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It’s been so long since I posted that I had to reset my password!

Years and years ago, I was an undergrad at Portland State University. I lived in a small apartment with a wild kitten named Oscar, and on weekday mornings I would fly down the stairs, run 2 blocks, and catch a rumbling Tri-Met bus across the Hawthorne Bridge to downtown, where I’d usually catch a second bus up the hill to the university, because I was pretty much always late. But coming home was different. I’d meander down through the Park Blocks under the enormous elms, kicking at the falling leaves. The most brilliant leaves would be collected and pressed into whatever books I had with me that day; Victorian Prose and Poetry, or Anna Karenina, or Norse Mythology. (Yes I was a Lit major, in case you couldn’t tell from the cat’s name) In spring, I would skip class on sunny days to sit under the bright new growth fuzzing the branches, and I would justify it because Romantic poetry should be read outside, and also anyone who studies Hemingway and Raymond Carver should skip class sometimes.

fall

I like how this hipstamatic filter makes it look blurry and wet, which is was. Another change: taking pictures with my cell phone. 

Life moved on and so did I. Until this year. This year, I’m back and once again an undergrad at PSU, scurrying up that hill two afternoons a week, and strolling down afterwards. Some things have changed this time round though.

For example, email. I was supposed to get it automatically, and I kept getting an error message. I could tell when I called the bright young thing at the IT help desk that she, enormously patient and supportive, thought I didn’t know how to set up email. That wasn’t the problem though, we found. The problem was that I have already graduated! I pointed out that I graduated  before email was really a thing, but the system was adamant. We did eventually work it out, so I could have another inbox telling me how to get health insurance, how to handle temptations of being on my own, how to avoid phishing schemes, where to get a flu shot.

Also, when I went to PSU last, I applied by writing my name in blue or black ink in a series of little boxes. One of the areas to fill out was gender, M or F, and I was expected to check just one. Now, of course, it’s all online, and I can’t even remember how many gender options I had, but I think there were at least 8, including the “prefer not to answer.” In addition to gender, I had to choose sexuality; again there were a lot of options.

Donn and I are taking Arabic 101. We don’t sit together in class for reasons (I am a confirmed back-row dweller and that has not changed) but the class is not big and we arrive and leave together, plus we are partners for the oral presentation (Hello! Hello! How are you? I am fine!), so I thought it was obvious. But the other day, one of the other students said, “Wait! Are you guys married?” We said yes, and she gushed, “That is just so cute! You taking a class together! So cute!” So I guess we’re cute.

I expected to be the oldest in the class, and to stand out amongst a group of fellow undergrads, all of whom would be the ages of our kids, but I was wrong. PSU is an urban campus and has always had a healthy percentage of older students. Our class has 4 senior citizens who are auditing the class for free, which seems a really painful way to spend your golden years.

I also expected to be the best and brightest for the first 2 weeks, because we know a fair amount of Arabic, although we’re finally learning to read and write. But no. Our class has a lot of “heritage” students; kids from Arabic-speaking families who need to improve, learn their letters, etc. We are very average in all ways (except for being so cute!).

Arabic is painful, as I knew it would be, but it is also more manageable than I expected. That’s because much is review, dragging out of my brain things learned in the past and relearning them, pinning them down, finally having a place to slot them into and remember them. I go to the library and check out baby books in Arabic, learning words for colors and animals. I check my pronunciation with my friends. It’s kind of fun. When the insomnia inherent to my age and gender tries to strike, I now have a new weapon–I just go through the Arabic alphabet slowly, picturing each way to write each letter, and I am asleep by the time I get to jeem.

Donn and I drive down together, so we’re always on time–even early. One day I came down on my own and managed to be 15 minutes late to class…plus ça change, I suppose. We can afford cups of coffee from the local Starbucks, and on-street parking. I need that 16 oz cup of dark roast to stay awake in the afternoons, and I recall a teacher of Contemporary lit from long ago, reading Charles Bukowski to us, and I think of how I understand the frustrations and weariness of age so much better now than I did at 19. Arabic 101 is not as stimulating as literature, but I am much older, and much tireder, and I realize this as I climb the 4 flights of stairs to my classroom.

