11 THE BLACKBOARD SAGA

Unthinking respect for authority
Is the greatest enemy of truth

Albert Einstein

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UP UNTIL THIS ELECTRONIC ERA, the blackboard was an enduring companion for a teacher. From the age of five or six, she faced it regularly as a student for some two decades. Then, in her work life, she stood beside it for hours on end almost on a daily basis.

The blackboard is unique as a communication device. It allows the instructor to convey the unfolding pattern of her thoughts in a dynamic and flexible style. What she writes, and her pace of writing, are adjustable to the perceived receptivity of the class. To the student, it clarifies the logic employed by the teacher. They as well come to know her personality from how she uses it to interact with them.

I rank the blackboard as one of the most important pedagogic innovations. Sadly, it is being replaced by the PowerPoint screen that seems more useful but is basically a sterile device that permits an intellectually shallow presentation to be viewed as something grand. At MUHAS, I observed many instructors using the same set of PowerPoint slides from one course to another, and for years on. It decreased the amount of time they devoted to teaching and converted the learning process to the rote memorization of the slides.

I remained a devotee of the blackboard to the last day of my teaching. I never used PowerPoint slides for any regular course, be it at UCLA or MUHAS. It was not that I was opposed to the use of electronic technology. I judiciously employed it when it served a purpose, for example, to distribute notes and reading material to the students. Yet, I always felt that without the blackboard, my performance in the classroom would not be as effective as it ought to be.

There was another advantage to relying on the blackboard. In those years, power outages were common in the city and at the university. If you were a devotee of PowerPoint, ten minutes into the lecture you could find the screen go dark and dead. Many lecturers then found themselves in a bind, and would stumble through the rest of the class. In my case, I just had the students open all the shutters and windows and carried on as usual.

Yet, in the final six years of my teaching career, it became increasingly arduous to link up with my favorite teaching device. How this situation arose casts a distinctive light on the pedagogic trends and priorities in the Tanzanian academia. Thus I find it fitting to end this book with this curious tale.

CLASSROOM ALLOCATION

Lecturing in a Lab: The increase in the number of degree programs at MUHAS in the 2000s did not simultaneously occur with a corresponding increase in the number of classrooms. My Biostatistics class in the year 2006 was held in a laboratory of the School of Medicine. It was not an ideal teaching environment. Some students sat on stools and others on benches. They had trouble taking notes. But there was a large blackboard at one end of the lab that was regularly wiped before lecture time. Writing chalk was in good supply and a large new duster was at hand as well. I taught in this place for two years.

A Contested Classroom: Since the number of students in my course was rising every year, a bigger and better lecture room was needed. At that time, someone in the administration realized what should have been obvious long ago. The so-called shortage of classrooms was actually the result of an inefficient and irrational system of allocation of the teaching rooms. Under it, each group and subgroup had its own dedicated classroom. Others could not use the place even if there was no scheduled teaching activity going on there. An appropriate system in the early days of the university, it had outlived its utility.

After spending two years in a laboratory, my course and related courses for the postgraduates were allocated a decent lecture theater  right under the office of the Vice Chancellor. Students could sit in comfort and take notes as I spoke and wrote on the large blackboard.

Though there was one major snag: communication with the student group that had traditionally occupied this room had been poor. No one in the administration had sat down with them to explain the new system of allocation of the teaching rooms. The students had developed a strong attachment to their traditional rooms and felt that they were being deprived of some inalienable right!

When I conducted my first lecture in this place, I encountered a large group of students not belonging to my class occupying nearly half the seats and doing their own work. My students had to squeeze in to find a seat. The recalcitrant students would also talk among themselves and walk in and out while my lecture was going on.

It was the strangest teaching situation I had ever encountered. It needed immediate change. I immediately lodged a strong complaint with the head of my department and the university administration. But no action was taken for two weeks. Exasperated and angry, in the third week, I took an unprecedented step. There was a large mango tree adjacent to the administration building with a few cement benches under it. The shade and a cool breeze gave protection from the tropical sun. Standing on a bench, I lectured under the tree. A few students sat on the other benches, some sat on the ground, and others just stood. Though there was no blackboard, I was able to communicate a fair amount of the material to the class.

