Tell me now, what don’t I know?

So far, my attempt to create a regular teaching schedule has been a quintessential example of a “low context” culture person encountering a “high context” culture and losing the fight.   My first challenge was that, of the two semesters of students, second and third, the second would not actually start until the halfway through the semester.  No one knew exactly when and, for this reason, the class schedule had not been created yet.   So I could not yet design a work plan for the entire semester.   Not to be deterred from what I considered to be my mission in life — create a work plan for myself — I decided to set up a program of teaching for the third year students and leave space to add in the second year.

I should say that it wasn’t just a personal obsession to set up a work schedule in advance.  I am to work at another location, my secondary work site, on days when I am not at the university.  Since the university is my primary assignment, I need to first figure out what I am doing there and when, and then schedule the secondary work around that.  And the people at the work site appear to be a bit more organized and so they were breathlessly waiting to know when they could get their hands on me.   “Native English speakers” are in high demand.

I used to wish that my presence overseas was desired because of my professional skills and not just my ability to speak my native language, which really doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment because I didn’t have to work at it.  Although my mother’s stories about trying to get me to say anything before I was two do come to mind.   Apparently, from birth, I had to do things my own way.  67 years later and little has changed in that regard.   Now I accept that I am, first and foremost, a sort of captive, house-trained, English speaker.   A few people are making good use of my professional skills as well but, by and far, when people tell me about how nice it is to have me here, they mention my native speaker identity with awe, as if I were a million dollar gem of some sort.

For the first draft of my work plan, I developed a very comprehensive schedule which would allow me to spend one week (three days) with the third semester students in every section (there are five) of every course (there are four)  during the first two months of the semester, leaving two months to add in classes with the second semester students once their schedule was created.   This had the added advantage of allowing me to work with all faculty as well.    I was planning to design lessons that would add a practical dimension to the mostly theoretical curriculum for the few days that I would be in a class.   I thought the plan was brilliant.  It was elegant.  It was comprehensive.  It was context-specific.  But then…. someone told me that the university would be closed for an entire month for festivals.    Hmmmmm… the elegance took a “hit”.  I would not be able to cover as many classes in the available time frame.

When I first unveiled my masterpiece of a schedule, no one was impressed with what I considered to be a work of logistical art.   To the contrary, everyone was worried about how they would cover all the content in their courses if I taught three of their classes.   Furthermore, I was told that in some of the sections for some of the courses students were doing practica, so there would be no teaching for me to do in those courses anyway.  And, if that wasn’t enough new information for me,  there were also two more holidays that I didn’t know about.  My schedule was once again obsolete.   I requested a list of the  classes with student teaching with every intention of redoing my long-term work plan again.

But the die was cast, it was slowly dawning on me that what I was proposing to do was simply too complicated for the setting, given all the shifts and changes in the schedule, and in light of faculty hesitancy about the idea in the first place.  My plan was actually not context-specific enough.   I would probably never be able to keep track of where I was supposed to be with days disappearing here and there for unanticipated class cancellations for various reasons, many of which I probably still did not know.  More likely than not, the faculty wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either.    Plus, of course, there was the added reality that it was going to demand a whole lot more of my time in terms of lesson preparation.

The final clue that I was going to fail if I remained on my current trajectory revealed itself to me when someone explained to me how the Nepali higher educational system worked.   Given that what is done here would never happen in the U.S., it was not a possibility that had ever crossed my mind, but its implications for my work plan were immediately obvious.

In the U.S., those of use who work in higher education enjoy certain privileges associated with what is called  academic freedom, the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.  This means that I have total autonomous control over what happens in my classroom, as long as I am teaching the subject matter associated with a particular course.    I do have to report what I am doing, but how I do it, including how I evaluate student performance, is my responsibility alone.  No one can interfere with my decisions in this regard.    I decide what students need to learn to pass the course, and then I decide what they have to do to demonstrate competences, and I grade their work myself.   No one determines who passes my course except me.  The tradition of academic freedom is one thing that distinguishes higher education from primary and secondary, where curricula,  textbooks, and even teaching methods, can be mandated by state or local government boards of education.

In Nepal, 60% of a student’s grade in higher education is based upon his or her performance on exams that are designed by outside examiners who, themselves, may or may not be teachers.  The faculty who teach the courses do not know what the exam questions will be, nor do they help design them.    They only know that they must teach the information included in the curriculum, also developed by the external examination board.   This was why everyone was so preoccupied with covering course content:  If they did not, their students might fail the  exams designed by external examiners who were basing their questions on the curriculum that they had decided and given to the teachers to implement.  In this context, it  became obvious that my suggestion that I take time away from faculty to offer  practical classes to complement theoretical ones  was not, itself, practical.

