Gentle, Semester-ward — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Oct 18, 2016

The semester system was first implemented in Nepal about four decades ago, but it discontinued after a few years during a political upheaval. This time, there are indications of effective implementation, but there are also reasons to worry again, one of which I explore here. We risk spilling old wines from new bottles (or, to stretch the metaphor, failing to get new bottles) if we rock the boat too much.

Changing from annual to semester system, or vice versa, will only improve education to the extent that we improve practice and culture of teaching/learning. During a seven week stay in Nepal last summer, I was inspired by new trends in colleges and universities of all kinds—as I learned from many and extremely productive conversations with top level officials in Tribhuvan University and Mid-Western University, colleagues in professional organizations, and scholars running various private colleges.

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What was still concerning was a level of resistance to change especially among educators in the middle of traditional social power dynamics. Let me use a particular incident to explain how our deep-seated social hierarchies obstruct top-down change and improvement in the case of higher education, arguing that academic leaders should therefore try to build a critical mass of practice by working more from the margins than the top and center.

It was almost 9 pm and I was feeling sorry about making a group of fellow teachers at a private college in Kathmandu wait for nearly 90 minutes (due to issues with planning and communication faced by the organizers). I started with an apology nonetheless, especially hoping to pacify a gentleman near the head of the table who was visibly scowling at me, breathing heavily and often sighing audibly, before he found an absurd reason to take over the conversation.

As I outlined the discussion, I had emphasized that there is nothing “natural” about the semester system, other than splitting the academic year into two halves, like a cucumber split one way or another. Indeed, I had also noted that shorter sessions can undermine rapport-building, breadth and depth of learning, and so on. But as we moved on to cultural characteristics, looking at specific teaching practices —such as credit hours based on attendance/participation, balance between lectures and class discussion/work, research assignments and oral presentations, and one-on-one meetings with teachers and academic support outside class—which have come to be associated with the semester system, the gentleman increased his interruptions.

He seemed a bit older and implied that he had more knowledge and experience than most of us in the room, using a dismissive tone while insisting that there was a “fundamental flaw” in my presentation. He said that I was arguing that the semester system is an inherently different system, that educational practices used by societies adopting this approach cannot be used in the traditional, yearly system. I went back to a slide that said the same thing what he was saying, that the semester system is only a container, educational practices being content, and so what we need is a change in academic culture (which was the title of the discussion) by changing practice and habits. He wasn’t convinced!

The incident above is reflective of an important dynamic that I had somewhat forgotten about while living abroad for a decade: the hierarchy of social power matters more than ideas presented, functions fulfilled, or responsibilities borne by individuals in more traditional societies like ours. It seemed to me that the gentleman understood my point, at least after I clarified it, so the only way I could understand his criticism (since he was saying the same thing) was that he didn’t like a younger fella lecturing the group—especially as an outsider.

I acted like I encourage my student to—“Present your best idea with confidence in it”—in the US, but he seemed to assume that I was claiming to be a global expert on the subject. As he kept bringing up all the countries and universities he had visited, it seemed that he wouldn’t accept less than an authority to run that conversation. After some time, I had to ask him to please allow us to continue (treating a guest as a guest, a point he absolutely hated to hear) even if he already knew everything the group was discussing.

There is an important and larger theme here: the gentleman’s reaction exhibited exactly the difficulty that I think our society is facing against improving education by changing practice, habit, belief, and undergirding value system. Asking individuals who are higher or secure in their positions to change gears or relationship—or demanding them to view and treat learners and learning differently—can easily backfire.

While the one disrupted conversation above was an extreme case, it highlighted how a pervasive dynamic of power and hierarchy normally lurks just beneath the surface. There were less explicit but intriguing cases almost everywhere, usually exhibited by one or two people but hard to ignore. At a university in the Midwest, a professor made rounds to tell visiting trainers how to run their sessions, also asking canned and irrelevant questions that tried to test their knowledge. At another place, a few scholars left a conversation after being not invited to the dais, reportedly upset about being not “thanked” and “respected.”

While this is a rather universal issue, it felt strikingly more palpable back home.

Younger scholars, expatriates, women, and others who are lower in the pecking order can easily make cultural mistakes, offending those higher or more established in the social structures, for instance, by rushing into the subject matter without sufficient formality, sounding over-confident while sharing personal experiences, giving the impression of arrogance while being humorous or overly friendly. People use the framing that’s already in place for interpreting a speaker.

The above issue is particularly important in the case of implementing the semester system as it is generally known around the world: it is not only “foreign” to our culture but also threatening to our traditional worldview. Having developed in individualistic societies where learners are seen as creating, owning, and eventually “selling” their knowledge, it demands students (and/as emerging experts) be given more freedom and respect. For this to happen, power must flow more laterally than vertically, younger experts must be more easily invited up the ladders and across the nodes, and individuals’ ideas and functions must be valued above power-based relationship.

We can implement the semester system in different ways. One is to continue to use the same traditional teaching/learning practices used in the annual system—lecture, memorizing content, exams, etc—and simply split the year in two halves. Another extreme would be to completely change our educational culture by adopting teaching/learning practices plus views and values that often come prepackaged with the practices from another culture. But, as I hope to unpack in future writing here, we are more likely to improve our higher education system by using the semester system if we try to gradually build a critical mass of new practices while avoiding confrontations with entrenched beliefs and behaviors.

In a society like ours, it is important to not rock the boat too much. Whatever we decide to borrow from elsewhere and whatever local practices we want to build on, a lot of change will have to happen under the radar, at the margins, in gentle ways.

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