A friendly canine--he is huge--enjoying the weather, Historic Center, Guatemala (his owner was right by!)
Weather: Very chilly, windy and sunny. High in the low 70s, low in the high 40s. There is no central heating in most places, so bring chunky sweaters & socks!
Topic: Today I will talk about teaching in Guatemala, mostly--lots of tips and information--the Feast of Guadalupe and other activities happening in Downtown Guate.
Teaching in Guatemala is a very different experience than teaching in the US (I know, this is no breaking news). In fact, the skills one builds and sharpens by teaching abroad can be useful under many different circumstances at home or in foreign countries. I have talked to many expats in Guatemala working in teaching, and we have all felt the great benefits of teaching abroad. If you are interested in considering it, this information may prove useful to you.
I have years of experience teaching traditional college courses, but I also gained from years of experience teaching in environments that some of my colleagues and professors saw as "less than" teaching in traditional academia: community colleges and community outreach programs (literacy, Adult ESOL, GED, etc.).
This, added to some community research work I did while in grad school, allowed me to work with and teach in a vast array of different communities: poor people, people of color, recent immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe, former offenders, etc.
8th Street and Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a quiet evening (this is NOT what it looks like during weekday rush hour!)
If I hadn't had that experience, I think it would have been somewhat harder for me to be fluid enough to adapt to a new teaching culture. Nevertheless, anybody who is willing can adapt and learn from teaching in a different environment, and turn it into a resumé-enhancing experience. I don't think it is necessary to speak perfect Spanish either.
I teach here in the master program of a private university and I also coordinate and partially teach a community-building module for neighbors of traditional and historic, low income, low-middle-class and middle-middle class barrios in the urban areas. The latter is a program funded by the Governments of Spain and the City Government of Guatemala.
Very different student groups and both, at the same time, fall within a "macro" national cultural dynamic of a conservative and traditional Central American culture.
I have learned, however, that even across countries, people are more alike than different. Basic teaching skills, which involve being finely attuned to the group and tailoring the information to the group, serve one well in any environment.
Some important things to understand about teaching in countries such as Guatemala are as follow.
Teaching at the University:
There are great scholars in Guatemala as well as some really good programs. What I will write about, however, is based on my personal experience and that of others whom I have talked to.
Guatemala has a long tradition of placing the teacher at the front lecturing the information, students sitting and writing it all down, and then regurgitating it by memory in reports and exams. Questions are entertained, but no real class discussion. Very much based on conservative and traditional authority.
This is much (albeit not absolutely) different than how we do it in the US, especially in the upper undergrad- and in grad-level classrooms. In the US (ideally, at least) students are also expected to do readings and take exams, yet they are expected to write analytical, opinionated papers, support their arguments, and engage in class discussion to demonstrate they have done the readings and understood them enough to engage with them critically.
Of course, the extent to which this happens varies greatly.
Lets just say that is simply not generally expected in Guate. Lets . Just. Say.
It was a struggle to get that across in my first class taught in the local master program. I managed to confuse several students--and how!--who were discombobulated to be shaken from their comfort zone. In the end I got less than about 20% to actually "get" that their informed opinion--informed being a key term here--was actually welcome.
I spent over half the course trying to get across that by "class discussion," I did not mean they had to repeat the class readings as literally as possible, but rather I wanted them to wrestle with the concepts, support or critique them, in their own words. That is, show that they read the stuff and understood it. Most just wanted to write stuff they had already dealt with and were very comfortable with, in basic "book report" style.
In the end, I was sure they'd totally trash me in the teacher surveys and was surprised, however, to get really great, positive reviews from most.
Another challenge: Quite a few students seemed to have been coasting on plagiarized material in other courses, and I had to fail two for plagiarism, an issue I am not compassionate nor lenient about. I respect that other academics may be more lenient, but it is just a fact that I am not.
I have talked to other professors here in Guatemala and the US, who seem more easy-going about plagiarism. Not all! In Guate, some just shrug, smile and say "you can't fight it, it's too ingrained" or "on occasion I give them a slap on the wrist about it, such as having them re-do the plagiarized portions." Another thing they explain is that checking for plagiarism is just "too much more additional work" when it comes to grading. I hate grading, so I can relate. But still.
A Serious Problem: An abysmal lack of access to the kind of research resources we have in the US, or to any upper-level appropriate material.
