It might seem like Steve and I have just been going camping and looking at animals here in Botswana, but there is so much more to it than that.
We’re here because I’m on a Fulbright, teaching at the University of Botswana in the Department of Library and Information Studies and working with colleagues in the UB Library. I don’t generally like posting about work or my students while I’m in the middle of it, but the semester is over now and I wanted to share some reflections and photos from campus.
I came here two years ago when I was helping organize a satellite meeting for the International Federation of Library Associations Reference and Information Services Committee. I’m a member of that committee and met my excellent colleague and friend, Edwin Qobose, at an IFLA meeting. Edwin is the acting director of the library at UB and an all-around good guy. I loved working with him and I loved the energy and intelligence I saw at the meeting we worked on together. I was bound and determined to come back and work with colleagues here.
Two years later, Fulbright in hand, I was back. My classes in DLIS this semester were LIS 211: Information and Society and LIS 304/LIM 300: User Needs and Services. I loved them – especially the LIS 304 class. My students were excellent – some of them were beyond excellent. I was also, unexpectedly, given five MA students to supervise. Their supervisors were indisposed for one reason or another and my plan was to just see them through until their supervisors came back, but I’ve grown very attached to them and their work and – despite the intensity of that particular kind of supervision and the fact that I spent most of the semester in the office six days a week – I want to see them through. My goal is to get them through their final drafts by the time I leave, and I’m already thinking about how I can come back next October to see them graduate.
I’m a “Professor” here which, in a high context culture and a place where people are referred to by their titles, not their first names, means a lot more than it does at home. It is the highest rank you can reach here, and I’m legitimately stunned every time I’m called Professor Edwards. I have to keep myself from looking behind me to see who’s being addressed. My students are bright and respectful. They call me ma’am. I’ve tried to learn all of their names and a bit about them, though with well over 100 students (my classes are the biggest in the department) I didn’t always do a good job. I gave them a lot of work to do this past semester, and they’ve mostly risen to the occasion. I’ll confess, when I said bye to them at the end of the semester, I teared up. It was a tremendous honor for me to be their teacher, and I learned far more than I taught.
I waited until I was done grading to look at my teaching evaluations, and I almost fell off the chair when I read them. The students liked the classes and seemed to enjoy my teaching. They said they learned about IFLA and libraries, about libraries and sustainable development, and that their reading improved. The most important comments to me were the ones where students said that they felt that I was personally interested in and invested in their learning, that I always made time for them outside of class, that I wanted their opinions and gave them space in class to share them, and that they felt like I listened to them. They also gave me great tips for next semester and I’m already thinking about how I can reshape my classes, with more professional excitement than I’ve felt in a long time. I don’t care what else I do here – that kind of feedback from future colleagues in librarianship is worth the whole experience of the Fulbright.
I realized I love teaching my discipline. For the first time in my professional life as an academic librarian, I feel energized and excited about what I am doing. I love it. I’m looking forward to the break, but I’m also looking forward to next semester’s teaching.
UB is the “Mother School” in Botswana and its motto is “Thuta ke Thebe” – which roughly translates to “Education is Priceless.” Established in 1982, people from all across Botswana helped build it – either literally or through donations of money, cattle, chickens, grain, and eggs. There are three campuses, in Gaborone, Maun, and Francistown, and six faculties – what we would call schools or colleges in the US. I’m in the Faculty of Humanities. The library is the largest in Botswana and is quite excellent. They certainly have a far nicer building, and greater numbers of professional librarians and library staff, than we do at UM.
The campus is quite large and is a mix of sleek modern buildings and the older red-and-white buildings of the original campus. There are covered walkways everywhere to take the sting off of the heat and I really like that many of the classrooms and offices open out to the outside, rather than onto long hallways. Grounds’ crews keep the campus pristine and there are many wonderful hidden corners full of plants and flowers and trees.
The University was built on the British system, which means that there is far more emphasis on testing than I am used to, or like. The testing system is set up so that the final exam is worth 60% of the entire grade. I wasn’t prepared for that when I was applying for the Fulbright (thanks to Chris, the former Fulbrighter here, for getting me up to speed) and it threw my syllabus construction off quite a bit. Lecturers can ask for exceptions to this and I am definitely going to do that next semester. I teach LIS 211 again in the second semester and also a special topics graduate course, and I just can’t weight the points for either class 40-60. UB is working towards outcome based education and, in my opinion, there is really no way you can do OBE when you’re weighting a final exam at 60%.
Like all universities, it has its challenges, and it probably has more than its share of inefficiencies. I don’t understand nor am I privy to much of the politics, for which I am supremely thankful. I love being able to go into my classroom and close the door, or to work deeply with a graduate student, or to think about how best to share readings with my classes.
This has been a career-changing experience, and is just the shot in the arm I needed. It has opened up new ways of thinking about my life and my work, for which I am grateful. My friend Sara, right before I left, told me that she was keeping a prayer journal for me and asked if there was anything specific I wanted her to pray for. I had to stop and think about that one, but ultimately I asked her to pray that I am in some way useful to my students and colleagues here. If that is all I manage, I will be happy.
All opinions in this post are my own and do not reflect the Fulbright or the U.S. Department of State.