It’s taken me a while to write a post about my work here because I needed to let enough time pass to gain perspective on it. I’ve really been happy here so far, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. The last time I had such a great time teaching was in Ethiopia. Hmmm…is there a pattern there? Read on.
One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to teach in Mongolia was because I was in a terrible work situation in the US. I was teaching as a part-time “temporary” lecturer at the University of California, San Diego (which was a lot of effort for very little money) and picking up extra gigs on the side (teaching, editing, whatever) to help pay the bills. I stuck with it for a long time for complicated reasons, which I often heard oversimplified in a variety of ways by people who knew me. It was thoroughly demoralizing. (Being part of the new majority of contingent faculty has been quite an experience; most college and university courses are now being taught by people like me, but universities don’t want to own up to it because they benefit from having a steady supply of cheap, replaceable instructors to churn through, so not many people know about what our working conditions are like. When you have some time, do an online search for “contingent faculty” and see what pops up. Or just check out the website of my union, the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, ucaft.org. Most of my students at UCSD never knew the difference between me and a tenured professor, but the difference is vast.)
Another reason was that I had been itching to go overseas for quite a while. I had never lived in the US for a long time once I graduated from college. In fact, the day after my college graduation I flew to Mexico City to start working on an archaeological dig. After that, I went to Yugoslavia (which was a country then), then to Boston for a few months, then back to Mexico, and on to France. And that was all before I started my master’s degree. As an ESL teacher, I taught in Japan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. There were periods where I stayed in the US for a few years in a row, but after I finished my PhD research in Ethiopia, I was in the US continuously for 14 years. Again, the reasons for this were complicated—aging parents, young child, economic precarity, etc. But I was dying inside, and I knew it.
So when I saw the email about a university in Mongolia looking for faculty in Media and Communication, I jumped at the chance. I was lucky enough to meet with Mongolia International University’s vice president, Professor Won, in my office at UCSD. He told me about MIU: that it doesn’t have much money, that the students don’t have very good English, that the working conditions aren’t very easy. I was ready to say yes on the spot, and nothing he said dissuaded me. It helped that I’d taught in Ethiopia, at a small college in the town of Mekelle, so I knew what it was like to teach in a low-income country with few resources and students who didn’t know perfect English. (Well, come to think of it, many of my UCSD students have trouble writing complete sentences, too.) It was just what I was looking for.
I don’t regret my decision.
Mongolia International University is a great teaching environment. From before the school year even started, I could feel the difference between MIU and other schools I had taught at. It’s what my department chair calls “a special kind of grace.” It’s a very caring environment, where faculty are encouraged to support their students as human beings and learners, and where there is also concern for helping newcomers find their home. For instance, there is something called the Student Care Program, where faculty meet with students outside of class and get to know them, try to find out what their individual situations and challenges are, and what their aspirations are. After nearly two decades at UCSD, MIU seems so incredibly humane.
I felt welcome here from the start. I felt like I belonged. Part of it was having status that I haven’t experienced in a long time—I’m an American with a PhD, coming to a university that has an explicit internationalizing mission, educates in English, and wants high quality international faculty. The school’s motto is “Educating tomorrow’s global leaders.” It’s ambitious, but there’s a genuine spirit of looking outward, and a feeling that, as the vice president said in a recent email, we can change the world. This is what was missing from my experience at UCSD—a feeling that people have value and make a difference, for each other and our world. At MIU, this includes faculty, staff, and students. We’re all in it together.
The students aren’t always as serious about school as my Ethiopian students were, but being able (and encouraged) to see them as human beings makes teaching so much easier. Also, our students in Media and Communication have serious ambitions. Most of them want to be journalists. The news is important to them. They recognize its social and political impact. This is a stark contrast to most of my students at UCSD, who had little interest in the news (though that changed a bit after the 2016 election, especially for my sociology students, who were generally more aware, anyway). My students here know what’s going on, not just in Mongolia, but also in the USA and the rest of the world.
Professor Won was right about their English. MIU promises instruction in English; that’s one of its main selling points. The faculty are a mixture of Mongolian, Korean, American, and other nationalities. There are also international students, mainly from Russia, South Korea, China, and several other Asian countries. The students come in having studied English, sometimes only for a few hours a week, but they haven’t been in an all-English educational environment before. The textbooks are English-language college texts. The lectures and class activities are in English (though my Mongolian students talk to each other in Mongolian during class). The international students seem to pick up English the quickest, as well as the Mongolian students who spend time with them. A few students in each of my classes speak English very well, even among the freshman. But there are students who struggle to get a few words out, and who I’m sure don’t understand most of what I say. A handful write English very well, but most of them struggle with that, too. They have the opportunity to study English here; the university has a Language Education Institute (where I study Mongolian) that offers ESL courses at all levels.
I have had to make major adjustments to my teaching style. I’ve been drawing heavily on my earlier training and work as an ESL teacher. That was a long time ago (1990s), but it’s sure coming in handy. The students can only read a few pages of an English-language textbook at a time, so the reading assignments are short. I try to give frequent writing assignments, as well. In class, I rely on PowerPoint much more than I ever have, for going over main points from the readings, showing lots of examples or illustrations, and introducing terms and concepts. It requires much more preparation than my courses at UCSD did. At UCSD, I had to teach assuming that most of my students didn’t bother reading what I’d assigned, but students were confident enough to think they had something important to say, even if they didn’t know what we were talking about. Here, that’s not the case. Everything has to be broken down and built back up again so that (I’m hoping) most of the students can follow the main ideas.
But this is one of the reasons I love it. A lot of the students at UCSD tended to assume they didn’t need to learn anything more; they already knew what they needed to know and were just there to get a degree, which was something they thought they needed to get a better job. For them, with a few exceptions, college wasn’t about learning. It was job certification. In fact, a lot of my students would resist learning so strenuously I often wondered what they were afraid of. (I think it’s because of how we do K-12 education in the US, but that’s a whole other story.)
Here in Mongolia, students are at least trying to learn. Education has a value that it doesn’t have in the US. The first day of school is such a big deal that the Saturday before school starts, every school from kindergarten up to high school has an open house where parents and kids get dressed up and go to school. Little girls wear fancy dresses and flowers in their hair. Little boys wear suits. It’s an important day. I walked past a couple of schools on that day, and they had huge balloon arches out front, and people were selling flowers, candy, and soft drinks. It was like a big, city-wide party, celebrating education and the new school year. Can you imagine? (I’m still kicking myself for not having my phone or camera with me that day to take pictures—it was amazing!)
Professor Won was right about other things. The university doesn’t have a lot of money, and some of the conditions can be a bit frustrating at times. It’s certainly not easy. But I haven’t been this happy at work in a long, long time.