 

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10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.

We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).

At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.

At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.

We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.

I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.

Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.

“Michael Jackson isn’t dead,” announced Ahmed yesterday, in the middle of a discussion of the scale of “somewhat-quite-very-extremely.” “Yes he is,” I countered.

“No, teacha,” he argued. “I saw a report. They had a lot of proofs.”

With my class of teens, I don’t mind going off subject. They take English in school and my class is meant to improve their overall level of the language. I figure that even a tangent like this can do that, especially as they are quickly bored with worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises. I don’t even bother with involved grammatical lessons, which result only in them yawning, punching each other, and playing with their pens until they spin across the room, with bonus points for hitting another student.

“You can’t believe everything you see on television,” I tell him. “Do you believe everything you see on television?”

“Yes, teacha,” he responds.

I turn to the others. “Do you believe Michael Jackson is alive?” I ask them. They nod.

I write the words conspiracy theory on the board. I ask them if they know who Elvis Presley was. Some nod, some shake their heads. I explain that he died when I was a child, that everyone was very sad, and that some people were so sad they claimed he didn’t really die. “But know what? He did!” I tell them. They nod. They have no problem accepting that Elvis is dead.

We talk some more. Ahmed has a hard time putting his thoughts into English. He gives me the “proofs.” The ambulance did not take the autoroute or use its lights and siren. His sister wrote him a letter. I point out that these are hardly convincing, and yet he remains convinced.

“Why would he do that?” I argue. Ahmed tells me Michael Jackson is in hiding and is going to come out with an international movie, the like of which has never been seen before.

“His doctor is about to go to jail for manslaughter. (another word written on the board) Michael Jackson would have to be a total jerk to do something like this.” I write jerk on the board, add the word cruel which they recognize.

“Yes, teacha,” they all nod. “He is jerk. He is cruel jerk.” “But he is live,” Ahmed adds.

This is not my first time dealing with the peculiar brand of obstinacy created by Arab conspiracy theories. I am reminded of my time at the University of Nouakchott, in Mauritania. My first day as a teacher there, I hadn’t realized I would need to bring my own chalk and eraser to use on the cracked and pitted blackboard. I mentioned this to friends, who sent boxes of Crayola chalk from America as gifts for everyone in the English department.

I glanced at the familiar yellow box with the green chevron and didn’t think twice before tucking it in my bag. But when I pull it out later, my students gasp. “No!” “Don’t use it!” “We’ll all die!”

I am completely mystified. I mean, breathing in billowing clouds of dust isn’t good for the lungs, but it shouldn’t affect them this strongly. My friends who come to my house for conversation group fill me in. They gingerly take the box in their hands, show me in tiny writing on the side where it says “Made in Israel.”

“They’ve put anthrax in it and sent it here to kill us,” explain these educated university women. “They wouldn’t have sent it to you—they like you because you’re American. But they don’t know you’re here.”

I was supposed to get shudders at that point, and they all looked disappointed, and a little put out, when I burst into a hearty peal of laughter.

I’ve heard lots of other theories that make just about as much sense, and I am powerless to dispel them.  Laughing, explaining, pointing out logical things—none of these things have any effect. It’s so much more fun to be freaked. And although I have called these Arab theories, I realize that no human is exempt. There are a lot of conspiracy theories in America these days, on both sides. Whereas in the past it tended to be fringe people who believed that the investigation of JFK’s assassination was a huge cover-up, or that the UN was sending in black helicopters to take away our freedom, now I watch from a distance in dismay as my own country becomes more and more polarized and people believe more and more improbable things.

