The musings of a feminist

“The fact that good pedagogy requires emotional intelligence has been demonstrated time and again by educational researchers. The effective exercise of our profession requires us to tap into our own and our students’ feelings”. This piece from Palmer resonated so much with me because I was reminded yet again why I want to be a lecturer. I was in a science faculty in Ghana and the only female lecturer I had in my four years as an undergrad was a lady from the arts department who taught us communication skills, a mandatory course for all freshmen in the university. After my first year, I did not encounter any female lecturers. The common explanation for this, coined by students and even lecturers alike, was that science was a field mainly for men and that the few women who got into science lacked the tenacity for higher education in science, hence the low number of female science lecturers in the universities in Ghana. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, girls who had been randomly assigned to an all-girls classroom were more engaged in physics and less likely to agree with statements such as “physics is for boys.” On the other hand, girls who had been randomly assigned to coed physics class were more likely to agree that “physics is for boys.” I ask myself why this is so and I am tempted to believe that some emotional intelligence, like Palmer puts it, is acquired by the girls in the all-girls classroom through their interaction with each other. What tipped the scales in favor of this perception, is an ongoing phenomenon in Ghana. For a while now, the issue of alleged sex for good grades has been rampant in university campuses in the west of Africa. Usually referred to as an “A for a lay”, students are propositioned frequently by their instructors to exchange sexual favors for good grades. For my friends who were not lucky enough to do so well in examinations, this was a very common situation that they always found themselves in. While for most of my friends, such situations mortified them, I had my career defining moment when one of my friends who had slept with two of the men on her defense committee, expressed her feelings about her proposition with me. In words that I will never forget, she told me that she felt empowered when lecturers propositioned her because although she could never get to their level educationally and they seemed so brilliantly superior, she was satisfied with the fact that during those short moments when she was in bed with them, she could feel her own power. I remember as a 21 year old, full of pride and ego about my intellectual prowess, I asked her, but most importantly, I asked myself, why she was obliged to think that she could never get to their level educationally and she only felt her power in bed with them. I decided there and then to strive to be a lecturer in the university so that no other girl after I am a lecturer, will think this way ever again. I feel that it is the job of women to encourage women, like no man can. I want to be that lecturer that taps into both mine and the feelings of my students, especially female students, to propel them forward. At the risk of sounding too much of a feminist, I know that women can transfer emotional intelligence to other women more easily, than men can. And I am reminded that I can be that professor that my students can connect to emotionally, has that emotional intelligence, and therefore, give them a more total education than the current school system offers.

Parallel lines

I find Nicholas Carr’s article on whether Google is making us stupid, very interesting. Especially because, I recently had a conversation with my grandmother along parallel lines. Whiles my conversation with my grandmother is not on reading, I can actually draw some similarities with this article. My grandmother recently moved in with one of my aunties who had just had a baby and needed help looking after the baby since she has a 9 to 5 job. My grandmother is not happy at all in her new environment and I was a little perplexed since she loves babies and she has more people to talk to now than she did when she was living in her own home. Everyone is confused about her behavior and I got appointed to ask her about her strange behavior.

After much probing, she finally confessed that she wasn’t happy because the food tasted very differently! I was very surprised since she actually cooks the meals for the household herself. So I asked her if it was because she couldn’t get all the ingredients she needed for the food in that neighborhood, to which she replied that she did indeed get all the ingredients she needed. Frustratingly, I asked her what then was the problem and she replied in an equally frustrating tone that it was because she had to cook the meals on a gas stove!

Back in her home, she always cooked on a coal pot that used charcoal but in the city where my auntie lives, she had to cook on a gas stove. She went on to complain bitterly about how the gas stove heats up the food differently than how the coal pot does, resulting in the different taste of the food. As ridiculous as that sounded, I was reminded of how I thought my food tasted differently here than when I cooked in Ghana. I was using the same ingredients but they tasted differently and I remember telling my roommates how I thought certain foodstuff in the states tasted differently resulting in a slightly different taste of my food.

