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Students of Today May 24, 2009

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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Let’s say hypothetically that a TA does this:
The students in his class ask him every week to hold the course textbook, read the chapter they took in the lecture page by page, explaining everything, and they can stop him ocassionaly if he skipped a paragraph or something.
Will this be right or wrong?
I’ve noticed that most of the students (with fewer and fewer exceptions over time) developed a tendency along the years to not work their heads in search for explanations and answers in the different courses they take at college, and I dare say this is a general phenomena among most faculties in Egypt. Most students want every single thing explained to them and want the minimum curricula possible to study, with no desire to explore for themselves to to ask for more to learn. They keep whining and whining if a professor told them to self-study a chapter or two, and they can’t efficiently summarize a chapter to pinpoint the important notes that can trigger questions. In short, most students of higher education in universities do not want to understand as much as they want to succeed.
I argue that this is the result of a screwed up high school system that has a frantic atmosphere of “you must succeed and get the highest grades” forcing the students to memorize and save time by going to teachers who tell them exactly what to say in response to each and every possible question in the final exams. This generation of “auto-response” students, which began around the nineties, carried his culture to the university life, which is a place to learn, discuss, analyze, and understand. This was translated into a higher rate of private tutoring that aims at helping the students memorize the answers to what the professors tend to ask at university exams. This in turn resulted in killing the abilities that are needed in academic life, abilities such as scientific reasoning, analysis, comprehension, and creative thinking. Students cannot write a research task if asked, the majority looks at postgraduate studies as a way to waste time waiting for bigger chances, which is ironic because I believe a good planning of postgraduate studies is one of the ways to get bigger chances at professional careers. The funny thing is these postgraduate students will succeed and get to do their Master and Doctorate studies using pretty much the same methodology.
An 18 years old student should be able to understand by himself most of the content of an academic course and be able to intelligently ask questions about the parts he or she does not get right or feel ambiguous in order to gain a clearer understanding. I don’t see this happening, and this will result (if this is not already the case) in academics who do not want to make a correct scientific research and will easily resort to forged research to get higher positions.


A heated debate June 16, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.

There’s an ongoing heated debate among some of my colleagues (including me of course) about the issue of whether we should dedicate more time to help students at the expense of our own personal gains. Of course, there are two side in this debate (three if we count the “silent” majority who don’t care!) One side believes that we must do everything we can to help students, and it’s our primary and most important responsibility. The other side of course believes that our most important responsibility is to do our research and get our academic degrees; provided we don’t neglect our duties in the classes we’re assigned.

Two things to pinpoint here:

  1. The first side of the debate is strongly supported by Waleed; one of the very few colleagues that I genuinely respect.
  2. No one supports balance. It has to be a total division of time between the two activities; no mutual partnership between both.

Well, for the first point, it’s almost only Waleed really who supports total dedication to students’ needs. Waleed has sincere integrity, and he practices what he preaches one hundred percent. He’s totally devoted to attending to students classes and giving them extra effort; especially in programming. I don’t see him doing anything for himself; even if he’s developing his programming and scientific skills it’s for the greater benefit of those kids at the faculty. Maybe I’m wrong because I don’t see him all the time, but when I do see him, it’s always like this.

The second point is mainly true because at our faculty we’re in a situation where we can’t really divide the day or the week. That’s because:

  • We have limited spaces to give lectures and sections, so we kind of use the entire day,
  • We’re relatively outnumbered by a large number of courses that most of us aren’t specialized in, so we must study in whatever spare time we have to make sense of these new subjects and outsmart the students. There’s no easy way for someone to hold on to three or four course every year because we tend to change from year to year; some of us leave, and some of us take time off, and new colleagues are enrolled.

Someone may ask me this: On which front do you fight? Well, I’m all for balance (I never did practice it because of the two points I just stated) but I certainly don’t believe (anymore) that I should give my 100% effort to students. I gave more than a 100% effort to the faculty; I spent days and nights thinking and obsessing about all kinds of things related to my work. It was only when I received a request to present a status report about progress in my Master thesis that I stopped and asked: What the hell am I doing? Actually, I’m kind of fond of faculty work; I love studying new courses and helping students understand them. I love administrative work like preparing the academic year’s timetable, preparing course specifications, and exams related tasks. I do these things well and that gives me confidence in doing them more. But the bottom line was these things aren’t enough to make me advance in my career. They simply don’t count! The university won’t promote me based on an excellent history of classes and faculty work, the ONLY parameter that’s measured is whether I’ve finished my Master degree (and later of course my PhD). The Egyptian universities law regarding the duties of the teaching assistants states clearly (and ambiguously at the same time!!!) that the first and utmost important job of a TA is to get his or her Master and PhD degrees. Then classes come second with no stress except the stress that they mustn’t hinder the TA’s efforts to get the academic degrees.

