Faculty Share Course Design, Translate 'Teaching from the Heart' in Saudi Arabia

February 20, 2012

February 20, 2012 — Dorothe Bach and Deandra Little, faculty members at the University of Virginia's Teaching Resource Center, didn't expect to bring tattoos back from their jam-packed week in Saudi Arabia.

But there they were: Swirling, burnt sienna designs stretched between the thumb and forefinger of each woman's hand. The tattoos, part of the elaborate costume Saudi women put on for a wedding celebration, were made with henna and lasted only a few days.

The memories of their experiences with Arab culture, while teaching Middle Eastern professors at King Faisal University, will last much longer.

The trip came about indirectly through special education professor Carolyn Callahan in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education. She had been to King Faisal University several years ago, and a group of faculty and administrators from there visited U.Va. in December 2010. Callahan enlisted the help of the Teaching Resource Center, and director Marva Barnett helped plan part of their visit to the Grounds – prompting the invitation to bring the course design seminar to Saudi Arabia.

Joining Bach and Little, both associate professors and assistant directors at the center and teachers of literature, were Michael Palmer, another assistant director who teaches chemistry, and Peter Felten, assistant provost of Elon University and director of its Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.

While the women found unexpected warmth in the exclusive company of women, the men also experienced hospitality – a hospitality delivered start to finish only by men, because of gender segregation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The male faculty gave the two U.S. professors a gift of their traditional daily wear: the ankle-length white tunic called a "thobe" and a colorful head scarf. (The women wore black abayas.)

The four U.S. professors spent a week in January in the city of Al-Ahsa in the Hofuf oasis. They worked with 70 professors – not only from Saudi Arabia but also from other countries, including Egypt, India, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan and Tunisia – who were divided into male and female groups.

For the first time, the U.S.-based team took the U.Va. Teaching Resource Center's Course Design Institute abroad, in slightly modified form. Bach, who is German, has consulted on teaching issues with colleagues in her country, but the center had never tried giving the entire five-day workshop in another culture before – and through translators, no less.

On Grounds, the center offers the multi-day workshop every year, guiding participants in designing or substantially redesigning courses to promote significant, long-term learning. (This year's Course Design Institute will be held May 21 to 24.)

The U.S. and Saudi faculty found similar interests and issues when it came to educating college students. The Arab professors want to use the best practices for higher education teaching, which is the U.Va. center's aim, too, Bach said.

On the workshop's second day, instructors told the participants to "dream big," Bach said, by asking, "What do you want your students to know, be able to do and value three years after college?"

Asked to spell out their goals for their students, the Arab teachers expressed hopes very similar to those of their American colleagues – for students to think critically, be caring individuals, lifelong learners and maybe even Nobel Prize winners, Little said.

Little and her colleagues said they were conscientious about asking the Arab professors how they did things, to try to explain their teaching techniques and methods in context. The women’s section relied on translators,  two  recent graduates from King Faisal University, who could help the U.Va. faculty developers by describing what a good teacher is to them.

Little translated a phrase the women used for expressing their gratitude for their overwhelmingly positive experience with the workshop: "When your heart talks, my heart will listen."

Though the similarities were many, the three U.Va. teachers noticed a major difference between Arab and American universities in funding. In Saudi Arabia, "Money is not an issue. Their concern is how to spend it wisely," Bach said.

Students are paid to go to college, but not everyone is free to choose their major. Only those with top grades are guaranteed a spot in their preferred discipline, Bach said. As a result, some students are not necessarily very motivated in their area of study – another reason the Arab teachers were interested in trying innovative teaching techniques that foster motivation.

Because of the segregation of men and women, there are two of everything, from buildings to classes to administrative structures, Palmer pointed out. That's not really efficient, and poses lots of challenges for teaching and learning.

Palmer, who has directed the Course Design Institute for five years and taken it to other U.S. universities, said the King Faisal teachers got as much out of it as anyone he has worked with. Their eagerness continues, he said. The participants wanted suggestions of other faculty development programs, and the professors on both sides are talking tentatively about a return trip.

— by Anne Bromley