Working at a Mongolian university

Arriving at MIU before sunrise

Next week is Chinggis Khan’s birthday, to be celebrated on November 24, which also happens to be the US holiday Thanksgiving. Mongolia International University (MIU) set its fall break to coincide with this national holiday and another national holiday, Republic’s Day, which falls on Saturday, November 26. Usually, we get one or two days each for fall break and spring break, so this year they decided to give us an extra-long weekend with both Wednesday and Friday off. Five whole days!

I’ve been living for this short workweek. I’ve reached the point in the semester where I’m barely managing. Mongolia doesn’t have daylight saving time, so no time change in the fall or spring, which I am very happy about. But it means that the sun rises quite late, now around 8 am but by the end of the semester in mid-December it will be 8:30 am. On the other hand, the sun sets around 5:15 now, so I get home from work when it’s still light out most of the time. Still, the dark mornings are hard for me.

To get the bus to campus before traffic gets horrible, I try to catch one of the first buses of the day, so I leave the apartment at 6:25 am to walk to the bus stop. I get to campus at around 7:15, and I can watch the sun rise from my office, which I enjoy. But the slog to the bus stop in the cold and dark is getting harder for me to psyche myself up for. The low temperatures, which occur when I’m walking to the bus, are now dropping below zero Fahrenheit, and we’re looking at -13F by next Thursday (-26 C). I’m only out in the cold for about 30 minutes or so on either end of the bus commute, and walking most of the time, but after 20 years in southern California, it’s still an adjustment.

Early morning view from my office

And for some reason, this year has been harder than last year. I’m feeling more tired and run down. So I was really looking forward to that three days off next week. Devin and I have decided that we both need three-day weekends regularly: One day to rest and recover from the week, one day to get some cleaning done and maybe do something fun, and one day to do homework (or in my case class prep and grading). This week, Devin had a three-day weekend because of parent conferences, but they slept most of Friday because they are sick with a cold. Next week they have a four-day weekend because of the national holidays. These mini-breaks are much needed for them as well, as they struggle more with fatigue as the weather gets colder.

So we’ve both been dreaming of our days off. Suddenly, at 4:59 pm on Friday afternoon, I get an email from the HR department that our Wednesday fall break day has been cancelled because the Ministry of Education is coming to inspect our “academic process” that day, so we all have to be there and be on our best behavior. “Please prepare for the inspection,” the email said, with no details as to how. A couple of people replied asking if we have classes or what do we need to do for the inspection, but since the email was sent at the end of the workday, no reply was forthcoming.

I’m assuming we have to teach Wednesday, since that’s certainly part of our “academic process,” but I was able to pivot and move the presentations my students were going to give on Monday to Wednesday, and Monday will be a “workshop,” where I will be present if students need help with anything. I was so looking forward to heading home after a curriculum meeting on Tuesday afternoon and not going back to campus until the following Monday. But at least I will get to see my students’ presentations on Wednesday instead of having to prepare an extra class (and if anyone does poke their head into my classroom they will see evidence of “student-centered learning,” which is the current focus of the Ministry of Education).

My experience of teaching at MIU is one of constant pivoting of this sort. You think you’re going to have a day off, you put it in your syllabus, and you plan your class around it, and suddenly you find out the government or the university has changed its mind and the holiday either moves or disappears entirely. Sometimes it’s good news, like when Parliament suddenly added Buddha Day to the list of national holidays in 2019, to be first observed in 2020. Buddha Day is set according to the Buddhist calendar, so it floats, but it’s the 15th day of the first summer month each year, typically sometime in May or June. In 2022, it was set initially for May 16th, but it was suddenly changed to June 14th instead, because apparently there are two ways of calculating the start of summer in the Buddhist calendar. Devin’s international school doesn’t pivot the way MIU does, so they still had May 16th off, while my Buddha Day was June 14th, though at that point I was teaching a class of Russian and Korean students online, who agreed to attend class anyway (more on this later). This year, it should be on May 23, but who really knows?

So yeah, about that teaching online on June 17, after classes had officially ended. One of the chronic problems MIU has is attracting faculty who are willing to move to Mongolia or already live here. Some of this is an MIU problem (we tend to have lower salaries than other universities here, though the school is working on raising salaries to be more competitive, and I’ve gotten raises the past two years). But part of it is that Mongolia can be a hard sell for many people, and it’s not always possible for people from certain countries to get visas to work in Mongolia. So we are somewhat restricted from several directions.

