Finding Meaning

Colin: What do you see as the goal of a university education? Are you getting that education and/or reaching that goal? What needs to change for you to receive/achieve either?

Snani:

When I first started my university education I was a bit intimidated, because I did not know what to expect, I had so many pre judgments about university, for example are we going to learn new things, are we going to just dig deep in what we already know, I was afraid I’m going to fail or I won’t be able to keep up with the pace, but when I first started it took me a year to understand the core of university education, and my final conclusion was that it is all about methods and techniques. Some classes are productive and some are just about repeating what we already know. It depends on the syllabus and sometimes the teacher. I can’t say that I got exactly what I expected when I first started. But for sure I know now what university education is. It is all about methods and techniques, it is about expanding your insights and digging deep in what you already know. Specially in the field of languages.

DJ:

I think that university education is interesting because in some fields you are forced to actually think and truly show you understand while in others, it is just a continuation of seeing how much you can remember and spit back. Classes and programs like that are pointless because it doesn’t show that you truly understand and can articulate the information so with that I agree with Snani!

Colin:

I agree with Snani in some ways. I went to university to better skills in subjects I love. I feel that I am getting what I want out of Syracuse University because of the training I have received. The skills I have learned in writing, filming, producing, editing, etc., have been helpful for me personally and professionally.

Snani:

Absolutely, university is all about gaining new skills and learning new things and that is one thing I would love to change about my university. It’s true that a lot of extra curricular activities are available and clubs offer so many opportunities for us to learn editing and filming and producing but unfortunately it’s not as popular as it is in the USA, for example these kind of activities are included in your syllabus and you guys get credit for it but in our case we’re only concerned with the academic side.

If I may ask how do you guys get involved in these kind of programs do you choose your own classes??

Can someone majoring in English literature for example attend editing classes or programming classes?

Bederina:

I am so glad that am having the chance to share with you guys my utopian vision about education and how reality changed this vision. When I got my Bachelor’s degree, I thought to myself “great, I am getting rid of the monotonous, dogmatic, boring, repeated basics points that are repeated over and over to generation after generation in boring classroom setting”, but I thought wrong! Things were just the same. So, the reality is that the current education system is made to create workers! I mean most of us are studying to get a well paid job--this is reality, let's face it. What's even worse about these education systems is the fact that what we learn in classrooms is much more different from reality, we learn things theoretically at school and when we go out to face reality and society we stand helpless as if we have never learned a thing, we cannot practice the supposedly learned things. What we see at schools is something and the reality is completely something else, we simply cannot relate things! For me, the ideal education system should be one that can make us enter and face a virtual world, experience and people. A one that can let us at any time, anywhere think and act the right way, a one that does not make of us machines that cannot react instantly to things or interact with people no matter who they are or from where they are, so this is my vision of an ideal education system!

Vanessa:

Going to a university rather than a college, in the U.S. at least, offers students the opportunity to explore more of their interests in course work. When I was applying to colleges and universities during my final year of high school, I was very cautious of the course selection I would have at each institution. This was very important to me because I wanted to be sure that I would be taking classes that I really intrigued me rather than felt mandatory in order to receive a degree. Growing up going to elementary school and high school, I felt that I was less motivated to go to class knowing that I was being forced to learn about something that I did not choose. Though I understand that it is important to share a common knowledge with peers, which is why most elementary and high school curriculums are very similar, I always felt like I wasn't retaining the information they were teaching us because it was forced upon me. So, in response to Snani, we are encouraged to choose our own classes based on the major we have focused our university studies. We are given the freedom to select topics we are interested in, which I find to be a major blessing. In addition to having the opportunity to ultimately choose which courses we are taking, depending on which major we are studying, specific courses are mandatory and encouraged by the institution. So-- An English major will most likely be required to take a specific number of literature classes, writing classes, and humanities classes--- within those categories, the English major is able to choose which courses will follow their personal interest and sequence.

Fatima:

Hello everyone, as a university student, university education topic is my cup of tea. Nowadays, it is a very important topic. I want to share with you my view of university education in Algeria. I think that there are many problems in our university educational system. First of all, in Algeria, we study some modules that are not really important in our daily life. As a student of English, I am studying some modules that I can not relate them to my own present situation; I mean I can not understand its importance in daily life situations so I think it is just a waste of time to study some programs. In addition, Algerian universities have a lack of research tools that can help students develop their understanding. Another bad side is that some students are forced to choose some specialities they don't like as a result of their Baccalaureate exam averages. I think it is somehow hard for Algerian students to reach higher goals. So I'd really like to know if you share some of these lacks in American universities??

