GSC Newsletter 21: 1 #2
A Global Perspective on the Educational and Academic Culture at GUST
I had the pleasure of moving from America to Kuwait for three years to teach at GUST. Ever since I arrived at GUST in September, 2017, my experience of the university was overwhelmingly positive. This was truly a happy environment in which to work. The faculty were without exception helpful and friendly; my Chair, the Deans, and the secretarial staff were wonderfully supportive. It was always a pleasure to walk into class: the students were friendly, respectful, and polite. However, as with any institution, there were some concerns, which were shared by many faculty and students. My greatest concern was this: GUST has many students who are genuinely intelligent and talented but their potential is not being realized. Why? Because they are obliged to work in an academic culture in which plagiarism abounds, where many students are not interested in learning, and where students are not typically driven by any work ethic. They often see no reason to work hard. Is it possible to change this academic culture? Many people told me that we cannot; that it is too deeply ingrained. But there are perhaps some steps that could be taken that might move the institution forward, in the broad areas identified below.
What exactly is it that we want our students to learn? At any major university, it is acknowledged that – at least in the humanities – our mission is not to make students simply memorize information or simply to repeat what a professor has told them. Rather, it is to help them to improve their skills in reading, writing, critical thinking, problem-solving and research. In this way, we can prepare them not only for their professional lives but also to be ethically responsible and productive citizens who will help to advance their communities and their country. If we agree that these are our main goals, it is imperative that we address some crucial issues. In pedagogical terms, the most fundamental of these is class size: Much research has shown that reading and writing cannot effectively be taught to large classes (of more than 20 students). In large classes, instructors don’t have time to give students the individual feedback they need. As a result, the writing skills of students remains frozen at exactly the same level. In the absence of genuine help, students resort to plagiarism and reliance on ghost writers. A related issue is student work load: Again, both research and wide experience shows that, if students are given an amount of reading that is far beyond their capacity, they won’t do the reading at all. They will simply read online summaries of the texts (this happens even in America). It would be better to give them a small amount of reading and to go through it carefully with them; this will give them practical guidance through the reading process. Similarly, if students at this level are given a 10-page paper to write, they will not write it themselves. Before they are required to do research papers, they need to be given extended training in basic writing skills – formulating a thesis, producing an outline, writing a coherent paragraph, and assembling an organized paper. Otherwise, they will finish a writing course having produced a long research paper which does not reflect their actual writing ability and without having improved their writing skills. There are a number of other helpful resources that would be very easy to set up. To begin with, an expanded Writing Center, where a greater number of tutors were readily available. There could be an UG writing assistant attached to each class, and each writing assistant would receive 3 credits for the work she does in the center (as part of a training course supervised by the Writing Program Director). This system is already in place at many American universities. There could also be more incentives for students to take pride in their work. For example, over a period of four years, students could be required to produce an electronic portfolio that would showcase their best work at GUST when they apply for jobs or seek admission into graduate schools. Working towards such a portfolio would furnish a great incentive for students to apply themselves, giving them a long-term goal. Students who intend to apply to graduate school could include a capstone project. The portfolio might include samples of the student’s written work, both research papers and shorter writing assignments, presentations, or creative work. Finally, an online electronic journal (for example, for humanities majors) would cost nothing, and could be used to showcase the best work of students in a given department. It could include papers, creative work, visual art, and memoirs, and in general, it could be used to display the uniqueness of GUST and the achievements of its students.
If GUST is intent on establishing a reputation as a research university, there are certain arrangements and strategies that might help all ranks of faculty to be more productive in their research. The most obvious of these is a reduced teaching load: if faculty are teaching 4-5 courses per semester, the vast majority of them will not be productive scholars. In America, such a teaching load would define a college as primarily a teaching institution. There is no high-ranking university that would require more than a 2-3 course load per semester. If the aim is to enhance the national and international profile of GUST, this issue must somehow be addressed. In America, the issue is addressed by using adjunct faculty to teach basic courses (writing courses, large lecture courses), and providing grading assistants to faculty with large courses. There could also be a mentoring system for junior faculty: many young faculty could be advised by their senior colleagues on issues such as: managing time between teaching and research; writing a journal article – junior faculty could benefit from feedback on how to structure what they write, how to produce an effective abstract, introduction, and conclusion, and finding an appropriate journal in which to publish; writing an effective book proposal, finding the right publisher, how to approach a publisher, and how to proceed through the stages of writing a lengthy manuscript. Beyond these formal strategies, it is always helpful to cultivate a campus environment of enthusiasm and engagement with culture and ideas. In addition to the usual seminars that many departments hold on research and pedagogy, it might be useful to hold regular faculty-student colloquia to let students see what kinds of work their professors are doing and to encourage them to be part of the intellectual conversations on campus. These could be organized not merely as seminars but social events with refreshments provided – this would make each session enjoyable and allow opportunities for students to get to know their professors beyond a formal classroom setting. At any rate, these are some of the strategies that I have found to be successful in both America and England.
A university’s reputation and rank are not enhanced by the luxuriousness of its facilities but by the intellectual standards of its teaching and research, which in turn depend upon a culture of learning and ambition that is fostered among both faculty and students.
Mohammed Habib is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University
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