Looking back, and reflecting on the conversation with my grandmother as well as on the thoughts of Carr in his article, I am tempted to believe that my grandmother must be right. Perhaps, my food tasted differently now because I cooked on an electric stove here when I had always cooked on a gas stove in Ghana. I remember asking myself why my food always tasted different from my grandmother’s although I used the same procedure (mind you, I am a very methodological person). Maybe, it was because my grandmother always cooked on a coal pot and I cooked on a gas stove.

Just like Google is making it easier for us to find the information we need and actually reducing the amount of time we spend on researching, electric and gas stoves are making it easier for people to cook. But perhaps, this easy mode has a slightly different effect on our wiring or cognitive thinking and in mine and my grandmother’s case, on our taste buds. It will be very interesting to see how much research reveals in the future about how recent technologies and small changes in lifestyles, affect us….

Overly critical of ‘different’?

I am so glad that I ain’t the only one who had an issue with plagiarism in America. And I am exceedingly glad that Kinchloe is American. I vividly recollect the expression on a teaching assistant’s face in my first semester here as a Master’s student. She was trying to tell me that the essay she had reviewed was too good to be something I could come up with on my own. She told me that plagiarism was a serious offense in America and that she was doing me a favor by giving me half the marks for that work and to make this my final plagiarized work before she reports me. I just looked at her, unable to find meaning in what she had said and too surprised to form words to respond.

I had only just come to the country and I was trying to build my ego up after realizing that being the best student in my English class does not necessarily mean that Americans will hear me when I speak. I had become a shell of my usual chirpy self and couldn’t participate in class discussions. To me, that meant, I would have to do my assignments well which included making sure my essays were on point. So imagine my shock when the teaching assistant thought me incapable of writing that essay. Hey, did I say I was the best English student in my class?

This brings me to Kinchloe’s inference to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. I definitely identify with this sentence ‘In the same way that money is a form of “economic capital,” membership in the dominant culture affords individuals ways of knowing, acting, and being (cultural capital) that can be “cashed in” in order to get ahead in the lived world.’ When I was in my country, I will usually be the first to raise my hands to share my opinions. I don’t know whether this changed as I became older or it is because I am uncomfortable to share my opinion here in an accent. The former might be so if I behaved in a similar way when I go to my country but I don’t. I actually talk more then and act vastly different from when I am here. Not fully understanding the codes of the dominant cultural capital, definitely has an effect on how I talk and act here.

As teachers, I think it is important to key in on those that might be marginalized in any way, and try to be inclusive of them in the classroom. If care is not taken, this might lead to picking on these students. So, it takes considerable effort and creative thinking to do that. I hope I am able to achieve that feat with time.

Lessons from dancing

My friend, Audrey from South Carolina, seems to have this unshakeable belief about dancing and Africans. To her, dancing is in the genes of an African. Nobody can let her believe otherwise. Audrey has managed to convince herself, my roommates and perhaps, myself, that dancing is one of the evolved traits, characteristic of African descendants.

You see, Audrey has spent quite a substantial amount of money on herself, with the aim of being a good dancer. She has been in salsa classes since she was 2, joined a hip-hop dancing crew in high school and took African studies with emphasis on African dance as an undergrad. She goes to the YMCA to dance every second and last Saturday of the month and dances to every beat she hears, no matter the place, to the embarrassment of the people around.

However, no matter how often and hard Audrey tries to dance, she always comes across as clumsy and trying too hard. Once, she hit her foot against a table while trying out a simple dance move and had to see the doctor to ease her pain. A mutual friend of Audrey and I, recently confided in me about how uncomfortable she feels whenever she sees Audrey dancing at the YMCA.

One day, while dancing with Audrey, she threw her hands in the air despairingly, while muttering that I was so good at dancing because I was African. Like Audrey, I too, love to dance. I dance whenever I can, in the shower, in the kitchen and usually, in the living room with my friends and roommates cheering me on. But, there is a little difference between Audrey and I… people love to see me dance. My roommates think that unlike Audrey, I move with the rhythm of the song, I do not strive to dance, I just go with the flow and dance. I am my authentic self when I dance and that’s why people love to see me dance.

