Monday, March 29, 2010

Update: learning in Lima

It has been a little while since my last blog. I was gonna tell you all how busy I have been with homework (over 400 pages of reading in the last week), but the fact of the matter is that I have just been procrastinating on writing another update for no concrete reason, save a lack of new photos to post. I have also been thinking about the suggestion that a closer look at the people I have met would make for an interesting blog, but I'm still working on that, so I thought I would try to do a part II about my classes here and how they are different from those in the US (meh, more on that momentarily). There are a lot of things about the university here that are distinct that are not related to what I talked about last time, which was mainly the physical setting of the university itself. Everything from the registration process ,to the classes themselves, to the methodology and approach of the instructors has been a little more informal, at least by my own perception, than classes I have taken up to this point. Let me explain in some more detail.

First, I want to stop making all of my explanations in terms of comparisons to the US. It may be hard to get away from this, but I will strive to observe things here on their own merit as opposed to holding them to some other standard.

Anyway, the first step in the process of getting started with classes here was, as it is at most schools, the registration process. At the PUCP this consisted of a number of orientations over the course of a week and a half, all of which were obligatory. There was a security orientation explaining the dangers of living in a city like Lima with all sorts of helpful advice like: don't leave your drink alone and then come back and drink it, don't go to dangerous neighborhoods alone at night, etc. There was also a photo day (for the ID's neccesary to make one's way through the front gate of the fortress), a campus tour, a pre-registration where we chose the courses we thought we would like to take, a week of classes to try out the courses, a second round of registration confirmation and class enrollment, and finally, classes, homework, and the real business of trying to learn thing has begun. This whole convoluted process lasted about two full weeks, which I am inclined to say that I could have done without, but I think it may have also served as a good adjustment period to a very different environment. I also think it is worth mentioning that most of these extra steps in orientation are probably attributable to the fact that we are foreign students.

Some things about the classroom environment here do require a little bit of adjustment. The first thing that may require tweaking in the mind of a student accustomed to a demanding sense of punctuality and attendance in college classes is the perception of time and the expectations students and teachers have about timeliness here. All of my courses are in two hour or three hour blocks- for instance, I have a literature course on Mondays from 9-11 and a Linguistics course on Monday from 11-1. Both of these happen to be in the same classroom, but the policies regarding time are interesting. I have yet to see either professor start class before 10 minutes after the hour, and commonly class will begin at 15-18 minutes after the hour. The first thing my instructor told everyone in my sports class was to not even show up until 15 minutes after the written start time. He said he would be there at that time and we could begin. Students ordinarily roll in sort of casually at around the same time they expect the teacher to arrive. No deference is really given to the fact that the classroom is partially empty or the fact that the professor is speaking, people stroll in as they will and the lecture eventually picks up steam.

Once class is started things are a little bit different from what I have experienced before too. A good example of a different classroom culture here is the attitude towards cell phones. Instructors gave explicit instructions to turn them off during classes, not send text messages, etc., but it is funny and strange that, while the students more or less observe this courtesy, it doesn't seem to apply to the instructors themselves. It reminds me of a story a professor of mine told when explaining varying international attitudes toward public speaking. She said she was attending a conference to help establish the rules of grammar for some dialect that was going to publish a school curriculum in Turkey, with the country's current president in attendance, several heads of state, important leaders from the academic community, etc. She said she was amazed that people never turned off their cell phones for any reason. In the middle of an address by the president of Turkey someone would stand up in a crowded auditorium and shuffle their way to an exit, all the while taking their phone call in a normal speaking voice, without apology for interruption. She said this went on all day until finally a man in the back of the room took a call while an important keynote speaker was up, and did not leave. She was on a panel that organized the conference and she said she felt it was her place to stand up and ask the man to leave or hang up the phone, and in the middle of her doing so, the keynote speaker's phone rang, which he picked up immediately and began his conversation while she was explaining how improper it was to speak on the phone...In the end she said she was the one who felt embarrassed for speaking out against something that everyone else found to be relatively tolerable.

