Thank you, Prof. Arakelyan, for that kind introduction. When I was invited to lecture here, I was asked by the vice-president of this university, Prof. Avetisyan, to make some observations on the general college system and the overall learning environment that have been developed here. And having made my observations, I want to take this opportunity and talk not only to him but to all my colleagues about certain issues that call for our unbiased attention and some creative reflection.
I am happy to notice that this university has lots of admirable features and has earned its prestige in the region. Here are a few things I can quickly mention.
1. People running this university honestly care about receiving feedback from those who are actually working with the students. And I am sure that makes everyone here more interested in helping to improve things. The motivation to help would be a lot less if this was run like a corporate business, where the boss calls people in once in a while to tell everyone what she or he wants from them. And unfortunately that is what you will find in many other universities in the region.
2. Professors are free here to write their own material. They’re not handed down course-guides written for them. Again, very common through other universities in this country, but thankfully not the case here. That’s very good. It encourages freedom and diversity.
3. The grading system is rather simple and doesn’t humiliate the lecturer by forcing her or him to do complex calculations, in order to arrive at a grade which could have been given fairly and accurately enough, without the time wasted adding and subtracting numbers to make various averages. This also reduces the stress that the students continuously experience, having every aspect of their performance judged by a superior.
Now, I will move on with my observations to point out that certain other things may still need improvement, and it will take nothing less than our collective effort to score any real success.
So, Armenia is a young democracy as far as the laws of the land, and it’s eagerly striving to become a functioning democracy... The people, I mean, not those in government... As educators, we need to help the cause by doing our part. And so we might first want to raise a question like "What should education be like in a democratic society?" We may not know the answer to this question, but I’m sure we know what it should not be like. Well, for one thing, it shouldn’t be run in a top-down, do-as-I-say manner. Just like in any other democratic institution, there should be checks and balances to ensure that power and authority are not concentrated in the hands of a few. And this expectation should be reflected in the way students are treated.
Just like in many other universities within and beyond the borders of Armenia, there’s a strange culture of subordination and domination here, too. Namely, the subordination of students to professors. And this is not just a relic from the Soviet era; this is indeed a problem with the vast majority of the universities in the world today. And I speak from experience, having attended several colleges and lectured in some.
Modern democracy is obviously new but it looks like our educational institutions, which date back hundreds of years, are painfully slow to catch up. No exception here. I’ve been recently told by a student that her motivation has been seriously weakened by the attitude of some of her lecturers. She mentioned that whenever a student is poorly prepared, it is not unusual to hear some professors say “Sit down! Zero!” in a demeaning and contemptuous tone of voice.
Furthermore, homework is given and expected, like a military command, to be delivered on time and exactly as ordered. What kind of an effect is this likely to produce, and how likely is it that the student would suddenly become inspired and interested in the subject?
Teaching students to take orders from authority may be achieving the short-term goal of ensuring discipline in class, but its damage to the student’s character is too severe to ignore. It kills creativity and the spontaneous thirst for knowledge that students naturally have. And besides, thousands of young adults learn that if you don’t want trouble, you need to simply be quiet and do as you are told. They later take this philosophy with them to work environments, where they easily become victimized by control-hungry employers. Those who climb the ladder and find themselves in leadership positions, eventually use the same abusive methods for people management, and the vicious cycle continues.
Nobody likes to take orders. Orders encourage rebellion in people – especially young people. And for a good reason. Young people know it intuitively that when orders are given, it’s usually not for their benefit. They’re usually given in order to establish or maintain the authority of those who want to be in control. So, they resent it. They simply do not like to take orders. And to think that an entire framework of ethics and methodology has been constructed and passed on, so blatantly unmindful of this fact, is nothing less than shocking.
I was having a conversation with a friend who’s also a lecturer and asked him what he liked the most about teaching. He said he liked the feeling of being in control. That’s what he said and I am glad he was honest. But we might need to take a long while to appreciate what a contemptible statement that is. He may enjoy himself being in control, but it’s not about him; it’s about the students. They clearly don’t like being controlled, and it reflects negatively on their progress.
Unfortunately, the rules are laid in such a way that professors become ultimate authority figures and students become tools who take command after command, and just how well they do depends entirely on how submissive they are to authority. I don’t wonder why this happened to be desired state of affairs back in the days when Moscow was our capitol.
But things are not the same now. We have a beautifully written constitution, and to make it come alive and do good for us, people from all walks of life need to reconsider some of the old ways of doing things. This is not just a question of style I am raising, this is a question of mindset, a question of attitude which has far-reaching consequences. How do we treat our students? Do we treat them as people who are there to do what we tell them to do, or people who are there in need of our assistance?
How do we do that same old thing these days when we know so much more about human psychology!? It completely baffles me. So, one student is unprepared for the assignment; you give her a zero, then give her another assignment. She goes home, comes back the next day, unprepared again. And what do you do? You give her another zero!
Does this sound right? After all, she wasn’t doing anything, one might say.
Well, how about this? How about we say, “Veronica, it looks like you’re not catching up with this. Is there anything I can do to make the material more interesting to you?” Oh, Veronica will be impressed. She’ll know that her responsibility is not to simply do as she’s told, but to try and work out things and explore human knowledge and creativity with the help of someone a little more experienced than her. Even if she was just too lazy to do anything. To see her professor looking at her laziness, her own lack of diligence and wondering if that could have been a possible result of some ineffective teaching technique, the student will sense a powerful stimulus to do well.
How about the dreadful associations that authoritarian teaching methods create... Let’s think about it for a second. Suppose you’re teaching philosophy or music; about the work of Bertrand Russell or the music of Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok. What kind of associations will the names of these great men awaken in the students five or ten years from now if it all falls under the boring routine of “Chapter 12 and 13, due by Monday! And on Tuesday we will have our midterm which is 30 percent of your grade! You’ll have to answer all the questions – otherwise, zero!” Those are not comfortable associations and certainly don’t arouse excitement. These associations will make you want to think about things other than the music of Stravinsky or Bartok, things other than the philosophy of Russell.
Alexander Pope famously wrote: “Men must be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot.” But sadly, as a result of constant control and manipulation through long centuries, students themselves are now conditioned to view us as nothing but authority figures, and no matter what you do to break this spell, it still takes an incredible amount of work to restore their natural ethos.
Recently, a student at another university was helping me fill out paper forms, and I walked downstairs to our chair office. My colleagues were having a cake, so when I went back upstairs I took a piece of cake on a paper plate and gave it to the student. She was shocked! You just don’t do something like that. A professor is not supposed to be so thoughtful to a student. You’re just there to test her and give her grades. And, of course, she was too embarrassed to eat the cake, but not eating it would be disrespectful too. So she just took a small bite when I wasn’t looking.
Now, I submit to you, ladies and gentleman, that these overarching societal structures of domination and subordination are neither just, nor effective. Above all, we should be friends to our students, and for the little time that we are in their lives, we should be a source of inspiration and support.
Education is a very complex phenomenon, and easy solutions may not come about. But I call for small positive changes in teaching methods, such as the change of mindset and attitude I talked about. This will effectively clear the air of unwanted tension and drama, boredom and resentment, gradually making educational institutions more favorable to creativity and less accepting of totalitarian ideologies.