But my students yesterday are still young. “Use your heads!” I urge them. “Think about things! Don’t just believe everything you are told—consider who is telling you these things! Look for other points of view.” I write the word agenda on the board.

But they leave convinced that Michael Jackson is a cruel jerk who is not really dead, and I leave in desperate need of a cup of coffee.

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.

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.)

The Good: It’s mango season! All over town, every fruit stand is piled high and loosely-formed pyramids of the green and red fruit spill out into the dusty street. Women cut slices, place them on trays, place the trays on their heads, and walk down the street, selling them. I buy kilos and kilos of them; this time of year, there’s usually cut-up mangos in the fridge, for anyone to snack on anytime. In spite of this, we often run out. We eat them on cereal or Saturday morning pancakes, over ice-cream, with yogurt, just plain in a bowl. I’m going to make a big batch of chutney when I get time, too.

Also in season are melons. Cantaloupes, casabas, and watermelon are brought by the truckload up from Senegal or down from Morocco. The melons are ripe and dripping with juice and flavor-packed. The cantaloupes, for example, are a deep rich orange and bear little resemblance to their pale-fleshed hothouse cousins for sale in American supermarkets. Tonight for supper we had a huge fruit salad. All these goodies are available for the equivalent of 80 cents a kilo.

The Bad: After some hot days in March, we settled down to a gorgeous spring. The weather has been downright pleasant—warm and dry, with cool nights filled with breezes. So today came as a bit of a shock. All of a sudden, we’re back to 110-degree heat. The air is filled with sand and stepping outside even for a minute means a mouthful of grit crunching between the teeth. The boys skipped soccer. Everyone stayed inside as much as possible, and we kept all windows closed. Tonight the sand hangs on the still air, blotting out the stars. It’s 10 p.m. and still 95 degrees.

The Ugly: Thesis students are getting downright surly. The initial deadline was April 30th, but since only a tiny fraction of the class met it, the admin extended it to May 15th. You might think that since they’ve had all year to do this and that they’ve procrastinated, they would be humble and appeal to me to help them. You would be wrong. No, they demand that I work quickly! One student gave me a large stack of papers on Friday (half typed, half written by hand, which means that it’s the first time I’ve seen them). “I need this by Monday,” he told me. I told him, “We’ll see. I have a very busy weekend planned. I’ll do my best.” “No,” he insisted. “Monday at the latest. I’ll call you.”

I gave him a long lecture on manners, dripping with sarcasm, but it didn’t do a bit of good. (Doesn’t work on my kids either. What am I doing wrong?) I spent my weekend reading other thesis papers (his was less of a priority than the two juries I had to sit on today) and he called me 8 times Sunday and twice on Monday. Today, we met again, and he handed me another stack. “Tomorrow,” he said firmly.

Another teacher told me of a student who handed him 40 pages yesterday and said, “Get these back to me tomorrow.”

Then there’s the student whose paper included lines like “At this point in the lecture I will look back at my first point.” While I’m pleased to see he’s learned how to use the internet, I’m not so thrilled about the blatant plagiarism. This is a student I’ve been lecturing on this issue for months. Does he really think I don’t read his work?

Kudos if you can figure out the following typo: young steers.

Did you know Mother’s Day is coming up? I just found that out today. It’s going to happen two days before the New and Improved (now with more fiber!) Thesis Deadline, which is May 15th. They had to extend it, since out of a class of 138 only 5 people met the first deadline, and one of them (shh!) didn’t really, he just turned in a paper that still needs a LOT of corrections. This means I will no doubt be spending my so-called special day reading sentences like “I dedicate this painful work to my teachers, who made their full efforts to make me absorb my lesions…” Should be just a bushel of meaningful fun.

However, the nice people (twins!) over at 5 Minutes for Mom have a much better idea on how to celebrate. They are giving away a pink iPod and chocolates. I want one! I have entered to win, and you can too—just click that pretty button on my sidebar. Just don’t tell them about the potential postage to Mauritania…

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.”

 

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