Saturday, April 25, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 3: Teaching in a Language You Don't Speak

Having taught 10 of 13 sessions for my first Biochemistry III class (not including the final exam), I'm finally feeling a little more comfortable. I'm still not entirely comfortable because 90% of the class are native French speakers (or native Kirundi speakers), and when I try to pronounce French I usually provoke laughter. (I will note that this does loosen up the students nicely.)

To solve this problem I turn to technology. I brought a second projector small enough to run on batteries with me. I wasn't sure it would be bright enough but yes it is! On this projector I put the French translation of the English on the slides I'm using. I've never been one to read slides aloud, but now I have to, because it's the only way some students can understand me. Sometimes I will point to the French word as I say the English word, which I hope helps a little. I also have to keep reminding myself: SLOW DOWN. ENUNCIATE. DON'T TALK LIKE SUCH AN AMERICAN.

I've found that Google translate is almost good enough to help me write quizzes, but what works best is to keep it simple: stick closely to the written slides. The students learn those assiduously, and given the language barriers, I can see why. The first quiz I had to let them work on it in groups since I ran out of copies. The second quiz the average was not passing ... but the third quiz the average was 75%, which is solidly passing. I think I'm adapting to them and they are adapting to me.

The topic that is one of my biggest challenges is "Molecular Genetics," which is broad and also covered by another class "Medical Genetics." I decided the biochemistry focus should be on how DNA is copied and sequenced. But to do even this small part I have to start way back away from medicine and the students are unclear on where this is going.

So in the middle of that I brought in something I often do in the states, where I talk about how DNA is a "line" and that is like a language. Then I talk about how in Psalm 19, one word for "language" is literally "line" (as in, "their LINE has gone out into all the Earth"). This shows that God speaks through even the molecules if we can learn how to listen. I wish I could tell you it was a breakthrough, but I really don't know. I still can't read their body language. But the following classes did seem to have a subset of students that were more engaged. (I also said "Thank you Lord for power" when the electricity came on, and they "got" that joke-not-joke.)

I was able to talk about sickle-cell anemia with a population that may actually carry the gene, and that helped show why this biochemistry could be relevant. DNA sequencing can reveal sickle-cell anemia, so that's a connection, and I found a simple test that can detect sickle cells in blood, and maybe someone will remember that someday and give it a try.

The bottom line is that the challenges continue but we solve them with flexibility. Please continue to pray for this endeavor, for power and student interest, and for peace. I'll let you know how the first final exam goes in a week.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 2: Teaching Biochemistry to 173 Without Electricity

I just finished my first week of teaching. Every day there was some problem. My first day was delayed 10 minutes because I couldn’t get the outlets on the display wall to work. Then only 60 students showed up because 100 were taking a Histology exam (I thought about 50, but was wrong, as you will see from what happened on my fourth day). My second day was delayed 10 minutes because another class was taking a test and stopped exactly when my class started. My third day was delayed by an intense thunderstorm. My fourth day I had made 110 copies of a quiz and then 173 students showed up to take it. (I improvised and said they could share copies and discuss this quiz since it was the first one.) My fifth day the power was out for the first half hour, so I used my battery-powered projector and the blackboard.

Teaching is an actual workout under these conditions. The room was built as a music hall, not a classroom. It is hot in there as I teach, but I can see many ways in which I feel prepared for this. I sometimes teach 70 students at once in the states – 173 is not completely different from that number. (Plus, most of the students passed the first quiz!) I grew up in Florida and can tolerate the African heat just fine. I don’t know French, but I know enough Latin that I can compare French and English and see how they lines up.

One preparation that’s working particularly well is that I bought a small, bright, battery-powered LED projector. On this, I project French text to go along with the English text and pictures on the bigger but electric-powered projector. I like to point to the pictures and words as it is, so this gives me another set of “targets” in the French words that I can point to. I think I’m learning to speak slowly and clearly so the students can understand my English as they read the French. (About 10% of the class is stronger in English, but most are stronger in French.)

When I was talking to the rector of the school, he mentioned that students are culturally conditioned to listen. I notice that they do not move as much as American students, and don’t give the same type of non-verbal feedback. I’m looking for the ways I can pick up from them, but they are good at focusing on the class and are not expecting me to entertain them (which is a good thing, because entertaining another culture isn’t one of my gifts!).

This is harder than I thought it would be, and a bigger job than I thought it would be, but I have to trust that I have been prepared for such a time as this, and that I can give the students the specialized knowledge they need to graduate as doctors. Please pray for me as I work these things out.

Monday, April 13, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 1: How the Biochemist Got to Burundi


Readers of the blog who don’t know me may be surprised to find me posting from Burundi. It’s OK if you have to look at a map (I did too). Burundi is a sort of twin nation to Rwanda and sits at the north end of Lake Tangankiya in the Rift Valley of Africa. It sits at a split in the African continent, where the land is stretching apart in a big crack.

