What it’s been like teaching in Mongolia, so far

MIU Media and Communication Department party

I started trying to write this post at the end of last semester, but it didn’t happen because things were too busy.  I do want to reflect on my first semester teaching here before the second one begins, which is in a little less than a month now (we start teaching again on February 25). I have written a couple of posts about my job and my university, so there may be a little overlap, but my goal here is to write more about what my teaching experience has been like.

When I first met with the Vice President of Mongolia International University (MIU), Professor Woohyun Won from South Korea, it was in my office at UCSD, in the middle of March, 2018. He told me a few things about teaching at MIU to give me a realistic idea of what teaching here would be like. He said that the university didn’t have much money, so the resources weren’t very good, and that the English level of the students was very low, so I shouldn’t expect them to understand very much, even though the medium of instruction is English. I felt like it would be similar to my experience teaching at a small university in Ethiopia, which had been the best teaching experience of my life. Things are always different from what you expect, though, and my experience so far at MIU has been both far better and far more challenging than I could have imagined that day back in the middle of March.

Professor Won and I agreed that I would teach two courses. “This is enough,” he had said. At some point later that spring, he emailed me to ask if I would consider co-teaching Introduction to Media and Communication with him, since he needed to spend part of Fall semester in Korea to get vision treatment. I agreed to teach the course up until the midterm exam, and he would take over after that. Then, after I arrived at MIU and had my first meeting with our department chair, Dr. Cho (whom I admire immensely and whose sense of humor I really enjoy), she said, “You are teaching two and a half courses. Is it enough? Full-time teaching here is three courses.” I explained my conversation and agreement with Professor Won; besides, I would be studying Mongolian, which counts as one course for new professors, and I also wanted to do some research on environmental issues and organizations in Mongolia.

Dr. Cho then explained that she still hadn’t found an instructor for the sophomore level course Report Writing and Editing. I asked her, “What kind of report writing?” She replied, “Journalism.” I had never taught a journalism course before, but I had brought a textbook with me called Telling the Story: The Convergence of Print, Broadcast, and Online Media, which happened to be a journalism textbook. I thought it would supplement the course I was teaching about Online Journalism (which I had conceived more as a critical overview than a how-to course). And the next words that came out of my mouth were, “I can teach that.” Though I might have used the word “probably.”

So, suddenly I found myself agreeing to teach 3.5 courses, plus Mongolian and research. I was going to be busy. Of the courses I was teaching, Cross-Cultural Communication was the only one I had taught before. I had taught it in 2015 at Cal State San Marcos, filling in for a professor on leave, and I already knew this version would be different. I had decided to use the same textbook, but I was only going to use a few chapters of it, because the other thing Dr. Cho had informed me of was that because the students were not very strong in academic English, I should only assign 1-2 pages to read for every class.

So my final fall line-up was Cross-Cultural Communication and Online Journalism for the juniors, Report Writing and Editing for the sophomores, and half of Introduction to Media and Communication for the freshman. In a way, it was good, because I would get to teach all of the students in the department (it only started two years before, so there was no senior cohort yet). This may sound like a lot, but the department is still fairly small. There were twelve freshman, seven sophomores, and five juniors majoring in Media and Communication at MIU. (Students declare their majors when they start, though they can petition to change majors later on.) So a total of 24 students. That would be considered a small class at UCSD, where I had taught upper-division electives with as many as 80 students.

It should come as no surprise that once Professor Won arrived at MIU in October, he called me to his office and asked me to continue teaching the Intro course for the rest of the semester. I was actually happy to (though I had really been looking forward to dropping down to three courses) because I had become attached to the students. They are a good group, with a wide range of ability in both academic work and English, but I really enjoyed the class. Also, it would be hard on them to change professors halfway through one of the very first major courses of their college career.

So, there I was, teaching four courses instead of the agreed-upon two. And I was teaching in a brand-new field, as well: journalism. But this wasn’t unusual for me; I had started teaching in the Sociology Department at UCSD a couple of years before and had taught three different courses in Soc despite only having taken one Soc course in my life (a statistics course in grad school). I had also taught public speaking at Cal State San Marcos for a semester. No matter what, I would still know more than my students. This thought has helped me through many an undergraduate course.

Another thing that became apparent before classes even started was that the level of oversight and documentation required by MIU was very different from what I was used to at UCSD. I was used to being able to design and deliver my own courses without any administrative attention, mainly being answerable to my students. Here, there are layers upon layers of oversight, all the way up to the Ministry of Education. I am not sure if this improves the students’ experience, but it is likely part of the post-Soviet hangover Mongolia still seems to be undergoing. In terms of documentation, I had to provide my course syllabi by a certain date, as well as daily lesson plans for each course (submitted once a month, fortunately). Every document needs to be signed by me and then the department chair before being passed up the bureaucratic ladder. I also learned that the department chair and Dean of Academic Affairs would sit in on part of one of my classes, which actually seemed helpful and reasonable, but no one at UCSD had ever observed my teaching in around 17 years of teaching, so it still made me nervous. I am sure there have been other documents as well, but I’ve forgotten them by now.

