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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 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 read 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 usually 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.

June 2020

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