capulet. No, according to my student, Juliet was a corrupt woman who had no business marrying someone of whom her family didn’t approve. She should have recognized that, as a member of the weaker sex, she couldn’t possibly go against her father and expect to succeed. As a result, she basically killed Romeo.

Now before you spew your coffee all over your keyboard (ick!), let me explain a little about marriage in this country. First of all, Juliet’s age (14) wouldn’t be a problem. That’s a good age for a woman’s first marriage. This is changing, of course, but in the villages and certain areas of the city, it’s still the norm. Her husband, however, would typically be about 35—it takes a lot of money to get married. Secondly, although women are given the right to refuse a marriage to a specific person, they can’t just go out and marry anyone they choose. Marriages take place within families, extended families, tribes—but not beyond that. Muslim men can marry Western women, but Muslim women can’t marry Western men. Their families simply would not allow that.

But, I argued with my student, if you are going to say this about Juliet, wasn’t it equally Romeo’s fault? No, he said. Juliet was a corrupt woman. Romeo was good, he killed Juliet’s cousin in the feud, he was swayed by this evil woman. He was innocent.

I explained that from Shakespeare’s point of view, the family feud wasn’t a good thing that must be upheld. Instead, love, forgiveness, unity, peace were ideals. The tragedy lies in the fact that through their marriage and happiness, the feud could have been ended, once and for all, and this pointless killing stopped. Oh! he said. This was obviously a new idea. In the second (typed!) version of his paper, he has changed to my point of view. I don’t know if he’s convinced, or just wanting to make me happy.

When you plan to move overseas you take courses and seminars on learning to deal with another culture, and they talk to you about “worldview.” This has to do with the unspoken assumptions that we all make, based on our culture and family background and beliefs, when we view the world—the grid that we filter our experiences through. So that one could read a great love story and blame the woman, or read The Scarlet Letter and miss Hawthorne’s scathing indictment of the townspeople’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and see only a woman’s adultery. And yet, what does literature do if not provide us with a mirror to see our world, to see ourselves? The challenge is to help them see it, instead of leaving unchanged, their lives unexamined, looking only at fictional characters and not at themselves.

(The reason I said typed! was because first versions are usually written by hand on unlined paper, which tells you something else about resources available to most students.)

As I predicted, I spent most of Mother’s Day 2007 reading thesis papers, except for the part where I tried and failed to get an international phone line to call my own mother, and the part where my students called and demanded an audience with me and I refused out of pure spite.

And, as requested, I hunted through my students’ paper for a few gems to share with you. I read about the famous American authors Edgar Anan pose and Nathaniel How Thorne. You remember Edgar Anan, right? He wrote a lot of stories which are still hell-known. This was during the Renaissance of New England, which was a flower excitement. I also learned about the famous Revolutionary writer Thomas Paine and his pamphlet “Common Since.” Emerson turned away from the hash, unforging congregational Calvinism. He was connected to Haward Divining School—I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be Harvard or Hogwarts! His philosophy went by the nine of transcended realism.

I learned about geography. “Joel Barlow, one of the United States.” I learned about emotions: “I felt trodden on by a dirty boat.” I learned about the man who was a thread to his teachers, and that it was considered manly to rule your family with an iron feast (yum-mee). Corrupt leaders took the power to steel the nation’s reaches. The words “wile steel” might be better understood as “while still.”

Since it was supposed to be a treasure hunt, I wanted to give you clues by writing the word used by a student and having you guess what s/he meant. But that would take too long, since I only divined it through context and some mind-altering drugs (aka caffeine). So instead, I’ll write the word followed by its correction. Use the second word in a sentence, substitute the first, and you’ll realize how funny this can be:

            ceased=caused              release=realize              considered=consolidated

            opiate=opinionated        stranger=stronger          inclinational=inspirational

            introduced=induced        unity=vanity                  appreciate=appropriate 

            outlines=outlives           exited=exiled                combinations=conditions

            merge=emerge              quitter=quieter              contraction=contradiction

            false=face                     access=excess               health=heath

Feel free to include your new sentences in comments.


Shelley was something of an out slider. Keats went on a physically demanding welding tour of England. Animal Farm paradises the Russian revolution.

Oh there are SO MANY! I suppose the way to do this is to drag this idea out over several days. At some point I will talk, seriously, about the real challenges they face and the fact that their ability in English far exceeds mine in French or (gulp!) Arabic. But today is not that day—today is the deadline and yet a student handed me his 40 pages this morning. This is the first time I’ve seen his work typed. I have to read it and correct it and, according to my way of thinking, have him MAKE those corrections and let me read it again before I can sign off that it’s ready to submit. (In his way of thinking I would glance at the number of pages and sign off right then. His way is starting to look more and more attractive) So I’m disgruntled and on edge and I probably need more sleep and less caffeine instead of the other way round.

