|USIA Fulbright Scholar in Portugal|
I have returned to the University of Nebraska and feel that I can respond with some perspective on this most excellent experience.
First of all, let me express my heartfelt thanks to you, the CIES, the Luso-American Commission, and the University of Nebraska for this opportunity to study and teach at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. I taught a class in market research at a unit of the university called the Institute for Statistics and Information Management, and developed research relationships with the faculty there, as well.
How can I organize my thoughts about such a complex experience? It requires the best from someone to live abroad and be heavily involved with the lives of students, faculty and citizens of the country, and to emerge at the end of it with a feeling of success. I enjoyed the challenge. One cannot approach living abroad with too many preconceptions or fixed attitudes, because after all, the purpose of living abroad should be to challenge one's concepts and attitudes. At the end of it, enough has changed about my view of the world that organizing it is quite a little task.
Let me just provide you with some observations on teaching and what I learned from it. I'm leaving out all of my observations about research and about the country of Portugal in general, but to be so inclusive would require much more time than I have. You are free to use any of these observations in your program highlights publications.
Observations on teaching and students
I arrived the morning that classes began, and my contact on the faculty kindly took me in hand, and with the help of the staff, began to arrange administrative details for my lectures. The secretary found me a classroom, and the computer staff set me up with the computer and projector in the classroom. At 2:00, when the class was to start, I was at the front of the 90-seat auditorium, Power Point slides at the ready, dry-erase marker in hand, heart racing, ready to lecture. However, I was completely alone. You could have heard a cricket chirp in there. Did I have no students at all? Was I going to deliver 10 weeks of lectures to an empty classroom?
One has to remember, in these circumstances, not to act too much like an American. As I was pondering the potential for an unequivocal disaster, a kindly faculty member poked his head in the door, recognized the problem, and went out in the hall and spoke to students who were conversing and smoking there. Aha! It appeared that the students were milling around the building, looking for the classroom. They began to file in, and after 15 or 20 minutes of desultory conversation with the early arrivals, I started the lecture. Students continued to file in and out during the lecture, giving it somewhat the character of a train station as well as a classroom. It appeared that I had in the neighborhood of 25 or 30 students, which was about what I had been told to expect. Over the next few weeks, I found them eager for the material, with often varied and fascinating work backgrounds, and a delight with which to converse.
It wasn't until the third week that I obtained a class roster. "Don't be frightened," said the faculty member who gave it to me, "You have 96 students." I couldn't help but laugh. Where were they all? It appeared that many had jobs which required their presence elsewhere, two or three lived on the Portuguese islands of the Azores, and perhaps a dozen didn't speak English at all (primarily students from the former Portuguese African possessions of Mozambique and Angola) and therefore would not have found the lectures of any use. Eventually, the class settled down to an enrollment of 78, although classroom attendance rarely exceeded 35. Furthermore, I had not only undergraduate and masters-level students, but 4 PhD students as well. The other faculty were as suprised as I was by the enrolment. Why were so many students taking the class, whether they could attend lectures or not? It appeared that the topic area (market research) was perceived to be highly valuable, and the opportunity to hear another perspective from across the ocean was perceived to be more valuable yet. In the presence of fine teachers already on the faculty of the Institute, I considered that this unexpected popularity reflected a faith in my knowledge and skills that called for my best efforts.
How to deal with so many students who could not speak English or not attend class? First, I spent two days each week putting everything on Power Point slides, perhaps 100 slides per week or more. The computer staff of the Institute, who were excellent and prompt, put the presentation on the Web so that the students could access it from the computers available in the Institute or their companies. Even those who didn't speak English could find someone to translate the slides. Second, I used group projects for 75% of the class grade. In practice, this meant that non-English speakers would team with ones who were fluent, and students with time conflicts would team with ones who could attend class. Finally, the final exam - multiple choice - was translated into Portuguese by the heroic efforts of one of the PhD students, to whom I shall be forever grateful.
I got a lot of help from several of the students, usually the ones who spoke English well. They would take me aside and say, "You know, it would be very helpful to us if you would speak slower," or, "We aren't sure what you mean when you ask for this kind of report, can you provide an example?" It took a little courage to do that, I suppose, and I respected those students who would do it. Because of their help, I was able to be much more effective as a teacher. The Portuguese will cheerfully admit that they don't have quite the same concept of time as Americans. In fact, I imagine that we Americans look - well, to use a Freudian concept - a bit anal-compulsive to them when it comes to punctuality. I didn't start class until 15 minutes after the hour, and students would continue to wander in for the duration. When I took a "10-minute break" during the 3-hour lecture, the students would go out to the little canteen in the building and have coffee, pastries, and conversation. Needless to say, our 10-minute breaks stretched to 25. An American would be tempted to take this as a kind of insult, but no such thing was intended by the students. They work hard when the occasion requires it, but there is simply a different pace to the occasion. And, given the excellence of the pastries, coffee, and conversation, one can understand it. In any case, the work rhe students turned in often reflected a great deal of effort on their parts, a willingness to go independently into literature I had not specifically assigned, and a strong desire to measure up to the standards I set.
One thing that took a little getting used to was the manner of speech when addressing me. The students were very respectful of the faculty, and would ask me, "Would the professor like us to address this point in our report?" or "Does the teacher think this statistical test is necessary?" It was a unique experience to be addressed in the third person, and to be greeted in the halls with, "Hello, teacher." I'm sure this came from customs in the Portuguese language. I was grateful that the students were willing to use English, since I knew no Portuguese.
In general, the students were well-prepared and hardworking, but required a lot of flexibility from me as a teacher. It was all to the good.