“ Be be danh de mimir bah ni nyaaru zier e “
[You do not use your eye to find out whether or not there is salt in your soup]
Dagara proverb–West Africa
The moral of the Dagara proverb quoted above is that real mastery of a skill or knowledge involves studying very hard and practicing at the skill. You will acquire more knowledge and skill by practicing rather than by merely watching.
For me, excellence in teaching does not just require doing an excellent job in teaching the material for a given course. In his book, My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers advisers that “ it is a dangerous thing to refuse to continue learning and knowing more.” Among other things, excellence in teaching is about understanding better why for specific courses, certain teaching techniques work better than others.
Over the span of seventeen years, I have taught a gamut of courses within my own major as well as for the General Education program. I am not afraid to challenge students and to hold them to very high standards, even when I know they don’t find it pleasant. There are students who think I am too demanding, yet write me later after they graduate to thank me for “opening [their] eyes to the world”. These are not necessarily students who major in French. I am conscious of the different dynamics that can dictate how I teach the same course to a different group of students, as well as the dynamics of teaching students who are taking a course for the language requirement. I am also conscious of what is different about an intermediate level French course because it is a sort of transitional period for a lot of students.
For me, what is most important is how much I think students are learning in my courses. Because of the nature of our programs, we all become generalists in the kinds of courses we teach. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that students benefit greatly from my expertise. I specialize in French literatures and cultures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as francophone African and Caribbean literatures and cultures. My research focus is on African and Caribbean writers.
I introduce culture in my lower level classes in various ways including the use of my own home videos that I have made during my research projects abroad. It is rewarding for me to see students of different disciplines come to ask for my help in a class presentation, a research project, or to invite me to do a presentation in their class. I have the same kind of satisfaction when colleagues of other departments invite me to do a presentation in their class–for example to talk about music in a music class, or to teach dance in a dance class — or to be the keynote speaker for their honor society.
I help students make concrete connections between what we learn in class and things that are happening around the world and in their own backyard. Here is a concrete example I will use to illustrate what I mean. On page 146 of our beginning level French text book (Entre Amis), there is a picture of the French national football (soccer) team with a short passage entitled “L’Immigration”. In this short passage, they explain some of the cultural, political, social, and economic issues surrounding immigration in France. When the discussion of this passage happens to coincide with presidential elections that are taking place in France, I seize the opportunity to encourage students to follow news on the election debate closely. After all, in their own backyard, immigration policies are being hotly debated in Congress. It is also an opportunity to discuss what is culturally different about the debate on immigration in France. The choice of the picture by the authors of the book is significant, because the racial diversity we see in the membership of the French football team says something about racial diversity in that country. This discussion on culture is nicely tied with the grammar on nationality, describing in French how to play games, and how to ask questions using “how” and “when”.
At the end of every semester, I take down notes for myself. I usually ask myself questions such as: why did the students in this intermediate level course seem to find it more difficult to understand particular material than students in the same class that I taught the last time? Why did students in this class seem to have difficulty in understanding simple instructions in French about homework assignment? How come one section of the beginning level course is much more enthusiastic and quicker at understanding material than the other section even though I use exactly the same methodology in both classes? What should I have done differently in the way I introduced culture in that beginning, intermediate or upper level French course? How much more material outside the book could I have introduced in that class and still be able to cover all the chapters in the book for that intermediate level class? Why on earth am I asking myself these questions? I write these kinds of notes for myself before I see any student evaluations of the course. It has been helpful to me to ask myself these disparate questions. I always remember a remark that a colleague made about another colleague’s teaching. He commented that there are no perfect teachers, but that there are only excellent teachers. There is nothing truer than what this colleague said. A perfect teacher would never have to assess his or her teaching, but the reality is that such a person does not exist in this our very imperfect world.
Apart from the regular courses that I have taught for French majors and minors and for the language requirement, I have also taught some General Education courses thanks to my interest in other disciplines apart from French and francophone literatures and cultures. Over the years, I have taught January Term courses that include courses on African folktales, African, African-American and Caribbean cultures, and Public Administration. My January Term course “Introduction to Public Administration” with a focus on human resource management has been a fairly popular course in the past few years. Every time that I have taught it, I have gotten students who have literally pleaded with me to allow them to register for the course after we had reached the maximum enrollment. Because of the interest I have seen in this January Term course, I decided to try it as a First Term Seminar. I have taught FTS many times and with different themes over the years. One time, when I taught the public administration course as an FTS, it had a service-learning component. We worked with an organization called Centro Campesino (Owotanna) on immigrant farmer issues, and I had people from their office come over to give a talk in my class. Even though we tried to make connections between the discussions on immigrant farmers and some of the material in the textbook, some students found it difficult to empathize with the stakeholders in the fight for immigrant rights. I found what I learned in some of my teaching workshops (especially the ones on critical thinking and teaching multiculturalism) very handy in this class. Many students told me that before the experience in the course, even though they come from rural communities, immigrant farmer issues had never crossed their minds. If I were not teaching a course in public administration, I would not have been able to do this kind of service learning project in my class. I am grateful to Dr. Elizabeth Baer (English Department) because it was after an invitation that she extended to me to participate in a service-learning discussion panel that I was encouraged to propose a service-learning project for one of my own class. The panel discussion was on the situation in the Dafur region of Sudan. Subsequently, I found myself the following summer volunteering in Mankato to help with the English language teaching program that is organized for immigrants by the Wilson Center of Mankato.