Most professors here have no knowledge of the huge databases we can access for free in universities: JSTOR, ERIC, Wilson and so many others. None. We in the US taken them for granted and use them comfortably.
There is no such thing here--not even close! (hey, it's a poor country)--and that means that professors have no idea how to use them and much less how to teach their use. Thus, students writing theses have to rely on the paltry offerings of outdated libraries, or newspaper and magazine articles rather than proper academic journals. Due to the state of investigative journalism nowadays, especially in countries such as Guatemala, using newspaper articles for research is less than ideal.
Compound Problem: The same goes for access to textbooks. It is just lousy! And there doesn't seem to be a great push to provide access to more either.
I was talking to a professor who teaches a master level class in law school. He told me he uses the same textbook for a class of contemporary issues in philosophy of law, which has been in use for over 25 years. I asked him how so, if issues in philosophy of law as pertain to Latin America and the world at large, have changed dramatically in the last 25 years.
He said it is easier for him and the students, since he knows the textbook almost by heart by now, and that "It is a perfectly good textbook because it has stood the test of time." Asking what he meant by that he said "It's the one that most everybody uses for this class! Students pass it on, cohort after cohort."
Okay, mind you, we are not talking about classics of literature here, works of art that have endured through time, but philosophy of law as pertains to contemporary social issues! Also to keep in mind is that surely not all professors are so conservative about new reading material, but he assures me most of his colleagues use the same textbook for pretty much the same reasons. If true, it means that a great many aren't too interested in looking for new stuff.
This guy had never bothered to look around for any other, never even considered new textbooks for the topic. When it comes to having students learn new concepts, he refers them to a dictionary. In Law School??? This is a young guy who will continue teaching for many years. See the problem?
If you add to that that getting free exam copies here is almost impossible and that books are triple the price than in the US, in a country were minimum wage is US$200 a month, you have got a very serious problem. The above-mentioned textbook has been around so long, it probably has thousands of photocopied and used issues available at very low prices. Big savings, big incentive for its continued use.
So what to do?
Academics who are serious about wanting to bring new information to the students have to rely on a series of strategies which involve lots of work and challenges (all of which I consider as skill-enhancing and enriching experiences):
1. Many local academics write and self-publish their own material, which they then photocopy and sell. Or else, they network and find out about other academics doing the same and borrow. Ideally, they might find a publishing venue willing to produce the textbook, but that's iffy. Still, with the right connections, one can get a University Press or the Ministry of Education do it.
2. Finding "free" e-books textbooks online, in English or Spanish, and distributing them to students free of charge. Of course, this takes one into shadowy copyright areas of Internet places such as Scribd (which I confess to using).
Note: Upper-level undergrads and Master-level students are expected to have a high level of English comprehension, but in reality, not all university students are fluent in English so textbooks in said language can pose a challenge.
3. Translating chapters of current books and textbooks in English into Spanish and distributing those to students (such as I do!). Yes, it IS lots of work, but at least I can keep them for other courses and re-writing it grounds the class material even more in my mind.
4. Collecting and recycling stuff. I also have a vast repository of journal articles, research reports and investigative journalism articles which I have downloaded from international academic databases for years, and make available to them and which has come in handy when they are working on research papers of their thesis.
5. Hustling! Luckily, I have some colleagues in the US who have offered to get free exam copies of textbooks I might find useful for my students, even if in English. So using your access to databases and/or connections back home is always a plus.
If you have more ideas, please feel free to share!!!!
Some Benefits of Teaching in Guate:
I don't mean to imply that there exists no theoretical context, but it usually isn't very recent. Big here are some of the classic modern French theorists: Bourdieu, Foucault, Barthes.
One of my friends, Ori, a young Israeli professor who teaches Physics at one of the private universities here (Universidad Del Valle), has found pretty much the same problems. Nevertheless, in his case, doing lots of exercises works to ground the mathematical skills his students need, even though they also need conceptual theories on Physics.
He has worked hard to bridge the gaps he finds, and has enjoyed his teaching experience. He finds the pay more than adequate and finds that many students--especially grad students--are deeply appreciative of the educational opportunities provided in a higher education classroom. This is especially true, in my experience, when it comes to community-level teaching (which is tuition free).
Note: The "appreciation" factor may be quite a different story in private high school settings, especially the more affluent kind (from what I'm told).