Learning Lessons

Nick:

I feel I can relate to a lot of these experiences. I was the youngest school student in my year because of the way the education year falls. When I went to polytechnic (which became this university) in 1976 I was only just 18, and found the apparent sophistication of everyone around me pretty intimidating. I read all kinds of books that I felt I should read to acquire that sophistication, threw myself into student protest and set about gaining maturity. As a consequence, I got a third class degree in communication studies, felt I was really stupid, but knew a lot of stuff that was irrelevant to my course and no one really wanted to talk about. The reading habit never died, and actually the course I had done has prepared me for a lot of stuff later on, although I had to read things over to see this. I went back to study several times and eventually aged 30 trained as an occupational therapist; this enabled me to gain a Master’s degree, another masters and eventually a PhD. All this teaches you how much more there is to learn about than you can ever find out. For 14 years I have been teaching at the same university I performed so dismally at back in the 1970s, seeing some students doing pretty much the same thing I did. But you can't afford to make the same mistakes because whereas education was free in the UK it is not so now. All the same, a lot of people will take out a loan to study the professional programmes we teach. Overcompensating paid off in that I'm in a situation where I can do stuff like this, feeding into a very interesting project with all of you and exploring how other people think. I never imagined I'd be able to do this.

Snani:

Today I was in my translation class, we were supposed to translate from Arabic to English, and everyone knows that Arabic is a very hard language; it is literally endless. So we came across the word guitar in Arabic قيثارة of course this word can mean either a guitar or harp. After putting so much effort into our translated paragraphs, we all started reading what we wrote. But she turned it all down saying that we did not do a good job and of course everyone was disappointed including myself. When we asked her about the reason she said "you guys have missed a word, unless you find the accurate one, your entire paragraphs won't be taken into consideration" and when we asked about the accurate word she said we have to look it up. We were like a guitar is a Guitar, it doesn't make sense. At the end of our session, she said that all our texts were wrong only because we did not use the word harp instead of guitar. The entire class was disappointed we were like ‘I'm never going to do this again'. Because we were blamed for something that from my point of view was not our fault, she should have cleared the misunderstanding first. Or at least accept the rest of the text, not drag everything down because of one word. And that is something that I have seen along my academic years; How the student's efforts are pushed to the side whenever a mistake is made. I'm not trying to judge or complain, I'm just saying that today, I came across a situation that made me upset, and made me question the efficiency of such teaching techniques. So if any of you guys have been through an experience where you you came face-to-face with disappointment or injustice please share.

Colin:

I also get discouraged with similar issues. My experience with language classes has been somewhat similar. I think my professors are a little bit easier on us, but I feel that I can understand why your teacher was so harsh. It can be hard to translate Arabic into exact English. I personally look at Arabic like it is a language of poetry. It has depth, and its words can have so many meanings that knowing the true meaning of the writer’s words can at times be a fascinating mystery.

I seriously applaud you all in Algeria for your incredible English, as my skills in a second language are not nearly as far along.

Bederina:

In response to Snani, I know how does it feel when your hard work is not appreciated. We, the student, like to get some positive feedback time to time from our teachers, but it's just fine if you don't get some. I think this experience should not let you feel down, making mistakes is essential in the process of learning, though you guys did not make a huge mistake, but no harm. so what I want to say now is that you cannot be upset for that, I can understand that your teacher was doing her job, and you know that teaching is a great responsibility especially teaching foreign languages, be sure that one word mistake can change the whole meaning. she had the total right not to accept your translation, but she could've refused it in a better way so that you guys don't get disappointed, a way like "your work is good but there is one inaccurate word". You see, even rejection can be done harmlessly! So, don't be upset, we all went through similar situation but things are fine after all!