In the meantime, my very late student, in his acknowledgements, thanked me “from the bottom of his hearts.” I’m nearly ready to forgive him. But not quite yet.


(PS Wrote this Tuesday but couldn’t get on my own blog till today.)

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.

And now, the last of thesis juries, brought to you by the new kinder, gentler totalitarian regime. Now instead of freaky scary, he’s helpful.
On all the posters was the slogan “Big Brother is Washing You!”

This cracks me up. I love the funny typos. (And I realize that by A. choosing this as a topic and B. writing it at the end of a long day, I’m almost guaranteed to make some myself! Please Spell-Check, catch them all! Save my reputation!) As I told the student who made them, everyone makes typos, but we bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained professors really do appreciate the funny ones.

So I didn’t even point out to him that he described Winston and Julia’s romance as sweat.

One more from 1984: “They were devoted to service Big Brother and to worship him as a supper leader.” He really is nicer folks!

You learn so much at this job. For example, I learned that “colonial legacies still perch on the African mind.” I learned that “Africans were worshipping animals, woods, and pants.” (Well if you saw some of their outfits!) And a beautiful woman was described as “nourishing men’s eyes with her perfect shape.”

And don’t forget that “sight, like the mind and the rain, happens to be a physically based occurrence over which humans have no control.”

Some of you may remember my favorite student of the year, dubbed Romeo. Many students use long words in their thesis papers, usually lifted straight from books or internet articles; he is an especially frequent offender. I called him on one of them. “What does soporific mean?” I asked him. He blinked, startled. “You mean you don’t know?” he asked me, “shocked” at my ignorance. It was priceless.

He dedicated his paper to his “expert typist and English graduater.”

And yet, these students work really hard. They have a TERRIBLE time finding sources—books in English are just plain rare in Mauritania, especially books of the sort that they need. Whereas in the States, we start learning how to take notes and produce research papers in about Grade 5 or so, this is the very first research paper these students have ever done! They have no idea about how to take notes, or how not to plagiarize, or how heinous a crime it is, or at least used to be and still should be. One student, whose paper on Poe included the gem “This glossy edition includes several illustrations by well-known artist Mark Summers” which was so obviously copied directly off the back of a book, responded to my criticism (ok scolding) by saying to me, “But this is why I asked you to supervise me. I knew you would teach me how to do it right. I never knew before.”

I admire them; I despair of them. They work so hard; they’re so lazy. They achieve incredible heights given their circumstances; all they do is sit around and complain and cheat, and they are often so rude. They drive me crazy.

And so, “I dedicate this harvest of the previous years of my education to all those who I respect and want to express to them my real appreciation and grateful.”


I really don’t have time to write with all the thesis juries. Yesterday we started at 8 a.m. and saw students non-stop till 3, with the exception of 2 very short toilet breaks. I’m happy to report that this year, for the first time, there are flush toilets at the U. Yippee!! I’m hoping to report soon that they’ve been cleaned, but at least progress is being made 🙂 The first year there were cubicles and squatty-potties, but I really didn’t like closing the door and being shut in with all the creatures who lived there. Last year there were tiled squatty-potties, also tending towards the filthy side, and this year there is a locked door and 2 flush toilets, no paper, and only one with running water. This isn’t surprising, since locals don’t use toilet paper—and yes, that is why it’s rude to eat with your left hand.

The U is really making great strides. We actually had air-conditioning in the library all day. The poor students waited outside in the heat, but I was practically cold. Air-conditioning is very rare here, and I’m not used to it, although I appreciate it when I can get it. We have an AC in our bedroom, and in the hot season the kids bring matlas in and we all sleep in the one COLD room 🙂 It’s lovely, and walking out the door of our room in the morning is always such a shock. But it’s expensive to run and we only use it when absolutely necessary.

Arabic is a flowery language, and students carry that over when they begin to write in English. Here are a couple samples from dedications:

“I dedicate this thesis to my father, who supported me morally and financially.” I don’t know how to support someone morally—I think this young man meant his father raised him to be a moral person.

One dedication, after mentioning parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and classmates, ended “And to everyone I know.”

“I would like to transform my indebtedness, gratitude and deepest thanks to my supervisor…” This one was for me! I’m the one to receive this transfer of gratitude! I don’t let it go to my head though. Last year, another teacher, a woman in her 50s, got one that called her “bewitching” and “fascinating.” I copied it down and I wish I could find it—it’s the funniest dedication I’ve ever seen.

I do have to tell you how awesome my kids are. On Wednesday, I went straight from a morning class at Oasis to thesis juries at the U, so I didn’t see the kids till I got home, tired and hungry, at 6 p.m. Elliot was shocked to learn I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He (age 10) and Ilsa (just-turned 9) had made supper already—they’d made each family member the kind of sandwich that they like (with or w/o mayo, with or w/o cucumber, for example) and had made a table out of a board and two stools, set it with cloth, cups, napkins, and name placements, and also set up various stations where you could go for a backrub or to have your hair done, etc. It was very nice, and they’d done it entirely on their own as Donn was at work.

