I am beginning to get a better understanding of Afghanistan, though that has not yet translated into a greater appreciation for living in Kabul or working at the American University of Afghanistan. Most of the students at AUAF are not well prepared for the university-level studies, which is no surprise. Three decades of armed conflict effectively disemboweled any semblance of public education, which is still non-existent in some parts of the country, so students don’t bring a wealth of general knowledge into the classroom, which makes it more difficult to contextualize and make relations with new materials and concepts. All classes at AUAF are taught in English, but very often students’ reading and writing skills are not well developed, though that is sometimes disguised by relatively stronger verbal and conversational proficiencies. Most of the college-level students I have had, regardless of place, are resistant to completing the assigned readings. However, most of those students accept the idea that they should do the readings, even if they don’t. I have a stronger sense from students here that any reading is considered optional.
One of the things I noticed with my Afghan students at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan is that many would repeatedly ask for things, like grade reconsiderations, even after I had responded to them. I didn’t place too much significance on that practice until I got to AUAF, where it is much more common. Many of the requests amount to pleas for mercy: I have so many tests this week (yup, it’s mid-semester and every student here can say the same), I can’t have a grade a less than an A (sorry, but grades are earned not granted on the basis of need), or I can’t make the test because I have to prepare a party for my sister (you’re kidding, right?). At times, the repeated requests are not only annoying but almost pathetic. After one student’s begging for a better grade, I was tempted to say, “You are embarrassing yourself by sniveling and groveling. Have you no pride?”
It is difficult not to look at grade begging as a personal shortcoming but its pervasiveness suggests that it is culturally sanctioned. An Afghan colleague says it is part of the package of “survival skills” you develop after a lifetime of social chaos. When there a few examples of achievement or success based on merit, other means are developed to fill the void. For example, buying grades by bribing woefully underpaid professors was common in Kyrgyzstan universities. In Afghanistan, the request is more likely to be rationalized on the basis that good grades are the reward for virtuous behavior. In other words, I deserve good grades, not because I did well on my assignments, but because I work hard at my job, I am the chief breadwinner for my extended family, or I am a kind person and love my family and respect my elders. I have had explain this to students before and I think I will have to say it again: a grade is neither a measurement of your personal worth nor an assessment of what I think of you. It is simply an evaluation of your performance in this course, nothing more and nothing less.