Snani:

Thank you all for your responses, and thank you Colin for thinking highly of us. I see this as a chance where we can learn from each other and appreciate each other more, so as Bederina mentioned there are different techniques when it comes to teaching it's not only about teenagers or children but also in university certain methods need to be used. I personally came across an amazing teacher. The way her passion was showcased in her teaching made us all fall in love with that particular module. We literally knew nothing at the beginning of the semester. But by getting engaged in so many activities with her we aced that module at the end of the year. And I guess that experience helped me on so many levels and it will help me to become the teacher that I have always dreamt to be. So if anyone of you ever came across a teacher that motivated them or helped them to change something about themselves to the positive side please share.

Understanding Differences

DJ:

Snani, It's interesting that the experience you have in the language class is also the experience many students have in many others. Professors expect you to be able to read their minds or think completely like them. This is my biggest issue with the university education system as we are all different people. We think differently and have been through very different life experiences that have forced us to accept these differences. So how can we all truly expect to believe or know the same things.

Snani:

That is exactly what I believe, DJ. We are not the same, we all have different perspectives and we all think differently, even though we might agree on the same points, but we each have our own way to express ourselves. Teachers and students should be accepting and willing to review other people's ideas. As long as it all follows the same direction , it should be considered as a valid answer. No opinion is right or wrong, that's why we should all work together and meet somewhere in between.

Nick:

Hi Snani. I write and edit books that try to redress the English language dominance in my profession by publishing work from other languages in English, but translation is a huge headache. This year I have been working with people whose first languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Hindi and German, in particular. I don't translate, but edit the translations into workable text. Those which are least like European languages are very hard to work through, because the concepts are so different, and since I don't speak the remotest amount of these languages, there is very little room for maneuver in which to try and find a way of making things readable for a general audience. Many of our readers read English as a second language, so need it to be something they recognise easily. I am having to learn Spanish and Portuguese, because I do a lot of work with people speaking these languages, but I am learning informally through reading and sometimes speaking. Both have ways of phrasing things that are very elegant, but after awhile you find that you are making the same kinds of mistakes in English as the people you are working with. The other day I read a book translated from Spanish with exactly the same kind of constructions in Spanglish which my colleagues and I have had a problem with. It was a relief to find that other editors had had the same problem! And messed it up! This can be very frustrating, but if the final text is unclear, the book cannot be understood, and the chapter cannot be read. My colleagues and I have to be very careful not to have cross words over our crossed words when none of us can establish what we mean. It is very interesting that the word for harp and guitar should be the same in Arabic, yet they are clearly very different instruments. And the guitar is an ancient North African instrument, too, with many variants which are key in Arabic music.

So, the point I am trying to make is that these differences are themselves intriguing. I have come to appreciate that there are ideas in Spanish and Portuguese which remain possible only in Spanish and Portuguese. There is a delight in argument which, perhaps, comes from being able to put things into elaborate phrases that need to be very carefully read, and which also lends itself to a sense of humour that is a little different to the forms I'm used to. Working across languages is teaching me a great deal about all the other stuff I don't know. To try to help people develop their writing so that it carries well in English I've had to read around a great deal, to be sure that I really understand where they are coming from. Consequently you get introduced to so many new things.

However, I've also found some valuable friendships through struggling to find the words to talk to each other. When we meet up we have long and slow conversations in which we practice each other's language or teach other words and phrases. It's much more fun to learn by immersion than learning in a class, and the inventiveness of slang always make me laugh! But you never learn the rules of grammar this way, so you always speak incorrectly.

Snani:

Of course being able or wanting to translate something from your mother tongue to a second language is quite hard and the translator needs to have a decent amount of diverse vocabulary that suits different pieces of writing. And as EFL learners, we are ought to take advantage of every opportunity to enhance our capacities. For example, we were assigned to read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in literature class, although the vocabulary is quite difficult. I took it upon myself to try to understand as much as possible and get used to the language and words used in the book. Because who knows, maybe at some point I will encounter a text from the same era that needs to be translated to Arabic or vice versa.

Colin:

That's a brilliant way of thinking, Snani.

In some ways I feel that university's purpose lines up with that line of thinking: pushing yourself to learn new things that could be useful in life later

Understanding the System

Steve:

I'm hoping you all don't mind me jumping into the discussion. So many great ideas are being talked about in your posts. It strikes me a common theme in the posts is how to make a university education relevant to students. Yes, we all need to learn "basic facts" (even if it is cruelly taught such as in the harp/guitar example). But it seems to me that many of us want to use these "basic facts" to do more than just pass a test. We want our education to make a difference, whether we become teachers, business people, or some other career. I'm wondering, then, do you think your education is preparing you to be an active person in your community, your country? If not, how would your education have to change so that you did have those skills? I guess another way to ask this is question might be: Are you being educated to become civic leaders or are you being educated just to fit into how things already are? I would love to hear your responses to these questions.