Around that time, Tanzanian newspapers often carried photos of primary school children in the rural areas being taught under a tree. At times, there would be a small blackboard leaning against the trunk. In higher education institutions, biology teachers take students out in the bush for practical sessions. But that specific day represented the first and only time a lecture in a major Tanzanian university was of necessity conducted under a tree.

In the staff common room, it elicited chuckles from my colleagues. Faced with a similar situation, some of them had either truncated or canceled their classes. But my unusual action had an immediate effect. The following week, I was placed in a larger lecture theater right next to the administration building.

A Hazardous Classroom: Despite the change, the problem of students clinging on to their traditional study room had not been resolved. In the new place, I had to confront it as well. But here the number of stubborn students who chose to remain during my lecture was smaller. Further, they sat at the back, did not walk in and out, and remained silent. In the first session, I told them that so long as they behaved themselves, I had no objections to their attending my lecture. My students sat comfortably in the front rows, and things went well at the start.

There was, however, one nuisance I had to deal with. The blackboard was always hidden by a large projection screen. The rarely used board was usually not clean, and to use it, I had to raise the screen. On the first day, I did that and proceeded in my unusual style. But on the second day, this procedure occasioned an almost lethal catastrophe. A few minutes into the lecture, after a brief rumble above my head, the metal casing holding the projection screen came crashing down in its entirety.

The heavy object passed barely six inches from my body. Had I been standing slightly in front, it would have landed squarely on my head, and in all likelihood, I would not be writing these words. My luck had it that only one sharp edge grazed my forehead, making a small, superficial cut in the skin. The class, though mostly composed of medical doctors, was too stunned to take immediate action. I simply took out my handkerchief, pressed it against the wound and the bleeding stopped instantly. After pausing for a minute to catch my breath, I carried on as if nothing had happened.

At tea time, my colleagues wondered why there were drops of blood on my shirt. Upon hearing my tale, they were sympathetic, blaming the administration for not adequately maintaining university facilities. But I think some also felt that it was time I discarded my old fashioned ways and use PowerPoint as everyone else did.

Falling objects constitute a serious occupational risk for construction workers, not academics. I do not know if there are relevant statistics. Based on my experience, perhaps teachers in higher education institutions should also consider wearing hard hats on the job.

Word of the almost catastrophic event must have reached the administration. But no one from their exalted offices came to me to inquire about it, or offer a word of sympathy. However, it did have a singular positive effect. In a couple of weeks, my class and a related course offered by our department finally secured a satisfactory teaching space.

A Good Classroom: The new location was the main lecture theater of the School of Dentistry. Near the entrance of Muhimbili Hospital area and two hundred meters from the School of Public Health, it entailed a pleasant early morning walk.

With sitting space for over a hundred and fifty students, it had everything I desired. It was airy and well lit. The giant sized blackboard was always clean. Once in a while, chalk ran low. But it was my habit to have a couple of pieces with me.

Why did my class have to go through years of inconvenience to land in this place? The solution to the problem was just a matter of administration-initiated negotiation between the School of Dentistry and the School of Medicine. The fact that all the postgraduate students from the School of Dentistry had to take my course was a sufficient justification to make the dental lecture theater available. Yet until now no bureaucrat had taken the trouble to initiate this elementary step to resolve a major problem affecting all the first year postgraduate students at MUHAS.

This is the place where I blissfully and uneventfully lectured for two years. I have but positive memories about that time. I recall often stopping by the fruit stand next to the hospital entrance on the way back to my office and buying some delights to take home.

A Classroom Without A Blackboard: Good things do not, as they say, last forever. The two gigantic lecture theaters and a new office block that had been under construction for some years were finally ready for use. The undergraduate classes, numbering over three hundred students, were accordingly sent there. Since that move freed up the lecture theater they had used previously, the postgraduate classes, including mine were relocated there.

This theater, with a slightly larger capacity than the one in the dental school, was narrower and longer. It had a good sound system that worked most of the time. There was as well a modern projection system with the projection screen, I was pleased to note, securely attached to the wall.