I have also been gratified to be asked by students to write letters of recommendation for them when they applied for graduate studies in public administration. I share all these experiences about the public administration course for a number of reasons. I started taking graduate courses in the Public Administration program at Minnesota State University-Mankato at a time I was still an untenured professor with all the extra pressure that comes with that status. I believe that God created us with the intention that we should explore everywhere that our intellect can take us rather than limiting ourselves to only one interest.
I am very passionate about social justice, and that is one of the reasons why the late French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre is one of my favourite French authors. I am fascinated by his sense of social justice and by his concept of what a “committed writer” should be. There is a Haitian saying that “tout homme est homme” [every human being is a human being]. This apparently simple saying admonishes human beings to treat one another with respect and dignity, irrespective of people’s social class or other criteria by which we define and judge one another. When I get the opportunity in the future, I will teach a course for the Peace Studies program. I have had that in mind for many years now, but given the responsibilities that we have in the French section to teach the courses for our majors and also contribute to the General Education program, I cannot teach too many non-French courses at a time. I should also add that even though I do not have a terminal degree in Public Administration, the knowledge that I have acquired in the field has served me well beyond the occasional course in public administration that I teach at my institution. I bring the world into my teaching but also take my teaching into the world. A few years ago, I was a co-founder with other compatriots who live in different corners of the world, of a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called FREED: Foundation for Rural Education, Empowerment, and Development (www.freedlife.org). I am currently a member of the Executive Council of the organization. It has the headquarters in a small town in Northern Ghana. With funding from local and international donors (including the French Embassy in Ghana) we have so far been able to do a lot of things that are benefiting rural people who have been marginalized in terms of educational and economic opportunities since the days of colonialism in that country: medical equipments for hospital, education programs on an FM radio station that we set up ourselves, and so on and so forth.
A lot of Gustavus Adolphus College graduates work for non-profit organizations and that says a lot about how well we are accomplishing some of the goals of our mission. In my course on human resource management in the public sector, we often discuss the role of non-profit organizations. I have concrete examples to share with my students, and I would also like to believe that teachers can be good role models for what students themselves are seeking to do with their lives after graduation.
In summer of 2006, I was one of the twenty Gustavus professors who went to Namibia for a workshop on social justice. Social justice is a subject that is dear to me. One of the outcomes of that experience is that I am considering teaching a January Term course in Namibia with a focus on public administration. In the past, I have taught two January Term courses abroad. The first one I taught alone in Ghana, and the second one I team-taught in the Caribbean with Dr. Hayden Duncan of my home department.
There are other areas (outside my major) of interest to me as far as teaching is concerned. I have developed a course for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program (“African Women Writers: Tradition and Modernity in Dialogue”) that I will be teaching for the first time in spring 2008 when I will be under review for promotion. I was trained as a comparatist in my French and Francophone studies, but we do not have comparative studies at this college. The type of courses I get to teach for General Education help to fill a void I feel in the use of my expertise. Of all the courses I took in my graduate studies, two stand out because in one way or the other there was some focus on diversity and an understanding of peoples and cultures from different corners of the world. Those two courses have greatly impacted what I have become as a scholar and as a teacher. The first one was a course I took on comparative literature at Université de Bordeaux III (France). Students in that class came from diverse countries such as France, Morocco, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, and Ghana, among others. We were each asked to make presentations on the research we were doing for our thesis. I always remember the experience in that class because of the diverse cultural, social, and political experiences that we all shared with the other students and the professor. The second course that was memorable to me was a public administration course with a focus on personnel/human resource management that I took at Minnesota State University-Mankato. We were required to do group presentations on how to create and implement a diversity policy. Learning about the legal, cultural, and social challenges of creating and maintaining a diverse workforce in the public sector was humbling and gratifying. In the past, I have sought the advice of one of my former professors at Minnesota State University-Mankato on the choice of texts for the course that I occasionally teach here. It has been an enriching experience for me.
Over the years, I have taken advantage of workshops both on campus and elsewhere to enhance my skills as a teacher. I have participated in workshops on teaching critical thinking, teaching multiculturalism, teaching African literature, teaching Business French, and teaching First Term Seminar, among others. I list them in my curriculum vitae. All those workshops have been very beneficial to me. One additional way in which I have taken advantage of possibilities of teaching in new ways was to benefit from a co-operative teaching possibility made available through the Faculty Development Office — Bush Foundation Grant. Dr. Alexis Tengan is an anthropologist who teaches in one of the universities in Belgium. He specializes in cultural anthropology and has published a lot on certain African rites and rituals, and is also very knowledgeable about the interaction between traditional African religions and Christianity. He did with me collaborative teaching via electronic mail when I taught one of my First Term Seminars. Once a week, the class had discussions with him on one of the literary texts that we were studying in class. It was an invaluable experience for the students as well as for myself.
Finally, in my approach to teaching, I want to be authentic in what I do in the classroom, and this can only happen if I accept the reality that it should be my personality that determines how I handle teaching.
Colleagues from other colleges and universities have sought my advice on teaching material, and I have also benefited from other people’s expertise and advice. I would not be able to maintain these kinds of relations with colleagues in other institutions without my active scholarly presence in the field.