20 October 2011

Choose Your Battles

As we all know, in life, we have to choose our battles. Whether in relationships or at work, some things are not worth arguing about or getting upset over. On the other hand, some things are. We have to choose which things are worth the battles.

As I've been working in the library at RTC, I've had to make choices about which things are worth getting upset over, which I want to push to change, and which I just don't care about. This is an interesting dilemma when you are working with people from a number of other cultures and countries. And when you come with the intention of being a learner not a changer.I often ask myself: is this something that I want to happen because of my training and culture or is this a bigger, more universal truth that should be pursued?

For example:

This semester I am teaching an English class. It's been challenging for a number of reasons but it's also been a rewarding way to get to know students in a different way. One of the things I have tried to do is make sure my students are speaking in English. I know this sounds like a common sense thing but the reality is sometimes I have so much I want to fit into a class I forget to make sure I give them time to practice speaking. So, in addition to adding speaking activities, a couple weeks ago I also assigned a 5 minute presentation...each student needed to talk for 5 minutes about their families, countries, etc. I honestly didn't care a whole lot about what they said as long as they were talking.

Come presentation day: I had forgotten that most of my students come from very collectivistic cultures (as opposed to our individualistic culture in the US). Each of them got up, began speaking...and then got help from their friends. Others in the class gave prompts and pronunciation help when the person speaking got stuck. I had to decide if this was something worth taking off points. In the end, I decided not to worry about it. The goal: get students talking. And by letting them help each other I got even more of them talking. :)

Another example:

Library materials. Because most of our books are still waiting to be cataloged it is sadly a bit hard to keep track of them. But others are finished, sitting on the shelves in beautiful lines of call numbers. And when one is missing, there's an obvious gap. An especially obvious gap when it's there for several days and in the Reference section from which nothing can be checked out. (Yes, I've looked around the library.) We also keep various office supplies at our desk and allow students to use them: rulers, pens, post-it notes, etc. But recently a number of things went missing. And after making two announcements in chapel, the supplies still haven't reappeared.

Now, I could say: they're just rulers and pens...and the books usually turn up again eventually. But what does that teach? I'm working at a theological college that is training students to be pastors, people who will change their communities. Letting things disappear (i.e. essentially be stolen) isn't teaching anyone anything. So, I'm trying to come up with ways, within the culture I work, to approach these little thefts. Admittedly, I'm still in the brainstorming stage but I have been talking with other African staff who help me talk through ideas. Because, to me, taking things that don't belong to you is a battle worth fighting.

One final example:

We have two computers with internet for students to use. When we first installed them we didn't have a good system for students to take turns. We generally tried to keep track of who was using what and how long they had been there. That system didn't work for long and I quickly realized I needed a better way to give all 100 students a chance to use the computers. So, I created a sign-up sheet. I divided the day into 45 minute slots and ask students to sign their name to the time they want. At first, this was a struggle. Students would sign up but not come or they would come late. (Our system of time in the US -- keeping track of minutes and hours -- is very different than how time is viewed here.) Or they complained when their time was finished. But eventually they got the hang of it and it's been working well.

But an interesting (to me) phenomena that occurs is: although our sign-up sheet includes space for one person to sign up per computer per time slot, there are usually anywhere from three to six students surrounding the computers. I joke with them that they should get a bench from the chapel because, yes, they're all usually sitting on the two chairs in front of the two computers. Again, I have a choice: insist that only one person uses the computer during his or her given time slot. Or recognize that many of these students are used to doing tasks in community and let them share the time. Ultimately, as long as everyone is getting a turn and no one is 'hogging' the time, I don't care one bit. And, really, I love looking up from my desk, watching students huddled around, talking, sharing chairs, and helping each other...I love seeing a picture of community right in front of me.

Sometimes the battle is not worth fighting...especially if it means I can learn something. And I have a lot to learn from these students about doing everyday things in community.


  1. We've been spending more and more time as a class trying to figure out how to setup new computer labs in ways that don't disrupt the collaborative nature of community spaces but enhances them. What a great example of the importance of this. Thanks, Rachel. In talking with Les Gasser the other day he prodded me to take it a step further. We need to learn from these examples that what really needs to be designed is technology whose input/output interface doesn't make sense unless you are using it with other people. I wonder what your students would create along those lines :)

    -- Martin

    P.S., my class is an Introduction to Networked Systems course at the Library and Information Science School at Illinois. Rachel was a co-explorer in the class.

  2. Thanks, Martin. I appreciate your encouragement! That is probably one of my biggest questions here: how to introduce technology in a culturally appropriate way. I want to make sure what I'm doing enhances what is already here...not subtracting from it. I'd love to know what your students come up with! :)