Colin:

I feel that education is currently designed to help us take advantage of the current system. In other words, become the most successful we can be while keeping the system the same. I don't think most education is designed to have us improve or modify the system itself through leadership. I think that liberal arts educations advance the cause of change though.

Nick:

This is a big debate in the UK too, where the introduction of student fees for education has been controversial for the last few years, and this year students have to pay fees for those courses which lead to teaching and clinical professions such as nursing, jobs which are required in the public sector. A debate within occupational therapy, one of those public sector roles in the UK is whether the ideas underpinning the profession, and underpinning other professions like care, compassion, and recognising the effects of inequality on health and wellbeing are constrained by an approach to training which is just about the performance of a role in the public sector, instead of critically asking bigger questions.

Bederina:

I think that the current education greatly underestimates and kills one’s potential intelligence and capacity for learning. The school system we have today does not accomplish the original goal of education, which was to set true patriots who can build a country that has a great position in the world, a patriot who believes that improvement is always possible to lead the country forward. For me, I think the problem of our education is due to “curriculum” itself and “the grades”.

The curriculum (in Algeria at least) focuses on a lot of unnecessary repetition. It's almost more indoctrination than actually teaching. For instance, in history classes of the middle or even secondary schools, some leaders are glorified, we keep learning about their achievements and contributions to humanity, societies and the world but, eventually none of that change a thing in our behavior! These things will be repeated till you get to university and who knows, it may happen to find yourself having “déjà vu” in some context in some modules!

Well, it’s good to know about history and leaders’ achievement – I acknowledge-  but, at least show us how to be and do things alike! I do believe everyone of us have an intrinsic excitement to learn, so why don’t the responsibles make the curriculum in a way in which we can mobilize our resources of the knows, the know how to do, the know how to be inside and outside the class, prepare us to face the external world so that we become the true patriots who will lead their country forward and serve it for worst or better! Moving to grades, which I feel contribute to the problem too.

I think the grades make pupils and students become just exam takers, no more lifelong learners. Most of student (and I'm not saying I'm an exception) study so that they can get a good grade that will lead to a good chair in university and eventually to a job, a well job! So, we study not for the sake of gaining knowledge, but for the sake of gaining a place in the world of labour which means that we the student, for the most part, are not prepared to be civic leaders but rather to fit into how things already are!

Noor:

To be honest, when I succeeded in my final exam and got the chance to start my university studies, I was like yaaay! Finally, I get the chance to do what I always longed to do. But then I had my first classes and I was like “well, that was so not what I expected!” At the time, I had this view of learning English, my favorite subject (though now ,four years later, I'm not so sure what I exactly expected), but surely, it was not the boring monotonous way our lessons were being taught. When students feel that they are obliged to attend a class (me included), there must be something off here. Learning a language, any language is a civilization, a whole structure, that should be well passed on to learners. And I, especially, hated theories, approaches, methods...because I learned them in a theoretical way, aka no application. It was truly frustrating. I'm not gonna say I found what I expected (because I didn't), but I'm truly grateful because I got the chance of knowing the bare bones or the skeleton of my specialty ,and I get to fill it with meat (if I might say so). I don't deny that I learned many things that I wouldn't otherwise have done,I just kinda expected more but like it is said "expectations are the source of heartache."

To Snani, I actually came across a great English teacher during the secondary school. I just literally loved everything about her from her way of clothing ,down to her way of teaching. She really made me feel how enjoyable and beneficial learning a language. The most treasured experience for me was when she asked us to read "The Old Man and The Sea". At first, as I was a beginner at learning English, I was like “no way am I gone do that!” But then she motivated us, and accompanied us every step of the way. She even scheduled a "session" when we all meet in the library, and discuss, or generally just hold our books (or the copied text in this case) and read. Thanks to her, I had my very first experience of reading an actual work of a famous English writer. At the end, we did it! And she even gave us gifts, bookmarks that she designed herself, and the actual book and many other special stuff. I loved that she dedicated time and effort that she wasn't required to do, for us. At the time, reading the book was so hard and when I was asked about it, I usually said “it is just about fish and sea” but then, once I became better at reading many works and all, I could understand it better. So,I will be forever grateful for my lovely teacher.

