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"I don’t have the desire to put myself in their shoes" December 21, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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This quote from a blog entry of a dear friend and colleague; Ghada, is what’s been playing in my head for two weeks now needing to come out as a blog of its own. She spelled it out first, and that encouraged me to write. I understand she might be having these feelings about the students due to personal or domestic problems, but I think it’s mostly because of two things: the first was that she had to deal with a generation of students that can be irritating because they’re more and more “programmed” to have things readily available to them in what I can call “success capsules”. That sector won’t waste time trying to make an effort or understand; and they were treated in their homes as if these capsules are their “right” in this life so they have to get them as their right in college. The second reason is that we contributed to her negative feelings about the students with our own complaints and negative views of the students and maybe the faculty as a whole. Someone told me once: “Don’t let the people outside realize how bad things are inside; you’re not only making them see the bad side of your system, you’re making them lose faith and trust in the system, including you because you’re still a part of it.” People “need” to “know” your system is stable or they not only will freak out, but they’ll question everything you say or do that involves them and is related to the system. If our negative views are a part of the reason you feel bad about the job Ghada then I’m truly sorry for this.
Now that’s only a side note; what I really wanted to talk about is the quote; its meaning and its implications. When I was a student, I only saw my world of lectures, sections, homework, assignments, and projects. I didn’t give a damn about “others”; be that my parents or my teachers. I only saw my hardships and problems and I was engrossed in my friends and study. Then I became a TA, and the picture was altered completely! I saw the students as a different and annoying species, except for some of them who really put a smile on my face whenever I see them in a section. At first, you do the job the best way you can, and I wanted -while doing my job- to have every single students understand completely what I’m talking about. I became more and more frustrated as I realized this is not happening no matter how much I try. At the beginning I was frustrated with myself, then as years passed by and the same scenario happened, I began to blame the students; they don’t want to understand, they don’t want to make an effort, they don’t want to evolve and reach higher standards in science and in real life. This is true for some students; but I skipped a very important fact: the normal distribution! There has to be students who do not want to progress, and there has to be students who want to progress for personal gain, and there has to be students who are “geniuses”. I came to the conclusion that it’s up to us as TAs and lecturers to “widen” the area of the curve that belongs to geniuses, and this only happens when you try to “engage” students that are highly motivated to join the “geniuses club.” how to engage this category of students is a matter of finding out how to present an “excellent material” with an “excellent way.”
Once I realized that this distribution in itself is not my problem and that “shaping” it is the problem that I need to address, I began to relax a little bit and try to focus on the new mission, I don’t have a solution yet, but I’ll keep looking and experimenting until I get there. I also began to look at the students with fresh eyes; trying to understand why the different categories would behave in different ways. The important breakthrough I had out of this realization really extended to all the other aspects of my life. I began to see why other people may act in certain ways, and not only that; but I began to imagine how would I’ve acted had I been in their “shoes.” In the past I’d see the bus driver curse at a someone crossing the street and slowing him down and I’d say to myself “how impolite! What’s the big deal?!” Now I can understand his frustration. I see my friend complaining about the kids and how hard it is to take care of them and instead of criticizing her for it I begin to see the stress she’s under. I look at a student who’s coming late half an hour to class and instead of kicking him or her out I say “surely he’s detained for reasons beyond his will, and even if he’s not, he already missed the important part of the section when I explain what we’ll do, so he is a loser anyway.”
A human is not born with this realization; he grows into it, and when this realization fully evolves, a lot of good things come with it; compassion, forgiveness, appreciation, and most important of all, peace of mind. You do not obsess about things, you rather “understand” why they are the way they are, and if that way is the “wrong” way, you can find a solution because you “understand” and “sympathize”, the solution here is not for a problem; you don’t have to deal with it as a problem because it’s not your problem, the solution here is rather a “way” to deal with these things that brings you the peace of mind. For example; a student being impolite with me can be because he’s raised that way or because he’s extremely stressed out because he “has” to succeed because of his ambition or reasons other than his ambition. If I look at him this way, I’ll understand that most probably his impoliteness is not directed at me as much as it’s directed at my ability to make him move forward or backward. If he’s raised to be impolite then me taking action is justifiable. If it’s the other reason then instead of aggravating him even more I can assure him and make him lighten a little bit. This way we both win; I win a student who’s more positive toward his study and who respects me for understanding his situation, and he wins some peace of mind and a feeling of security because someone does understand and is willing to give him a hand.