It sits on some political faultlines as well. Some of the tribal conflict that led to genocide in Rwanda led to similar but lesser conflict in Burundi. For the past decade, the nation has been working hard to stabilize itself. It is the second-poorest country in Africa by some measures.

I am in Burundi because they needed a biochemist. My father- and mother-in-law are medical missionaries who provide medical services to places around the world, and have taught medical students at Hope Africa University in Burundi. Through them I found out that it’s been so difficult to find an instructor for Biochemistry III that the course hasn’t been taught in five years. Since I had a sabbatical coming up and heard a calling in this, I volunteered to teach two full Biochem III courses in six weeks. (There may be about 100 students in each class.)

Six months later, here I am, sitting in an apartment in the capital city of Bujumbura with a view of Burundi’s green mountains. I’m about to start my first class in a few hours.

One of the major themes of this blog is the combination of science and faith, so I want to blog about my experiences here not only to let you all back home know what it’s like, but to let my academic friends know that teaching in a foreign country is a way to serve God and others. I can’t be a medical missionary, but I can teach biochemistry to future doctors, to help them go and heal their fellow citizens. Maybe some of you can do this too someday: biochemical missions.

There are some known unknowns here. Burundi is a very different culture from what I’ve ever worked with, and most students are much more comfortable with French than English. I learned Latin and German, not French! But I can understand it when it’s side-by-side with English, so that’s how I’m going to teach, with two projectors running slides in English on the left and slides in French on the right. Still getting used to “DNA” being “ADN”.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m always nervous before a class starts, but this is such a different experience that I’m not even sure what to be nervous about, so I’m nervous and calm in equal measures. When I look at what I have to teach I’m excited about learning how to teach it to these students and helping them know what they need to know. But I’m also well aware that there’s hidden cultural distances even when we have a common purpose and common faith! I’ve been enlisting prayers from all my friends and if you’re the praying sort, I’d welcome your prayers too.

I’ll keep posting here to keep you all up to date as I continue here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Even if it feels like you may have read this story before, you haven’t. It’s boy meets girl, as in German boy meets French girl in WWII France, but it’s also about the nature of Nature itself.

The boy is a fixer, a natural engineer, and the reader follows his education in Nazi Germany, so you can see how the Reich trained a generation of soldiers for the war. Doerr comes close to describing the diabolical power of the Nazis so that you can almost see where this historical abomination came from.

The girl is a natural biologist originally at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and later on the coast city of St. Malo. They are bound together by a scientific, educational radio broadcast. Through all this, Doerr describes the action with sparing but sparkling language.

And that’s not even to mention the Nazi treasure hunter and the cursed jewel at the center of the plot.

This book is excellent, and almost a classic. I’d like to have a new angle on why the Germans became the Nazis, and it just doesn’t go quite deep enough. It’s a little too soft in places. But ultimately, this is one of the world’s fundamental stories, told impeccably and set in an old setting that seems new again in the hands of Anthony Doerr.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is this the first Tolkien book that wasn't really worth it for me? Probably. It was intended as a children's story after The Hobbit was so successful. But, honestly, my bedtime stories for my kids are better than this. The hand-drawn pictures are interesting to me, and it does make you laugh. But as a purchase or a re-read? Nope.

Book Review: The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley

I saw this book in an Oxford bookstore and looked for it when I returned to the states. The premise is intriguing: become Sherlock Holmes as you're out on a walk, interpreting the clues around you to see things others cannot. In that, the book delivers in spades, especially for the intended audience of British walkers. Don't expect to be able to solve deep mysteries after reading this, but do expect to be able to tell direction, age, nearness of civilization, etc. Gooley stops the list of facts at appropriate intervals to describe walks that act as a review of what was just taught, and he also has a very interesting walk through Borneo at the end. I'm envious of the Brits after reading this book: not only do they have a walking culture, but they have authors like Gooley to explain it to them. Maybe someone can do the same for the Pacific Northwest someday?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

My first thought when Lila came out was, how is Robinson going to get something new out of a story she's told twice before? I repent from that thought in sackcloth and ashes. Lila may be the best book of the Gilead trilogy, in fact. Robinson perfectly adopts the voice of a woman who grew up on the streets in the early 20th century, and delves into many of the mysteries from that character's place in Gilead. Why would a woman walk in off the street and settle in Gilead, even asking to be baptized? What was it like for her to get married to a much older preacher, and to become a mother? My favorite parts may be when Lila reads the Bible and interprets it, bringing new treasures out without even realizing it. What a picture of grace, love, and gentle transformation. When I describe this book it sounds like one of those "Christian Amish romance" novels -- but everything that is true from those novels is here and magnified, made natural and real. There's a reason why this book is high on the year-end lists. It is grounded and authentic yet profound. The one thing I would have liked is more at the end, because I have so many questions about what happens to these young characters. But maybe a fourth book will do that.