Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jordan Challenge 7: Teach at the University of Jordan

Today I wrote the first of what I hope will be a monthly blog post for our political science blog at Saint Michael's College, and it made me realize something funny.  In my list of challenges in Jordan, I never listed the nominal reason I'm here in the first place: teaching at the University of Jordan.  I think part of the reason that I didn't think of it as a challenge is that, because the courses I could teach were a poor match up with the courses they needed taught in the American Studies program this semester, I actually have a very light load. In fact, I'm only teaching one graduate course, and that's to a small class.  To remedy the situation for next semester I'll be submitting a list of courses I could teach not only in American Studies but also in several other grad programs run within the Faculty of International Studies where I'm assigned. I've been assured by my Dean that I won't get off quite this easily next time.

On further reflection, though, I've come to realize that my teaching assignment, light as it is, is still a challenge, for both my students and me.  There's nothing like an intensive three-hour discussion-oriented format to make a person remember that linguistic and cultural differences are real.  For starters, the course, like all the courses in the graduate American Studies program, are taught in English.  This is obviously a huge boon for me, since I don't speak Arabic (though I am definitely putting in some real time in and out of class trying to learn it) but it is a huge burden on my students, who must not only communicate during class time, but also complete all their assigned readings and papers. On my end, all the professors, administrators and staff I have worked with are fluent in English, and graciously don't make a big deal of the fact that I can't join in the small talk of the department.  But the actual documents of the program, including things like the roll sheet for the class, are in Arabic, and so the secretaries very kindly transliterated the students' names for me, or I wouldn't have been able to see who was who in our first class meeting.

We all agree that my office is a much better place to hold class -- among other things, the chairs are more comfortable.
As for cultural differences, there are the obvious ones, such as differences in dress (e.g. out in public people dress much more conservatively than they do in the United States) and religion.  But there are also many more subtle differences that come out in interesting ways during class discussions or day-to-day interactions.  One of the interesting differences between the way Islam is practiced in Jordan and the way Christianity is practiced in the United States, is that Islam is much more woven into the fabric of everyday life.  There is a call to prayer five times a day, and so we take our break during class so that it will coincide with the call that occurs during that time. Everyday speech has many references to Allah (like insha'Allah -- if God wishes, which is the standard response to any stated plan). Culturally, the family unit is very important here. Most single adults live with their parents, only moving when they get married.  Family homes (and therefore lucky foreign renters like me)  have lovely formal dining rooms where everyone gets together for meals, and extended families are very important too. In our class, which is about American social problems, we've been talking a lot about the American value of liberty and it's connection to individualism in American culture.  This is quite a contrast with values here that  focus on individual's roles and responsibilities within their family and community.
Here are Eman and Israa...

....and here are Rana and Rola.  When I told them about the poli sci blog they all agreed to be photographed, though they did suggest in the future a bit of advanced warning would be nice.

These differences in values translate into differences in the way we see social problem. For example in discussions and a writing assignment my students wondered if perhaps the disintegration of the American traditional family and the large amounts of liberty we Americans take for granted are factors in the alcohol and drug use and violence that they pointed out as some of our social problems. (Two others that were often listed were racial inequality and gender discrimination -- which I had not predicted as topping the list.)

So far we've had a very values-focused discussion, looking at the way that Americans view equity, security, efficiency and liberty. We've also done some review of American history and next week will do the same with American political institutions.  After that we dig into three social problems areas: health care; racial and income inequality; and criminal justice. We'll end with students presenting their research on their own choice of an American social problem. I'm lucky that I have a class that's very forgiving of my inability to speak Arabic and lack of cultural knowledge about everyday things they take for granted.  I'm learning a lot from them, and hope they feel the same way about me and the class.  Should be a fascinating semester!
Not a great shot, but one I associate with leaving campus.  The campus is very large, and all of it is surrounded by a big fence with three gates.  This is the main gate, and there is a very big road in front of it, and a collection of fast food restaurants and businesses catering to students on the other side.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Trish. I'm sure your class is amazing! When I was there I nicknamed that street with all the fast food places 'Cholesterol Avenue'.