Thursday, June 16, 2011

Week 2 - The State of Freshman Comp in Qatar and other observations

Last week we read all about the current state of Freshman Composition – how ‘real’ professors don’t want to teach it, it is often taught in grossly outdated manners, and students are often unmotivated to even try to make a good grade. I want to know why TAMU feels such a need to teach students on the TAMUQ campus the same exact way it is taught on the College Station campus.
Oftentimes CS instructors come here and think that they can rinse and repeat exactly what they do in Texas. This is not so. This is NOT the USA, and there are so many different rules here. In fact, one could compare it to the Wild Wild West of yore. If a would-be student has the right last name (comes from a VIP tribe), s/he will be admitted regardless of TOEFL scores, SAT scores, math scores. In fact, I’ve sat on admission committees, and even I’m occasionally shocked at what is let into our doors. Qatari boys have often not worked with Qatari girls since primary school (although soon enough at our institution they realize that they LIKE this dynamic). I would also bet that rote memorization is still implemented on certain levels even in secondary schools, too. Qatari students in 2011 are getting better, but undoing what was done to them in primary and secondary education is still an uphill battle. This is slowly changing as the educational revolution takes place, but it’s not over yet.
Still, instructors and institutions try. In fact, over the years I’ve witnessed a number of American universities breeze into Qatar (Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern) wide-eyed and self-assured and say, “Yes, your institution has had difficulties, but WE’RE GOING TO BE EXACTLY LIKE OUR MAIN CAMPUS.” Yeah, right. Then I watch as those institutions slowly cave to pressures exerted upon them by the queen’s umbrella company, Qatar Foundation. This place is tribal, it’s their money, and they will ultimately get what they want. It is also a place which I call “That Which Is Not,” since the spectacle is what rules here, in this case oftentimes the appearance of an education.
Even if all things were right in the universe and TAMUQ were an exact replica of TAMU, I think it’s funny how seriously some instructors take their jobs. They fiercely work so that we calibrate and grade 104-type essays so that we’re all on the same page. The fact is that every English instructor has different needs and values, and I don’t have much faith in calibration. Teachers scratch their heads with fear in their eyes. Why why oh why did Joseph grade an essay lower than the others did? What the heck does that mean? Don’t sweat it. Ultimately, it just means that I’m a tougher grader than you. At the end of the day, students should still learn from others’ classes and the world will keep turning.
Don’t get me wrong: I take my job very seriously too, and I LOVE my job. And my students. And, ehrrrrm, most of my colleagues. I just know that there are certain required topics in my Freshman Comp class that come as directives from the main campus, and I refuse to lose sleep over things that I can’t change. I do, however, ask myself what I can do to make my Freshman Comp class as meaningful and relevant and action-packed as possible to my students. I also ask myself what aspects of education I want to introduce and reinforce. In a perfect world, there would be a minimum of four English classes at TAMUQ. There are only two. I have to pick and choose my battles.
As my Qatari ex used to say, “What to do? This is the life. I’m swear.”


  1. Just a quick comment, Joseph. I too mistrust calibration, and I worry that the push to make grading identical can only lead either to standardized testing or to checklist-style grading that has little to do with good writing. Frankly I fear that some of the impetus for calibration reflects a basic mistrust of instructors; you certainly don't see a similar push at higher levels where classes are taught by PhDs working in their fields. I think that if they trust us to teach they should trust us to grade.

  2. Joe,
    May I call you Joe? In addition to our "foodie" hobby, I agree with your synopsis- spectacle (or perception) IS REALITY! Sounds like Qatar might be ready to open a branch of the City University of New York, circa 1975. Through Shaughnesy's work, and explicit words, the specter of education is often second to the actual act educating (387). At your campus, like the one in her article, requirements buckled to social and political pressures, ultimately fostering a less effective learning environment. I seems elementary, and we chuckle, but Qatar is not Georgetown. Quite frankly, Georgia Tech is not USC, but we expect, project, or assume they are. Historically, this is where a shadowy figure with a raspy shouts from the back row, "We need to fix the system!" But as D'Angelo noted, no one, including English faculty, can agree on the general terms, classifications or definitions of the problem, nor can they accurately say what the PROBLEM is. I concede that me breadth and depth of understanding is further removed from the front lines than current educators, considering my scientific profession. However, we can all agree that the English education system is underperforming- grossly! The triage answer: get tough or start writing Composition's eulogy! Which critic's classification system and category does that go under?