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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Students & Projects & Work...Oh My

Yesterday on facebook, Colleen asked me about students in Beirut and how they differ from students in the U.S. After a few weeks of teaching, here are some initial observations. AUB has a serious-minded student body. My English 204 students, for instance, expressed very specific goals, plans and reasons for attending university. I think a lot of undergraduates at AUB are focused: "I plan to attend medical school at either Duke, Northwestern, or AUB." Or, "I plan to buy a building in Gemmayzeh and open an import/export business." You're less likely to hear "I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my psychology degree." In the U.S., some students have a broader and more open-ended goal of upward mobility through education: "I'll get a degree in business and then get a good job," etc.

I think the difference has to do with material conditions as well as cultural expectations. AUB students don't work. My sense is that only a handful of students here have paid jobs. My Beirut students are fascinated by the work lives of American college students and we discussed the other day the phenomenon of what they called "after school jobs" in the U.S. I told them that a lot of students at UM-Dearborn don't have after-school jobs, they take after-work classes. In a sense, many students here have the time to focus. College is a singular priority, thus they're hyper-serious about it. Also, Lebanese culture places a high value on doing well in order to do your family/clan/community proud. Success or failure is not just an individual thing, it's a family thing. I think U.S. college students tend to use "the individual" as the primary basis for thinking about mobility, work ethic, success, and future plans. Lebanese tend to have a more collective and/or familial mindset. Wasting an opportunity reflects poorly on one's family.

Students in Beirut often come to college from more rigid and structured educational settings too, so discussions, groupwork, and low-stakes writing (all hallmarks of my classes) can appear unstructured to them. They also expect very specific instructions, directive feedback, and explicit grading criteria. Invariably they are multilingual; Arabic and English are standard and often they have also spoken and/or studied French, particular Arabic dialects not limited to Lebanese, or other tongues. Many have lived in multiple countries during their lives and many have familial roots in several countries in the Middle East, the U.S., and sometimes beyond. I have a student who is half Arab and half Czech and grew up in Dubai and Paris. Many are very involved in student or civic organizations that do community service or advocacy work; some of these organizations have a "party" or sectarian affiliation.

A lot of these issues impact and inform the two research projects I'm working on. I have already mentioned that Margaret--a colleague back in Dearborn--and I are linking our two writing courses and students are conducting skype and email interviews with across-the-pond partners about their literate habits. They're essentially gathering data on the academic and non-academic literacies that are part of the lives of college students in the two respective cultures. As students gather this data, Margaret and I are doing a teacher-research project using the partnership as the basis for an analysis of the potential of internationalizing writing courses. The project is just getting started, but we have high hopes for a productive partnership.

The other work I'm doing is with the civic engagement and service learning office here. The office has been extremely hosptiable to me and I have had a great meeting with its director. Interestingly, service learning is a part of the culture of the professional programs here, particularly engineering. They are working (and this is where they are making use of me) to reach out to the humanities and social sciences. This is the exact opposite of UM-Dearborn's Civic Engagement Project, where humanists, anthropolgists, and sociologists comprise most of our core group. Anyway, in addition to working with their office, I'm doing some participant-observation research on several of their initiatives, including a very cool community literacy project in which student-volunteers teach English in a "Night School" setting. I went to their organizational meeting last night, met many of the students involved, and made sure they were comfortable with my presence. They teach four levels of English and each level has four co-teachers. Classes meet four nights a week for the whole year, so I'm worried about data overload, but excited about being involved.


  1. Yesterday in class my students and I talked quite a bit about the project with Bill's students, and I expected that most would not yet have made contact with their Lebanese partners. But I was wrong, and also fascinated to discover that several had made initial contact via Facebook rather than email (or Skype). A few of my students also have visited or lived in Lebanon, so the possibilities for exchange of perspectives are many.

  2. Facebook has a way of facilitating that "social" in a way that email doesn't. I guess we shouldn't be surprised. At any rate, pretty cool that they're friending each other.