Coda: The Tao of Teaching Overseas
We sat in the back seat of the car watching Africa. Coming from the airport, with the windows rolled up and the AC on, we looked out and remembered those National Geographic documentaries. This was not National Geographic. The program would end in a year, not an hour. I had received a Fulbright fellowship to teach at the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon. The car moved through a sea of people that would not part: vendors at tiny stalls selling cigarettes, avocados, fish; young polio victims with thongs on their hands dragging their legs; indifferent traffic police. This would take some getting used to.
Mornings in our Yaoundé apartment began with the question: "Will we have running water today?" For weeks I tried to detect a pattern. Finally, I reached for some extra-strength deodorant and the Taoist philosophy of acceptance. I embraced the unpredictable. We may have running water; we may not. At the university, you may find a microphone in your face and a reporter asking your opinion on the recent political strife and the arrest of some of your colleagues and students. In my imagination, Yaoundé is still lit by stories of underground prisons.
As I jogged along the lake in the mornings, about 30 elementary school children in bare feet and blue uniforms would slap my hands as they ran toward me. A moment later, I would come to a VIP government residence with a soldier standing guard. Some days he would ignore me, some days he would frown--or smile. Once, he aimed at me and laughed. I knew I should avoid running past him, but this was the one place away from the crowds and diesel fumes. Nearly every day for a year, the same runner, the same soldier. I never detected a pattern--ignore, frown, smile; frown, ignore, ignore, aim. He never fired.
In a rural region of Cameroon, a local chief, or "fon," in thanks for some medical supplies, presented us with a live goat. I held up my hand to decline the offer. Sharp looks. A principle became clear: accept the gifts that come your way. We thanked his majesty and buckled the goat in the back seat.
Traveling with two anthropologists, a husband and wife, to the remote region of Kom, I drove my Peugeot to the top of a sacred mountain. We were taken to the fon's palace at Likom. Seated in a circle around a great fire in the cavernous throne room, we witnessed a gathering of a secret male governance society, "kwyfon." There were elaborate rituals--and corn beer. The ingredients for corn beer are spread out under the equatorial sun for weeks, allowing bugs big enough to scare your cat to get into the mix. After everything ferments nicely and is fortified with crawling protein, it is raked up and bottle-brewed for months. The fon's attendant presented us with massive gourds of thick corn beer. The ritual of friendship was, of course, bottoms up.
After swearing oaths not to divulge any secrets--and another round of corn beer--we were blindfolded and led through a bamboo passageway. The fon had nothing to fear from me. I knew I would soon die. The corn beer was low in alcohol but high in texture. I still feel queasy when I hear someone say, "Take a slug."
When teaching abroad, an openness to whatever comes along is as important as the detailed preparations. While on a year's Fulbright in Norway, I was asked if I wanted to be a "professor in a boat" and travel to remote areas of Norway to give intensive courses for older students. Because they were mayors, teachers, fishermen, or farmers, they could not travel to the four universities. I thought about the proposition for 30 seconds, packed my Norwegian rain gear, and headed for the western islands. The august title, "professor in a boat," is probably what piqued the interest of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which had a reporter contact me concerning her interest in "off-beat" education stories.
I am most interested in getting to know the locals when overseas, but I've also met other "foreigners" at the universities. Some of these expatriate connections have turned into invitations to travel to several countries. While in Norway, I met a Chinese professor who invited me to China to give some lectures and faculty development seminars. People warned me of Chinese students' reticence, but when I went to China this year, I found the students eager to share their ideas. To their teachers' surprise, students stood up in front of a hundred peers and read enthusiastically what they had written in the workshop. I enjoyed witnessing this cultural stereotype begin to crack.
After talking about Taoism in a teahouse with some of my Chinese colleagues, we arranged a trip to a remote Taoist temple in the mountains of northeast China. I talked at length with a Taoist nun about Chinese philosophy and the possibility of forging links between China and the U.S. The nun was pleased that I teach ancient Taoist texts, such as the Chuang Tzu, the Tao Te Ching, and the poems of Po Chü-i in my Berklee classes. So, a Fulbright in Norway leads to an academic trip to China, which leads to a cultural bond between Chinese and American people with an interest in Taoism.
I spent last year teaching at the University of Essex, an hour's train ride from London. My exchange grew out of a contact I had made through my two Fulbright fellowships (Cameroon and Norway). I exchanged jobs, cars, and houses (but not kids) with a professor from England. As a visiting professor of literature, I taught creative writing and Irish studies. I also taught in a graduate program at the University's Centre for Theatre Studies. One of my theatrical tasks was to travel to London twice a week with two other professors and our graduate students to see plays in the West End and on the fringe. In a year-long seminar at the university, we discussed the plays' "aspects of performance," including the writing, directing, and acting. Navigating London was difficult at first, but halfway through the year I was able to play tour guide through all of the city's "seven villages" and began to feel at home there.
While teaching in England, I again compared European approaches to higher education to various American models. At Berklee, I often rely on the overarching creative impulse of this place. In teaching overseas, I have to take the pulse of the university, to understand its "ch'i," or vital energy. Only then can I hope to mix Taoist acceptance of a new way of learning and my own proselytizing of the American way!
A number of British undergraduates in my Versions of Modernity literature class (a.k.a. "Aversions to Modernity") were generally well-prepared to read books (the ones they supposed would be on the exam), come to class (to get notes to prepare for the exam), and take the year-end exam (which they had spent the entire year worrying about). But who's complaining? I picked up the gauntlet and tried to get these students to enter the mysterious, disorienting world of critical thinking. In this strange world, I encouraged my undergraduates to engage in active rather than passive learning. One student was beside herself when she broke her arm, not because of the pain, but because she couldn't take notes. She wanted to tape-record the small seminar discussions and have a friend take notes. I suggested she simply come to class and get more involved in the discussions. I told her she would remember much of what we had to say about Anton Chekov if she participated fully in the discussions. She looked at me as though I were indeed a visiting professor--from another planet.
I'll never get to visit another planet, but teaching in China for a year would be like exploring a different world. The Tao of international education is simple: to enter these other worlds with as few preconceptions as possible, to accept new ways of doing things with as little whining as possible, and to learn as much as we teach. When we return home, we may not wear the traditional robes of Taoist monks and nuns, but we'll have a trunk full of new approaches and ideas. These will nourish our lives and classes for years to come. Just as well--the corn beer would never make it through customs.