One light bulb and an illuminating year

August 29, 2003

Jocasta Gardner brought a breath of fresh air to Albanian teaching. Or was it just the constantly open windows?

I am not sure anything in the British or German university systems would have prepared me for an Albanian university. My job teaching a fourth-year course in British civilisation and a third-year course in German history at the University of Elbasan was tremendously satisfying and very frustrating, quite apart from forcing me to learn how to teach without reliable electrical power, with windows that did not shut and one light bulb in winter. As a visiting faculty fellow, funded by the non-profit organisation Civic Education Project, it gave me the chance to explore Europe's last frontier.

My British civilisation class consisted of about 60 students, of whom only four regular attendees were male. The numbers were more balanced on the register of my smaller German history course, but most of the men did not attend and, when they did, would not participate. My impression is that in a traditional society men find studying more difficult since it means that they are on an equal footing with women, which makes being seen to fail much harder.

Students are often not very motivated. Going to university is a way of getting out of the home, particularly for young women, and of passing the time. University fees are nominal. The choice of undergraduate degree programmes is limited. Once enrolled on a degree programme, attendance in class is mandatory. Too many absences can lead to disqualification from end-of-year examinations, which must be passed to move on to the next year.

Students are often not encouraged to think; many Albanian teachers expect students to learn lecture material by rote and structure their assessment on this basis. What to me seems a basic characteristic of university education was singled out in student evaluations of my teaching: "We can give our own opinions in class." The better students even went on to mock me gently for persistently asking "why?". Another problem is the stacking of the education system in favour of those who have money or contacts.

Teaching as a foreigner in Albania brought with it certain advantages.

While I received the local university teacher's salary of less than $100 a month (£65), I had my CEP stipend. I could easily resist the pressure to pass a student who was not up to the required standard, knowing that I was leaving at the end of the academic year and would not be pestered by students I had failed. In Elbasan, I worked with a dean who was unusually willing to let me teach as I wanted, but as a foreigner brought in by CEP, the freedom to structure my classes as I chose was almost absolute.

University libraries are often ill equipped and poorly organised, but I had fortunately brought most of my teaching material with me. And my CEP teaching budget allowed me to make all the photocopies I needed to distribute to my students. Nonetheless, I was expected to bring my own laptop and my flat was my office.

I imagine many of my students were happy to see the back of me. Others will perhaps apply the presentation skills they have learnt on other occasions.

They might think back to the bafflement and hilarity that greeted my first suggestion that they present their arguments standing at the front of the class, with me listening. Others might remember our lively debates and use their debating skills at home or at work. Some will perhaps become better teachers of English, which was what many aspired to be or already did to earn pocket money. The best students will, I hope, go on to do postgraduate study abroad. Precisely because the impact of the fellowship is so difficult to measure, the tangible reward of an invitation to one of my students to take part in a summer university abroad or the offer of a place on an MA programme was very precious.

Jocasta Gardner is a research student at University College, Oxford.

Details: www.cepnet.hu

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