She explained that at this time (probably ten years ago), cell phones and the availability of dependable service were so new to people in that part of Turkey that it was still a novelty to be able to talk to people anywhere, anytime, and that no one was really annoyed enough to observe what many consider to be a common social convention. I think the case here in Lima is quite a bit different in the reasoning for why people do what they do on their phones in class, but is still funny to me because the same professors who warned students not to use their phones in class regularly do so. My 19th century lit professor has received a brief phone call or a text message literally every day since the first day of class. She doesnt even stop talking or excuse herself to do so. She pauses in the middle of 'The obvious importance of the early work of Pablo de Olavide is  (text, text, text) that he clearly differentiated himself from other neoclassical authors  by (text, text, text) focusing on the Spanish customs and rights and transporting them to Lima. I have another professor who has not answered his phone in class, but everytime it rings he pauses, says "one moment, please", looks thoughtfully at his phone as if expecting an important call, waits for it to stop ringing, and then continues. He never turns off his phone and he never picks it up, he seems comforted by knowing that he could receive an important call during class, not that he has had need to yet.

I think all of this cell phone behavior can be explained by exploring the expextations for a relationship between student and teacher. To try to explain this I think it would be beneficial to make a direct comparison to the attitudes in theUS. Basically the attitude of students in US schools is one that reflects an approach to teaching that centers around suiting classes to a student's needs. In addition to the idea that instructors listen to students, it the idea that they are somehow equal; if a student is expected to follow a certain rule, say, not speaking on their cell phone, then a professpr should not only do the same, but will lead by example and be extra cautious to turn off their phone, etc.  I am sure someone will correct me if this is too far off base, but I am referring, in a roundabout way, to a student centered teaching methodology that promotes attitudes where students and teachers are in many ways equal,  like feedback about the content of lesson plans (if it helps me leanr better, why shouldnt I request the use of more audiovisual materials in the class lectures?), student preferences for different ways of presenting material, an expectation that students should voice their opinions and professors should, within reason, accomodate their desires as long as they don't negatively influence any other aspect of the class. I am not sure what one might call a contrasting methodology that places priority on the ability of the student to absorb the information presented rather than contribute to it; in other words, questions are not encouraged unless they are fundamental to understanding the lecture, not just for you personally, but for everyone listening. Student feedback (at least in the form of handraising during the lecture) is not valued as a way of retooling the class for an improved learning experience and would likely be disregarded by most instructors, or even considered disrespectful. Notetaking is a virtue somewhere in between cleanliness and godliness. The ability of a student to receive information and accurately apply it, repeat it, and understand it independently seem, at least in my experience so for, to be the benchmarks for succesfully teaching something. Maybe a better way of putting that is that all you need to worry about is learning, leave all the teaching to them.

In a classroom in the US, a student could raise his hand with a partially correct answer, a sort of question sort of answer, or a just plain wrong answer, and I think the reaction of most teachers is to first affirm the fact that the student has chosen to participate by saying something benignly positive like, "perhaps another way of interpreting Ben's point is", or, "lets think about how we can apply that idea to this...". In my classes here, a half question, a wrong answer, a partial answer or otherwise would likely result in a polite, but direct: "Im sorry, but the correct answer is...", or, "you have forgotten an important element, which is...", or you might get passed by, ignored, and lloked over for the next student who believes he has the answer. I have the impression that if a student puts forth a lot of effort here, and fails, he has still failed (which is intimidating on a certain level, but seems entirely realistic), while we feel compelled in the US to reward effort in the classroom in much the same way we reward correctness, ability, or whatever it is that constitutes the subject at hand. This is a nice thought, and there may well be a place for it in education, but I think the contrast is refreshing.I think one of the byproducts of an extremely student centered teaching methodology is students who become very dependent on feedback (both their ability to contribute it and their professor's tendency to give it), and students who can feel emotionally vested in the approval of their instructor, rather than an absolute focus on the content of the course and their mastery of it, which will continue to be important long after the course is over.