I strongly applaud Waleed for being the most helpful he can be, and I don’t dare to put myself in his league of the most helpful people in the faculty. I can acknowledge that I have helped a lot, but not as much as he did. Maybe it’s not just because I found out that I have to do another task and do it as well as I can; it could be age as well, but this isn’t the point. But still I believe that it IS enough to give my 100% effort in the sections, dedicate 3 or 4 hours each week to help my students (but I strongly stress that they should first be willing to help themselves), but other than that, I have another job to tend to, and it’s not less important by all means.

Long story short, I found out the hard way that actually by dedicating my efforts to the day to day tasks of the faculty I was actually not doing my job; my real job; which is RESEARCH. That doesn’t mean at all that I support anyone neglecting his or her sections to pursue personal gains of any kind, but we have to put in mind that getting academic degrees isn’t just a personal gain, it’s also dedicated to the students, and to the country in general. Instead of being “academic policy executors” we get to be “academic policy makers.” If we’re good enough, then we’ll fix the problems that we have today and will create a better tomorrow. There’s nothing we can do for today except work hard to help as we can, but we must never forget that we have yet another noble goal to achieve; which is to make a better future and help our country progress.

A well-planned, well-stated vision March 6, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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My work place is currently the epitome of chaos! Nothing is going according to a plan, things and people are mixed up, and there’s no one who really cares! Why should I care then? I never belonged anyway! Not to Egypt as a country, not to my hometown, and certainly not to my faculty. I used to say to myself that I have a penchant for business venues, and that my love for studying can be always fulfilled by reading and research. Then why the hell should I care if students say they’re not given certain classes? Or if the faculty labs are a miss that has to end in sight? I shouldn’t care, because I don’t belong, and I keep drifting more and more away from the place and the mood. What really troubles me is that I want to be in the place and the mood, and I want everyone to work hard to make the place better, including me. The problem is I don’t have the stamina anymore, they don’t have the desire anymore, management doesn’t have the global vision for the place, and we all don’t know what to do with this situation! I want to be proud of the place I learned and worked in, and I don’t want the students to graduate saying they didn’t learn nothing. The real problem is that even with the staff that’s trying to deliver a message, the message is lost to students who don’t have a vision of what they should learn here, and how they should learn it. If I can talk about myself; then for example the distributed database systems course is a disaster waiting to happen for them and a picnic for me. They want to learn practical things (at least those who DO WANT TO LEARN!), and DDBS is a course more about design than implementation. But then, both departments are studying it, and designing a DDBMS is more of a CS department arena. IS department should be concerned more about setting policies and strategies for correct system functionality. What should I do? Give them SQL Server 2005 in the lab with no real point to make? Tell them how to make policy decisions? Or tell them how to build a query optimizer? I don’t have the grand plan, and even if I have it I don’t have the power to carry it out.
I spent 3 hours last nights rolling the subject in my head over and over, knowing that my colleagues – if they know what I was doing – would joke at how stupid I am and how my life is empty, but all I really want is to work according to a well-planned, well-stated vision. I don’t want to make the plan at this stage of my career because of two reasons; the first being that I too have a life and a research of my own to work on, and the second being that the stage where I’m obliged to make that plan will eventually come, and I want to learn from someone how to do it!

Class Discussion March 3, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.

In the class of this week (I have only one course; distributed database systems; to teach this semester and over two days I give 7 classes,) we had a discussion about whether or not database systems are becoming obsolete. I told them it’s a possibility and the debate is considerable about this issue, they asked me then what technology is competing, and I said technologies like data warehouses and data marts are examples (most of them don’t hear about data warehousing until after graduation.) Then they asked the obvious question any self respecting Egyptian student would ask :D, which is why are they studying databases and distributed database systems if they are obsolete. I said they’re not obsolete, but new technologies are always trying to find a solid market share for themselves to justify their costs. An example I gave was Cobol; which is still deployed in some big corporations and organizations despite database systems being the norm of the era. Then we asked ourselves; why do such big organizations keep old fashioned technology. The lengthy discussions lead to us making the conclusions that there are three reasons why:

  • Whenever an organization is thinking of deploying Hi Tech for the first time, it goes without saying that they will pick the most up-to-date technology there is. This means that the chosen technology is highly expensive because it’s cutting-edge. The investment in this technology becomes a part of the organizations assets.
  • Migration from “supposedly” obsolete technology to more top notch technology may result -in addition to and extensive transition time- in possible loss of data that’s very valuable to the organization.
  • Most people don’t like change! It’s a miracle people accept Hi Tech solutions as it is, but to force them to adapt to the very quick pace of technological advances is beyond reasonable! After all, old habits die hard. I, who should be quick to adapt because I was born and educated in the Hi Tech era, still find it very hard to change my home page from Yahoo! To anything else, even if it was more informational!!

