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Reflections on the UWI Experience

An overview of the lessons I learnt in teaching at UWI Mona

· UWI Mona,Westminster model,philosophy,education,teaching

Before Syracuse University, I worked at the University of the West Indies (UWI). I was a tutor (Teaching Assistant) at the UWI, Mona campus for three years. The educational culture at UWI is based on the Westminster education system or model, adopted from British colonial rule. Teaching and evaluation structure is vastly different from the United States education system. UWI is a three-year university institution, where the average student enters their first year with advanced level courses which can be equated to preliminary or level one college courses.

I taught in the philosophy department, which had a wide content basis for each course. Evaluations were skills based and students were compelled to produced research essays of 2,500 words minimum. This was expected from freshman (first-year) to upper-classmen level (final-year). Classroom sizes ranged from 20 to 150 students, depending on students’ interest in the course.

My first year as a tutor, I had to teach/facilitate students who sat courses with me the year before. I was intimidated; however, I learned humility in dealing with students who I thought were smarter than myself. Also, I was very young and some students were significantly older than me. I was forced to learn not to be intimidated by age, and sought to show respect for mature learners. I had to learn to balance the classroom discussion between advanced students who were majors, and wanted to go beyond the basic discussion questions, and novice non-major students, who were taking a final-year course as an elective.

Working across the different year groups over time provided me the opportunity to work with students on a long-term basis. As a result, I was able to garner feedback about my style and philosophies of instruction. Students were challenged and found themselves contemplating future decisions. I was able to teach by developing mentoring skills, which I believe are essential to teaching at the higher-education level.

Religion and Sex are two very sensitive and taboo topics in Jamaican culture; in that it is challenging to interrogate and break preconceived notions. Some students came to class with assumptions and notions of authority on the subject matter. I tutored sections and substituted as lecturer for “Philosophy of Religion” and “Philosophy of Sex and Love.” These course challenge both the status quo and assumed norms of students. I understood students would have difficulty with this course, and learned to establish trust with students, as well as to help them draw lines of their own, between faith and scholarship; scholarship and practice; critical reasoning and theories.

Being able to develop a course was the highlight of my tenure at the UWI. I was the sole instructor for “History of Ancient Philosophy”, where I was able to manage the course entirely. I learned that “you can lead the horse to the water, but cannot make him drink.” The class size was smaller than I anticipated. In the past, I found that my name as an instructor carried weight, when students signed up for a course they thought I was instructing and they had a certain expectation of the class. I understood that the course was not as intriguing and that titling a course is about marketing. These were components beyond my control. While I adopted to the idea that a syllabus is like a contract between teacher and student, I realized that students did not pay attention to the syllabus, and failed to follow through with assignments. I also got a dose of ‘academic bureaucracy’, as I learned that despite my ideal pedagogical style, department policy and regulations trumped instructor’s policy, and university policy and regulations trumped department policy and regulations. Thus, my syllabus was not a binding contract. I learnt class time was also an important factor in course design even though I had no control over the time of the course. I found this experience rewarding, as well as a reality check.