Concerning the question raised by Mr. Steve Parks, I think that for one to answer this question depends on how s/he looks at it. For me, I like to think myself being educated to become a civic leader who seeks to better the circumstances of others, even if it was, as in my case, a secondary school teacher. I admit the circumstances might not always be very accommodating; the education we receive, the grades we achieve, the goals we look forward to fulfill, but one has to create the right atmosphere for doing what they are supposed to be doing. I think we can all fit into what is already there. But at the same time we can make a change. And I believe everyone can make a certain change if they will themselves to. I profess, education system is not always how we want it to be, but we can learn on our own. Ff things don't go our way, we need to bend them to our will.

Snani:

When it comes to discussing the efficiency of the university educational program, I find myself stuck in between. It's not all good and it's not all bad; personally I think my education is not only preparing me to pass my tests, but lately I have realized that it's helping me in discovering who I am and what I want in life. In the previous years, I was kind of lost because all I did was studying for my tests so I can past and that is it; but this year I've been exposed to so many great ideas and new dimensions of what I can learn and do. I'll give you an example, I was given an assignment in which I'm supposed to present what is identity, that is something you won't be able to find in a book or an article; identity is not something you can touch or see or measure, it differs depending on personal perspective, cultural background, and so many other elements; so building my own definition of what is identity will not only help me, but it will also help people and maybe teach them on how to answer the questions of who they are, what can they accomplish, and learn how to be proud of who they are, because confidence is a major factor when it comes to leadership.

Also in Psychology class, we're not only learning how to be teachers or how to understand the student's psychology, but also we are learning on how to read people's behaviors and act upon that, to choose the right method to deal with certain people; and that I believe is something we all need in order to be influential leaders in the future, because how can you convince someone to follow you if you don't know how to deliver your message correctly. I'm proud to say that in the past few years I thought that I was going to gain nothing except a diploma from my University education, but now , I know that what I'm studying and preparing and filling my mind with, is going to make me an influential person one day, as long as I speak up and try to help people so we can all lead our community to a better future, I have the tools and it's up to me to know how to use them.

Expanding in Classroom

Steve:

This is a great conversation. I'm thinking about how in my classes student often learn how to be community organizers - how to research a community issue then learn the skills necessary to organize the community to fight for their rights? Do such classes happen in your university classrooms? Is that one of the goals of your university? It seems from what you write a lot of your classes are memorizing facts. Why do you think this is the case? I'd love to have you in my organizing classes. You all seem so committed.

Snani:

Just like Mr.. Steve said, our classes are only concerned with memorizing facts. Only a few classes are like a breath of fresh air for those who possess creative minds. Our education is preparing us to be what we are supposed to be, not what we want to be, and with that, we have learned that our priority is to get a job right after we graduate. We see a lot of students applying for what are called "social jobs" like teaching, although it might be seen as if they are trying to help or influence the future generations, or raise social awareness through their occupation, I highly think a great deal of those are not that concerned about the social side as much as they're concerned about financials.

We were not taught to think outside of the box, but a lot of us want to be socially active and try to help in the simplest ways. Even though we are not offered social classes where we can learn how to solve problems or deal with different situations, we are trying to learn by ourselves; by improvising solutions; or using other people's experiences as a guide, so one day we can create or offer social classes to make it easier for other people and for the ones to come.

Nardjes:

We all have our own expectations and prejudgments regarding how a perfect educational system should be especially when it comes to the higher level education that is university, only to be, in most cases, disappointed and discouraged. However, such thing as a perfect educational program still does not exist, though some programs may be considered more advanced than others. One thing for sure, we, students, will always find something to complain about; it’s in our nature. Even though, our educational system, especially here in Algeria, may be severely lacking and somewhat poor; it’s still not an excuse to justify our possible failure as students. It’s up to the learners whether to be satisfied with the “government designed” syllabi or make further efforts by doing the research themselves and not be confined to what they study in class exclusively. Though it might sound like a lot to do, it is a very necessary step towards effective learning especially for those who are studying languages, like in our case, who are expected to be at an already advanced level. So if we’re expecting to become professional by simply attending a few sessions that are mostly like what Mr. Steve said “memorizing facts” and then taking a couple of exams as university students, then we’ll definitely be disappointed; for a syllabus is but a tool and a teacher is but a guide, even those who are teaching us are still learning themselves. Therefore, we should all put in consideration that learning is a never ending process that requires patience, passion, and hard work.