The pandemic opened up a whole new possibility of online teaching. Mongolia was quick to close schools and university campuses when COVID-19 was first detected in China. Mongolia tends to be responsive to what’s going on with the giant next door. The Mongolian health system already experienced annual strain from the seasonal flu, and there’s been the tendency to keep schools closed from before Christmas until after Tsagaan Sar, which falls sometime in February, to prevent the spread of influenza among children and their families. Closing schools, within this framework, made perfect sense. I was already in the US and teaching online, so it was easy enough for me. Once the country began to push to return to “normal,” and school campuses opened again in September of 2021, we still had to occasionally move back to online teaching if students or faculty had COVID-19 or were close contacts with someone else who had it. A number of faculty were still stuck overseas and were teaching online as well. So online teaching with Google Meet or Zoom because part of the university’s repertoire.

It was helpful to fill in the gaps in our faculty, as well. Last spring, I was supervising three online faculty who were teaching one course each. It was a bit like herding cats, as all of them were new to MIU as well, and did not know all of our procedures and expectations. One instructor didn’t post any materials in Google Classroom. Another failed to grasp any aspect of our systems at all, from routine bureaucratic tasks to holding Zoom classes in an environment where students could hear them and be heard. The third one simply stopped having classes at all six weeks into the semester, without informing anyone as to why. I didn’t find out about that (despite asking students how the class was going and getting answers of “OK” or “Fine”) until one of the students came to the office to tell the department secretary they hadn’t actually had class in several weeks. When I contacted the instructor about it, they quit entirely, and I had to pick up and finish the class. By the time I was able to make up all the missed classes, the semester was officially over, and I had to teach online (the students had travelled home to Russia), wrapping it up after we were back in the US.

This sort of thing could happen anywhere, I imagine, but I feel like people hear “university in Mongolia” and think of the Wild West or something, where anything goes and standards are low. It’s not true at all, and in fact we have a much heavier administrative burden than I ever faced at the University of California or Cal State. Up until very recently we had to submit lesson plans for each class every four weeks, according to a specified format. There are well-defined expectations for what we should include in our Google Classrooms (even if we are teaching in person, we still need to use them, and they may take the place of the lesson plans). We also track attendance regularly because the university has a strict attendance policy. And we’re expected to maintain a high quality education for our students, too. So even teaching one course online can be a lot of work.

After this experience, I decided we wouldn’t have any more classes online unless the whole university were moved online again. So we are left trying to recruit local faculty or instructors who want to move here. I have had a few people contact me about teaching at MIU after seeing me on LinkedIn. They tend to fall into two categories: extremely qualified people who are looking for a change of scene, or people who once worked in Mongolia and are trying to get back in. Each of these present different problems. One person who contacted me backed out immediately once they learned what our compensation package was like (he was in Switzerland and used to it, I think). Usually if someone is very highly qualified, I assume they will have a similar reaction, but we actually have a new professor arriving next semester, if all goes well, who will bring a lot of expertise with her. Of the people seeking to return to Mongolia, we learned the hard way to look very carefully into their motivations for doing so.

As a result of all of this, MIU has chronic faculty shortages, which can make life difficult. The Media and Communication program needs to apply for accreditation this year (indeed, we were supposed to last year, but it didn’t happen because it was my first year directing the program, and after I broke my shoulder not much typing was happening anyway). But I am currently the only professor, which means the process falls heavily on me, and I am already behind in several areas. In fact, I was supposed to get a briefing on what’s involved in applying for accreditation last year, but it never happened, and I still don’t really know.

So yeah, that sort of thing.

But teaching at a Mongolian university, particularly an international university in Mongolia, definitely has its up sides. I really enjoy the students here, especially. While many of them have a bit of a…relaxed attitude towards their studies, which can be a little frustrating at times, the same relaxed attitude means they are not nearly as demanding as my students in California were. I can experiment with my classes more, and if things don’t go as I hoped they would, the students don’t seem to mind very much. This has definitely been good for my morale. The other day in my Cross-cultural Communication class we were talking about stereotypes, particularly of the different national groups most common at MIU (Mongolians, Russians, and Koreans, and I threw in Americans, because I was curious), and how being at MIU has changed those stereotypes. I had a chance to sit down with the students to discuss them. The students all remarked that the professors at MIU were so different from anything any of them had experienced before, especially in the way they genuinely cared about and cared for their students. This was heartening to hear.

I could write a lot more about this (for example, the ways in which MIU differs significantly from other Mongolian universities I’ve heard about), but I have to get started on other things. Despite all the challenges Devin and I have faced in the last year and a half, I’m glad to be teaching at MIU. Though I’m definitely looking forward to spring!

Students on a Monday morning

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