I admit that my views of today’s students is not optimistic, and I still believe that the portion of them who do not want to make an effort to progress is only increasing, but I can’t work putting that perspective in front of my eyes. I have to believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves. I have to work as if they want to make things better, maybe then they WILL make things better, maybe if they see that you have hopes in them they’ll start acting on it in a good way.
As for putting yourself in others shoes, it’s a strategy you’ll acquire only when you want to, and when you do have it, it will make you friends and allies you never dreamed you could have, and it will make you more loving of the world you’re in, even when it’s not perfect!


I’m Done….. December 17, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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At last this is the last day of the semester sections, and it was a very hard day. It was very hard for two reasons: the first is that I had to explain to the students a chapter that’s heavy with conceptual theories that don’t fit in with the common way people think; that is “The basis and dimension of a vector space and the vector spaces of a matrix.” The second reason is that I had to do something I really hate in the section; that is stopping the section after a stupid comment made by a student and not finishing the last part. I’ll not talk about the first reason because of its abstract nature, but the second reason is what really upset me. I always make excuses for students who are late, who want to freshen up after a previous section, and who are bored because they don’t want to attend and are forced to because of the mandatory attendance policy. But the end of the semester is a critical time; professors are finishing up and stressing advanced chapters in the curricula, and students are recapping the previous subjects and raising questions. In general, the stress is escalating in volume. This last section combined all that; a dense and extensive chapter with lots of advanced concepts, and students who want to ask a lot of questions. I have to stress a fact here which is most of the students really don’t care, even if they study hard, they don’t care about science. The only interest for this majority is to pass the exams and score a high grade. They don’t want to open the books and elaborate on their content, they don’t want to search the web for additional material that may clarify things a little bit or even give novel ideas to do things. This means that no matter how many times I stress that they have to return to the textbook to find satisfying explanations, they don’t listen, they want me to summarize the ideas and present them off-the-shelf for them to use ONLY for the exams. It’s a rare sight to me to find a student who’s interested in the mechanics of a subject outside the scope of the lecture.
Any way, this is what happened: I’m in the middle of the extensive section, trying my best to help them understand, and as soon as I finish a subject and move to the next, they start complaining and wanting me to stop, I say that this part is the last part of the section so please be patient, and one of the students say: “Heeeeeeeeeey” as in “Hurray”. Sometimes the smallest things break you, and this audible “hey” broke me. Here I am, preparing for this section for two weeks now, trying to understand and find a way for them to understand, and this is the last they will see of me, and they need it bad, and all I hear is “hey”! I went blank then, I said in a calm voice: “I want whoever said this “hey” to get out of the section” Nobody moved, I said it again and still nobody moved. At last, I said something I never said before and have no intention to say again: “either this person gets out or I will not finish the last part and you study it on your own!!!!” Everyone freaked and they started objecting, for the first time I stood my grounds and insisted. I waited five minutes and when still nobody got out I took off.
There are two contradicting points I can make here: the first one is that it’s completely normal for university students to study on their own and understand things, I did nothing wrong, just what every professor and lecturer can do every once in a while to stimulate the students to establish knowledge for themselves. The second point, though, is that I’ve been avoiding all my life the notion of being “unjust” to anyone, and I developed a technique of “putting myself in the shoes of others and understanding – rather than judging – their actions, however they may seem stupid, challenging, or irrational”. I felt that today I was unjust to the students who wanted to understand, and even to the students who wanted to “pass with a good grade and forget all about it after the exam.”
What’s done is done, that’s right, and I can make some corrective actions to remedy the mishap, but I keep blaming myself for one single fact; I was unjust while all my life I hated the practice of injustice that others do. I hope I learn never to do injustice to anyone for the rest of my life.
The good side of all this hassle is actually two things: that was my last section for the semester, and what happened made most of the students say good things about my section. Appreciation is a wonder drug, really, and I hope it can make me (a) forget about the bad things that happened today, and (b) make me appreciate – rather than fear – the responsibility I hold for my students welfare, even if it’s not for the ultimate reason of science and progress.

A Seminar Gone Awry! December 17, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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Yesterday, I attended a seminar for an Egyptian professor living and working in America. I should’ve blogged the event yesterday except for the fact that I got home around 9 and jump started the preparations of the Algebra section of today. Well, to make it short, I didn’t attend the whole seminar due to the prior engagement of an “oral” exam I had to attend. What I learned from the seminar is not scientific as much as it is social.