I so wish I had that kind of flair for teaching as I have for dancing. When it comes to teaching, I am a 100% Audrey. I love to teach and I want to be a teacher after school, but I come across as trying too hard and perhaps, clumsy. I cannot place a finger on the rhythm of my students and go with the flow. I always overthink and end up in pain, just like Audrey. Had it not been for the fact that most of my teachers, growing up in Africa, were amazing, I would be tempted to throw my hands in the air like Audrey, and say lamely that I am bad at teaching because I am African.

I know that teaching is not a genetic trait but when I see some people teach with very natural flairs, I begin to question my quest to be a good teacher and wonder if I have the teaching genetic traits…..

Forget memorization, let’s make it memorable!

When you see a traffic light                                                                                                                                                           There is something you should know                                                                                                                                           Red means stop                                                                                                                                                                                     Yellow means get ready                                                                                                                                                                     Green means go, go, go and go

When I was in nursery, this is the rhyme I was taught. Considering the fact that we had no traffic lights in our town, this might have sounded ridiculous to our parents who could not stop us from reciting it back at home. When I turned 17 years and went to the city and saw the traffic light for the first time, I knew exactly what to do. Of course, I didn’t recite the poem out loud but you bet I recited it all the same. I wasn’t ready to let anyone know I was fresh in the city…Funny enough, when I came to the states where traffic lights are within 100 meters of each other (I hate the main street), I still do recite the poem whenever I get to one…just so you know why my lips are moving when you stop by my car in traffic.

In primary school, there were some subjects that everyone was bound to make an A in. Everyone got an A not because the classes were easy, we did well because the classes involved some form of activity. For Math for instance, every child will go around after school to collect Coca Cola bottle caps. We went in search of these bottle caps in groups and always had fun seeing who will get the most caps. After we have brought them all to the teacher, the teacher distributed the caps as evenly as possible among the students. These are what we used to learn our Addition and Subtraction problems. For instance if we were asked to solve ’13 +12’, we would just count 13 caps to one side, count 12 to another, and then add the two sets of caps to get an answer.

Moving on, I know for sure I’m not the only one who forgot an answer to a question in the examination room only to remember right after submission, sometimes, right outside the door. Whenever I got that happen to me, I will ask myself how I learned that particular thing or how I was taught. I realized that those questions are the ones that I never discussed with my friends. Prior to examinations, my friends and I formed study groups where we discussed questions and their answers. There was no way I missed any of those questions, I always got them right. But those I didn’t discuss, although I had learned them, were always hard to remember.

The point I am trying to make is, the normal straight forward lectures do not always produce the best results. It takes rather unconventional and creative ways to keep students interested in boring lectures. It also takes a lot of interaction between students and peers, and among peers in order to get information across to leaners. The onus lies on both teachers and students to make learning fun….

My Grandmother’s Recipe

Once in primary school, I got into a fight with an older kid in another class who was trying to bully my friend. Considering the fact that in my adult life, I am only 5.4 inches tall and weigh 125 pounds, much of this height and weight I gained only in the last 3 years, it wasn’t a particularly great idea to stand up to this tall kid. A little blow on the mouth was all it took to shut me up. I went home with one of my front teeth threatening to fall off any minute. My grandmother who is a strong believer in the potency of salt (she uses salt to treat all kinds of illnesses, from malaria to skin diseases to plain old cough), gave me a solution, highly concentrated with salt. My task was to fill my mouth with as much of this solution as it can contain for about fifteen minutes, spit it out and then fill my mouth again with another batch. After this, my grandmother moistened a ball of cotton wool with salt solution and then placed it on the root of the trembling tooth and asked me to hold it in place firmly with my lip. Her aim was to firm the root of the tooth so it does not fall out.