Obviously, I could (and would in an American context) argue that students will learn theory better if they see it in practice, but the reality is that the curriculum contains a massive amount of theoretical information, all of which could not be practically demonstrated in the time allocated to “covering it”.   Furthermore, not having any idea about what the exams are like, I was unwilling to gamble and be responsible for selecting which information to demonstrate in practice.  What if I picked the wrong theories to emphasize?   I did not want to do anything that might endanger the department’s track record with regards to student success on exams in because of my personal beliefs about how people learn best.

Model of flexibility that I am (ha!), after a day of serious reflection on the whys and wherefores of my being here, I ditched my original plan (which took me several days to create, as a matter of fact) in favor of a more traditional approach — three weeks in the same sections.  I’d still work with all the students, but not all the faculty.   And forget planning and teaching a class.   I would  simply attend them and help teachers in whatever way they requested.   I then created a schedule for that plan.    I was going to go to the same two sections of one course for three weeks before the month of festival.  Then I was to go to three sections of another course for three weeks after the holiday month.   There was symmetry to the plan.  I liked it.

But, of course, I forgot to consider what I did not know.   I’d have thought that I would have learned this by now but it became apparent to me that I had not.    On the first day of my new WThF schedule, which had already become ThF only because Wednesday was a holiday, someone told me that, oh…by the way, the students would not be around WThF of the following week because they had a government exam!    So… If I stuck to my new schedule, I would have nothing to do for the upcoming week.  The department will still be open, one of my colleagues assured me, seeing the dismay written across my face.  But there will be no students, I replied.   True,  he sadly agreed.

The good news was that I was starting to get the hang of responding to the unexpected.  It only took me  a minute to realize that I could flip this week’s schedule for that of another week,  where classes occurred on  Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday!  Luckily, my other work assignment would not be affected because I was doing materials development at home.   Of course, because of another holiday, it would only be a Sun-Wednesday week, but beggars can’t be choosers.    I  would have to see if the faculty involved minded the switch, but  since the faculty lived their professional lives fully at-the-ready for change, I knew that this would probably not be a problem for anyone.

Under the illusion that I had finally settled upon a realistic schedule for the first two weeks of the semester — and, yes, in case you are wondering, I had already decided to forget worrying about anything beyond that — I finally attended my first class.  It started 30″ late because students were doing some other sort of exam.   So 60″ turned out to only be about 35″.   No wonder the faculty worried about having enough time to cover required content.  Between holidays, exams, practica, and who knew what else (although I was about to find out), the total number of actually teaching days was rapidly dwindling.   I finally understood why my suggestion that I take three days of class to teach skills that would not be tested on the exams was so disconcerting to faculty.

As the class drew to a close, the teacher announced that there would be no class tomorrow because he was going out of town.  Another day off!?   It took me a minute — I was getting faster at letting go of my plans — I realized that  … Could I come and teach your classes without you?   I asked.    Startled, the instructor considered the suggestion.  Of course, the students were all, literally, jumping up and down at the idea of having the guest foreigner and walking demonstration of good English at their disposal for an entire hour.   I probably shouldn’t have made the suggestion in front of them as it might have been perceived as a challenge to his authority but, once again, having had no advance warning about the change in schedule, it had to be now or never, since the students would need to know whether they would have class on the morrow before they left.   And so it was agreed, I would come alone the next day to teach.    Once again, I had a new work plan.

I love to plan, and I love re-planning when new variables present themselves.    It challenges my intellect.  I am sure it helps me keep my aging neural networks active and well.   It gives me a (false) sense of security and serves to relieve my anxiety when I am in unfamiliar territory.  Without planning, I could not be going on my upcoming trip to work with teachers in several different regions of Nepal.    It can make the difference between a good class and a mediocre one.  So I do not underestimate the “power of planning”.   But I cannot overestimate it either. In the end, what makes living in another culture interesting to me is not the success of what I plan for, but rather it is watching myself cope with the surprises that I encounter along the way to my next plan.  It is only in the surprises that I can perceive the boundaries of my comprehension.  It is only the surprises that allow me to break through the edges of the box of my perception and acquire a larger understanding of the world and what it means to live life more fully.   In the end, I think that the best approach to my life is to plan for the possible and then sit back and wait to see what I will learn when the plan falls apart.

Postscript:   I spoke too soon.  This story was not over.   Today, when I went to observe my third class, for the SMTu week that I had flipped to accommodate the government exam,  there were no students.   One of Nepal’s political parties had declared a strike for the day.    That explained all the people I saw leaving the university this morning, when I went to pick up Shiva-ji (see next post).   The strike had been called and they were all going home.  But no one thought to tell me and, in all fairness, I did not think to ask.  I just assumed it was some special event that had ended.   Never assume anything.  And…. of course, tomorrow is another holiday.