First of all, the professor was late to show up, I think it’s his fault, even if it wasn’t. if he was available and got detained by formalities such as the head of the department “welcoming” him with tea and coffee, then the professor – being a staff member in the advanced world – should have pointed out the extreme importance of time and respect of appointments. If he himself was delayed, then he should have sent someone to notify the audience that the seminar will be delayed. We sat there, being used to never having anything happen on time (except for taking our attendance in a previous not so pleasant era!!!!) and we could’ve sat there for all it takes except for the fact I mentioned earlier that we had to conduct an “oral” exam.
The second fact was manifested when the professor began to talk; I know and I’ve seen many compulsive actions done by many people; including me, that can be words or gestures. He had a gesture that he kept repeating and it reminded me of someone I genuinely loathe; the gesture was him making a short “sometimes totally uncalled for” laugh after nearly every sentence. Oh my God how this irritated me to the extreme! For God’s sake, why are you constantly laughing when you’re talking science?! I know I’m being completely judgmental here since almost all people have such uncontrolled gestures, but I confess that such little things make me want to cry and hit my head to a wall. I have this notion that when we’re young, we’re energetic and hyperactive in many ways, and as we grow older and gain more wisdom, we grow to be quieter, more serene, and less inclined to use unnecessary body language. The fact that he “chose” laughing to be his “thing” pissed me off because it doesn’t fit well with the seriousness of science. I’m not saying he should be gloomy and not make jokes or be funny, in fact, at some points he made excellent contact with the audience in the “fun” department. I’m just saying that when you’re giving a presentation you should plan every word and every gesture and even every joke.
The third fact was his “unreasonable” aggressiveness towards attendants who didn’t follow his lead or those who challenged his proposed model. He didn’t handle discussions with courtesy, he was even sometimes impolite and embarrassed some of the audience, and sometimes “forced” the participation. I couldn’t believe this could come out of someone who’s that experienced and who lectured in so many universities. Even if he didn’t want to answer a question or didn’t “know” how to answer a question, he could’ve got out without embarrassing himself or the other part asking. Furthermore, if wanted to activate the concept of brainstorming, he should not do it with brute force, and when someone does participate with ideas, he shouldn’t take them lightly even if they’re wrong, when he takes these ideas lightly or attacks them, no one would want to participate and he’ll have to talk to himself.
The forth point was his constant glorification of his experience and knowledge. I’m all for stating one’s experience so that people can learn something out of it, but I hate people who talk about their experience and skills as unique and grand things that other people should cherish. I “know” your achievements so don’t brag! And if I don’t know then maybe I don’t want to know! After all, I learned that when you’re impressed with someone’s talk about himself, this most probably means he “empty” inside. I’m not saying that he does not deserve to be known for his achievements, just please don’t state it yourself, others will want to know out of their admiration of what you “say”.
I wish I’d attended the whole seminar, maybe then I would’ve come out with some positive “points”; at least about the man if not about the science he was discussing, but maybe the points already made are good enough pointers for me to learn positive things from, or maybe I’m “programmed” to see the bad side of everything!

University Staff Payroll Dilemma December 12, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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I urge you to read this article about the crisis of the University staff payroll that’s currently discussed by Egyptian professors and researchers, I think the link will work fine because it’s not from Al-Ahram..


I have no comment on the article except that I think the sufferers are a very small section and not the whole sector..that’s based on my observation..maybe the picture is more gloomy in Cairo, being the capital and all. As for young researchers and assisting staff (like me and my colleagues) I know the situation is bad, and I don’t think I’m a whistleblower if I state that the only way some can make ends meet is via private tutoring. I don’t think it’s a wrong way in itself, because I know that it’s acceptable practice around the world. I think what makes it a frowned-upon activity is two reasons: the first being this idea that we don’t want the students to believe that by taking private lessons they can figure out what the exam will be like since the assisting staff will have a clear idea. The second reason is this “stupid” concept that the state employee should not work outside of the government as this will tarnish his “dignified image”. I don’t understand what’s wrong with having a job that helps people improve their life standard. REGULATE, people! Don’t prohibit!
I don’t know, I never had the urge to work extra hours in other places, but I don’t blame people who do that unless the other work affects their performance in their primary job. After all, I have this ideal image about my job not just being about “delivering” information to students, it’s more about helping them “formulate” knowledge about the world and about themselves. It’s not just the average job, it’s a message to be conveyed.