Thursday, March 4, 2010

Classroom Dynamics

I just finished another round of my bi-weekly accounting class, and as usual I'm finding my blood pressure up and my shoulders tense.  Why?  The dynamics of this classroom infuriate me--it's not the subject material, the professor, or even the workload, it's my fellow students.

Even though it's a Managerial Accounting class I feel that the ratio of younger students (freshmen or sophomores) is much higher in the class, so initially I wasn't surprised by a bit more giggling and carrying on.  However, it got worse.  Students speak over the doctor, raise their voices instead of their hands, hold side conversations, ask each other questions that the professor is currently answering because someone else just asked it....the list goes on.  For a college professor, I imagine this is what they wanted to avoid when they decided to teach at the university level!  Yelling over students, tapping pens on tables to be heard and to get the students to settle--is this really what should go on in a college classroom?

In my syllabi in my US college there were usually small sections on "air time" or respecting others when talking, etc.  This is perhaps the only class I have been in at college where this section was necessary, because I always sort of tuned out when we went over that part on the first day of whatever course.  It's one of those "well DUH" things where we are trained in the US to respect the professor absolutely as well as others when speaking.

Being the lone American in this class is a bit strange, because I feel like I'm out of the dynamics in many ways because of these habits we're taught.  This class is all Egyptians, and predominantly they are loud or at least do not properly listen to the professor and then waste class time asking questions that have already been answered.  Here's the strange thing: they seem so rude when class is in session but then they are perfectly polite on an individual basis and when approaching the professor after class--a huge difference in behavior.

I think this all goes back to something about the training we give American students versus Egyptians.
Americans have the discipline and are taught to focus on themselves.  Instead of holding a side conversation with a friend for clarification on some point, we are taught to analyze within our personal level, decide what we personally do or do not understand, and then speak up to ask a question at the appropriate time.  We focus on our individual understanding, tuning out other students unless they ask a question we may need to know the answer to.  Here, Egyptian students seem to be taught (until the American-style system untrains them, which looks like it happens around the Junior year here but probably depends on how harsh a professor is) a hierarchical system in which they should rely on their peers for answers rather than the professor.  Asking a professor violates this hierarchy of co-dependence, and ends up (I would argue) coming across as individualistic. You think your understanding is important enough to ask the professor directly rather than a peer.  I also suspect the idea here is to not disrupt the professor, which actually has the opposite effect: the classroom is overwhelmed by side conversations.

This is a dilemma IR people are pretty familiar with too, as a side note: disaster of the commons.  Ignoring the disaster of the commons is something I've seen a lot here in Egypt, interestingly.   The good of all in the long run is ignored by the immediate needs/desires of the individual.  It's the same thing that makes people think throwing one piece of garbage on the street is not going to contribute at all substantially to environmental degradation.  There are millions of individuals in Cairo, and millions of pieces of trash on the street. Let's face it, as much as I love Cairo it is not a "clean" city.  I'm not sure if this is just a focus on convenience, an ignorance of long-term ramifications, or blind uncaring, but it's the same dynamic that leads to students thinking "oh if I just whisper this question to my friend it won't disturb the class" when in fact 40 people thinking that does cause a significant problem.

This is all just food for thought and observations of course.  I was bored in the 5 minutes during which the professor was forced to explain 3 different times why he combined two line items on an income statement so I had some free time to ponder.

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