All of that before even setting foot in the classroom. In an added twist, everything I saw before I arrived showed that classes would start on August 27, so I was preparing to start teaching ten days after our arrival in Mongolia. Then, when I met the department chair in passing on August 20, she said, “Well, we still have a few weeks before the semester starts.” It turns out they had changed the start date of the semester to September 3, which actually meant we had two weeks, but it was great to have that extra week, especially since I had to prepare an entirely new course. I also had to completely revise my syllabi with the new understanding that I should only assign a couple of pages of reading for each class.

By the time the semester started, I was ready to go and eager to meet the students I had been hearing about. My first class would be Cross-Cultural Communication, at 9:20 am Monday morning with the junior class. I had over-prepared, of course, and planned for the class to be mostly discussion. The students already knew each other well, but I had to get to know them. When I got to my classroom, another class was already there, and it had been assigned that room as well. My class was smaller (only five or six), so I gave them the room and went back to the department office, together with the single student from my class who had shown up on time.

When she and I got to the office and told Gerelee about the room mix-up, she contacted the students to let them know we were meeting in the office. Ano, the student who had shown up, and I sat at the table in the office and started class. I had used a slide with Matt Smith/Doctor Who saying “If you just change the way you look at things, everything changes. For example, the Americas look like a duck if viewed sideways.” She recognized the Doctor immediately, so that gave us something to talk about, though I am very behind in the series.  

After about an hour into the ninety minute class, three of the other students showed up. Instead of sitting down and joining us, though, they carried on a conversation in Mongolian and took selfies in the office. I let it go, because there wasn’t much time left in the class, but I told them all that we’d have regular class next time. In general, though, the juniors have been kind of like that. They are all wonderful young women, and they have serious career goals, but they are not always focused on what is going on in class. They have formed a tight-knit group over their two years of study together. There was a male student in the group, but even though he enrolled for fall semester, he ended up dropping out because he had to care for his family (he has two kids). Classes with the juniors have been interesting though, and we’ve been able to get into some fascinating conversations.

Out with the juniors

The next class I had was the freshman Intro class. There ended up being twelve freshmen by the time classes started. Now I think we are down to eleven, because one of them moved to Sweden with her family. But they are an interesting, hard-working group. There are three Korean students, two from Inner Mongolia (China), and the rest are Mongolian. They were rather shy in the beginning of the year, but they participated more actively in class as the semester moved on. They seem a lot more serious than the juniors, as a group, at least in class. Some of them are still struggling with English, but some of them have been doing quite well. It’s a huge transition for them, because it’s not just the high school to university transition, but going from learning in their native language to learning in English.

The freshman class, or most of them, at a dinner party for my birthday

The next day, Tuesday, I met the sophomores for the first time. They are a challenging class to teach for a couple of reasons, though it took a few weeks for me to really figure out why. Again, they are all interesting people, but there is a clear divide in the class in terms of effort and English ability. A few of the students work hard and have good English. A few of them have very limited English ability and are not quite as serious about getting their work done. What made the class challenging was the broad range in abilities not just in English but in terms of how they could apply themselves to the work I was assigning. This is where I ran into that familiar problem of giving assignments and students just not turning in the work. There are always one or two students like this in every class; at UCSD, there was usually some major extenuating circumstance, and sometimes a student would just disappear part way through the course. But in the case of this group, nearly half of them didn’t turn in work, and since it was a writing and editing class, this became a problem. It was also hard to organize group activities with a class that was so divided in ability. Planning each class took a lot of effort.

One part of my past experience that has really come in handy here has been my background in teaching English as a foreign language. I first taught English in Japan (cliché), and then in Egypt, California, and Ethiopia. I use a lot of the EFL skills I learned in my American university teaching as well, but here in Mongolia they are really useful. Of course, I taught EFL around 20 years ago, but some of the training and experience are still there. I’d be having a much harder time without that to draw on. Giving people the time they need to formulate answers can be especially challenging sometimes, because the tendency is to try to avoid long pauses in class discussions. But the pauses are necessary for students to figure out what they want to say. Often, I will ask a question, and there will be a flurry of discussion in Mongolian before someone will answer in English. Or students will break off in the middle of a discussion to confer with each other in Mongolian. You have to just let it happen.

My first semester teaching at MIU was difficult, but it was also rewarding and a lot of fun. I have really enjoyed the chance to get to know my students. I am looking forward to seeing them again when classes start up again next month. One of the things I really love is how serious they are about journalism. They follow the news (which is unusual in my experience), and most of them want to work for international or Mongolian news organizations. This is the part where I feel like they would probably be better off with a Mongolian professor.

Even though MIU takes a global approach and promises an international education, most of the Media and Communication students will end up working in their home countries, I imagine. Because of the textbooks I have access to, a lot of what I have been able to teach about is more relevant to American journalism practice than what they will encounter here in Mongolia. I’ve given myself a crash course in Mongolian media studies, and the Reporters Without Borders website has been a useful source of information as well. So I use the US material from the textbook as a source of comparative information for what I’ve been able to find out about the Mongolian media, and what they can tell me, as well. I give them a framework they can use to understand their own observations. But I am curious to know what Mongolian media studies would look like, based on what is happening here, not using theoretical frameworks developed from the American media experience.

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