Before we returned to the US in January after my fall sabbatical, my wife and I were able to "slip in" a trip to Rome with some friends. We'd stayed in Europe through the holidays because Dawn's birthday is in January, and she wanted to spend it in Europe. It was easy to do—spring semester didn't start until later in January. It also allowed me a little denial about "coming back"—I wasn't really wanting to think about it. Yet reality hit when we ran into the president of my university outside the Coliseum in Rome. As we were chatting, he asked the obvious question: "how was your sabbatical?" I hesitated, muttered something along the lines of "it was great," and realized that I did not have a good answer to the question. That nagged at me—I realized then that I would be returning to the US soon, and having to answer that question—a lot. Not only did I not have a good answer, I had no idea of where to start in finding one.
One of the biggest difficulties in living abroad is the "re-entry" into one's own culture. Re-entry poses a number of challenges. One is trying to explain one's experience—it is so overwhelming (at both conscious and unconscious levels) that it's hard to give a coherent response. One has a sense of "drinking from the firehose." In this instance, I've modified this to "drinking from the Drini." Kosovo's Drini River originates at a large waterfall, from which the water gushes through a beautiful wooded setting. The water is excellent for drinking, but much like my experience, overwhelming in amount.
That said, I think one has to process such experiences—in short, answer the question. As with papers, the first efforts are rough, and tend to be general in nature. Please forgive those qualities in this blog.
Ipsative is an ideal venue for addressing the "official" part of my sabbatical, which was teaching at the American University in Kosovo. (I've written about other parts of our experience at our travel blog site) While teaching was just one part of the experience, it provided more than enough insights about teaching. I won't be able to present it all herein, but it'll be a start!
As I mentioned in an earlier post ("Missed it!"), I received a sabbatical last fall, which I used primarily to teach at the American University in Kosovo. I had two sections of the same course—Modern European History. I had taught the course before, but not as a survey, so that promised to be a new experience. Of course, the most notable difference was teaching in another country. While I was at an American university, with the courses and expectations I was familiar with, and the instruction was in English, I could hardly expect that the classes with 60-plus students between them would result in the "same old, same old" semester. Did that ever prove to be the case.
In thinking about the experience, the first thing that comes to mind is how teaching in a different culture has some real effects. I wasn't surprised by this—in fact, I planned on it. I had anticipated that teaching students who were learning in a second language would pose some issues. I tend to speak fast, using a number of colloquialisms, and I worried that I might "lose" my students as they tried to process what I was saying. I had consulted with a colleague who is a leading TESOL expert, and he gave me sage advice about checking for comprehension. We even talked of basing some research on my experience. As it turned out, while this was an issue at times, my students' language comprehension was quite good overall. (In fact, I was amazed at how easily they could shift between languages when speaking and thinking.) A number had attended schools with English-language curriculum, and many others had used English in extracurricular opportunities. I even had a number who had attended schools in the United States, so they were used to both the language and learning norms. I found myself "settling in" by the third week, pretty much presenting in class as I would in the States. I was checking for comprehension, and getting vocal responses along the line of "yes, we understand." I started to cut back on this for fear of insulting them. This was not the best idea, as I started missing that some were struggling with a few words, but didn't want to admit it. Later in the semester, I wondered about this, so I had students complete an anonymous survey, which revealed that while it was not an overwhelming problem, there were some words that had escaped their grasp. As a result, I came up with the idea of having students submit terms for further definition—I wish I'd thought of this earlier.
I had also been concerned that my extensive use of anecdotes, examples, and metaphors in the classroom might pose an issue. Matt had passed along a piece titled "Metaphors We Live By" which underscored the importance of these in relating new knowledge. These are useful, but how well do they work when we're in a different cultural context? This proved to be a bit more of an issue. The students were not unfamiliar with examples and metaphors from an American context. As hard as it is to believe, we have Hollywood to thank for this. The plethora of films that are shown abroad provide a lot of cultural material from which to draw. That said, there are still disconnects. For example, when I was explaining the rise of consumerism in western culture, I used a "tried and true" approach of asking students what they would do if given one hundred dollars (or in this case, euros) to spend. In American classrooms, the response is certain to be something like "buy shoes/clothes/tickets." In this class, the response was "give money to family/save for future needs/pay a debt." In a country which is emerging from socialist rule and war, with a long history of family coming before the individual, the "tried and true" didn't work. My students figured out what I was trying to communicate, but it took some extra work on my part. At the end of the semester, one suggested that more "Albanian anecdotes" might be good—he or she was right.
On the other hand, thinking back I can see how some things transcend culture. I had students who were enthusiastic about history, others who were not. I had students who appreciated the significance, insight, irony, and humor in history—I just had to bring it to light for them. I had students with diverse personalities and learning preferences, who wanted to be engaged in the learning process. I had students who excelled in meeting course requirements, while others struggled due to learning abilities, demands on time, or other such factors. In short, it reminded me of a typical semester in the US.
So—I'm still processing, still drinking from the Drini. In blogs, conference presentations, and everyday conversations, I'm trying to process and explain what it was like. It is overwhelming. I'm also overwhelmed by the processing experience itself—the sense of being "stuck" trying to do so. Knowing this, would I do it again? Yep—it was (and is) worth it. (I can't explain that either.)