I’m in the throes of thesis juries these days, so thought I’d share a few gems I’ve read recently. These are amusing, but I have to say much better than anything I could produce in French or Hassiniya Arabic.


On the civil rights movement: After their enslavement, they obtained their legal rights but their unassimilated skin prevented them from becoming totally Americans.


On Poe: The murders like to make their victims suffer and kill them in an inexpressibly Gothic way.


And this one isn’t from a thesis, but from a description of a desert trip to the writer’s home village, but I thought it might brighten your day: …there is no paved road. The cars don’t move there. The only element of transportation is the donkeys. It is the first time for me to ride a donkey. The fear of falling is savingly reduced by the softness of the land constructed by sands and dunes which made obstacles reduced the donkeys from rushing faster. But I fall three times…My friends laughed everytime I fell. The caravan included some countryside people who glaring even me; they could not trust that anyone could fall from a donkey’s back…We arrived at the village. It is a long tired traveling, but it was a touristic one I ever did in my life.

This morning my doorbell rang at 9:00. I was still slurping down a bowl of Rice Krispies and mango (it’s mango season!) and wasn’t too happy to be interrupted. I knew who it was—my last thesis student. He’s the one you are most familiar with—we’ll call him Romeo. I had rejected his 3rd chapter, as mentioned before, and he’d brought me another version of it. The first 3 pages were copied, with no changes, from a site telling you ways to plan a Romeo-and-Juliet theme wedding! It included lines like “Dress the men in pirate-style shirts and show a bit of hairy chest! Or, go whole hog and rent period costumes—ask your groomsmen first though, as some will refuse to wear tights!”

I wrote in the margin, “You should read through your plagiarized paragraphs and determine that the content is appropriate before including them.” Went right over his head.

But after he promised to redo it with appropriate, theme-related plagiarized paragraphs, I signed off on him. Why? Because I’m tired. I’m supposed to be on vacation and playing with my kids, and I want to be done with thesis papers. Plus his work is actually typical. Why should he be held to a higher standard just because he’s got me as his supervisor?

On our way out, he told me that he asked me to supervise him because he knew I would push him harder. Who would have guessed? I tried not to choke on my coffee.

And I enjoyed my day off after that! We had kids to play all day, and the house smells faintly of little boys who’ve been playing soccer in the mid-day sun. Eww, I know, but better than the bitter smell of frustrated professor 🙂 Family movie night tonight. Time to go start the popcorn—which of course I make from scratch. Microwave popcorn does not exist in a place where most people don’t even have regular ovens. Pulaars put powdered milk (in powder) and sugar on their popcorn. Yes it tastes weird. No I don’t do that.

I’m done now till the thesis juries start. Don’t worry; you’ll hear all about it.

Yesterday, Elliot brought me breakfast in bed. His idea. No special occasion, unless you count that we’re (theoretically) all on vacation, and that he loves me and knows I’ve been stressed lately. The kids are on Spring Break for 2 weeks; last week and this. We closed Oasis Books (where I teach ESL) this week, but if you read my last post, you will see that I am not exactly on vacation.

Right now, he is making brownies—all by himself! His little brother is helping. Me, I’m sitting here at the computer. I am very happy about this. All I have to do is turn on the oven, and frankly, if we had an electric oven I’d let him, but what we have is a gas oven connected to a large bottle of butane called, appropriately enough in French, a gas bombe. They’re a little scary, frankly, especially as they all leak, so I’m sticking to lighting the match for now. The breakfast was really tasty—fried eggs, fried tomatoes, toast (slightly burned), marmalade, a double-shot of espresso (which my husband got up and made)—all presented with a beaming smile of pride. He loves to cook. I love to have him cook.

I had no idea when I had a little boy that he was going to be so handy! Such a good cook already, at 10 ½ ! I wonder if all those years of reading Thomas the Tank Engine, all that money spent on Brio and Brio rip-offs, is paying off? It always amused me that the goal of Thomas and Henry and Gordon and all those trains was to be a “useful engine.”

And we’re almost done with thesis papers! Only 2 more to go. And yes, as usual, the university has extended the deadline. They always do this. I really wish they would set a deadline and stick to it. Oh well; it’s not my responsibility. I had to reject a paper today, as it was so shoddily done—just paragraphs cribbed from various sources, cobbled together with no sense of meaning. I doubt the student had even read his own work! Sigh… But now he gets another chance.

Amusing sentence read: Romeo loved Juliet from the button of his heart. !!! This paper also had a section titled “Romantic Navel.” Now wouldn’t that make a great name for a band?

December 2022

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