This is a really summary way of considering teaching methodology and relationships between students, professors and materials, but I myself have noticed I am a little uneasy at times with the differences in expectations, due partially to the idea that I have unconsciously developed that I am important in the class. This may be a revealing statment about students in the US, or it may just be a revealing statement about how I see myself as a learner (a little self-centered, eh?), but I think the short time I have spent here already has been instructive as a reminder that: 1) The class is not there to work for me, I need to labor on the material, try and fail (which implies trying multiple times), and possibly challenge myself enough to reach a point that I can admit that I don't understand the material. I can't remember ever having been pressured to do admit that I was wrong in any way in my classes in college up to this point. 2) Learning can be a two way street, but for a student it is probably advisable to adopt the attitude that you strive to understand first, and then strive to be understood. This attitude specifically seems to evade a lot of students that I have had class with in the US. A tendency to speak first and then think about whether it made sense later, is a common occurence. 3) I enjoy the positive pressure of an independent learning experience, because I think it helps prepare me for the realities of having responsibilities outside of school. It makes sense to me that a teacher should not be directly interested in whether I fully grasp the material, or rather, should not be preoccupied by it, but should be honest and direct about how well I have grasped the material.

Anyway, so much for the avoidance of direct comparisons. You can't avoid where you come from, I guess you might as well incorporate in (in your blog and in your life). I will leave you with that nugget of wisdom and a promise that I will try to take some pictures soon and write something about some people I know here, maybe the people from my house. Thanks for reading.



  1. hmmm interesting thoughts...I am however interested in making sure my students fully grasp the material I am presenting. To me learning is a two way street and we both have a responsibility in it....why teach if they don't grasp? part of the joy of teaching is seeing students grasp the information but I think I know what you are getting at. Love Mommy

  2. Ahh-the old "frame of reference and is there an objective reality beyond any one person's or culture's subjective point of view?" question. Interesting observations.


  3. I think you make good points about the how student centered the classroom in the United States tends to be. I imagine it could be a culture shock for United States students to be dropped into a teacher centered environment. A lot of teachers in the US don't teach like that because students have recorses against such teaching styles, and it tends to be interpreted as lazy. Maybe it is the student centered type classroom that fosters lazy students though. . .

  4. In a student centered atmosphere I think it is easy to develop the attitude (even in unconscious ways) that the teacher is there to work for you, while a teacher centered environment puts the honus of finding things out, understanding the material, making important connections, in other words, all of the things that self actuated learners tend to do, very squarely on the students shoulders. It is sort of intimidating. I have found myself at important points in certain classes thinking: "ok, when do we get to the part where you tell me exactly what it is you want me to know for the exam?". The reality here is that I think teachers are a lot less likely to give that as a crutch for students, but fully expect them to draw their own conclusions.

  5. Dad,

    I had a teacher who used to argue that by its very definition culture was an attempt to define as naturally occuring things that were entirely, purposefully created by man. Also, there are a number of popular linguistics theories that rest on the notion that we can only define culture, language, and even words and meanings themselves in relationship to other words, systems, cultures, etc. So, I think the objective reality is the confluence of all cultures, perspectives, etc. Thats a pretty intentionally convolluted answer, but that's the way things seem...

  6. Mom, what I mean to say is not that teachers dont care about their students grasping the material, but that it is important to realize that a certain percentage of students, statistically, if not practically, should fail. If all of your students are getting all of the answers, they mot not be getting everything they could out of what you are teaching.

  7. My college experience in the US was, for the most part, just like what you are going through in Lima. The reason for that for me in the States was extremely large class sizes; in a classroom of 300-600 students and so much information to get through, if 15% of the students had questions they wouldn't ever finish class. Often I would go through the whole semester and never speak to my professor. But if you are comparing apples to apples with the size of the class, then it is much easier to see the difference of teaching styles.

  8. In the US a lot of students end up bringing their personal lives in their comments. Irrelevant. Sometimes a worrying part of the class just want to talk and say whatever comes to their minds, more than helping themselves (and eventually the class) to understand the subject taught through questions and occasional (and relevant) discussions in the class.

    But, Beno, this is only a tiny part of a huge, sweaty conversation.

  9. I think it would be tough for you to NOT compare your new experience to your past experiences! Thanks for the new post, always enjoyable.

  10. hmm, sweaty conversation indeed...

  11. Imagina a un viejo de pueblo con una boina a cuadros y una azada al hombro, en mitad de un campo infinito sin ningún árbol, que grita con lágrimas en los ojos: "¡Benjamííííín!"

    Venga, muchacho, dale a la tecla.