This last week I’ve been running around saying goodbye to a bunch of people who have been very kind to me while I’ve been here. Today, it was the turn of the History and Archaeology Department at the Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, my institutional home in Ouagadougou.
They got me that very nice festive shirt that I’m wearing in the picture. Only about half the department was present because the “bacc” exams start on Monday and many professors have traveled to various faraway towns to oversee exams. The French education system loves high-stakes exams even more than the American does. If you don’t pass your baccalaureat exam, you don’t graduate from high school and you can’t attend university. You can take the exam more than once; in fact, some people take it dozens of times. But since it is so high-stakes, people have a temptation to cheat and local education officials are not too well-paid and thus might be induced to look the other way. University professors also oversee the exams because those who pass become their students. When you sign up to take the bacc, you choose a subject matter, so people who pass the History bacc will become history students at university.
My colleagues and I had a good time griping about the students, a common activity at all faculty gatherings worldwide. In particular, this was sparked by the fact that this is the week for formal student complaints about their grades. So all of us are answering a big stack of correspondence, every one of which reads pretty much the same: “Dear Professor, it would be a great honor for me if you would be so kind as to reconsider my grade in my exam/research presentation. I believe an error was made in calculation/something was overlooked/etc….” Several of these were actually correct: I made an arithmetic error or I misread somebody’s name (there were two Aminata Sawadogo’s, I gave them each the other’s grade) and so on. But there were a significant number who were just trying to wrangle something.
I had said on quite a few occasions that for students to get credit for the research presentation, they needed to be there when their group presented. I sat through hours of sweaty tedium listening to students read their research reports (sort of like an academic conference except with no air conditioning) in consequence of this decision. I wanted to have at least some sense that students had contributed to the work before giving them a grade that would often be enough to save their mark in the class. The lowest grade I gave for a research presentation was 10/20 and the presentation counted for 50% of your grade if you did it, so this meant that even somebody with a truly awful grade on the exam could still pass if the group did a good job. The groups that wrote the papers are apparently pretty stable throughout the students’ time at the university, since pretty much everybody uses the same evaluation methods as I did. I often got the impression that one or two bright students had done the majority of the work and the others were there just to read “their” sections, often rather clumsily. I couldn’t grade people down on the basis of that though; they might just be shy or confused or hot or sick. One girl in particular who I am pretty confident did a lot of the writing on her group research paper – she asked a lot of questions beforehand, anyway – was barely able to drag herself up to the front of the class to read her section because she was ill that day. So anyway, people made some sacrifices in order to be there to present, and I made some sacrifices in order to be there to listen. I took down the names of the students when they made their presentations. Then, after turning in the grades, I got a bunch of complaints from students that they hadn’t been given credit for their participation in the presentation. When I asked, they all swore up and down that they were really present that day, I must just have forgotten to mark down their names or confused them with somebody else, etc. With 500+ students, it is clearly possible that some people got overlooked. I can’t prove they weren’t there. So I ended up giving those students credit for their group presentations even though I had a sour taste in my mouth when I did it.
It’s been raining. A lot.
This means some flooding – a major highway was blocked just before I left. I’m going a hundred km or so to the south along that highway on Sunday to visit a village and see a development project. We’ll see what roads outside the capital look like in the rains. But the rain is a blessing at least for farmers and people who can’t stand high temperatures. I guess after all that has happened, I now fit into that latter group. I’ve got a big nasty heat rash over my whole torso, and I really love it when rain comes and takes the temperature down to 25 or so.
And the lock on my main gate, which has always been a little sticky, now completely refuses to budge since the big rains started, obliging me to use the auto gate to get in and out. If I was going to be here for a while longer, I’d bring a workman in to repair it, but since I’m gone in a week, I’ll leave it for the landlady. Landlords here don’t make any repairs during the lease period, or at least Mme Tahirou doesn’t, so one presumes they are ready to shell out at the end for all the deferred maintenance.