Today was one of those days that makes you want to dance. In order to explain why I need to back up a bit and describe a little about the teaching I’m doing here at RGUKT. Many of the students at RGUKT are from rural communities and the vast majority are here on scholarship. Their main language is Telugu, and although they are taught in English, not all of them speak it perfectly. The university aims to admit students who excel at their local school from all over Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that students are not required to pass any national exams before being admitted. This means that while the students here are smart and motivated, they may not all have equal background. They spend their first year (or two?) here covering needed pre-college material.

RGUKT has a very large student body, all taking the same classes at first, and courses involve a combination of lectures and watching videos. The students all have access to shared laptops at least once a day (if I understand correctly — my understanding has been shifting over time) and do their homework either on paper or on laptop depending on the assignment. Internet access is carefully controlled and quite limited, though the campus does have a fairly fast connection (unless several thousand students are hitting it all at once :) ). Internet is not usually turned on in the classroom, and when we requested that this change in our class, it took much of the first class to get everyone up and running. Outside of class, we had to download the documentation and files for our programming course so that students could access them without Internet (through the campus LAN).

The students here live on campus, and many only see their family members when they head home (the trip here is difficult and visits usually only last one day). Girls and boys live in separate dorms, sit separately in class (girls in front), eat separately, and do sports in separate locations. Impressively the student body is at least 1/3 (maybe even close to 1/2) female.

There is time for exercise and recreation, along with studying, every day. The students are friendly and cheerful, and often visit (usually to kidnap one or both of my children for fun, sometimes to talk to myself or Anind). When we join them in the sports fields or the mess hall, many are eager to talk and ask questions about the best engineering field to major in (this is an engineering focused school), how they can use their degree to make a difference at home, what jobs are best, why we are here, and much more.

We are each teaching three sections (“batches”) of about 70 students (a total of about 420 students) for an hour each, 5 days a week. The students rotate through the same set of laptops, which brings challenges (it is impossible to easily give them each a clean environment, or even to ensure that they each have their own set of files, especially given the confusions they have early in the course over which file to edit, where to find them, and so on). As described above we (now) have Internet access in the classroom (most of the time). Because of this, it is a precious opportunity to let them work on code/the interactive, online class pages (created using OLI). We do this 3 days a week (T/Th/S). To add to the challenge, Internet is not always available, and sometimes the power goes out for some or all machines as well (luckily not too often!). The day we had the worst power troubles, the students had to move in ever larger groups from laptop to laptop around the room as each died.

In the class room, the students are very different … or at least have been for the last week and a half. They all rise politely when I enter, speak in unison in response to my “Good Morning.” They sit quietly during class with notebooks open and scribble down as much as they can about what I have to say. Getting them to interact with me instead of their notebooks is very very difficult. The typical answer to a question I ask is “Yes ma’am,”  while the answer to “Are there any questions” has been a uniform shake of the head or empty silence in most cases. As an instructor, my job, then, is to find out why. Luckily, and slowly, the dam has broken open. The mother hen of the campus, a kind and wonderful, fatherly man who has taken care of us along with hundreds of students with which he is close friends or more  has given us feedback, as have the instructors who are helping us with the course. I speak too fast, we are covering a huge amount of material, my accent is difficult to follow. These issues, combined with cultural differences in question asking and answering, and stylistic differences in RGUKT teaching versus my own make it difficult to make forward progress.

Here are some of the things I have tried to use to rectify this in the last week plus:

  • Ask the students to stand up and sit down only if the answer to [pick a question] is [pick an answer] (this after the first time I asked them to vote on something and got no hands raised for any option). Verdict: It got us over the first hump (not answering even yes/no questions) and doesn’t require students to speak in a language they are uncomfortable with
  • Ask the students to discuss my question with a neighbor and then vote again (rinse and repeat until most students vote). Verdict: Also fairly effective early on, though often I have to ask more than once to hear more noise in the room when they are supposed to talk with their neighbor!
  • Tell the students that they have to ask a question but it doesn’t need to be about the material. Verdict: Mixed results. In one section, when I suggested the question “Ask me what I like most about India” I got a bite, but another section didn’t respond at all
  • Hand out my email address and respond quickly and kindly to email messages. Verdict: A definite success. It got me comments (“ma’am, please speak more slowly”) which I told them about in class, and I think helped them see that I was open to answering questions
  • Walk around the room while students try a task. If a question is good, go back to the front and answer it for everyone. If it is asked twice, tell them so and ask anyone else with the same question to raise their hands. Then point out how many hands are up and ask again that they speak up when they have questions. Verdict: I think this one takes time to sink in but helps.
  • Regale them with crazy facts when they have no questions to ask (did you know dog owners in America pick up their dog’s poop?) and make them laugh when they do ask questions (I can make myself into a Picture object and point at my own Pixels. Today I explained the “private” keyword by comparing my “teach()” method to my “kissHusband()” method)

I’m not sure what made the difference, but today things finally changed. Looking back I can see it wasn’t just today. One student told me that others might be embarrassed to speak up (I asked him to please set an example for others by speaking up himself), another asked me what this “learn by doing stuff” was for anyway, an email message asked me to speak more slowly, … each time I got feedback of this sort I made an effort to let the students know I understood the difficulties they faced and how much I was asking of them, and to tell them about the feedback I had gotten and show them that I did not feel upset or criticized.

All I can say is I was ready to dance for joy in class today. When I stopped after presenting each new bit of material and asked for questions I usually got one, two, three or more questions, spread across multiple students. This happened in multiple sections. Perhaps they can understand my English just a little bit better, or have gained some confidence in my expectations. For my part, I praise their progress and let them know I have a long way to go in both speaking (slowing down) and understanding (I still have to walk up to each student and ask him or her to repeat the question until I understand it — between their accent and the ambient noise of the fans in the room I have a hard time). Perhaps they feel more comfortable with me, or have resigned themselves to the fact that I won’t give up. I don’t know for sure, but each question is a gift, especially knowing how far it had to travel. For me teaching has always been a conversation, and not a one-sided one. I am grateful to have achieved that, with the students’ help, here at RGUKT.