The importance of the discussion was not due to us making any breakthroughs or novel discoveries; I’m pretty sure more sophisticated outlines of the situation are already established in business and systems sciences. What made me write this entry was that I really was content to push them for once to discuss things despite the fact that they were aware what I’m saying is:

  • Out of the main point of the class.
  • May not be included in the final exam!!

Not that I don’t trust students to be interested in anything rather than making the grade, but I know from experience that they don’t get excited about things easily. There is no wonder in their minds about science and how and why things are what they are. To feel that we make the closest thing to a seminar in an undergraduate class made me feel good about my decision to choose a course that I can provide ideas about on the fly without having to go to the books to know the answers. That’s a real pleasure, even when I’m pretty sure than practical-wise, they’re most probably (or at least a subset of them) better than me.

Another day March 2, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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It’s been a very trying day at work today; Sunday is a day in the week in which I have work from 8 to 12, then a break, then some more work from 4 to 8. I can’t blame anyone for this; I did it to myself as I was the one who set the timetable. Actually, the only three problems I have with such a day are:

  • I repeat the same things four times!
  • My back hurts by 6 o’clock!
  • I have four hours of spare time that I either spend alone or with colleagues; not that spending time with my colleagues is that bad; but I’d rather stay alone than keep talking and most likely say all the wrong things, despite the fact that I’m constantly training myself to talk less. Another fact is that they’re all younger than me; sometimes much younger, and I don’t find that situation gratifying at times (because they make me feel soooo old :D)

As for today in special, I had fun because the section was about the twelve principles of distributed database systems. I found myself to be fluent although I didn’t read the chapter, I found myself engaging my students in problems and ways to overcome them, and I found myself to not be that cynical anymore. It’s true I said things that should put me in the blacklist (as if I was ever on any other list!!!), but overall I talked in favour of hard work always paying in the end (at least I hope it does!)

At the end of the day, I met a former student of mine; Nehal; who was the first caller in Calls, and I had fun talking with her n our way home. She asked me at some point: “Why didn’t you try to pursue a career in another venue besides academics?” and it didn’t take me much time to come up with the answer; I love studying, and I love understanding things and making people understand or at least willing to understand. Although it would be nice to engage myself in some practical venues just to keep in touch. But my greatest passion is to read anything and everything that manages to be interesting to me. That’s the point me and Ahmed Elsumm were making at one of our conversations; that what keeps you going and excelling at your job is for you to be passionate about it.

I’m falling asleep now as I’m talking, so until next time.

I still don’t know what was the point! February 26, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
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Prologue (Not the logic programming language :D)

I was notified by Mrs. Azza; the secretary of the faculty deputy for students affairs; that I’m a part of a team that is formed every year to go to a village and raise young people’s awareness of computers and their uses in our lives. I was told the trip should take place at the 2nd of February, then after the day passed she told me it was rescheduled at February the 16th. After that date passed as well she told me it was February the 20th. Luckily it was true this time. Here is my account for the events of the day.

