x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A ray of light shines on a new day at Zayed University

Much has been written about the need to improve education in the UAE. But we should also identify and celebrate existing excellence, especially student achievement, of which there is no shortage at Zayed University.

Last week saw the start of a new semester at Zayed University, always a vibrant and exciting time. These are my experiences of the often dreaded "first contact": the moment when students meet their new teacher for first time.

Most of the students arrive extra early, this being, after all, the first day of a new semester. The anxious anticipation is also accompanied by intermittent outbreaks of joyful reunion. The arrival of friends, cousins and former classmates provides momentary relief from anxiety, but most minds quickly drift back to the uncharted waters of uncertainty.

What will the teacher be like, will the class be difficult, will we have to introduce ourselves? The first class is psychology 101: a new semester, a new subject and, for most of the students, I'm new too.

The classroom is already full by the time I arrive, so I quickly set about my business. Unlike the students, I've been here before and certainty is on my side. The first two minutes are crucial. The students will form nearly indelible impressions by a rapid triangulation of incoming data: my accent, body language, vocal pitch, speed, volume and, of course, content will all be weighed with a speed and sophistication beyond the capabilities of the smartest supercomputer.

This year, I made a good start and managed to make the class laugh in the first 30 seconds. The shortest distance between people is humour and its anxiolytic (anxiety defeating) properties are well deserved. The worst nightmares having been allayed, introductions can begin.

One by one, the students say who they are and, each having been asked to relate something interesting about themselves, the class begins to shed the appearance of homogeneity: "Hi, I'm Reem, I'm a communications student, and something about me, hmm ... I love to jet ski"; "Hi everyone, I'm Maitha - I speak Italian and hate monkeys"; This collection of strangers are becoming classmates and travel companions on a voyage of intellectual discovery.

Just as the students form impressions of me, so I begin to form impressions of them: Reem is an obvious leader, Shamma an anxious overachiever, Mariam a genius and Sara a giggly BlackBerry girl (she could be a problem).

Rather romantically, I'm reminded of the Persian poet Jalal ad Din Rumi's collection of lectures in Fihi Ma Fihi (translated as In It What Is In It), comparing the teacher to the gardener:

 

The gardener going into an orchard looks at the trees. He knows that this one is a date, that one a fig, the other a pomegranate, a pear or an apple. To do this, he does not have to see the fruit, only the trees.

 

The didactic part of the class begins, a gentle introduction to the history of psychology. When the students are fully engaged and give their undivided attention, it is a precious commodity, as anyone in the advertising industry knows. The students discuss the ideas of Sigmund Freud, then surprisingly interject and elaborate on Arabic and Islamic concepts of psychology. One student suggests the ancient concept of nafs-e-aamara, approximately translated as the commanding self, is similar to Freud's idea of the id and perhaps shares similarities with Plato's lowest division of his conception of the tripartite soul. The discussions are animated, respectful and brilliantly bilingual.

The room is buzzing as students break into discussion groups, trying to come up with explanations for the rising prevalence of depression and the reasons women are disproportionately affected. The answers span the spectrum, from predictable, to critical, to outright inspired.

It's difficult to regain control of the class. But this is a good struggle as the students are hyper-attentive to their peers. I suspect university education is as much about what students learn from each other as anything else. The class ends, but the discussions continue along the corridor and into the cafeteria, perhaps even making it home to the family dinner table. The gardener expects much growth this semester.

There has been, and continues to be, a lot written about the need to improve education in the UAE. The commitment is laudable, but we should also identify and celebrate existing excellence, especially student achievement. The most vital ingredient to improvements is students who aspire high. Zayed University has no shortage of these.

 

Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University