University has been a place where we walk into great halls or auditoriums with anticipation of what the future holds! There we spend numerous hours, every day of the week, all in hopes of gathering sufficient information to make it through to the next semester! Every once in a while we have a brief dialogue with the lecturer, while only the bravest ever attempt to make a remark during a lecture or even oppose or have a conversation regarding a subject in a class! Fear of the loudmouth and know-it-all tagline, has kept many a student silent — and there is heavy cultural pressure to “respect your elders” by never questioning authority… But this can be detrimental to a student hoping to get into postgraduate studies, for a variety of reasons. The most critical of these being the ability to communicate and express an opinion. Having being in a “traditional” university style environment, I was in for a bit of “enlightenment” if you will, on this Fulbright endeavour!
I find myself in a very different environment at the University of Maryland. The research laboratories of the university are collectively known as Centre of Environmental Science, all of which are completely detached from the main university. Here, the community is comprised, solely, of postgraduates and researchers, running various research projects. I’ve been used to boundaries between students and lecturers, so this collegial working environment was an adjustment, culturally and academically. Students didn’t even have to leave the centre for classes – in fact, I was quite impressed that classes were offered via a video network. Even more-so, the small size of the class meant that it would be more interactive too. These “seminar” classes are held once a week for two hours, where we have discussions, with all the lecturers and classmates, about our thoughts on a paper we had to read up on in preparation for the class. The introverted aura I spoke of earlier will not do here as everyone’s perspective is considered important. In fact, part of your final “grade” is built on your vocal participation in class.
This was a bit challenging — even though we were warned at the orientation — that we must actively participate in classes right from the beginning to ensure that we understand, but also to pass the grade! Statistics, we were told, have apparently shown that those don’t do this at the inception of the graduate life, would be quiet the entire semester. Listening to these warnings and having gone through the experience of this newer academic culture, a new thought for African science emerges: Why are we building a culture of individuals who do not question, where an answer is either right or wrong? When do we get to a state where there is fluidity in teaching and learning, in both content and delivery? I know there are differences in teaching style between lectures on the same campus, between universities, and between disciplines. And large classes often discourage opinionated discussions. But there is a lot to learn in acknowledging that one is not always right, and being open to other opinions could be the beginning of education. For both students and lecturers.