Wednesday, February the 20th

  • 7:40, I arrived at the faculty building, no one was there yet, I drank Nescafe and hanged out on the front “yard”, waiting for somebody to show up.
  • 8:20, Mrs. Azza arrived; she told me how things should go: “They know you’re coming, and they are prepared, you’ll make small presentations about computing and its importance in our lives, then you’ll please write a report about the day and present it to me.” I asked where everybody else is and she said they’re coming.
  • 8:30, people started coming; Ahmed Elkhateeb, Ehab, and Sameh. Later on, Amira, Abd ElAzeez, and Islam came.
  • 9:00, after everybody who was supposed to come was here, we were told that the microbus which was supposed to pick us up was not allowed to enter campus, so we had to be “shipped” three by three in a private car to where the microbus waited outside.
  • About 9:30 or even after, we began moving towards our destination; a small village called “Demellash” near Belqas. We were told the distance took 30 minutes by the car. As soon as 15 minutes passed, Ahmed got a call; the summary of which was that we had to go back to the campus to pick up a team from the university media center!!!!!!!
  • Around 10:00, we arrived at the campus, waited for around 30 minutes for the “media team” to assemble and come with us. The microbus got crowded with 4 or 5 of that team. Now we’re around 13!!!!!
  • Around 10:30, we began moving again, arriving at the entry point of the village after about 45 minutes. The village roads were extremely muddy because of the rain, and at one point the car was close to turning up side down because it couldn’t get past a road bump that oversaw a deep hole in the ground (I’m dramatizing the whole incident to justify our entitlement to a compensation for work hazards!!)
  • Around 11:30, we finally arrived at our destination; the youth center for the village. The youth center was closed, the school located just beside it was almost empty I think. We stood there, like tourists in wonderland, and we kept making jokes about the situation. A couple of big guys were standing nearby; probably smoking Bango or something. Our guide; a native from the village, kept wandering around the nearby houses looking for someone who knows the principals of the youth center. Suddenly, the guys who were standing near us began to run in a rush, and we were caught off guard, then we knew why. A police officer showed up, asked the guide about our mission, and said he was sent by the governorate to keep us safe ( بيأمّن المنطقة:D) and I thought in my mind “How come we could be in danger here? It’s a village whose residents should be the epitome of Egyptian hospitality, not hostility!!” but apparently I was wrong somehow.
  • Around 11:45, the principals in the nearby school “received” us. We entered the headmaster’s room and were offered tea. I kept looking around, hundreds of impressions coming to my mind. How come some people here are willing to get an education in this isolated place? Why? People here are not forgotten, they get periodical instructions and inspections from the regional educational board. So the ministry knows they exist, but the school conditions makes you want to cry out loud. Anyway, we were finally shipped 15 minutes later to the youth center after they got someone to open it for us. We sat in a gloomy room, waiting for someone to tell us why the hell are we here if no one knows we’re coming and no one cares!!!
  • Around 12:00, we were shipped again to the “library” room in the youth center. The place they call the library has a 50 years old TV, some thin meaningless books that are probably left-outs from people who don’t want them anymore, and a couple of tables. It was a bit cozy though. A woman (presumably the library employee or something) arrived and kept asking us: “Are you a medical mission?” We said no, and wondered why did they get the impression we were doctors, and then we concluded that since some people referred to us as doctors (being seeds of faculty doctors and all!!!) the people of the village assumed we were medical doctors :D. That would have made much more sense to them since they could use our services. But academic doctors?!! What good are we for?!! Anyway, we explained to the lady why we are here, and she was pursing her lips in contempt. “Why didn’t anyone tell us you were coming?” she said. I concluded that she was at home; safely cooking or doing whatever housework, and they grabbed her to come see what’s going on. She’s supposed to be an employee who works at the center everyday and should be there everyday. But since people here don’t give a damn about culture she can stay home and officially she’s at work or something.
  • Around 1:00, they collected some of the school students to come and sit in the library to watch us explain to them how computers are good for them. We agreed that Ahmed would make the presentation, he did, and students knew almost every thing he was talking about!!! I couldn’t stop smiling as I kept listening to the students repeat in one voice after Ahmed whatever he said. It reminded me of my school days. I remembered how enthusiastic I used to feel about things, about knowing stuff and acquiring new information. I said to myself “These young students are not getting the most prestigious education, but some of them sure want to learn and love to learn. And they’re getting their education in the middle of no where; they walk through the mud to their school, and their parents struggle to provide them with the necessary stationary although they’re probably poor, that sure accounts to something deeply meaningful to them; even if they don’t realize it yet.” I remember how I felt when I was young; how the education atmosphere provided me with a sense of warmth and security, and also with a sense of responsibility. I wish these little boys and girls are feeling the same way, or at least a portion of them.
  • We wrapped it up at around 1:30, and after the team of the “university media center” made some “trivial” meetings with some students and teachers, we collected our things and prepared to leave. The same excruciating trip to head out of the village was made, and for the second time we were almost killed :D. We finally made it to the city, thanking Allah that we didn’t have to go through this trip on a daily basis. But I kept wondering about university students who lived in that village, how do they make it to the city everyday? I don’t have a clue.


I have wasted around five hours of my time (from 7:40 to 1:00, I excluded the time that was actually used for the presentation and the trip back to the city) for no apparent reason. I didn’t raise any awareness, I wanted to talk to the children but the media center people with us who didn’t care and wanted to go home would have killed me if I made them stay any longer. They have a point though; there was no planning or anything, and it was a very stupid charade that was conducted for the benefit of the university image as an institute that contributes to the community. I’m sorry to say this, but I know the report about the trip will come up to be an “excellent” account of the “awareness” we developed in these young helpless kids. This is not how things should be! It should not be about an image, it should be about a real and tangible benefit! And what the hell do these people need with a youth center?!!!!! The “expenses” that go to principals in that youth center should go to the school to make better conditions for real education. When that’s settled, we can think of recreational activities for people who can hardly afford for the basic needs in life, let alone go play some ping pong and “read” books beyond their needs!

On the good side, I had some good laughs, it’s an irony that I could laugh in such a sarcastic situation, but I did and so did my colleagues.

"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.