19 May 2011

An open letter to my Pol. 110 students

KABUL, Afghanistan—From the start, the two sections of Introduction to Politics I taught this semester felt like the most difficult teaching assignment I can remember. Within two weeks, it was evident that only a minority of you possessed the necessary skills (reading, writing, critical thinking, analytical, etc.) to do well, and that was only if you also worked with the materials outside the classroom.

Most of you were not prepared, some of you will leave this university, voluntarily and involuntarily, but you should know that the American model of education guarantees neither success nor failure. In fact, the model anticipates a certain level of “attrition” or “failure,” if defined as the number of students who take classes at a university but for some reason or another fail to earn a degree there.

Now, in some educational models, drop-out rates are seen as indication of poor performance or incompetence on the part of the university. Some students here and elsewhere I taught have suggested that their personal failures reflect poorly on their instructor. However, the American model assigns a disproportionately large share of responsibility for success and failure to you, the student. You can earn an A or you can do nothing and earn an F. The choice is yours.

I was confident that my course expectations were realistic at the start of the semester because they were almost identical to the same course I taught a year earlier here. I did not expect that many of you would be familiar with the basic political concepts and terminology common to North Atlantic social sciences. But I did expect a little more humility, and a lot less whining, than what many of you exhibited for much of the semester. After your first couple of assignments I began to suspect that many of you were going to do very badly, especially in the final assignment, a short research paper. But I stuck with my instincts and with what worked in the past.

In the end, I am happy to say that many of you rose to the occasion and that your research papers, in spite of the fact that many you had never written one before, were on average much better that I thought they would might be. I am not saying you will all get the grades you want (a guaranteed impossibility) but the grades you earned were in many cases a very pleasant surprise for me and an accomplishment for which you should be congratulated.

1 comment:

  1. Seamus,

    I have no doubt you were fair in grading. Your description of your class is something I would like to avoid. I was very fortunate this year in having no such problems. I have found that students in Ghana are on average much better students than I was used to. They work harder, complain less and are a lot more respectful. In fact I have had very little complaining and gotten a lot of respect. We have more of British style system here where one or two in class exams determine the entire grade. I have not given the final yet, but most students did well on the mid-term. I hope for your sake you can find a place where the students can take advantage of your teaching to learn. I am not sure where you are going next, but Africa is forward looking in way that Central Asia is not.