Wikithink: An Academic in Africa

The first week of term has arrived, and with it about 100 students. 

Frankly, this is a bit of a shock to the system.  And not just mine, the whole delicate ecology of the university is clearly feeling a bit knocked out of line.

Things are proceeding in the usual way – ie. slight shambles with a hint of firefighting.  David came in halfway through induction to say that we’d nearly run out of ink and that the new delivery had not arrived (“It is nowhere in Nigeria” was the somewhat poetic way that he put it).  So we were in serious danger of not being able to register students because we couldn’t print anything out.

Later that day there was supposed to be a “drinks and nibbles” type social.  I’d managed to wriggle my way out of that one (“I’m ill and I’ve still come into work!”) but George was doomed to attend.  However, when he went to ask Peter about it, Mani walked in and asked, “Have you bought any supplies for this evening?”

I didn’t mention that there were no glasses, plates or napkins either as I didn’t think it would help

“No,” Peter replied, “I asked the Registrar to do that two weeks ago.”
Ah.  So, we had 100 students, plus parents, small children and associated hangers on, sitting around waiting for a social at which there were to be no nibbles, and indeed no drinks.  I didn’t mention that there were no glasses, plates or napkins either as I didn’t think it would help.  After a period of mild flapping, the “social” was cancelled.  Just like at the first induction.  Plus ca change.

George sent Rislan out to buy some batteries – he came back with one, probably on David’s orders

We don’t have a lecture hall big enough for the all the students together, so the initial plan was to have one speaker delivering to one room, and then have the audio feed relayed to other lecture halls at the same time.  But this has, unsurprisingly, proved impossible.  Mainly due to incompetence and institutional miserliness (eg. George sent Rislan out to buy some batteries – he came back with one, probably on David’s orders), but also due to the fact that it was always going to be difficult.

So I delivered the first lecture of the new term in a room that was absolutely packed, hot as hell (air-con’s broken) and with a data projector that bears a somewhat tangential relationship to the screen.  Judging by this experience, I’d say we’re at about 100% capacity in terms of the numbers we can teach, both in terms of space and teaching staff.  And that’s including the ones who haven’t started yet, the ones that, “We are hoping…” or, “We anticipate…” will be here and teaching in about a week’s time.

a data projector that bears a somewhat tangential relationship to the screen

The good news is, of course, that we are expecting anywhere up to another 200 students to arrive between now and week 6 of term.  Indeed, speaking to Debare the other day, he suggested that we might in fact be admitting students to this academic year up until January.  SNAFU.

So, at some point in the next month and a half we will have to assimilate 200% of our current student population into the student body, and they could continue to trickle in long after that.  I literally don’t know where we’re going to put them.  And when I think about reading materials and so on, my brain just shuts down and refuses to play any more.  I think the new photocopying lady, Angelina, is already starting to realise what she’s got herself into, and this is just the start.

So far, I’m proving pretty good this term at just not worrying about it and letting what will be, be.  After all, me getting stressed won’t change shit all, and I don’t think there’s many actual decisions I need to take that I haven’t already taken.  The rest of the chaos is going to be stuff that affects me, but is ultimately not my fault.  So, for now, it’s just laugh at it and carry on.

if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make the world a less happy place, it’s marking

Although I have the horrible feeling that’s how I started last term, and look where that ended up.  Also, there’s going to an awful lot of marking this time round, and if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make the world a less happy place, it’s marking.  It’s the academic equivalent of data entry, or Chinese water torture.

George is, I think, starting to appreciate some of the problems here.  In fact, I know he is, but he still seems to be tackling the whole thing with positivity, which is great.  He also has a huge amount of experience and knowledge about how you actually run a university (as opposed to just teaching in one and doing bits of admin when you’re told to), which I don’t.

Peter came into my office the other day to ask me some questions about pass marks below a third class degree, and what the “usual situation was in the UK”.  I felt like replying that he was a professor of economics with 40 years experience in academia (not to mention the Vice-Chancellor of the university), whereas I was in my first faculty position after 3 years teaching.  I didn’t, of course, I bluffed my way through it and sucked my teeth after he left.

I guess you’re as qualified as you think you are

The problem with these questions is that I am literally not qualified to answer them.  Although I’ve just done my first examination board meeting, at which I was more than prepared to say all sorts of things, so I guess you’re as qualified as you think you are.  It’s strange to sit there discussing these issues and making decisions on people’s marks, and failures, and re-sits etc.

It took me back to the day I got my degree results, and the people on borderlines who were waiting to see what they got – one guy I knew got bumped up because of extenuating circumstances (depression due to too much weed smoking), whilst someone else didn’t, because although she had the grades, she hadn’t got a first in the elective courses, and so couldn’t be given a first.  I will be doing things like this to people, I found myself thinking.

Not that I particularly care.  I think I’m pretty fair, and if not, oh well.  Certainly this lot are getting treated with a level of individual attention that probably hasn’t been seen in the UK since those halcyon days when everyone learnt in tutorials of four students or less in their tutor’s office, and you could wear a rollneck and a beret without fear of ridicule.

I gave the returning students a bollocking the other day about plagiarism.

Some of it was explainable by kids not having confidence in themselves, or not understanding what an essay was, or what they had to do to reference.  But most of it was flagrant cheating.  For example, if the essay was on “the Scramble for Africa”, type that into google, click on the first link, and there you have what three of my students submitted to me. When I put this to them, they took it surprisingly well.

if I wanted to read Wikipedia, I’d go and do it myself

I pointed out that if all they needed to do was copy something from the internet then they could have done that without the twelve weeks of teaching, and JoJo (a nice kid, but not the sharpest tool in the box) said “that’s true”, as if it had genuinely just occurred to her.  The fact that when I said “if I wanted to read Wikipedia, I’d go and do it myself” a few of them shifted uncomfortably and looked at each other was also pretty telling.

Little shits, honestly.

I also pointed out that it was a direct insult to me – did they really think I was that stupid?  That I wouldn’t notice?  Forutnately they treated those as the rhetorical questions I intended them to be.

I have been informed by Peter that the students think I’m “cute”.  I don’t know where he got this information from, but  I think there might be less of that after the next couple of weeks.

***

The guy who works in the cafeteria and talked to me about books (I now know his name’s Timothy) has picked up the conversation where we left off last term, and asked me if I had any books I could lend him.  I told him that I didn’t have any “motivation” books, which was what he said he liked, but that I could give him some novels.

And so, yesterday, I presented him with Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell, and he, bless him, was absolutely delighted.  Today, he told me that he was enjoying it but that it would take him a long time to read and he wasn’t sure when I wanted it back.  When I said it was a gift he actually looked slightly overcome.  I told him to let me know when he was done and I’d give him another.  Unfortunately I’m drawing on a pretty limited library (as my initial choice shows), so it might have to be Dan Brown, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  I don’t think he’ll mind.

This little episode has actually made me feel pretty good, as has getting back into teaching proper.  Last week, mainly because I was ill, I was pretty unhappy with the world in general and with Nigeria in particular.  But I’m getting used to the idea of being back here now, and even the driving hasn’t pissed me off yet.  I’m sure that’ll come though.

Still no clocks.

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