(The inside of one of those classrooms donated by Muhammar Khadafi that I spoke of in an earlier post)
Several people have noted that my blog is full of descriptions of fun parties I’ve been to, outings to nearby points of geographical interest, etc. And not much about what I’m actually supposed to be doing here, which is teaching history at the (newly-renamed) Université Professeur Joseph Ki-Zerbo. So I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts about the university, teaching in Africa, and maybe how things could be better.
The university has a good bit of infrastructure: nice big library with computer room, many large classrooms with air conditioning, a student computer center with lots of computers, student cafeteria, faculty offices, labs, etc. You might say that it is well-equipped, except that much of that infrastructure is barely functional. The library has a very small collection to fill all those shelves, and much of what they do have is quite old. They have a bunch of books that I read in graduate school 25 years ago and not much published since then. The computer labs have computers, but Internet access is as difficult for them as it is for me, which is to say, painfully slow even when it is working. My office air conditioner works (thank God) but the air conditioners in the classrooms don’t. When it gets upwards of 40 C (105 F) in a classroom with hundreds of students, it can be pretty hard to teach or, no doubt, to learn.
In addition, one reason for all those enormous classrooms is that there is a punishingly high student-teacher ratio. I have one class with 600 students and another with about 400. Never in my entire career of teaching in the States – where I have often held two full-time teaching jobs at the same time – have I had anything like a thousand students at the same time.
This is a product of a classic development trap – donors like to give big infrastructure projects. That way, they get to hang their name on the project and get on TV cutting the ribbon and everybody feels good about their country for a while. My friend Djibi was at the university when those Libyan classroom buildings were put up and he remembers fighting to get a seat in one of them so they could enjoy the air conditioning and maybe actually be able to pay attention to their professor (instead of mopping up rivers of sweat, as I was doing this afternoon…) And he still has a good feeling about Khadafi and the old Libyan government. But then, without explanation, no more air conditioning. Paying the electricity bill here is expensive. My little house, without air conditioning on (I have one that works but I rarely use it) costs me about 50,000 CFA (about US$90) a month. I can only imagine what it costs to air condition that huge room. And there are a dozen like it. The Libyan government wasn’t interested in paying the electric bills (even before that ill-considered intervention that led to the downfall of Khadafi and the rise of Islamic State). Same with the computers. The building was built and the computers donated by the European Union. There is a satellite dish out back, though they do not appear to have satellite Internet. I explored the cost of satellite Internet for myself and decided that the price was excessive – for a home system, about $1000 for the equipment and $200-$400 a month in data charges. Presumably, the bill was proportionately higher for an installation used by hundreds or thousands of students. One thing Burkina Faso’s government has been over the years is fiscally prudent, avoiding the debt trap that many African countries fell into in the 1980s and 90s. Fiscal prudence can often mean that you can’t pay for things you actually really really need.
And the university is almost entirely state-funded. Student fees are miniscule – 15,000 francs (US$ 25) school fees for a year plus 1,500 a month (US$ 2.50) to live in the student housing and 100 (US$ 0.15) for a meal at the student cafeteria. Public high schools are more like 100,000 a year, and private high schools can be twice that. Private colleges exist here, and some are pretty good. The good ones can run into the thousands of dollars US a year for tuition. The university would like to charge its students more of what it actually costs to give them an education, but students are politically well-organized, numerous, and they live in Ouagadougou, which means that if they have strikes and demonstrations everybody will be inconvenienced. Lots of students are officially enrolled in the state university, because it costs basically nothing and they can get a place to live and food, and then they actually attend other institutions. If all my officially-enrolled students showed up, I’d have more like 1,500. I wonder if they are all going to show up for the exam?
Students also don’t have access to books, much. Aside from the afore-mentioned library, my students will have library cards at the US Embassy Library. Its collection, for US-oriented stuff, is marginal but better than what the university library has. That’s where the books I’ve been reviewing have come from. There is a university bookstore, but no culture that faculty can oblige students to buy a text. Students mostly can’t afford to buy many books. I had hoped that Internet access would make up for this, and I even prepared a list of good websites in French that students can turn to, but most of my students only have limited access to the Internet if at all. So they are entirely reliant on what I say in class. They take voluminous notes, often more or less writing down verbatim what I have said. I have looked at some people’s notes to judge how well they are understanding me. It’s a humbling experience – often I have said one thing and the student wrote down something completely different. Might have something to do with my lousy French…
Nonetheless, for all the handicaps, people do manage to learn. At the Master’s level, people have smaller classes where they can interact with professors. Professors have their own libraries and their own Internet connections that they can share with their students. I have already been letting students download stuff over my (metered) Internet connection. I have some really smart students. They have memorized a whole bunch of basic information and are rarely at a loss when I ask about specific people or events. Though there was the guy who was surprised to discover that the US had had a Civil War. He thought our political system made political violence impossible…
Anyway, one of my students was asking about doctoral study in the US. He seems bright and interested. He certainly has plenty of opinions and ideas; we had a nice conversation today about pro- and anti-slavery discourse in America before the Civil War. I hope he gets into grad school and then comes back here and helps Ki-Zerbo U become a better institution. It certainly deserves it. Everybody I’ve met here on the faculty are devoted, hard-working people. Makes me feel bad sometimes about going to all those parties…but not too bad.