Due to the aforementioned lack of resources, most of the teaching at universities--and community level education too--is based on group work, case studies, primary research (archives, field work) and practical exercises.
In other words, students are generally taught how to memorize (okay, that not so good), go dig in old archives and to develop questionnaires and implement them in surveys, field work and such. It can get annoying that they often want to do all of their work as group work.
On the other hand, there is lots of field work done around here, starting at the undergraduate level! So students become adept at it early on. This could be very fertile ground in which to develop research skills!
University and Community Level Teaching:
Teaching is extremely didactic: Lots of practical implementation of mapping systems, charting systems, interpersonal communication exercises and group projects, etc., often with light to nil theoretical background.
I see both pros and cons.
The pros: Like I said before, students learn in a very "hands on" situation and they learn on the go. Because of the great number of societal problems, there is lots of material to work with. The favored strategies are extremely goal-oriented, which has its advantages; students are less prone to muddling through a lot of theoretical concepts and can work more objectively.
The cons: They have very little in the form of framework for an in-depth understanding of social issues and contexts, which would allow them to be flexible or adaptable in different contexts or else, to understand the underlying reasons and dynamics as to why things occur the way they do and the long-term implications they may have. The preferred organizing strategies can become very rigid if not contextualized properly.
Hence, there is a serious lack of understanding about long-term implications in general, and underlying contexts and theoretical frameworks as well, to any given situation. Senior and master theses are very light on theoretical framework, for example, compared to theses in the US--and much shorter!
These are opportunities: It is in these gaps where foreign-educated academics are useful, working to bridge those gaps at the level of university work.
Another advantage: The preferred educational strategies in Guate have taught me a great deal--a great deal!--about practical group assignments for students in community-building environments and how to implement and guide them. We don't do as much community-oriented stuff in the US--we are more individualistic, I guess. All this has been extremely useful. And fun. The reason we don't do as much community-development in the US as is done in developing countries, or else, it is already incorporated in City policies. Hence, we aren't usually as exposed to all these skills.
Recommendation: Because I believe it behooves one to get grounded on the preferred systems in one's new teaching environment, I have signed up for seminars and workshops taught here by excellent professionals from the country and abroad. I recently signed on to "practical development skills" workshop called Outcome Mapping. This strategy doesn't intellectualize the process (I can do that on my own), just concentrates on providing the tools for setting, achieving and evaluating goals. I suggest that, most especially when teaching in a new environment, one seek local skill-building and learning opportunities.
Another suggestion: During these workshops, I make sure I talk to other community activists, organizational leaders and professors, to hear and learn from their experiences, especially those who have been here longer than I have. I strongly recommend this: Talk to those who have been doing it a while. Then try to discern what is useful to you and the population you will be working with. Attend local lectures, panels, forums, and conferences.
The trick, in the end, is to make it a real learning experience for all (including you), and to make sure that all in the group actually do participate and work on it. It can happen, for example, that in a mixed group, men simply take over all of the group decision-making and relegate the women to taking care of the paper-pushing parts. So what's new, right? *sigh!*
There are great similarities, yet important differences between grad-level students and undergrads, and between private university students and community students.
For instance, at the level of community-building the population is more communally oriented and have much less of an academic background, so a fully practical and hands-on strategy works well. Community-building students tend to be much more emotionally engaged in the issues, as well, making the classroom very dynamic. On dealing with these issues which are central to their daily lives, one can inject some basic theoretical frameworks.
On the other hand, community-level students usually don't expect "a grade" the same way a student in a formal academic classroom will, so there might be problems with attendance.
In short: I teach methodologies common in the US, yes, but have been learning a great deal at the same time, and I can already see how my skills and perspectives are growing accordingly. There are lots of job and career opportunities for teaching here at all levels of education. The pay is quite decent--often actually pretty high--for the local economy. The skills one learns are undoubtedly attractive for jobs back home in the US as well as at the international level.
One last thing: Do make sure that the pay on you contract reflects the amount they offered you verbally! In my experience, they offer one amount when trying to get you, and when they believe you're on board and it comes time to sign the paperwork, it's another amount. Argue!
Other than that, I was recently invited to give a talk at a forum for the inauguration of the International Hip Hop Revolution Festival, which brought over many Graffiti and Hip Hop artists from different countries and took place at different venues.