It nonetheless had a surprise in store for me—there was no blackboard, absolutely none, kaput. One could write on the projection board with a marker pen. But the pens ran dry fast, and the writing was troublesome to erase, needing a solvent at hand. Moreover, using the pens was an expensive proposition. I wanted the good old chalkboard. Yet this was the first time in my four decades of teaching that I was placed to teach a semester long course in a room that was lacking one.

Since classroom allocations were announced, like most things, at the last minute, I became aware of this deficiency just two days prior to my first session. I marched immediately to the office of the Dean of the School of Medicine to see if something could be done. I was promised that a writing board would be installed the next day. But what I found in the first class was a small, slanting board stand with a two feet by three feet plain paper writing pad placed on it. A box of marker pens was nearby. As far as I was concerned, it was a most unsatisfactory solution to the problem. Because of its size and placement, the visibility was poor for the students in the back rows and first two front rows. If you wrote in large letters, the pages filled up in no time. Plus referring back was cumbersome. The Dean’s secretary probably thought she was doing me a favor by providing me with a contraption that was suitable for executive presentations!

By the next lecture, I managed to have a slightly larger chalkboard installed on the stand. An eraser and chalk were also provided. Yet, it was too small for the amount of stuff I usually write in a lecture. The issue of poor visibility remained. But I was told that this was the best that could be done.

The office of the Dean of the School of Public Health was unhelpful, as the lecture theater was in a building under the control of the School of Medicine. So I went to a senior administration official, the Director of Postgraduate Studies, for assistance. He was sympathetic and said he would find a satisfactory solution. But nothing was done for a week. I was thoroughly frustrated. At the start of the next lecture, I went to the Director’s office and literally dragged him to the lecture hall. Upon seeing the problem first hand, he promised in the presence of the students to deal with it immediately. In two days, two mid-sized boards were installed, one on each side of the projector screen. I was elated; other instructors used the boards as well. And it was in the august company of these indispensable tools of pedagogy that I formally ended my teaching career in July 2012.

INVERTED PRIORITIES

Wherever the staff or students at MUHAS raised the issue of inadequate facilities the standard reply from the administration in those years was to be patient. New lecture theaters and offices were under construction. The administration put all its efforts on large, expensive, prestige projects. The simple steps that could be taken to alleviate the problem including better coordination between the different schools were sidelined. Long term plans for training new academic staff were deficient. For the students and staff, the administration functioned like an entity high in the sky. Effective communication was but a distant dream.

The dire situation in the Tanzanian higher education sector became a matter of public concern in the year 2017 when the Tanzania Commission on Universities (TUC) ordered nineteen universities not to enroll new students for the current academic year. Another twenty two universities were prohibited from enrolling students in seventy five study programs. The affected institutions had not fulfilled minimal requirements like adequate numbers of qualified academic staff and appropriate teaching facilities and supplies. Nearly three quarters of the universities in the nation were affected by the ban (Kamagi 2017).

Fundamental matters like quality of instruction and standards of assessment, which need prolonged, in-depth, discipline by discipline evaluation, were not probed by the TUC inspection. A university can have qualified staff but the quality of teaching can nonetheless be sub-standard. Thus, if the standards prevailing at UDSM in 1975 had been employed as the current required standards, I do not think any current university would have made the grade. The education provided in Tanzanian universities today does not deserve to be called university education.

PARTING THOUGHTS

Teaching has been a true love of my life. It gave me a second family and provided meaning to it. Like for all families, it had ups and downs; good apples and bad apples. Overall, it was a decent family. My dedication to it is reflected in the fact that throughout those four decades, I missed a regularly scheduled class only twice and was late to class also only twice.

What pains me now is the current state of the academy in Tanzania. I am sad to see that most professors and lecturers have abandoned their responsibility to provide high quality and relevant education. Only a few hardy ones among them are keeping the flame alive. This has to change, for the sake of our national dignity and welfare of our people. It can be done. Please play your part.

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The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher Copyright © 2018 by Karim Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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