Student Activism

Hasta la victoria 2 640

I should have put this photo into my last post, “We’re All Revolutionaries Here”. This was taken at a local drinking establishment, called the “Rolls” and decorated outside the door with a Rolls Royce logo. Inside, the walls are covered with a selection of flags, those of all the neighboring countries, New Zealand for some reason, and this Cuban flag with Che and “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (always until victory) that you see behind me. Even in the Rolls Royce bar, they are revolutionaries.

Revolution reared its head again today, when I had a visit in my office from my student ‘délégués’, the class leaders for second year history. They came to complain about the exam I gave them and suggest that maybe I should stop teaching. They said that the exam was way too challenging, that 30 multiple-choice questions, five one-sentence short answers, and one 3-page essay was too much to ask university students to do in two hours. They said there had been an effort among the students to boycott the exam, which probably explains why I only have 379 exams to grade instead of the over 800 I expected.  I explained that I was shortly going to grade the AP World History exam, a test taken by 14 and 15-year-olds in the US, in which students had to answer 90 multiple-choice questions and write three essays in the space of four hours. That is, children an average of ten years younger than themselves had three times as much work to do in only twice the amount of time. What I did not mention was that many of those youngsters fail the exam. As, no doubt, will many of the Burkinabè students. Still, I thought they were impressed. I also told them that my ideas about grading were somewhat curve-like, that is, I would assign a raw score to each exam, then look at the distribution of scores and decide what final grade each raw score will earn them. I also said that for the “session” exam, I would extend the time limit to three hours. And they said the instructions on the exam should have been clearer; I again promised to do better with my subsequent exam.

Then, they said that since I had finished the allocated number of hours of lecture and maybe I could stop my lectures and just take the remainder of the class for student presentations. I told them that I would do whatever they wanted but if many of them were planning to take the “session” second-round exams in the fall, they could count on the exams covering the period from 1939 to the present, the period I am beginning now to lecture on. So the students would need the material I was going to be discussing in lecture. They said that in previous years, the US History class had covered the period from independence to the Civil War, which I thought was odd. I said that if students are looking to understand US History for its impact on Africa, they would be better off studying the contemporary period.

So in the end, things will go on as they have been: two hours of lecture on Thursday mornings, and four to six hours of student presentations scattered throughout the week (mostly on Thursday afternoons though it is getting increasingly difficult to sit in a classroom in the afternoon when the temperature is over 100 F). I was somewhat surprised at the willingness of the students to confront me on this issue, though. When I was here in days of old, when dragons roamed the earth, the African educational system was pretty hierarchical, with teachers invested with great authority. They had corporal punishment in schools here; our Peace Corps volunteer teachers in Guinea were always having to fight the battle with their school principals about why they wouldn’t hit the kids to enforce their authority. Now, at least in Burkina, the students are much more assertive. Out in the provinces last week, there was a news story about a regular student riot at a “college” (equals junior high school) in which students busted up their classrooms, chased the teachers out of the school building, and then invaded a house where they had taken refuge, smashing or stealing things in the courtyard and generally making student displeasure known. They were displeased because a student had been, they said unjustly, prevented from taking the end-of-year exam, apparently on the grounds of insubordination. Our students went on strike in the fall to complain about housing and also about a shift to a new organizational structure that they think makes it harder for them to get their degrees. My students were polite, no smashing stuff up – of course, they are grown-ups. When I let them know I thought their complaints were exaggerated, they had the grace to appear somewhat embarassed.

So that’s my story of confrontation with student activists. No chanting, no torchlight processions, no vandalism… Maybe they’re saving that for when the grades come out. By which time I plan to be on a plane.

3 thoughts on “Student Activism

  1. Stewart: Iwish I had some words of wisdom for you. *didn’t have many troubles with students–from Jr High through college–I noticed that you treat students the same way I always did–like human beings. It’s great that your students really come to formally complain!!! Obviously they have been in a country club atmosphere. But listen to them. They don’t seem to be too serious. How are they selected to go to the university? Exams? Grades? Pull? *

    *I can give you some examples of confrontations. I will try to attach to this a picture of a plant–one with SIX orchidflowers, sent to be by a student who worked at Manor Care when I was there. I’ll do i later–I’m on my way to my neighbor Eileen’s for Passover Seder.*

    On Tue, Apr 19, 2016 at 8:39 AM, stewartroyceking wrote:

    > stewartroyceking posted: ” I should have put this photo into my last post, > “We’re All Revolutionaries Here”. This was taken at a local drinking > establishment, called the “Rolls” and decorated outside the door with a > Rolls Royce logo. Inside, the walls are covered with a selecti” >


    1. I more or less ignored them. But I will extend the time permitted for the follow-up exam.

      Anybody who passes the ‘baccalaureat’ school-leaving exam at the end of secondary school (13th grade in the French system) has the right to attend the university. It used to be super-difficult to pass the bacc, with failure rates exceeding 95%. People would take the exam over and over again and you had people entering the university at age 50. So the government loosened up the standards – though don’t expect them to admit it – and enrollment shot up. There are over 75,000 students officially enrolled at the national universities. Since the cost is near zero (15,000 CFA = US$ 20 or so for a year), people enroll whether they have any intent of going to classes or not. They show up for exams and there is always the temptation to push people through. If you have completed two years of university, you can work for the state in a variety of jobs including elementary school teacher. Burkina tries its best to provide six years of elementary education to everybody, meaning that there are millions of school children out there who need teachers. The student-teacher ratios are terrible, both at the university (I have 800 students, and that is actually a light load, they are taking it easy on the foreigner), and in village schools (where there can be 150 or 200 students of all ages and one teacher). It is a chaotic system; it is remarkable to me that people learn anything at all. I had a really good exam last night; the student actually understood the question and made a thoughtful response though he got his chronology confused (mixed up the end of the slave trade in 1808 with the end of slavery itself in 1865).


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