Assessment in the school system to me is like this: to check if the salt solution and cotton wool were doing their job of firming my tooth, I will take the cotton wool out and then wiggle my weak tooth to see if there was any sign of it firming up, every fifteen minutes. My grandmother kept cautioning me to stop doing that but I failed to listen until finally, the tooth fell out. Although my initial objective was to just ‘assess’ my tooth, I did more harm than good. A teacher engaged in an online debate on the importance of assessment used a different analogy of a plant being repeatedly ripped out of the soil to examine its growing status. Her argument was that, there are better ways of assessing students other than a standardized test.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that as educationists, our curriculum should be wide enough to cater for all kinds of students. As diverse as our thought processes are as humans, we should try to accommodate each other’s lines of reasoning. Having a specific rigid grading rubric where a student gets less marks depending on his or her deviation from the supposedly right answer, is not correct. Insisting that one travels a straight line in other to get to a particular destination, can be interpreted in so many ways by different students (just like this plot shows, this is for my engineer friends :)).

If teachers do their jobs well, I am of the view that there is no need for assessing the performance of the students after a lesson. If my grandmother had told me that the reason why she asked me to keep the cotton wool firmly in place with my lip was to prevent my teeth from moving and therefore allow it to be firm, I don’t think I would have found wisdom in the need to assess the firming process. If we do our jobs well, the result will definitely be positive, no need for assessment. Every teacher ought to be like my grandmother, she believes the process, and so she finds no need for assessment.


Chew and pour; Pass and forget

The title of this blog is a very popular phrase among students in Ghana. From infancy, students are ranked as either good or bad, based on their ability to regurgitate exactly what the teacher wrote on the board, in an exam room with no board. The questions are mostly straight forward like ‘what is osmosis’ and the teacher in turn has a rigid marking scheme where points are taken off if some words are omitted, with no attention paid to how the student understands the term.

As such, students blessed with retentive memories were deemed very smart while students that might not have this ability but are creative enough to truly understand the term and define it in their own way, are at a disadvantage. For a long time as a student, I thanked God and sang all the Hallelujah songs to Him for making me smart. I started to sing a different tune when I got to America. Immediately I stepped foot in an American classroom, my level of smartness reduced significantly and then I started praying fervently for my numerous recent sins to be forgiven, so that I can be smart again.

Being a merciful God, He eventually gave me a renewed mind after I had had the rudest shock of my life in my first semester exams. I had had my basic education through to my first degree in Ghana and only came here for graduate studies. Prior to this exams, I had a 100% success rate of predicting every question that might possibly be asked in an exam. I was the local champion throughout my schooling in Ghana with the special talent for correctly anticipating the questions that a teacher was most likely to ask. I was the special girl with the neat handwriting who wrote out possible questions for a future exam, which got photocopied by everyone and was used as a study guide among my friends. Those were the glorious days when it was cool to be my friend and I got special presents nearing exams time, just so I could bless you with my special sheet of paper with my anticipated questions! Wheew!

So, you can just imagine my shock in my first semester here when I got into examination rooms and instead of ‘what is osmosis?’, I encountered ‘in your own words, help your little brother to understand what osmosis is by designing an experimental illustration that tells him a story that pertains to his life history, which will make his friends laugh, but make his aunt and uncle proud of him, while getting him on the teacher’s favorite pet list’ or something like that! I was horrified!!

I digress. But as I said, God was more merciful to me than I deserved and so after that epic failure in that first semester, I got that special tick to unlearn my old ways of learning, forego my local hometown hero status :( and really understand the context of lectures, if I were ever going to be successful here. It would suffice to say that I made it through my master’s degree and got into a doctoral degree program (thanks to fervent prayers!). I don’t think I got any smarter or I  matured (whatever that means) in graduate school, but because I unlearned to stop ‘chewing and pouring, and passing and forgetting’ and learned how to ‘understand and think, and conceptualize and never forget’. This is what mindful learning is to me.