The panel showcased, which was held at the Alliance Frainçaise of Guatemala, presented 2 young of the young dancers from the crew who had represented all of Central America at the famous International Festival of Hip Hop in Montpellier, France, a journalist and cultural critic who has covered Hip Hop extensively and me.
The kids were very sweet, and this had been their first time on an airplane, and the first time out of the country! They were brimming with excitement and pride.
The room was large and completely packed, showcasing a beautiful mural painted by Soft, a local graffiti artist whom I have met and really, as his name indicates, has the most mellow disposition one can imagine. I thought it'd be a roomful of journalists and academics, but it was mostly youth activists and artists from different countries!
In light of this had to change my prepared speech fast and give a very off the cuff talk, which actually went down pretty well. Not a demanding crowd, that one! All of this was followed by a cocktail in which French wine and cheeses abounded. The premises of the Alliance Française in Guatemala are ultramodern and lovely. Very pleasant evening. Can't complain!
The young people involved in Hip Hop are truly inspirational, especially a group called Trasciende (Transcend), which works with marginal and at-risk students, providing spaces for artistic development and academic support for around 500 low-income kids from urban neighborhoods. This is truly a successful youth movement that actually works!
If you want to learn more about Guatemalan graffiti, check out this blog by a local Graff artist, by clicking here.
Recently, the City kicked-off a big inauguration of the renovation works of La Sexta, the main street downtown, and it was a night of fun and revelry which drew thousands. Shop windows were all decorated with installations from young, contemporary artists. VERY cool!
Since that day, the hordes haven't stopped their waves of invasion and the nightlife has been ceaselessly lively. I especially like lots of bands which play original music, artist collectives which create art, furniture, artisanal design, etc. There have also been some pretty impressive open-air festivals, performances and exhibits, all of them free of charge.
Artists have really taken the idea of public space as an open space available to all very seriously.
Meanwhile, a great many art exhibits are ongoing downtown at the many galleries, all offering very fun kick-off parties with flowing wine and beer, and all worth a visit. My favorite exhibit has been the Hip Hop Revolution photography exhibit at Ex-Centrico Art Gallery (the cool art space above the trendy Bar Central, the watering hole of most European expats), but all have something I like.
In short: Very intense "ferment" in the art spaces here these days. It feels as if there is always something happening; A big metal rock concert, a choir of classical Christmas music at some 18th Century church, a big art or religious festival, poetry readings and much more. All involve lots of local talent as well as plenty of foreign expats adding to the mixture.
Another interesting event was the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Intense! The street closes for 2 days while millions come to visit the shrine, which is a couple blocks away, at a church which goes back to the 1700s (though rebuilt after 2 or 3 earthquakes). Lots of music, firecrackers, bell tolling, serenades, street hawkers and food vendors all day long.
On that day, though the idea is to go out and eat the typical garnachas, tacos, enchiladas and all that absolutely delish stuff from the street vendors, we went out to lunch at Altuna, on 5th Avenue downtown, a traditional Spanish restaurant in a lovely old house. As usual, it was packed with families and people watching the game and having paella and sangria.
Paella is Q.60 a plate, which is much less than US$10, and the paella there is famous. I guess their other food is good as well, but I only have the paella. Love it!
We like the Feast of Guadalupe holiday, especially because our hotel gets totally packed during those days, with happy pilgrims from all around the country. I also love the 18th Century bells tolling all day long and the constant aroma of incense, food and flowers in the air.
The weather encourages the cheerful mood. Most people seem to enjoy this chilly wind. James, a friend from New Jersey who lives here downtown, told me that he loves walking La Sexta, the main avenue, in this weather because it reminds him of home: the cold, the lights, the street music and street artists, the cafes, the throngs of happy people.
The weather reminds me of the chill in Houston and New Orleans and the throngs how downtown New Orleans used to be when I was a little girl, way back when. I think that is when I was wired to feel most comfortable in lively old downtowns!
Anyhow, this is my favorite time of the year in downtown Guatemala and I have been lucky to have learned to love very urban areas growing up in New Orleans--and to have lived through the revitalization of downtown Hollywood in Florida while I was there and now, the revitalization of downtown Guatemala. It keeps getting better and better and I, for one, enjoy it greatly and don't take it for granted!
Hotel - Parking
In the Historic Center of Downtown Guatemala City