“Teach Like You Do in America,” While Still Doing it the Tanzanian Way!

The first time I was told to “teach like you do in America” was in 2003-2004 in Tanzania where I was a Fulbright Scholar at the Sociology Department at the University of Dar Es Salaam (see Waters 2007). UDSM is a large sprawling African university, spread across “The Hill” near the Indian Ocean coast. UDSM prides itself for schooling presidents from Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, and South Sudan and its many graduates who played critical roles in first the decolonization of Africa, and now the political leadership of many countries.

When I was at UDSM, the university suffered from the common short-comings of Africa higher education, including old facilities, limited computer capacity, a dated library collection, inadequate faculty staffing, low salaries, and the occasional strike by students. And despite UDSM’s record of creating much of eastern Africa’s elite, it made little dent in the ranking systems highlighted by The Economist. After all creating a future for an area of the world that is growing rapidly is not a metric in such ranking systems.

The pedigree of UDSM in 2003 was inherited from both the British colonial rulers, and more importantly the rapidly expanding Tanzania of the 1990s and 2000s when ambitious students were swept into the university far faster than faculty were hired. In this context I was told to “teach like you do in America!” But I was told it would also be nice if I included the revolutionary Frantz Fanon who wrote Wretched of the Earth on the reading list for my Race and Ethnicity class (I was also asked to include, Marx, who some of the better-read Tanzanian graduate students insisted was not an atheist!). Fanon fortunately gave me an African example which was far better than “teaching like I did in America,” which would have meant illustrations rooted in studies of U.S. American minority groups, which lacked resonance for my east African students.

Tanzania, certainly, has ethnic divisions, based in religion, merchant minorities, and most salient of all, “tribal” identification. But tribal identification was tricky for a foreigner to navigate in 2003, because during the pre-1961 days of British colonialism, such identities were a basis for political, legal, and professional discrimination. And so tribal identification was “banned” in independent Tanzania at independence, although of course such identities persisted, and do persist. But how to talk about this in a 90+ student race and ethnicity class? Indeed, when I first raised the issues of tribes, I received another visit from assertive students pointing out that that tribes were a subject inappropriate in Tanzania, since the categories no longer existed and “we are all Tanzanian.” It was nevertheless pointed out that I was free to use east Africa’s merchant minorities (Arabs and Indians) as examples. This was particularly the case I learned, if I reinforced the stereotypes of a student body steeped in family lore about how the greedy Arab and Indian merchant minorities took advantage of black Africans. And they still insisted on carrying my briefcase and books!

But for me, the most difficult task in the Tanzanian system was managing the large classes in a hot humid climate using blackboards with dusty chalk.  There were no computers in the classroom, nor could I distribute course materials by email. Everything was done with a blackboard and piece of chalk, the dust turning to chalk-mud on my skin and clothing in Dar Es Salaam’s muggy climate. Projecting an Excel spread sheet, much less requiring students to access computers, was out of the question. The culturally appropriate t-test (How many spoonfuls of sugar do males and females like in their tea?) I did on a dusty blackboard, and students copied, copied, and copied with pen and paper.

My classes were in large lecture halls—remnants of an impressive 1970s era building boom—which included an architectural masterpiece, Nkrumah Hall, which is featured on the back of Tanzania’s 500 shilling note. I gave just two tests, far fewer assignments than I do in the United States, where demands for student work in the form of homework sets and quizzes are considered to be pedagogic best practice. Following UDSM regulations these tests comprised 40% of the overall grade, with a final exam worth 60% (in comparison in California, my final assignment is worth 25% or less). All assignments were written in long-hand and needed to be hand-graded—no machine grading. I read every exam in my 400+ student social statistics class.

Student academic culture at UDSM was different as well—students were from diverse areas of Tanzania, and supported financially by extensive family networks and a government loan system for the majority of students who did not have enough money to attend. Students were older than my American students, and certainly had less money—no cars in the student parking lot! The rich Tanzanian student might have a scooter. Tanzanian students also had their own study rhythms, with a strong emphasis on collaboration which some of my expatriate colleagues defined as cheating. But collaboration also meant that in the muggy evening when the weather cooled off just a little bit, students gathered under the electric street lamps, where one student read out loud one of the few textbooks available, while the others listened. The culture of the university—and the future of Africa—emerge from such gatherings, more so than from my “American-style” teaching.

Student finance is what led to a student strike—a phenomenon unheard of in the United States in recent decades. The students receiving the “monthly” loan payments used them to purchase food, and pay for on-campus accommodation. Payments were frequently late—which meant that students might start eating less food later in the month. How did I know this? The unspoken cultural cue was that the males started wearing neckties in the sweltering heat as meals became fewer—the ties it was said, distracted attention from sallow cheekbones.

One morning in May 2004, I went to class as usual. But very few students showed up because a student strike to object to policies regarding repayment of student loans was scheduled that morning. At 9:01 a.m., we heard the sound of the rushing strike coming, and my students politely asked to accompany me to my office—they told me staying risked a beating from the striking students (for a description of a similar strike see Ernest 2011). A strike meant no classes, period, and striking students cleared the classrooms by waving tree branches. The university administration responded by summarily closing the university that afternoon, an order that was enforced by police on campus, with help from the army. Marching strikers were blocked from going into town on that hot day by tear gas wielding troops from the army’s “Field Force.” A whiff of tear gas later, I simply settled down…to mark stacks of papers. The shut-down lasted about two weeks, as I slowly made my way through the stacks of sweat-stained papers on our dining room table.

The final surprise in UDSM culture came as I prepared and administered my finals in late June. The course that I remember most clearly is that social statistics class. 400+ students showed up to take the final, a grading task I was dreading. And then, surprisingly, the finals were whisked away from me—one of my Tanzanian colleagues did the first pass, which was then reviewed by an independent outside reviewer from South Africa. Unlike the United States, professors do not have the final word on grades in Tanzania. Rather grades there are a product of a consensus. In this way Tanzanian faculty hold themselves to internationally validated academic norms, in ways that professors in the United States are not.

The above is from my recent article published at Palgrave Communications: (2015) “‘Teach Like You Do in America”‘Personal Reflections from Teaching Across Borders in Tanzania and Germany.”

2 thoughts on ““Teach Like You Do in America,” While Still Doing it the Tanzanian Way!

  1. Bill Rich

    I wonder what the university officials actually expected when they asked you to, “Teach like you do in America?”

  2. Tony Waters

    They don’t know. There is a general assumption around the world that university education is a single product, kind of like Big Macs. The assumption is that accounting, chemistry, sociology, or whatever are all sciences of some sort, and therefore independent of culture. But it just ain’t the case! There is variation.

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