Twelve critical reflections on teaching in Colombia

Since 1.5 years, I am teaching international relations in Bogotá, Colombia. In general, I really like my job, the responsibilities that I have and my students. However, I do see also quite some challenges that I want to share.

  1. In Colombia, it is not necessary to have a PhD to teach. A masters degree is totally sufficient for most universities, only the top universities demand a PhD. That does not mean that a PhD is not valued, but is reflecting the fact that there are not a lot of folks out there that actually have obtained a PhD. As a matter of fact, there are still quite some lecturers out there with a pregrado (equivalent to a bachelors degree)!
  2. As a foreigner, you do have a big plus in Colombia when you are looking for a job; in general, you are very much welcomed. For sure that would not go for all foreigners, but Europeans and North Americans have a quite privileged position from the outset. A colonial mindset seems to survive in some parts with a feeling of inferiority towards the foreigner.
  3. Payment is not particularly great. The result is that a full-time contract does not pay off very well and one accepts also other offers to teach a class here and there. The result is that I have taught 17-20 hours per week. Thinking about it, this is relatively insane. Particularly considering that this year I was leading a research project that I have to do on the side, there is hardly time left for oneself.
  4. Academic quality of congresses and publications is still low although there is an ongoing process where academic quality is improving a lot. At the same time, it is quantity that is often valued more than quality. The result is that the majority of research is still rather mediocre. That is not to say that one can talk about very positive exceptions that do have the ability to compete on an international level as well.
  5. Like elsewhere in Colombian daily life, people are not particularly punctual. Coming on time for a meeting does not seem to be necessary, it usually takes at least 20 minutes before anything is getting serious. That surely also goes about my students who would not mind to come an hour late. And not just one or two, but pretty much all of them. Being Central European and valuing punctuality, I establish “harsh rules” for my students to be on time. In the end, I feel that they cherish it too because they know they get more out of class.
  6. At least on the bachelor level, university for me seems to be more like high school. Probably it does not come as a surprise: while I entered university when I was 20 in Austria, I have some students who almost finish their degree with that age. On the other hand the system is itself like in high school: students are many hours in class that are all obligatory to attend. There seems to be rather little leisure time available as many students have to work next to their studies.
  7. Many students have significant deficits in writing. While I am still in the process to master the Spanish language myself, I am often quite appalled of what I have to read. A third of my students don’t want to use accent marks (tildes) and if there are some around it is most likely because Word will auto-correct it for them right away. To two third of my students, points are not known and every paragraph is one sentence (no matter whether is has 10 to 12 lines). Sometimes comas are used to finish a sentence. And the semicolon is wrongly used in 90% of the cases. Moreover, there is often no structure in presenting an argument and all too often students do not say anything at all. However, it has to be said that one of the most rewarding processes is to see how students are improving during the semester. This is the truly rewarding part because one can see the big potential that the students have.
  8. Citing is a severe issue, as is plagiarism. Many students (and it seems even some professors as well) have no idea how to cite and how to do a bibliography. While I spend quite some time in class to explain it, many students have just never learned it. So it is hard to blame students, if they have never been properly trained! What is even more problematic though is that a few students seem to have no issue to copy paste information and do not cite at all.
  9. Articulating themselves verbally and talk is rather easy for the big majority of students. It comes quite naturally to have a good gesture supporting the points they are making. Unfortunately, the structure in the argument is rather poorly presented though. However, one can clearly see that one is operating in an oral culture.
  10. One of the biggest challenges for me is to get things actually done. While people in a meeting may agree to a deadline, it is no guarantee at all that they will actually comply with it. There seems to be no feeling of urgency to fulfill what one has promised as I would know it from a European or North American context. Naturally, this is severely complicating work processes.
  11. Quite some students understand themselves as “clients” which is truly breaking my heart. Although I do see in some the urge to actually use the opportunity in class to learn for the sake of learning, others just seem to be there to pass because they are paying for it (and to be fair, they do have to pay quite a lot considering the Colombian context).
  12. Very few students are reading the papers. Although one would consider it vital to understand the world around oneself and on a global scale, I feel that only some 20% of my students are reading the papers. Most of the time it is Colombian newspapers and magazines and very few students engage with international outlets.

These twelve points are challenges that I have experienced during 1.5 years of teaching in Colombia. Not all of these challenges may be unique to this country but also can be found in other settings. The structural challenges discussed above do complicate matters though on a regular basis and need to be tackled to move the system and its students further forward.

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2 thoughts on “Twelve critical reflections on teaching in Colombia

  1. Hi Johannes, although it seemed like you are overly critical, I have to agree with every single point you mentioned. It is not that we were never taught how to make a resume, or an essay, it is just that students do not take that part of the class seriously. It seems there is no motivation in the classroom. Spanish class is usually undervalued as a subject that does not contribute to your development. It is a common misconception here.

    I still take the chance to thank you for all the effort you put in our formation. It was thanks to you that I improved by writing skills in German and I can articulate my points much better.

    Greetings from Germán .

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