Bederina:

I was amazed to know that such classes happen in your country but it has shaken me to my core to say that education in my country is likely to be a mental enslavement if it is possible to say! We’re becoming good people, not the you may think! We’re becoming good people who are pretty good at doing what they are being told to do, rather than how or what to think! So, as far as I remember, from the primary education to university, we were told that it’s imperative to show up and take our classes, we were never told why we should be there. And if ever it happens and you ask why you are here, why you are learning, then you’ll never get answers like “we want to make of you future leader, community organizer and the like”. Here is the answer you’ll get: “education is necessary to ensure a better future”, and lemme clarify something, the so called “better future”, in my country means to ensure a good job. Teachers, almost all of them, have never taken some time at least to convey the beauty in what they teach. We sit in stuffy classrooms, listen to some boring stuff that doesn't interest us, and without having a genuine understanding we memorize them and can barely do so! Again, I was to put all the blame on the curricula (which I still believe is the main problem) as we don’t have aims or classes like yours but then I remembered that most positively influential teacher we were under his tutelage couple of years ago, he overstepped the bounds of how things were boring, and enfranchised us from the mental enslavement and inspired us to be leaders!! So as I said, the curricula is a parade of boredom, but I think if we had some teachers like the one we had before who can make things better, teachers who create an atmosphere of discussion and exchanging ideas to make us unleash our creativity instead of making us learning things by heart, we would not feel that bad about the system, we would be more motivated  and this would revolutionize the level beyond recognition!

Nick:

Sometimes my students tell me that they would like my teaching to be more assignment focused, but I see the role of facilitating a class as being more about pointing stuff out that students will want to question. For me, education has been more about discovery, and the education I have most enjoyed has been class discussion where we have had the author of a critical book in the class, and debated with that person the issues they have set out in their work. I eventually realised that I could get in some questions that appeared to make these people think, so gained confidence in my abilities to make arguments in print. But getting there was a long road. A lot of my school education was about learning stuff by rote, but there were many points where we were encouraged to express our opinions. I'm disappointed in how school education in the UK has tended to move away from the earlier more liberated approach to giving students handouts which contain all they need to answer their homework, instead of encouraging them to go and read about things for themselves. Everyone here seems to be up for debate and questioning things perhaps because you recognise the limits of what you have been taught. In my classes, I would like more argument and debate, but often there is not the time. This year it has been very noticeable that no-one has printed off the handouts in advance of the class, or even looked at the materials I have put up online, so we cannot often move to a discussion. But when I was a higher education student, I was just the same. In one class, which was really boring, I was the only student who turned up out of 12 people for an hours seminar, and there was no hiding the fact that I had not prepared. It was gruelling and embarrassing to wallow in ignorance while my tutor explained what I should have read. In that class I at least learned enough to survive the exam.

The danger of having a class discussion - a free ranging debate about the stuff I teach which is around community actions that promote health, the causes of deprivation and inequality, the way in which the structure of health systems both address and perpetuate mental illness, or the position and the power of the health professional might be viewed as being more about containing social problems - is that people may have to go through a few steps or experiences to see things that way. For example, having had a period of mild mental illness myself, you can see how having someone who is obviously a community psychiatric nurse knocking on your front door is the beginning of a process which might be very uncertain and possibly oppressive - now everyone on the street knows what is up with me; will I ever work again; when is this experience going to stop; how much more of a hole am I going to dig for myself; can I get my balance back; or am I going to end up in the psychiatric services in which I was  working myself a few days ago? This certainly makes you question the quality and purpose of the mental health services you were providing! There is an extensive critical literature on this issue, which I want my students to know. Starting a discussion can be a very open ended thing, great for those who want to engage in it and feel confident, but other people will want, and probably need, a traditional lesson in which they are told how to pass the assignment.