Bloggers like to talk about blogging

by zunguzungu

Writing a blog is a funny thing, I’m discovering, he says, gazing into his navel. The old joke that if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made seems to be appropriate, and I find myself not quite sure if the things I’m writing are embarrassingly personal or of an embarrassingly artificial ficticity. On the one hand, I’m trying to convey the experience I’m having, which I should openly admit I am finding myself deeply affected by, in a very personal way. So, while I wanted to make the blog chronological, the writing of it has not been even, nor has my ability to post entries, and therefore, while I’ve been in Arusha for almost two weeks now, my blog is still working its way from Dar to Lushoto. And I wanted to post something that skirts that vicious line between personal and artificial, so here goes:

My experience here has been that, on the one hand, I find myself struggling to defend the kind of monkish, reclusive, and inward looking educational process that one learns to cultivate in higher education; to wax metaphoric, I find myself fighting to keep the ivory tower of my academic career from being dragged down into the muck and mire of everyday existence. This is sort of modus operandi as a graduate student, really– you never quite find a happy medium between the kind of unnatural bookish discipline that you need and are expected to have and the nagging uncomfortable fact that you still get hungry, tired, bored, lonely, etc. Its a very unnatural thing, in its way, a fact that was driven home to me last year when I got a very painful herniated disk in my neck from, of all things, reading. And while those pressures are sort of exaggerated here, and you get more tired, more hungry, more thirsty (especially), and more lonely, it isn’t really that that makes it difficult to feel like a graduate student. It’s the fact that, on the other hand, I find myself struggling to do exactly the opposite, to be as open as possible to new experiences and to be as much “out there” as possible. And that’s a strange sort of choice between incompatibilities to have to make.

So its sort of funny that, as I’m thinking about such things, I’m also trying to figure out how to teach a bunch of 7 and 8 year old kids how to sit still, be quiet, pay attention, stop talking, STOP TALKING!, pay attention, focus, read your book, write in your book, look at the board, stop talking, stop talking to your sister, pay attention, and be quiet. What is that all about? It would be nice if you could teach children at that age by just holding out the glories of education for them, allowing their curiosity to lead them on a learning journey that will change them for the rest of their, blah, blah, blah. Try that in a poorly lit, overcrowded classroom without books, with kids whose experience of education has often therefore been copying down what the teacher writes on the board without understanding it, try teaching them science or math in a language they are barely learning, and you’ll start to understand why the Tanzanian teachers carry sticks. The kids are wonderful, but they don’t want to be there, and the margin of interest you can manage to evoke in them, the tiny sliver of time when you can gather one child’s attention to you, focus it on what you’re trying to teach, and make it bear fruit, is pitiably small. That’s not to say they don’t learn, but that they do so by methods that American classrooms, filled with books and curriculum materials and enough teachers, don’t have to use. Its easy to get a student to focus on a book sitting in front of him (and these kids love nothing better than to leaf through the few books we have), but its so hard to get him or her to watch the blackboard and care and think about what you are writing. So you quickly develop an adversarial relationship with them, or you are constantly on guard against doing exactly that. I don’t want to hit these kids with the stick, so I content myself with carrying it menacingly and whacking the tables to make them quiet, but I do feel the urge when the natural childhood urge to stop doing things that are boring makes these kids act like children. The only way to make them do the things they need to do, the things they’ll need to do just to continue (much less benefit from) their education, is to start a war with them. And so I’ve become their jailor, and if its for their own good, it doesn’t make me any less their jailor.

I’ll write more about the kids, but I hope the connection I’m trying to make has become clear. In Berkeley, I’m my own jailor, I force myself to do things that I don’t want to because I need to, if I want to continue (much less benefit from) my education. And at a certain point, it stopped bothering me very much. I think I’m constitutionally well suited for being a grad student precisely because my particular individual version of the panoply of social inadequacies, fears, and compensations that we’ve all developed over the years has made, for me, retreating from the world a particularly comfortable and comforting thing to do. And while I wanted to go back to TZ for a lot of reasons, a big one was that my comfort level was getting a little too deep, my ability to block out the world outside was getting a little too strong, and it was starting to get a little too easy to spend all day of every day in a book somewhere. Here its good to be reminded that that’s NOT why you’re here, both because that’s not, in a literal way, why I’m here (one can only really learn languages by speaking them) but also to be reminded by kids who were were born knowing that lesson, and haven’t yet had it pounded out of them. And if the danger of getting lost in books is seductive in Berkeley, a city and a society where you don’t know your neighbors and a cafe is an archipelego of isolated readers, then living here, where books seem about as common as tofu salads (which, in case you’re wondering, are not common), well, its a little easier to focus on the things that are important, both to remember why books are important and why they’re not. So the writing I’m trying to do now is somewhere in the middle of that strange compromise between looking inward and looking outward, and if i’m writing about or for myself, its also because its comforting to know that some of my dearest friends might be listening. Hello!