We only have two weeks left in Mongolia, but for those who have just discovered this blog, don’t worry – I have at least a year’s worth of posts left. There is so much I haven’t written about yet, and quite a lot I’ve started writing about but haven’t had the time to finish. I have more posts about Ulaanbaatar, air pollution and other environmental issues, things that we’ve seen and done here, people we’ve met. There is also our trip to Thailand that I never wrote about, and our upcoming trips to Khuvsgul (in Mongolia) and Japan. Mongolia will be going with me, in my heart and mind forever, and through this blog for a long time to come. I will also be returning to Ulaanbaatar in the fall for three weeks, because the university has asked me to teach two courses next semester. I’ll be starting the courses in person in September, and continuing online, since I’ll have a course or two in San Diego as well. It’ll be the longest commute of my teaching career and puts a whole new spin on the idea of “freeway flyer.”
Things have continued to be busy this week, which was the last week of classes of Spring 2019. But now I am done with teaching for the year, and it’s all over but the finals and grading. The end of a school term is always hard, not just because of the work, but because of the realization that the courses are over, and you aren’t going to meet with that particular group of students to discuss that particular topic again. Even on the rare occasions when I have had classes that were difficult or that didn’t quite hang together, I have always felt sad on the last day of class.
Here, it’s more intense. I’ve really loved teaching at Mongolia International University (and I’ll be continuing to teach here, but online, which will be very different). I’ve been lucky to have small classes; there are only 25 Media and Communication students in all, and I was lucky to teach all three classes (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors) this year. Because of the small class size, I got to know my students well.
MIU is so different from where I’ve taught before, because students come in with a specific major, and they don’t really take courses outside their major except for the general education courses that are required. So you have the same group of students in each class. It’s great, though, because there can be a lot of continuity between classes. I taught Report Writing and Editing to the sophomores, but unfortunately that was the only sophomore course I taught this year. I taught an introductory sequence to the freshman class, Introduction to Media and Communication in the fall and Media and Communication Theory in the spring. It was my first opportunity to teach introductory courses in my field, so I learned a lot, too. But I spent most of my time with the junior class, with Online Journalism and Cross-Cultural Communication in the fall, and Global Media and Culture, Political Communication, and Film Criticism in the spring.
I taught eight courses this year, and even though I could draw on familiar stories for some of them, they were basically all entirely new courses for me. I wasn’t always as prepared as I wanted to be, and I certainly never got around to everything I wanted to do in each course, but I was able to keep the classes straight (for the most part), which seemed like a miracle sometimes. The material I covered had to be broken down into much smaller bits than I would have to do for a US class, in part because the students couldn’t read very much, so reading assignments were only 2-3 pages for each class. Also, the language I used had to be much more simple and direct. And finally, I had to adapt the material as much as I could to the Mongolian context, which meant learning about the Mongolian media system and journalism. That part was really interesting, and I wish I could have done much more of it.
Teaching the freshman class was the biggest challenge for me, and for them, too, I am sure. They had gone from studying English as a subject in school, one of many, for perhaps four or five hours a week, to learning everything in English. Also, MIU uses English-language textbooks; our department’s main textbook is American, and the ones I brought with me were also mainly American, except for the global media and political communication texts which were by Australians. They are college level texts, so the students have to learn not only the course material, but the language that goes along with it at a much higher language level than they are used to. It’s a huge leap for them, even the ones who are better prepared.
The MC freshman class this year had more international students than the others; in fact, when I arrived, the sophomore class had one international student (a Russian) and the juniors were all Mongolian. Among the freshman were three Koreans and two Chinese (Inner Mongolia) students. The remaining six (now down to five, as one student left to do his compulsory military service) were Mongolian. So they have an advantage, in that to talk to each other they really need to use English, and they will pick up English faster. But I’ve noticed that many MIU students tend to cluster in national groups and speak their own language with each other, which slows down their English language acquisition. Among the freshman I could see a huge amount of improvement since the beginning of the year. Some students who hardly spoke a word of English in the beginning were able to express themselves more easily by the end of this semester.
I feel like I didn’t get to know the sophomores well enough, because I only taught one course with them in the fall. In the spring, I tried to meet with a few of them who still had particularly weak English in order to give them some practice speaking and help them with their work if they needed it. It didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, because our main “free time” was Friday, when I was trying to work on other things and also get some rest. But a few of them met with me a few times, and it was great to see how much more confident they were getting with their English because they’d had to take public speaking, which is a General Education course here.
Three of the sophomores were already very good English speakers and writers when I taught them in the fall. One in particular is exceptional and has tremendous academic ability. Another student from Russia is very outgoing and fluent in English, and also a lot of fun to work with. And the third is a confident, fluent speaker and writer as well. The three of them tended to sit together in the front, while the others sat further back and spent a lot of time on their phones, when they came to class. It was a challenge to teach a class that split in ability and attention. I’m hoping they will even out a bit next year and make a more cohesive group.
The juniors have in many ways been a dream class. They are not always the most dedicated students, but they have developed into a very tightly knit cohort over the three years they have been together now. A few of them have dropped out or taken leaves for a variety of reasons, but the four who are still here are really a fun and interesting group. We’ve had a chance to talk about all sorts of topics, from Mongolian culture to feminism to life in Ulaanbaatar to their hopes for the future. They are a dynamic group, and I can see each of them having strong careers. They care tremendously about journalism, and they think a lot about the role of journalism in society. Some of them want to go on for their Master’s degrees as well. I wouldn’t be teaching them next year, since I mainly taught freshman and junior classes, but I will miss seeing them and talking to them.
So this has been a rough end of the semester for me. As much as I’m happy to be going back to California and seeing our friends there, I will genuinely miss everyone here. I’ll miss being at MIU, and going through the round of annual events – the department field trip in the fall, the Art Festival, the faculty meetings and retreats, the International Food Festival, and all the other events that shape the year at MIU. I’ll miss talking with Gerelee, the department secretary, in the mornings, and I’ll miss the interesting conversations with Dr. Eunsun Cho, the MC department chair. I’ll miss seeing the other faculty as we rush around on our daily schedules. I’ll miss my Mongolian lessons and my Mongolian teacher Tungaa bagsh. I’ll even miss living in the dorm.
Most of all, though, I will miss my students. Knowing that I’ll be back in the fall, and that I’ll be teaching the freshmen and sophomores again (as sophomores and juniors this time) helps a bit. I’m looking forward to that. And who knows? Maybe when Emma goes off to university, I’ll be back for another while.